Wednesday, September 04, 2013

The forgotten history of Vypin Island

I could not have foreseen that the last telegram that I would ever receive would turn out to be the bearer of bad tidings. It was a month before India announced that it was shutting down its telegraph service, and I found myself answering the door to receive this relic from an earlier era. I opened it, pleasantly surprised, but the message within filled me with dismay.

Kutapee was dead.

It did not contain any further information. It did not need to. He had exited our world the same way he had entered it, unannounced and under mysterious circumstances. 

I met Kutapee one summer when I travelled to Vypin Island to meet my grandfather. He worked for my grandfather as a young handyman, helping him tend to his garden and work on his driftwood sculptures. In return, he was given an education and a place to stay. 

Kutapee was barely a year older than me, but he seemed wise beyond his years. Perhaps it was because of the lessons my grandfather taught him, which must have been very different from what I had learned in school. I remember asking him why no one in Madras seemed to know where Vypin, a small island near Cochin, was. That was because people in the cities cared very little about far-flung islands that they hadn't heard of, he said. They were distrustful of us islanders, looking at us as lesser people who led isolated lives, cut off from culture and civilization. In truth though, they were becoming increasingly homogeneous, eroding India's diversity from within. I nodded in agreement. It seemed to make sense.

I wonder why my grandfather never told us where he found Kutapee. He was an Army officer who served all over the country. Where could he have found this little boy? And under what circumstances? Kutapee, on the other hand, was more forthcoming with answers about his past. It was nearing sunset one evening as we stood at the beach watching the fishing boats return to the shore when one of us asked Kutapee where he had come from. "The lands beyond," he answered in a hushed tone, pointing to the horizon. "Africa?" asked Coco excitedly. Kutapee looked at the little girl and smiled. "No, the Laccadives.", he answered.

As we sat around him and listened, he narrated the tale of his daring escape from the pirates who had attacked his house in the middle of the night. "Pirates?" interrupted Coco, "Like Long John Silver?" We laughed. "No, not like Long John Silver," he said. "These pirates did not have wooden legs or parrots on their shoulders. They were African and roamed the seas in dhows, waiting to prey on merchant vessels." We shuddered. Somehow, real pirates seemed more sinister.

Kutapee continued his tale, describing the fierce attack that caught his little town in Minicoy by surprise. The island had five policemen who fought valiantly against the pirates but were soon captured. In the chaos that followed, Kutapee found himself separated from his family. Realizing that his life in this island was over, he got into a boat full of people fleeing to Kavaratti. However, the capital of the Laccadives was under attack too as Kutapee could see before his boat even reached the shore. The flames from the burning buildings were rising high up into the air. He dove into the water and swam towards a ship that seemed to be leaving the docks. Climbing the mooring line upwards to the deck, he whispered "All Aboard!" to himself and scurried around, looking for a safe play to stow away. As luck would have it, the ship was sailing for Cochin. It was a dramatic narrative filled with vivid descriptions that kept us awake for many nights after. I particularly enjoyed the fanciful episodes he made up to entertain young Coco, who would begin to fret whenever the story took a mundane turn. Mermaids would suddenly appear, swimming alongside his boat, speaking in Malayalam. "What would they say?" she would ask everytime, perking up.

I've always wondered about the truth in Kutapee's stories. Did he really come from the Laccadives? It was hard to tell. I remember asking him about the history of Vypin Island once. His answer was very different from what I had read in the history books. 

No one remembers the brave men who defended Vypin, he said. At various times in its history, invaders arrived, looking to loot and plunder this land. And they were driven away every single time. All of Kerala had been occupied, but this one small island of indomitable men held out against the invaders. And there was also that one time, he continued, when we were attacked by Ming the Merciless himself. "The Emperor of the planet Mongo?" I asked, remembering the comics of Flash Gordon I found in my grandfather's library. He smiled and said nothing. It could have been an attack by the nefarious Ming of Mongo or a Chinese emperor of the same name. I would never find out which one it was in the end. 

A week after I received the telegram, I went back to Vypin Island to meet the person who sent it. She was a grown woman now. And yet she looked like the little girl I knew many years ago. I told Coco that it was nice seeing her after all these years. She smiled, but I could sense a sadness within. I sat with her in silence until she finally spoke. The history of this island needs to be rewritten, she said. As the way Kutapee would have wanted it. I wasn't sure if she was serious. But, I agreed nonetheless. 

"How did he die anyway?", I asked. She looked up at me. "Remember the aircraft carrier we are building?", she said, "In the Cochin Shipyard?"

I nodded. It was ready for active duty. 

"Well, Kutapee led a small army to capture and commandeer it." 

My eyes widened in surprise. "Why would he do that?", I asked.

"He wanted to break away from the Indian Union. And establish the Principality of Vypin." 

I laughed. It was an absurd story. And yet it fitted his character. I realized that I did not wish to know how Kutapee really died. And Coco knew that.

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