A smiling Rukku Manni threw open the
door. Ravi and Meena rushed out and
Ravi pulled Mridu into the house. “Wait, let me take
off my slippers," protested Mridu. She set them out
neatly near a pair of large black ones. Those were
grey, actually, with dust. You could see the clear
mark of every toe on the front part of each slipper.
The marks for the two big toes were long
Mridu didn’t have much time to wonder about
whose slippers they were, because Ravi dragged
her to the backyard, behind a thick bitter-berry
bush. There, inside a torn football lined with
sacking and filled with sand, lay a very small
kitten, lapping up milk from a coconut half-shell.
“We found him outside the gate this morning.
He was mewing and mewing, poor thing," said
Meena. “It’s a secret. Amma says Paati will leave
for our Paddu Mama’s house if she knows we
have a cat."
“People are always telling us to be kind to
animals, but when we are, they scream. ‘Ooh,
don’t bring that dirty creature here!’ " said Ravi.
“Do you know how hard it is just to get a little
milk from the kitchen? Paati saw me with a glass
in my hand just now. I told her I’m very hungry, I
want to drink it, but the way she looked at me! I
had to drink most of it to throw her off the scent.
Then she wanted the tumbler back. ‘Paati, Paati,
I’ll wash it myself, why should I put you to
trouble’, I told her. I had to run and pour the
milk into this coconut shell and then run back
and wash the tumbler and put it back before she
got really suspicious. Now we have to think of
some other way to feed Mahendran."
“Mahendran? This little kitty’s name is
Mahendran?" Mridu was impressed! It was a real
name—not just a cute kitty-cat name.
“Actually his full name is Mahendravarma
Pallava Poonai. M.P. Poonai for short if you like.
He’s a fine breed of cat. Just look at his fur. Like a
lion’s mane! And you know what the emblem of
the ancient Pallava kings was, don’t you?" he
looked expectantly at Mridu.
“Think I’m joking? Well, just wait. I’ll show
you sometime. It’s clear you don’t know a thing
about history. Haven’t been to Mahabalipuram,
have you?" he said mysteriously. “Well, when
our class went to Mahabalipuram, I saw a statue
of his thatha’s thatha’s thatha’s thatha’s
thatha’s... etcetera, etcetera... Fact is, Mahendran
here is descended from that very same
ancient cat. A close relative, scientifically
speaking, of none other than the lion. The Pallava
lion, emblem of the Pallava dynasty!" Ravi
went on, walking around the bitter-berry bush,
waving a twig up and down, his eyes sparkling.
“This cat is a descendant of none other than the
Mahabalipuram Rishi-Cat! And if I may
just remind you, they worshipped cats in
How he loved the sound of his own voice!
Meena and Mridu exchanged looks.
“What does that have to do with anything?"
“Huh! I’m telling you this cat is descended...
from the Egyptian cat-god... no, goddess! Bastet!
Ya! That’s it!"
“Well, one of the descendants of that cat-goddess
was a stowaway in one of the Pallava ships, and his
descendant was the Mahabalipuram Rishi-Cat,
whose descendant is —" Ravi flourished his twig at
Mahendran “— M.P. Poonai here... whoop EEK!" he
shrieked, very pleased with himself.
Mahendran looked up, alarmed. He had just
been sharpening his claws on the edge of the
coconut shell. But worse than Ravi’s awful
whoop EEK was a ‘Kreech...!’ from the window.
What a weird sound! If Mridu was startled,
M.P. Poonai was frightened out of his wits.
Hair standing on end, he bounced up and
scurried towards a bamboo tray of red chillies
that had been set out to dry. Trying to hide
beneath it, he tipped a few chillies over himself.
“Mi-a-aw!" he howled miserably.
The ‘kreeching’ went on and on. “What’s that
noise?" said Mridu.
“That’s Lalli learning to play the violin,"
“She’ll never learn a thing. The musicmaster
just goes on playing like a train
whizzing on and on, while Lalli’s all the time
derailing! Going completely off track!"
Mridu crept up to the window. Lalli was sitting a
little distance away, awkwardly holding her violin
and bowstring, her elbows jutting out and her eyes
glazed with concentration.
In front of her, with most
of his back to the window, was the bony figure of
the music-master. He had a mostly bald head with
a fringe of oiled black hair falling around his ears
and an old-fashioned tuft. A gold chain gleamed
around his leathery neck, and a diamond ring
glittered on his hand as it glided up and down the
stem of the violin. A large foot stuck out from beneath
his gold-bordered veshti edge, and he was beating
time on the floor with the scrawny big toe.
He played a few notes. Lalli stumbled behind
him on her violin, which looked quite helpless
and unhappy in her hands. What a difference!
The music-master’s notes seemed to float up and
settle perfectly into the invisible tracks of the
melody. It was like the wheels of a train fitting
smoothly into the rails and whizzing along, as Ravi
said. Mridu stared at that huge, beringed hand
moving effortlessly up the violin’s stem, making
Squawk! There was Lalli derailing again!
“Amma!" came a wail from the gate. “Ammaoh!"
“Ravi, send that beggar away!" cried his mother
from the back verandah, where she was chatting
with Tapi. “He has been coming here every day for
the past week, and it’s time he found another house
to beg from!" Paati explained to Tapi.
Mridu and Meena followed Ravi out. The
beggar was already in the garden, making himself
quite at home. He had spread his upper cloth
under the neem tree, and was leaning against its
trunk, apparently prepared to take a little snooze
while he waited for the alms to appear. “Go away!"
said Ravi sternly. “My Paati says it’s time you
found another house to beg from!"
The beggar opened his eyes very wide and
gazed at each of the children one by one. “The
ladies of this house," he said, at last, in a voice
choked with feeling, “are very kind souls. I have
kept my body and soul together on their
generosity for a whole week. I cannot believe that
they would turn me away." He raised his voice.
“Amma! Amma-oh!" Sad his wail might be, but it
certainly wasn’t feeble. It began in a deep, strong
rumble somewhere in his withered belly, and came
booming out of his mouth, with its few remaining
teeth stained brown with betel-chewing.
Ravi, tell him there’s nothing left in the
kitchen!" called Rukku Manni. “And he’s not to
come again—tell him that!" She sounded fed up.
Ravi didn’t have to repeat it all to the beggar.
What his mother said had been easy for them all
to hear, there under the neem tree. The beggar
sat up and sighed.
“I’ll go, I’ll go!" he said wearily. “Only let me have
a rest here under this tree. The sun is so hot, the tar
has melted on the road. My feet are already
blistered." He stretched out his feet to show large,
pink, peeling blisters on the soles of his bare feet.
“I suppose he doesn’t have the money to buy
chappals," Mridu whispered to Meena–Ravi.
“Have you got an old pair in the house
“I don’t know," said Ravi. “Mine are too small
to fit his feet, or I’d have given them to him." And
his feet were larger than Mridu’s and Meena’s.
The beggar was shaking out his upper cloth
and tightening his dhoti. He raised his eyes and
looked fearfully at the road, gleaming in the
“He needs something on his feet!" Meena said,
her big eyes filling. “It’s not fair!"
“Ssh!" said Ravi. “I’m thinking about it!
Blubbering, ‘it’s not fair, it’s not fair’ isn’t going to
help. In two minutes he’ll be frying his feet on
that road. What he needs is a pair of chappals.
So where do we get them? Come, let’s search
the house." He pushed Mridu and Meena into
Just as she stepped into the verandah,
Mridu’s eyes fell on the odd-looking chappals
she had noticed when she arrived.
“Ravi!" she whispered to him. “Whose
Ravi turned and glanced at the
shabby-looking, but sturdy old slippers.
He beamed and nodded. “These are just
the right size," he said, picking them up.
Mridu and Meena followed him
nervously back into the garden.
Here!" said Ravi to the beggar, dropping the
slippers in front of the old man. “Wear these and
don’t come back!" The beggar stared at the
slippers, hurriedly flung his towel over his
shoulder, pushed his feet into them and left,
muttering a blessing to the children. In a minute
he had vanished around the corner of the street.
The music-master came out of the house and
took an unappreciative look at the three of them
sitting quietly under the tree, playing marbles.
Then he searched for his chappals in the
verandah, where he had put them.
“Lalli!" he called, after a few moments. She
hurried up to him. “Have you seen my chappals,
my dear? I remember having kept them here!"
Ravi, Mridu, and Meena silently watched Lalli
and the music-master search every corner of the
verandah. He scurried around, looking over the
railing and crouching near the flower pots to look
between them. “Brand new, they were! I went all
the way to Mount Road to buy them!" he went on
saying. “They cost a whole month’s fees, do you
Soon Lalli went in to tell her mother. Rukku
Manni appeared, looking harassed, with Paati
“Where could they be? It’s really quite
upsetting to think someone might have stolen
them. So many vendors come to the door,"
Rukku Manni caught sight of Ravi, Mridu,
and Meena sitting under the tree. “Have you
children..." she began, and then, seeing they were
curiously quiet, went on more slowly, “seen anyone
lurking around the verandah?" A sharp V-shaped
line had formed between her eyebrows. Another
straight, tighter one appeared in place of her
usually soft, pleasant mouth. Rukku Manni was
angry! thought Mridu with a shiver. She wouldn’t
be so upset if she knew about the poor beggar
with sores on his feet, she tried to tell herself.
Taking a deep breath, she cried, “Rukku
Manni, there was a beggar here. Poor thing, he
had such boils on his feet!"
“So?" said Rukku Manni grimly, turning to
Ravi. “You gave the music-master’s chappals to
that old beggar who turns up here?"
“Children these days...!" groaned Paati.
“Amma, didn’t you tell me about Karna who gave
away everything he had, even his gold earrings, he
was so kind and generous?"
“Silly!" snapped Rukku Manni. “Karna didn’t
give away other people’s things, he only gave away
“But my chappals wouldn’t have fitted the
beggar’s feet..." Ravi rushed brashly on, “And
Amma, if they did fit, would you really not
“Ravi!" said Rukku Manni, very angry now.
“Go inside this minute."
She hurried indoors and brought out Gopu
Mama’s hardly worn, new chappals. “These
should fit you, Sir. Please put these on. I am so
sorry. My son has been very naughty." The musicmaster’s
eyes lit up. He put them on, trying not to
look too happy. “Well, I suppose these will have
to do... These days children have no respect for
elders, what to do? A Hanuman incarnate... only
Rama can save such a naughty fellow!" Rukku
Manni’s eyes flashed. She didn’t seem to like Ravi
being called a monkey, even a holy monkey. She
stood stiff and straight by the front door. It was
clear she wanted him to leave quickly.
When he had clattered off in his new chappals,
she said, “Mridu, come in and have some tiffin.
Honestly, how do you children think of such
things? Thank God your Gopu Mama doesn’t wear
his chappals to work..." As she walked towards
the kitchen with Mridu and Meena, she suddenly
began to laugh. “But he’s always in such a hurry
to throw off his shoes and socks and get into his
chappals as soon as he comes home. What’s your
Mama going to say this evening when I tell him I
gave his chappals to the music-master?"