However, for locals, the absconding river represents a friendship grown sour. Riparian communities which have over time, tapped into the river water for irrigating their crop laden fields were left with fallow lands on which not a blade of grass would escape the scorching heat of the sun which wouldn’t have the soothing balm of the Vaigai to make germane the red mountain soil of the Western Ghats.
Today, the water has seeped away leaving behind the bare silt and weathered stones on which it would glide and scamper in its heyday. A bridge hangs forlornly over the two sides of the bank like a mute witness to the scene of the abduction. The defaced legs, on which the bridge stands, are caparisoned with the graffiti of political parties, and posters put up by enterprising quacks advertising dubious cures for ‘sex problems’.
Festoons have sprung up reflecting the changed dynamics of life in the state. Chinamma’s larger-than-life face now haunts the nether reaches of the bridge, keeping a wary and omniscient eye that would seek out the children who would gambol about playfully on the sandy riverbed, hiding from their peers, until they finally disappeared into the horizon like motorized cactuses.
Youths and men who find themselves without work now congregate under the bridge, taking refuge from the sweltering heat of the midday sun, indulging in gossip, which is exchanged over card games.
Coconut trees line the banks of the river, forming a bulwark that protected adjacent houses in case the Vaigai spilled over during monsoons but today, solar panels have made an appearance in the rural landscape, their glass faces staring at the sun.
The miniature solar farm is privately owned and the power generated is transmitted to the residence of a lawyer, who is a personage of some significance in the village.
Religion stood in the way of the alliance but after much convincing, the two families agreed to solemnize the marriage without much pomp and spectacle. Mrs. K is a nurse at Rajas Hospital at Kodumalai Kondu and lives with Mani’s mother in the house of his childhood, on the banks of the Vaigai. Mani skitters about from Bangalore to Theni every month. They are childless.
Mani K managed to get away, but for those who got left behind, the future looks increasingly bleak. The district is burdened with disguised unemployment, and since the village now comes under a reserve forest, the growing frequency with which the forest guards clash with the villagers over the conversion of forest land for agricultural use has seen the demand for farm hands going down.
Moreover, ever since the river dried up, other avenues of employment such as fishing have disappeared. Most migrate to Kerala or work as coolies. Others indulge in less taxing pastimes such as gambling, albeit for very low stakes, especially after the cash crunch brought about by demonetization.