Nangeli was beautiful beyond comparison. She flowed in the veins of lustful men’s dreams like an intoxication. Even her marriage to Kandappan did not diminish the number of her admirers.
“You are the pride of the Ezhavas,” Kandappan murmured in Nangeli’s ears as he lay fondling the shapely curves of her youthful body.
Kandappan and Nangeli belonged to low caste of Ezhavas. They were untouchables. But even the most aristocratic Namboothiri longed to fondle Nangeli’s teasing breasts. The people of Nangeli’s caste were supposed to stand at a distance of 36 paces from the higher caste people. But even the men of His Majesty Sri Moolam Thirunal, King of Travancore, slept with Nangeli in the darkness of their dreams.
When Nangeli walked, the wild roses on the wayside blossomed and emitted the fragrance of musk.
“Kandappa, Kandappa,” called Neelan through his gasps. Kandappan stopped ploughing the field and asked Neelan what the matter was.
“Nangeli! What happened to my Nangeli?” Kandappan abandoned the plough and bullocks and rushed to Neelan.
“Nangeli is dead,” cried Neelan.
Neelan was one of the neighbours who had watched His Majesty Sri Moolam Thirunal’s Pravarthiar, village officer, speaking to Nangeli outside her hut.
Pravarthiar had come to demand the breast tax from Nangeli.
His Majesty the King, in connivance with the Namboothiri priests, had imposed a tax on the low caste women who refused to expose their breasts. If the women wanted to cover their breasts they had to pay the breast tax. The gods had decreed it, uttered the Namboothiri priests solemnly. The King could not overrule the gods.
Nangeli had refused to expose her breasts to the ogling men. She also refused to pay the tax.
“How can the King and the Namboothiris decide which part of my body they want to see?” asked Nangeli when Pravarthiar demanded the tax.
“The King rules over the earth and the Namboothiris control the gods who rule over the heavens,” said Pravarthiar as if that was an axiomatic truth.
“It is the King and the Namboothiris who should pay me a lust tax,” declared Nangeli vehemently. “They make rules for their own pleasure and convenience. Today it is breast tax. Who knows whether they won’t impose taxes on other parts of my body tomorrow?”
“You dare to challenge the King and the Namboothiris!” Pravarthiar was scandalised. “They are the gods on the earth, your visible gods, you blasphemous wench.”
He threatened her with capital punishment. But he was ready to forgive her provided she offered him a vision of the pigeons that fluttered beneath her breast cloth.
“Wait,” said Nangeli as she walked into her hut. Soon she came out with her sharp sickle and pulled off her breast cloth. Before Pravarthiar realised what was happening, Nangeli’s breasts lay at his feet in a puddle of blood.
“Take them,” spat out Nangeli. “And pay the tax yourself.”
When Neelan managed to narrate what had happened, Kandappan sank to the ground with a sob that reverberated in the heavens.
When Kandappan stood up again, his cheeks were firm. He walked home with steady steps.
With equally steady steps Kandappan walked into the flames that engulfed Nangeli’s corpse. The fire spread to the heavens and burnt a file in His Majesty Sri Moolam Thirunal’s palace.