The years of my childhood were also the years of famine in parts of India, especially Bengal, and extreme poverty in many states. One of the regular sights of Thalassery in the forties was the steady procession of beggars; an unending, sad stream of them in the streets and in the doorways. They came to the richer houses in Thalassery every day, and soon learned to differentiate between the kind and the cold-blooded. They made the universal sign of begging for food -- touching their mouths and opening their palms. I remember the terrible procession of shabby, hungry and hopeless families.
In our house, Achamma saved dry coconut shells for the beggars to drink conjee out of, and when our rice was drained daily, she set aside a few handfuls, that she would drop into the starchy water drained from the rice. She would keep this in a clay-pot; around three in the afternoon, the clay pot would be empty and she would have to turn away the remaining procession of beggars. Gradually, the beggars learned to clock in before that three o’clock ‘closing’ time.
I would look at the children of around my age or younger, clinging to their mothers’ garments or hiding behind them. My family would not let me go within touching distance of them; Ammamma warned that they might be carrying infectious diseases. I wondered, where were the fathers, rarely to be seen with them? Where were the older children?
When it had rained continuously for many days and the water-levels rose enough to create mayhem and destruction, my father and I would walk to our little beach, only five minutes from where we lived, to see the objects the sea had claimed.
Unlike famine, which may have been avoided, the rain wreaked economic havoc of a different sort locally. Whole barns, full of copra, (coconuts dried for months to be milled and made into coconut oil, were generally stored in barns made from bamboo poles tied with coir rope.) would lift off from the banks of rivers, where they were situated, and float into the sea; you could see them bobbing away gracefully towards the horizon. Someone’s livelihood for the next year washed away. The sea would be an ominous gun-metal grey, and occasionally, far away, there would be a huge shark tossing and turning with the water.
So, for me, rain-washed Thalassery is where it all began.
In 1933, my mother, Janaki, all of fourteen years old, got engaged to my quicksilver father, Raghavan. Quicksilver, because of his sudden changing moods and incessant pursuit of goals he set himself – reading, swimming in the sea, gardening, walking…
Achan (father) was somewhat older than my amma (mother) and better educated, naturally. She barely reached standard nine before she was offered to my father’s family. What did education have to do with females? Achan started in the local Government Brennen College, which provided for only two years of post-school education after matriculation, then called school-finals. F A, the qualification was called, Fellow of Arts; about the standard of British A levels.
To most men in that small town, Thalassery, finals would have meant just that. Time to stop all that school nonsense and start earning a living. The women, in those days didn’t get that far. The Nairs lived off their lands and didn’t aspire to do much with their lives. Malayalam enjoys a phonetic alphabet, which meant once you learned to read and write the fifty-four squiggles, you were literate by definition. Men and women attended the first two or three years in local one-room primary schools and became ‘literate.’ All the women in our family, of my father’s generation, could read and write, but ‘educated’ they were not.
My father and a few others also attended these thatched, one-room village schools where one teacher taught all the children, cane in hand. The only difference with my father and two of his friends from the same village was that they decided to walk the four miles to town to attend the next level of education, and then the next. These three were the first three young men from his village, Kodiyeri, who graduated. (In my father’s family, I was the first woman who went to college.) Achan would therefore have been considered a good catch in the marriage market. There were a few hiccups – he was the kind of man who would instigate hiccups whatever he did and wherever he went.
At the time, early twentieth century, most of the lecturers in Brennen College, Thalassery, were British, mainly Scottish. The story goes that my father took umbrage at an imagined insult, made by the lecturer, which involved the phrase, ‘your father.’ I gathered my father was late to the lecture. The lecturer, from another culture, would have had no way of knowing that you simply did not use that phrase ‘your father’ contemptuously, as part of an admonition, anywhere in Kerala. When my father tried to explain why he was late, the lecturer retorted, ‘I am not interested in your father or your grandfather.’ My father apparently staged a walk-out, and being who he was, it would have been a dramatic exit. Whereupon two of his friends also walked out behind him, in support. They had started an incident, which would lead to life-changing events in all three lives. Indeed, one of them never went back to his studies.
All three, to begin with, were suspended from the college. They could be reinstated if they offered a public apology. Two of them refused, the other apologised and returned to his studies. Later, my father admitted to me in passing, that in that atmosphere of nascent and aggressive nationalism, the young men were looking out for anything they could represent as a grievance.
The institution was a government college and no other college in the State of Madras would offer my father a place to continue his studies. (This Brennen College was established by Edward Brennen, an Englishman, who worked in Thalassery Port and made his home in Thalassery in the late nineteenth century.) It took my father a long time, to be accepted by any college, and in the end, it was a private institution in far off Madanapalle, in Andhra State, which offered him sanctuary, and hope.