Keeri who loved humans

Keeri who loved humans
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Saturday, 14 April 2018

My Diverse Religions

Achamma had been denied her role in the household when I started at school without her consultation of the Panchangam, the holy book with the auspicious times and dates.; she was disgusted. Her rituals were normally directed towards invoking the blessings of a large pantheon of Hindu gods and warding off evil eyes and spirits. This much-venerated book, the Panchangam, was about the positions of planets and stars in the firmament at any given moment and what configurations would provide the most auspicious time to do anything special. Achamma’s copy was quite old – the Panjangam prophesied for five years at a time, so it tended to be consulted well beyond its disintegration. It was a thin book with yellowing pages, the tiny print and crammed lines making up for the lack of paper-space.  Our copy smelled of old newspaper and incense. The booklet generally rested behind the plaster statue of the blue Krishnan, which was the centrepiece of our indoor shrine in the padingitta.
That shrine was also the centre-piece of our life. When we children came in from play in the evenings, and washed, we had to sit in front of the shrine and recite our prayers and incantations. ‘Ramaramarama’ fifty times was one of them. We did it at break-neck speed, Appuettan, Mani and I lined up in front of the lighted nilavilakku. Another was a hymn to Saraswathy, the goddess of education and prosperity. We were not fed till after our prayers and we had put sacred ash on our foreheads. The ash, gritty to the touch, was kept near the Krishnan-image in a brass tray, which always had a few burnt-out matchsticks in it. The place smelled of gingelly oil, ash and sandalwood.
            Crepe paper in many colours and shiny gold and silver paper cut into moon and star shapes, as well as calendar pictures of Saraswathy, Shivan, Krishnan, and all Achamma’s Gods (and there were many) decorated the prayer corner, where the nilavilakku, the sacred lamp, was lighted at dawn and dusk. That familiar smell of sulphur, oil and ash would mean the beginning of another day. During the scarcities of the war years, it would be just one valiant wick instead of the customary five in more prosperous times
            If I behaved myself, Ammamma would let me help cut the crepe paper, but I knew I wasn’t good at it. For us, at that time, a few sheets of card or coloured paper was a huge luxury. These days, I look at my granddaughter’s store of stationery: cards of many hues, colour pencils by the dozens, even some for the dog to chew, markers, stickers, glue of different kinds (we used rice-paste), and I think – all this and I-phones too. Not to mention sleep-overs, day-spends and trips into shopping malls. The nature of school-life has changed. I think the nature of grandmother-hood has also changed. My perspective is troglodyte.
            I remember begging over-cooked rice from the kitchen and mashing it with my fingers into paste; the nuns at school used flour. If we needed foolscap paper for homework, Ammamma would give us a quarter-anna for one precious sheet. As for colour pencils, I remember one, half blue, half red, so that the two ends were two different colours.
            And sleepovers? Nice Malayalee girls were not allowed to spend nights at some other family’s home. What if the father was a drunk? Or beat up his wife in front of the children? The question of shopping malls did not arise because the concept of shopping as a leisure activity did not exist. We didn’t have pocket money either. You bought only things that you needed, and in the days of plastic-less existence, apart from textiles (no ready-made garments then) and minimal beauty products, what was there to buy? I remember Cuticura powder, which was our sole aid to beauty, and the pottu and kohl. D I Y Chandu for the pottu was made from rice flour, and kohl was created from a clean rag dipped in lime juice and burnt on to a piece of clay. The soot was scraped off and mixed with gingelly oil to form a hard paste. We depended on the flowers in our hair, long before Aung San Suki, to make us sparkle.
When Achamma heard that I had started school without benefit of her selection of auspicious days and times, she hawked and spat red betel juice in frustration. But she didn’t dare raise it with my father; she knew he would have no sympathy for her. Achamma muttered and murmured her displeasure for a whole day and took to her bed as a protest. Achan did not notice, but Ammamma reminded her gently that Achan did not believe in the Panjangam and wouldn’t notice her sulks anyway. When my father was ill with bronchitis, as he often was, she would stand on the bottom steps of the staircase to his bedroom and do the casting away of evil spirits and envious eyes. It had nothing to do with his smoking according to her. Of course.

Did my achamma know of the diverse paths my religious education took under the nuns at Sacred Heart? If she did, she would have been horrified. For prayers, we were taught Hail Marys and the Lord’s Prayer. Most Wednesdays we were led around the Ways of the Cross in the beautiful little chapel in the school-yard. There was Angelus twice a day, when the special bells would ring out alerting us. Then there was the Act of Contrition. If you failed to say it before you went to sleep, the devil would get your soul. And if you died in your sleep, the hell-fires awaited you.
            Limbo was the destination of the unfortunate infant who died without informing the church of his existence and getting baptised. What a God! And, in Limbo, there was no remission for good behaviour – you stayed there to eternity. All of us had one slim chance, in spite of our sins, moral and venal, after a long and unpredictable wait; there would be a second coming and we could be forgiven and by-pass purgatory, to go straight to heaven. Sisters defined moral and venal sins to us in great detail so that we understood some sins were more vile than others.
Sister painted graphic pictures of the devil, with flaming torso, waiting to engulf all the feckless Hindu girls who went home and changed faith, back to Ramaramarama and the many depraved Gods of the Hindu pantheon every day. I was comfortable oscillating between the two religions, and today, I find that that early accommodation to any religion that comes by, sustains my sense of the ludicrous regarding all of them.
Then there were the Jesus-pictures, which we were encouraged to collect. Like collecting match-labels. The nuns must have made a decent profit there.
Our first lesson every morning was Moral Science. It began with Catechism:
“Who made you?                                                                                        
God made me.
Why did God make you?
To love him, to obey him…”
Sounded like a training scheme for Kerala wives.

Monday, 9 April 2018

The Rituals of recent Kerala Marriages

With respect to the actual rituals accompanying weddings, things have changed in India in recent times. In Thalassery, which has managed to stay unscathed, pristine and undeveloped, even when the rest of Kerala is rapidly advancing within the twenty-first century, marriage ceremonies are no longer short or simple; diversity has entered in a big way. Now, in 2017, the accretions over the decades to what was a simple, pared-down marriage-ritual confound me.
First there was the thali, the sacred chain round the neck, to be blessed by the pujari and tied round the bride’s neck by the groom. (No such leashes for him.) This would be removed only when she was widowed or dead, so a life-long encumbrance when bathing, swimming etc. I got rid of mine somewhere along the way when no one was looking, but I kept it in a quick-access place. In case. My husband was not interested enough to notice that my thali had gone. Or indeed anything else about me had gone.
The thali was a distinctly South Malabar practice; my husband was from Palakkad, in South Malabar. Via Sri Lanka.  I was from the North. Once upon a time, Nairs from the North and south of Malabar did not inter-marry. South Malabar by our reckoning started some sixty-five miles south of Thalassery, the other side of the Baratha puzha, the notional boundary river, but things were changing fast.
To begin with, there is the amount of gold the brides carry around on their weary arms and neck. A jeweller in Kochi told me that some parents buy gold by the kilo now-a-days. After the wedding the gold is stowed away in a vault or a strong box and hardly ever sees the light of day. The parents may have sold ancestral land to bestow this amount of metal on their daughter. In my time, the gold was minimal and nobody counted.  I wonder why, in what is a country where there are many poor people, we don't use that lavish wealth to establish orphanages, educate girls, build schools and hospitals in remote villages... So much to do and we assign our assets to incarceration in a dark place!
When did the practice of exchanging rings arrive in Nair rituals?. In the past, it had been a Christian practice, but by 1957, families from Malabar were incorporating rings into the ceremony. Again, I took mine off at some unknown guest house while on the road and forgot it. My husband similarly got rid of his. Neither of us knew where the rings had gone. Or cared.
And in today’s elaborate weddings, the close family and friends have to feed the bride and groom banana and milk after the wedding. So, the couple sit on a raised platform and suffer this procession of people thrusting spoons into their mouths. Where did that abomination come from?
Now, in the twenty-first century, the marriage rituals from all over India have coalesced somewhat in terms of their elasticity. Weddings can be anything from two to five days long, depending on the wealth of the bride’s family and their inclination to show off. In one wedding in Paris a few years ago, a wealthy Indian patriarch flew in his guests from all over the world to attend his daughter’s wedding. Even the Mehndi ceremony, now so popular in Kerala, came from the north of India; a whole day is devoted to it nowadays, drawing designs on the palms of the bride, and a cohort of invited girls.
A recent aberration, if you are really, disgustingly wealthy, is for family and guests to travel to a resort overseas like the Maldives or Sri-Lanka for the wedding, the father of the bride picking up the bill. Jesus wept!
I live in hope. Somewhere along the line, it might dawn on a little girl watching that the emperor’s clothes are a matter of illusion.

Thursday, 5 April 2018

Nair Marriages -- Pudamuri (The cutting of Cloth)

In those days, that is in the early twentieth century, in the Nair caste to which both my parents belonged, engagement was an event organised by the elders, and because it was a matrilineal society, with inheritance passing down the female line, from uncle to niece, rather than father to children, this engagement was master-minded by my mother’s uncle. It might have been mentioned in passing to the child-bride-to-be by her mother, if she was lucky. The uncles, in those days, took responsibility for feeding and clothing their nieces and nephews, finding husbands and wives when the time came, and for conducting the weddings.

The kaniyan, the local astrologer, was the central figure in this event; he would decide whether the horoscopes of the prospective partners matched; he would even pronounce on their sexual compatibility (yoni porutham), without seeing either of them. He generally came with a bagful of cowrie shells and a piece of chalk. A representative from the prospective bridegroom’s family would attend to approve the decisions.

I remember the sense of occasion connected to the arrival of the kaniyan in any house. Generally, there were only a handful of them catering to the community, and everyone knew them by sight. They came at moments of significance in a household, heralding weddings, naming ceremonies, funerals… The kaniyan, it was, who would decide what were auspicious times and dates for starting journeys to foreign countries, or a housewarming.

There would be the sacred nilavilakku presiding over the ceremony. Of course. The kaniyan would draw some columns and lines on the floor, a complicated noughts-and-crosses shape in front of the ceremonial lamp. Then he would start arranging the shells within his diagram, according to the horoscopes of the prospective bride and bridegroom.

After placing the shells he would ‘read’ them. He would chant Sanskrit verses, justifying every prediction made by him. The men of the house would sit around him, leaning forward, listening avidly, even if they did not understand a word of Sanskrit. Women would hover near the windows in the corridors behind to get a whiff of the decision being formed.

If the horoscopes of the bride and the groom ‘matched,’ especially the positions of Saturn, Mars and the Sun in the firmament when they were born, he would ceremoniously tie the two horoscopes together. (I should know, because Saturn was in all the wrong places in my horoscope, and so I was able to escape marriage for a very long time.) After that the kaniyan would suggest auspicious dates for the wedding and leave with his fee, a few coins, tucked into the waist of his mundu.

       The marriage ceremony itself was a non-event. The point of it was to permit a man and a woman to sleep together and produce off-spring. The ritual was minimal. A garlanding of the bride and groom, with jasmine garlands if they were available, in front of the lighted nilavilakku, in the padingitta, the puja room of the house. A few family members and neighbours would be watching. Then a feast, which would go on till late in the night because Nair weddings took place in the night. Somewhere, in between, the bride would be led to the nuptial bed and the door of the chamber closed firmly behind her, by one of her paternal aunts. There you are then, go forth and copulate.
       I wait hopefully, for the time when Indians can live together a while and test the waters out before they get married to partners of their own choice. Even in the villages. I would happily endorse a few dirty weekends here and there. Definitely preferable to the head-long somersault into marriage.
       And the sad part is, even to this day, marriages are hard to get out of. People look at the urban, educated professionals of India; obviously they find it easy to terminate marriages. They make their own choices; people looking in from the outside assume this is true of all of India. In villages, (and remember, ninety percent of India’s population live in villages,) marriages are life-long, and women have to stay in them, however abusive or love-less they are.
       For the man, it was always a matter of choice, and they did exercise that choice. As late as the end of the nineteenth century, men taking second and third wives was common. My aunt was a second wife, my grandfather’s sister was a first wife who had to suffer the humiliation of a second wife, in the same house, ensconced just down the corridor.
       Here, again, we may notice an imbalance of power between a man and his wife. Add to that the fact that, in a joint family home, loyalties were fragmented, and the wife was dependent on the mercy of many people. She would have no financial resources of her own and no home of her own. Her own family would not countenance her return home with equanimity – they would try to send her back. Today’s working women do not depend on husbands for income, do not meekly stay with their in-laws and are quite capable of going it alone.

When I left my husband in 1972, I didn’t go back to India for six years. I’d experienced the slander and the harassment when I went home briefly, and it took me a very long time to summon up the courage to return. I was not invited to any family events during this period as I ‘would bring misfortune on the event’ with my presence. I was persona non-grata.

I noticed that later, when I became independent financially I was accepted back -- for the same reason that professional women manage to get control of their lives. The common denominator in all these situations is money. And shelter. For a woman, in my book, the most important safeguards are a place to live and an income. The home doesn’t have to be owned, rented would be fine if you can afford the rent. If you don’t have a place for you and your children to live, you are man-fodder.

Sunday, 1 April 2018

Treatment Pre-Independence

Treating Disease Pre-Independence
Most of the treatment in those pre-independence days for any disease, consisted of herbal medicines. There was a herbal medicine vendor about a mile from our house, and as I travelled daily to school in my rickshaw I would see him chopping leaves and roots and other vegetation on a two-foot tree trunk he used as a chopping board. The medicines were vile tasting.
The Vaidyan (indigenous doctor) was always the first port of call for illness in the family. Unless my father got involved, which he rarely did, because no one told him about stomach pains or back pains. Doctors trained in Western medicine were rarities in Thalassery in the thirties. We had one – Kunhikkannan doctor. My father went to him, and he took me too for childhood ailments. For most things, I remember, my aunt would go down to the compound and pick what looked like weeds to me. But she knew which herb did what. She brewed them for many hours and strained them; they worked. This is a knowledge that has now been lost. After Ammamma, no one in our family knew anything about those herbs.
Ammamma prescribed a laxative for most illnesses: Senna pods stewed and strained. Mani and I did not mention small aches and pains to her for fear of that concoction. The alternative was cod liver oil – not much to choose from.
We had one dentist; when my milk teeth started coming loose, my father would take me to the dentist, to take the tooth out gently with a steel instrument. If that didn’t happen, Ammamma would tie a knot with thread round the tooth where it met the gum; the other end would be tied to an open door. She would then slam the door suddenly and the tooth would come off. She didn’t give me a sweet after the extraction like the dentist. It was a question of who got there first – Achan or Ammamma
By the fifties we had two or three trained doctors, all men, and in the sixties, we had our first lady doctor. During that period, gradually, the faith in western medicine grew and the vaidyans lost ground.

Recently clinics have sprung up all over Kerala, which offer Ayurvedic treatment or Homeopathic treatment. Medical schools in India offer these options as specialisms in the third and fourth years of a medical degree, and the take-up is enthusiastic. When I am in India, I often spend a week at an Ayurvedic Nursing home nearby. It is a kind of pampering unavailable with the NHS. The oil massages are deeply soporific during and after the massage. The food is vegetarian and oil-free; I find I lose half a stone of weight in one week. Meditation events are included, and if you are determined, you can keep up the discipline and continue to enjoy the benefits after returning home.
My Homeopathy doctor knows more about my body and mind than I do; a great deal more than the fragmented me that the NHS sees. His initial diagnostic meeting is always over an hour long. The treatment is delivered through tiny pills as they are in England. Those pills have never once let me down: they have no side effects, no stomach angst.
It took only ten days for the doctor to cure me of three food allergies, food allergies that had plagued me for decades, and the same amount of time to get rid of rashes picked up in the garden, talking to my irritable Dieffenbachia, or by insect bites indoors. My children, who have lived here in England from early childhood, do not trust either treatment. They are amused that I go to these ‘quacks.’ They think it is my Indian origins that give me faith in this kind of ‘superstition.’ The arrogance! I go by proven efficacy of both Homeopathic and Ayurvedic treatments.

Having experienced the disasters that the monsoon brings, I am wary of the monsoon season even now, in my old age; I remember it as the time when most of the deadly diseases like cholera and plague attacked our community. Now, when the scourges of those years have been conquered, I still avoid going to India during those monsoon months. Today there are new diseases to avoid: Dengue fever and in some parts of India, Malaria. When I was a young child in Thalassery, we didn’t need mosquito nets – indeed we didn’t have one in the house. Now, even in the villages, where houses and people are not living in close and unhealthy proximity, mosquitoes will not let you sleep without fans or nets.

Though the Southwest Monsoon brought disease and death, it was also exciting to all – students, for possible days off from school, farmers for the reassurance they brought of healthy rice crops, all households for relief from the summer heat…  Just as I did, my father liked following the course of floods. When it had rained steadily for several days, my father would sit on the very edge of the veranda, watching the water level rise. He saw it as a contest between man and nature and waited to see who would win. Visitors would discuss the rains endlessly as the weather is discussed in England. The kitchen would be littered with pots and pans of all shapes to catch the roof-leaks and a thin coir rope would be strung across, over the stone fireplace, to dry our uniforms. The whole house would smell of mould.
           When it became clear that the rising floods had won, my father’s compassion and sense of community would kick in. He would spring into action, insisting that I gathered up my spare clothes to offer to families, which had lost all that they owned.
I was quite selfish and didn’t want to part with anything to donate to the people washed up like flotsam on the banks of neighbourhood rivers. I didn’t have many items of spare clothes, so my father’s instructions caused a great deal of heart-searching. Was there anything I had outgrown, or torn beyond rescue? On one occasion, when I did not co-operate quickly enough, he went to the rope in the compound, where the day’s wash was drying, and pulled out a skirt and blouse from it. I lost my favourite skirt and learned my lesson. When I complained, Achan said, ‘You’ll survive.’

Schools always re-opened early in June, after the fierce, humid heat of the summer months. Rains came generally in the last week of June, petering out after a fair share of death and destruction achieved, some time in early August. On the first day of the monsoon, just before the skies opened, the frogs would announce the arrival of the sight-and-sound show. The birds would fly hurriedly to their nests as the sky darkened. The thunder, (my father said it was the Gods moving furniture in the heavens,) would drive the frightened snakes deep into their holes in the ground, but when the rains stopped, the petrichor would bring them out again, to slither joyfully in the mud. That smell of new rain-washed mud must be one of the delights of a tropical inheritance. Now it has been obliterated by petrol and diesel fumes; one has to travel deep into the villages to experience that heady smell again.
           Rainy mornings in Thalassery had a soporific quality – In my childhood I would sit on the floor of my veranda, and watch the water-level rise in our yard, daring it to touch the cement floor; it never did. I would do it for hours, with my thumb stuck into some hole in my petticoat, which could, with a little imagination, pass for a frock.
I lived in those two-piece slips, all white, put together quite casually by the local tailor (he didn't believe in straight lines) who plied his uncertain trade in a corner of the little shop left of our gate. When my father realised I spent most of my hours at home in those slips, he got the tailor to make me four coloured slips, which I loved. Untold riches!
Those days, sticking my thumb into a tear in my garment was my childhood equivalent of sucking my thumb – or meditation. The cement on the veranda steps was cold and rough, cracked as they were. My bum generally suffered, but the heavy raindrops falling on the puddles under the eaves made a rare and pretty picture. Where the sun caught the bubbles in the morning, light slanting through moving coconut fronds, split into rainbow hues. I was child enough at six and seven years to believe that I could catch that colour; I would stretch my palm out and the rainbow would settle on my hands. Magic! Quite often I would be drenched as the winds drove the sheets of water in many directions.
We lived near the railway lines later; indeed, we could see the trains chugging along, on the other side of the Koduvally river, with their head of steam, from our veranda. I thought of that railway line as mine because my beloved maternal grandfather worked as a guard on the South India Railway.
On the road to the railway lines, which was one of my father’s favourite morning walks, he would often point out the huts of the poor, lean-tos put together with coconut fronds, sheets of corrugated iron, cardboard and tarpaulin. They were never more than three metres long, and narrow, to fit on the width of the raised banks of the Koduvally river. Children, half-naked, played on the soggy surroundings of their homes and when we walked by, almost another species, with our dry clothes and our certainties, they stared at us as at another life-form. Everything, their clothes, their faces, their bodies, their huts – all seemed to be the uniform dispiriting colour of clay.
Indeed, the river was lined with houses on one side, and the railway line on the other. The latrines of the houses flanking the river were built precariously over the edge of the compounds, partly over the river, on coconut trunks driven into the water. I once asked my father what would happen if the folks in those houses fell into the river while defecating. ‘Then they wouldn’t need to wash after,’ he answered with scant mercy.

Monday, 26 March 2018

Educating Daughter

When I was about fourteen years old, my father decided my school was just not doing enough; there was so much the school could not teach me. it was part of his mission to fill that gap, to educate, improve, and generally make me fit to manage the twentieth century, (and totally unfit to marry a local Nair man). I resisted that mission vigorously when he was not looking; I just wanted to be like all the other girls around, relaxed, uneducated man-fodder.

One of his original ideas was to train me to speak fluently and lucidly in public, in both Malayalam and English. Mmm. On a lazy Sunday morning when I should be picking green mangoes from the compound behind our house, he would summon me.

The lesson would begin on the front veranda of our house -- one prong of a many-pronged attack. This involved me standing six metres from him, on our walkway to the front-gate, and speaking on a topic he would set. He would stand on the veranda and instruct. I had five minutes to prepare. He was a demanding teacher, teaching me to ‘throw’ my voice, slow down, look at him, not mumble… Topics included Freedom, Non-violence, Books I liked and Why…

Father dictated what I read and supervised that process. When I finished reading a book he had instructed me to read, I had to do a little review in a note-book and show it to him. I often tried to copy the blurb at the back, but he found me out very quickly. ‘I am not looking for second-hand opinions,’ he said. ‘I want you to think for yourself – not trust others.’

With poetry, he was more demanding. I had to memorise four lines of the book of that week and recite it to him. Karuna by Kumaran Ashan was his favourite. Karuna was the story of Vasavadatha, a beautiful prostitute in Madhura. I enjoyed that story in verse; she sounded feisty. In Memoriam was another matter. For the rest of my life I have kept a safe distance from Tennyson. Including the bewildering Lady of Shallot.

Interestingly my reading speed in both Malayalam and English grew exponentially, and my memory blotted up anything that came along, without discrimination.

Our walk-way was a public place, and when I had to perform, passers-by would stare. For audience, I generally had the crows on the coconut tree, the ownerless cats going from house to house at the time the fish parted with their heads every morning, and two or three children from around the neighbourhood, who would stand and gape at this unusual girl and her even more unusual father. I hated all of this, but there was no escape. In school and college later, however, I became the star debater.

My father enticed me into his activities (all except swimming) and now, in my eighties, I find I have a variety of diversions to call upon when time hangs heavily, and I am looking to escape my writing. In old age, I have a large savings account of varied activities that I have banked, under duress, for my old age. Not to mention a greedy reading speed.

Gardening, which is a favourite occupation of mine, works every time. Though, at the time, I joined in the gardening, reluctantly. Achan usually planted red spinach, green spinach, aubergine, beans and Okra. There were also the climbing beans, the centre-piece of the garden. He and his best friend had an ongoing competition about whose beans did the best each year.

My father would send me out to water the vegetable-patch every evening in the summer. Water had to be drawn from the well and carried in pots to the garden in front of the house. I was supposed to join the young boy who was our gofor, as it wouldn’t be fair to expect him to do it all on his own; also, I should spend hours weeding with him, when I would rather just be. I was a teen ager then, but Achan made no concessions to the alternate world of teens, which my granddaughter, Asha, now inhabits with such panache.

I would hitch up my ankle-length skirt, along with my reluctance and draw water from our well, tugging at the rope-and-pulley system. Physical exertion was meant to be ennobling!  But, all it did for me was drench me from waist down. My skirt would start getting entangled in my legs; periodically, I would need to stop and wring the water from the bottom of it. Neighbours and family looked on in astonishment in those years at this father-and-daughter team; girls were not meant to be going everywhere with fathers. And fathers, as the alpha males in the house, were not meant to take any notice of daughters. Also, digging, weeding, watering, were not occupations of middle-class females. You had maids and helpers for that, didn’t you? What was Vakil’s daughter doing, joining in with the garden-boy?

The garden boy, was a priceless urchin. He could disappear into thin air if he heard my father’s footsteps approaching, with what he imagined was instructions about the watering. I knew where to find him though he changed his hidey-holes on a regular basis.

                ‘Don’t want to get your skirt wet, do you?’ he’d ask innocently. ‘We could do it early tomorrow morning before your bath.’
There were in fact a few rules in our house regarding house-boys. No shouting at them and don’t ask them to do anything you are not willing to do yourself. If they were young they had to be fed when the children of the house were fed. I believe he adopted all of this from Mahatma Gandhi; in practice the women who ran the kitchen ignored him with impunity because he never went anywhere near the kitchen. He had a little hand-bell near him to summon the kitchen for tea or coffee and electric bells strategically placed on the veranda and bedroom walls to do the same.

Tuesday, 20 March 2018

My Child-mother

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… 

My achan (father) was somewhat older than my Amma 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.) He would therefore have been considered a good catch in the marriage market. There were a few hiccups – Achan 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.

The Theosophical College in Madanapalle was established in the name of Annie Besant. (Annie Besant, an Irish woman, devoted her life, fruitlessly as it turned out, to the idea of a caste-less Indian society. She helped establish the Benares Hindu University and worked tirelessly to promote Indian culture. She was also the president of the Congress Party in India in 1917, a century ago.)  Here, my father completed his degree in History. He told me it was a harsh life; he had to go to College, far from home, in a place where he had to rent accommodation, and pay for train-travel to and from his home. He went home only for the summer holidays, once a year.

He settled into a corner of the veranda of a local house for a small rent. They let him cook his daily rice and dhal in that corner, and he bathed by diving into the well in the compound. Apparently, he would put his rice and dhal in one pot, which was all the kitchen utensils he possessed, and go off for a bath while the food cooked. He told me a story of how, once, he got winded in his dive and couldn’t surface for a while. His food was burnt to cinder by the time he managed to come up and get to his pot.

His education was hard come-by. There is a story in the family that he went on hunger-strike for a week to persuade his impecunious parent to fund his law degree. Apparently, Achachan (paternal grandfather) had to sell his ancestral home to finance my father’s ambitions. Apocryphal or not, I could imagine his relentless pursuit of his goal; he was a stubborn man.

            After he graduated, he did a law degree in Madras (now Chennai in Tamil Nadu). There was also professional training in Thiruvananthapuram, in Kerala, for a year, before he could practise law in his hometown. He was then twenty-six years old. Malayalam was his mother-tongue, as is mine, but in Madras and Madanappalle he learned a smattering of Tamil and Telungu and became fluent in the English language, representing his college at many debates and winning silver medals and other accolades.

When I was about sixteen years old I came across a horde of medals in a tin box in his chest of drawers; Achan said I could pick one and put it on a chain if I wished. I got the local goldsmith to attach it to my necklace and displayed this heart-shaped medal proudly on my person.

‘Why do you spoil your nice gold chain with this cheap pendant?’ my friends asked. I described with pride how I came by that silver locket. I still have it in my jewel box and the medals.

The languages my father acquired in Madras and Madanapalle would stand him in good stead when he was in prison in Vellore, and later Tanjore, in the war years. The freedom fighters immured in those prisons were from all over India and he had to become polyglot in a hurry. It was British policy to send the men as far away from their homes as possible, preferably to another state – this would prevent them from fraternising with the warders and other prisoners. None of this worked of course. When Andaman Islands were occupied by the Japanese, the prisoners were informed by the warders. The warders sneaked newspapers into the wards when something momentous happened, so the inmates knew all about the course of the freedom struggle, as well the armed struggle going on the Far East and in Europe at that time.

Thursday, 15 March 2018

A Different Kind of Malayalee

This post is going to be a little difficult -- and different. These are the first few pages of my memoirs, which I have provisionally titled AS FATHERS GO, because the most significant person in that time of my childhood, 1935 - 1950 was my unusual, effervescent father who loved the whole world.

   And made me into a different kind of Malayalee girl.

A few pages will be posted at the end of each week. Here we go:

Thalassery -- A verdant, little, coastal town, tucked away in the South-Western
corner of India along the shores of the Arabian Sea. If you walk a long, long way north, hugging the coast you will finally reach Mumbai (formerly Bombay.) If, instead, you walk in the opposite direction, you will end up in the Indian Ocean, quite quickly, somewhere near Sri Lanka.
I always thought that Kerala, our state, was where the rain was born. When I travelled from Chennai to Thalassery, by the old Madras Mail, (so called because it delivered our mail -- why else! -- all the way from the east coast, at just after mid-day, every day) I would see how the terrain changed from barren brown to rich green as we came out of the tunnel, through the Western Ghats. I’d press my eager head into the horizontal bars of the train window, and breathe deep of that familiar smell of wet vegetation and home; with it I would also take in the particles of soot and ash that came out of the front of the steam engine, making my eyes itch and my hair gritty.
Well before the fears of global warming and consequent flooding, the monsoons arrived with predictable regularity each year, at the end of June, and swept away a few houses nestling precariously on the top of river-bunds. There was no welfare state as such, so the community, neighbours, had to step in. After several days of unrelenting downpour, the waters would rise and spread.
My father’s sister would have spent the whole month of Karkadagam, ( the Malayalam month that falls between the middle of July and the middle of August known for disease, death and devastation,) chanting prayers to ward off the disasters. During this period, the streak of bhasmam (sacred ash) on her forehead got a little longer and thicker, just in case her devotion was in any way, inadequate,
Generally smallpox, chickenpox, typhoid and plague, arrived in the rainy season. The old women in the house, whose duty it was to guard against all evils that could be fended off with prayer and incantation read out of the holy book, Bhagavatham, at dusk and dawn, in front of the nilavilakku, the sacred lamp.
But, of course, chickenpox ignored the holy chants and spread through the house and went. No one was too concerned as chicken pox didn’t usually kill. It lingered with one person or another and all of us in the house waited for it to strike. It was a community illness in that it generally spread through a whole neighbourhood before moving on.
Our extended household had three children: myself and my father’s brother’s children, Mani and Appu, Mani six months older and Appu four years older. My father’s niece, Nani, father’s sister whom I called Ammamma  (mother’s mother) and father’s mother, Achamma, also lived there. So Chicken pox had quite a haul.
Achamma always organised her second line of defence when disease got close – as in next door. She kept coconut shells filled with a cow-dung solution along both sides of our walkway to the front gate. This was supposed to ward off Mariamma, the evil goddess of smallpox. Maybe the same Goddess did duty for chickenpox too. I had a mental image of this vile witch, grotesque and pock-marked. She haunted my dreams. She was always hanging about our front gate, working her way up to the house.
Early in the morning every day, I would see Achamma, bent like a question mark, making her way slowly down the walk-way to the gate, checking the coconut shells. Her hair, in old age, had become scant and short, just shoulder-length, and it was nearly blonde; it looked golden when it caught the sun, and sometimes I would tease her calling her ‘Madamma’ (white woman) because of the colour of her hair.
Achamma had very little energy – she was close to seventy-five years old at a time when people in India celebrated shashtipoorthy, the birthday when you reached sixty years. Indians, in those days had no durability beyond forty years. Thirty-five was middle-aged, fifty was old. So whatever she was doing would consume all her effort and she would not see anything else. She didn’t take any notice of me anyway; she was totally devoid of humour. Also, she had no time for girls, only boys counted.
In any case, Achamma had lost her eldest son to smallpox when he was twenty-one years old. So she couldn’t be reassured. She inspected the chickenpox rash on Nani’s forehead daily and declared some of them were in fact smallpox pustules.
Smallpox actually kept its distance from the house because we had all been vaccinated, with those long-handled pen-shaped needles, the prick of which was pure agony. The end was shaped like a sharp circular screw, and it had to be turned through an excruciating three-hundred-and sixty degrees as the vaccine was released.  It would leave an angry, round wound in the forearm where it was administered, which hopefully would suppurate and declare the vaccination effective.  And we, children, would examine the mark daily, praying for it to get inflamed; if it didn’t we would have to be vaccinated again. Achamma had no faith in any of that and refused to be vaccinated.
Smallpox died out in India gradually as the vaccinations reached the villages and all the schools. In my generation, no one died of smallpox. My uncle and a few women in our family had pitted faces from smallpox; the deaths were random – some in any household survived with scarred faces, others died. Of my father’s two brothers, the eldest died and the younger survived with a pock-marked face.
In the period, 1941 to 1947, I got measles twice. Measles was taken lightly, probably because it didn’t kill as many people as the other diseases did. If you lost an eye, it was probably because you had neglected the strict diet prescribed by the local medicine man. The second time a rash appeared on me, Ammamma kept saying it could not be measles, measles never strikes the same person twice.
The vaidyan (the local medicine man), came to look at my measles-like rash and confirmed measles; he prescribed a herbal remedy called a Kashayam.  He wrote a long list of herbs and roots, which would be boiled in water and left overnight to steep in a clay pot. I had to drink it three times a day; getting it down was quite a feat. It tasted like boiled, pulped tree, mixed with clay. Ammamma, my father’s sister, would give me a block of vellam (unrefined brown sugar) to help it to go down.
And then there was pathyam – a rigorous protocol of ‘don’t eats.’ Anything cooked in oil was taboo; indeed the household was discouraged from cooking any food in fat because it would slow the cure and help the disease to spread to others.
During 1942, there were rumours of cholera in town. There did not appear to be any treatment for it. Cholera killed large numbers, mainly from the poorest parts of Thalassery. Nobody boiled drinking water in those days. Our water came from the well in our house, which was home to several frogs. Occasionally a rat might die in there, and we had to sterilise the water with crystals of Potassium Permanganate. Our water would be light pink water for a few days, and after three days the well would be declared harmless.
When I went to Sierra Leone, on behalf of the British Council, in 1983, the initial briefing document insisted I had to boil every drop of water I drank, and all vegetables, including salad leaves, had to be cooked. Needless to say I found all this a bit extreme. (But then, they also asked me to attend a weekend of pre-post briefing in a holiday home in Kent, to learn about how to live in the tropics. A woman who had spent some years working in Africa would be there to induct us. I had half a mind to go for the break and a laugh, if nothing else, but my conscience was stern, so I didn’t.)
I boiled the water as I had been instructed, but definitely did not cook my salads. Today, I drink water out of the taps in England, but many of my friends remind me about lead in the old pipes. When the quotidian life gets too complicated, my instinct is to simplify. I am a disciple of Thoreau, who taught me to ‘Simplify, Simplify.’
 As I was growing up in Thalassery, in the forties, it seemed to me that every household lived with various illnesses; children were falling ill frequently and whether they would live or not appears to have been a matter of luck. When a child is born in Kerala, the time and day are noted down by the astrologer in what is known as a charthu. A horoscope is then developed from this initial note after five years, the assumption being that a child’s existence until then is so precarious, fate should not be tempted with an assumption of a long life.
In the house to the right of ours, there were many children and there was always illness of one kind or another. In one year, when I was eight years old, a child in that house coughed for long spells in the night, when the neighbourhood was asleep. I knew that boy because his older sister was my age and I occasionally played with her. We could hear him clearly in the night when the little traffic in that small town ceased. It was an agonising cough that went on for hours keeping me up in the small hours of the night; it would stop for a minute sometimes, making me believe the little boy was now over that coughing fit; then it would start again. That disease lingered in our neighbour’s house for many months going from one child to another.
Appu, my cousin, contracted typhoid, when he was eleven years old. He was ill for three weeks, recovered, and had a relapse. Appu was prescribed a diet of loose-jacket oranges and pears when he stared recovering and this was good news for me. We girls, Mani and I, were meant to keep our distance and respect the quarantine, but the fruit was there to take. Appu handed it to us through the wooden window slats.
When Appu had a relapse and became rake thin, Achan (father) took to going into the sick-room straight from the Courts after work, dumping his gown on the floor outside. He cried, which was the most frightening thing of all, and Appu cried with him. There were no antibiotics then. Appu, recovered after a long two months and the rest of us escaped.
When he recovered, Appu was a shadow of himself. A wraith-like boy with the prominent front teeth even more prominent on his skeletal face. For many months after, Appu had to drink tonics to return him to the sprightly, naughty boy that he had been.

The scourge of those times, however, was Bubonic Plague. It was rare. Across from us was a large, half-finished house set in a big garden, with a pond next to it.  The man who started building that ambitious house had gone to Malaysia just before the beginning of the Second World War in the Far East and didn’t return till the fifties. In his absence, vagrants took the place over and used it for all the chicaneries usually indulged in by young men looking for easy excitement with not much money. During the period when the owner was languishing in Singapore, someone had hung himself from the rafters of the porch, so locals, other than the young gangs, gave the place a wide berth, saying the ghost of the man who committed suicide haunted the house.
Plague, when it came, lingered in that shell of a house for many months. A family of migrants lived there when the vagrants abdicated for other pastures; they lived in the porch, cooked on three-stone fires and washed in the pond in the compound. There were two men in the family, who looked like brothers, two young women and many children, all under the age of ten. Often the women came to our house, making signs asking for old clothes, sometimes food. Clearly, they were Indian, but they didn’t speak our language and we couldn’t guess where they had come from.
Mani and I were strictly forbidden from going to the house because of the pond, but we couldn’t resist; we would sneak off when no one was watching and stare at the group. The women would smile and call out to us, but the language frustrated us, so we just hung about. However when the family started dying the women would chase us away.
Plague killed off the family one by one. There was no money for funerals and no place to bury the dead, so the municipal shit cart would come and carry the bodies away; Mani and I watched through our windows and cried when the municipal cart came to take the little bodies away.
Those children never had any kind of life. They didn’t look that different from us, except that their faces and clothes were dirty and the children didn’t seem to go to school. When the family had been reduced to just the father and a young girl they abandoned their broken clay pots and their infected clothes and just walked away. One morning they were not there. A few days later, a man from the Municipality came around to spray Phenyl on the premises. The cart had T M C in large letters on its side – Thalassery Municipal Council. We called it theetam, moothram, kashtam --  shit, piss and rubbish.