Keeri who loved humans

Keeri who loved humans
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Tuesday, 17 January 2012

The Thalassery Fix

Came back from Thalassery yesterday after four wonderful days. Got my Thalassery fix. Hope it will take me through another pallid year.
   It was cool the way Ernakulam never feels. Clean and fresh with the gentle winds of Shishiram just skimming the ground cover. In Moozhikkara and Kodiyeri (Yes, that of the Balakrishnan fame.) the compounds are still the old compounds: large tracts of land with ancient trees in which the birds establish dynasties. Dawn -song is a benediction in itself.
   If you are a light sleeper like me, you have the owls, the foxes, the stray dogs, all contributing to the cacophony of the deep night, which is unmitigated dark, except where the moon manages to trickle through the trees. It is as though the night is theirs - go away, people.
   Morning song, literally, starts with the Hindu devotional songs from the temple, followed by the call to prayer by the Muezzin. What Graham Greene called the unholy alliance of old religion with new technology. But he did go for an old religion in the end.
   My father once pointed out to me the house where I was born. It had green glass on the windows giving it the air of a Muslim house. The walk from our house, hugging the Koduvally river and veering off left at the old Dharmadam bridge, took us over the brow of a hill and in rapid descent towards the Courts after that. At the zenith, the old European Club was guarded by sentries late into the forties and no Indian was a member. It was later the site of Justice V R Krishna Iyer's house and subsequently became the Bishop House when he left for Delhi and the Supreme Court. Bouganvillea grew on the fences near by and the whole area was a little dark. I held on to my father's safe, cool hands till we reached the descent. The Arabian sea was just a whisper away.
   I keep going back to this place and I know it is not any one house that makes my step springier, makes me slough off the marks of age. It is the people, I am sure. A quality of welcome in them that I don't find anywhere in the world. The sounds of North Malabar Malayalam, which spell good fellowship to prodigals like me.
   This place made me, I think. The beaches in which I had the space to consider the world, while the breakers attacked the rocks below. The Sacred Heart Convent is still quietly there on a side road, inconspicuous unless you are looking for it.
   Many Hail Marys and Our Fathers later, I got to College and discovered the library at the Brennen. An amazing place, that was. I cosied up to the English Department and declared intent to the librarian. He indulged me, while I went through that long room full of books and dust in the old college. How ever did I pass any exams in Maths? I still wonder. But I shed religion and became firmly agnostic.
   Now I meander here and there, pause for breath and let the words come. All the words that I garnered those many years ago. The words and the thoughts that started in Thalassery.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

This Other India

I am still reeling from the Hungama (sounds like a festival) news yesterday. One in three children dying from malnutrition is Indian. I can't get past that. Where do you begin? Where is the government? Where are the NGOs, the charities, the other lucky Indians with full stomachs?
   And India is meant to be shining. Right. Shining for whom?
   The middle-class that rushes to satisfy every whim of their offspring, can they imagine what it is to a mother to see her son or daughter withering away, a heap of bones diminishing daily? What it is to know you cannot change that because there is no money to buy food?
   India should be cringeing, this incredible (Yes, very difficult to believe.) India of ours. Food security is coming, we are told, but it is coming from a long way away (to the tribal lands in the North) and many children will die before it reaches them. Before the Government is finished with the Lokpal and much else and turns its attention to the children.
   We have got our priorities totally wrong: that vulgar display of the first Rolls Royce driving into Kochi, the District Collector (who should know better)) getting in and driving it. What's wrong with this lot? Maybe he should drive down to the waste lands on which the migrants camp and take a look at their existence. Sans sanitation, sans clean water, sans food at times. That Rolls is going to do them a lot of good!
  The last time I witnessed starvation in India was when the refugees from Pakistan flooded into India and dribbled down South just after Independence. There was a beggar every few minutes asking to be fed, making that universal humiliating sign of hunger, hand to mouth. The household saved the starch from the rice, threw a handful of rice into it, but it was always too little. These Hindi speaking families did not know the languages of the South and were totally bereft.
   I thought all that was over forever. But here we go again! Ethiopia is encoaching into certain parts of India!

Monday, 2 January 2012

The Dubai Syndrome

 It is commonmplace for Indian husbands to go to Dubai (at one time all of the gulf states were subsumed under the tiltle 'Dubai') with wives staying behind. Remittance wives are not new to Kerala or to India for that matter. At first there was Malaya and Ceylon, Burma and the east coast of Africa. They went in steamers, which took weeks to cross the oceans and came back years later. Interestingly, my father-in-law went to Scotland for seven years to become a doctor and his young wife stayed behind. Some marriage that. So we went where the money beckoned and some came back rich. Others never came back. My husband's old man returned wearing a three-piece suit, a bow tie and a fob watch. He ate bulls eyes and porridge for breakfast ever after.
Hanging around in the long corridor in Dubai airport one night, some years ago, I came across some Malayalee drivers chatting. They did not spot me for a Malayalee, probably because I was wearing a shift - my usual, shapeless, maximum-relaxation outfit for air travel - and carried hardly any luggage. If you were from Kerala, in the sixties, you travelled behind a barrage of shopping bags.
   In those days the travel between Dubai and Cochin was fraught. Men carried back 'three-in-ones' and 'two-in-ones,' making the aisles of aircrafts dangerous places to be when embarking. All over the place the red-and-white bomb-proof Dubai plastic bags could be seen with five-kilo tins of orange squash and milk powder, dried fruit and chocolate and sweets enough to pay for the new Benzes of at least three or four dentists.
The aisles sounded like a Kochi bus at rush-hour, Malayalam urgencies being called out as passengers settled. I generally ended up completing customs forms for a whole lot of them at three in the morning as they had no English. I breezily wrote 'no' against the questions about new goods they were bringing into India. Getting the details from them was just too difficult.
I got talking to those drivers in the Dubai lounge eventually as they kept sneaking looks at me and my sparse hand luggage. 'Will she carry some for us?' they asked each other in whispers looking at the Emirates official sizing up hand luggage items. So I had to put them out of their misery.
   'Bad shoulder,' I said in Malayalam. 'Can't carry too much.'
   'Do you go home often?' I asked, trying to mitigate the refusal. The two answered together. 'Good Lord , no.' One went every two years and the other every four. The first one thought he was extremely lucky to see his family once in every two years. 'Haven't seen my new baby,' the other volunteered. 'Over three years now.' Poor sod, I remember thinking. He'll need all the sweets in the world to entice that little one into his strange lap. I supposed the compensations would be the new concrete-roofed houses, indoor toilets and dowries for sisters. Come to think of it, if those guys decided to stay home, their families would probably forcibly drag them to Nedumbasseri or wherever and put them back on the planes to Sharjah, Abu Dhabi or Quatar.
   This migration has of course been responsible for many changes in the social - and possibly- physical landscape of Kerala. It hits me in the solar plexus when I travel to Thalassery these days, which is once a year on my visit to Kochi. I can no longer find my way around the town in which I was born and raised. You'd think that is because of development. Not so. Not so at all. North Malabar is the despised poor relative of the State Government. Too stroppy by half, too violent and so, no money.
   Thalassery remains without the usual signs of civilisation: good, wide roads; trustworthy water supply; power, broadband ...  There are hospitals scattered here and there and I suppose that's a step forward, considering the old general hospital, into which you went (Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.) if you were poor and had the temerity to get sick. Mind you, the hospitals are private now and and a  sick appendix could cost you more stomach ache (and head ache) than the original disease. But there is a choice anyway.
   What I notice these days is that there are high-rise flats all over the place dominating the landscape; I get claustrophobic just looking at them. And then there are the new concrete boxes where once we had fields and red spinach and tapioca growing, rippling in the breeze. They have low ceilings and sit squatly on village land, looking a little out of place. I could feel sorry for them.
   I should accept that people now have flat-tops to live in as compared to the old fragile thatches. Definitely more durable. But, for sheer ugliness those flat tops are hard to beat.
   There is money in Thalassery now, I console myself. People eat better, dress well and have longer lives. What started as a few smuggler's boats dropping off contraband gold on the beaches at midnight, has now turned into a legitimate livelihood. Still, I don't know whether I can call this progress if a man and woman have to spend their youth apart, though married, so that their families can prosper. There must be other less painful ways, I tell myself.
   I remember what one wife said to me; her husband was expected back soon.
'You must be happy,' I said. 'After so many months.' She looked confused.
'I am not sure of anything. I don't know him, his clothes, his ways. I have forgotten all that. Then he comes back and ...'
Did it look like an intrusion? That was an embarrassing moment. What was she trying to say?