Keeri who loved humans

Keeri who loved humans
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Friday, 25 January 2013

Pilgrimage to Thalassery

Back from my annual pilgrimage to Thalassery. Feeling replenished in spirit. Even my grey cells are waking up and gearing up for action.

   I have a novel to tweak, bits to add, an ending to reinvent. So this blog can be safely called displacement activity. Slightly better than finding the kettle or the toilet.

   I am used to this journey now, the countryside getting gradually more devoid of development as we leave South Malabar behind. See what you've done to us, Pinarayi and Kodiyeri and you lot, now toothless yourselves. Even the Janashathabdi train refuses to go past Kozhikode, so we had to go on the dilapidated Eranad - squatting toilets, old seats and dirt-filled trays to cater for us.

   However - and this is a big HOWEVER- as the train draws in to Mahe, I know already that I'm almost home. I talk to all the people at the door getting off at Mahe. A muslim couple and children and a young man who invited me to his Niramala offering at the Thiruvangad temple. Talking to the people around you is de riguer here, no vacant stares past your face as I get elsewhere in Kerala,. Certainly not the cool summing up I receive in the Tube in London. Well, I've all that in front of me in another three weeks. So let me stock up on human warmth and sheer joy of belonging.

   I know now that I will never belong anywhere but in that little coastal town, which is rediscovering itself. The cosmetic surgery is unbecoming, but only bits are gone. Most of Thalassery is blessedly natural.

   I go to my old house to chat to my dead father, if we can ever quite see him off. He lingers. I normally pick up a few grains of mud from the spot where he was cremated and drop it into my purse. The money-plastic will be gritty for a few weeks and the holes-in-the-wall may find another reason to refuse me my hard-earned dosh. Ah well -

   This time I cannot reach the spot as the compound is grown over, the under growth is a few feet high and dense. There were snakes there always and I don't go close. Instead I say in my mind to my father: I don't think I'll come this way again. You are gone by now. You would not abide this desecration.

   The stadium is now complete in the fields where I roamed, where the young men played badminton after the harvest and where I gazed between turning the pages of my latest book. There is nothing to look at. The house has been 'acquired' and is slowly dwindling away before the offices of the stadium are built there.

   The gate has broken down and someone has carted it off. The concrete slabs at the entrance are breaking up.

   The house itself is dismal. Male nurses from the near-by co-operative hospital are lodging there and doing to the house what young men do when they have no resources and no style. Colourful lungis and greying underpants hang on a rope on the balcony to dry. The woodwork is rotting and the one young man walking on the terrace upstairs seems part of that dilapidation.

   I am glad to get away to my cousin's house and the touch of my family. Forget the tasteless mall, the dried up river bed and all else that we call modernisation.

   I know I'll keep going back to the place - will the remnants see me out too? Last through the fag end of my life? I hope so.

   For now, I am whole again. In my mind there is a blessed peace.

Friday, 11 January 2013

Cell Phones - B.C.

My son argues that B C will no longer stand for Before Christ; it has to be before cell phones. Got me thinking about our newly acquired freedoms because of the cell phone.

   I've said this before - it would have been a great adjunct to my non-existent, (sporadic?) love-life if there had been cell phones in the fifties and sixties. I could have pestered the men/ boys more frequently perhaps, and who knows, made myself unforgettable, when all else failed. 

   When I was growing up, if you wanted to make a phone call, you walked to the Victoria Hotel ten minutes away and asked to use the phone. All it cost was a preliminary social chit-chat with 'Marker' who owned the place. Marker, so called because he kept the billiards score in the place, of an evening, I've heard said.The health of our families would be discussed, the difficulty of getting a trunk call, the big whale in the Arabian sea within seeing distance... The trunk call had to be booked and waited for.

   Then you made your call with Marker, may be his wife or son, and the gofor in the hotel for assistance. All would hover helpfully.

   'Hello,' you'd bellow into the black bakelite mouth piece and the chorus behind would ask, 'Kekkunnundo?' Can you hear? Thus the dialogue would proceed. Magic!

   The gist of the conversation would reach my home before I got there. Some times it reached other homes on the way as well.

   Now, again, conversation is hardly private. In the tube in London, we are besieged by the comings and goings of all around us - the cacophony is constant and I have to wonder why a reticent tribe like the British are so happy to discuss their plans for the evening, the conversation with their boy friend/ girl friend the previous evening and who said what to the boss at the water cooler, in hearing distance of total strangers.

   Mind you, often, the loudest conversations are from the Indian, Sri Lankan and the 'other' non - British folk. There are addicts who talk continuously from one end of the journey to the other. I can listen to the music of several different languages at once, while I read the requests on the walls of the compartments asking people to keep calls to the minimum. Ah well...

   All in all, I am still pleased the cell phone has arrived. My minions in India who have never owned landlines can now blow a whole week's wage in a day talking to their married children all over the world. If the cabbage burns to a cinder in my kitchen I consider that happened for a worthy cause.

   My son says he is still waiting for a way to get his washing done by me long distance.

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Overseas

My first serious journey was a trip to Madras in 1953 to attend a debating contest. Before that I had gone to Madras twice as an infant, once to visit my mother on her death-bed when I was not quite three years old and she was eighteen. After that I went once again - my father taking me to see my maternal grand parents a few months after my mother died. That was the extent of my other worlds.
   So when I became engaged to a man who lived in Colombo, I had to consider this concept of overseas. 'Faren' as they called it. Colombo just did not cut it. It was too near, the people looked like Indians and even the language spoken in parts was Tamil, albeit a purified version of it. Across the Palk straits, but not overseas, I concluded.
   There was definite cache't attached to going overseas after marriage. It was a rare thing and Dubai was still a big hot desert, bubbling with oil underneath the sands and awaiting its glory days, when Indians would flock there. I took Colombo in my stride.
   When I got off that Fokker Friendship aircraft of Air Ceylon and walked into Ratmalana airport, I was quite blase'. What struck me first was that they were all Indian, but several shades darker. My just-unwrapped new husband's two bachelor friends were there to meet us, looking sheepish at this betrayal by their friend - getting married for heavan's sake!
   M.G C.P. Wijayatilleke was jet black and Frederick Mahasinghe was only half a shade paler. Both, I later learned, had changed their names from Burgher-sounding to Singhalese. The C.P. in Wijayatilleke stood for Cecil Pereira, and after independence in Sri Lanka he was not owning up to that one.
  The five years I spent in Ceylon did not convince me of anything different regarding Ceylon. Ceylonese ate the same food more or less (substitute coconut milk for ground coconut), the women wore saris (occasionally with the gathers at the back in Kandy) or Chitha, not that different from the lungis working women wore in India. Mind you, they went all out with their tops - the hethe. Huge puffed sleeves, a waist clinched tight and the bust displayed proudly under a skin-tight blouse.
   My first real trip to genuine overseas was in 1962 to Nigeria. This was just after Nigerian independence and they recruited teachers, engineers and doctors from India and Ceylon. There was a real exodus until the Government of Ceylon threw a tantrum and refused passports to those technocrats who wished to go to Nigeria or Ghana.
   Now this was definitely overseas. I couldn't wait to get there. I had read Gunther's Inside Africa and was ready to get close. I went to my father's home in India and started shopping frantically for saris and spices. Saris which I would not get in Nigeria and spices essential for curry - mustard seed, cumin, fennel and the like. When I hauled my tired self home from another shopping trip laden with clothes and linen, my father would look at me quizzically.
   Until one day he could stand it no longer.
   'They do wear clothes in Africa now-a-days, I believe. Can't you just wear whatever they wear?'
   A slow drip-drip of common sense from him as normal, throughout my life.
   He was annoyed also at the many Indians who turned up with addresses of their families in Africa - never mind they were in East Africa, nowhere near Enugu, where I was headed. Finally he had enough of that too.
   'Look, Anandam,' he said tersely. 'If you want to see more Indians, there are 600 million of us here. Why go anywhere to see them?'
   I learned my lessons, made friends with my colleagues and neighbours in addition to the Indians and Ceylonese in Nigeria, wore the African cloth in the garden and at home often and was immensely enriched in my life.
   The spices were confiscated by Lagos customs and never reached my larder. For a long time, I cooked without.
   I enjoyed the experience of Nigeria so much I subsequently lived half my working life roaming around in Africa. I was forever at home there.