Boo boo in select company

Boo boo in select company
Something to say?

Monday, 31 December 2018

Getting Married -- 1957 style.

Minimum jewellery, no make-up to speak off. Weddings 1957 style. Now it's more gold than a woman can carry, wearing her neck down, professional make-up, another professional to drape the sari, something you have done for years.
The rich in Kerala have a lot to answer for!

Getting Married -- 1957

In the weeks before the wedding, I was carried along on the flow of the preparations. There were clothes to get together, necklaces and bangles to be chosen, many sessions with the local tailor to get the sari-blouses sewn in time. He was established with his pedal Singer machine on the edge of a veranda shop, within calling distance from my home.
The wedding was a night ceremony like most Nair weddings in long-ago days, though recently they have become day-time events. The house was bursting with family and friends; every room you walked into there were richly attired women; the compound was humming with men, busy getting the panthal, made of bamboo and coconut thatch up, and supervising the cooks’ lists. My father’s favourite nephew, Keshavan, was in charge; he had a gift of making all life into a joke; he saved me from looking fully at the massive life-change coming.
On the afternoon of the wedding, I had a serious attack of the jitters. As usual, Mani came to my rescue.
‘They’re all downstairs. Come upstairs with me,’ she said. ‘let’s go to your father’s room.’
I gathered up my wedding sari, a Banares off-white silk, with a rich gold border, my gold brocade blouse, underwear and a towel. My hair was still dripping wet from my bath only a few minutes before. Upstairs was mercifully empty; we bolted the door and I started getting dressed for the event.
I stripped and got my home-made knickers and rowka (home-made bodice) on.
‘Don’t you have a bra?’ Mani asked, looking at me as she often looked – with thinly concealed exasperation at my lack of feminine skills. Today, in our eighties, I come across that look still.
I had never owned a ready-made garment of any ilk up to that day. She ran downstairs and came up with one of her new Maidenform bras. When I put it on, even I could see it did surprising things to my figure. Mmm.
I passed a comb through my wet hair to get rid of the knots. It was still dripping. Mani seized my small towel and wiped the ends off impatiently.
‘Leave a few knots,’ she instructed. It will keep the konda tight and bulk it up.’
Mani plaited my hair in two hip-length plaits and wound them, first one, and then the second one around it, on the back of my head. She then decorated the hair-do with pieces of jasmine garland.
People knocked and shouted at us to open the door. Women in the family would want to see the bride being dressed – Mani had helped me escape that ordeal. Dressing the bride is normally a communal affair – family and friends have a right to watch; we were denying them this little show.
Make-up for me was a token dusting of Cuticura talcum powder on my nose, a large magenta pottu in the middle of my forehead, and kohl on the inside, bottom rim of the eye, applied with a forefinger. How quick and easy was that?
Today, there is a professional hairdresser and make-up artist to dress the middle-class bride before she is smothered in gold. Gold is bought by the kilogram by middle class parents.
The only mirror we had was my father’s small round shaving mirror; so I had a good look in it; I seemed no different from usual. A little pale perhaps, but It would have to do. I wound the sari around me and secured it with a nappy-pin at the waist. The gold on the sari made my face glow.  Mani tugged at the bottom. ‘You are not walking in a puddle to lift the sari so high,’ she muttered.
As Mani and I were finishing up there were frantic knocks on the door. We didn’t respond. The someone knocking at the door repeatedly was not giving up. ‘Open,’ my father called out. ‘I need to get into my chest-of-drawers.’
We opened the door and Achan came in.
‘Locking me out of my own room…’ he murmured. He unlocked the top drawer of the chest-of-drawers, and took out my new gold necklaces, just three, not the bust-covering jangle of today, and my six bangles. He looked stressed.
‘Better get these on,’ he said. He gave me a long hard look. ‘You alright?’
Daft question. I was in zombie land and did not
As he went down the stairs the Nadaswaram, the closest to a trumpet in traditional south Indian music, started its jaunty statement of celebration, the music of the Gods, from the far corner of the compound, loud enough for the whole neighbourhood to be alerted; the drums came on joyfully to accompany it. Now I was petrified; the rhythm of that music was insistent; no getting away from its message.
A flame flared up in my stomach and subsided. I sat down on my father’s bed waiting for my nerves to settle. When I went downstairs, I knew I would be on show. The family of the bridegroom were coming, one by one, and I had to accept greetings and gifts and respond to pointless conversation with strangers. And smile till my jaws ached.

When I had calmed down, I decided to go down and meet the mob; my cousin, Naani, as usual was looking out for me. She was at the bottom of the stairs, and as she saw me coming down the stairs, in my bridal sari; she looked right and left and grabbed my hand.
‘You look as if you’ve seen a ghost,’ she said. She took me, sleep-walking, to the kitchen. ‘Chance to get some coffee,’ Naani said. This was her carrying out her life-long job of feeding me, caring for me, wiping my tears. After that quick gulp of coffee laced with love, I walked back to the sitting room, past the back veranda. In the right-hand corner of the back-compound, there was furious activity, a little furtive.
There was a whole subculture being nurtured there. Keshavan was busy giving directions to the cooks and when he was busy there would usually be mischief. I noticed that, in between talking to the cooks, he was quietly fiddling with a carton full of something. I stopped and looked. Then the something clanged, and all was revealed. My cousin was secreting several bottles behind the washing-stone, where our maid generally beat our clothes to death. I didn’t have to ask what they were.
Liquor was not meant to be served at Nair weddings, but there would be a steady demand from a few men who could not enjoy anywhere or anything unless propped up by Arrack or Gin. As the night grew darker there would be a steady stream of devotees slipping away from the front of the house to the back, almost led by their noses, the poor, addicted sods. These were the same men whose livers would, in Keshavan’s picturesque telling, drop off in the vicinity of the Cosmopolitan Club.
The kitchen had been empty except for coffee and tea in huge urns. All the rest would be cooked in huge urulis, wok-shaped brass and aluminium pans, outside, by Brahmin men. They had set up several three-stone fires and the flames under them were rising high. Two of the men were dealing with enormous quantities of rice: they were spreading cooked rice on pristine grass mats, a layer of hot, steaming rice, then a raw layer, then again a cooked layer – the raw rice would cook in the heat and moisture of the rice above and below it. Rice is always slightly under-cooked at wedding feasts by design; apparently it slows down the process of rice getting 

Friday, 21 December 2018


This home -- three small bedrooms, a tiny office room where my father met his clients (and they spilled out on to the veranda and yard when there were more than four) a sitting room in which there was no furniture, apart from my study-desk; and one bathroom and kitchen. The latrines were outside and in the rain you sprinted.
  Now, in Purley, there are five bedrooms, three bathrooms and two sitting rooms. And our junk is endless demanding more -- and still more -- space. My books dominate all the rooms and the attic. The place is expensive to heat, clean and keep in a fair state of repair. What a transformation! And when I think about the homeless and the rough sleepers I have a deep sense of guilt, which a few quick-fire donations to Shelter or Crisis will not ameliorate.
  In that unpretentious house in Thalassery, I spent my years between fifteen and twenty-two. The college years, the read non-stop years, and the desperate search for answers years, to questions that still remain unresolved. Religion, life and death, poverty...
  I think of the one-hundred-and one saris I don't wear, some of which, ever; others once in two or three years when I visit India. Most were bought because they were so pretty to look at and cost so little. And my ailing cousin decided gold and brocade were not for her after the age of seventy, so she gave me a heap of south Indian silks and brocades. I yet have to decide what to do with them when I die. Burn them on the pyre, drape on windows?
  The house is now demolished, the land 'acquired' by the Government. A stadium now adorns the fields around.

Below are three short excepts from my memoirs AS FATHERS GO, about my home:

That house on Court Road was to all intents and purposes the home I grew up in; anything that came after, wherever in the world they were, were way-stations.
Until age and distemper caught up with me, I did an annual pilgrimage to Thalassery; I always returned to England feeling replenished in spirit, wondering how long that feeling would last. When I am in that little, government-forsaken, back-water of a town, even my grey cells stir and gear up for action.
I feel more Indian – I wear saris more often and take out my Indian jewellery, and the pottu box comes out from the recesses of the dressing table. My eyes get a lining of kohl, which will seep into the wrinkles below and proclaim my age. It doesn’t last long; the cotton saris that I favour need to be starched and dried, the weather is unfriendly and an overcoat above the sari is an abomination. The Kohl and Pottu don’t do much for my ravaged face either.
Looking at my valiant, but half-dead walnut tree in my bleak, front garden here in Purley in winter and remembering the lush green of my home-country, I think of this journey, this annual pilgrimage with wonder. If I travel by car I see the countryside getting gradually more devoid of development as we leave South Malabar behind.
I know now that I will never belong anywhere but in that little coastal town, which is rediscovering itself. The cosmetic surgery, with grey concrete and chrome is unbecoming, but only bits are gone. Most of Thalassery is blessedly old, a little shabby and natural. I shouldn’t complain; in my childhood, there was one government hospital in town; it was near the beach and as you walked past, you could see the sick men and women, too poor to afford private doctors, sprawled on benches and the floor, waiting to be seen. Not unlike the A and E at NHS hospitals recently
Now there are two huge hospitals in Thalassery, one near my grandfather’s old village, Moozhikkara. It is ugly, its front gate crowded into a busy road, all concrete and glass, but it serves its purpose. Sick men and women do not have to travel five miles to reach a hospital in an emergency. Similarly, there is another huge hospital on the road where I lived my childhood and adolescent years.

There is a stadium where the paddy fields used to stretch peaceably as far as eye could see; now cricket rules, O K. The Koduvally river has shrunk into itself. A river that gave name to and defined that whole area has morphed into apologetic little rivulets. I cannot find my way around my hometown.

On these visits, I always go to my old house, (which my father built in 1950, the year I joined the local college,) to chat to my dead father, can we 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 them into my purse. The money-plastic will be gritty for a few weeks and the holes-in-the-wall in England may find another reason to refuse me my hard-earned dosh. Ah well –

The stadium is now complete in the fields where I roamed, where the young men battened the ground down and played badminton after the harvest, fished for river-fish in the shallow waters of the paddy-fields and I gazed between turning the pages of my latest book. There is nothing to look at now. The house has been 'acquired' and is slowly dwindling away before the offices of the stadium are built there.
The cast-iron gate, which was my father’s pride and joy, 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 nearby 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 (sarongs) and greying underpants hang on a rope on the balcony, to dry. The woodwork is rotting, the front office window is hanging on one hinge, and the young man walking on the terrace upstairs seems part of that dilapidation.
I am glad to get away to my cousin's house, where I am staying for the night, and the welcome 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 that road, that place, in spite of the shambles it has become --  will the remnants see me out too? Last through the fag end of my life? I hope so.


Friday, 14 December 2018


On 15th August, 1947, on the midnight hour, India became independent. The whole household stayed up to listen to Jawaharlal Nehru, standing on the ramparts of Red Fort, Delhi, to make that unforgettable speech about ‘our tryst with destiny.’
Now, he said, we were redeeming that promise, a promise made to ourselves long ago. Not completely, he reminded us. We now had a Constituent assembly, which would draft our constitution; the members of that assembly were nominated, not elected. It would be some while before India had its first general election and there was a truly representative government at the Centre and in the states.
Meanwhile a little chunk from the North West of India had been chopped off; another bit had been amputated from the East. The wounds were bleeding, suppurating, and would never quite heal. The surgery was ham-fisted, because the surgeon was in a hurry, and didn’t know very much about this kind of surgery.
The man drew lines on a map, bisecting villages, rivers, monuments; in places the line even went through the kitchens of houses. So you cooked in Pakistan and ate in India.
In our elation at becoming independent, we hardly noticed what was happening up north as Muslims and Hindus killed each other by the thousands. The British had left in an unholy hurry abandoning an India they could no longer contain.
My father was chosen to make the Independence Day speech at the big Maidanam, early the next morning, after the Sub-Collector’s wife hoisted the Tricolour. She made a short speech in English, which he translated. After that he spoke in Malayalam. There were not many in that town who could slip seamlessly from English to Malayalam and back ag

All the school-children had been led to the big maidanam in town in orderly lines, to participate. We had small tricolours pinned to our blouses and we sang the national anthem after the flag was hoisted. I was so proud, I thought I would burst.

Saturday, 8 December 2018


Clearly, having been born and grown up in India, leaving it only to go next door to Ceylon when I got married, where everyone looked a little Indian anyway, I am indisputably INDIAN. But then, India is a big place, I don't speak the languages of North India (though I think I should be able to speak Hindi and my bookshelves are littered with books in that direction) and only understand a smattering of Tamil from the South, and my own very precious Malayalam ( no language I know in which  I can swear so effectively) you could safely say I have, in certain respects, more to do with English-speaking countries, Britain, America and many commonwealth nations. Even South (south effrica, God help me?)

   And then I remember something that I always thought when I was young and green, and it delights me: you don't have to be any one thing. You can be all things and own the whole world -- why restrict yourself to one small part of it?
   Going to Nigeria for the first time in 1962, when I was a brash twenty-six year old, changed my entire perspective on the world, on humanity, on my own India. Gradually Africa seeped into me,  rich, untidy, noisy, in-my-face. What a blessing! The world shifted as the screen of a mobile phone being turned around and the kaleidoscope was awe-inspiring.
   In parts of India we pay dowries to the bridegroom's family to walk off with that precious daughter, loved, educated, an earner, to become cook, mother and wife for another family. In Africa they pay bride-price as the woman is considered an asset (though one treated casually in households -- the beast of burden) worth paying for in cows, goats, pots and pans and clothes. I am still reeling from all those different world-views.
   So I know I have to record that growth in my mind, the me that altered beyond retrieval.
   But the shoulder is frozen, the right arm is recalcitrant and doctors advice me to rest my clicking arm. Hence a little diffidence. Stop writing for a while? Not a hope. I can't stop breathing either.
   Happily, a workshop in Sevenoaks for writers comes to mind, and a Spanish woman who could not write to save her life. Not in English anyway.
   They were talking of writers' block and I was telling myself that what I have is writers' diarrhea, not constipation. Never mind the quality of my output.
   This lady said that if you wrote a page a day, a book could get written in a year. So that is what I shall do. Bear with me. All Africa vignettes will have Africa in the title to distinguish them from my other blogs.
  So Africa, here I come...

Wednesday, 5 December 2018

Short days

Another short, miserable winter day. I dread them

  My bones are old and cold and I layer myself with cardigan upon jumper upon t-shirt and hide. I wear two pairs of socks and still find the floors cold. With the weather almost spring-mild, this does not augur well.

   The worst of it is the diminishing of my life for four months till April. The fish in the pond have gone down; they are hibernating. The birds are around just to feed and then they disappear. My cats ask me to open the door for them to go out (disdaining their cat flaps. After all, we are all their servants to do their bidding.) and then change their minds. They stand at the door weighing the weather up while I freeze. I myself will look out longingly at my garden from the window. There is still a dash of colour here and there in the garden, mostly wild roses, which disregard the rules of December behaviour.

   I wake up at three in the morning and my hands are stiff. I do yoga exercises in bed and search for my sausage bean-bags, which keep me warm. But my cat, Pepper, gets there first and will refuse to budge. She likes sleeping on the warm sausage too.

   Short days, I think, remind me of the human life. Flitting by like a DVD in fast forward. I wake up late after my insomniac night and sleep late. When I come down, my daughter is well into her work and the squirrels are waiting for bird-feed, the naughty urchins of the garden. There is no grace in the day, no slow passage of time. It rapidly scurries back into dusk and I wonder where the day went. Or the week, or the month -- or the life.

I am reminded of the words of the venerable Bede. Human life, like a bird's, which flies into a lighted room briefly and then goes out into the dark again.

   Now, I must find a decent book to cheer me up. A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW, again, I think. 

Saturday, 1 December 2018

Anandam gets an Education -- of sorts

Educating the 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. 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 Shalott.
Interestingly my reading speed in both Malayalam and English grew exponentially, and my memory blotted up anything that came along, without discrimination.
Our walkway was a public place, and when I had to perform, passers-by would stare. For an 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 each 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, 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 reluctantly. Achan usually planted red spinach, green spinach, aubergine, beans and okra. There were also the climbing beans (mange tout), the centrepiece 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 gofer, as it wouldn’t be fair to expect him to do it all on his own; also, I had to spend hours weeding with him, when I would rather just be. I was a teenager 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 out the water from the bottom of it. Neighbours and family looked on in astonishment in those years at this father-and-daughter team; in those years girls were not meant to be going everywhere with their 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 (lawyer’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 my father adopted all of this from Mahatma Gandhi; in practice the women who ran the kitchen ignored my father with impunity because he never went anywhere near the kitchen.

Monday, 10 September 2018

Education of yore --Brennen College in British Times.


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.

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.)  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.

Achan had to fight for his education. 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.

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 the 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 as the armed struggle going on in the Far East and in Europe at that time.

Thursday, 23 August 2018

The Monsoon Reigns

I wrote these first few pages of my book AS FATHERS GO in March. Eerie that is is about the devastation the monsoon causes:

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 Train, 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, 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, suspect.
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, Naani, father’s sister whom I called Ammamma and father’s mother, Achamma (paternal grandmother), 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 walkway 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 peop
le 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 energy 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 Naani’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 upper arm 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 had died some years ago, 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 (father’s sister) 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 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 own 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 parchment. 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.
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 whooping cough 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 started 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 his 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. One day, when Appu’s fever was high, Achan 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 his prominent front teeth now 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.
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 they 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.

In those pre-independence days most of the treatment 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 and forties. We had one – Kunhikkannan doctor. My father went to him, and he took me too for childhood ailments. For most things, I remember, Ammamma 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 late fifties, 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, offering 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. 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, and 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, 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 from 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, even though 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.
The annual arrival of the Southwest Monsoon was exciting to all – students, for possible days off from school, farmers for the promise 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 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, who 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 cooperate 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 had been achieved, sometime 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 our tailor, 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 ones, 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. 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.