Keeri who loved humans

Keeri who loved humans
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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:




1
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.

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