Boo boo in select company

Boo boo in select company
Something to say?

Monday, 30 April 2018

As Fathers Go

In the little town, Thalassery, on the shores of the Arabian Sea, the Southwest Monsoon rules as usual, and life is determined by its rhythms and the widespread death and devastation it brings every year. A World war is raging in Europe and parts of Asia, India is a reluctant participant and the Congress Party has had enough. It wants Swaraj now.
Raghavan, the young lawyer, is determined to bring up his daughter, Anandam, himself, having lost his child-bride to Tuberculosis when she was eighteen years old. According to him, the school cannot do enough to educate her for the twentieth century, and the women of his extended family are mired in superstition. So, he decides what she reads, teaches her to speak English fluently, introduces her to the religions in India, its music and history, and keeps her close. He fends off all the marriage proposals that come from the time she is fifteen years old. She is not going to be man-fodder like his wife.
Raghavan is also one of the Congress Party leaders, in their non-violent conflict with the British rulers, and goes to jail for two years, when Gandhi asks the Raj to Quit India. During this period he is reduced to sending heavily censored letters from jail to his daughter.
However, as she grows up, falls in and out of love, he loses his confidence. She, on the other hand, with all her reading, knows there is a world out there she wants to claim and the books are no longer enough. She gets married to get out of the little town and ends up in an empty relationship, in far off Ceylon. Eventually she finds her way out of the system and goes to Nigeria to start being part of that huge, magical world she has only known in books.
In a hide-bound Nair community, this odd father-and-daughter relationship is one that puzzles and annoys them.

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.