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.