Keeri who loved humans

Keeri who loved humans
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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.