TEN - 2
Having just wrapped up a Decade of this blog, I look ahead with hope and trepidation. One would love to keep this going but there is also a slowly growing fear within of a certain ‘Perdition of Memory’ (facts, details, plans keep slipping away, very frustratingly. This could be either part of the standard package of Ageing or something more damaging; it is too early to tell. Whatever, the process of putting together a post is becoming increasingly laborious). To keep worries of this decline at bay, there is no bettwe way than to plunge headlong into another post. Here goes….
Mathai and his Manifestations
"It was just past 5 am. The gentle caress of the dawn breeze had a silky feel. Our ‘ekka’ passed clusters of sad-looking huts and then rocked along still sleepy roads lined with strange-shaped and whitewashed mansions. The thought that one was entering the ancient city of Ayodhya made my mind fly off to a long gone era when Dasharatha ruled over it….."
S K Pottekkat’s travel notes titled ‘Ayodhya’ written way back in 1944 (it is a part of his collection ‘Yatrasmaranakal’) begin on such a note. The notes frequently mention a very literary-minded fellow traveller who had brought along a volume of Vallathol’s ‘Sahityamanjari’ and would from time to time recite passages from a famous poem therein on Sita as a little girl.
Later, as the day grew warmer, the party felt like a swim and having searched and found a secluded spot on the Sarayu river, took off their things and dived in….
SK mentions several temples and shrines and ghats along the Sarayu but is totally silent about Ramajanmabhoomi. The controversy surrounding Babri Masjid began five years AFTER his visit with the ‘miraculous’ appearance of the Rama idol inside the mosque.
As the party returns from Ayodhya in another ekka, the Friend recites Vallathol’s lines where little Sita complains to her doting mother (put in the mouth of a child, these lines are prophetically poignant):
“Why does this silly poet want to get me married to that Rama fellow!”
I first read ‘Yatrasmaranakal’ as a primary schooler and must have reread it at least half a dozen times since then. But I never cared to know more about the unnamed Friend.
To the present. I just finished SK’s ‘Ente Vazhiyambalangal’. Among its several disconnected pieces is a reworked version of the same Ayodhya notes. SK reveals that the dip in the river the party had was a proper ‘skinny-dip’; more interestingly, he tells us the Friend was the long-gone firebrand politician Mathai Manjooran (1912-1970).
“The river bed has thick deposits of a grey-coloured clay-like sediment said to have special medicinal qualities. We gathered fistfuls of it and applied it all over our bodies. Mathai looked like a proper Naga Sadhu – in nothing but ash smeared all over.“
I just saw that Wiki has plenty to say about Mathai’s tumultous career. Excerpts:
As a fearless freedom fighter, he led many daring exploits against the British, both in Kerala and in the north of India. His involvement in the Quit India Movement of 1942 saw him and his cronies actively involved in an attempt to sabotage several strategic railway bridges…. The tumultuous Kizhaariyoor bomb case is the result of one of such attempts….
Mathai ... once snatched the pointed gun away from the hand of the dreaded police officer, Mariya Arpudam, who came to arrest him. On another occasion he slapped the prince of Cambay for indecently advancing upon a dancing girl (SK too mentions the vice-like power of Mathai’s handshake and how a rowdy Brit soldier who tried to scoot from a Lucknow restaurant without paying his bill gave up on the idea when given a taste of Mathai’s iron fist).
In 1944, at the height of the Second World War, Mathai led the famous 'Famine March' towards the palace of the Maharaja of Cochin.., the Cochin government agreed to and implemented Mathai’s proposal of introducing the rationing system in Cochin. It was in effect the first instance of rationing in the history of India.
After Independence, Mathai became a staunch activist for the formation of Kerala State and rose to be a member of the first elected government of Kerala. Wiki also mentions his affinity towards literature and some sporadic but serious efforts at scholarly literary criticism.
The reason for ‘Yatrasmaranakal’ not naming Mathai is now clear. As ‘Vazhiyambalangal’ tells us, Mathai was then (1944) on the run from Brit police; when the Ayodhya trip happened, he was actually working as a hotel manager in Lucknow with the false name of ‘Mr. Mathews’.
Everything quoted above about Mathai is new to me. Indeed, I don’t recall ever having read anything about him. But I had known about the man for a very long time! Indeed, for an entire generation of Mallus, the word ‘Mathai’ had a very unique connotation thanks to one of his ‘exploits’, immortalized in a half-century plus old urban legend (I heard it while at college from an Elder):
The staunchly atheistic Mathai Manjooran once had a bit too much to drink. His usually confident mood dipped and repentance set in. He stepped into a wayside church and prayed his heart out before the crucified Jesus: “Lord, I have sinned ….forgive my soul (he proceeded to list several transgressions)!”
Jesus did not respond but Mathai's impromptu confession progressed… Inevitably, the influence of alcohol ebbed away … finally Mathai gathered his wits, pulled himself to his full height and defiantly told the silent Saviour: “If the Lord cannot forgive Mathai, it matters a ….. to Mathai!”.
The blank marks the most basic of Malayalam’s (not particularly rich but quite functional) battery of expletives. The episode somehow acquired such rowdy popularity that for a very long time, folks would say things like: “your threats mean a Mathai to me!” or more directly, "Nee poda Mathayee!"