'(The Blog) With No Name', perhaps best described as a stream of notes and thoughts - 'remembered, recovered and (sometimes) invented'.

Monday, January 16, 2012


"We sat in that scruffy shack with a steady rain falling outside. Sipping South Indian coffee, we discussed Proust and Mann; and I felt *this* afternoon in Kerala was what I really had set out for (from my home in far-away UP)"

It was not yet 6 in the morning. The Tripunithura railway station was deserted. I had an hour to wait out and sat under one of the few lights and slowly read Kumaran Asan's 'Karuna'. Having finished the poem, I contemplated the setting - the eastern sky just beginning to turn grey, a big and fat but very pale moon about to dip into the western treeline, a gentle nip in the air - with a certain smug satisfaction; and then memories rose of the above-quoted passage from Pankaj Mishra's 'Butter Chicken in Ludhiana'. Of course there was a vital difference: Asan's sublime poetry was not quite "what I had set out for". My journey was just beginning; the destination: Thangasseri, a Keralan coastal town I had never visited before.

Towards sundown, I was there. Vishnu and I stood atop the lighthouse at Thangasseri and took in a predictably amazing view - the open sea, changing hues by the second; the harbor and its formidable breakwater(*), a stretch of beaches to the north, and inland, a bristling-with-palms expanse of green with little white crosses rising here and there(**) ...

Thangasseri is now a maritime backwater and a fishing outpost of Kollam city. But during a large fraction of its two millennium history, it used to be Kollam proper - a great port and the biggest urban center in Kerala. Thangasseri hosted the Chinese, the Arabs and all the major European Maritime powers - the Portuguese, the Dutch and the English. But a piece of a laterite wall, about 30 foot high and of similar length and said to be part of the fort built by the Dutch in the 17th century is now the only substantial reminder of their presence. Lost among the densely clustered shacks of fisher-folk, we saw a few European graves - mildewed and crumbling - with not even the Archeological Society's blue board to guard them. The hub of Kollam has now migrated inland and lies on the bank of the Ashtamudi(**) lake.

The main repository of Thangasseri's colonial memories appears to be its many churches. Most of local population is not just Christian - their faith and culture have a strong European-ized flavor. Many refer to the place as 'Tangy' or Tang-sherry' (I guess even the Mallu 'Thangasseri' is a proper Christian name, although its etymology is not clear to me) and many answer to Portuguese and English surnames.

I was drawn to the place by a colonial mystery: a suspicion that Dutch surnames were very rare among Coastal Christians of Kerala(****); our inquiries strengthened those suspicions - although the Dutch had as much of a presence in Tangy as anybody else, there is hardly anyone with a Dutch surname. I will have some more to say on all that in a future story.


(*)I got to learn the Malayalam word for 'breakwater' from Vishnu; it goes: 'pulimuttu'. A straightforward break-up of this compound word is: puli ('tiger') + muttu ('knock' or 'obstruction'). The latter meaning of the latter word has some connection with its function - blocking out rogue waves (indeed, this structure saved Thangasseri from the impact of the 2004 tsunami) but what could a tiger possibly have to do with such a maritime structure?

(**) In the famous novel Malayalam 'Oru Desathinte Katha' by SK Pottekkat, the boy protagonist Sridharan dreams of becoming a light-house in-charge - "All you have to do is to sit up there and enjoy the breeze and read story books!". Sridharan certainly had a point. The caretaker of the Thangasseri light house was a remarkably literate and articulate chap; he recited to us a poem written by himself - appropriately, a meditation on lofty solitude. But he also had much else to work on - the machinery handling the lamp and the reflectors looked quite intricate. And he appears to be doing his job very well - everything in this century-plus old installation looked in ship-shape.

(***) - Ashtamudi approximately means 'eight inlets'. In terms of modern cartography, it is an understatement - this highly complex lagoon has well above that number of extensions curling inland from the Arabian sea.

(****) - to adapt an immortal bit of dialog mouthed by the great Mallu film action-hero Jayan in the smash-hit 'Angaadi' :
" 'Burghers'?? We have no Burghers(in Kerala)! We have 'parangees' ('Portuguese'; Mallu slang applies it to pure Desi folk with Portuguese surnames), Anglo-Indians, .... but we have no Burghers!"


  • At 6:50 AM, Blogger Renjith Leen said…

    Though the word Anglo Indian refers to an offspring of a British father and Indian mother, in post Independence India, it denotes the people who claim European ancestry (Portuguese, Dutch, German, French, Danish or British) in the paternal line. In Kerala, most Anglo Indians are of Portuguese origin and they are called Parangis, especially in and around Kochi and Kodungalloor. In other places, especially in the south of Kerala, they are known as Chattakkar, Kuppayakkar, Thuppayikkar, and so on.
    However, in places like Tangassery in Kollam, Burnassery in Kannur and Fort Kochi, which were directly under British rule, many Portuguese descendants adopted English as their first language as well as British culture. But in other places like Eravipuram, Neendakara, Clappana and Azheekal in Kollam, Mavelikkara, Kayamkulam in Alappuzha Dist, Bolgatty, Edakochi, Vallarpadom, Thevara,Vypin, Nazareth, Pallipuram and Pachalam in Ernakulam, Kadukutty, Padiyoor and Mathilakam in Thrissur Dist, the Anglos still retain the old Portuguese culture and traditions. Many of them dont even speak English. In fact, they used to speak a creole Portuguese until the early half of the previous century.
    A good number of Catholics who were converted by the Portuguese padres in Kollam and Trivandrum were given the surnames of the priest or the official, who acted as the God Parent. That accounts for the Portuguese surnames like Fernandes, Lopez, Miranda, Cruz, Coulas among the native Catholic population. Now it is very difficult to distinguish these people from the non-English speaking Anglos of Portuguese descent who are scattered across Kollam town and surrounding hamlets.
    By the way, since the Dutch never bothered to go about converting people, there are no Dutch surnames among the native folks. However, there are a few Anglo families in Kollam, Alappuzha and Kochi who have descended from the Dutch. They can be identified with surnames like Issacs, Vanspal, Hoogwerf, Vanhaltern and Meyn.


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