Traveling with SK
As a tribute, I present several portions of his 'Tiruvitankur Yatra' - the account of a trip to Southern Kerala. The year was 1938 and SK was then a confident and curious young man of 25. Life in Kerala in those long gone days was as narrow and provincial as it was impoverished - everyone and every institution (including shops and eateries) was branded primarily and ultimately by caste. But those were also more easy-paced, fundamentally less cluttered times (whether they were in any way more innocent to boot is moot). Let us suspend the broad judgements; over to SK!
The log for June 5th 1938 begins:
The first day in Trichur - my first ever visit here. As I walk the unfamiliar streets, there is a distinct unease within, bordering on fear. This is why:
Five-six years back, a certain mill worker by name Kumaran, who I used to know well, left Calicut for Trichur looking for work. In just two days, he got back, pennyless, clothes torn and tattered, luggage and belongings gone. And he would not answer any queries and would merely stare back. His family sent someone to take him home. It was months before he could step out and talk properly and then he narrated what had happened: "Shortly after I got off the train at Trichur, I was walking up a street searching for lodgings; then, a certain 'ladies' - she was good looking and cultured - called me over to the roadside and invited me to a nearby house for tea. I went in and took tea with her and the next thing I remember is roaming aimlessly near the station without a penny in my pocket and feeling groggy and faint. I somehow got on the next northbound train!"
By late evening the same day, the fears had dissipated sufficiently for SK to make the following confident entry in his diary:
"Trichur is a good looking town that looks even better at night. The womenfolk are very attractive in appearance and attire. However, morals are slack. Prostitution flourishes, catering to all classes of clients. Many of the rickshaw pullers are pimps.
Temples here are elegant and beautiful and very well maintained. An air of profound devotion permeates them.
The zoo-museum is worth a look. Snakes of all types are on display behind glass walls."
SK pauses to give a brief sketch of Dr. Kutty Moosa, who played host to him at Trichur:
Dr. Kutty Moosa is short, dark and sickly and his head is shaped like a little coconut. His teeth are sharp and widely spaced and when he speaks or grins, they appear likely to spill out and fall off.
Dr. Moosa had set up practice near the Panniyankara Hospital in Calicut. There were doubts as to whether he really held a medical degree of any kind but he had the unmistakeable gift of the gab and knew how to inveigle his way into the trusted circles of VIPs. Among those to whom he was personal physician by appointment was the Raja of Kadathanad.
One fine day he disappeared from Calicut. Then someone got a letter from him from some North Indian town - he was now court physician at some wealthy Nawab's palace.
Years later, in 1944, I unexpectedly ran into Dr. Kutty Moosa in Bombay. He was then a compounder with a small-time chemist near the Red Light area.
On June 6th 1938, SK took a bus to Ernakulam. The journey lasts 5 hours (more than thrice what it takes today). I leave out details of his stay in Cochin but mention must be made that a sumptuous meal for three from a 'Muslim Hotel' costs him 11 annas (66 paise).
In what follows the paranthetical remarks are mine.
June 8th: Our boat for Alleppey left Ernakulam at 3 pm. It was a pleasant ride across the vast and placid expanse of the Vembanad lake. I became friends with a fellow traveler named Divakaran Pillai; he was going home on leave.
Around sunset, it rained for a while. At the border station of Arookkutty, we paused to convert our British Indian currency into Travancore state Chakrams and kaasus. The exchange involved some complex arithmetic and Divakaran helped me out - a chakram is 7 British Indian paise. A British Rupee is 28 chakrams and a half.
Moonlight spread over the backwaters. There was a half-hour halt at Vaikom. Yet another new acquaintance was made - an impoverished Ezhava (caste)laborer of about forty by name Krishnan; he was going to Alleppey to look for work. Krishnan's pockets were empty except for the boat ticket.
Alleppey was reached at 10 in the evening (a whopping 7 hours for a sixty kilometer journey!). Krishnan and I walked to a Nair hotel (note the caste stamp) half a mile away with Krishnan carrying my suitcase. But they were about to close. Krishnan then checked a couple more of places and we walked back to the Boat jetty and finally found another Nair eatery which was mercifully open. Divakaran Pillai too landed up and the three of us ate. I paid for everyone.
We slept out the night on the bug-infested benches in the boat jetty. The incessant hum of Mosquitoes made things horrible. We got up at 4 am and walked to a nearby Nair hotel to eat breakfast. I paid for Krishnan. Divakaran bade us farewell and left for his home he said lay a mile away (wonder why he stayed overnight with SK in that waiting shed).
We went to take a look at Alleppey town, Krishnan again acting as porter. We were suddenly halted by some cops. They were big and tough and mustachioed and their uniforms prominently displayed the 'shankhu mudra' - the Conch insignia of the princely state of Travancore.
"Where are you headed?!" They barked at us.
I answered them politely. But they were in no mood to let us go.
"What have you got in your suitcase? How much dough have you stashed away there?"
"There is no money"
"Then what are you lugging around in it?"
They made us open the suitcase and checked it with rough thoroughness.
"Hmm!" They finally growled reluctantly. We could now proceed.
Krishnan left me at the boat jetty and set off on his job hunt.
The boat for Kollam left at 9 am. I soom struck a conversation with a fellow traveler. His name was Francis.
"I used to work in Africa. A year back, I lost the job and had to come back. Then I went to Bombay to find work but the search failed. I owed my lodge keeper there a lot of money so I left my suitcase and stuff with him as security, borrowed some money and left for home in Travancore. At home is wife and five children. They do not know yet I am coming back. I have but 5 annas left on me."
We stopped at Arattupuzha for lunch and something curious happened.
After the meal, I got up to wash my hands. The eatery manager ordered me gruffly to pick up and throw away the leaf-plate I had left on the table. I refused - have never had to do so before. Before an argument erupted, I dumped 3 chakrams - the bill - on the cash desk and hurriedly walked off and jumped on the boat but I could hear him swearing at me and threatening me with dire consequences on my return trip.
By sundown, we were at Kollam (9 hours for 60 kilometers)