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

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Traveling with SK

This year marks the Birth Centennary of S K Pottekkatt, doyen of Malayalam Travel Writing.

As a tribute, I present several portions of his 'Tiruvitankur Yatra' - an 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). But 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 with a little coconut-like head. 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 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 anywhere else. 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)

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Odd Curiosities

1. A bit from N.S. Madhavan's notes from Cuba, referring to Tomas Alia's film 'Chocolate and Strawberry'(1995).

"Diego is an intellectual. He first appears before David, a young Communist, at an ice cream parlor. When Diego asks for strawberry flavor, David suspects him of being gay - since he knew 'real' men are supposed to choose chocolate! Homosexuality was a crime in Communist Cuba till only a few years back. However, David generously decides not to report Diego to the authorities."


2. Remembering 'Viking'

Long ago, in the 1970s, when America's Viking spacecraft touched down on Mars, it was a big event even in the then backwater of Kerala. The picture of Viking sitting pretty on the very red and rocky Martian landscape was everywhere; it graced even the cover of the local Sarkari Physics textbooks for several years thereafter. Now, half a life later, when India is just taking her first unsure steps towards getting a bit of gadgetry to fly all the way to Mars, it has become as big a media event as Viking then was.


3. Every highschooler in Kerala has heard about the 'Tarisapalli Copper plate', an ancient title deed ('pattayam')handed out by a 9th century Keralan chieftain to a Christian colony called Tarisapalli. Recently, a remarkable volume on this very remarkable document has been brought out by historians Raghava Warier and Kesavan Veluthatt. To give just an example of how little is known about how things were in these parts a millennium and some ago:

The word 'Manigramam', featured more than once on the copper plate, is widely believed to be a guild of merchants who had something to do with the Tarisapalli colony. But what type of merchants? The answers proposed by various experts over the last two centuries include: "dealers in precious stones"( from the Sanskrit 'mani' meaning gem), "Manichean immigrants from the middle east", "A sect of Christians 'corrupted' by the Saivite saint Manikkavachakar (the mani connection there) and lapsed into Hinduism", "A subsect of Sudras who became christian and so were looked down by other Hindus" and so forth...

Even the name 'Tarisapalli' appears to have had nothing to do with 'Teresa'. A derivation proposed recently traces 'tarisa' to the mid-eastern word 'tarsak', meaning 'fear'. 'Tarisa' could imply 'the fear of God' and so would refer to a group of devout Christians, living in fear of the true God - sort of an oriental precedent to members of the 'Religious Society of Friends' receiving the epithet (over generations, it became more of a 'moniker' than an epithet) 'quakers' when they exhorted others to "tremble at the word of the Lord"!

There ought to be many more such volumes on our ancient inscriptions.


4. A member of a voluntary organization that went to clean up Sabarimala ahead of the forthcoming pilgrimage season said to me: "As we expected, the whole place was a rubbish tip. New, unnamed hills had come up around the temple, all piles of compacted garbage. But the pits was the valley. The Pampa river had about a foot of water and was clogged by ton upon slimy ton of rotting clothes. Some years back, some pilgrim came up with the bright idea that discarding one's clothing here is an act of profound religious merit - the more one strips down, the purer one gets. And the idea appears to have really gone viral. Now many chaps simply jump into the river and emerge, totally sanctified, like Naga Sadhus at the Kumbh Mela! And it is poor us who now have to fish out their stinking mess - everything from dhoties to you know what!"


5. A recent newspaper story:

A 32-year-old man from Bangalore quit his job as he felt that his employers were paying him too much money. This guilt of being 'overpaid' led him to depression - a condition psychiatrists term schizoaffective psychosis or chaotic thought process. A psychiatrist commented: "Stress triggers this condition in certain individuals. It is because of a dispute between unlimited ambitions and limited capabilities. It could be also because of certain biochemical changes that occur in the brain. Their discipline puts them in such a state of mind that even if they make a small mistake, they think they have committed an unpardonable sin and have to punish themselves for the consequences. They tend to develop an inferiority complex..."


6a. Kerala Communists have recently been seen appropriating religious symbols and religious imagery, things they used to anathematize not long back. During the 'chain of fire' agitation, a symbolic act of protest against fuel price hikes, communist cadres set up rustic owens on roadsides and cooked kanji - very much a throwback to Southern Kerala's 'pongala' ritual as many observers joked. Their more recent attempts to disrupt Chief Minister Oommen Chandy's much-hyped public outreach functions included slogan shouting cadres blocking the path of the CM's car and beating the vehicle with sticks - an act with echoes of how frenzied devotees ritually defile the temple at Kodungalloor during the Bharani festival. The latter ritual is called 'kaavu theendal' so the new mode of commie protest can be called 'kaaru theendal'.

Communist Leader Pinarayi Vijayan has been acquited in a corruption case; celebratory boards all over our city declare: "Comrade Pinarayi, you are now purified by Fire (agnishuddhi), now lead us in a victorious Ashwamedham (a Vedic horse sacrifice)!"

6b: At Kannur, someone threw a stone at Chandy's car. It allegedly broke thru one of the thick car windows, hit the CM smack on the chest and bounced off with enough momentum to break thru yet another window and shoot out. The only similar episode one can recall is from the Ramayana. I quote from Mali's retelling of the epic for children:

"With all his force, Sugriva hurled a huge boulder at the advancing Kumbhakarna. The giant parried the deadly projectile with his chest; then, with a single thrust of his huge lance, he knocked out Sugriva...."


7. There is a strange fad afoot in Malayalam filmdom called 'NewGen'. The first half of the recent recent '24 kaatham North' is packed with all the usual New Age tropes - a geeky, maladjusted IT professional, occasional snatches of English dialog and open use of cusswords... But the film claims to be more than NewGen and is being marketed as appealing across generations. Sure enough, its latter half exhumes and mercilessly overcooks one of the most rotten Mallu film cliches - the well-read, uber-secular, stoic, do-gooder Communist from north Malabar; suitably enough, the part has been played out with sickening repetitiveness by veteran actor Nedumudi Venu.