He swerved the car into the narrow street on the right that could have been easily missed as old land marks he remembered where all gone, but yet he had the hunch that this was the one. He was not wrong. .As he let the car gently down the asphalt country road that was once, long winding dusty strip strewn disorderly with stones – granite metal which made walking along an exercise that demanded some effort and deftness if one was not wearing thick soled footwear. Now, when the car moved along the winding stretch, he mused about the past, long ago when he was little- vacations from school was often spent in this country side that knew no bounds and time was elastic and gaiety & fun seamless; where sun above was not hot but only warm, when people were people.
The warm days of summer beginning March stayed warm until the manna pelted down as summer rains in mid of April. It was usual for the sun to be dispassionately severe through each day, as severe as it could; until one day on an afternoon unannounced thunderous cumulus nimbus and cumulus stratus would gather menacingly, condense and rain down. Marvelous and awesome blazing silver fiery streaks flash across the skies packed with dark ominous clouds, like the whipping of urumi- the curling sword of gods, thunderous clangouring of their steel armour-clasp of the cymbal in the skies deafeningly transform the air. Beasts, birds and man young and old their senses awed by the shift in the air, scramble towards shelter. Hailstorms were not often an exception that lashed the earth during summer and enlivened children who ran helter-skelter with aluminum pans and vessels upside down over their heads as protection from the pelting from the sky- scrambling to pick the stones of ice. They would refuse to barter it with fistful of diamonds, but to their dismay in even time hail stones would melt into water.
The summer rains was often, a timely elixir from the heavens to quench the parched lands and paddy fields. Mayflies that appear from nowhere and with no warning swarm the afternoon; rain clouds – grey and dark grey gather above. The rains pour down always in the mid afternoon when humidity reached its apogee and could even threaten the fishes that surface in the ponds for air. Lightning and thunder makes a signature statement. Occasionally lightning struck a tall coconut palm and they appear like burning torches of the god of fire – “Agni” up in the heavens. Soon the rain quenches the fire but the tree would be scorched and lifeless, smoking from its top as from chimney and by then destined to stand, remain like tall detritus relic of an ancient era bearing an ineluctable fate. He reminisced how once three tall coconut trees were struck by the bolt of lightning and stood burning at their top even in the rain. It was an awesome sight. To be appreciated with humility – the insignificance of our being. The power of Nature!
The morning after was always feast for the mynas, the sparrows, the mina and crows and pheasants, indulging on the carcasses of Mayflies. Cattle Egrets flock in from their usual pastures in the paddy fields. Green jack fruits dazzled on the tree trunks with regained freshness, the dark green leaves washed off the summer dust, sparkle in the morning sunrays.
The land will have regained its stymied vitality, the soil, the grass, the trees, the fresh look water in the ponds, and the puddles on the pathways -élan vital.
Then again, the sun got back with vengeance to burn unrelenting on the mortals below attempting perhaps to dampen the hubris of man.
The lull in the in the downpour till the month of May is ephemeral and the monsoon arrives. The monsoon is announced by the presence of dragon flies. It was said that they flew in ahead of the monsoon sailing in its current over the Indian Ocean from far away Africa. The arrival of the monsoon rains in late May, early June gathering from far out in the sea off the southern coast of Thiruvanathapuram, reaches central Travancore in a day. It is then pell-mell.
Poets and the pleasant hearted relate the monsoon downpour to the ragas; the fall, the beating of the rain drops to the gentle percussion, the rain itself –the romantic melody from the soul of the Veena of the Gods. Did the Gods by themselves render the Amruthavarshiniraga that propitiates heavens to bring forth the rain? The Ramayana describes that when the Asura King of Lanka Ravanan set fire to the tail of Rama’s messenger – the monkey Hanuman, the mischievous primate set fire to entire Lanka. Then Ravana played the Amruthavarshini raga on his Veena and brought forth rain to douse the flames around his city.
It would be deluge- water, water everywhere! Tiny country boats and thatched kettuvallams would look like distant ghostly arks in the streams, backwaters and the expanse of the Vembanadlake. Lush green shrubs lined the peripheries as fences. They lined serpentine pathways demarcating lands. The path way was dug out a few feet in width and was called thodu as they were also meant to let water flow along in the monsoon and rains. Monsoon brought much profusion of water, that water form ponds that fringed the fences overflowed into the thodu in the monsoon, and along with it, in it, little fishes, tiny crustaceans and even small fresh water turtles. Tadpoles seemed to outnumber their exotic amphibian cousins –fishes, silver, yellow, red and some plain and dull. Frogs croaked in chorus as if they were accompanying music to a waltz – male frogs calling to attract a mate. In the night lashed by the wind and the rain, in the lull in the rain male frogs call from where numerous males have converged on breeding sites by the pond and among the damp peats. It was common near the edges of ponds to see frogs' embryos typically surrounded by several layers of off white gelatinous material- several eggs clumped together, frogspawn.
Life was manifestly profuse and effervescing in those surroundings and waters during and after the monsoon. Life frolicked after the rains while it was sedate and brimming under the surface at other times eager to erupt free. Walking along the thodu was almost impossible then. One had to wade.
The palm fringed beach, white sand, backwaters, paddy fields that seemed to extend beyond the horizon, sacred groves and mammoth mango trees that dropped ripened sweet fruits at the whiff of a breeze in the warmer climes of summer nights and days always beckoned. Mangoes-ambrosia, sweeter than any elixir from the heavens, some fell off the trees pecked and half eaten by crows, squirrels and birds. They fell with little thud and sometimes like meteorite showers. Under the huge Chakarachi, some would even roll down the periphery of the pond by which the tree stood; her huge trunk, lush green canopy, heavy boughs older than any surviving man or woman around. Some of the trees would make one feel that the trees came first, then the faraway mountains, the rivers, backwaters and the sea. They certainly were older than the mad karnavar at the kizhakeytilillam!
Some house hold land had three to four ponds and most of them were fringed by huge mango trees, brindle-berry ( Kudam puli) and other tropical green giants some that bore fruit, some edible and relished by man, animals and birds, yet some ignored by even the avian. Coconut palms were dispersed ubiquitously around. Their long palm leaves moving, flapping, swaying in the breeze and wind. Some of the palms were marked by tappers who religiously climb them at dawn and dusk to retrieve the nectar- toddy that gather in the clay pot placed on tree tops.
There were no brick walls and walled partitions with granite stones, to sequester lands and identify one’s own. Three to four feet tall thicket fences with mostly bush of hibiscus with myriad colours of flowers and an ubiquitous shrub that was simply called “pacha”. Pacha had two meanings in Malayalam- one denoting its color and the other its profuse growth-they were called “communist pacha”. Though they predated communism-the universally rebellious atheistic philosophy from a faraway land that in some way one can say, usurped the shrub and rechristened it after its increasingly prolific growth in the minds of the young, the working class- the proletariat. Communism spread in Kerala quicker than the whirl wind and wild fire, fast towards the middle of 20th century. The “pacaha” shrub also spread very riotous like Communism and thereupon, the rechristening- “Communist Pacha”.“There was a time when communism was unheard of. And red was just a colour. Red was not related to blood. It was then less sanguinary days”. Elders used to muse.
Households had ponds meant for varied purpose. The sarpakulam was in the sacred grove – “the sarpakavu” and extra care was put to not violate its holiness. Woman folk seldom ventured near it or entered its waters while they were in their monthly cycle. It was exclusively used by the priest for ritualistic bath and other rites. The pathrakulam on the north, outside the kitchen was meant for cleaning and washing utensils. The pond that was accessed by all stood on the south west and that was the waters where kids frolicked. The disused pond with green moss and stubbornly still water that occasionally broke into ripples when a fish dived back from the surface with its lungs full of air was straddled by the chakarachi - the huge mango tree that stood like a behemoth. She seemed to relish the banter and fun that went under her huge branches and her leaves would flutter in acknowledgement. Only that she might be a bit playfully-rude and disappointing that she would hold on to her sought after fruits that tantalizingly dangled from her tall branches rousing and inviting, wonderful than any honey as she refuses to let them fall off her even when prodded by a swift breeze. This was disappointing for the kids who wait, alert as the wind blows , eyes roving and ears cocked- waiting for the little thud somewhere around and then to spurt to be the first to grab the fruit. It was the sense of hearing that locks on to the spot where the fruit fell. They hone in to the fallen fruit that lies amongst the dry leaves with the instinct of the fruit bats that descend at dusk from the trees in the sacred grove. When disappointed, they would then dislodge raw mangoes from the tree nearby- the less assuming moovandan, and devour them- with pinch of salt and vattalumulaku. The deviled mango!
Slings and stones were used to target mangoes high up in the branches. When they fall down and roll down the sides of the pond into the water kids jumped after it damaging the well manicured edges of the pond. Chinni Peramma would shout from her kitchen window in annoyance and rebuke. Unable to wreak her authority she sometimes chased the kids and this was often a spectacle. They enjoyed her agitation. He had little to fear as she always had something special for him. She would single him out from the gang. “After all”, she used to say, “You are my Kochu Kesavan’s boy aren’t you”. She was in her late- seventies but agile, alert and the hunch of old age had not touched her, she did not walk, she trotted. She had a routine that began at six at dawn and wound up at eight in the night. She would dip bathe in the pond little before sunset, light the wick in the tiny oil lamp at the Thulasi plant that stood in front of her house. Before her meal she took two glasses of toddy that was retrieved from the palm at dusk. This was followed by dinner, a meal that consisted of rice gruel made with rich brown rice, curry of yam or jackfruit sautéed with coconut and spices and the pickled tiny mangoes, the “kannimanaga” she stored under her cot in Chinese jar. She ate the meal deftly scooping from the dish with the leaf of the jack tree ingeniously made into a cone-that served as the spoon. Once the meal was done she would retire to her little room .Some nights she would smoke a beedi. It was a strange and interesting spectacle to see the woman smoke. Was it an audacious intrusion of sorts into man’s realm and privilege, a bloomer? She was a spinster.
Many giant trees-mammoths stood unperturbed through years of sun and rain, having seen many moons and monsoons, their vast canopies lending shades of cover and haven for roosting birds. The old tamarind tree with low thick branches and small but lush leaves was the roosting place of Chinni Perama’s roosters and hens. It seemed to be in their evolutionary code that when the sun has set they must climb up to the safety of the tamarind tree. Chiniperama did not keep a pen, a cage contraption for her chicken. They followed the routine roosting in the tree by night “cock-a-doodle-doo” and fly down when dawn broke in the east.
Sadly indeed a giant tree, often a mango or the jack fruit tree was felled when a death happened in the house hold and served as firewood for the funeral pyre. It was one such melancholy occasion when his great uncle Narayan Panicker passed away-and elders surveyed walking around the vast property and chose the Anjili (Jungle Jack) that unobtrusively stood on the northern side outside the sarpakavu. It was almost on the fringe of the land after which one entered the slope to the vast punjapadams- on the east extending into Thakazhi and further into the bosom of Kuttanad. He was about nine then. He was always astounded by the huge tall tree and he was sure that while on top most branches one can see the end of the world and perhaps touch the heavens too. He would recollect the animated comic story of ‘Jack and the Bean stalk’ where in little Jack climbed up the bean stalk that grew into the clouds and to the abode of the ogre. He often stood watching birds feast on its fruits and the crows nested on its branches.
“How tall and big can a man grow if he lives a hundred?” The old namboothiri karanavar who lived in the Illam nearby shouted once in askance. He could not understand the logic of chopping down a tree that has seen more than two centuries of sun and rain to burn to dust a cadaver which was left behind by someone who lived for about seventy- may be eighty odd years. Why must people cut down a tree when men die? To only serve as fuel to cremate the dead! This hubris of man! Yes the old man has a point hasn’t he thought the boy. He, figured in his mind the tree must be older than the lunatic karnavar. How old would the karnavar be?
KochuKalli the pulaya hag who often went to the illam to gather firewood- twigs and pick coconuts that fell from palm trees would authoritatively claim he was one hundred and six. She could be precise and accurate about that she would say with exaggerated confidence. And she also adds, “bhrandhankizhavan is living on extended time”. If that was the case how old would his mother be? She was seldom seen outside. She is blind, Kochu Kali says and that was why she seldom ventured outside the house. He was not prepared to take KochuKalli’s assertion at its face value. For she seldom spoke well about the old fellow, in fact she made an oafish of him. She had a rage against him after being chased away from his land one day, into which she would often sneak in through the opening she made out in the thicket fence. She was using those audacious expeditions to stealthily gather kappa which was grown in there. The old karnavar would for a while wonder about the uprooted kappa stems and would curse the hedgehogs and field rats for the foul. It was by chance that one day he, perhaps in his saner moment’s noticed KochuKalli and her basket full of kappa . He chased her shrieking and waving his long stick. KochuKalli booted through the opening she had made in the fence and yelled, “bharandhanennekollunney”. Since that day KochuKalli spun pitiless stories and intrigues about the old fellow. She even claimed that he killed his old mother and plowed her underground in the parambu. She swore on all gods that she often had seen the ghost of the old woman - even at mid-day sitting in the house. When kids wondered loudly how ghosts could walk about at mid-day, she would gape with her reddish eyes, curl her lips and open her cavity displaying the vettila stained sparsely remaining ugly stumps that seemed to be fossilized remains of what could be called teeth. She would regurgitate the slimy content from her throat and jet it out through her two fingers clasped to her lips. She would then lean forward and whisper,”Namboothirimarudey pretham pakallunadukkum makkale”.
Well, as a boy, he could not make out the truth for long, for he would not see him. He could not gather the temerity to sneak in through the fence. All that he knew of the old man for long, since the days he could remember there, from his tot days- was his loud oration and at other times recitation of poetry in a sonorous voice and often the gibberish loud monologues late in the night, monologues from the works of Shakespeare, rendition of Victorian poetry and sometimes kathakali lyrics without injustice to their ragam and thalam. His voice was sonorous, clear, without flavoured accent, they were chaste.
“Nor heaven nor earth have been at peace tonight. Thrice hath Calphurnia in her sleep cried out, “Help, ho! They murder Caesar!”—who’s within?”
Pause followed by some gibberish tongue twisting language spoken as if like Greek, stomping of wood and then again.
“Go bid the priests do present sacrifice, and bring me their opinions of success.”
“Caesar shall forth. The things that threatened me, Ne’er looked but on my back. When they shall see the face of Caesar, they are vanished.”
From KochuKalli’s description and stories, he pictured the old man, bent at the back-freckled skin under the arms dangle supple like loosely stuck to the bone with glue. He was sure that he heard the creaking of his bones when the man moved about in the ‘parambu’. He would sit with bated breath on the outside of the thicket fence and listen to the gibberish the man spoke to himself. He was sure he was speaking to himself as he never heard another voice however much he strained to hear one. The mottled skin and withered face with the silvery grey kudumi at the back of his head sparsely populated and stained teeth in a blood shot mouth calloused with the stain of years of chewing vettila, over grown silver hair on his wrinkled weather beaten chest and arms, that refused to drop …! But he must be surprisingly spry for his age and physical appearance if he chased Kocukalli around the compound. She said he ran with a hunch and ran faster than kids would; then she added, “Well if not faster almost as fast. Certainly faster than a gecko”! She stated his spine was bend though not as much as a bow that he could not stand straight, even with the walking stick which is also his aid to move around and scare or frighten children who peep in through the thicket fence, to kill people with a blow on the temple. The derelict old illam and the old man who lived there added to the mystery that was attractive about the place.
He, his cousin who was a few months his younger , the elder cousins, Chakki the eldest of Madhav Vaidyans three girls and friends roamed about spending almost all of the day under the mango and tamarind trees or by the ponds. The fallen leaves, grey, brown and yellowish were always strewn around and formed thick carpet over the soft white sand. Sometimes they set off to fish with baits hung on tiny hooks tied to thin ropes made of jute tied to long sticks, the marrow of the tapioca stem used as the float; the ponds were dense with fishes of different hues. The backwater stream further down towards the vast expanse of paddy fields would brim with biral a special fish that was fancied by the locals. Kids were forbidden to go towards the backwater canals but they have by stealth been afar.
They often ventured out into the paddy fields, to catch crabs and crickets. Such excursions were distressful for the harmless reptiles such as the timorous garden lizards’, chameleons and geckos. Those days when the kids raided the fields’, times would be difficult for the timid and harmless water snakes that refuged in those marshy fields. The kids seldom spared any of the unfortunate ones who they saw often basking in the sun with their neck extended and a nit-wit, mortis (sic) look in their eyes. The hapless creatures were snared by a lasso made of coconut palm fronds. The dumb they are, they seldom noticed the snare dropping down their head from behind. One tug and the knot tie tight, the poor reptile wriggles dangling unable to free. At times they manage to break free and slither away faster than one bates the eyelids. There was one boy, his cousin who would disobey the collective decision of the group to free the snared creatures alive.
The pond by the sarpakulam at the far end, on the periphery of the sarpakavu was out of bounds for fishing and the kids seldom ventured there. The water was dark, covered with water lilies and choked with weeds; wantoning creepers and flowering shrubs entwined severely and densely. There was always eerie silence in the grove and the waning light in the evenings would lend certain mysterious air and foreboding appearance to it. By night fireflies flirted about and glow worms too .In the grove even by day birds and crickets refrained from banter. Birds would perch quietly on the trees in there and take off without any ado. Squirrels seldom squeaked. The parrots that lived in the hollows of the tall coconut tree made lifeless by lightning bolts were mindful and did not shriek when they flew over the sarpakavu. The mysterious bats hung on precariously upside down on the high branches of the peral. They occasionally flap their wings and soon continue their inverted existence, perhaps surveying the less arboreal ones moving about below. By dusk they would be a sort of frantic activity up in the tree as the bats ready themselves for their nocturnal wanderings. However, he did notice quite often the family of mongoose scamper about in there and he wondered at their audacity. Or was it foolishness? He could understand the temerity of the bats as they are high up in the trees, somewhat cocooned from the reach of serpents who lived in the kavu. Yet, what about the serpents that KochuKalli claims she has seen dangling from the trees and vines in the kavu, the arboreal ones? With deep sough the wind snared by the thick foliage of the trees forcefully brush past, the bamboo stalks screech intermittently and the hoot of the screech owl in the still of the night would shiver timber.
The sarpakavu was used by the middle aged namboothiri priest who religiously arrived on the day of “ailyam” each calendar month. Rituals called “ailyampooja” were performed by the namboothiri, clad in loin cloth and the sacred thread across his torso. He would take a dip in the pond to cleanse his being before conducting the rituals.
Sarapakalm would be dexterously drawn out on the small cement platform opposite the serpent deities in the grove. Coloured powder- red, black, green, purple, blue and yellow turmeric; rice flour and other fancy powders, all bought from the Haji Koya’s shop at the west gate of the big temple.
The serpent deities- the nagaraja, nagayakshi, inside the grove was appeased with milk and turmeric powder. Noorum-Palum are offered to remove sarpadosham. This is followed by the Pulluvanpattu and the pulluva couples would sing to mollify the serpents. The festivity is more prominent during the ailyam day in the months of Thulam, Kanni and Kumbham. Those were the days the Ailyam festivities were held at the Manarasala a few miles away.
Elders believed that ritualistic offering each month may have ensured no reported sightings or bites of poisonous snakes. The last recorded snake bite was of his father’s grandfather, before he was born. The victim was rushed to the vishavaidhyan who practiced the traditional therapy for snake bit. It was said that the snake that bit the man was among the most feared and poisonous who probably was incensed by irreverence to the serpents and there was no way the mendicant could save the grand uncle. The story went wild and indulgent about the length of the serpent that bit the grandfather. Imaginations and fantasy was abound and unrestrained. It was said that the serpent was very enraged that it bit him on the ankle a few times over and chased him further down the fields and bit repeatedly on the fallen man’s face until its venom was exhausted. He lost consciousness a few minutes after the bite and died the next day. Stories were plenty of the wrathful serpent being seen outside the grove and many fantastic tales and lore were spun by the folks. And the ailyam rituals have never waned since then.
The temple festival was a fascinating. He was very impressed and delighted with the Vellakali the pantomime martial dance where men dressed as Nair warriors in bright traditional costumes and bearing swords and shields enact war dance to the synchronised accompaniment of the martial music in front of the entrance to the sanctum of sanctorum. To the accompaniment of panchavadyam– the maddalam, thavil, ilathalam, kombu and kuzhal the warriors move to the rhythm of the percussion. Later, at the precincts of the temple pond, the vellakali would be performed and was called kullathilvela.
The Nadakasalasadhya on the ninth day of the temple festival was a melee that was meant for grownups and not children. It was during one such event that he saw the old namboothiri . He was sitting at the kottiambalam near the natakashala while the frenzied revelry went about. One of his elder cousins pointed to the old man and murmured “there, there see the mad namboothiri!” A middle aged man with peppered hair and beard. His mundu was somewhat soiled and wore a half buttoned cotton shirt. He sat there, massaging his beard and keenly observing the ongoing melee of the natakashala sadhya . He shouted suddenly,”Damn the Gods who will be appeased only when lot of food is wasted, thrown around like missiles; this is robbing from the hungry.” Then after an afterthought, “If God was appeased by that waste, so be it. It is he who lords over.” He stopped abruptly with resignation and continued to feel his beard.
Of the many legends subsumed with the origin and chronicle of Velakali the victory of the good over evil, of justice over injustice stood out with the legends that were associated with its origin. The statutes of the warring chieftains of Chembakaseri Mathoor Panicker and Velloor Kurup who are associated with the origin of the dance was placed on the ceiling at the entrance of the nadakasala and always aroused fascination. Of the many aspects that he cherished and that he was also fortunate to experience as a child on his many vacations, were the stories, folklore and legends of yore that elders told. That was an informal education of immense value. Any child’s fascination and awe would gradually turn into skepticism and enquiry. Certainly they may have helped in later life when thrown about by the rough and tumble. It is satisfying to walk without crutches. Isn’t it?
Now, he stood reliving the past and transfixed on the poltergeists of many moments of the days he spent there on vacation from school, perhaps the only sanguine and salubrious days of his childhood that were his twice a year. For a moment he wanted to be in a time machine and go back into the past. It could be true that even if there is nothing that is left behind like - souls when people are gone, there could be their smell, their breaths - the aroma of Chiniperama’s jackfruit curry, the lingering flavor of mackerel curry with sour mango and coconut gravy Appachi used to cook for dinner, all hanging about in the air!
Now, as he stood there watching the small ripples in the greenish water of the pond, he was startled back from the images of the past by a voice from behind. It was Bhadra his cousin. “Musing over the past? The old will not come back to live the days, the people, the place or time”. She said.
He laughed wryly and said. “Yes I read that, but look at what has become of this place. I can recall, with precision what this place was during those days. Don’t you remember? Everything has changed, though it seems to have been yesterday.”
“Yes. But then who are we to decide that what we feel is good should outlive everything?” He sensed a certain degree of resignation in her voice.
“But yet, still- what a change!” He exclaimed. Travelling along the panchayat road to here, that is now well laid and asphalted - there is nothing that has not changed. There are little of the old. The old land marks, the trees, the groves, the houses- their facades, the ponds all have made way. Lush paddy fields have made way to ugly looking houses with gaudy coloured paint. The unavoidability? Yes the people all are gone, faded. New faces, new house, strangers everywhere!” He wondered loudly if it is the same God in the temple or has he too vanished from the scene? She gently rebuked him for being presumptuous in matters of God. He felt a sense of derision and pity for the palace and could feel a feeling of sympathy for the people dead and resignation for those who lived there now. The past- retentions are like butterflies, wise it is to let them fly away and watch their beauty and remember the gentle flapping of their wings, while they were near.
“Ha, I’m the only person, perhaps, that you may know. I may be the only one around here who knows you.” She wiped the perspiration on her face with the pallu of her sari and continued. “The new generation, they do not have time and patience. They want instant gratification, money and luxury. Why should they retain their land here? Every one, both amongst us and around the neighbourhood have sold their lands and moved away to the Middle East, to Mumbai, to Kochi and some have crossed the far seas to the USA. Children are being educated. Where do they have time and the inclination to hold on to the old, for preserving the old? Why must they? I cannot tell who will live here in this house after me; the kids will not want to live here or even maintain it.”
“Do you still follow the aillyam rituals?”
“Yes, I do but mostly tokenism. Gone are the grove that we all were careful to keep away, and all those eerie stories about. The grove has been cleared and made way for the feeder road to the Railway station that has come up in the town. You see we have trains that pass through this town. Ernakulam is only an hour from here by train, and Alleppy ten minutes. Don’t you remember we spent almost two hour on the road to reach Alleppy- by bus for the Nehru trophy boat race? The long walk to Kacheripadi, then the wait for the bus…under the tamarind tree! Now the government has come up with an order that traditional groves are to be preserved. Funny indeed, now after most, almost all of the groves around here have been cleared and made way for houses. They pay Rupees Three thousand as a onetime grant to preserve groves. And one is supposed to fence the grove with steel wire mesh and ensure its preservation. Where will one find men to maintain and upkeep the place, which has to be re-fenced every year? Let us assume that one agrees to pay from ones resources, but it is next to impossible to even arrange a man to fell coconuts from the palms. Who wants to walk about climbing trees? That is no longer a means of livelihood.”
While they walked back to the house he surveyed. The horizon has vanished and in its place brick walls plastered and white washed, some coated with strange colours. They all, the houses and its dwellers were cocooned inside their own concrete contraptions – comforted by the delusion of their safety, of their seclusion, where the vision into the horizon ended at the walls that surrounded the land on which houses stood. Their where no neighbours , but only strangers . The chakarachi, the sarpakulam, the grove, and a sizeable area of the paddy field had vanished and strange houses with strange colours sprung up. Where the chakarachi stood, there now was the garage of the nearby house. Wonder whose cadaver burnt in the fire fueled by ‘Chakarachi’s’ wood! Or did they sell the wood to the brick-kilns? Chiniperama’s pond had vanished; her house collapsed out of disuse after her and her widowed sister’s death. His cousin told him, that the land which she owned was bought by a Chacko who runs a jewelry shop in Alleppy.
He enquired about the mad karnavar. He passed away. The illam was bought by a gulf expatriate Rawoothar and he demolished the derelict old home of the Karnavar and there now stood a multistoried insipid concrete incubus. The old trees in the compound were cut down and sold by the new owner. The small grove in the land that was exclusive to the illam was pulled down to its roots, the idols of serpent Gods were evicted thrown outside and coco plants where planted. Of what significance is tradition and culture subsumed in a grove to this neo rich Gulf-Malayalee? To him the grove was nothing but an unkempt area ridden with wildly growing shrubs, vines, undergrowth and a haven to nasty creatures like raccoons, hedgehogs and reptiles. His monotheistic didactic faith made it easy for him to exercise iconoclasm. It only made it convenient for him to pull down the grove and with it exorcise and banish the pagan gods who may have dwelled in it, even without batting an eyelid or a moment’s vacillation. The house is looked after by a caretaker and the Gulf expatriate’s old parents live there-strangers. Strangers to the neighbours, to the land they live in and are seldom seen outside. The windows and doors of the twin storied house were shut tight through day and night, the faint hum of the air conditioners mounted outside the windows reminded and conveyed the message that someone after all lived in there. He wondered if it was the ill-fated destiny attributed to the land where the illam stood that those who live there are looked at with a sense of curiousness.
“There is a rumour that the Muslim expatriate is negotiating to buy the couple of adjacent properties too. These people have the money and they can even shell out a few extra lakhs to possess what they want” his cousin said.
“What about Esthappen?”
“He died long ago. His daughter Kochu Maria sold the land to the panchayat society whose members could not yet decide what they would do on that property. So now the land is ridden with undergrowth and the rundown house of Esthappen with no roof and dilapidated walls.”
“Esthappn’s daughter now lives with her daughter in Chennai. Her husband passed away a few years back and she sold the land and moved with her daughter immediately after. I think Babu has still some contact with them. You know they are rich, no more the old nazrani family that we saw. They are very, very rich!”
The house which cousin Bhadra gained from the assets that her mother ,( his appachi) bequeathed was reworked upon and now has a modern outer sheen about it like the town itself -an artificial facade, a decorated mask; the verandah that went around the house, and the forecourt where “Thiruvathirakalli” used to be performed by women, the cold verandah floor where elders and kids used to get together in the evenings, when the night air erupted with songs, mono acts and laughter, were now laid with some exotic coloured tiles. Even the interior , the walls, the flooring were all done , new sofas with upholstery stood in the living room and curtains with drapes upon the window. The framed photographs that hung on the wall long ago were all gone and replaced with that of some Bollywood nymphs.
“What happened to all those framed pictures that hung here on the walls?”
She helplessly shrugged and said. “Children do not like them hung on the walls. What can I tell? It is they who decide now.” She paused and continued. “Besides, some remind of melancholy days and moments. It was good they are gone. Often it was like watching ghosts hung in frames on the wall.”
“Well, is there any picture of him that I have not seen? When he lived here for a while? You know I last saw him some six years before he died.”
Yes there was one picture which Krishanan chettan brought after he attended his funeral.”
“Can I see it?”
“Why must you? No. Don’t. Do not ask to see. It is sad, the picture. Why do you want to see his lifeless picture?”
It was thirty three years to be precise that he was there last. A land, place and people he simply let go or did they go farther away? Things towards which as a child he felt much kinship and was matter of delight. He used to lie awake with muffled and restless anticipation for hours well into the late night the day before he was send there to spend vacations. The last time he was there was for the sixteenth day observance and rituals after his paternal grandmother’s passing. After a few months the umbilical cord that connected him to the place, the land and people was severed. Was he since then walking with the limp end of the umbilical cord in hand? Or did he throw it away knowing that there once was a connection? He did not feel disconnected. That was a lucky matter, in a strange sense!
This journey now was not of rediscovery, or attempts to recover the past, it was not to mend and it was a decision to come as the severity of the wound and the sourness that curdled memories were less bludgeoning, now that three and more decades have sailed past insouciantly. Time, it humbles, and time is a catalyst too.