The Christmas Tree


Having decorated our Christmas Tree this year, I stood beside it reminiscing about the many Christmas trees that we as children had decorated as we grew up in Kerala, India.  Kerala being in the tropical region is blessed with a cool climate in winter with a temperature of about 25oC and obviously not even the remote likelihood of snow.

Decorating homes with green plants, leaves and branches, mainly to ward off the monotony of snow covered winters, has been a tradition much before the birth of Christ.  In many regions, it is believed that evergreens would keep away witches, ghosts, evil spirits, and illness.  Even if they did not, it brought cheer and festivity to the otherwise dull, indoor bound, bone chilling winter days and nights.

Germans are believed to have started the Christmas Tree tradition in the 16th century.  German settlers who migrated to Canada from the United States in the 18th century brought this tradition with them.  It became an official symbol of Christmas celebration in the Commonwealth when Queen Victoria’s German husband, Prince Albert, put up a Christmas tree at the Windsor Castle in 1848.  It then became a Christmas tradition throughout England, US, and Canada.


During our vacation to our native place in Kerala in October 2019, standing next to our ancestral home, I could see in my mind’s eye the front courtyard where once a Guava tree stood, leaning on to the roof.  I narrated to Marina as to how we as kids – I was less than ten years old – used to climb the Guava tree to leap on to the roof, may be to pick up a ball that had got caught on the roof tile or just for fun.  Marina then came out with a story of a similar Guava tree in her ancestral home and how she executed many similar ‘monkey tricks.’

The mere sight of the high roof sent a chill up my spine as I could not even fathom my climbing it now.  The thought struck me that perhaps I would never even have permitted our children the fun of climbing on such a tree and get on to the roof.  The question that intrigued me was ‘How come parents of those days allowed their children such (mis)adventures?‘   After we children grew up into our teens, our father cut the guava tree in 1976 as it was posing a threat to the very existence of the tiles on the roof. Moreover, we children had grown ‘too old’ to climb on the rooftop to clear the fallen leaves, a periodic ritual.

During our early childhood, this Guava tree was decked up by the four of us brothers, to be the Christmas Tree and the decorations were maintained until New Year which coincided with the annual festivity of our Parish Church.  We used to decorate the tree with paper buntings, electric lights and stars, all hand-made using bamboo and craft paper.  The ritual of star-making would begin a fortnight before Christmas.  We had to cut a reed-bamboo (Ochlandra Genera) from our neighbour’s farm, split it into thin veins and then assemble it to form five or six-cornered stars.  The exercise led by our eldest brother often resulted in physical bouts when one of us four brothers would disagree about the methodology or sometimes unintentionally undo the work done.  Whatever it was, it all ended up with the hoisting of the stars that we had painstakingly built, up onto the Guava Christmas Tree.


For the Christmas of 1976, after the guava tree was cut down, it was a Jamba (Eugenia Javanica) tree in the vicinity that we chose to be blessed as our Christmas Tree.  The Jamba tree in Malayalam is referred to as wax apple, love apple, java apple, chomphu (in Thai), bell fruit (In Taiwan), Jamaican apple, water apple, mountain apple, jamrul (in Bengali), jumbu (Sri Lanka) and jamalac in French.  Being rich in fibre, they ease digestion and is mostly eaten with salt to give a better taste.  The tree bears bell shaped pink fruits in early Winter.  With the pink fruits on a green leafy tree making a striking contrast, the Jamba is ideally suited to be dressed up as a Christmas Tree.

This Jamba tree also witnessed many events of our growing up years.  It must have been planted by Amma sometime in the mid-sixties. The tree being a slow grower, grew to about two feet by 1968.  That was when our youngest brother, then aged four, came up with an unusual request. He wanted someone younger to him. It was all because he was invariably at the losing end of our many childhood fights.  At the time, our parents solved the problem by getting him a kid, a real goat’s kid, a female one.  That was how goat rearing commenced at home.

This kid soon thereafter developed an immense liking for the leaves of the young Jamba tree.  Our Father tried every trick in his book to ensure the safety of the young tree.  He fenced the area around the tree with thorny branches, but this kid easily managed to break through and reach the much sought after leaves.  He then sprayed the leaves with cow dung and cow’s urine; come next rain, it would be washed clean and the kid would forage on to it at the next opportune moment.  Thus the Jamba tree was cursed to be a stunted bonsai, but it was stubborn enough to manage a rudimentary existence in the front courtyard.

In 1974, the goats were sold off as we had shifted to rubber plantation from tapioca cultivation. This resulted in lack of forage and grass for the goats.  This ensured ‘Moksha’ for the Jamba tree and it grew in leaps and bounds with a kind of pent up vigour and in 1976 it was about ten feet tall, laden with the bell-shaped pink fruit by early December.  With the guava tree cut, our eldest brother designated the Jamba tree to be the Christmas tree for the year.  Fully decorated with all the pink fruits, it turned out to be the prettiest Christmas Tree that we ever had. As I pictured that decorated Christmas tree of 1976, I couldn’t help being swept aside by a flood of nostalgia.

(Images : Courtesy Google)

 

Chai –My Favourite Brew


Recently I came across a video clip about TWG’s Yellow Gold Bud Tea.  This tea is believed to have been once the favourite of Chinese emperors and as precious and costly as gold.  In fact, each tea bud is lavished in 24-karat gold, which once infused, yields a delicately metallic and floral aftertaste.

In the Sixties, during our childhood days’ back home in Kottayam, the regular morning brew was coffee.  Ripened red coffee beans were plucked from the coffee trees that grew around our home and after being sun dried their outer covering was removed.  The beans were then fried until they turned black and   ground to a powder at the nearby mill, to be stored in air tight containers. The coffee powder was put into a copper vessel with boiling water and was left for a few minutes for the coffee to be infused and the thick powder would settle at the bottom of the copper vessel.  The extract or decoction was now mixed with milk and sugar and then served to all. Just thinking about it makes one salivate.

The taste of that home-made coffee is now history.  With the advent of rubber plantations, all coffee trees were cut to make way for rubber. Thus the end of home-made coffee powder. We now source our coffee powder from various commercially available brands in the market. Sad change.

Happy change. I took to drinking tea on joining Sainik School, Amaravathinagar, Tamil Nadu, at the age of nine in 1971.  Tea was served to us early in the morning prior to Physical Training, at 11 o’ Clock between classes and in the evening prior to games.  Every cadet took a liking to this tea as everyone looked forward to it.  For many it served as a clock as none of us wore a wrist watch.  The tea had some magic in it as it had the innate quality to kick start all the important events in a cadet’s life!

CadetMessAmar22
What was so special about this magical concoction?  The taste of this tea is beyond words, and could never be replicated.  We tried hard to analyse the secret of this addictive tea. What was special about it? It could be the special blend of the tea leaves or the way in which it was cured. Or perhaps it was the sublime effect of the Amaravati River waters, the vessel in which it was brewed, or the cloth used to filter it – the possibilities were endless.  It still remains a mystery to all of us, but it attracts most alumni to the school every year and they gleefully indulge in consuming steaming cups of this divine tea.

Another most memorable cup of tea that I have had was the tea served by soldiers at the Sadhna Post at Nastachun Pass.  This pass is located at about 10,000 feet Above Sea Level at the entrance to the Thangdhar Valley on the Indo-Pak border.  The narrow one-way road from Chowkibal (about 100 km from Srinagar) was cut along the mountains to Nastachun Pass and then down into Thangdhar Valley.  The road being narrow could only accommodate one vehicle either way.  To ensure a smooth flow of vehicles, all traffic was regulated by a convoy system. The up and down convoys left from Thandhar and Chowkibal at about 8 in the morning and 2 in the Afternoon respectively.  The vehicles on reaching Nastachun Pass would park there, awaiting all vehicles to fetch up from either side.

During this wait, soldiers manning Sadhna Post would serve tea to all.  It was real refreshing cup of tea as one was both physically and mentally tired traversing up through the treacherous roads with many hairpin bends. It was a magic potion that invigorated tired limbs and ebbing spirits.


During winter, the road and the mountains got covered with over ten feet of snow.  The only way to cross over was by foot columns.  The foot columns operated at night, two days after a heavy snow storm to avoid avalanches.  The foot column consisted mainly of soldiers proceeding or returning from leave from their homes, porters carrying essential supplies – fresh vegetables and milk, mail, etc. It took about four hours of strenuous climb to Sadhna Post and was a sure test of anyone’s mental and physical abilities. It was a kind of surreal experience. Talking aloud was not permitted as the vibrations caused by human voice could resonate with layers of snow on the ridge face and trigger an avalanche. On reaching Sadhna Post, everyone was welcomed by the soldiers with a hot ‘cuppa’, a cup of tea that was the most refreshing and tasty—it simply was the best ever. To my mind, it could very well be compared to Amrit – the nectar of immortality in Hindu mythology. The climb down from the Sadhna post appeared easier but was just as treacherous, if not more, due to the tendency to slip and fall.

I have never tasted the Yellow Gold Bud Tea, the speciality of the Chinese emperors. But I am pretty certain that it would pale into insignificance when compared with the Amravati Special or the Sadhna Post Amrit!

 

Swamiye Sharanam Ayyappa (Lord Ayyappa is the Only Hope)


Swamiye Sharanam Ayyappa
  – this is the chant every Lord Ayyappa devotee utters, especially on pilgrimage to Sabarimala, on the Western Ghats of Kerala, India, the abode of the  Lord Ayyappa.  He is revered by most Hindus of South India.  He is believed to be the son of Shiva (God of destruction) and Mohini – the female avatar of Vishnu (preserver and protector of the universe).  Any devotee undertaking pilgrimage to Sabarimala is expected wear a Rudraksha chain,  observe 40 days of fasting, penance and continence, walk barefoot, wear black dress, etc.

Another name of Lord Ayyappa is Sastha which means Buddha. Buddhism is believed to have entered in Kerala by 3rd Century BC.  The constant and repeated chants, especially the word Sharanam  is that of the Buddhists.  The chain the pilgrims wear comes from the Rudraksha chain of the Shaivites. The strict fasting, penance and continence is taken out of the beliefs of the Vaishnavites. Ahimsa is taken from the Jains.


Myth has it that the King of Pandalam, childless, got a baby from the forest and took him to his palace and called him Manikantan. Later, the Queen delivered a baby and the she wanted the adopted son to be thrown out. Conniving with the Minister, the Queen pretended to be ill with the royal doctor prescribing Tigress’ milk as cure.  Manikantan was tasked to procure Tigress’ milk from the forest.  Knowing the intent of Manikantan’s visit, the King of the Gods, Indra, transfigured into a Tigress.  Manikantan climbed on top of the tigress and led the way back to the Palace.  Manikantan pardoned everyone who plotted against him and nominated his younger brother to the throne.


He then took the King to the forest ,  blazed an arrow toward a hill and asked the King to construct a shrine for him where the arrow landed. He also requested his father to come annually to visit him at the shrine.

It is believed that the Pandalam Royal Family are descendants of the Pandya dynasty of Madurai, Tamil Nadu. The Pandya King fled to Kerala after losing the battle against Malik Khafer, General of Delhi Sultan Alauddin Khilji and settled in Pandalam in 1202 AD.


There is an Islamic angle also to the belief in Lord Ayyappa.  Vavar, a Muslim forest brigand was shown the path of righteousness by Lord Ayyappa and he became the trusted lieutenant of the Lord.  When Lord Ayyappa took to his abode at the hilltop of Sabarimala, Vavar took up his position at the foothills in a Mosque at Erumeli.  Ayyappa devotees on pilgrimage first pay their respects to Vavar at the mosque before undertaking the trek uphill to the Temple.

What is the significance of Lord Ayyappa to me, a Syrian Orthodox Christian and an Indian Army Veteran?


In December 1982, I was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant to 75 Medium Regiment of Artillery.  A regiment in Artillery is divided into three gun Batteries.  A Battery operates six guns, manned by about 150 soldiers.  The Regiment then had an interesting class composition. One battery was of Brahmins (other than those from the Southern and Eastern States of India), the second had Jats and the third was manned by the soldiers from the four Southern States.  In those days, any Young Officer posted to the Regiment would serve with each of the batteries for one or two years in order to make them familiarise with the soldiers. I too went through this rotation beginning with the Brahmins, then with the South Indians and then with the Jats.  On promotion to the Rank of Major, I took over command of the Brahmin Battery with Major Joginder Singh, a Sikh, commanding the South Indian Battery.


The War Cry of the South Indian Battery was ‘Swamiye Sharanam Ayyappa.’  It is believed to have been introduced by Captain AN Suryanarayanan, who was the Adjutant of the Regiment in the early days of the Regiment.  He later rose to command the Regiment and is now a Veteran Brigadier.

‘Sawmiye Sharanam Ayyappa’ reverberated on the battlefield when the Regiment saw action during 1971 Indo-Pak war during the Battle of Basantar River.  Our Regiment was honoured with the Honour Title ‘Basantar River’ based on the Regiment’s performance in war.

Lord Ayyappa is a warrior deity and is revered for his ascetic devotion to Dharma – the ethical and right way of living, to deploy his military genius and daring yogic war abilities to destroy those who are powerful but unethical, abusive and arbitrary.  Hence ‘Swamiye Sharanam Ayyappa’ is an apt Regimental Battle Cry.  We said it loudly before we undertook any mission, before commencement of engaging the enemy with our guns, while on training, while on the playing fields, at any competitions, and so on; why it reverberated whenever we got together, while in service or post retirement.


Our Regiment might be the only Indian Army entity to have the War Cry ‘Swamiye Sharanam Ayyappa.’  Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Muslims, Jains, Parsis – irrespective of our religious faiths, we all cried out loud  ‘Swamiye Sharanam Ayyappa.’

Sikhs and Kerala Floods


Offering free meals to anyone and everyone is a great Sikh tradition known as  of Langar (लंगर).  It  has remained a core part of the Sikh faith from inception.  Every Sikh temple or Gurdwara (गुरुद्वारा ) around the world offers people a free meal at any time regardless of sex, colour or religion. There are no rituals involved and everyone eats together. The aim is to inculcate the feeling of equality amongst all, a Sikh teaching around equality.

When the state of Kerala faced disastrous floods in August 2018, Sikh volunteers from the UK- based philanthropist group – Khalsa Aid – reached Kerala and setup a Langar at Kochi for some 3,000 people.  On seeing the plight of the people, they expanded the Langar relief to serve 13,000 people twice a day.

These Sikh volunteers, joined hands with Kochi administration, took over the kitchen at Rajiv Gandhi Indoor Stadium at Kochi, where the aid materials were pouring in.  Food supplies and cereals like wheat, rice, vegetables poured in, but with no one to cook a meal.  The Sikh volunteers purchased  spices and utensils, took over the kitchen at the stadium and kept  the kitchen fires going.  The food from this kitchen was distributed at various relief camps for the needy.

Hardly any media or social media showed the contribution of the Sikh volunteers in bringing succour to the flood affected.  The Kerala Government and administrative officials seemed ignorant about the contribution of the Sikh volunteers as there was hardly any gratitude expressed for these volunteers.

Let us now turn a few pages of Kerala history to 1923.

As per the caste system prevalent in Kerala (then broadly divided into Malabar, Cochin and Travancore kingdoms) and the rest of India of that time, low-caste Hindus were not allowed entry into the temples.  They were not even allowed even to walk on the roads that led to the temples.

In the Kakinada meet of the Congress Party in 1923, TK Madhavan presented a report citing the discrimination that the depressed caste people were facing in Kerala and need to abolish untouchabiity – a practice in which some lower caste people are kept at a distance, denied of social equality and made to suffer from some disabilities for their touch, is considered to be contaminating or polluting the higher caste people.

In Kerala, a committee was formed comprising people of different castes to fight untouchability.  Satyagraha movement began on 30th March 1924 at the Mahadeva Temple at Vaikom town in Travancore, which denied entry of lower caste people – mostly Ezhavas.  Satyagraha  is a form of nonviolent resistance or civil resistance and the term was coined and developed by Mahatma Gandhi to oust the British from India.  People who offered satyagraha are called Satyagrahis .  The Satyagrahis in batches entered the temple and were arrested by the police.

On 01 October 1924, a group of forward castes Hindus marched in a procession and submitted a petition to the Regent Maharani Sethulakshmi Bai of Travancore with approximately 25,000 signatures for allowing entry to the temple for everyone.

On 23 November 1925, all the gates of the temple were opened to Hindus except the Eastern gate.  In 1928, backward castes got  the right to walk on public roads leading to all temples in Travancore.  This was the first time that an organised movement was conducted on such a massive scale for the basic rights of the untouchables and other backward castes in Kerala.

As the sathyagraha commenced in 1923, a few Sikh volunteers reached Vaikom in support of the demonstrators. They established a Langar there to feed the Sathyagrahis.  How they reached Vaikom from Punjab in those days with a scant railway network and how they cooked food for Keralites who only ate rice got to be researched.


This is an archived image of the Sikh volunteers with Ezhavas sathyagrahis.

After successfully completing the Satyagraha and after the Temple Entry Proclamation, some of the Sikhs remained in Vaikom. Some Ezhava youth were attracted to the concepts of the Sikhism.  It is believed that many Ezhavas joined the religion. Many families later returned to Hinduism and the number of Sikh Ezhavas dwindled.

In Sikhism, the practice of the Langar is believed to have been started by the first Sikh Guru, Guru Nanak. The concept of Langar was prevalent in Punjab from the 12th Century – from the time of Baba Farid and Sufi saints.  Guru Angad, the second Guru institutionalised it for all Sikh temples.  Guru Amar Das, the third Guru established langar as a prominent institution and required people to dine together irrespective of their caste and social rank. He insisted on all those who visited him attend laṅgar before they could speak to him.

From the beginning till date, Sikhs have followed the words of their Gurus and have been rendering yeoman service to humanity by providing food not only in their places of worship, but also to the needy wherever and whenever it is required.

Hats off to the spirit and commitment of this great community of Sikhs. 

 

 

 

‘Kerala Model’ Disaster Management


Disaster struck Kerala in August 2018 in the form of  heavy rains, which created floods and landslides causing  unprecedented damage to the people, property and ecology.  The tragedy struck Kerala just prior to Onam festival to welcome the mythological  king of Kerala – Mahabali.  I am reminded of the Onam song ‘മാവേലി നാട് വാണീടും കാലം, മനുഷ്യരെല്ലാരും ഒന്നു പോലെ’ (When Mahabali ruled, the people where all together).  When the tragedy struck causing havoc to human life, the people of Kerala, irrespective of their faith or religion came together to save fellow humans.

What are the lessons to be learnt from the way this tragedy was handles at all levels – from federal  government to the local village administration to the last man standing.


Youth Power
.     The youth of Kerala were the first to emerge and organise themselves into small groups and bring succour to those affected.  They forgot their well known political rivalries and united to show that they can surmount any tragedies.  Girls and boys – all put their hands on deck, working day and night – to organise rescue and relief.

Political Strength.            The ruling coalition and the opposition – all came together to work with a single aim to bring succour to the flood affected people of Kerala.  The strength of the grass-root organs of all political parties showed their mettle in bringing relief to the people.    Only one political party and its various outfits did not play their part and they have been ‘trolled out’ in the social media.

Religious Organisation.  Various religious organisations and institutions opened their gates to accommodate all those displaced by the tragedy.  Muslims were reported to be cleaning Hindu temples and Christians taking shelter in temples and mosques – the list is endless.  In effect – Gods (with their Godmen) were submerged – Humanity emerged.


Supermen Fishermen
.      The role played by the fishermen of Kerala in rescuing the people – especially in the hilly areas where they would have never dreamt of taking their boats – would be etched in gold in Kerala’s history.  They were poor fishermen, who left their families near the seashore and ventured inland to save their brethren without caring for their personal safety and without even asking for any compensation for their loss of livelihood and damage to their boats.


State Machinery
.             Unlike what was seen in other Indian states, the state machinery from Members of Parliament, Members of Legislative Assembly, District Collectors – all were out in full force to help the victims.  Some of them were seen physically handling rescued persons and rescue materials.  The role played by two women District Collectors – Ms TV Anupama, in-charge of Thrissur, and Ms K Vasuki, in-charge of Thiruvananthapuram – needs a special mention.  The leadership of the Chief Minister Mr Pinarayi Vijayan proved that he is a man with a vision and a good leader by  maintaining a cool head and providing necessary instructions in ensuring that no stone was left unturned in providing relief to the flood affected.  It is no wonder that he is nicknamed ഇരട്ട-ചങ്കൻ (Iratta-Chankan) meaning man with double hearts.

Local Government.         Kerala state has a well established local government at City/ Town/ Village levels.    They were the first to organise rescue efforts without awaiting any orders from the top.  They worked in tandem with the Armed Forces, National Disaster Management Force (NDRF). Kerala Police, Fire Force and various other agencies.   They provided helpful terrain and water-flow information to the rescue teams, provided guides and all other possible assistance.


Role of Media
.   The Malyalam media played their part well in informing people about the floods, passing information about people stranded at various places and rescue efforts in progress.  National English and Hindi media might not have had adequate interest in Kerala, but after a few days they also pitched in.  It is pertinent to mention here that in the early days of the flood, various international media houses gave more airtime to cover floods in Kerala than the Indian English and Hindi channels.

Social Media.     The social media had a very positive impact on the rescue missions being undertaken.  Victims could communicate with the rescue teams and people outside and was of immense help.  The social media ensured connectivity with the world community, especially with many Keralites working or settled abroad, wishing to know the status of their near and dear ones.  There were a few cases of rumour mongering reported and the state police has already registered cases to deal with them.

Federal Government.     The role played by the Central Government calls for some retrospection.  When monetary and material aid started flowing from many countries with sizeable Keralite work force, the Central Government refused to accept it.  The Central Government initially granted 100 Crore which was later revised to 500 Crore – a tiny portion of the money needed for rehabilitation of the flood affected.  The Union Food Minister wanted the state to pay for the food grains released, but later, succumbing to the pressures of Kerala’s political leadership, the decision was reversed.  It might be the first time in Indian history that various persons and business houses and many state governments and organisations have donated much more than the money given by the Central Government for disaster rehabilitation.     Is it all because the ruling party has hardly any presence in the state?


That was the Kerala model of disaster management.  There is a need to iron out many folds and deficiencies, but the common folks in Kerala have risen up to the occasion.  An Indian Army officer undertaking rescue operations said “I did not see any victims; all I saw were Heroes.”

The HEROES are the people of Kerala.

 

 

A Symbol of Religious Harmony: St Mary’s Church & Sri Bhagavathy Temple of Manarcaudu

During the first week of September 2017, I visited our ancestral home at Kottayam in Kerala State of India.  The last time I was at our ancestral home in the month of September was in 1971, prior to my joining the Sainik (Military) School at the age of nine.

St Mary’s Church in Manarcaudu village, the village adjacent to ours, celebrates the feast of the Nativity of Virgin Mary on September 8. The first eight days of September   are observed as Eight Day Lent by the devotees. This occasion attracts thousands of pilgrims from all religions, Hindus, Muslims and Christians.

On the sixth day of the Lent, a historic procession called Raaza is taken out.  The Raaza is accompanied by traditional drums of Kerala – Chendamelam and caparisoned elephants.  Thousands of devotees from far and wide participate in the celebrations, carrying Muthukkuda (Royal Umbrellas), lavishly decorated umbrellas with silk parasols and silver crosses.

On the seventh day of the Lent, the ceremony of Nada Thurakkal (opening of the sanctum sanctorum) is held.  This enables the devotees to have Darshan (Holy Viewing) and venerate the Holy portrait of holy Mother Mary with child Jesus in her hand.  Such ‘darshan’ of the portrait is then closed after a week.

On the eight day of the Lent, Pachor (a sweet dish made from rice, milk and jaggery), prepared by the church, is offered to all devotees.  In the evening of the eight- day lent, the culmination of the festival is marked  by a spectacular display of fireworks. After the fireworks, parish members perform traditional art forms like Margam Kali –  a group dance  by women – and Parichamuttu Kali –  a martial dance by men – with songs  tracing their origins to the evangelistic activity of St Thomas.

A granite cross known as Kalkurisu (Stone Cross) is located at the rear side of the church.  Lighting candles around this stone cross is an important ritual in this church.  Many  of the devotees who come to the church to take part in the Eight Day Lent, after taking a ritual bath, roll themselves on the ground around the cross and light candles there.  It is believed to have a miraculous cure.

There are two ponds next to the church, one on the northern side for women and on the western side for men.  Taking bath in these ponds is believed to have miraculous healing powers.

In the centre of the hall of the Church burns the Kedavilakku (the eternal lamp or lamp that is never put out).

The rituals, the structural architecture, traditions and customs, all point to the natural amalgamation Indian Hindu culture with the Christian belief that the Syrian Christians of Kerala follow.  Christianity in Kerala is believed to have been established by St Thomas, a disciple of Christ, in the first century.

Rev. Joseph Pit, an Anglican Missionary who visited the church in 1836 was surprised to find a large crowd of pilgrims in the church and its premises.  He chronicled that “I heard that some Christians observed a special lent for a week in the name of St. Mary in Manarcaudu. They observed it in the church by avoiding certain items of food, taking daily bath and by attempting to make themselves holy….. More than 2000 pilgrims had assembled in the church and its premises.”

 

 

About 400 meters from the St Mary’s Church is the Sri Bhagavathy (Goddess) Temple.  According to local folklore, St Mary and the Bhagavathy are sisters.  At the temple’s annual festival, the priests carry the Goddess around the village on top of an elephant to receive offerings from the people. The Goddess on this journey stops at the Church to meet her sister Mother Mary.  When the Goddess arrives at the church to meet her sister, the congregation of the church receive the Goddess and makes a donation to the temple – money and a tin of oil for the temple lamps.

The devotees coming to Manarcaudu, the Hindus pray at the church and the Christians at the Temple for the blessings of Mother Mary and the Bhagavathy.  They believe that the pilgrimage is incomplete without a visit to both the sisters.

 

The Indian Digital Revolution

During my visit to our village in Kerala in August-September 2017, I observed an  increased use of cellphones and lack of verbal communication among family members and also among friends.  A family on a dinner at a posh restaurant, all the family members were glued to their mobile devices.  If it was the aim of the outing, it would have been better at home.  The relatives at homes I visited, the scene was no different – each one busy with their devices – smiling at times – may be enjoying the very same joke or watching the very same video clip, with hardly any verbal communication.  Wouldn’t it be better in case the same was shared by all?

Another notable aspect was the absence of laptop or desktop computers at home.  Obviously the modern cellphone does have much more capabilities than the computer, but it reduces the possibilities of parental monitoring.  Fast and cheap data connectivity, at a fraction of a cost as compared to Canada, appears to be the major factor driving children to over-use their cellphone.  The Indian parents care too much for their children – they pay for both the cellphone and the monthly bills of their children.  Some parents take ‘pride’ in the digital abilities of their young kids and flaunt their kid’s latest cellphone.  Could be that some parent is today looking out to be first proud parent of the school to provide iPhone X.

Everyone, at home, travelling or at places of leisure, were all too busy swiping continuously on their mobile devices.  They were obviously not reading, but only glancing which is given out by the frequency of their swipes.

The next causality of this ‘digital revolution’ is reading.  No one seemed interested in paperback books, newspapers or periodicals.  They appear more interested in sharing or forwarding what they received.  The comments posted on social media are mostly solitary words.  If someone does not read, how can you expect him/her to write?

The ‘sharing and forwarding’ syndrome has nipped creativity in the children and in the youth.  The most appreciated video clips are of those children mimicking the movie superstars.  Mimicry seems to have become accepted as an art form in Kerala and is the most sternly competed event in the Youth Festivals organised by the schools and also at the district and state level competitions.  Most TV Channels air at least a couple of mimcry shows with children as young as Kindergarten kids to grandparents as participants.  There are hardly any show to explore the creative talent of the kids and the youth.

Kerala homes about two decades ago had a gravel spread  courtyard with a little garden.  Every morning the courtyard was swept clean of the fallen leaves.  Today there is neither the gravel spread courtyard nor the garden.  The courtyards have all been tiled or concreted and the gardens have been replaced by potted plants – some even the artificial ones.  No one appears to have time and energy to get up early morning to sweep away the fallen leaves.  Further, most fruit trees that adorned the area in front of the homes have been felled.  Where are the leaves to fall now?

In our growing days, it was the duty of all the children at home to ensure that the courtyard was kept clean and the garden tended to.  As both our parents were school teachers, we had to do the hard work to keep the home beautiful.  Nowadays the parents want their children to study all the time and do not want them dirtying their hands.  Obviously there is some disconnect.

Two days after I landed in Kerala, the morning newspaper carried the frontline news about the Blue Whale Game, an Internet game that claimed the life of college student.  The game allegedly consists of a series of tasks assigned to players by administrators during a 50-day period, ending with the challenge requiring the player to commit suicide like the beached whales.

The parents of the victim claimed that before ending his life, their son did not behave normal and also carved some initials on his body.  The victim’s mother said that there were signs that he was taking up the life-risking challenges that Blue Whale administrators ask its users to perform.  The victim is believed to have jumped into a river though he did not know how to swim and had to be rescued.  In April, once the victim is said to have  asked his mother, “What if I die? Will you be upset?”. Two weeks later he committed suicide and before ending his life, he had  watched a number of horror movies.

The administrators or curators of the game are in the lookout for kids who visit sites carrying suicidal content or the kids ‘googling’ issues like suicide, self inflicted injuries, etc.  The administrator now sends in an invite to join.    Once a kid gets in touch with the administrator, he is given a new challenge each day. Then children are supposed to take a photo or video to prove that the challenge is completed.

When kids accept the game, the administrator gets some personal information from them or they extract images and video clips from their device. In case children want to leave or terminate the game, the administrator threatens with exposure or harm to their family. On the fiftieth day, the administrator instructs the participant on how to commit a suicide.

When I discussed this subject with the parents, everyone seem to carry a misconception that “Our children are God fearing and respectful to their parents. They will never visit such sites.”  No one appeared concerned about it and the news channels carried the news accompanied by verbose discussions by the so called ‘experts’ for a day.  Barring a few, most participants in the channel discussions brushed it off as a onetime phenomenon.  The clerics blamed it on lack of prayers and fear of God among youth.

The need for parent-child communication needs no further elaboration.  Please read my earlier Blogpost on the subject by clicking here.  The parents need to set an example by curtailing the use of their mobile devices at homes, especially when children are present.

The parents got to talk to their kid about the game.  The aim being to find out as to whether it has already taken root in the child’ school.  In case of any indication, it is best to inform the school about it.  The parents need to be aware of mood and behavioural changes of their children and got to go for professional advice to deal with the situation.  The quacks and clergy are obviously not the answer to your child’s problems.