To Sir Without Love

‘Sir’ is a term for addressing males who have been given certain honours or titles (such as knights and baronets) in Commonwealth Countries and is strictly governed by law and custom. The term is also commonly used as a respectful way to address a commissioned military officer – surely not civilians. Equivalent term in the feminine gender would be ‘madam’ and a young woman, girl, or unmarried woman may be addressed ‘miss’. A knighted woman or baronetess is a ‘Dame’ and a ‘Lady’ would be the wife of a knight or baronet.

In Kottayam, Kerala, there is a girls’ school called Baker Memorial Girls High School. The school was established by Amelia Dorothea Baker (1820-1904) of the Church Missionary Society (CMS). Miss Baker married John Johnson, another CMS missionary, who passed away in 1846. Miss Baker remained in-charge of the school in Kottayam till 1855. Her two sisters married CMS missionaries and three daughters of her brother Henry Baker Jr became teachers at the very same school. (Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions, edited by Gerald H Anderson, Page 336)

The school today stands as a memorial to celebrate the efforts of the three generations of missionaries who dedicated their lives for the empowerment of the women of Kottayam through education. The common folk of Kottayam until my student days called it as Miss Baker School. Remember, it was during the British Raj and everyone addressed the founder headmistress of the school, very respectfully, as ‘Miss Baker’. Today, could any student in the very same school address their teacher ‘Miss Anita?’ I have often heard them addressing their teacher as Anita Miss (I could never make out as to what Miss Anita ‘missed’!)

On joining Sainik School, Amaravathi Nagar, Tamil Nadu in Grade 5 in 1971, our first Class-Master was Mr MJ Raman, our Mathematics teacher. We were about 25 of us from Kerala and only one could understand English and the rest 24 of us knew only Malayalam. In the first class Mr Raman issued us all the books, stationary, etc and briefed us in English and surely I did not get much of what he said.

We then had an English class by Mr KG Warrier. He asked us something like “Who asked you to do it?” in his Oxford accent and the boy who knew a bit of English promptly replied “Raman Sir told us to do it.” Mr Warrier now said “I know that Dr CV Raman was knighted, but did not know that Mr MJ Raman was also knighted. You all will address your teachers as ‘Mister’ or ‘Miss’ followed by their surnames.” Those words were imprinted on our young minds and through all these decades until now, we have always revered our teachers but invariably addressed them as ‘Mister’ or ‘Miss’, orally and in writing. Culturally, in Kerala as well as the rest of India, these modes of address have undergone a ‘mutation’. Today, it would be sacrilege for a college student to address his professor as ‘Mister Singh’

Please Click Here to read Blog-Posts about our teachers at Sainik School Amatavathi Nagar https://rejinces.net/category/sainik-school/

In Canadian high schools, students mostly address their teachers as ‘Mister’ or ‘Miss’ followed by their surnames. In the universities, some professors during their introduction class would specify their requirement. Some want to be addressed in the traditional manner and many with their first names or even shortened first names.

While interacting with an Indian immigrant teacher in Canada, he said he felt uncomfortable when the students addressed him as ‘Mr George.’ He had taught in a college in India for over two decades and everyone addressed his as ‘Sir’ and he felt that the Canadian students are disrespecting their teachers by not addressing them as ‘Sir.’

Addressing male teachers as ‘Sir’ and all females irrespective of marital status as ‘Miss’ shows a massive status disparity and sexism of previous years. According to Times Educational Supplement, ‘Sir’ was first used in Sixteenth Century classrooms when male teachers of a lower social standing were attempting to reinforce their authority among largely upper-class boys. ‘Miss’ (surely not anywhere near the status of ‘Sir’) is largely a Victorian era creation when women were pressurised to give up work after they married, with a number of schools only hiring single female teachers.

In the Dutch education system, children address teachers by their first name, using ‘juf’ or ‘juffrouw’ as a title for a female and ‘meester’ for a male teacher. Australians address their teachers as Mr/Mrs/Ms and surname. Sometimes if a teacher has a long or difficult-to-pronounce name, it is shortened to Mr PK, etc.

In Finland, it’s first names or even nick-names with teachers, no titles or surnames. The whole society there is very informal. French kids use the terms ‘maîtresse’ and ‘maître’ for female and male teachers respectively, meaning simply ‘teacher’. German students address teachers by using ‘Herr/Frau’ and surname, using ‘Sie’ as the polite form (Herr Schmidt, Koennen Sie…).

How do you wish to address your teachers? How do you wish your children addressed their teachers?

പഴങ്കഞ്ഞി (Pazhankanji)

Pazhankanji – fermented previous day’s cooked rice soaked in plain water – was served every morning at our home while we were growing up.  It was mostly accompanied by a pickle or ഉപ്പുമാങ്ങ  (Uppumanga) chutney.  Uppumanga is pickled tender mangoes in  brine.  After harvesting the tender mangos, generally in March-April, they are washed clean, dried and put into a large china-clay pitcher called a ഭരണി  (Bharani) with  brine and lot of fresh green chillies.  The mangos are now left to pickle up and is used to make chutney, with or without coconut, during the monsoons (June till September).  At that time availability of vegetables from our farmland around the house would deplete as new saplings would have been planted with the commencement of monsoons.  Obviously they would be growing up to yield their produce.

Amma used to make chutney with the Uppumanga and the accompanying chillies by grinding it with the small red onions and grated coconut.  She also used it to prepare prawn curry with it. I relished the brine from the Bharani which had the flavour of both the mango and the chili.  My brothers too loved it and obviously it was a strict ‘no-no’ for us to dip our hands into the Bharani as it would spoil the Uppumanga  Amma treasured.  Our hands would be dirty or wet and she did not want the mangos to be infected with fungus.  She had a special തവി(Thavi), a large ladle made of  half shell of a coconut with a long handle made from coconut wood, to take out the mangoes.

Amma cooked every morning prior to leaving to the school where she taught and in the evening on return.  The rice for the dinner was cooked in the evening and I observed that she always cooked an extra cup of rice.  On inquiry, she said it is for the guests who might come calling on in the evening.  In those days the last trip of the bus to Kottayam town was at 7 PM and all relatives who came over had to spend the night at our home.  Our home was about 20 km from our ancestral village as our father moved there next to Amma’s school so that she could spend more time at home and with us children.

Any rice left over after dinner was placed in an earthen pot soaked in water and left to ferment overnight at room temperature.  We did not have a fridge by then and hence this was the only way to store the leftover rice.  Next morning it was served as Pazhankanji. It really tasted a lot better when one had it using a spoon made out of a Jack-Fruit leaf as shown in the image above.  In case poor and hungry people came calling, they would be served this.   If any of it was still left, it was put in the feed for the cows we reared.

As per Ayurveda and common popular belief,  consuming Pazhankanji has the  following advantages:-

  • Rich in B6 and B12 Vitamins.
  • Easy to digest and hence the body feels less tired and one feels fresh throughout the day.
  • Beneficial bacteria get produced in abundance for the body.
  • Excessive heat retained in the body overnight is relieved .
  • Reduces constipation as this is very fibrous..
  • It is said to lower blood pressure and hypertension subsides appreciably.
  • This removes allergy induced problems and also skin-related ailments.
  • It removes all types of ulcers in the body.
  • It helps in maintaining youthful and radiant look.
  • Consuming this is believed to reduce craving for tea or coffee.

From where does the rice, known as കുത്തരി  (Kuththari), to make this divine Pazhankanji come from?

Rice from our paddy field after harvesting is stocked in പത്താഴം (Pathazham), a large wooden box.  About 50 kg of this raw harvested rice it is taken out and boiled in the evening in a large copper vessel  until the husk break open a little.  This is left overnight and next morning it is drained and sun dried on a തഴപ്പായ് (Thazhappay) – a mat of 12 feet by 30 feet made from the leaves of screw pine.  We children had to be sentries for the rice being dried in the sun to ensure that the brood of fowls we reared did not feast on the rice and also to shoo away the crows.  Another task was to turn the rice over using our hands and feet to ensure exposing of the entire rice to the sun to facilitate even drying.  In case one spotted a rain bearing cloud, one had to alert every member of the household to come out to pack up the rice and the mat.  In case they got wet, fungus infection was a sure shot thing in humid Kerala.  The only other task one was permitted during this sentry duty was to read a book.

After about two to three such rounds of sun drying was complete, the rice used to be packed in gunny bags and had to be transported to the rice mill for de-husking operation.  Our eldest brother was the mission commander and he used to hire a hand cart and we siblings used to load it up and push the cart to the mill with our eldest brother manning the controls of the hand cart in front.  At the rice mill, the semi-polished rice would emerge out through a chute, the outer husk through another and the edible Bran – തവിട് (Thavidu) through another.  We had to collect these in different gunny bags and load them up in the hand cart.  After paying up the mill owner was the return journey home.  The inedible husk was used as fuel to be burned with firewood to boil the next lot of raw rice and the bran found its way to the cows’ feed.

A part of the rice husk was burned and the residue was sieved and to the fine powder.  Salt, powdered pepper and cloves were added to this to form ഉമ്മിക്കരി (Umikkari). This was used as tooth powder by all of us.  I was least surprised by the advertisements of modern toothpaste manufacturers claiming that they have all the ingredients that made up our Ummikkari in their product.

In the earlier days, when I was a little child, prior to the establishment of the rice mill, Amma would hire women folk to do the de-husking operation in an ഉരൽ (Ural).  Ural is a stone cylinder about two feet tall and two feet in diameter.  On the top surface, a hole, six inch in diameter and depth is chiseled out to hold rice.  There is a five feet tall baton made of hardwood, with a metallic cover at the base, which is lifted up and pounded on the material inside the hole.  Perfecting the art of not spilling the contents while pounding is developed over time – to start with for any learner, the speed of pounding is a bit slow, but with practice, the speed really picks up.  In my younger days I have seen two ladies doing this in tandem.  Real precision timing and coordination is required for each pounding, else it could spell disaster.

With the advent of modern household appliances like grinders, fridges. mixies, etc and availability of pre-prepared, sorted  and cleaned rice and various other products have surely reduced the workload, but the taste of the natural rice still lingers on my taste buds.  The fridges for sure have made Pazhankanji a history, even in our home.

All Creatures Great and Small

All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful:
The Lord God made them all.               Cecil F. Alexander

This was a hymn we sang at the morning assembly at our school.  During my vacation in Kerala in April 2017, these lines came back to my mind as I took a stroll through the farmland behind our home.  Three small but great creatures caught my attention.  They are not great because the Lord God made them all, but because they were my companions as I grew up as a child.

The very first is the Antlion.  It  is surely neither an ant nor a lion, else a little three year old kid could not have played with them.  The Antlion is called so because it feeds on ants and hence is like a ‘lion’ for the ants. In Malayalam it is called കുഴിയാന – Kuzhiyana – meaning an elephant in a pit.  It is surely not an elephant, but its hump looks like that of an elephant and it did live in a conical pit.  In North America, Antlions are called ‘doodlebugs’, because of the doodles they leave on the sand while looking for a suitable spot to dig its pit.  It is in fact the larval form of a dragonfly.

A fully developed Antlion is about a centimeter long, with a larval  life cycle similar to that of a caterpillar.  At the end of the larva stage, it spins a cocoon and after a few days an adult a dragonfly emerges.

Antlions like to set their pits in places where it is dry and where the soil particles are loose and small. They dig a circular, funnel-shaped pit and hide at the bottom of it. When an unsuspecting ant  falls into the pit, the Antlion grabs it with its jaws. The prey cannot escape the pit because the wall is crumbly.  As the prey tries to climb up, the grainy wall crumbles down.

Antlion with its bean-shaped body and ant like head appear to  move rearwards.  As a child, I used to locate Antlions’  pits and blow the sand away with my mouth.  As the sand blew away, exposing the Antlion, it would further dig deep down to escape until I caught it.  The Antlions caught would be stored in an empty matchbox.  After a few of these creatures were caught, I used to line them up like elephants paraded during Thrissur Pooram.  The Thrissur Pooram is held in the city of Thrissur in central Kerala (India) and is a cultural highlight that is unique in its pageantry, magnitude and participation. 30  elephants are paraded on this occasion, attired  with the traditional Nettipattam (golden headdress), decorative bells and ornaments, decorated umbrellas, palm leaves and peacock feathers, and beautifully-crafted kolam (paintings).

The Antlions grow into dragonflies and would flutter around in search of insects, their staple food.  As a kid, I chased and caught a few of them and tied a small thread to their tails so as to control them and make them take short flights.  Then I would prompt the dragonfly to pick up small pebbles and increased the size of the stones until the dragonfly could lift no more.  This sadistic game ended with the death of the dragonfly, when it severed its head from its torso.

The next creature is the dangerous  നീർ – Neer – The Red Weaver Ants .  They are found in the tropical forests of Africa, Australia and the Solomon Islands. In India I have found them only in Kerala.  All animals, insects, birds and humans are scared of them because of the painful bite they inflict.  They are very aggressive territorial ants and tend to be very aggressive and responsive to disturbance.  They have a vice like grip and tremendous strength while inflicting a painful slicing bite.  With the bite they spray formic acid into the resulting wounds.

They are seen in almost all fruit trees in our farmland, mainly the  mango and  jackfruit trees.  They are natural insect killers as they feast on the fruit flies that hover around these trees.  It takes a few minutes for a fruit fly to find a suitable spot on the mango and inject her eggs under the skin of the fruit and make the fruit rot.  The weaver ants on these trees chase them away or capture them. When other insects, squirrels or birds detect the scent of weaver ants, they prefer to stay away.

The only catch is that when one needs to climb these trees to get the fruits down.  Then one has to apply a strong insect repellent – usually kerosene – and carry a bag full of ash.  As one climbs up the tree, ash is spread all around to keep these weaver ants at bay.

These weaver ants are famous for the elaborate treetop nests they build. They are champions of cooperation when it comes to building a nest.   They build nests by stitching five to ten leaves together using larval silk.  They first find a suitable location on a treetop and then bend down the leaves and place them in a tent like shape.  Holding down such leaves demand the force of a thousand ants, each drawing down with all his might and the others fasten the joints to build a spacious nest that protects their colony from impending danger of predators.

Using precise coordination, the weaver ants create very strong ant chains by linking legs to pull and bend leaves into desired tent like positions. Then they  glue them with silk.  The silk comes from their own larvae.  The adults carry larvae in their jaws and squeeze them gently so that the larvae secrete a drop of silk on one end of the leaf edges. The ants then carry the larvae along the entire length of the leaf edges, squeezing as they go, using the larvae like living bottles of glue, until the edges of the leaves are stuck together from end to end.

Weaver ants live in a highly organized, co-operative society, where every individual has a role to play in the survival of the entire colony. Their jobs are based on their physique and they execute the tasks with utmost sincerity and discipline. Those in charge of food bring anything edible back to their colony to feed other ants.  They also have a workers army who construct the nests and repair them and very aggressively protect the nests filled with ants and their eggs.

As a child, I used to stand next to the mango tree and observe these ants at work.  I used to talk to them, reporting what all happened at home.  This time I did watch them curiously, but had nothing to talk to them.

Photographs Courtesy Sherrin Koduvath 

A Note that Dissonates, Once Again

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Our friend Suresh Nellikode invited me to watch Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s Malayalam movie ‘Pinneyum’ on September 13, 2016 at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).  I had seen many classics Adoor had made before – Swayamvaram, Kodiyettam, Elipathayam and Mathilukal – which remain in my memory.  In all these movies I was impressed with the use of natural sounds with minimum background score, unlike may Indian movies.

In his latest venture ‘Pinneyum’ (Once Again), he has captured the natural sounds and used it to convey the time and the environment to the viewer.  Was it that effective like his earlier attempts?  Has Adoor done justice to the natural sounds which obviously changed with the times in Kerala’s rural background spanning a timeline of over 17 years?

The first time I left Kerala was to join Sainik School Amaravathinagar, Tamil Nadu in 1971 at the age of nine.  Every year I came home for the summer vacations.  During this homecoming, I could not make out any changes to the ambient sounds of nature.  The wind would create music, caressing the paddy fields downhill through the tapioca and pineapple cultivation uphill to our home.  A few notes changed with the swaying of the coconut trees and the tropical fruit trees – tamarind, bread fruit, jack fruit -that grew abundantly in our farm.  The air had the aroma of the flowers in bloom or the fruits that had ripened. The road in front of our home had very scant traffic with a few cars and the hourly bus service, only connection to Kottayam town.

Only one or two homes in the village, of those who could afford,  had a telephone and a car.  Obviously we could not afford either.  Even a wall clock and radio were rarities.  We had a wall clock, a mechanical pendulum one, which struck once every half hour and the number of hours at the hour.  This striking sound was a break from the sounds of nature – from the birds’ chirping and calls and the shrill cries of the crickets and the flying lizards – an evolutionary link between lizards and birds – which flew from one palm tree to another in search of insects.  Every household in the village reared cows, goats, chicken and ducks.  Their moos, bleats, rooster’s crowing and hens’ songs – filled the air all through the day.

The evenings marked prayer time and as one strolled along the road, one could hear readings from the Bible, hymns and devotional songs – both from the Hindu and Christian homes.  The nocturnal music of the nature was very much different with the owls, insects and dogs pitching in with their parts.

The artificial sounds that one heard once in a while was from the Chenda (drums) of the announcer who came along the road to announce the release of a new movie in the village talkies (thatched theatre).  The temples and churches hired the Mike Set (Public Address system) and the Chenda Melam (percussion using Chenda ) only on the annual festival days.  A Gramophone was a vital element of the mike set.  Luckily in those days the songs lasted only three minutes as one side of the gramophone record could only hold as much.

The early eighties brought prosperity to our village due to the increased salary of government employees, higher prices for the cash crops and spices the village produced and many seeking employment in foreign lands, mainly in the Gulf countries.  Our eldest brother moved over to Sultanate of Oman.

The natural music I was used to during my annual vacations started to be corrupted by the artificial ones.  With every passing year, the changes were audible.

That was when the first Television came into our home beaming the national channel Doordarshan.  On Saturdays they telecasted a Malayalam movie and all the neighbours would congregate at our home.  Our eldest brother brought in a digital electronic clock which chimed its musical notes every fifteen minutes.  Now the old mechanical clock got pushed away on to the wall of the side room and its Japanese cousin took its place of pride in the family room.  We also got a telephone connection and the metallic ringing sound of the rotor dial telephone also added to the milieu.

Exorbitant labour costs, pests and  crop diseases turned the village to rubber plantations.  Most tropical fruit trees were cut, tapioca and pineapple cultivations discarded – all to make way for the rubber trees.  The herbal plants which grew abundantly became extinct.  Many species of birds and the flying lizards disappeared as they could neither nest among the rubber trees nor could find any food.  Rice cultivation disappeared too being uneconomical.  Thus Kerala turned into a consumer state.

The traffic on the roads kept increasing manifold with new varieties of automobiles – from motorbikes to large trucks.  The Churches and Temples procured their own Mike Sets and the competition to please their Gods with highest possible decibel levels all through day and night started.  Thus the natural sounds now gave way for more synthetic tones.  The noise of the wind passing through the rubber trees was no more music to the ears.  Why, even the aroma in the air had disappeared.

The nineties marked the opening of the Indian economy and with it came telephones and televisions in every homes in the village.  The rotor dial telephone had made way for their electronic avatars.  Cable Television came in without any government controls or regulations and in the absence of any red-tape, each and every home joined the cable yugam in a matter of few weeks.  This resulted in the many channels reaching the homes and families getting closeted indoors glued to the television.

With the turn of the century, cows, goats and fowls disappeared from the cow-sheds and pens.  Every house had a car parked in the porch.  The era of Bible reading and hymn singing evenings ended as everyone got fixated to the tear jerking serials various channels beamed with vengeance to each other and to humanity.

This aspect of changing sounds was missing in Adoors ‘Pinneyum’ with the storyline spanning about 17 years.  He, well known as a perfectionist in the art of movie making, has captured even the minutest sounds like the coconut leaf dangling in the temple rubbing the shoulders of the actors.  It is a puzzle as to how Adoor failed to capture the changing sounds to depict the timeline in his movie.

When Kerala Saw Red

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Kerala state in India was carved out of the Madras State in 1956 as a result of reorganisation of states based on linguistic lines.  Until then, it was called Madras State – a name that was derived from Madras Presidency of British India.  The then state of Madras was reorganised into four: Madras, Mysore, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala based on the linguistic majority of Tamil, Kannada, Telugu and Malayalam respectively. Incidentally ‘Malayalam’ is the only language in the world which forms a Palindrome- when spelt in English would read the same both right to left and in Arabic style left to right.  A person whose mother tongue is Malayalam is called a Malayalee.  In recent times the nextgen has stylised this to ‘Mallu’.    

Madras State was renamed Tamil Nadu in 1969 and their Kannada speaking brethren renamed Mysore to ‘Karnataka’ in 1973.  Andhra Pradesh was further subdivided to form Telangan State in 2014.  The city of Madras changed its name to Chennai in 1996.  The only vestige of the erstwhile Madras Presidency in the Indian Army  is the Madras Regiment – a group of Infantry Battalions and Madras Engineering Group (MEG) manned by soldiers from the erstwhile Madras Presidency states and in the civil front, the Madras Cricket Club (MCC).  Even though the Madras Presidency became history and the Madras city changed its name to Chennai, the North Indians, until recently continued to refer to the people by the demonym ‘Madrasi’, perhaps in a wee bit derogatory sense and therefore deemed an ethnic slur.

There is also a French connection to this ethnic, linguistic and colonial chaos.  The French in the Seventeenth Century established trading posts in South India at Pondicherry, Karaikal and Yanaon on the East Coast in the Tamil speaking area and Mahe on the West Coast in the Malayalam speaking region.  Post Indian independence in 1947, the French continued to hold these areas until 1954.  A general election involving 178 people in Pondicherry Municipal and Commune Panchayat was held in 1954 and 170 people voted in favour of independence from France and eight people voted against.  Thus on 01 November 1954, Pondicherry became part of the Indian Union.  In order to maintain their French identity, these areas came directly under the rule of the federal government and was known as the Union Territory of Pondicherry.  They also underwent a name change and became Puduchery in 2006. 

After formation of Kerala State, the first elections to the state legislature was held in 1957 and the world was in for a surprise.  The Communist Party of India won the elections by a slim majority, forming the first democratically elected communist government in the world. It also became the first “non-Congress” ruled state in India. The Communist victory raised hackles in USA, especially at the height of the Cold War.  There were concerns within India too, particularly in the federal capital  of New Delhi, but Prime Minister Nehru, true to the spirit of federalism was willing to work with the then Communist Chief Minister, EMS Namboothirippad.

 A notable feature of the first EMS Government was the calibre of distinguished personalities who occupied Cabinet positions.  They initiated thoughtful changes in state government policies, mainly oriented on enabling the poor and the downtrodden.  Their actions were, in my view, mainly responsible for the current state of affairs in Kerala, with 100% literacy, good healthcare, zero population growth, eradication of poverty, very low child mortality and so on, all typical indicators of a developed country in the world.  The state’s development has been so well studied that the ‘Kerala Model’ is frequently referred to by economists, anthropologists, and policy-makers alike.  The United Nations’ annual Human Development Index (HDI) reports, rank Kerala along with developed countries of the world.

Through the Land Reforms Act the EMS government sought to confer ownership rights on tenant cultivators, grant permanent ownership of land for the agricultural labourers, by putting a ceiling on the individual land holdings so as to distribute the surplus land among the landless.  The landowning communities in Kerala, from all sections of society had an issue with this bill.

The introduction of the Education Bill added fuel to fire.  The Education Bill claimed to regulate appointments and working conditions of the teachers in the government-aided schools.  It also mandated to takeover any government-aided educational institution, if they fail to meet the conditions set by the newly promulgated bill.

Within hours of the passing of the Bill, ‘Vimochana Samaram’ (liberation struggle) was called to bring down the Communist government, mainly lead by the Churches, the upper caste Hindus and Muslim clergy, all whom had a stake in the ‘education pie’. The efforts  of these vested interests along with the manoeuvres of the political front led by the Indian National Congress Party, resulted in the dismissal of the  state Government by the Central Government,  using the notorious Article 356 of the Indian Constitution in 1959. Be that as it may, the leftist lean continues till date and the left ideology had taken deep roots.

The CIA’s role in Kerala did not surface until Daniel Patrick Moynihan who was ambassador to India in the early 1970s admitted this in his 1978 book ‘A Dangerous Place’.  In an interview of Moynihan with Ellsworth Bunker, the then US Ambassador to India (1956 to 1961), admitted to the US involvement.  He contended that the CIA had provided financial assistance to the Congress Party because the embassy had hard evidence that the Soviets were funding local communists.  He opined that “as they have done everywhere in the world, but as we have done elsewhere in the world, we have come to the assistance of our friends when we knew and had evidence about what the Communists were doing financially and otherwise (sic).”

That was the left side of Kerala state and until I was selected to join the National Defence Academy in 1978, I was in no way affected by a left leaning Kerala. When a successful candidate from a state other than Kerala, had to fill in only a few forms for police clearance, I had to fill in a dozen more.  All because I hailed from a Leftist Kerala State.  Now I needed a special verification from the various intelligence bureaus of the state police and the central police.  I was well advised by my father never to disclose any connection of our family to the Communist Party – my uncle M Thomas was a Communist member of the Legislature from Kottayam (1971-1977).  The police clearance procedure resulted in many policemen, from different departments, making frequent visits to our home and my father had no option but to grease their palms, else his son may be denied entry into NDA.  Luckily, now days, this practice seems to have ended. 

 

Thankachan – Our Fish Vendor

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In our young days the fish vendors would come cycling down the street early morning, howling at the top of the voice mathiye  mathi… roopakku aaru  (Sardines, Sardines – six for a rupee). One of the women from the household would go to the street on hearing his calling and the vendor would dismount. Putting the cycle laden with the heavy fish-basket on the rear carrier gingerly on its stand would commence the procedure. It would begin with ascertaining the freshness of the fish, the type of fish and the price. The lady would most often complain that the fish he sold last time was not all that fresh as the vendor would have claimed. After exchanging a few bargaining words, the price would be settled and the vendor would count out fish as demanded. Sometimes the men would also go out to the road to purchase the fish.

After our eldest brother turned a teen, it became his duty every alternate morning to buy the fish. As we all grew up, everyone took turns. During my vacations from boarding school, I was entrusted the duty for the two months. Whenever I bought the fish, Amma would always compliment me for the ‘deal’ I clinched from the fish vendor. Our eldest brother became suspicious of my ‘deal’ and one day he asked me the secret behind it. I told him that I would tell Amma not the actual price I paid, but half a rupee or a quarter less. He then wanted to know as to how I managed the balance change and I told him that the few coins I saved up from my pocket money at school was used for this. If I could gather a few brownie points over my brothers and above all if I could make Amma feel pleased, it was worth it, I thought.

We generally bought fish every alternate day as we all liked a day old fish curry.  It was only with the a day of ageing that the kodampuli, a specific type of tamarind from the Malabar region in Kerala, would soak into the soft flaky flesh of the fish from the backwaters of the Arabian coast… and that is also when all the spices let out their combined aromas. The day after, the fish curry with steaming hot fresh puzhungarisi choru, boiled ‘boiled’rice, tastes truly like it was made for God, in his own country, none the less!

After our father’s retirement, he would rise early, clear the fallen leaves in the courtyard and await the fish vendor. We never had any particular vendor, but would buy the fish from the one who arrived first. One day Thankachan came with the fish and our father bought some from him. Again after two days it was Thankachan who sold fish to our father.

Promptly, Thankachan appeared on our doorsteps the next day requesting our father to buy fish. My father explained to him that we bought fish only on alternate days. Now Thankachan narrated his story.

Thankachan had been into the fish vending business for the past two years and not even one day he could sell off all his fish. At the end of the day he would sell all the remaining fish in the basket to the Toddy Shop at half price and this always ate into his earnings. Our father was his very first customer for the two days and on both the days his basket was empty by noon. That was why he did not sell any fish to anyone on his way from the market to our home and wanted our father as his first customer, being a good omen.

From that day we bought fish every morning and Thankachan would give us a good deal, but always made sure that he received the payment only from our father. This customer relationship continued for the next ten years until Thankachan called it a day from his business of door-to-door fish vending.

Many vendors in India still feel that the business for the day would depend on the first sale they execute and the day will go well only in case the first customer is a lucky person for the vendor. The vendors hate when the first customer wants credit and some even refuse such customers or in case it is unavoidable, would request them to come after an hour.

With the changing times, development and prosperity setting in Kerala, where in all the strata of the society prospered together, the fish vendors discarded their bicycles for motor-bikes. Now they do not howl at the top of their voices, but would text preferred customers the details of the type of fish and the price and the interested customers would confirm by a return text message. Once they got confirmation for their entire stock, then only will they set out on their bikes from the market.

The days of the haggling fish vendor has now been confined to history.

Where to Find God

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A very pertinent question being asked in today’s world, filled with evangelists from all religions and sects, standing on rooftops and on TV, shouting at the top of their voices.  Everyone it appears wants to prove to the world that the Gods they sell are the best, accompanied  by miracles in various forms.  Most of these evangelists, exploiting the greed of humanity, have amassed wealth that even their Gods cannot fathom.

The city of Kottayam in Kerala, which boasts of near cent percent literacy, is better known as the city of three Ls – Latex , Letters and Liquor.  It is the trading centre of natural rubber in India and the Indian Rubber Board is also located here.  The city boasts of many educational institutions with their glorious past and also is the home for most publishing houses in Kerala with Malayala Manorama and its allied publications leading the pack.  It also set many records in liquor consumption, but of late, other smaller towns have leaped miles ahead of Kottayam.  The city boasts of many Hindu temples, Muslim mosques and Christian churches that dot the townscape.  It is the headquarters of most factions of the Syrian Christians.   

Panhandling has been banned in Kottayam since my childhood, but one can always spot a few beggars in and around the town, especially adjacent to religious places of worship.  On the  days of various festivals in these religious places, an army of beggars, mostly immigrants from the other Indian states, congregate here.  It appears to be an organised racket and the way they are moved from one place to another and the methodology employed in locating them at vantage points would put any army to shame.

On a Friday morning, a  beggar, desperate to get a few bucks as he was really hungry, located himself in front of a mosque in Kottayam.  In the afternoon, everyone came for the prayers (Jummah).  (The schools in Kerala have a long recess on Fridays, extending till 2:30 PM to facilitate Muslim students to offer Jummah).   On culmination of the prayers, everyone folded their caps, dusted and rolled their prayer mats and went home.  No one even bothered to give a glance at the hungry beggar.

On Saturday morning the beggar placed himself at the vantage point of the Shiva Temple of Kottayam.    The devotees came in droves (Second Saturday of a month is a holiday for all offices and schools of Kerala) and offered Poojas, Nivedyams and Abhishekams and left and no one gave any offering to the hungry beggar.

On Sunday morning the beggar placed himself in front of the Cathedral.  He reached there well before the priest and the church manager could even open the doors.  During the Holy Mass, the Gospel reading was from the Gospel According to Saint Mathews – Chapter 25 – Verses 35 to 40.  Verse 35 says  “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in.”  At end of the mass, the priest in his sermon reminded all the true followers of Christ that they must feed the hungry as it would be equivalent to any offering to the God. 

The beggar was full of hope that he would surely get something, especially after the priest’s sermon.  The Clergy and the Laymen all assembled after the Holy Mass for the meeting and elected the committee for the coming year and dispersed.  No one gave anything to the beggar.

On Monday morning, by about 10′ o clock, the beggar perched in a shady corner, next to the outlet of the Beverages Corporation of Kerala (liquor vent).  A queue of about 30 people had already been formed, without any jostling or pushing, awaiting the auspicious time of 10 AM for the sale window to open.   The salesman at dot 10 AM opened the window and brisk sales proceeded and more people joined the queue.

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By about 11 AM, the beggar found his pan full of money and overjoyed with it, he prayed to the God Almighty.  He wanted the God to answer his query as to why He gave him His wrong address.  The God appeared in front of the beggar and explained to him the reasons.

“Look! These are the real devotees.  Everyone has formed a proper and well disciplined queue which you will never find in front of any other places you had been till now.  There is no difference between the rich and the poor; literate and illiterate.  There is no segregation  along caste, creed or religious lines.    They stand in a queue in the most descent manner, braving the storms, rains or the hot sun.  They respect each others’ privacy and ensure that they do not even touch the one in the front.”

“These devotees are only asking for what they want and never for their parents, children, relatives or friends.  They never request that others should not be given what they want.  They ask what they want in minimum words, in a language everyone understands.  They neither sing praises about their brand of liquor  nor do they sermonise about the evils and the good of liquor.  Here there are no VIPs and one does not have to pay upfront at various counters and obtain a receipt for the services.  There are neither  any commission agents nor are there any long forms to be filled.  There is no need for any written application on a white sheet of paper.  They never try to bribe Me with their offerings in cash or in kind, without realising that if offered to the needy would be of immense help and if offered to Me would never be of any use to anyone.”

“Hence isn’t this the best place in Kottayam for the God to be?”.

On hearing the reasons given by the God, the beggar asked “Then why did You make me beg around for the past three days?”

The God replied “That is to show you beggars as to where to find Me.”