JJ Murphy – Princely Rubber Planter

Natural Rubber, extracted from trees has had a long history with humanity.  Rubber trees are native to South America and the ancient tribes, called it ‘Caoutchoue,’ meaning a Crying Tree. They named it so because when an incision is made on the bark of the tree, the latex oozes out like a teardrop.

The South American tribes used the natural rubber latex for their shoes. They immersed their foot in latex, lifted their foot and waited until the latex dried.  This process was repeated until they achieved a thick sole.

When the European explorers returned home with pieces of rubber, they found that when they erased pencil lines on paper with what they brought home, it came off easily. As it could rub-it-off, the word Rubber was coined.

Referring to a tie-breaking game as a Rubber is common in a variety of sports and games from bridge, cricket to baseball. A three-game set in bridge is commonly referred to as a rubber. A rubber is mostly resolved through a tiebreaker.

Dead Rubber means a match in a series where the winner has been decided based on the previous matches.  The dead rubber match therefore has no effect on the winner and loser of the series, other than the number of matches won and lost.

The term ‘Rubber Stamp’ originated in the Nineteenth Century when rubber stamps were used in the passage of bureaucratic papers of various kinds from one office to the other, often to show that an office had seen the document and approved it. It symbolised excessive bureaucracy and meant ‘To endorse or approve uncritically; to pass routinely or automatically.’

Rubber is an important tree for the world and its utilisation has increased many fold over the years.  It appears that the humanity is bound by rubber from birth to death.

Thailand is the largest producer of natural rubber in the world. India is one among the top ten rubber producing countries with Kerala accounting for over 75%.  The rubber Board of India is located at Kottayam, Kerala and the price of rubber in India is decided at the Kottayam market.

Rubber plant was brought to India by the British to augment production to meet ever increasing demand for rubber in Britain.   Hevea Brasiliensis – the rubber trees, native to Amazon rainforests, how did they find their way to Kerala, the God’s Own Country?

Rubber trees grow well in typical Amazonian conditions – temperature between 25°C to 35°C, high humidity of 75%, five to six hours of adequate sunlight, and about 200 to 300 cm of annual rainfall.  Kerala’s weather very well suits the requirements.

The British initiated rubber plantations in India, as early as 1873 at the Calcutta Botanical Gardens, but the attempt failed. In 1902, Murphy Saippu, (Saheb in Malayalam,) known as JJ among his friends, John Joseph Murphy, an Irish man, established the first commercial rubber plantation in Kerala.

Murphy had enrolled at Trinity College, Dublin, but without completing the course, he sailed to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) to seek his fortune. He struck out on his own, though he belonged to a prominent Dublin family of shippers and bankers.  He was an adventurous colonialist, an avid racer, a social reformer and an educationalist. Murphy established the 1200-acre Murphy Estate, at Yendayar, about 60 km from Kottayam.

In those days, his estate was known for family quarters for the labourers with piped water and sanitation, hospitals with maternity wards, crèches at the workplace, schools for the children with midday meals, etc. He is believed to have even sent his workers’ children to Madras (Chennai) for higher education at his own expense. 1n 1952, he sold off his estate and lived there until his death in 1957.

One of Murphy’s passions was racing. He had a large stable and his horses brought him laurels from many courses in India, England and Ireland. The trophies were proudly displayed at his Yendayar bungalow.

He dominated the racing world for several years and won the C N Wadia Gold Cup at Bombay and the Governors cup at Madras. He raced his horse Old Orkney in England to win the Manchester November Handicap in 1927 and Goodwood Cup in 1929.

During World War II, when the entire country faced severe food shortage, the people of Yendayar were fortunate because Murphy ensured regular supplies of quality rice and other items at a great personal cost. Murphy’s philanthropy was legendary. No person who went to him with a genuine need had to return disappointed.

Murphy visited Ireland and UK for the last time in 1938 – 39. After he sold his estate in 1952, he lived at Yendayar until death on 09 May 1957. He was laid to rest at the cemetery of St Joseph’s Church, Yendayar.

KV Thomas Pottamkulam, in his article about Murphy titled ‘Princely Planter’ concludes that “I would like to think that if, instead of coming to India, he had emigrated to the United States, he might well have become the first Irish Catholic President decades before J F Kennedy.”

To extract the latex from a mature tree, a long curving, quarter inch deep groove is cut into the bark of the tree early in the morning. From this cut the latex oozes out into a container below where it gets collected. This latex is picked up four hours later from each tree and is processed to obtain natural rubber.

A rubber tree begins to yield latex when it is seven years old and is tapped for twenty years. After that, the tree is cut and sold as timber and a new set of trees are planted.

For the first five years after a new sapling is planted, they do inter-cropping by planting pineapple. It binds the soil and prevents soil erosion. It also brings in moolah for the farmer. The rubber growing areas of Kerala produces the best variety of pineapples in India.

After five years, the canopy of the tree grows large and prevents sunlight from reaching the ground. Now they plant a wild legume plant which binds the soil and acts as a mulch to retain soil moisture, regulate soil temperature and suppress weed growth.

Rubber Board of India established John Joseph Murphy Research Centre (JJMRC) in 2013 in his memory. It is the first of its kind integrated research and technology services hub, based in India’s first industrial park dedicated to rubber based industries. The centre is situated at Irapuram village in Ernakulam District. The park is a joint venture by the Rubber Board of India and the Government of Kerala.

When a Higher Secondary School was opened in Yendayar in 1982 with the support of local people, they did not forget the man who made Yendayar.  They named the school John Joseph Murphy Memorial Higher Secondary School.

Unfortunately, these are the only two memorials for a man who dedicated his life and changed the region’s economy and the people who lived there.

Nightie

In Kerala, the nightie is everywhere with most working-class women in Kerala owning at least one.

Illustration by Avni Karthik. Age 10

How did Nighty, a boxy garment which doesn’t give any shape to the body, which does not enhance the body’s contours, which does not bring out the women’s curves became so popular?  Nighties’ predecessors – maxis and kaftans – did make their appearance in early seventies – mostly in movies.  It did not gain popularity among the masses.

Nightie came to Kerala with the Gulf boom of the 80’s, like many other fashion and material onsets.  It was a sure content of the suitcases of any Mallu returning from the Gulf.  He carried at least one for every female family member and relative.  It could well be the first invasion of the Western culture into Kerala.  Unlike the Western Nightie, it wasn’t a negligee worn by women to bed at night.

Nightie is universal – fits all size or age. It does not divide women on either caste or religious lines in its use. Nightie became popular also because of the humid weather of Kerala with relative humidity mostly over 70% all through the year – day or night.  It is a shapeless floor-sweeping garment made of thick cloth, with frills at all imaginable and unimaginable places, decorated with puffed sleeves.

To establish in the Indian society, the poor Nightie too endeared many a battle.  In 2013, a Chennai school asked the parents to stop students from wearing nighties for the morning school run.  In 2014, a women’s group in Gothivli village near Mumbai tried to impose a fine of Rs 500 on residents wearing nighties outside their homes, describing the garment as indecent. In both cases, the nightie won the battle.

In 2018, Thokalapalli, a village in coastal Andhra Pradesh, barred women from wearing nightie during the daytime. They ruled that women could wear nighties only at night and any violations will attract a fine of Rs 2000 and anybody who helped in bringing such violator to book would be rewarded with Rs 1000.

Kerala women preferred the nightie over the traditional Chatta-Mundu, lungi-blouse and saree as it is easy to wear, easy to wash and it never failed in its duty and never ended up in a wardrobe malfunction.

Draping a Thorthu over the upper torso depicted modesty for the modest and cultured, but Kerala women – smart as they are, discarded the Thorthu long ago.  A nightie can well be seen in Kerala as a sign of female liberation as well as a social leveller.

Today the Nightie is a national phenomenon with different names.  Nightie in Kerala, Gowns in Mumbai, Housecoats in Goa, and kaftan for the rich. The Nightie has gained international recognition with The New York Times running a story on the outfit under the headline Wear Your Nightie Out.

In the soldiers’ family quarters, the nightie made its presence felt. To begin with, it was introduced by the wives of the South Indian Class (SIC) soldiers especially the Mallus. It caught on and others followed suit. While on rounds of the Regimental Family Quarters, one could see the invasion of the nightie, irrespective of caste or creed!!!

Our mother discarded her saree for the Nightie when her grandchildren came into this world.  She very reluctantly wore the nightie as she had to run after the children, feed them and play with them.  At the end of the day she said “I never realised it was so comfortable.

In 2006, our mother came to Canada and lived with us for six months.  For her journey from Kochi to Toronto, she wore the saree.  Marina and children accompanied her and throughout the journey, it was very inconvenient and uncomfortable for her to visit the washroom in the aircraft.

On landing in Canada, I asked Marina to take her to the Shopping Mall and buy her two pairs of pants & top and skirt & top.  Our mother, stubborn that she was, said “Do you think I will ever wear it??”

After a week of acclimatisation, we planned a trip to Montreal – about eight hours of drive from Toronto.  Now I said “Amma, if you want to come along, you must discard the saree as it will be very convenient, else you will look like a sore thumb in the crowd.

With a lot of reluctance, she wore the pants & top.  After two hours of driving, we stopped at the restaurant for a coffee break.  Nidhi took Amma to the washroom and on returning to our table she said “I never realised it was so comfortable.”

I accompanied Amma on her return journey.  For the entire flight duration of travel from Kochi airport to home, she wore her skirt & top.  My brothers, sisters-in-law and grandchildren were all flabbergasted to see the Granny in a Western outfit.  One of the grandchildren remarked, “Until now Granny was All-India.  Now she is International.”

Koel the Brood Parasite

Mrs Hema Ramachandran, wife of Veteran General PK Ramachandran, posted this image on her Facebook of a Koel (Eudynamys Scolopaceus) who visits her garden. 

I was reminded of our grandfather who narrated to us young children as to how the Koel laid her eggs in a House Crow’s (Corvus Splendens) nest.  His narration was to teach us to be industrious as a crow and not be lazy and cunning as a Koel.

When we were in Grade 10 at Sainik School Amaravathi Nagar, Mr Paul Sathya Kumar (MPSK) taught us Biology.  He explained various tactics in the bird/ animal/ plant kingdom to prove the survival of the fittest theory, and one such case was that of a smart Koel who laid her eggs in a crow’s nest.

The Koel is known as a brood parasite – a species that imposes the cost of rearing its offspring onto another species – the host (House Crow) – by laying its eggs in the hosts’ nests.

Is Koel Lazy?  Is she more industrious than the crow?  Is she crafty and cunning?

In Sanskrit and Telugu language it is called as Kokila, Tamil, Kannada , Malayalam –കുയിൽ, குயில்  (Kuyil), Hindi-कोयल  (Koel.)  Many good female singers are referred to as Koel or Kuyil.  Does the female Koel sing?  No! It is the mating call of the male bird to woo the female bird. 

For almost nine months of the year, the Koel is seldom seen because it neither sings nor calls except in the breeding season – April to July.  It is difficult to spot a Koel due to its shy nature and secretive behaviour.  They mostly remain hidden inside leafy foliage and go undetected, by and large.

In their breeding period, birds mate, lay eggs, rear their offspring and protect them. In India, birds usually breed in summer because their chicks will have enough food in the following monsoon.

Koel is a case of mimicry in the bird kingdom.  Its eggs resemble those of the crow in pattern and colour.  The ground colour of the crow eggs presents different shades of bluish green while that of the Koel is olive green. Eggs of both host and parasite have similar brown markings in the form of blotches, specks, and streaks, which are more densely distributed towards the broader end. Although eggs of Koel are smaller in size, they exhibit remarkable mimicry with crow eggs.

To ensure a higher chance of clutch formation (clutch is the number of eggs laid,) the Koel cleverly lays an egg in the crow’s nest when the mother/father crow is not around and then throws away one of the crow’s eggs.  

That means the crows can count and the mother crow is unaware of the replacement.

Another reason as to why the Koel leaves its egg in the crow’s nest is that the Koel is a vegetarian. Newborn chicks need a lot of protein to grow, and the crows will feed them non-veg protein.

This is a survival instinct and is basically inherent in the genes of organisms in nature.  It further proves Darwin’s theory of ‘Survival of the Fittest.

There are other examples of brood parasites in the bird kingdom. The egg of the common Hawk Cuckoo (Hierococcyx Varius) mimics that of its host species, the Jungle Babbler (Turdoides Striata) in size and colour. Such mimicry is thought to have evolved to prevent the host from rejecting any eggs.

Host birds respond to brood parasites using different defence strategies. They attack the parasite outright at times, and at others issue warning calls, hide the nest, look for and remove the parasite’s eggs and aggressively defend their territories.  I have often spotted female Koels being chased by crows even outside the nest when they spot each other.

A Koel is so crafty that to increase the chance of survival of its eggs, she lays her eggs in different nests.  Remember the adage – ‘Never put all your eggs in the same basket!‘  When the Koel visits a crow’s nest, it also punctures or breaks eggs irrespective of the species so that her offspring isn’t starved of food even during a shortage.  The Koel is too smart to ensure that the clutch size is optimum so that the crow can feed and take care of its chicks. 

If a host happens to see a parasite laying an egg in its nest or recognises an intruding egg, it will abandon the nest or reject the egg.

Incubation period of the Koel’s egg is about 12 to 13 days and the crow’s 16 to 17 days.  Thus, the Koel chicks emerge a few days before the first crow chick hatches.  The poor crow hatches the eggs, feeds the Koel chick, and brings it to adulthood to hear the bird coo differently.

The Koel chick keeps chirping continuously. So, the mother crow feeds it more thinking that the chick is still hungry and not yet fed enough.  The Koel chicks grow rapidly and become healthier than the crow chicks.  They develop feathers and wings earlier than crow chicks and fly out earlier.

Isn’t the Koel industrious, crafty and cunning than the crow??

What Would I Have Done?

After a couple of years of my retirement from the Indian Army in 2004,  my friend Colonel Josey Joseph, wanted to know what I would have done post-retirement had I been in India. I laid out my plans and he wanted to know why I did not implement a much smarter and better plan than immigrating to Canada.

My post retirement plan in case I had stayed in India was to become a Priest at our Church and start with many meditation sittings – all to impress the people.

In all mock seriousness, I replied “To begin with, there must be a few fair-skinned followers, especially good-looking blonde girls,  in low cut blouses , and a few white guys. Whenever I paused during my sermons, they would  chorus ‘Praise the Lord! Hallelujah!‘ Now watch the fun as to how my coffers fill up.”

Why did you not work towards your plan?” Colonel Josey asked.

The plan was great, but I just cannot sing!  For such a plan to succeed, one has to be good at singing.  Look at any of the ‘successful’ pastors or swamis – They are great singers and dancers too!  A requirement to impress (fool) the poor masses and bhakthas,” I replied.

Colonel Josey said “Thank God! Your Dad did not put you through singing and dancing lessons, else you would have ended up selling your Dad first and then your God! Praise the Lord! Hallelujah!

Now I laid my plan bare.

Syrian Orthodox Priests can marry, only those who aspire to be promoted as a bishop remain a bachelor. Fluent in  English, Malayalam, Tamil, Hindi, Punjabi, indeed a rare combination for a Mallu Priest, I will be invited to all the International and Pan-Indian (NRI/NRK) weddings and showered in moolah. With my vast military experience and having travelled all over India, I will be invited as a speaker, a motivational speaker, as I specialise in impressing people. 

A Syrian Orthodox priest is often allotted a Parish and he may be the Vicar or the Assistant Vicar. A Parish means a small administrative district or village, including all religions, typically having its own church and a priest or pastor.  Vicar is derived from the English prefix ‘vice,’ similarly meaning ‘deputy‘ and here he is the deputy to the Bishop.

The Parish will be benefited in that every need of the Parishioners would be presented effectively to the District Collector or the Superintendent of Police. Naturally,  they  would be compelled by courtesy and etiquette to never refuse an audience to the Reverend Father-Veteran Colonel Reji Koduvath. The least I could do is to draft various complaints and applications for the Parish members.

There are various projects by the Central and State Governments for the benefit of the citizens. Many of them do not reach the public as people are unaware of the paperwork involved. Having written many Statements of Case while in service, and following it up to the Defence Ministry level, who else can do it better?

Employment opportunities for the youth, military, police (both central & state), bank, railways, state transport, UPSC, state PSC… I could have provided effective guidance and mentorship to youth aspiring to enroll into all these. I would have conducted orientation training for each specific job at the church, conduct mock tests, interviews, group discussions, public speaking, etc as well.  With more of the youth employed, obviously more money for the church (and me.)

I would also organise leadership training and adventure activities for the children and youth of the Parish. This would facilitate them to do better at the interviews.  

I would motivate the children of the Parish to read by initiating little ones to the habit of reading, the biggest bugbear for the Indian youth. I would publish a Church magazine with children contributing their stories, poems and articles.

Upon hearing my narration, Colonel Josey remarked “I think your idea is not only novel, but simply brilliant. And in these times when most of the clergy across the board propagate hate; a message of love, an effort to help the helpless and instill self-confidence in children : that’s the core of what our nation and the world really needs.  And, knowing you so well, I am quite certain that personal gain would hardly be your motivation. Also, more importantly,  although every parish priest is not a Colonel Reji Koduvath, I am sure most of them can undertake some of the activities you suggested.  Someone needs to take the lead.”

Corrupted Dosa

Recently read a post ‘Online delivery of Masala Dosas is a food ‘hate-crime’. North India must apologise. Its indeed a hate crime!!!  Even the paper thin Dosa is a hate crime the North Indians must tender an apology for!!!

A Dosa is a thin pancake like a crepe originating from South India, made from a fermented batter of lentils and rice.

The paper-thin Dosa is the corrupted form of Dosa.  In my childhood Amma made Dosa on a ten-inch dia stone girdle.  It was thick – the least it was five times thicker lighter and spongier than its paper-thin cousin. These Dosas were characterised by the holes left by the steam evaporating on cooking from the batter.

I joined Sainik School Amaravathi Nagar (Tamil Nadu) in 1971 at the age of nine where Dosa was served twice a week – Sunday breakfast and Thursday diner.  The Sunday Dosa was with Sambar and Chutney, but the Thursday Dinner was the best – rarest of rarest combination – Dosa with Chicken Masala Curry – one of the best combinations I have had in my life.  Here too it was the thick and fluffy Dosa which combined well with the gravy.

My introduction to the paper-thin Dosa was at the National Defence Academy.  It never tasted anywhere near what I had at home or at school.  It was too crispy for my liking.  I called it the ‘Corrupt version of the poor Dosa.’  Though corrupt, it was lapped up by the North Indians and the South Indians too followed suit and the thick and original Dosa disappeared from most South Indian restaurants and homes.  Some restaurants now serve it as ‘Set Dosa.’

I recall an incident narrated by Veteran Colonel MA Mathai.  After marriage, on settling in their first military abode in 1985, he and his wife Sainu decided to invite all officers of their Regiment for a Dosa Brunch.  In the morning Sainu made Dosas the way her mother made them – thick and stout.  Neither Captain Mathai nor the officers were too happy about it.

After our marriage, we established our first home at Devlali, Maharashtra in 1989.  During our settling down days, Marina said she intended to make Dosa on the following Sunday and she inquired as to what I wanted with it.  I asked for my most relished combination with Dosa – chicken masala curry.  “What an unpalatable combination?” was Marina’s reply.  I told her that the thick Dosa made on a granite griddle, served with chicken masala curry was the best combination for Dosa that I had ever had.  She did not believe me until we relished it that Sunday evening.

During our Pan-India tour as part of the Long Gunnery Staff Course (LGSC) in 1990, at Jabalpur Railway Station, our coach was stationed adjacent to the main platform.  After the industrial visits, while I was strolling on the railway platform in the evening, I came across tow young men from Kerala selling Dosas. They narrated their story as to how they came to Jabalpur and established their business. 

The two unemployed high-school graduate lads landed at Jabalpur on the recommendation of a close relative who was employed with the Ordnance Factory.  They searched for a job and joined the restaurant on the railway platform as dishwashers.  Few months into their work, the restaurant owner was impressed with their dedication and asked them “Can you make Dosas?  There is a lot of demand for it.  There are no good Dosa vends in town.” They took the bait. 

The two men travelled to Kerala to return with a heavy grinder, girdles and other utensils needed to make Dosa.  They commenced their Dosa selling in the restaurant and soon the place became a favourite haunt of the powerful, wealthy and influential people of Jabalpur.  The restaurant owner now came out with a new business model for them.  “You sell your Dosas here and all the money is yours?”

Too tempting an offer to reject!!  They again took the bait.  They sold hundreds of Dosas every evening, collected the cash, went back to their home to soak the rice and lentil overnight.  Next morning, they ground the rice and lentil and fermented it till evening.  In the evening, they established their girdle on the platform, in front of the restaurant.  People came in droves to buy Dosas.  Many sent their tiffin carriers for home delivery. 

The biggest question in their minds was “Why did the owner allow us to sell Dosas and take all the money?”

A month into the new venture, they gathered enough courage to ask the question to the restaurant owner.  “Customers who buy Dosas from you buy coffee too.  I sell over a hundred coffee every evening and I make a Rupee on every coffee. “

The restaurant owner did not kill the geese that laid golden eggs for him, he nurtured them!!!!

Antiquity Fraud

A new fraud has been unearthed in Kerala, India regarding sale of antiquity.  Monson, a self claimed antique dealer, was recently arrested in Kerala, India for cheating and forgery.  He boasted of high-profile connections in Kerala, which included political leaders, senior police officers and celebrities.  Monson tricked investors into believing that he got over 26 million Rupees from selling antiques to royal families in the Middle East.  He boasted that his collection included the staff of Moses, two out of the 30 silver coins taken by Judas and the throne of Tipu Sultan.

His home in Kochi, where the fake antiques and artifacts were kept, used to be allegedly frequented by senior police officers. One of the pictures doing the rounds is of former DGP Behera and ADGP Abraham during one such visit. Behera is seen sitting on a throne from Monson’s collection. He is flanked by the ADGP holding a sword.

Shawn Greenalg defrauded both the British Museum and Christie’s in 2003 with an ancient Egyptian statue of the granddaughter of King Tutankhamen, as 3,300 years old. The Bolton Museum purchased the piece that same year, but shortly after it went on display in 2004 it was discovered to be a fake. It turned out to have been be made by Shawn Greenalgh in his parents’ shed. Greenalgh and his parents made and sold forgeries for more than 17 years, earning more than a million dollars running their scheme.

Among the most famous antiquity frauds in the world is the Shroud of Turin, considered one of the holy relics by Catholics, who believe the cloth was Jesus’ burial shroud and bears the image of his face. A carbon-dating testing of 1988 revealed that the fibers in the linen cloth were not from the time of Jesus’ crucifixion.

In September 2020, New York Police arrested Erdal Dere and Faisal Khan who compromised that integrity, and defrauded buyers and brokers of the antiquities they sold, by fabricating the provenance of those antiquities, and concealing their true history.

There are many high profile cases of antiquity frauds reported from all over the world.  If the British Museum and Christie’s  could be defrauded, anyone else could also be.  In this case it was the senior Police officers of Kerala who were made to believe the authenticity of the fake antiques.  If the police could be defrauded so easily, where do the common-folk go?

It prompted me to research into the rules and regulations laid down by the Government of India vide  The Antiquities And Art Treasures Act of 1972.  The act defines antiquity as:-

  • Any coin, sculpture, painting, epigraph or other work of art or craftsmanship;
  • Any article, object or thing detached from a building or cave;
  • Any article, object or thing illustrative of science, art, crafts, literature, religion, customs, morals or politics in bygone ages;
  • Any article, object or thing of historical interest;
  • Any article, object or thing declared by the Central Government, by notification in the Official Gazette, to be an antiquity for the purposes of this Act, which has been in existence for not less than one hundred years;
  • Any manuscript, record or other document which is of scientific, historical, literary or aesthetic value and which has been in existence for not less than seventy-five years.

The act stipulates that it no person shall, himself or by any other person on his behalf, carry on the business of selling or offering to sell any antiquity without a valid licence from the Archeological Survey of India.

The acts specifies that every person who owns, controls or is in possession of any antiquity shall register such antiquity.  Whenever any person transfers the ownership, control or possession of any antiquity, such transfer must be intimated to the registering officer.

There is no dearth of rules, but if the people responsible to implement them are not aware of the rules, where does the poor rule hide?

The Unseen Granny

Nithin Lukose with his Grandmother Mariakutty

Unseen characters have been used since the beginning of theatre with the ancient Greek tragedians, such as Laius in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and Jason’s bride in Euripides’ Medea.  Rosaline in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is another classical example of an unseen character.

In the Malayalam movie Paka which was showcased in the recently concluded Toronto Film Festival, there is a Granny whose disgruntled  mutterings are pivotal to the movie all through.  Only her toes are shown, with her lying on her bed.  Her two grandsons live with her until one of her sons, uncle of the two grandsons, returns from jail. 

In the Tamil movie ‘Ethir Neechal,’ directed by K Balachander, the Coughing Grandfather only his cough is heard all through the movie. The Grandfather is never shown. The other movie I watched where a body part of a main character is shown is in Inspector Gadget, a 1983 animated film where the villain Dr Claw’s right hand is shown all through the film. 

Like the Dr Claw, the Granny of Paka is arrogant, malicious, ruthless, sinister, short-tempered and sadistic.  The Granny is the one injecting venom of revenge into her grandsons.  She does not want to change and does not even want any light or fresh air entering her room.  She chastises her grandson who tries to open the window of her room.  After her death, the grandson opens the very same window to let in light and fresh air into the room.

The other movie I remember where a main character’s legs were shown was in Charlie’s Angels, where the villain and the master mind’s legs are shown at the very end.  In Paka, the Granny’s toes are only shown all through.

I wanted to meet Nithin Lukose, the director and script writer of the movie after the premier show, but Nithin couldn’t make it to Toronto due to the pandemic protocols.

Mariakutty, aged 83 years.  who enacted the role of the Granny mesmerised the  viewers with her voice alone.  She happens to the Grandmother of the Director Nithin.  The story is loosely based on the stories the Granny narrated to a young Nithin.  In fact Mariakutty relived her life in the movie, through her voice.

Movie Review : Paka

Filmmaker Nithin Lukose’s debut directorial venture  Paka (River of Blood) premiered at the 46th Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) and I was fortunate enough to watch it – thanks to our friend Mr Suresh Nellikode. 

Paka is a tale of a river where the spilled blood of two warring families flow – akin to the rivers and streams in many Indian villages, where hatred, jealousy, bitterness and blood flowed with the water.  At times the waters carried a corpse or a severed limb.  The warring factions can be well described as the Pandavas and Kauravas of Mahabharata, where there is no winner.  Interlace it with a ‘Romeo and Juliet’ like romance between two lovers from the warring sides, it’s a complete story to narrate. 

Paka is set in Wayanad, Kerala, is a gripping and fast paced story of revenge which gets inherited over three generations.  The irony is that the acidity of revenge increases with each passing generation.  The modern generation, the educated and worldly aware one, appears most acidic.

The movie ends with one side discarding all the weapons of revenge in the very same river and the other side diving deeper into vengeance, hatred and revenge.

Though natural sounds have been used all through the movie, the score composed by Faizal Ahmed adds value to the climax.  Camera work of Srikant Kabothu brings out the natural beauty of the hilly terrain and the tropical forests of Wayanad.  Arunima Shanker’s editing is crisp and it ensures a fast pace for the movie.   The only flaw is in non-synchronisation of sounds of the band and chenda melam (ensemble of drums)  during the church festival.

The cast needs a special mention as most actors were common people from the villages of Wayanad, who faced the camera for the first time.  Basil Paulose and Vinitha Koshy have done a great job as the lead pair and the debutantes Athul John as Paachi, Jose Kizhakkan as Kocheppu, Joseph Manikkal as Varkey  have exceeded expectations of raw newcomers. 

The film has short with crisp dialogues and comes with English subtitles.  This will facilitate better understanding of the movie by all.

The word Paka in Russian is an informal way to say goodbye.  Russians often say paka paka  meaning bye bye!.  The very same word Paka in Malayalam denotes hatred. Paka  is a village in southeastern Estonia. In Japanese Paka means a hooded jacket.  The Maoris of New Zealand use the word to denote a white man.  In Swahili, Paka means a cat and in the computing world its an acronym for Password Authenticated Key Agreement.    What a contronym!!!  A dichotomy among languages!   

Kudos Nithin Lukose for an excellent movie.  Paka deserves its selection for the TIFF this year and is a must watch for all.

Homecoming

Above is a statue of homecoming of a sailor to commemorate the 100 year anniversary of the founding of the Canadian Navy, and was unveiled on 04 May 2010 at Victoria, capital of British Columbia.

We all love seeing the images and videos of a surprise homecoming on YouTube, especially of US/ Canadian soldiers. Our eyes fill with tears when we watch those videos featuring service members being welcomed home by their loved ones. A picture of a dad in uniform holding his baby for the very first time, how can you not be emotional? Yet only those of us who have actually been on the other side of the camera know that while homecomings are fabulous in their own right, they can also present some unique, and often many surprising challenges.

For all those watching those soldiers’ homecoming videos, it will raise your feeling of patriotism and respect for those in uniform, who sacrifice a lot and how these soldiers and their families miss each other. 

Have you ever tried to fathom the stress of these soldiers and their families?

It was more like a deep-sea divers’ decompression chamber when I suddenly appeared in front of our home’s porch, a journey which had commenced 72 hours earlier from a bunker at 12,000 feet above sea level in Kashmir or Sikkim, ending at Kottayam, merely 10 feet above sea level.  It took me time to accept that I was safely home, to be with my loved ones, breathing that air I breathed in my childhood.

It took some time to accept the new reality, that I was not in an intense and life-threatening combat zone, but in the protective nest of my mother. It did cause its own share of stress, anxiety, and fear – both to my family members and to me.

The extent of my stress was related to the dangers I faced while deployed, the length of time I was away from home, and was worsened if I had lost any soldiers or any of them were injured – both due to enemy action or due to vagaries of weather. The other fear was of being unaware of the changes in family dynamics, the neighbours, close relatives and so on. Being unaware of the increase or decrease of animals and fowls at home too added to the stress.

It was always a sigh of relief for the entire family, especially my mother as she always heaved a long sigh of relief and rushed to thank God for bringing her son home safely.  Her first sentence often was “Why did you write home that you will be home next week?  I always knew you will come before.”  All these while our father kept a stoic silence to break it to say, “Welcome home.”

It all commenced when I joined Sainik (Military) School, Amaravathi Nagar in Tamil Nadu.  Travel home on vacation was a one day ordeal owing to poor rail/ road connectivity of India in 1970’s.  I wrote a letter home a fortnight before about my impending travel plans and reached home safely as we friends travelled in a group.  While in grade 8, my eldest brother said, “Never write the correct date of your arrival; always give a date a few days or a week later as Amma gets very stressed, thinking that you are on a train, you may miss a connection, you may not get good food and so on.” 

I followed his advice sincerely till my last homecoming from Canada.  I never gave the exact date of my arrival and in many cases never informed anyone about my travel plans.

In 2015, I flew into Kochi Airport and took a taxi home.  While in the taxi, I called my eldest brother and he said, “How far away from home are you?”  “Will be home in 45 minutes,” I replied.

My brother announced “Reji will be home in 45 minutes. Get lunch ready for him.”

My mother totally surprised and thrilled exclaimed “Which Reji? Our Reji, I spoke to him in Canada yesterday.  How can he be home in 45 minutes?”

After lunch, I asked my brother as to how he made out that I have landed at Kochi and was on my way home, even  before I could say anything.  “It was because of the blaring traffic horns.  I know that in Canada you can never hear it. So I guessed  you were in a taxi home.”

Our nephew is a Captain serving with the Corps of Engineers, had returned home after a gruelling six month long Young Officers’ Course at Pune.  On culmination of the course, he with his friends vacationed in Goa for a week.  On reaching home, he rang me up to say “Now I realised why you never disclosed your travel plans.  There were many calls from my mother and she wanted me to come home immediately.

My eldest brother, now the head of the family,  advised his nephew, “Never write the correct date of your arrival; always give a date a few days or a week later.”

Iron Box (തേപ്പു പെട്ടി) Theppu Petti

During our young days, we had an iron box – Theppu Petti – heated by burning coconut shells to embers.  The iron box was not made of iron, but brass, weighing over five kilograms.  It had a cover over a hollow cavity with holes on either side, looking more like our eyes.  These eye-lets acted as air-vents to keep the embers glowing.

A metallic flap attached at the back covered the cavity. On top of the cover was a teak handle, hand-carved  to fit the operator’s hand.  The ‘Delta’ shaped base, called the sole, facilitated easy gliding of the Theppu Petti over the cloth under it.  The sole was heated to about 200°C by the burning embers. 

Theppu Petti is the predecessor to the modern electric steam iron.  The electric iron was invented in 1882 by New Yorker Henry W Seely. His iron weighed almost seven kilograms and took a long time to warm up.  Irons gradually became smaller until they resembled the type we have in our homes today.

The iron box did its job of pressing a piece of cloth to remove creases using a combination of a hard surface, and heat and pressure that pressed on the fibres of the clothes, stretching and flattening them.

Using a Theppu Petti to iron a piece of cloth, the operation commenced with placing the monstrous looking object on a metallic ring on the table.  The metallic ring protected the table from getting burnt.  The ironing table back then was nowhere akin to the modern ironing boards, but was a multi-purpose large table (mostly the dining or study table) covered with an old blanket and a bed sheet. 

Four or five coconut shell-halves were placed in the hollow cavity of the Theppu Petti and burnt to embers, which took about 15 minutes.  These embers emitted constant heat for a long time and maintained a near constant temperature.  Kerala households had a large stock of coconut shells and burning them in the iron box were their primary use.  Some used charcoal in place of the coconut shells.

When we were young, our father ironed our clothes until our eldest brother turned ten.  Then he took over the operation and did the job with panache.  When our youngest brother turned ten, the mantle was passed on to him and he became such an expert that he would put any professional cleaner to shame.  Now it is a ritual for him on Sundays to collect the white shirts and black pants of my elder brother, an advocate, and press the entire stock for a week.  He presses all my clothes while I was home and also for the entire household.

തേപ്പ്  – Theppu is a modern Malayalam word which means ‘ironed’. As slang, it refers to a girl  who dumps their lover when they see a better prospect.  The word, though sexist, finds its way into modern Malayalam movies and social-media trolls. 

While serving with the Indian Army in Maharashtra, a Priest from our  Syrian Orthodox church visited me.  His wife hailed from our village and her family was well known to ours.  I invited him for lunch and after that took him to the shopping centre at the Cantonment as he wanted a heavy electric iron box to press his long white cassock.  He couldn’t find a heavy iron box in the market as the modern one’s were light.  He presumed that the Cantonment’s shopping centre would have it as the soldiers always had to press their thick uniforms.

During my next visit home, I narrated the incident to Amma and she passed her characteristic sly smile, which meant there was more to it.  I prodded her and she reminisced the days of 1957 when she was just married and they moved into a small rented one-room house next to the school where Amma was teaching. 

They hardly had any utensils, leave alone an iron box, which was the last priority.  My Dad taught at the school in town and had to bus about 12 kilometer either way, thus had to leave early.  The first Sunday, he ironed the clothes required for my mother and him using an iron box which he borrowed from the home of a senior revenue official who lived across the street.  The next Sunday his request for the iron box was turned down claiming that it was under repair.  Next evening my father walked in with an iron box and that today lies in the attic of our ancestral house.

What is the connection with this old iron box and the Priest,” I asked.

Amma took a long deep breath and said “This Priest is married to the daughter of that revenue official.

That Little Thorthu (തോർത്ത്)

Malayalis are people hailing from Kerala – The God’s Own Country -are often called Mallus because the word Malayali is quite a tongue-twister and difficult to pronounce for many across the globe.  They speak Malayalam, a language spoken by more than 38 million people who  live in the state of Kerala and Lakshadweep. Many in India refer to Mallus as Madrasis or even Malabaris, which any Mallu worth his name will despise.  You call him a ‘Thampi’ and he is sure to spit fire at you!

Malayalam, the eighth most spoken language in India, is believed to have originated from Tamil, with a heavy influence of Sanskrit.  It became an independent language with its own script by AD 9th century.  

There is a little known item of cloth that a Malayali is identified with.  It is not the Mundu or the Lungi; but a 5’x3′ white piece of cloth called Thorthu; a light bath towel,  which you will find in  every Malayali’s wardrobe.  We have a dozen of them in our Canadian home too.  It is universal – one size fits all; used by people of all ages, sex and religion.

Thorthu has a one centimeter thick border at both ends called Kara, which is generally black, blue or red.  This handy Indian cotton towel is known in North India , it is called the Gamcha, and in Tamil Nadu as  Thundu.

The white coloured Thorthu has been around for generations. The warp and weft of this cloth  is made of very fine cotton fibre.  These hand woven towels are super absorbent, light weight, soft on skin, and quick drying.  In Kerala the relative humidity is around 70% through the year and any thick towel will take its own time to dry out.  Then there is the fear of fungus or mildew developing on a wet cloth.

A Mallu uses the Thorthu for rituals, journeys, pilgrimages, functions, traditional events, political rallies, etc.  It is all because the Thorthu takes up less space, can be washed easily with hands, and dries quickly.

In every Kerala household, the Thorthu has an important place, so did in our home too.  Our father always got the new Thorthu and dare not – no one could ever even touch it.  The next one was Amma’s and for all four sons, we had the older ones, but was always on first-come-first-served basis.  If one got late for the morning bath, he ended up with a wet Thorthu.  

Though the primary use of a Thorthu is to dry one’s self after one’s bath, it has many uses left to the imagination of the user.

To bathe in the pond or river, use it to cover your family treasures and after the bath, hand squeeze the Thorthu and dry yourself.
You will find many children enjoying catching those little fish using a Thorthu.

On your way home, if you intent to climb a coconut tree to bring down some tender coconuts, it comes handy. Tie the two ends and it helps you grip the trunk while you make your way to the treetop.
You will come across four men enjoying their cards game, sitting under a coconut tree. The card table is a Thorthu spread on the ground.

You will come across ladies- young or old – draping a Thorthu over their blouse, covering their chest.
In the kitchen, the Thorthu comes handy as a napkin, a hand towel and also as a mitten while handling hot cooking utensils. The Thorthu also serves as a sieve and also is used to cover the cooked food.
Women after a bath will tie their hair in a Thorthu to facilitate faster drying in the humid Kerala weather.
Thorthu has its use in the traditional medicine of Kerala – Ayurveda – especially as the cover for a Kizhi – a fomentation therapy done using a warm poultice containing herbs, herbal powders, rice or sand and massaged on the whole body to enhance, purify or rejuvenate the body.
You will see men and women working in the fields and they use the Thorthu as a headgear to beat the hot sun.
You will most likely meet a fish monger, who will proudly have a white Thorthu around his/her shoulder. It is used as a hand towel and how they manage to keep it white everyday is still a secret.
You will find a Malayali using his Thorthu in many ways. Only you got to look for it.

Movie Review : Joji : Malayalam


JOJI – Malayalam  Movie set in Covid time – inspired by Macbeth, is a simple story set in a Syrian Orthodox Christian family of Kottayam, told without any frills.  Dileesh the director has done an excellent work, so are all the characters.  Technically also the movie is brilliant. Justin Varghese’s music is apt for each occasion and every time a new symphony plays, it is a reminder about the Shakespearean tragedy lurking around.

The family background and the name of the protagonist are same as my novel ‘Son of a Gunner,’ and there end  the commonalities.  The movie tells the story of a hardworking father who made a fortune through his dedication and business acumen in rubber plantation and harnessed his riches.  His adamant nature and his treatment of  his three sons are typical of such people.  The natures of his three sons follow a typical Syrian Christian lineage of the day.

The eldest son is the one most attached to his father, who toiled  hard with his father for the well being of the family.  He is the least educated – could be that the father could not afford to send his to college during his time.  He is a ‘ruffian’ with coarse language, speaks his mind out and the least greedy while dividing the family riches.  He is physically tough – the result of his hard work in his youth and dresses in simple mundu and shirt.  These qualities must have resulted in a broken marriage  and he is depicted as a divorcee, living with his son in the ancestral home.

The second son is better educated, and runs the rubber procurement business.  He is less attached to his father and is also greedy.  His scheming wife proves  an ideal companion.  His dress sense is better than his elder brother’s, so is his language, but physically he is no match.  He is very diplomatic and flows well with the requirement of the society.

In a Syrian Orthodox family, the youngest son inherits the ancestral house, based on the premise that he is most likely to outlive his parents.  He is responsible to take care of the parents in their old-age and also organise family events and get-togethers.

The youngest son grew up when the family’s fortunes were good.  He neither witnessed any hardships nor he worked towards enhancing the family’s riches.  He had the best of times and the best education  his  father could afford.  Richness of the family ensured that he developed  many vices and turned lazy.  He is depicted as an engineering degree dropout.  He does not even pick up a bottle from the fridge to drink, he wants his sister-in-law to serve him.  He is up-to-date with technology and also his dress sense.

Though physically the weakest, he is the most intelligent among the three sons and is also the most scheming.  His attitude is that the ancestral house belongs to him and the rest are parasites.  He also wants to inherit all the riches the earliest and wants his father dead.   He aptly called the ‘useless’ by his father and the oppressive nature of the father turns him into a beast.

The eldest son is the least greedy, the second  is greedier and the youngest greediest.  The level of greediness is inversely proportional  to their efforts towards the family riches.  This is a reality and is very evident with many court cases – both civil and criminal – in Indian courts – all for wealth inherited from the parents.

It is all about ‘Dad’s Money‘ ‘തന്തേടെ കാശ്’  ‘बाप का पैसा’ – one of the root cause of most evils in Indian society. 

The movie is worth a watch and is available on Amazon Prime.

A Stitching Lesson

At Sainik School Amaravathi Nagar, Tamil Nadu, we had an MI Room (Medical Inspection Room) – the refuge for the tired souls – both physical and mental.  The boss out there was Mr KP Damodaran who  can well be described as a Nursing Assistant by profession, whom everyone called a Compounder, but always acted as a Doctor.

Forever for any medical condition, worth it or not, he prescribed a combination of APC with sodium-bicarbonate, a pink coloured magic potion, an awful tasting mixture, compounded by our Compounder Mr Damodaran, a Veteran from the Royal Indian Navy who saw action during World War II.

I was admitted for mumps in the isolation ward for 21 days while in grade 7. During one of his daily rounds, Mr Damodaran saw me reading the history book. As he turned the pages, it was about the Viceroys and Governor Generals of British India – Lord Wavell and Mountbatten. Mr Damodaran said “I’ve met both Lord Wavell and Lord Mountbatten during World War II.  Lord Wavell’s sketch in this book least resembles his personality.” 

What was the magic tablet APC? It was a combination tablet containing aspirin, phenacetin and caffeine. In those days (early 70’s), it was perceived to be a magic drug – a solution for most diseases and medical conditions. It disappeared in 1983 because of harmful side effects of phenacetin.

Sodium-bicarbonate is a mixture of  Sodium-bicarbonate with sugar and salt.  It was used as an antacid to treat heartburn, indigestion and upset stomach as Sodium-bicarbonate is a very quick-acting antacid.

When we were in grade 11 in 1978, we were the senior-most in school. During a movie show on a Saturday night, a bench we were seated broke and a piece cut through the thigh of Palanivel, our classmate. Everyone else were engrossed in watching the movie, but I saw Palani bleeding and writhing in pain. I helped him walk to the MI Room and there was Mr Damodaran.

Palani was immediately administered a dose of Tetanus Toxoid (TT) and the next step was to suture his six inch long gash. Mr Damodaran switched on the steriliser and after five minutes asked me “put on the gloves and take out the suturing thread and a needle with a tong.” I did as ordered.

Then came a surprise ordeal for me.  Mr Damodaran had a failing eyesight and he asked me “Please thread the needle.”  Unfortunately for us, Mr Damodaran’s spectacles broke a few days before and to get a new one he had to travel to Udumalpet, the closest town, about 24 km away.  That could be feasible only the next day being a Sunday.

His next command was a bigger surprise – “now start stitching.”  He instructed each step and I put six sutures through Palani’s skin.  Palani must still be carrying the scar on his thigh today.

How could I execute such a mission?

When we were in Grade 2 & 3, we had stitching classes by Annamma Teacher, who also taught us Malayalam.  On a piece of cloth we began with hemming, then running stitch, cross stitch and then stitch English Alphabets, a flower and a leaf.  It came in handy that day.

Annamma Teacher remains etched in my memory as she was very compassionate to the young kids and was an epitome of dedication.  She was always dressed in her spotlessly white ‘Chatta, Mundu and Kavani,‘ the traditional Syrian Christian women’s attire.  Chatta is more like a jacket, while the mundu (dhoti), unlike the one worn by a man, is elegance personified, especially at the back, where it is neatly pleated and folded into a fan-like ‘njori‘.  Both Chatta and Mundu are pure cotton, Kavani, generally off-white with hand sewn embroidery is made of a thinner material and is draped across the body.

During our younger days, Chatta, Mundu and Kavani was the most common wear for the ladies, especially while attending the Sunday Mass and also during social and religious occasions. Chatta consists of two pieces of cloth cut into T shape and hand stitched prior to the arrival of sewing machines.  My grandmother said that they used to cut the cloth into two Ts with a kitchen knife as the scissors were not in vogue then and hand sew them.

Muslim women of Kerala in those days wore a white Mundu called ‘Kachimundu’ with blue and purple borders. The Muslim women’s Mundu do not have the fan-like Njori at the back. The head covering ‘Thattam‘ is better known as ‘Patturumala.’ The torso is covered by a long blouse with full sleeves. This type of dress is known as Kachi and Thattam.


Difficulty in maintaining the white outfit spotlessly white and availability of cheaper, easy to wear and maintain sarees resulted in the saree becoming the common wear for the Syrian Christian ladies.  Modern day wedding planners have revived the Chatta, Mundu and Kavani by showcasing it by asking a few relatives of their client to dress up so.


Annamma Teacher’s son, Veteran Colonel OM Kuriakose and her grandson Lieutenant Colonel Anish Kuriakose – both father and son are from The Parachute Regiment of the Indian Army.

The Final Journey of a Fallen Soldier


My book ‘Son of a Gunner’ is partly inspired by this hero – Late Lieutenant ET Joseph.

June 1992 in Nagaland, Lieutenant E Thomas Joseph had finished packing for his trip home for a two-month-long leave to his hometown – Kanjiramattom near  Kottayam, Kerala. Commissioned in June 1991 in the Corps of Military Intelligence, this young officer had finished his year-long attachment with the First Battalion of the Fifth Gorkhas (1/5 GR.)

Suddenly reports of some movement from insurgents in the area began to come in. The Commanding Officer got his Quick Reaction Team together. No one suggested that Joseph go along because the young officer had already got his posting orders and had been dined out from the Unit the previous day. Since he knew the terrain well, he volunteered to go with the team for the operation at night. The other officers tried to dissuade him, but he insisted on going- never to return.

By the next day, his father, Subedar Major A T Joseph, received the news of his son’s death. He immediately left for Nagaland where he laid the mortal remains of his only son to rest.

Col Sajan Moideen, one of Joseph’s coursemates from IMA days, wrote about this tragedy in his blog years later: ‘Deep down, both Joseph and his wife Thressiamma tried their best to overcome their grief. But a sadness that had no closure couldn’t be overcome. The mother in Thressiamma longed to visit the burial place. But they were unable to afford the long journey. Where would they gather that kind of money? How would they travel thousands of miles? Who would know the place? Who would help them? With old age catching up, the hope just faded away. They hoped to meet their son at God’s abode one day.’


June 2016, Lieutenant Joseph’s IMA coursemates from the 88th Regular and 71st Technical Course celebrated their 25th year of service to the nation.  They remembered their fallen comrades.    Eight spouses, brothers and sisters of the Martyrs travelled from far and wide including Australia to participate in the three day celebrations where over 140 officers, 100 ladies and 100 children attended. To remember and honour the fallen amongst them and  to make their families proud, they were presented an apt memento.

But Joseph’s parents were not there. AT Joseph and Thressiamma could not be contacted as they had settled down in Kottayam, Kerala.

With great difficulty, an officer posted in Kerala traced out Joseph’s parents and the mother, Thressiamma expressed her wish to visit her son’s grave as she was not present for the funeral. She also requested that her son’s grave be shifted from the remote region of the North East to his home town at Kanjiramattom.

Determined to fulfil a mother’s only wish, Joseph’s coursemates swung into action.  There were many hurdles on the way to get Thressiamma Joseph to her son’s grave – the old age of the parents, the finances, the long travel, and most of all to locate the grave.

The search for the tomb of the fallen soldier led them to the grave in Chakabama, 30 km from Kohima.  Though the grave was inside a military garrison, no one knew about it.

Thanks to the efforts of the coursemates of  Joseph to find the finances and the magnanimity of Indigo Airlines, his parents and sisters were flown from Kochi to Bangalore to Kolkata to Dimapur.

08 October 2016, Indigo Airlines with Joseph’s parents took off from Kochi airport.


11 October 2016, the parents reached the grave of their son.  Then  commenced the religious rites for exhuming the body. The tombstone was removed and all the mortal remains gathered and placed in an ornate coffin. Full military honours were observed, the Tricolor draped and the casket was transported to Dimapur.


13 October 2016, Courtesy Indigo Airlines, an airline that always honoured the defence forces – the coffin in the company of  the parents and many of his coursemates – landed at Kochi.  A Guard of Honour was presented as the mortal remains touched Kerala. A decked up cortege led by police escorts transported the remains to Kanjarimattom. The Ex- CM of Kerala, Mr Oomen Chandy and Late Mr KM Mani paid a visit to the parents and conveyed their  condolences. After all their boy had come home, after 8890 days of Martyrdom.


14 October 2016, Lieutenant ET Joseph was finally laid to rest close to his house at Holy Cross Church, Kanjiramattom with full Military and State honours.


Now  the mother can visit her son whenever she wishes and place flowers on the day of his martyrdom. Some of the tears in her weary eyes have been wiped. Her dream, fulfilled by her son’s coursemates.


To order my book Son of a Gunner in India, Please CLICK HERE.

For US customers, please visit Amazon.com by clicking here.

Canadians can buy it at Amazon.ca by clicking here.

(Image courtesy A Mothers Dream – The Final Journey – SajanSpeaks)

My Romance with the Indian Railways

My journey with the Indian Railway commenced with my first travel way back in 1966 when I was in Grade 1.  In the Malayalam text book there was a small verse on the ‘Steam Engine’ – (കൂ കൂ കൂകും തീവണ്ടി, കൂകി പായും തീവണ്ടി) Koo koo kookum theevandi, kooki payum theevandi.  I was fascinated by the poem and insisted on travelling on a train.   My dad took me on my first train journey – an eight kilometer one from Kottayam to Chingavanam on a steam engine powered passenger.  Little did I realise as a toddler then that I will serve in the Indian Army and travel the length and breadth of the country on trains. It was the beginning of a long and cherished association with the Indian Railways.

My father first took me to the steam engine as the poem was more about the steam throwing coal eating monster.  He showed me three persons working on the engine.  The Engine Driver (Pilot or Engineer) was the overall commander of the engine.  He was responsible for ensuring punctuality, watch the signals, the track ahead and the train behind, see that the locomotive is running safely and efficiently, blow the whistle when required and plan ahead for stops.

The engineer was assisted by two Firemen who stoked the fire, maintained steam pressure in the boiler, watched the track and signals ahead, and relayed signals from Guard.  They took turns with one stoking the fire and the other watching the signal and blowing the whistle. Firemen were also apprentice engine drivers, allowed to run the train under the engine driver’s supervision and expected to learn enough to be ready for eventual promotion.  Even today, the Indian Railways recruit only Assistant Loco Pilots for their Diesel and Electric Engines, who over a period of service are promoted to be Loco Pilots. I am told that the Assistant Loco Pilots of today earn a salary more than that of the average software engineer!

Steam engines of yesteryear may have been slower and ‘dirtier‘ than diesel/ electric ones, but they were much safer.   As per records, out of every 100 accidents on Indian Railways, only two involved steam engines as the steam engine staff had to be on their feet, busy stoking the fire, adjusting gauges, tightening gears and releasing excessive steam pressure, polish gleaming brass fittings and gauges, filling the water tender and so on.

The train was controlled by a Guard who impressed me with his well starched and ironed cotton white trousers and coat as white as snow.  For the life of me, I could never figure out as to how these Guards on the trains pulled by steam engines, maintained their white uniform so well.  A short journey on such a train always invariably resulted in my dress and hair getting covered with coal-dust.

I might add here an interesting aside. The Indian Railways currently runs a luxury heritage train from Delhi to Alwar, renamed The Palace On Wheels, (earlier Fairy Queen, since 1855) powered by a 70-year-old renovated steam engine, named ‘Azad‘- engine number WP 7200, built in 1947 in USA.

Indian Railways is still maintaining its oldest working steam locomotive named Fairy Queen at New Delhi. I wonder whether the Railways still have the drivers to operate it.

When I joined Fifth Grade at Sainik School Amaravathi Nagar (Tamil Nadu), in June 1971, travelling from Kerala to the School was the longest train journey one undertook until then.  It commenced by boarding a Meter-Gauge train at Kottayam, hauled by a steam engine to Ernakulum.  From there in the afternoon it was on to famous No 20 Madras Mail – a Broad-Gauge train – which ran between Cochin and Madras to alight at Coimbatore.  The only reprieve was that the train was hauled by a diesel engine, and therefore no coal dust.

The advantage in a diesel or electric engine is that it can run at same speed whether forward or backward. Steam engines were to run at lesser speed when running with its water tank in the front side. To avoid this there were engine turn tables at major loco sheds for turning the engine to keep engine side in the front.

We got off at Coimbatore by 9 PM and at 10 PM there was a train to Rameshwaram, again a steam engine train on Meter Gauge.  This train would drop us at a tiny station called Udumalaipettai at 2 AM.  Then there was the agonising wait in the small waiting room at the railway station for it to dawn so that the restaurants in town would open their shutters. Early in the morning it was a walk of about a km to the bus-stand, lugging our bags.  Near the bus-stand there was a restaurant which served vegetarian breakfast and we would enjoy the last civilian meal of the semester before joining the Military School. From then on it was going to be the much loved ‘bill of fare’.

After breakfast it was a bus ride of 24 km on the No 10 Bus which plied between Udumalaipettai and Amaravathinagar – about an hour of a bumpy ride, but it ensured that the heavy breakfast we had consumed was well truly digested without any hiccups.

By the time I was commissioned in the Indian Army in 1982 the railways had evolved a great deal; the steam engines had given way to diesel ones which were much faster and did not deposit coal dust in our hair and clothes. With the army life came some really long and memorable train journeys. For a Mallu posted to most military stations in North India, 72 hours was par for the course.  If your unit was in the North East, it was 96 hours and beyond. A colleague of mine used to travel from Trivandrum, then the southernmost station of the Indian railways to Ledo, in Assam, almost on the then Burma border, where his unit was located. It was small matter of some 4000km, 3970km to be precise, taking seven days.  It involved travel by five different trains, with changes at Ernakulum, Madras Central, Howrah Junction, and Tinsukia. The journey from Trivandrum began with a meter-gauge train and ended at Ledo on a meter gauge train. But the bulk of the journey in the middle was by broad gauge. In some ways, the experience of a journey such as this is as exhilarating as that of a mountaineering expedition

Once or twice a year it was a journey homeward to avail the much awaited leave. Also the initial years in the army one had to undergo a lot of training courses at various institutions widely dispersed all over the country. So this resulted in at least one more long train journey. Very often one had to travel at short notice and therefore without reservation. It was nothing short of high adventure.

As the trains rumbled across the length and breadth of the country, I was able to directly imbibe the diversity of our ancient land. As they crossed the many rivers flowing West to East, East to West and North to South (Only the Son River in India flows from south to North), and climbed the many hill ranges and plateaus, I came face to face with school geography. The vastness of the Indo-Gangetic plains, the stunning beauty of the Konkan tract, tenuous criticality of Siliguri Corridor, mesmerising  beauty of the plains of Punjab engulfed in endless fields of wheat, mustard  and sunflower, and he endless barren expanse of the Thar desert all lay bare before me.   I couldn’t help but notice the gradual change in climate, topography, flora, demography, culture, architecture and so on. It was an ever changing landscape of every facet of human existence. There is no better way to learn about this vast country than to simply travel by train. No wonder, the Mahatma, loved to travel by train.

When I am at Kottayam the Pole Star is not visible as it is always hidden behind coconut trees. As the train takes me northward from Kottayam, on the first night I begin to see it quite high above the horizon. On the second night it is much higher in the sky than the previous night. It was much later, during a training course that I theoretically learned that the latitude of a place is the vertical angle between the horizon and the pole star (altitude of the Polaris.) But the railways had made me understand the phenomenon much earlier. Latitude until then was just a line on a map.

Over the many years of train travel I also realised that the Indian railways is a truly humongous organisation any which way you look at it. It is one of the largest rail networks in the world with over 68500 km of track network and nearly 7200 railway stations. It is one of the world’s largest employers, employing some 1.4 million people. Every day it transports 25 million people. It is simply mind-boggling to think in terms of the likes of the entire population of a country like Australia or Taiwan being transported by the Indian railways on a daily basis. Of the worlds 230 odd nations only 55 odd have a population more than 25 million.  The railways also move some 1200 million tons of freight every year.

One got to fully subscribe to Michael Portillo, British journalist, broadcaster, and former Conservative politician- “The two biggest legacies of the Raj are the unification of India and the English language. Moreover, without the railways, India would not have been connected and could not have become one country.” 

Next : Military Special Trains

Trees : My Childhood Companions


Growing up as a child in the ‘God’s Own Country’, – Kerala – in Amayannoor village of Kottayam District, I was fascinated by the trees, mostly due to the variety that grew in our homestead. Our parents bought this land in 1958 as Amma was a teacher in the village school. Our father decided to move away from our ancestral village to Amayannoor, 15 km away. He wanted to be close to Amma’s school which was just five minutes walking distance – all to ensure her maximum presence at home as we children were growing up.

Some of these ‘companions’ of mine, on which we children climbed as exercise, entertainment and also to bring down their fruits for Amma to cook; their memories linger in my mind. Many of these trees are now uncommon even in rural Kerala.


At the Western end of the homestead grew a Breadfruit (Artocarpus Altilis) tree. The Breadfruit tree in Malayalam is called Kadaplavu – loosely translated to be ‘tree of debt.’ From this name must have originated the local myth that if a Breadfruit tree grew in the homestead, the family might end up in heavy debt. As if to prove their point, many locals advised our father to cut down the tree saying that the previous owners were ridden with debt and it resulted in them selling the land and migrating to the hills of Wayanad. Our father being a rationalist refused to heed to their words. Fortunately, it remained a myth and we were never indebted to anyone as the Breadfruit tree grew luxuriantly and died a natural death about 30 years later.

The breadfruit tree is a fast growing tall evergreen tropical tree, reaching a height of 20 meters, with many spreading branches. The leaves are large which are deeply cut into lobes. It is believed to be native to New Guinea and is now cultivated throughout the tropics for its tasty fruits. A fully grown Breadfruit tree produces up to 200 fruits per year. The fruit is usually the size of a large cantaloupe, but looks like a smaller cousin of the Jack-fruit.


A key ingredient of the Syrian Christian Fish Curry, specially the Kottayam variety, is the Kudampuli (pot tamarind), also called the Malabar tamarind (Garcinia Gummi-Gutta), a special variety of tamarind that grows only in Kerala in India. A Kudampuli tree stood adjacent to the Breadfruit tree and its fruits ripened in May-June, well before the monsoons. On the garb of plucking the fruits, we children  climbed the tree in the evenings and various monkey tricks followed.

The fruit of the kudampuli looks like a multi-lobed pumpkin, the size of a tennis ball, yellowish-red when ripened. We used to break open the fruit to relish the tangy-sweet pulp around 12 seeds inside. The outer covering of the fruit is then sun-dried, smoked over the chimney and then stored.

When I landed in Canada in 2004, there were many Health Supplement stores selling extract of Kudampuli to help speed up weight loss, reduce appetite, and boost exercise endurance. It was claimed that this extract contained Hydroxy-Citric Acid (HCA) that may inhibit an enzyme that helps your body store fat.

This might have prompted a study by Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, New York, which concluded that it had only a placebo effect to help lose weight. A word of caution; some other studies also found that the fruit extract contained some liver toxins. Be that as it may, we still use Kudampuli in Kerala and also here in Canada as an essential ingredient in our fish curry recipe.


Next to our house grew an Irumban Puli or Bilimbi (Averrhoa Bilimbi) tree, another tamarind variety. Its fruits were cooked as a curry and was also pickled for later use. The tree was about 10 meter tall with its leaves similar to curry leaves, mainly clustered at the branch tips. The fruits grew mostly on the main trunk and the thick branches that emanated from the trunk. We used to relish it raw with a bit of salt.

The tree being short, did not have much entertainment value for us kids, but the brood of hens we reared spent their night on this tamarind tree. In spite of all the tricks that we tried, they refused to go into the coop built for them. In the evenings they perched on this tree with the rooster on the top with the hens and other cocks below him; typically, echoing the idiom ‘ruling the roost’. The rooster crowed at the break of dawn, announcing to the world his presence and dominance in the brood. It also served as an alarm for our father, who woke us all up and commence the morning prayers.


Another interesting tree was Kudappana (Literal translation from Malayalam is Umbrella palm tree) or Talipot Palm (Corypha Umbraculifera), one of the largest palms in the world, growing to a height of 25 meter. The plant’s single trunk is straight, un-branched and cylindrical, one meter in diameter and ringed with prominent leaf scars. The top is a crown of immense, fan-like leaves; a single leaf-blade at full size being as much as 5 meter in diameter, with a leaf-stem 5 meter long. The leaves are used for thatching, making fans, mats and umbrellas.


We had three such trees growing in our homestead, but we were too scared to climb it being very tall and they did not offer any branches to rest during any such endeavour. These trees were cut down as we shifted to rubber cultivation from tapioca cultivation.

The Talipot Palm tree only flowers towards the end of its life, usually at around 80 years of age. It then produces a spectacular display with an inflorescence up to six meter long containing several million flowers. I have never witnessed this event in my life as almost all of the Talipot Palms in our village have been cut down before flowering. Talipot Palm is today categorised as ‘Threatened Species.’ In Trivandrum, there is a locality called Kudappana Kunnu (Umbrella Palm Hill); sadly, now there is not a single tree of the genre which gave the locality its name.

The fascinating aspect of Talipot Palm was not the tree itself, but the tiny Draco lizard or Flying Dragon (Draco Volans), flying from one Talipot Palm tree to another in search of insects, its main food. With the cutting down of Talipot Palms, these little creatures too vanished from our village.


These so-called flying dragons are wonders of evolution with elongated ribs, which extend and retract. Between these ribs are folds of skin that rest flat against the body when not in use, but act as wings when unfurled, allowing it to catch the wind and glide. These lizards use their long, slender tails to steer themselves, and each sortie can carry them up to 20 meter.

These brown coloured lizards have a spectacular flap of skin on the bottom of their necks called a dewlap. This is bright yellow in males and bluish gray in females. These dewlaps become visible when they make their shrill calls, either to chase away rivals or to attract their mates.

Trees are poems that the earth writes upon the sky.” – Khalil Gibran (Lebanese-American writer and poet)

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 kept 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 began 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 disagreed 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, to be washed clean and the kid foraged 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 in our homestead 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 airtight 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 settled 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 wristwatch.  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 Amaravathi River waters, the vessel in which it was brewed, or the cloth used to filter it – the possibilities were endless.  It 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. Some Cadets even claimed that it was made with donkey’s milk.

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 parked there, awaiting all vehicles to fetch up from either side.

During this wait, soldiers manning Sadhna Post served 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 snowstorm 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.  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 . 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 specialty of the Chinese emperors. But I am certain that it will pale into insignificance when compared with the Amravathi 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 the need to abolish untouchabiity – a practice in which some lower caste people were kept at a distance, denied of social equality and made to suffer  for their touch was considered 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 caste 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 all 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 Ezhava 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 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.

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.  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 our first class Mr Raman issued us all the books, stationary, etc and briefed us in English and surely I did not get any of what he said.

We then had English class by Mr KG Warrier. He asked us something like “Who asked you to do it?” in his Oxford accent and the Cadet 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 is sacrilege for a college/ university 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 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)

ഉപ്പുമാങ്ങ ഭരണി  (Uppumanga Bharani)

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 depleted as new saplings were planted with the commencement of monsoons. During the monsoons, they would be growing up to yield their produce.

തവി (Thavi)

Amma used to make chutney with the Uppumanga and the accompanying chillies by grinding it with the small red button onions and grated coconut.  She also used it to prepare prawn curry.  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 might spoil the Uppumanga  Amma treasured.  Our hands could be dirty or wet and she did not want the mangoes 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 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, were 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?

തഴപ്പായ് (Thazhappay)

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 emerged 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 hired 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.