Thankachan – Our Fish Vendor

fv2 copy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where to Find God

God1
A very pertinent question being asked in today’s world, filled with evangelists from all religions and sects, standing on rooftops and on TV, shouting at the top of their voices.  Everyone it appears want to prove to the world that the Gods they sell are the best, accompanied  by miracles in various forms.  Most of these evangelists, exploiting the greed of humanity, have amassed wealth that even their Gods cannot fathom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God22
By about 11 AM, the beggar found his pan full of money and overjoyed with it, he prayed to God Almighty.  He wanted God to answer his query as to why He gave him His wrong address.  God appeared in front of the beggar and explained to him His reasons.

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

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

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

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

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

My First Sex Education

MySexEd
During our childhood my brother, the youngest in the family, then aged four, came up with an unusual request. He wanted someone younger to him. It was all because he was at the losing end of all the physical fights we siblings had.  At the time our parents solved the problem by getting him a kid, a goat’s kid, a female one.  That was how goat rearing commenced at our home.

In the evenings, after school, we used to take the goat out into our farmland for grazing.  We had to be on the lookout to ensure that the goat did not forage on the Tapioca (Kasava) cultivation, mainly to save the cultivation and also to save the goat from food poisoning. Little did I then know that the toxicity of the tapioca foliage was due to the presence Hydrogen Cyanide (HCN).    During the Monsoon rains, we had to cut the necessary forage from the trees which acted as support for the black pepper wines.

The kid grew real fast with all the attention and forage that we children heaped on her.  In a year she matured into a beautiful doe and was ready for a mate.  A Doe would come to heat by the end of summer and it lasts for two or three days and the cycle is repeated every three weeks.

In Kerala, the schools reopen after the summer vacations on 01 June but my Alma Mater, Sainik School Amravathinagar, reopens only by 15 June.  During my Grade 7 summer vacation, after the schools reopened for my brothers, our doe bleated one entire night.  In the morning Amma said that the doe is on heat and it is time to mate her.  That day our farm-hand did not turn up as he had pneumonia due to drenching in the monsoon showers the previous day.  I was the only one now free to take the doe for mating.

The village had a tea-shop run by a man named Kuttappai.  The tea-shop served as the meeting place for all village elders and doubled up as a reading room.  All dailies and magazines published from Kottayam found their way there.  It also served as the village ‘parliament’.  It was indeed a house of knowledge, and doubled up as a cultural-political-social-entertainment institution, where anything and everything under the sun – from international relations to state and village politics; science to the Bible; communism to capitalism – were discussed.  Gossips too found their way in, obviously as spicy as the narrator could make it.

Kuttappai reared a flock of goats housed in a thatched shed to the rear of the tea-shop.  He used the milk from the goats to make tea and obviously the village folk relished his special tea.  The flock was led by a majestic buck.  The buck also served as the village stud and Kuttappai charged Rs 10 for every mating.

At about 11 o’ clock, I walked our doe to Kuttappai’s tea shop, as per Amma’s advise because that was the time  when the tea-shop would be empty of customers as people would have returned home after fiery debates and discussions.  Obviously that was the only time Kuttappai would be free to facilitate the mating.

On reaching the tea-shop, Kuttappai instructed me to tie our doe closely on to a coconut tree adjacent to the goat shed.  The smell and sight of the doe in heat made the buck tied in the shed restless and his snorting and kicking increased, at times reaching a violent stage as if he would bring the entire shed down.

After 15 minutes, Kuttappai emerged from his tea-shop.  The buck was tied with a long rope and Kuttappai released him so as to make him reach the doe.  The buck went around the doe, smelled and licked her vulva and when he was about to mount her, Kuttappai pulled him back into the shed and tied him up.  That was a staged foreplay for the buck.

Now the buck had turned real violent as the frequency of his kicking multiplied and the volume of his snorts became louder.  After 10 minutes Kuttappai again released the buck and he came charging in and mounted the doe and the entire mating was completed in a few seconds.  Kuttappai now pulled the buck back into the shed and like a conqueror, the buck stood with his head high, but the tone of his snorts had changed as if to announce his accomplishment.

A doe generally gets into heat in the later part of summer and in Kerala.  It coincides with the onset of Monsoons (June to September).  There are certain indications the doe gives out when in heat.  Her vulva swells and become red, and she may have some vaginal discharge.    She tends to eat less and become restless because the hormones associated with fertility kick in.  A milk producing doe may decrease her milk production due to the hormonal changes.  Her frequency of tail-wagging suddenly increases and her bleats become longer, especially at night.

During the monsoons when the doe goes into heat, the buck goes into rut.  During rut the buck urinates into his mouth and on his chest, face, and beard, turning them yellow.  The scent glands near his horns become overactive.  These lead to an unbearable stink – in reality the stink is to attract a doe in heat towards him.  During rut a buck would snort, grunt and kick its hind legs.  It tends to give a terrorising look with its upper lip curled up.

In the evening when Amma returned from school I dutifully reported to her the events of the day and posed some uncomfortable questions about the procedure and the need for it.  The School teacher in Amma responded with poise and she summarised the entire event as an act of depositing the sperm by the buck in the doe’s womb where it would fertilise an egg and would result in the formation of an embryo.  She also explained that the rooster and the hens also did the same and so did humans. Thus began my introduction to sex education.

Thali, Minnu, Mangalsutra and Kerala


Wedding

(Regarding the history of this photograph, please Click Here to read my blog Fire-Fire-Fire/).

Mangalsutra is considered as the symbol of marriage in India. The word Mangalsutra is derived from sankrit word ‘Mangal’ which meaning holy and ‘Sutra’ meaning thread. The tradition of tying Mangalsutra is followed among almost all the Indian communities. It is a chain or a thread with a pendant tied by the groom around the bride’s neck on the marriage day. There are a wide variety of Mangalsutra used by various communities, castes and sub castes. Nowadays there are trendy Mangalsutras in the market with expensive stones like diamonds and ruby. The days of a Digital Mangalsutra too appears imminent.

‘Pennu Kettu’ is the colloquial Malayalam equivalent of wedding, which literally means tying of the bride. The Mangalsutras used in Kerala, the Hindus use ‘Thaali’ and the Christians ‘Minnu’. The Muslims in North Kerala (Malabar), traditionally do not have a Thaali. However, nowadays, on the wedding day, the groom does put a gold chain around the bride’s neck, which some brides preserve like the Thaali. The Muslims brides from South Kerala (Travancore) do wear the Thaali.

In the Nair community, women had a special status as they followed a matriarchal system of inheritance of wealth and property. Many Nair families follow this tradition even today though some have moved on to some form of patriarchal system. The Nair males had no role in succession and had no control over the property and were mere managers of the property.

Until 1930s, a Nair lady could enter into cohabitation (live-in relationship) with men of higher castes or even among Nairs and this co-habitation was called as Sambandam. The male gave a white mundu (dhothi) to the lady. The acceptance of mundu was considered as permission to enter into the lady’s bedroom. This mundu given at the Sambandam came to be known as the Manthrakodi – Manthra meaning blessed and Kodi meaning new. When a lady wanted to terminate a relationship with the man, the mundu could be returned or a thread could be taken out of mundu and broken into two pieces, symbolising end of relationship.

The mother held absolute right over the children and the children never took the name or lineage of their father. Today the practise of Sambandam has been replaced by the institutionalised marriage. Like the Nairs, all other Hindus of Kerala solemnise their wedding by the groom giving the Manthrakodi to the bride. The Thaali is sometimes referred to as Ela-Thaali translated as Leaf-Thaali, because of its peculiar shape like a banyan leaf. It is said that the shape of the Thaali resembles a banyan leaf because a banyan tree itself is a symbol for support, shelter, and care.

Malabar Marriage Act of 1896 was the first legislation to legitimise Sambandham among Nairs.   The act did not achieve the desired results. It was followed by Travancore Nair Act of 1912, 1925 and the Cochin Nair Act of 1920 which made Sambandham illegal and broke the matriarchal system of inheritance among Nairs. Mannath Padmanabhan, a social reformist, exhorted Nair males to find jobs, earn income and take responsibility of their wives and children. EMS Namboothiripad, the first elected Communist Chief Minister of India, exhorted all men to take up the role of producer and provider for their families.

Most Namboothiris – the Brahmins of Kerala – have a patriarchal family system, barring a few with matriarchal system. The marriage ceremony is called ‘Veli’ and is a four day affair. The speciality is that the Thali Kettu (tying of the Thaali) is done by the bride’s father. Out of the eight different marriage styles for Indian Brahmans, the only style which needs the bride’s father to do Thaali Kettu was opted by Namboothiris and is called Kantthasoothram. The common practice among Indian Brahmans is that the groom does the Thaali Kettu and is called Mangalyasoothram. Namboothiris consider Kantthasoothram better as it enables their ladies to perform Bali and Sraadham (rituals conducted post-funeral to enable the spirits to reach heaven) of her parents.

The Thaali Kettu, originally a Namboothiri ritual, was later on adopted by most Hindus, Christians and Muslims. The Christians called it the ‘Minnu’. The Minnu is a pendant with a cross, the symbol of Christianity, on a gold medallion shaped like a heart. The heart symbolises the concept of love, and the cross reflects that the relationship between a husband and wife must follow the relationship between Jesus and his bride, the Church. The Minnu is put on seven strands of thread from the Manthrakodi. Seven represents the bride, the groom, the couple’s parents and the Church.

The brother-in-law of the groom prepares the thread the evening before the wedding. The knot to be tied is the Aan-Kettu, meaning the male knot, which in fact is the reef knot.   The brother-in-law being experienced with his wedding, acts as a coach to the groom and would make the groom practise the knot until achieving perfection. Many grooms tremble while tying the knot as all the eyes and cameras in the church are trained on to the knot being tied. Placing the Manthrakodi upon the bride’s head symbolises the groom accepting the responsibility to protect and cherish his bride. This is a tradition adapted from the Nairs. A woman from the groom’s family, usually the sister or a cousin of the groom, stands behind the bride once the Thaali is tied, signifying the reception into the household of her husband. In some Christian communities, the Minnu remains on the thread for one week until the groom’s mother cuts the thread, and the Minnu is moved onto a chain.

The Muslim wedding in Kerala is an amalgamation of Kerala Nair and Islamic traditions. In India, Islam first came to Kerala due to the spice trade with the Arabs who took the spices of Kerala to Europe. It is believed that the first mosque of India, the Cheraman Juma Masjid, was built in 629 (during the life of Prophet Muhammad) in Kerala.

Traditionally, Oppana, a folk dance form specific to the Muslim community of North Kerala, is performed the day before the wedding day. The dance is generally presented by young female relatives of the bride, who sing and dance around the bride clapping their hands. The aim is to entertain the bride who sits in the centre, dressed in all finery, covered with gold ornaments. Today, Oppana in some form or the other is practised amongst Muslims all over Kerala. On the wedding day the Nikkah ceremony is conducted – the official marriage contract – either at the mosque or at the bride’s home. The Nikkah ceremony is mostly all male affair. After the Nikkah ceremony, the Muslims is Southern Kerala have a ceremony for tying the Thaali in the presence of all the relatives and friends.

Marathi Mangalsutra is a combination of black and gold beads in a double layer which symbolises Shiva and Shakti along with a pendant. The black beads chain with diamond pendant is usually used by the Marwaris, Gujaratis etc but it is becoming a widely used trend.

In Telugu communities the Mangalsutra contains coral beads, gold coins etc along with the main pendant and gold chain. In Tamil Brahmans the Thali or Thirumangalyam is a pendent which is worn on a thread dipped in turmeric water. The Kashmiri Brahmins have a very different way of wearing Mangalsutra, which goes through the ears.

The tradition of tying Mangalsutra is the symbol of holy matrimony in India. In today’s India people prefer less jewellery and because of this trend people wear Mangalsutra only to family functions, weddings etc. India is famous for its rich and varied traditions and all Indians must be proud of such traditions. It is the duty of the generations to come to preserve such unique customs and traditions.