Atmospheric River

Canada’s West Coast- British Columbia – was battered with heavy rainfall resulting in catastrophic flooding and landslides in November 2021. It is believed to have been caused by more than one Atmospheric Rivers (AR.)

The term AR was coined in 1998 by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers Yong Zhu and Richard Newell, though ARs did play havoc earlier too. Until then AR was mostly referred to as tropical plume, tropical connection, moisture plume, water vapor surge, cloud burst and cloud band.

An AR is no river in the sky as the name suggests, but is a weather phenomenon.  It is a narrow corridor of highly saturated moisture in the atmosphere that stretches to 1600 km long and about 600 km wide.  Water an AR carries can be roughly compared to about 25 times carried by any major river like the Ganges or the Mississippi.

AR is born in the tropical ocean regions near the equator, and as it travels away from the equator, the warm air mass gets saturated with water vapour.  As the AR makes its landfall, water vapour condenses into precipitation, resulting in heavy rain or snow.

ARs originate form eight oceanic regions around the world, some closer to continental coasts than others. One of those regions is just off North America’s western coast and can produce between one to two dozen ARs per year. ARs from the Indian Ocean caused havoc in Australia and in India, especially Kerala, Uttarakhand, Bengal in the recent years.

Has climate change caused the ARs to be lethal?

Scientists and climatologists believe that the frequency of ARs may reduce by 10% in the years to come, but they may increase in size by about 25%. This would result in ARs dumping more water on the land as years pass by.  Global warming will cause the air in the AR  to become warmer and warmer the air, more water vapour it carries. When the AR makes landfall, it will release more rain or snow than the previous one. 

What caused flooding and land-slides in British Columbia?

The summer season in 2021 in British Columbia saw more than 1,600 fires charring nearly 8,700 square km of forest land.  These forest fires bake the soil, making them more hydrophobic or making them to repel water.  The coniferous trees in Canadian forests, when they burn, release a waxy compound that bind the forest soil, making it more hydrophobic. The water-repelling layer is typically found at or a few cm below the ground surface and is commonly covered by a layer of burned soil or ash. 

When the ARs dumped heavy volume of water in areas burned during the 2021 wildfires, the runoff from these burned grounds was greater and more rapid because of the hydrophobicity of the soil.  Burning down of the trees and vegetation binding the soil on the mountain slopes resulted in the soil becoming loose, causing many land-slides.

Let us now look at the mythological aspects.

The Abrahamic religions narrate the flood story of Noah’s Ark where the God became angry with the sins of mankind. He told his faithful servant, Noah, to build an ark large enough for his family and two of every creature on earth. God delivered the promised deluge, lasting 40 days, that killed everyone and everything on earth except the population of the ark.  After the flood, the ark came to rest on a mountain top, indicating that the depth of the water was higher than the mountains.

As per Greek mythology, Zeus, the king of the Gods, was displeased with the humans. Zeus told Deucalion to construct an ark for himself and his wife. After nine days of flooding, the world was destroyed, and the ark rested on top of Mount Parnassus.

Hindu mythology too refers to such a flood. Lord Vishnu in the form of a fish appeared to Manu and told Manu that the world would be destroyed in a great flood. Manu built a boat and tied it to the fish. The fish guided Manu’s boat through the floods to the top of a mountain.

The Chinese too have many stories and myths about floods, Gods, dragons, and spirits. Like other flood stories, there are only a handful of survivors.

Could these floods have been caused by an AR? Some say it might have been caused by tsunamis or by comets or asteroids hitting  the earth.

Flood stories are universal and is part of all religions and mythology where the God sent flood to destroy the sinners as punishment..  Hungarian psychoanalyst Geza Roheim hypothesised that dreams of the flood came when humans were asleep with full bladders!!

Are the Gods unhappy with the humanity that the next flood is near? Are we to pay for our sins of not caring for Mother Nature?

The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time.’ Bible : Genesis 6:5

Running Away From Studies

We were about 30 of us who landed at Sainik (Military) School, Amaravathi Nagar, Tamil Nadu from Kerala in July 1971, armed with little communication skill in our mother tongue Malayalam.  English, Hindi and Tamil were alien to us.  First language and medium of education at our school was English.  We started with the English Alphabets under Ms Sheila Cherian and graduated to Wren & Martin and English Today by Ridout. We had to study Tamil or Hindi as our second and third languages.

Tamil as a second language was out of question as it required us to cram the Thirukkurals onward.  Tamil poems, and ancient literature are not easy to understand. Hence we were given Hindi as a second language.  As expected we all fared badly and was the nightmare for us during the Grade 10 public exam.  Only the God Almighty and the examiner who evaluated our answer sheets know as to how we managed to pass.  It was all about cramming to the last alphabet and reproducing them on paper. Luckily we did not have to study a second language in our grade 11 and 12.

Tamil was our third language, taught to us by Mr MV Somasundaram and Mr K Ekambaram.  We commenced with grade 1 Tamil textbook in grade 5.  The only saving grace was that they put an end to our agony in grade 8 with a grade 4 Tamil textbook.

We from the 1979 Batch were the very first batch to face the brunt of 10+2 education by Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) India – an extra year of studies.  Our previous batch graduated from school in 1977 on completion of grade 11.

Grade 12 was a bugbear for my likes who were pathetic with academics and who never achieved any academic glory while at school.

Why did I join the National Defence Academy (NDA) and later serve the Indian Army for over two decades?

The truth is that I ran away from studies.  The bonus of getting through the NDA entrance examination was that we joined the NDA after our grade 11.  We did not have to go through grade 12 and the culminating public exam.  What a relief!!!.

We were made to believe at school that the training at NDA was more about outdoor activities – Physical Training (PT,) games, drill, weapon training, equitation training, military tactics, etc – and that the academic component was very minimal.  On joining the Academy, reality dawned on us.  We had to graduate in a Bachelors’ Degree programme, covering over 30 subjects ranging from Engineering Drawing to International Relations to be awarded a degree from the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University(JNU.)  This is the only Bachelor’s Degree JNU confers as JNU is India’s premier research university.

Gods had to settle the scores with my academic pursuits, especially linguistics.  How could they spare me from the rigours of Hindi and Tamil?

I was commissioned in the Regiment of Artillery of the Indian Army – 75 Medium Regiment (Basantar River.) The Regiment then had an interesting class composition. One battery (consisting of six Bofors Guns, and about 150 soldiers) was of North Indian Brahmins; the second had Jats mostly from Haryana and Uttar Pradesh; and the third was manned by the soldiers from the four Southern States. Now I had to master Hindi the way the Brahmins and Jats spoke and also Tamil as it was the medium of communication for the South Indian Soldiers.

At the end of it, commanding a Regiment and retiring after two decades of military service which I joined primarily to run away from studies – the reality was that neither did I stop studying nor did I stop running!!

Even while commanding the Regiment, I continued studying as we received  modern high-tech radars, survey equipment, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (Drones), etc which I had never heard of until then.  In order to command the Regiment, I had to master all the modern military gadgets and the only way out was to learn about them and operate them.  This meant I had to pore over volumes of operational and maintenance manuals.

My studies did not end with my hanging my military boots.  It continued and will continue for ever. 

Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young – Henry Ford.

Cannabis – Marijuana

Indian media is filled with headlines of Aryan Khan’s  (son of Bollywood Star Sharukh Khan) arrest by the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) of India on a cruise ship on October 3, 2021.  Many media houses are celebrating the event with all pomp and glory throwing in bits and pieces of Masala (spice) – some even went berserk – especially those active on the social-media.

Can you justify such media glare and media trial?

Sashi Tharoor summed it up very well through his tweet “I am no fan of recreational drugs and haven’t ever tried any, but I am repelled by the ghoulish epicaricacy displayed by those now witch-hunting Sharukh Khan on his son’s arrest. Have some empathy, folks. The public glare is bad enough; no need to gleefully rub a 23yr old’s face in it.”

I needed a dictionary to understand his tweet – ghoulish (ugly and unpleasant, or frightening) epicaricacy (deriving pleasure from the misfortunes of others.)  That is Tharoorian English for you!!

I too am not a fan of recreational drugs and never tried it.  The smell of marijuana smoke puts me off – though I have been a cigarette smoker for over four decades.  But the way the NCB, Indian media and the judiciary have conducted themselves in dealing with the case – I am no fan of that too.  It is absurd – may be I have lived in Canada for 18 years where a similar case would have been dealt with differently. 

This prompted me to delve into the Canadian laws on Cannabis.  In our Province of Ontario, one must be 19 and older to buy, use, possess and grow recreational Cannabis. This is the same as the minimum age for the sale of tobacco and alcohol in our province – Ontario. The law stipulates that one can smoke and vape Cannabis in private residences, many outdoor public places (sidewalks and parks,) designated smoking guest rooms in hotels, motels and inns, etc. 

After the law was implemented in October 2019, I found a drastic decrease in the odor of Marijuana smoke while on my walks, especially at park corners. It appeared that it was Cool no more.

The law also permits a person to possess a maximum of 30 grams (about one ounce) of dried cannabis  in public at any time.  I also realised that I can grow four Cannabis plants at our home for recreational purpose.  

My mind raced back to 1980’s – a Television interview of a Tribal Chieftain from Kerala, India.  In the early 1970’s when Mrs Indira Gandhi was the Prime Minister of India, she visited the tribal area accompanied by Mr K Karunakaran, then Home Minister of Kerala State.  The Tribal Chieftain was fortunate to have had an audience with Mrs Gandhi.  She asked him as to what she could do for the welfare of his people and the Chieftain did not ask for a school, not a hospital and not a proper road to his land – he did not ask for  drinking water facilities and  not for electricity – but he promptly asked “Our people should be allowed to grow two Cannabis plants per household.”

Mrs Gandhi smiled and Mr Karunakaran nodded.  The Chieftain claimed that thereafter the Police and the  State Excise Department accepted it as an unwritten law and never ever bothered them.

Honouring A Fallen Soldier

Sepoy Vaishakh H, an Indian army soldier from Kerala, who made the ultimate sacrifice during an encounter with terrorists on October 11, 2021.  His mortal remains arrived in Kerala on October 13 and  was cremated on October 14 amidst heavy rain with full military honours.  Sepoy Vaishakh was among the five Army personnel who died in a gunfight with terrorists during an operation in Poonch district of Jammu and Kashmir on October 11.

The operation was launched in a village close to Dera Ki Gali (DKG) in Surankote (Jammu & Kashmir) in the early hours following intelligence inputs about the presence of terrorists who had infiltrated from across the Line of Control (LoC).

Prior to the funeral, his body was kept at his childhood LP school in Kudavattoor village and then at his home for public viewing. A huge crowd, including those who had no connection with the soldier, turned up to pay their last respects.

Kerala Finance Minister KN Balagopal, who was representing the state government, Mavelikkara MP Kodikunnil Suresh and state Animal Husbandry Minister J Chinchu Rani and several senior government and Army officials were also present at the soldier’s home to pay their last respects.

Please spare a moment and take a look at the coffin. 

A fallen soldier deserves much more than this!!!!

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?

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.

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.

Mr Damodaran’s Treatment

(Lieutenant AK Parrat and Commander NK Parrat)

After reading my blogpost on Mr KP Damodaran, our Compounder at Sainik School, Amaravathi Nagar, Veteran Commander NK Parrat, reminisced about the medical treatment of Cadets by Mr KP Damodaran.

Commander Parrat was in 11th Grade, senior most in school, when we joined in 5th Grade in 1971.  He then Joined the National Defence Academy (48 Course) and was commissioned into the Indian Navy (IN.)  His claim to fame, both at the School and at the Academy,  was his swimming and basketball skills.  He later became a Clearance Diver in the Navy.  He came out with flying colours and was cleared for 100 meter deepsea diving in a Diving and Salvage Course at the Naval Diving and Salvage Training Center (NDSTC), Panama City, Florida, USA.

Commander NK Parrat’s father, Late Lieutenant AK Parrat served the Royal Indian Navy (RIN) and was transferred to IN on India’s independence.  Lieutenant AK Parrat specialised in air-radio and was posted at INS Hansa, which was then located at Coimbatore.  Thus Commander NK Parrat joined Sainik School Amaravathinagar.

With the liberation of Goa in December 1961 from the Portuguese, INS Hansa moved to Dabolim, Goa and Lieutenant AK Parrat was posted to Kochi, Kerala.  He now offered his son Commander NK Parrat, then in grade 6,  that he could move to Sainik School, Kazhakkoottam, Kerala.  Commander NK Parrat refused on the plea “I do not want to be new boy again!

AK Parrat knew Mr Damodaran from their RIN days and instantly a special relationship was established.  Mr Damodaran was well known as he had actively participated in the Bombay Mutiny, a revolt by Indian sailors of the Royal Indian Navy on board ship and shore establishments at Bombay harbour on 18 February 1946.

Lieutenant Percy S Gourgey, RIN, in his book, ‘The Indian Naval Report of 1946,′ has chronicled the events of the revolt.  The sailors were infuriated by the statements of Commander F M King, RIN, of HMIS Talwar, when he addressed the Indian sailors as ‘sons of coolies and bitches.’  Later, around 20,000 sailors stationed at Karachi, Madras, Calcutta, Mandapam, Visakhapatnam, and the Andaman Islands joined the revolt.

The revolt began with a demand for better food and working conditions, but turned into demand for independence from British rule.  They also demanded the release of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army (INA), action against the commander for ill-treatment and using insulting language, revision of pay and allowances to be at par with  the sailors in the Royal Navy, etc.

That was a bit on the history of the Bombay Mutiny.

How did Mr Damodaran earn a place in the heart of all the cadets at Sainik School, Amaravathi Nagar?

It was all due to his dedication and love for the cadets.  He had many a magic potions which could cure all diseases and injuries the cadets suffered.

On returning from the sports field after a hard day’s play and leaving behind the epidermal layer on the ground, all Cadets straight went to the MI Room for an appointment with Mr Damodaran.

He cleaned the wound with savlon solution, applied a gauze over the wound and painted it with a layer of ‘Tincture Benzoin.’ It burned as the tincture was applied, but was a sure cure for all superficial skin wounds. After the superficial wound was cleaned with savlon, a gauze was placed on the wound and Tincture Benzoin was painted over it.  It burned as it was applied, but the adhesive nature of the medication ensured that it stuck to the wound and did not need bandaging.  On healing, the gauze fell off by itself.

Many cadets suffered from fungal infections of the skin, ringworm, athlete’s foot, scabies, etc – all because we played in the dirt, many a times bare-footed.  Gentian Violet, an antiseptic dye was used to treat these cases.  The cadet who suffered from the infection stood out as the dye remained on the skin for over a week.  It was a sure way to mark out those ‘Unhygienic Cadets.’

There were two magic potions compounded by Mr Damodaran – Soda-Sal (Sodium Salicylate) and Sodium-bicarbonate.  Soda-Sal is a  non-steroidal anti-inflammatory agent for relieving pain and reducing fever. Sodium-bicarbonate was the antacid.  Mr Damodaran had them in two labeled bell-shaped jars and was dispensed lavishly to cadets for any ailments.

We had the awful smelling IG Paint (Ichthammol Glycerin), also called black ointment or black drawing salve, a remedy for many skin disorders and inflammation. It is made from sulfonated shale oil and combined with other ingredients, like lanolin or petroleum.  For any sprains, this ‘stinking’ paint was lavishly applied.

The most uncomfortable potion was the Mandl’s Paint, used as throat paint for the treatment of pharyngitis, laryngitis, tonsillitis and sore throat. Due to high viscous nature, it retains the drug for longer time on affected part of the throat.  The agony was that he inserted into the mouth a cotton swab attached to a foot-long stick to paint the patient’s throat.  It left a severe after-taste, but it cured all those medical conditions in a few days – without any antibiotics.

Most of the medicines listed above have been discontinued today due to their harmful side-effects.  It was with Mr Damodaran’s loving care that we cadets of the days trained and graduated from the school without any serious medical conditions.

To read more about our Compounder and his magic APC, Please Click Here.

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.

Regimental Training for a Young Officer


On commissioning I joined 75 Medium Regiment in January 1983.  The Regiment then had an interesting class composition – one battery 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. Management of soldiers in all the batteries differed as their reactions to various situations, their needs, their languages etc were different.  Today the Regiment consists of soldiers from all classes from the entire nation.

I was allotted the Brahmin Battery commanded by Late Major Daulat Bhardwaj.   He was a Brahmin and his first advice was “To command Brahmin soldiers, you got to be a Brahmin yourself, beat them in all aspects – physical, mental and spiritual. You got to be mentally alert and morally straight, else they will never respect you. Once you earn their respect and confidence, they will blindly follow you.

You got to be a better Brahmin than your soldiers.  You are a Christian from Kerala and you got to beat the Brahmins in spiritual aspects too.  You attend Mandir Parades with the soldiers every evening; learn by-heart all the aratis, slokas, mantras and hymns; understand their meaning and apply them to your everyday life.”

Within a month, I could sing the arati and recite the slokas fluently and thus became a ‘Brahmin.’  Even though the first of the Ten Commandments the Christians follow say ‘You shall have no other Gods before Me‘, for any officer of the Indian Army, the religion or Gods of the soldiers they command come before their own. While praying to the Hindu Gods during Mandir Parades, in my heart I was praying to my Lord and Saviour Christ.  In fact, now I was praying to a God I did not believe in for the soldiers who believed in me.

The soldiers, especially the ones who manned the guns called Medium Gunners were all well built and nearly six feet tall.  They were selected keeping in mind that they had to handle the eight ton 130mm Russian gun, the toughest being bringing the gun into action mode from travelling mode and vice versa.  The shells the guns fired being heavier also dictated this.

Training for the gunners involved bringing the gun into action, laying the gun at the specified bearing and elevation to engage targets far away, loading the shell into the gun and firing. This training on the gun is called Gun Drill in artillery terms.  Among these giant gunners, I stood as a Lilliput.  I had to look up to meet their eyes when I spoke to them. Rather than they looking up to me, now I was looking up to them.

The first place I lived in the Regiment was the soldiers’ barracks.  My bed was placed next to Havildar Brij Bhushan Mishra’s, who was better known among the soldiers as BB Major. Soldiers address Havildars as Majors, short for Havildar Majors.  He was then the senior most Gun Detachment Commander and was well known for his gunnery training abilities. BB Major spoke in a soft and low voice and the soldiers had to strain their ears to listen to him. He did not believe in talking much, but the soldiers of the Battery respected him and many were scared of him; all because he knew his job well and he had a reputation of being a tough detachment commander and also he sported a ferocious looking handlebar moustache. He believed in the doctrine that soldiers and brass – they shine well when rubbed hard and polished well.

I commenced gunnery training as any other recruit soldier on joining the Regiment would do – to be the Number 9 of the detachment. I attended Gun Drill classes with the soldiers under the watchful eyes of BB Major. As days passed by, I was ‘promoted’ until I became the Gun Detachment Commander in two weeks.

I was pretty impressed with my ‘promotions‘ until the day I goofed up while bringing the gun into action. My omission at that time would have jeopardised the safety of the crew, but timely intervention by BB Major saved the day for me.  He ordered “Stand Fast” – meaning everyone to freeze as they were. This command is used when a commander or a trainer feels that safety of the soldiers is at risk. BB Major pulled me out, shook me hard and said “Saheb, you have got to take care of the soldiers under your command. You got to be alert at all times. You cannot risk injury to your soldiers because of your callousness.” Major Daulat Bhardwaj who was witnessing the training called out “BB, तेरे  मूछों  में  दम  है  [therey moochon mein dum hai] (there is strength in your moustache).”

I did not speak a word, for I was shaken up and also feeling guilty of committing a major goof-up. After this incident BB Major and I developed mutual respect. While conducting gunnery training later on, BB Major would often quote the incident to the young soldiers and how well I took it in a positive stride. He would also add “If I could do it to the Lieutenant Saheb, you guys better watch out.

 

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)

Butterfly Conservatory @ Niagara Falls

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When Air Vice Marshal TD Joseph (Joe) and Sophie Joseph visited us in May 2016, how could we miss a trip to the Niagara Falls.   Niagara Region has much more to offer, other than the falls, like Niagara Gorge, Welland Canal, and Wine Country.  (Please click on each one to read about them on my earlier Blog Posts).

The place, a nature lover should not miss is the Butterfly Conservatory, filled with beautiful free flying butterflies, a tropical wonderland located on the grounds of the Niagara Parks Botanical Garden. It really is a near ethereal experience.

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Whenever I see butterflies, my mind races back to the nostalgic memories of our childhood in Kerala, India.  Kerala is home to more than 500 birds, 330 butterfly species from the largest butterfly in India, Birdwing, with a wingspan of about 25 cm to the smallest, the Grass Jewel with only 2 cm.  It is also home to 68 species of dragonflies –   the most common types being Malabar Torrent Dart, Yellow Bush Dart, Pied Reed Tail, and the Long-legged Clubtail.  Many writers and poets were fascinated and inspired by these romantic creatures that they became subjects of some great contributions to Indian literature.

As kids, we enjoyed the sight of butterflies and dragonflies fluttering around, especially after the monsoons (June to August) and during the Onam Festival (end August / early September), when the flowers would be in full bloom.  We chased and caught a few of them.  We used to catch these little beauties and tie a small thread to their tails so as to control them and make them take short flights.

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We prompted the dragonfly in our captivity to pick up small pebbles. We increased the size of the stones until the dragonfly could lift no more.  This sadistic game ended with the death of the dragonfly, when it severed its head from its torso.

Advent of rubber cultivation and extensive use of pesticides in Kerala for over three decades have driven these beautiful creations of God from our farmlands.

Thumbi Thullal (Dance of Dragonfly) is a dance performed by women of Kerala as a part of Onam celebrations.  About six to seven women sit in a circle and the lead performer (called Thumbi meaning Dragonfly) sits in the middle of the circle. The lead performer sings melodious fast paced songs and other performers clap their hands and sway to the melody.  Gradually the tempo of the song increases and the lead performer brushes the floor with her hair as if she is possessed by a spirit.  It usually ends with the lead performer fainting or playacting so.

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Back from nostalgia. At the commencement of the Niagara Gorge, about 10 km from the spectacular falls is the Butterfly Conservatory.  This glass-enclosed conservatory is home to over 2000 butterflies.  This state of the art facility is designed to have a tropical environment within a Canadian climate characterised by both warm and cold weather.  The mechanical and electrical systems maintain optimum environmental conditions for the butterflies and plants while accommodating comfort needs for its visitors.

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Around 45 different species of butterflies can be found fluttering in this rainforest setting spread over 11,000 square feet. The exact number of butterflies and species fluctuate on a day to day basis.  The butterfly conservatory accommodates as much as 300 visitors per hour.

The self-guided walking tour of the Butterfly Conservatory begins with a short, informative video presentation that is close captioned for the hearing impaired.  After this, one is allowed to explore the area and spot different species of butterflies as they fly all around you. The setting has a lovely pond, waterfall and a series of meandering pathways amidst several tropical plants with lovely flowers.

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The jungle vegetation and delightful fluttering of hundreds of beautiful butterflies are unusual and a very uplifting experience.  Everywhere there are exquisite butterflies floating in the warm, moist air or spreading their iridescent wings on leaves and flowers.  One can even catch them mating.

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It is a great place to see beautiful butterflies up close but you are not allowed to touch them, because if you touch their wings they get damaged and they cannot fly anymore and may die.  One may photograph them, but surely they need to be kept out of harm’s way.

The Conservatory currently hosts species such as Monarchs, Swallowtails, Owls, Mosaics, Red Lacewings, Blue Morphos and Small Postmans. The green house setting also hosts goldfish, turtles, beetles, toads and Eurasian quails to help regulate insect population.

The best part about the tour is that you can actually get the butterflies to land on you. Some might be even willing to rest on your outstretched hand. Visitors are encouraged to wear bright clothes, wear perfume or cologne and move slowly if they wish to have butterflies land on them.

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Plates filled with fruits are kept at certain places to attract butterflies who like to feed on these and you can watch them doing so.

Most of the butterflies have been imported from farms in tropical countries while some have been raised in a greenhouse behind the conservatory.  The tour is not only entertaining but also educative.  One can watch the metamorphosis process and the life cycle of a butterfly in real time.  One can also observe the butterflies come out of their cocoon, dry their wings and take their first flight.

Adjacent to the Butterfly Conservatory is the Floral Clock.  This unique and stunning display is a very popular stop and is photographed almost as often as the Falls.  The planted face is maintained by the Niagara Parks horticulture staff, while the mechanism is kept in working order by Ontario Hydro, the originally builders of the clock.

The Floral Clock is 40 feet wide, with a planted area 38 feet wide, making it one of the largest such clocks in the world.  The Tower at the back of the clock, houses Westminster chimes that chime at each quarter of an hour.  There is a 10-feet wide water garden that curves 85 feet around the base of the timepiece.

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If you are lucky you may come across the Niagara Parks Commission’s gardeners crawling along the special aluminium ladder they lay across the face of the clock, in order to plant and tend the clock face. Designs are created a year in advance to allow for the proper preparations. Tin dividers are built and installed to prevent soil slippage caused by the slope of the face of the clock. The clock is stopped during the planting process.

The floral design is changed twice each year.  Spring designs are made up with Tulips, Forget-Me-Nots or similar plants, therefore, do not last long.  It is followed by Violas planted in late Spring to provide a colourful design.  From the latter part of May, traditional carpet bedding material is used until frost occurs. The summer designs in general are made up of approximately 24,000 carpet plants whose foliage rather than their blooms provide the necessary contrasting colors. Flowering plants are not suitable for summer planting because the plants that are used must be kept trimmed to form relatively sharp contrasting patterns and not be allowed to grow up and interfere with the movement of the hands. For this reason reddish, green and yellow Alternanthera and Santolina form the background and markings of the various dial designs from year-to-year.   California Golden Privet and Blue Festuca Grass may be used for contrast. In winter, the summer design is perpetuated by using rock chips of various colours.

Anyone planning a visit to the Niagara Falls on the Canadian side must include these little wonderful sites in their itinerary.  Always remember that the falls are better viewed from the Canadian side as one can hardly see it from the US side.  So, always obtain a Canadian Visa in case you are visiting the Niagara Falls.

Legendary Lungi

For me, undoubtedly most comfortable evening home wear has always been the down to earth ‘Lungi’.  It is extremely comfortable and is an all season wear.  It is unisex – wearable by both men and women.  It is easy to wear without any hassles of zips, buttons or laces.  One got to  just tie at the waist.  Tying a Lungi at the waist is surely not any rocket science, but to ensure that it remains there is surely an art by itself.  Lungi surely provides free movement for the lower limbs and also air circulation, especially  ideal for the hot and humid climate of Kerala.

A Lungi is a cotton sheet about 2 meter in length and over a meter  in breadth and is characterised  by its plain, checkered, floral or window-curtain patterns.  By design, surely one-size-fits-all, both males and females and surely does not have any caste, creed or religion.  The only variation is that Muslims of Kerala wear it right to left, whereas others wear it  left to right.  It is very difficult for a normal eye to make out this subtle difference.  Lungi is worn in India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Myanmar and Thailand. ‘Mundu’ is its white cousin and is worn mostly outdoors  in Kerala- to church, family functions and even to office.

While serving in the Indian Army, I wore a Lungi to bed, even in remote border posts – at altitudes above 10,000 feet when the mercury dipped to nearly 30 degrees below the freezing mark.  I wore it while serving in the North in Kashmir, in the West in the deserts of Rajasthan and in the humid jungles of Eastern India. It surely had no combat or camouflaged design or pattern as it was not an Army ‘issue’ item and surely did not figure in the ‘Dress Regulations for the Army.’

Once on my trip home on vacation from Sikkim, I called on Colonel Baby Mathew who was commanding an Artillery Regiment located near the airport from where I was to board the flight home.  On reaching the main gate of his regiment, the sentry on guard saluted me smartly and said “Our CO (Commanding Officer) is waiting at his residence for your arrival” and he then gave directions to the driver about the route.  On entering Colonel Mathew’s residence I heard his voice saying “Head straight to my bedroom.”  There was Colonel Mathew, sitting on his bed, adorned in his favourite Lungi.  He ordered me to change into my Lungi and join him for a hot lunch of Kappa (Kasava or Tapioca) and fish curry – a Kerala Christian favourite.  While partaking the meal, Colonel Mathew said “I have placed my residence out of bounds for all ranks for the next 24 hours” – meaning no one to come near his house until I was there.  Obviously the Commanding Officer did not want his command to see him and his friend in their Lungi.

In June 2002, I took over command of our Regiment in its operational location on the India-Pakistan border in Rajasthan.  The Regiment was mobilised from its peace location in Devlali (Maharashtra, near Mumbai) on that year’s New Year Eve.  The entire Indian Army had moved into their operational locations after the attack on the Indian Parliament building by terrorists believed to have come in from Pakistan.  The Indian Railways ensured that our Regiment, like all the other units of the Indian Army, were transported to their operational locations at super-high priority in two days.  The Military Special trains moved at speeds greater than that of many express trains and were accorded the highest priority.

The move back to Devlali from Rajasthan was the opposite.  An Army which did not even fire a single bullet, an army which did not fight a war surely  had no priorities in anyone’s mind.  The Military Special trains stopped at every possible station, even to give way to the goods trains.  Now we were the lowest priority in the eyes of the Indian Railways.  The onward move executed in less than two days now was sure to take a week.

On the day of our train’s move from Jodhpur (Rajasthan), the soldiers loaded all the vehicles and equipment on the train.  After accomplishing the task, the Subedar Major (Master Warrant Officer) Thangaswamy had a roll-call to ensure everyone was present and also to brief the soldiers about the return journey.  As I looked out of my railway coach’s window, I saw the entire regiment standing.  I had a brain wave – Why carry all the soldiers on the train?  About a hundred of them is all what I require, mainly to ensure the security and safety of the train and the equipment.  Why not the rest of the soldiers be send on leave as many had not met their families for a prolonged time due to the operational commitments?  Also, less of a trouble for the chefs to cook meals on a running train and less of administrative issues.

I stepped out of my coach wearing my Lungi and a shirt and ordered Subedar Major Thangaswamy to only keep about a hundred soldiers and disperse the rest on leave for a week to rejoin at Devlali.  Everyone’s face suddenly brightened up but with that I was christened ‘Lungi CO.’

After moving to Canada, on a warm and sunny summer morning, I was watering the garden wearing my all time favourite Lungi.  There appeared our neighbour, Mr Win of Chinese descent and on seeing me wearing a colourful and comfortable costume enquired “Reji, what skirt are you wearing- looks really colourful.  Sometimes it is a full-skirt, sometimes half-skirt and sometimes mini-skirt.” –That was it! I discarded my favourite Lungi forever.

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.

Left Foot First

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On joining Sainik School in 1971 at the age of nine, I underwent my first run of drill classes.  The Drill Sergeant with his order for Tez Chal (Quick March) always followed it up with “Shoot your Left foot.”  This Left foot first continued through the training at the Academies and during my military service. 

While travelling on a train during my vacation from school in 1978, my co-passenger was a Veteran Sergeant who had seen action with the Royal Air Force during World War II in Burma.  He spoke of a Black & White English movie, ‘The Tie.’  He described a scene where a detective and a constable are tracking a fugitive through the city roads on a foggy winter night.  Only the silhouette of the fugitive is seen and suddenly it stops walking and then walks ahead.  The detective says that it is a woman. The question of the Veteran was as to how the detective made out that it was a woman. 

I had no clue and he explained that women generally commence walking with their Right foot first and men with their Left.  That is why when we march, we are drilled to shoot our Left foot first.  After this meeting, I started observing men and women and the first Right foot applied to women in about 80% cases.  Perhaps the remaining 20% were taught drill by some Sergeant Majors.
Shooting the Left foot first in the military was mainly because the soldiers were mostly right-handed and they carried their weapons the right side.  So when a soldier stepped forward with a Left foot, they were in a better balanced fighting posture, with Right foot planted and weapon up, ready for action.  It was also to keep everyone on the same foot for advancing in a line. In the olden day battles, soldiers advanced together ahead in formation, so that the enemy could not break the lines. In order to do this they used drums to keep everyone in line and together and commenced the march on the Left foot.  Every time the drum struck, their Left foot hit the ground.  Modern Armies across the globe follow this to keep everyone in step while marching, more to instill discipline and team work and for a ‘Soldierly‘ look while moving in a group.

In the military, one always walked on the left side of a superior officer.  In other words, one always kept his superior on his ‘Right’ side.  This was to facilitate him to return a salute with his Right arm without poking his arm into someone on his Right. leftright364
We are all familiar with the famous first words of Neil Armstrong as he stepped foot onto the moon in 1969, ‘That is one small step for man and one giant leap for mankind.’  No one would have been there to photograph this one small step.  The second human to set foot on the moon was Buzz Aldrin and the instant was captured by Neil Armstrong.  In this image (courtesy NASA),  Aldrin is seen landing on the lunar surface with his Left foot, that too in rearward motion.  Perhaps,  a mere coincidence or the sheer logic of the number of rungs in the ladder!

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In this connection, a bit of mythology may interest the reader. Nataraja, the Hindu God Shiva as a cosmic dancer, is depicted in idol form in most temples of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, balancing on his Right foot with his Left foot up.  The only exception being the Nataraja idol at Meenakshi temple, Madurai.  It is believed that the Pandya King who commissioned the temple wanted to give some relief to Natarajan’s Right leg, at least in the temple constructed by him.LeftRight225
God Shiva with his consort Parvathi is mostly depicted sitting and in most cases, Shiva has his Left foot folded up and Parvathi her Right.  As per Hindu mythology, Shiva represents the Purusha (male) and Parvathi the Prakrithi (nature or female.)  Some Hindu mythological art portrays gods with both feet on together on the ground and this may be the depiction of combination of Purusha and Pakrithi.

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When an Indian Bride enters a home, she is advised by her mother-in-law to enter with her Right foot first, but no such instruction is ever passed to the groom.  During many Hindu marriages, the groom ritually places the Right foot of the Bride on a grinding stone.  The mantras recited during this time advise the bride to lead a firm life like the grinding stone, to be as firm as a rock, so that the family can depend on her.

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Most Hindu Goddesses are often depicted with their Right leg folded up, depicting Prakrithi.

This may explain as to why women commence their walk with their Right foot.

Thankachan – Our Fish Vendor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where to Find God

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A very pertinent question being asked in today’s world, filled with evangelists from all religions and sects, standing on rooftops and on TV, shouting at the top of their voices.  Everyone it appears 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 will 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.    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 formed, without any jostling or pushing, awaiting the auspicious time of 10 AM for the sale window to open.   The salesman at dot 10 AM opened the window and brisk sales proceeded and more people joined the queue.

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By about 11 AM, the beggar found his pan full of money and overjoyed with it, he prayed to 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 front. Now they maintain social distance norms.”

“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 God.

My First Sex Education

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.

Umbrella

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The schools reopen for the new session in Kerala after the summer vacation in June every year.  The school opening is marked by the commencement of the monsoon rains and in the low-lying areas of Kottayam, there would invariably be floods and the schools are often closed at least for a fortnight thereafter.

Our father was the headmaster of a school in this area near Kumarakom and once I asked him “Why can’t you have an extended school session till April end and have summer vacation in May and June?”

This idea was tried out unsuccessfully as the combination of extremely hot summer days and scarcity of drinking water posed major difficulties and hence the proposal was shelved,” he replied.

The low lying areas of Kottayam are a part of the North Kuttanad, known as the rice bowl of Kerala. This is perhaps the only region in the world where rice farming is done at about 2.5 meter below sea level.  The paddy fields are reclaimed land from the backwaters.  In case one embarks on a boat ride through the backwaters, one can observe that the paddy fields are at a much lower level than the water level of the backwaters.  If you carefully observe the image above or below, you can differentiate the two levels.

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Kuttanad meaning ‘low lying lands’ is one of the most fertile regions of Kerala, spread over the districts of Alappuzha and Kottayam, crisscrossed by rivers, canals and waterways.  The region contains the low lying lands measuring about 25 kilometers East-West and 60 kilometers North-South on the West coast of Kerala. A major portion of this area lies 1 to 2.5 meters below the sea level.  Kuttanad has 1, 10,000 hectare area, of which 50 % is reclaimed and 88 % is under agriculture.  The area is characterised by Dyke building in deep waters, land reclamation and maintenance and Rice-Fish rotation farming.

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The dykes (bund) construction and maintenance are intricate tasks, for which an array of long and stout coconut poles are hammered deep enough into the lake bed in two rows, about two meters in width enveloping the entire area,  It is then fenced with bamboo mats on either side.  The channels of the bund are now filled to the desired height, first with sand, followed by twigs, interspersed with high quality clay dug from the bottom of the lake.  Then water is pumped out and the land is prepared for rice cultivation.

The dykes are now mostly permanent ones built with granites and concrete.  Only a few gaps are left to facilitate flowing in of water after the harvest.  The gaps are filled prior to cultivation as mentioned above.  In the earlier days, water was pushed out from the low lying areas manually using a waterwheel.  Nowadays, the manual labour has been replaced by electric pumps.

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During heavy monsoons, the flood waters may breach the bunds and inundate the paddy fields, causing heavy losses to the farmers.

The fresh water environment close to rice fields and the canals provide abundance of Pearl spots (Karimeen for which Kerala is well known for), fresh water giant prawns (attukonju) and freshwater catfish.

So much for the geography of Kuttanad and its peculiarities.

Let me now relate to a monsoon related necessity. It was customary for our father to gift all four of us with an umbrella, with our name inscribed on it, at the beginning of every school year.  One either lost them or damaged them as the school year passed by. In the autumn of his life, he resumed the old habit and continued with the same gift to all his grand children.

In China, gifting your friend an umbrella means you want to end the relationship because umbrella sounds like San in Chinese, which means to separate. Giving a married couple an umbrella as a gift should be avoided in all cases, at least in China. The Chinese believe that if it is raining and you are worried he or she will get wet, it’s better for both of you to huddle under one umbrella until you reach your partner’s destination.

That brings me to a personal anecdote related to the gifting of umbrellas. A few weeks after assuming command of the unit in the operational area in Rajasthan, our Second-in-Command (2IC) Late Col Suresh Babu approached me and said “There are about 100 umbrellas lying unsold in the Regimental Canteen at Devlali, Maharashtra.  I propose a 50% reduction sale for them.”  

I realised with the unit in the operational area, it may not be feasible to execute the sale.

After analysing the loss being incurred by the canteen and the overall cost of the umbrellas, and taking a cue from my father, I said “Let the Regiment buy all the umbrellas from the Regimental fund and let them be gifted to all children of the unit at the beginning of the academic session.”

 As in Kerala, in Devlali too, the monsoons pour down heavily coinciding with the school opening, but luckily there are no floods.  The gift must have impressed all the families and children, back in Devlali as they had not yet met the new Commanding Officer.

In 2009, five years after handing over command, I received a call from Subedar Ravinder Singh.  His son came on line and said “Sir, the umbrella you gifted to me at the time of taking over command of the unit has been preserved by me and was always a sign of encouragement for me.  Thank you very much Sir and also for training all the children of our unit on computers.  The introductory training to technology I received at that early age made me explore the world further and it has helped me immensely in my career. Thank you Sir.”

Most of your deeds and actions may not matter much to you, but it matters to the one who is in the receiving end.  The resultant effect will always be as to how the receiver perceives it. And, if the recipient perceives it well, he or she will replicate it in later life, in one form or the other.

Good deeds generally have a chain reaction as do bad deeds. But in case of good deeds the chain is generally much longer than in the case of bad deeds.

Challenges in Parenting Faced by Indian Immigrants In North America

Background
A nursing student, 22 year old daughter of parents who had immigrated to the US from Kerala, was reported missing by her parents on February 24, 2014. She was last heard from by her mother who talked to her, on the phone.  The daughter claimed to be in the library at the university campus, where as the police investigation revealed that she made the call from a fitness center.

The parents were in for a rude shock when they learned from police that their daughter, who was a nursing student, had not attended classes since May 2013.  All along, her parents believed that she was going to school, and her mother who was under the impression that her daughter was on track to follow in her footsteps. She had been living at home and telling her parents she was attending school all through the fall and winter. The father’s credit card was even charged $6,072 for the Fall 2013 semester. I had heard from our daughter about of a few students who enroll in courses using the parent’s credit card and later cancelling their enrollment and taking the money.

The parents had not been seeing their daughter’s progress card and when her father asked to see the report card, she said there was something wrong with the computer. The mother had noticed that that her daughter wasn’t bringing home college text books. On inquiry, she said that she was doing online reading. In hindsight, how could a mother, who is also a nurse by profession ever accept such an excuse.

On March 11, 2014, the police found her dead body in her car and as per the police, the cause of death appeared to be suicide, due to inhalation of a noxious substance.

Reality Check

This case study reveals the challenges in parenting faced especially by parents emigrating from India. This brings out the need for positive parent-child interactions, especially at teen and adolescence levels. Each age and stage of growth presents unique joys and challenges, and the teen and adolescence years are certainly no exception. In fact, parenting during these years will always present unique situations as a result of the physical, social and emotional changes taking place in your child’s life. The parents have a great deal of influence on the behaviour of their adolescents.

Majority of Indian immigrant parents’ relationships with their children are formal and vertical with regard to age and gender. Communication and authority flow downward consistent with a hierarchical order. Indian parents accept as their duty the care of their children and children’s reciprocated duty is to unquestionably respect and honour their parents. In this context, parents expect children to accede to parental wishes and to behave in ways that reflect well upon the family, and many times the community. Many Indian immigrant parents rely on the inculcation of guilt and shame to keep children, regardless of age, focused on the importance of family obligations and to behave in ways that do not ‘bring shame’ to the family. Anything and everything the child does is castigated with the often heard remark that ‘its against our culture.

For a majority of Indian immigrant parents in America, the desire for children to succeed educationally and economically is a very high (only doctors and engineers please.) Accordingly, children’s exceptional academic performance is often viewed by parents as an honour to them.

This also forces children to hide their actual performance/ report cards.  Parents are also culprits as they brag about their children’s academic achievements.  It is very significant at high school level and when the child does not secure admission in a worthwhile university, next lot of stories are spun out by the parents.  This further degrades the child’s confidence and they end up feeling out of place – trying to live in a castle of lies.

Lives of many Indian immigrant children, especially those at high school and university level can well be compared to the Hindi movie ‘Ram Aur Shyam,’  The children often end up leading a life of double role – one for university and one for home.  It is akin to maintaining two girlfriends at the same time – one should not meet the other.

Concerns of Indian Immigrant Parents in North America

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  • Fear of Losing Children to the American Culture.     Most Indian parents migrate with the hope of making it good with many opportunities North America offers to them and their children. However, they fear that their children, especially those who entered adolescence or young adulthood subsequent to emigrating and those born in North America, are becoming more ‘Americans’ and abandoning the family’s cultural values.  Most of these parents fail to realise that the present young Indian society has changed and have adapted to the American culture of dating, live-in relationships, drugs, pubs, etc, (mostly kept under wraps.)  Some Indian parents often demand that children minimise their activities like dating based on personal choice, partying, using contraceptives, marrying for love vs  accepting an arranged marriage, or reject the culture outright. Indian children often perceive their identification with the parental native culture to be a disadvantage to making it big in the American society.
  • Loss of Authority Over Children.           Indian parents become aware of two very painful post-immigration facts of life: that there are vastly different rules for parenting children, and the new rules significantly lessen their general authority over their children. Many parents complain that the children do not listen to them and some are even scared of saying anything to their children. Parents also lament the ‘permissiveness‘ of the American society that condones children’s rights to challenge parental values and authority and often observe that raising children in North America is same as ‘living with strangers.’
  • Disciplining Children.       Many Indian parents feel restrained in their authority to discipline their children ‘appropriately‘ consistent with the usual and acceptable modes of disciplining children back in India. Many Indian parents used disciplinary practices that by American standards, are considered harsh and even abusive. For these parents, parenting in North America requires accommodation to new value systems, rules, and expectations.  As a result, Indian parents overwhelmingly tend to be cautious in disciplining their children because of their unfamiliarity with other disciplinary methods and fear of breaking the law.
  • Loss of Authority to Select Children’s Mate.  Indian immigrant families represent a kaleidoscope of religions and cultures and consider it their right to select and to decide whom the children will (date and) eventually marry. They do not accept the fact that arranged marriages among Indians is on the wane. Notwithstanding the decline in the practice, however, many Indian immigrant parents continue to endorse arranged marriages. Some parents do not hesitate to send marriageable children home to seek a spouse in case there are few or no eligible candidates. Some parents may even ‘import‘ a potential spouse from India.  Some parents do permit culturally exogamous dating and marriages and most children prefer selecting, dating and eventually marrying someone of their own choosing, based on the North American criterion of romantic love. Parents complain that children’s refusal to accept an arranged marriage as a rejection of them and their values and negatively reflect upon them as parents within the community. They also reference the progressively increasing divorce rate among younger Indian immigrants and worry about their children’s ability to ‘make a good marriage.’
  • Loss of Face Within the Community.    Within the Indian community, parents are held responsible for their children’s behaviour and are criticised for their failing as parents, because children’s behaviour reflect negatively upon parents. They believe that it is the paramount duty of their children to enhance family pride by honouring their parents through their culturally appropriate behaviour and outstanding accomplishments. Consequently, when children behave out-of-culture, parents invariably complain that such behaviour dishonour them as ‘Indian Parents‘ and devalue their standing as ‘Indians‘ within the community.
  • Religious Institutions.       Indian parents seems to prove the adage of ‘being more loyal to the king than the king themselves’ when it comes to their religious matters. They force their children to attend religious ceremonies, mostly without explaining the details of the ceremony and its significance in real life.  Religious teachers employed by these institutions are ‘fresh off the boat (FOB)‘ from India and do not connect to the North American society and the stresses the children undergo here.   They ensure to instill a feeling of ‘guilt and shame‘ in the Indian parents for not strictly adhering to the religious practices and the ‘sin‘ they are committing by not protecting their children from the ‘hazards‘ of the ‘evil‘ North American society. Their sermons are mostly archaic and have no place in the modern society. Luckily these sermons are in their dialects or in ‘Hinglish/ Punglish/ Manglish,‘ which these children do not understand. These religious heads will talk non-stop on the evils of the North American society, but wants you to part with your dollars liberally at any instant.

The Way Ahead

  • Monitor and Supervise your Child.       Children want parents who listen and try to understand, set good examples, and offer guidance. A delicate balance of allowing your child freedom while still exercising a level of parental control is key to your child achieving independence.
  • Monitor Your Child’s Activities.  Show a constant and genuine interest in your child’s life.  Know where your child is at all times. Ask where they are going after school, when they will be home, and which friends they will be with. Parents who actively monitor and guide their children tend to have adolescents who experience positive relationships with peers and who are less likely to use drugs.
  • Check-in Regularly.           Talk to your child after school to ask about their day. If your child is scheduled to be at a friend’s house, call the friend’s parent to confirm the arrangement. Be involved without being overbearing. Your child may protest your monitoring behaviour, but setting boundaries and sticking to them will show your child that you love them.
  • Parent in an Authoritative Style.     Parent with warmth and respect, avoiding to be overly controlling or overly lenient. Authoritative parents are warm but firm. They encourage their children to be independent, but as parents, they manage to keep limits and controls on their child’s actions. Authoritative parents openly discuss family rules with their children, which allows the children to express their views. Authoritative parents are nurturing, while providing the rules, guidelines, and standards that children need.
  • Encourage Your Children to Bring Home their Friends.     This will ensure that you meet your child’s friends and know the company he/ she keeps. Interact with your child to find out the activities and conversations that took place during their outing. This is easier said than done as you have to earn the confidence of your child, especially by not reacting to those uncomfortable issues that may crop up. This will provide some insight into the activity pattern of your child outside the school hours
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  • Eat Dinner Together.      Eating dinner or at least a meal together as a family provides an ideal opportunity to interact with your children. Talk to your child about their day, their friends, and current events. It also shows that you care enough to take time to listen and learn about their interests. Research finds that teens who eat dinner with a parent five or more times during the week are less likely to smoke, drink, use drugs, get into fights and engage in sexual activity.
  • College and University Students to Study with Education Loan.    The children must utilise the facility of the liberal educational loans, especially those funded by the governments. It not only satisfies the financial need to proceed with higher education but helps in saving income tax also while repayment. Tax benefits on education loan end up reducing overall cost of the loan. Most student loans offer lower interest rates, deferred payment options and a repayment grace period following graduation. This will ensure that the children are better focused on their education. It can also act as a monitoring tool for the parents as the next tranche of the loan would not be released unless the student has scored adequate marks and have the requisite attendance. In case the parents are financially sound, they can assist the child to repay the loan in full or in part upon graduation.

Wishing all parents ‘Great Parenting.’  Remember what Mayim Chaya Bialik, American actress, author, and neuroscientist said “I came to parenting the way most of us do – knowing nothing and trying to learn everything.

(Photographs are of our daughter Nidhi and our son Nikhil)

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 ManthrakodiManthra 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 specialty 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‘. Christians of Kerala are believed to have been converted to Christianity by St Thomas, one of the twelve disciples of Christ in the first century.  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 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 through 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.

Oppana - the entertainment dance popular in Malabar | Explore Malabar | Kerala Tourism, India
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 a 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 called Dejhoor, 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.

First, Middle and Last Name

Names

My name at school and in the Indian Army read Koduvath Reji as our family is known by the name Koduvath. (Please click here to read more about Koduvath family). Syrian Christians of Kerala generally have three parts in their names. First comes the family name, followed by the father’s name and then the christen name. In my case it was only the family name and my christen name. As a teenager, I asked my father as to how we all siblings had only two names and a very short christen name. Being a Headmaster, I got a typical reply from him that the most common question one gets in primary language classes is “What is your name?” He did not want his children to get confused in answering the very first question and hence to make our lives a bit easier, gave us all easy to write names. Think of my plight had my name been a typical Syrian Christian name like ‘Kuruvilla‘, ‘Philipose‘, ‘Punnoose‘ or ‘Zachariah‘.

In Malayala Manorama newspaper in Kerala, one often finds a few change of name advertisements in the classified columns; mainly for women changing their surnames to match their husband’s. In some cases it is to put the surname after the christen name and a few for astrological and numerological reasons.

Other than the above, there may be a variety of interesting reasons for a name change. Sometimes someone did not take a liking to the name their parents gave; in some cases the couple would go for a ‘double-barrel’ name, hyphenating the surnames of both the partners. Some do it to Anglicise their names as in a few cases the way their names are pronounced in North America may end up as an unpleasant word in their language or else to make it easier for the folks to pronounce one’s name. At times some feel that their name is a liability while seeking a job and at times it is to beat an identity theft.

Our mother, Pallathettu Kurian Sosamma married our father Koduvath Varkey George in 1956. They both were teachers and neither changed their names. Our father believed that everyone must maintain their individuality and identity and marriage is not a sacrificial altar, which demands one to surrender one’s name. Further, the expenses and hassles involved as per him were also not worth the trouble. Hence, none of his daughters-in-law, including my wife, changed their names after marriage. My wife remained Marina Mani, the surname she got from her father’s name.

Many officers in the Indian Army change their wife’s name after marriage at their own will. They had their documentations (Part II Orders) of their marriage done and replaced the surname of their wife with the husband’s surname. It was surprising to many when I insisted that my wife will maintain her maiden name in all her documentations. I realised most officers were unaware of the procedure for a change of name and that a marriage under any law does not authorise a change of name. The soldiers too followed the simple methodology of a marriage Part II Order to change their spouse’s name and the uninformed officers did sign them off!

After marriage Marina was addressed as Mrs Reji as everyone in the army quite reasonably presumed Reji to be my surname. Marina despised it, but settled down to accepting it as time passed. I named our daughter Nidhi and Marina was arguably unhappy as a disyllabic ‘single’ name appeared dreadfully incomplete. I insisted that she would neither take on my first name nor surname with the reasoning that it obviates a ‘change of name’ problem after marriage.

My wife then named her Nidhi Susan, as my mother’s first name ‘Sosamma’ is the vernacularised form of ‘Susan’.  (Now she is Nidhi Parkinson-Watson with a hyphenated last name.) When our son was born, Marina took on the responsibility of naming him and he ended up with a very complete name ‘Nikhil George Koduvath.

When we had to apply for the emigration process to Canada, the first requirement was to obtain a passport. I conveniently swapped my first and the last names to become Reji Koduvath from Koduvath Reji. Thus I ended up with two identities, one Indian and the other Canadian. The last name did pose a bit of an issue for our daughter in Canada. Whenever she went for any documentation and when she gave her last name as Susan, they would reconfirm it as Susan is a common first name in Canada.

On assuming command of the Regiment, I insisted on correct and complete documentation for all soldiers of the unit. There I realised that numerous gaps existed in their documentation, particularly those related to marriage and child birth. In the next Sainik Sammelan (Commanding Officer’s monthly address to soldiers,) I decided to educate everyone about the procedure and need for correct documentation, especially as most soldiers’ families were nuclear and many had moved away from the traditional joint family system.

How to change your name legally in Punjab? - Procedure, Affidavit  Submission, Newspaper Publication, Gazette Notification, Charges,  Application Forms
I explained to them the correct legal procedure for a change of name as applicable in India (as also in many developed countries.) First step is to make an affidavit for the change of name and submit it to a District Court or a Magistrate. The next step is to publish advertisements announcing the name change in two local newspapers. The last step is to get the same published as a notification in the Official Gazette of one’s state.

At the end of it, one soldier from Rajasthan raised an issue that in their area, the second name of every girl was ‘Kumari’ and when they got married, it changed to ‘Devi’. He gave an example that Ritu Kumari after marriage will automatically become Ritu Devi as per their customs. I replied that until change of name is done legally, she would remain Kumari (virgin) for life! I instructed all officers and soldiers who did change their spouse’s name to complete all legal proceedings for change of name.

In Canada, when you visit the family physician or the pharmacy, the search key-field that they use is the last name. I always request them to search with our home telephone number as Nikhil and I have a common last name, Nidhi and Marina have different last names.

Once at our Pharmacy, the technician searched with the home telephone number as the key-field and five names came up. She commented that all the three males of the family have a common last name and both the females have different last names. You must be wondering who the third male member of our family is. It is Maximus Koduvath, our dog, who also gets his medication from the same pharmacy based on the veterinarian’s prescription. Maximus is a Canadian and he has to have a last name.

Names2

Kasava/ Tapioca/ Kappa (കപ്പ)

Kappa1

Walking down the isle of a Chinese vegetable store in Mississauga, Canada, after  immigration in 2004, I was surprisingly greeted by the Kasava/ Tapioca/ Kappa (കപ്പ) placed on a rack. On Closer examination, the tag read ‘Kasava – Product of Guatemala’. Any Malayalee (Mallu) will always and forever relish Tapioca cooked with spices and grated coconut and fish curry marinated with special tamarind (Kudam Puli (കുടംപുളി) scientifically known as Garcinia Cambogia). The concoction served in Toddy (alcoholic extract from coconut trees) shops all over Kerala (Indian Province where Malayalam is the native language and the residents are called Malayalees – now Mallus), is something one can never get in any homes.

Tapioca is not a native of Kerala. Then how come it reached the shores of Kerala?.

Tapioca is said to have originated in Brazil. Portuguese distributed the crop from Brazil to countries like Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and Kerala in India in the 17th Century. Some believe that Vysakham Thirunal, the Travancore King (1880-1885 AD), who was also a botanist, introduced this laborer’s food in Travancore (South Kerala). By beginning of 19th Century, people from central Travancore migrated to the Malabar region (North Kerala) and they introduced tapioca to the locals.

Tapioca was promoted extensively during World War II in Kerala by Chithira Thirunal, Maharaja of Travancore and his Governor Sir CP Ramaswamy Iyer. Then rice was the staple food of the people of Kerala and was being imported from Burma and Indonesia. With Japanese Navy enforcing a blockade in the Malaccan Strait, the ships carrying rice to India were either destroyed or captured. This caused an acute shortage of rice.

A large number of people, especially the labour class, accepted the starch-rich Tapioca as a substitute to costly rice. Thus Tapioca came to be known as ‘staple food of the poor.’ Hotels refused to include Tapioca in their menu due to its working class image.

The only place that served Tapioca were the toddy shops, where the labourers turned up for relaxation after a day’s hard work. Today tapioca is a rarity in Kerala and so is a delicacy and hence all hotels including the five-star ones have tapioca with fish curry in all their menus.

During my childhood, we used to cultivate Tapioca on our land. Tapioca is a tropical crop, tolerant to drought, but cannot withstand frost. It is best grown in lower altitudes with warm humid climate with well distributed rainfall. Our land is terraced on the hill slope into 20 x 20 feet sections. Each section is held together with stone masonry retaining wall to avoid soil erosion. On top of these walls pineapple was grown to give additional strength to the retaining wall. On some of these walls a fast growing grass was planted as fodder for cows.

In the month of August, the labourers till the land and make mounds of about a foot after spreading a compost mixture of cow-dung and ash. These mounds are made about three feet apart. Tapioca is planted in June with the onset of the South-West monsoon. Stakes taken from plants of the previous year is now cut into pieces of about a foot and is planted on these mounds. After a month, all the unhealthy or weak sprouts are pinched off leaving only two sprouts to grow into stakes.

As the plants mature, underground stems called tubers enlarge with starch. This is the time when the plant is most susceptible to rodent attacks, mainly from rats. As the tubers matured, a plant was uprooted almost every evening and tubers either were boiled and eaten with chutney or cooked with grated coconut and spices and eaten with fish curry. During weekends our mother had off being a school teacher and she made thin slices of fresh tapioca tubers and fried them in coconut oil.

After about ten months, in April, tapioca is harvested. Firstly the stakes are cut off and the healthy ones are stored for cutting for next planting. Underground tubers are now pulled out manually, pulling at the base of the stakes. The tubers are cut off from their bases and carried to the peeling site.

At the peeling site, the women folk of the village sit on mats and peel the outer skin of the tubers and slice the white starch part into thin slices. The women folk were generally paid in kind at the scale of one for every ten basket of tubers sliced by them. The sliced tubers are now collected in baskets and carried by the men folk to the boiling site. Here the slices are boiled in water until semi-cooked. The slices are now drained and put on the ground to dry under the sun. Once dried, these are collected in gunny bags. Some of the dried tapioca was retained for our consumption and the remainder were sold off to Kunjappan Chettan, the trader who lived across our home. Please refer to my blog https://rejinces.net/2014/07/15/kunjappan-chettan-the-trader/

In the 1980s, labour in Kerala became very expensive and  rodent attacks on tapioca crops became severe. Most tapioca plants were infected with Gemini virus causing ‘Mosaic’ disease curling the leaves and thus reduced yield.  In this period, the price of natural rubber skyrocketed. This turned tapioca farmers to rubber cultivation. With the incoming of rubber, out went the cows first as there was not enough grass to feed them. Further, the skins of the tapioca tubers and leaves from the uprooted stakes, which were the staple diet of the cows for four months, were now unavailable.

Mr AD George, our botany teacher at school had mentioned that the Gemini virus intruded into Kerala through a sample brought in by a professor, who while on a visit to a foreign country where tapioca was cultivated, saw a plant infected by the virus. He collected a leaf to show it to his students and brought it home to Kerala. After demonstrating the specimen to his students, the professor discarded the specimen. This virus then is believed to have spread across Kerala.

The land lost all its herbal healing powers with the advent of rubber cultivation. Herbal plants like Kurumtotti (Sida Rhombifolia), Kizhukanelli (Phyllanthus Amarus), Paanal (Glycosmis Arboraea), etc, all very abundant until we cultivated tapioca, became nearly extinct. The undergrowth shown in the image above is mostly of these herbal plants. Further, the present generation is totally unaware of the existence of these herbs in our own land and uses of these herbs. The cows used to eat these herbs along with the grass they chewed off the land and hence their milk also should have had some herbal effect.

In 2002 I visited Colonel TM Natarajan, my class mate from Sainik School and he spoke about the Sago (Sabudhana[साबूदाना ] or Chavvari [ചവ്വരി/ சவ்வரிசி]) factory his family had. That was when I realised that Sago was not a seed and it was factory manufactured and tapioca is the main ingredient. As Tamil Nadu had many Sago factories and in order to feed them with tapioca, tapioca cultivation now moved from Kerala to Tamil Nadu. The only hitch is that it needs extensive irrigation to grow as Tamil Nadu does not enjoy as much rainfall as Kerala is blessed with.

Why Do Soldiers Break Step On A Suspension Bridge?

SuspBridge

Our son Nikhil and I had a discussion about the phenomenon of resonance about which he had a class that day. My mind wandered back to Mr PT Cherian’s high school physics classes. Mr Cherian had a knack of explaining basic principles of physics by citing real life examples which were simple and easy to assimilate. For more about Mr Cherian, please refer my blog https://rejinces.net/2014/07/15/guru-dakshina/.

Mr Cherian explained resonance by using a simple experiment.

He had three pendulums of different lengths and two of the same length (B & D) tied to a rubber hose. He swung one of the two pendulums of equal lengths and after a few minutes, all the other pendulums begun to swing with the other pendulum of equal length swinging as much as the other. This he explained was as a result of resonance and the frequency of the two pendulums with equal lengths were same and hence they resonated.

Bridges and buildings have a natural frequency of vibration within them. A force applied to an object at the same frequency as the object’s natural frequency will amplify the vibration of the object due to mechanical resonance. Mr Cherian explained that while on a swing, one can go higher with a jerk of a bend knee or a swing of the legs and a car wobbles at a particular speed; are all examples mechanical resonance. The shattering of glass by singers with their voice is also by the same principle.

Mr Cherian then narrated an incidence which took place in 1831 when a brigade of soldiers marched in step across England’s Broughton Suspension Bridge. The marching steps of the soldiers happened to resonate with the natural frequency and the bridge broke apart, throwing dozens of men into the water. After this, the British Army issued orders that soldiers while crossing a suspension bridge must ‘break step‘ and not march in unison.

If soldiers march in unison across a,suspension bridge, they apply a force at the frequency of their step. If their frequency is closely matched to the bridge’s frequency, soldiers’ rhythmic marching will amplify the natural frequency of the bridge. If the mechanical resonance is strong enough, the bridge can vibrate until it collapses due to the movement.

A similar tragedy was averted in June 2000 when a large crowd assembled at the opening of London’s Millennium Bridge. As crowds packed the bridge, their footfalls made the bridge vibrate slightly. Many in the crowd fell spontaneously into step with the bridge’s vibrations, inadvertently amplifying them. The police swung into action to clear the crowd off the bridge. Though engineers insist the Millennium Bridge was never in danger of collapse, the bridge was closed for about a year while construction crews installed energy-dissipating dampers to minimise the vibration caused by pedestrians.

Another example of mechanical resonance was the destruction of Tacoma Narrows Bridge in Washington in 1940. Even though the bridge was designed to withstand winds of up to 200 kmph, on that fateful day the wind speed recorded was mere 60 kmph. A mechanical resonance resulted due to the wind at that particular speed hitting the bridge perpendicularly.   Continued winds increased the vibrations until the waves grew so large and violent that they broke the bridge apart.

In May 1999, two girls were drowned and 15 others injured when a suspension bridge across a river collapsed in Panathur, Kasargod in Kerala State of India. The incident occurred when a group of people taking part in a funeral procession entered the suspension bridge  The bridge tilted and collapsed, again due to mechanical resonance.

In a similar incident in February 2014, eight people died and more than 30 injured when a suspension bridge collapsed over a dry stream in the North-Western province of Lai Chau in Vietnam. The accident happened as a group of local residents walked across the bridge to bring the coffin of a local official to a graveyard. The group had walked 15 meters on the bridge when it suddenly collapsed.

What could have triggered off the mechanical resonance in the above two cases? The villagers participating in the two funerals were surely never drilled down by any Sergeant Majors.

It is felt that anyone while on a funeral procession walks slowly and is often accompanied by the drums or hymns being sung at a melancholic pace. The funeral participants tend to bunch together, mainly due to their sadness. These factors could have forced the funeral participants to march in step, without their knowledge. Another reason of marching in step could be that one does not want to step on another’s foot and the best way to avoid is to walk in step with the person in the front. In both the cases, the coffin was carried by the coffin bearers with their hands. This needed the coffin bearers to walk in unison.

In all probability, the frequency of walking of the mourners in the funeral procession could have resonated with the natural frequency of the bridge, causing the bridge to swing violently. The pandemonium that could have set out must have caused panic, resulting in the mourners rushing to get off the bridge causing a stampede.

Hence in future the rule must be that not only the soldiers need to break steps on a suspension bridge, but also a funeral procession.