Reasonable Reasons

We attended the Junior Command Course at Mhow, India in 1993 and after the course went to our home at Kottayam, Kerala for a month’s vacation. In those days, we travelled on vacation by train and the journey took over 48 hours and two train changes at the most awkward hours of night.  You can imagine my plight with Marina and our two-year daughter Nidhi in tow, with paraphernalia of assorted baggage – in all sizes and shapes.

We reached home and my next ordeal was to get a return reservation from Kottayam to Delhi and onward to Jammu.  During summers, the seats in the trains from Kerala to anywhere in the country were lapped up the moment the reservation counters opened on the exact 60th day before the date of journey.  The only option for me was to contact our Member of Parliament, Mr Suresh Kurup, who always obliged with his emergency quota.  Mr. Kurup is well known for his soft corner and respect for all soldiers.

Armed with the allotment of Emergency Quota and my Warrant (Military form authorising travel by Indian Railways,) I reached Kottayam railway station.  At the reservation counter the booking clerk refused to book the seats – Why?  Our Regimental clerk had committed a grave sin!! He spelt KoTTayam with one T.

I contacted the Station Master and the Reservation Supervisor.  All expressed both sympathy and empathy a soldier deserved, but the cardinal sin of spelling KoTTayam with only one T, they could not condone.

While at Sainik School Amaravathinagar, Tamizh Nadu, our nearest railway station (NRS) was Udumalaipettai – with one P and two Ts. In Thamizh and Hindi, it has two Ps, but in English only one – Any reasonable reasons?

 The town was known amongst the locals as (உடுமலை) Udumalai and all the buses boards read so.  The British called it Udumalpet and that too caught on, but no one ever used Udumalipettai, other than the Indian Railways and some Military clerk sitting in the remote border, preparing a warrant for a soldier from Udumalpet – counting the Ps and Ts.

When we filled our application for the National Defence Academy (NDA,) our teachers insisted that we spelt Udumalaipettai with the correct number of Ps and Ts as the Indian Railways insisted.

To return to the Regiment on time, the only option to me was to buy two tickets and claim the cost later from the Comptroller Defence Accounts (CDA.) I requested the Reservation Supervisor to block the seats until I either got a fresh warrant or bought the tickets by paying cash. He agreed saying that he got to finalise the reservation chart two days before the date of journey.  

I shot off a letter to our Adjutant, narrating my agony.  Major Ranjan Deb (now a Veteran Colonel,) an Aviator with an uncanny sense of humour was in chair and he despatched a soldier to Kottayam with a fresh warrant with two Ts for KoTTayam. Unfortunately, the soldier could reach Kottayam a day prior to my journey and by that time, I had to buy the tickets by paying cash.

On reaching the Regiment stationed in Jammu & Kashmir, I sent the forms for claiming the cost of the tickets to CDA, explaining the reasons as to why I had to buy the railway tickets by paying cash.  The reasons I stated appeared beyond reasonable doubt to the powers at the CDA, but how can they allow such a claim without raising any objection?  It will go against the ethos of the Accounts Department anywhere in India. 

My claim was approved in principle, but the CDA raised a query “How did the Officer and his wife make the onward journey from Jammu Tawi to Kottayam?”

Beyond reasonable doubt, Major Ranjan Deb promptly replied “By walking.”  In a week’s time my bank account was credited with full reimbursement for the cost of tickets.

Now let us fast forward to 2016.  Our family is in Canada – Marina, Nidhi, Nikhil and myself – all Canadian citizens. 

Nikhil decided to travel to Kolkata to serve in Mother Teresa’s Ashram for a month.  I said to him “If you find time, visit Veteran Colonel Ranjan Deb, our Regimental Officer who lives in Barrackpore.”  I had narrated many incidents about Colonel Deb, especially when he was our Battery Commander with 75 Medium Regiment (Basantar River.) 

On a Wednesday, when Nikhil had a day off from Mother Theresa’s Ashram, he took a cab to Barrackpore.  Colonel Deb and Nikhil spend a day together and at the end of it Colonel Deb remarked “Reji, I spent a few hours with Nikhil. I was amazed at his all-round development at his age. No Indian student will be able to match up with Nikhil’s thought process. His education in Canada stands out distinctly. I am 63 and he is 19 years of age. I did not get bored for even a second of the six hrs we were together. Healthy engrossing discussion.

This is what is called Regimental spirit.  A kid, not born – why – not even planned while we served together, comes all the way from Canada to meet us – a Veteran Colonel and his wife.  What else can we ask for in life?  What other recognition do we need? He made our day!!”

JJ Murphy – Princely Rubber Planter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Homecoming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Movie Review : Joji : Malayalam


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Romance with the Indian Railways

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next : Military Special Trains

Chai –My Favourite Brew


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


During winter, the road and the mountains got covered with over ten feet of snow.  The only way to cross over was by foot columns.  The foot columns operated at night, two days after a heavy snowstorm to avoid avalanches.  The foot column consisted mainly of soldiers proceeding or returning from leave from their homes, porters carrying essential supplies – fresh vegetables and milk, mail, etc.

It took about four hours of strenuous climb to Sadhna Post and was a sure test of anyone’s mental and physical abilities. It was a kind of surreal experience.  On reaching Sadhna Post, everyone was welcomed by the soldiers with a hot ‘cuppa,’ a cup of tea that was the most refreshing and tasty – it simply was the best . To my mind, it could very well be compared to Amrit – the nectar of immortality in Hindu mythology. The climb down from the Sadhna post appeared easier but was just as treacherous, if not more, due to the tendency to slip and fall.

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

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.

Where to Find God

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

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

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

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

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

ktd

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.

kuttanad-fields3

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.

kuttanad-fields111

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.

kuttanad-fields22

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.

Koduvath the Meat Basket

A typical Syrian Christian family history will forcefully trace its roots to the to the 31 Brahmin families supposed to have been converted to Christianity by St Thomas, one among Jesus’ 12 disciples or to Pakalomattom family, even though no documentary evidence exists to prove the connection.

While all ten disciples moved Westward to spread the message of Christ and establish churches, only St Thomas was sent Eastward (East must be a punishment posting then also).  This could be because St Thomas was known as the Doubting Thomas who refused to believe that the resurrected Jesus had appeared to the ten other disciples (Judas had committed suicide by then), until he could see and feel the wounds received by Jesus on the cross (from this originated the English idiom of “Doubting Thomas” as a skeptic who refuses to believe without direct personal experience).

In the earlier days, the Syrian Christian  priests could only be ordained from the Pakalomattom family (an effect of the Hindu caste system prevalent then).   The Portuguese after landing in Kerala realised that the princely priesthood of the Pakalomattom family had to be broken to have a hold on the local Christians and so ordained priests from other rival families.

Vasco da Gama landed in Kerala in 1498 and was surprised to find local Christians, involved in spice trade.  In those days the Christians followed most customs of the local Hindus (some of it even continues today) and used Syriac as the liturgical language because of the association with Persia due to the spice trade.  Hence the Portuguese called the local Christians as Syrian Christians and the Christians they converted as Latin Christians as they used Latin as their liturgical language.  By 1660 they weaned away 84 of the 116 churches who aligned with Rome and became the Syro Malabar Catholic Church and the rest thirty-two churches and their congregations formed the Syrian Orthodox Church.  The purported aim of the Portuguese was to wean away the local traders, mainly Christians, away from the Muslim Arab traders.

It would be foolish on my part to do the same mistake others did and hence would limit to the details I had obtained by way of many discussions I had with our grandfather (he lived to the age of 104 and died in 2002).  Surely some of these would have been his figment of imagination and he also must have added enough spice to make it interesting for a hyper-active young boy.

In the nineteenth century Koduvath Easo (in those days the family name preceded the christen name) came with his daughter Eli and occupied Malamelkavu (in Malayalam meaning hillock with a temple on top), in Kolladu village, about eight kilometers from Kottayam and settled there.  Nothing is known about the other family members and from where Koduvath Easo came.  Thomas married Eli and moved into Koduvath family as the Adopted Son (Jamai जमाई) (DathuPuthran ദത്തുപുത്രൻ).  From then on it is said that the ladies of the family have been more dominating and I can see it in today’s generation in form of our daughter and her cousin sisters.   Thomas and Eli had nine sons and two daughters with our grandfather being the eleventh.  The nine sons and their further generations continue to live in and around Malamelkavu and some moved out in search of better jobs and opportunities.

The family belongs to the parish of St George Syrian Orthodox Church, Puthuppally (ex-Chief Minister of Kerala, Oommen Chandy’s family also belongs to the same church).  Kolladu village is located West of Puthuppally village and is separated by a river.  Crossing the river up to 70’s was by means of a ferry, now by a bridge.   The annual festival of the church is celebrated in first week of May and is like the annual festivals of the Hindu temples in Kerala.   Vechoottu (a ceremonial feast), adya choroonu (a ritual in which children get their first rice feeding by priests) etc. are some of the rituals associated with the festival.  Later  Raza, the grand festival procession taken out with the holy golden cross from the church, accompanied by “chenda melam” (drums of Kerala) and caparisoned elephants.  The Raza is received by every household which falls on its route, irrespective of their religion, with a lighted lamp.   In the evening the entire church is illuminated with lamps like any Hindu temples of Kerala.

The main offering to the church on the annual festival is fowl (preferably a rooster) as St George the patron saint of the church was a soldier and is believed to enjoy chicken.  In the earlier days the fowls offered were slaughtered on the church premises and the chicken curry was served as “Prasad” to the devotees.  This cruel practice was terminated by the 70’s being cruelty to animals.

I had heard a myth about the fowl slaughtering at the church from my grandfather.  In the earlier days, there was a Kali (Hindu Goddess) temple situated atop the hill adjacent to the church.  The fowls were offered there also on the annual festival day of the temple, which coincided with the festival day of the church.  One day both St George and Kali came together in a dream of the village chieftain and they came to a compromise that the fowls are to be slaughtered at the church and meat prepared there (St George enjoyed the meat), but the blood had to be collected and offered to Kali in the evening (Kali seemed to be interested only in blood) and that way only a few birds had to be sacrificed.

The next day the Holy Mass is offered at the church.  At the end of the festivity, the “chicken prasad” is distributed to the devotees at the East and West gates of the church.  The chicken pieces are carried to the gates in bamboo baskets.  The teenagers from the Koduvath family now come into action and they snatch the chicken baskets and run as a relay race handing over the basket from one to another and swim across the river.  The prasad thus snatched is distributed among the family members.  This practice continued for some years and all our family members, whether barristers, teachers, government officials of those days were all nicknamed ‘Irachi Kotta ഇറച്ചിക്കൊട്ട’ (in Malayalam meaning Meat Basket) and many of us still carry the same nickname, especially while studying in schools and colleges in Kottayam.