Malayalis are people hailing from Kerala – The God’s Own Country -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 Thamizh, 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 as Gamcha, and in Thamizh 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.
At Sainik School Amaravathi Nagar, Thamizh 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.
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.