24 Jun 2011

The Mamba Song

Once upon a time, about a hundred years ago (before the turn of 20th century) , I imagine that some thing like this happened ...........  It is the story of someone whom I have never met, but always wished that she was around when I was a small boy. It is about a person whom I dream about some times. I can feel her DNA tickle my funny bone…. She is bold and beautiful, my special person.

 It was warm and humid as the sun set over the Arabian sea. The sea breeze fluffed the tops of the coconut trees and the leaves strained in protest. The Monsoons did not arrive as expected. It was the curse of 'Veluthampi Dalava'[1]The year before, the British army had marched in over Sultan Battery, north of Cannannore, the never to cross mountain pass over the Western Ghats. In the years before, predators had lurked over the hills that protected Keralam from Tippu Sultan. It was unheard of in Ambalapuzha that 'Idavapathy'[2] was going to be dry. This time of the year, in July, the floodgates usually were open to heavens. They waited, but the rains did not come. There was no sound of thunder in the sky. But for 'Thundil Kudumbam (Thundil family)', their stomach was rumbling. There was nothing to eat.
 Parvathy Amma, tightened the straps of her petty coat and vowed to do some thing about it. She was not the oldest. Memma was older. But Memma did not matter, she couldn't do anything about their rumbling stomach, anyway. All her younger brothers, four of them, were of no help. Madhavan was the oldest, the rest were children. But Madhavan had filarial infection and his feet were swollen to elephantine proportions. There were ugly blisters, the size and colour of tomatoes. Madhavan could do carpentry, and once in a while he would earn some thing. However, there was no job to be done except menial manual labour. In those days Nairs did not do that sort of thing even if they had nothing to eat. Nairs were the proudest of people on the earth, even if that made them somewhat stupid[3].

 As the sun set, Parvathy Amma lit the lamp and repeated aloud, 'Rama, Rama, Rama, Rama Padam Cherane Mukundarama Pahima', the prayer that she had repeated every day of her life. She sat on the steps facing the small path eastwards through the shrubs waiting for her 'Nair' to make his weekend visit. Nair was a 'Gumasthan'[4], in the neighbouring town of Alleppey. As the 'Gumasthan', he maintained clerical records of court cases handled by Krishna Iyyengar, one of the most famous lawyers in Keralam, a special envoy of the king Maharaja of Travancore. Krishna Iyyengar was one of the richest men in Alleppey. It was the days of the 'Marumakkathayam', the Polynesian matriarchal society. 'Nair' was like a live in boy friend, there were no husbands those days in Keralam !!!

'Memme', Parvathy Amma called out, 'Put the Kalchatty[5] with water on the fire'.
Memma came out from the kitchen, covered with soot and her eyes watering from the smoke.
'What are you going to do with hot water?', she grumbled. 'There is nothing to put in the pot'.
Memma was several years older, but she stood in awe of Parvathy Amma. 'Oh, I forgot, Nair must be coming today, he may bring some rice and Kappa[6]'.
'Kappa my foot', Parvathy Amma snorted, angry with herself for hoping. Anger fuelled by deep frustration. She was a fighter, with protective survival instincts of a lioness. 'He will be drunk and he will bring nothing',  Tears welled up in her eyes and she wiped them away with the corner of her half sari.  'Anyway, you go and put the water on the fire, no harm in hoping that the Kalan[7] will bring rice with him'.

Memma did not speak for a long time. She stood looking at Parvathy.  Despite giving birth four times, Parvathy Amma was a very pretty woman. She was short and a bit thick around the waist. But she had charisma. One noticed only her face. When she was angry, her round face looked more beautiful, the eyes luminous, bright like the full moon against the Monsoon clouds. Parvathy Amma was a very intelligent woman.
'May be Iyyengar Swami can pull us out of this muck', Memma muttered under her breath, just loud enough for Parvathy Amma to hear. 'May be, if you tried'.   Memma turned and went back into her small kitchen, spotlessly clean, scrubbed with antiseptic cow dung. Memma was born into a kitchen. She was also the best midwife in the neighbourhood and besides she made the most mouth watering combination of Kappa and Karimeen[8]. That is if some one gave her the resources.

 'Nair' came well past sunset.
He neither brought rice nor Kappa. And he was drunk as usual.  Thundil Kudumbam[9] went to sleep on an empty stomach, inside the house with the door locked.  Nair spent the night on the narrow veranda. In his alcoholic daze he was past caring. Parvathy Amma made a promise that night. 'I will go and see Iyyengar Swami', she said to herself with determination.  'I have to live', she muttered to herself. 'I have nine mouths to feed including my children'.

Krishna Iyyengar lived in a big mansion in Alleppey called 'Krishna Vilas'.
He was a widower with several children. Krishna Iyyengar was a very rich lawyer, the deputy speaker of the provincial assembly and a very charitable man. He was an active member and packaged Sanathana Dharma[10] into a charitable trust with a view to social service and education. He had been instrumental in not only setting up a school and college in Alleppey but also kick started a municipal system, that set up an urban garbage disposal system which elevated the status of the underprivileged carriers of nigh soil, and gave them a place in the hash society. Parvathy Amma went to see him a few days later, not to seek charity but to find means to a livelihood.

Parvathy Amma was a proud Nair woman, she did not cringe in front of Krishna Iyyengar. It was uncommon for any one, man or woman, to directly face such an illustrious and charismatic man. But Parvathy Amma stood with her head held high.
She looked deep into his eyes, past his cornea, into his Iyyengar soul.
'Swami', she  said.

Krishna Iyyengar did not hear what else she said.
One look at Parvathy Amma, and he fell in love.
He could not eat, he could not sleep.
He fumbled his lines in court, things which had never before happened to him.
Because he was rich and powerful, and used to taking what he liked, it did not take many days for him to make up his mind. He was a strong willed man who rose from the slums of Thirunalveli, at the tip of India, by sheer grit, merit and hard work.

 'Thampy,…. Edeee Nair', he called out to his Gumasthan one day, eventually. 'Are you a happy man ?', he asked.
'Sir, with your kindness, I am a happy man', stammered the Gumasthan fearing the worst. Krishna Iyyengar did not waste time beating about the bush. He was a kind man, a decent man.
'Thampy', he commanded. 'I have an estate in Vayanad, why don't you go and take charge there ?', he suggested.
'But Vayanad is in the Western Ghats Sir', his Gumasthan stammered. 'Sir, many miles from here, near Sultan Battery. There are Tigers there, very dangerous place'.
'No no, don't worry', smiled Iyyengar Swami mischievously. ''There is enough land for the Tigers to roam,  I think more than 100 acres’. ‘They will not bother you, especially if you own the place', he added.
Nair stood with his mouth open, unable to perceive and absorb his windfall. But he was not a stupid man. He did not wait for the sun to rise. He tucked up his dhoti and left the same night, clutching the land deeds for the estate in Tiger country, no mater what the Tigers thought of him.

Next morning, Iyyengar Swami sent word for Madhavan.
'Madhavan', he said without preamble, 'I wish to marry your sister Parvathy this evening. "Bring her over to my house', he commanded. 
'No, I will not come', Parvathy sent word back.  
'What do you mean she said No?', asked Iyyengar when Madhavan brought the news. He was dumb struck. No one had ever dared to say no to him before.
'She just said No', repeated Madhavan respectfully.

Some days later, Thundil Kudumbam had visitors, Memma went berserk, there was nothing to eat or drink she complained. Parvathy Amma was not thinking of hospitality or food. The dignified visitors were not worried about the hospitality either, they came chastised and humble.  Krishna Iyyengar came in a horse drawn carriage till Kacheri Mukku and walked the last two miles, down the path through the shrubs to Thundil Kudumbam.

'Thank God it did not rain', Parvathy Amma thought to herself, suppressing a million volt contented smile. 'If the Idavapthy had arrived, the path would have turned into a canal and all the visitors would have had to raise their Mundu[11] over their head to wade through the torrent'.  Krishna Iyyengar brought with him the drummers and traditional 'Nadaswaram' (trumpets) band. He also brought his entire family, all Brahmins. Never before in Keralam had a Brahmin family ever visited a Nair household. It was big prestige for Thundil Kudumbam. All the neighbours and relatives, from Pulickal, from Puthan Parambu, from Taivelikkara Parambu, all of them were called. Krishna Iyyengar, in front of the whole village, humbly proclaimed his love for Parvathy Amma and formally asked her to marry him. It was history, no one formally married any one those days, least of all a Brahmin. The usual 'Pudava' ceremony, in which a man presented a Saree to a woman, granted him the social licence to have live in relationships.  There was no need to marry. Parvathy Amma was not satisfied with a pudava (saree), she had had enough of live in relationships. For her it was marriage or nothing.

 Krishna Iyyengar formally married Parvathy Amma in a simple dignified ceremony. Krishna Iyyengar tied a 'Tali', on a yellow thread, around Parvathy Amma's neck. It was an event that was to go down the history of Nairs, some thing that was to become a tradition. Tying 'Tali' till then was an exclusive Brahmin custom.

 Parvathy Amma was taken to Krishnavilas in a Palki, shouldered by eight Nairs from the locality. No Nair woman had ever been carried like that in a Palki, another exclusive Brahmin prerogative. The whole Thundil Kudumbham followed Parvathy Amma. The thatched house was closed permanently. Memma would not throw away her Kalchatties, though she would never again cook Karimeen. The entire Thundil Kudumbam became vegetarian with reverence to Krishna Iyyengar.

Parvathy Amma and Iyyengar Swami lived a very happy married life for over four decades in Krishna Vilas. She was a loving and caring wife, as well as a strict disciplinarian who ran the house like a clockwork, not hesitating to use a Malacca cane to discipline her children !! From Iyyengar Swami, she had seven children, out of whom three girls and three boys survived.

The oldest among them was my mother Kamala. Parvathy Amma is my grand mother !!!!
' There is a little bit of Parvathy in me',............ like the Mambo song. 


PS:  This story was written around two decades ago, to introduce myself to my Canada ‘born and brought up’ niece whom I had never met in my life. The best way to introduce myself, in my opinion was to tell her that we had the same DNA    By the time I was born, all my grandparents had been dead for many years. As a young child, my favourite ‘hangout’ was the carpentry workshop of Madhavan Nair, my grand maternal uncle, who was then an old man with huge filarial feet. He was also the village Post Master, the only man who had the power to attest a ‘character certificate’, a very socially respected man, who spoke very little, except when he told me very stimulating stories J.  

[1] Veluthampi Dalava: A heroic character of 19th C from Kerala folklore.
[2] Idavapathy : Monsoons.
[3] Nairs preferred to occupy themselves with voluntary service in the local temples. Menon was 'Menavan', the man who washed the utensils,  Kaimal was the man who rang the 'Kaimani', Pillai the ones who carried the Uruli with the help of a bamboo pole called 'Pilla'. Kartha, well Kartha's were the worst, they were the managers, the confidant and the chief procurer for the Nambuthiri.  'Nair' itself was a derogatory term coined by the Nampoothiri who actually meant  'Nayar', the central thread in a 'Poo Mala', alluding to the many maiden that Nair's threaded after sun set, a privilege of the matriarchal system !!!! 
[4] Gumasthan' : Legal Assistant.
[5] Kalchatty: Earthen pot.
[6] Kappa: Tapioca, staple diet in Kerala then and now.
[7] Kalan : The Devil.
[8] Karimeen: Fish - pomfret.
[9] Kudumbam: Family
[10] Sanathana Dharma: An early concept of Hinduism, repacked during late 18th C by group of educated and moderate Hindus to bring together disparate Hindu groups and to propagate religious tolerance with the view to reduce castism. Early form of ‘Arya Samaj’.  
[11] Mundu: ‘Dhotie’, loose cloth tied around the waist.

1 comment:

  1. Superb .So profound,yet such fun to read.The essence of life during the early twenties captured brilliantly.I find myself transported into a world that was already history when I was a child but one that remains imprinted in my mind thanks to the stories my grandmother would tell us.