Near the Mannanam bridge service boats would stop by. Pilgrims from the Kuttanadu region get down on way to the Mannanam church to pray in front of Fr. Chaavara Kuriakkose Elias, the Beatified One. On return, the womenfolk would stop for a while in front of Kunjorotha’s hut. Not to pray but to buy her famed brooms made of coconut palm reeds. True that she was my valiamma’s hench. But this one was her micro enterprise.
Sreekanteswaram’s Malayalam lexicon describes broom as the tool made of the midrib of palm leaves or any such materials used to sweep and clean. He then donates two bombastic synonyms for free: Samaarjjani, Shodhani. Figurative meanings enlisted go like unworthy thing, mean thing, good-for-nothing fellow etc. Poor broom! The very thing that provided musical wake- ups in our childhood, with its rhythmic moves over the courtyard sand every morning, is mercilessly despised as trash! It was the subtle voice of the rural dawn embedding the pulse of life down the ages or the ‘ancestral voice’ as Coleridge put it.
Cut down a ripe palm leaf, chisel out its mid-ribs and tie them together at the bottom with hemp; that is broom for you. Making varies with purpose. Tough and tout ones for courtyards, mild and lighter ones for rooms, longer and slender ones for roofing–all with the same ingredients, deft hands making the subtle variations. Was Kunjorotha then, an artist? Yeah, definitely. For that matter artisans like blacksmiths, goldsmiths, carpenters, stone smiths, et al are all artists. If cooking is an art, mom is the greatest artist of them all
Looking back at the daily chores women in those times undertook, it becomes clear, why doctors and hospitals were not much significant to them. Their real protection was their life-style. They didn’t have to ‘work out ‘in gyms or burn calories in health-clubs. Leaning, bending, gyrating, stretching, twisting, pushing, pulling, lifting, dragging … almost all exercises recommended by health gyms came natural to them. From sweeping the house and its surroundings, churning milk to curd, pestling in the mortar, grinding in the quern, pulling water from the well, down to splitting planks and washing linen (dirty linen included). Even fingers were not left out in this whole-body workout, peeling and cutting vegetables taking care of that routine. So, in hindsight, the credit for the healthcare of a couple of generations of women in Mannanam and Kuttanadu can be attributed to Kunjorotha or her broom.
However Keralites have a tendency to belittle and abhor this humble health-saver. At the end of every Malayalam year, there is a ritualistic celebration among the Hindus—aati aruthi– wherein moodhevi (negative spirit) is pushed out of the house and sheevothi (propitious spirit) is greeted in. Putting all garbage and worthless junk in a bundle and throwing it away constitute the main part of the ritual. It is ironic that the broom that is used to clean the house till the final cleansing on that auspicious day is also thrown out along with moodhevi. During Onam days too, the broom gets replaced with thumba plant (leucas aspera), which has nothing to do with cleansing at all. Still it gets the coveted place on the auspicious day. Next show of ingratitude comes in the form of derogatory remarks. If someone is to be despised, he would be called a kuttichool (stunted broom). Owing to all these ill-treatments, it seems, the traditional broom has deserted Kerala. Plastic brooms have occupied the slot. Unlike the older ones, they are not cheap, at the same time non-degradable too, causing considerable eco-damage.
We need to realise that the broom is not trash or good-for-nothing. Akku is my grandson. One day he could be seen reverse-sitting on a broom, about to take off. The flight’s take-off and landing were all over in a split second. The pilot could not just make out the hitch. He had seen the flight in full flow just a few moments back, on the computer. And Harry won’t lie, even if Mrs. Rowling might. Nobody can find fault with her either, since time immemorial witches have been moving around in such broomy flights. Some aliens too avail the same mode of transport in Odyssey -II. Hey, don’t tell me Arthur Clarke is doing sci-fi. Hearing about Big bang v/s 10-dimentional strings and all that, sometimes even I tend to feel, science itself is fiction.
For the Métis people of Canada, broom is a tool for dance. They express their artistic talent by hopping through an array of brooms in swift, rhythmic steps. Can you imagine broom as a musical instrument? Well, Cervantes could. A character in his Rinconete and Courtadillo makes musical notes by rubbing a palm- broom on a rocky shade. To the astonished listeners, another character explains : so easy to learn and handle, without any button or fret and that needs no tuning at all, no one has ever been able to invent a musical instrument like this… if you think this is just another Quixotic discursion, hear Emily Dickinson say, fog and wind together swept the winter roads like a broom of steel… Going ahead in this vein any further, I don’t wish to prove right the Anglo-Saxons who still sing, If you buy a broom in May / You’ll sweep your friends away. So, let’s go the oriental route. The Chinese have brooms ‘made in China’. Nothing official about it. But they do have an official deity for brooms: Saoching Niyang, the lady with the broom. From the broom –star, up in the zodiac sky, she controls the seasons. During torrential rains, people would draw broom’s pictures and hang them on the front door, to please the Lady. I don’ know whether she is in any way related to Teazol Teotl of the Aztecs in Mexico, who is believed to be sweeping away the sins of her Mexican devotees. T he Lady with the broom had nothing to do with Mao’s Cultural Revolution but the broom had. Beijing’s leading lights received a command to reach the city hall by half past eight, sharp. An important speech was in the offing. All fell in line, expecting Chairman Mao or at least someone from the politburo at the mike. At sharp 8.30, the speech began. Appraising the greatness of broom, it was the city’s sweeper -woman. Those who use broom as a figurative expression to despise others now understood the worth of the so-called unworthy.
If the Chinese gave significance to the broom in their Cultural Revolution, Keralites chose to give its due in political revolts. Kuttichool (stunted broom) was a chosen strike force in the liberation struggle of 1959. Women, raising brooms staged protest marches throughout the state against the left government in Kerala. Thus broom could enter the annals of history as a weapon of protest as well.
My class-mate and Keralite, Theophin, based in Oklahoma runs a giant fast-food chain across America. It was from him that I heard about the Oklahoma businessmen who swept up a fortune with the humble broom. Like hosiery to Tirupur, brass to Moradabad and fireworks to Sivakashi, to Oklahoma it was broom. Corn plants, its chief raw material, were grown widely and broom factories minted money. Things came to a pass in 1960, with the advent of synthetic brooms. Before long, the Oklahoma broom was history.
While in Kerala broom always gets side-lined to a corner, Europeans have a broomy toast of sorts, especially among the marines returning victorious from war. It all started with the Dutch. Defeating the British in the battle of Dungeness in 1652 CE, Marten Tromb, the Dutch admiral raised a broom in front of his battleship, suggesting he had swept away the enemy. But the Britons differ. It was an open admission of the Dutch that their warships had only a broom’s worth in front of the British navy, they ridicule. As usual, the prime witness keeps mum – the broom.
Nowadays, a handsome techy has come in to occupy the broom-slot: the vacuum cleaner. It first creates a vacuum on the surface to be cleaned, using an air pump. Dust particles get sucked into this vacuum. So simple! But then, the vacuum cleaner we see now was not born in a day. It is the culmination of a series of innovations made by many, over time. The British made the first steps in 1559 CE. In 1869, Chicago’s Ives Mac Gaffey developed a sweeping machine. Then, Hubert Cecil booth of England and James Spangler of the U.S improved upon it. Buying the patent from Spangler, the Hoover Company brought out the modern vacuum cleaner in the market. Since then many modifications and innovations have made this tech-broom trendy with the times. In the 21st century, it is going robotic.
Techy or not, animals do not use broom. Instead, tail is their broom. Tiger tail had a pent up feel: I’m the best. He told the rat tail, ‘’who d’ ye think, I’m? I sweep away the creatures on the tiger trunk. That is why he can hunt freely. What about you? ’’ The rat tail could not claim any such bravado. The former went ahead, ‘’you just have a tiny trunk and a still tiny head to the front!’’ This time the latter rebuked, ‘’ and you’ve a big chunk and a pumpkin to the front! Don’t forget that.’’
Tail and broom are not unworthy or mean. Let the Malayalam lexicographer redo his homework. For, Kumjorotha’s kuttichool was not some sweeping trash, but the symbol of a historic period.