I was born into a fairly small family, of hardly eight children, you know. As the Bard of Stratford upon Avon puts it, thereby hangs a tale…
My great-grandfather had asked the family physician whether it was all right for our ladies to conceive, past 35. The medic emphatically quipped, ‘’no, no. 35 kids means quite some stuff.’’ Since then, infant-population began shrinking in the family. Kin continued to have ten or fifteen. But we studiously restricted the production line to eight. Still, on a holiday sojourn to my paternal home with all of us in tag, mom heard some passer-by exclaim thus: here goes a picnic party! When we reached the destination, a local English teacher was found inciting the Bard; ‘’the Hell is empty, all the devils are here.’’ It was in this context that my incarnation as the fourth one among the statutory eight took place, with neither the privileged status of the first one nor the pampered prowess of the last one. But then I had something called Freedom. No one cared to mind it, though.
Grandmother or valiamma, as we fondly call her, was the family’s rallying point. Kindly recall the grandma in ONV’s poem, wherein she says
Likewise, though our own grandma, rather valiamma did vanish one day, she still lives on as the very salt in us. Where else could she go?
Cometh summer vacation and haywire goes the law and order situation at home. The mischievous eight and their tell-tale pals! With television nowhere in the offing, radio was the only sophisticated outlet. But then, that too was a rarity. I still remember an invitation letter doing the rounds in my boyhood:
….we are extremely happy to inform you that a radio is being installed for the first time in our school.
All are requested to be present at exactly 10 AM on this auspicious day.
Mannanam then had only a couple of households with radio. The order of the day was to proclaim it in the highest possible decibel, beginning with the first morning programme. None seemed to bother whether it was music to the ear or tumor to the ear-drum. Elders had a virtual monopoly over the medium; children did not have the right, even to touch it. However, certain historians of the lore had noted that I used to spoil the audio-fest by turning the knob, with a seemingly (Balgangadhar) Tilaki-an determination that ‘’Radio is my birth right, I will certainly achieve it ‘’.
Chroniclers have it that, long before V.T. Bhattathirippad’s much acclaimed From kitchen to the forestage was even heard of, I had already established kitchen as my stage of action. While fellow actors found refuge in quads, back yards, cellars and neighbourhoods, I was eager to dominate the kitchen, it is told. The kitchen, in fact, was valiamma’s private empire. She would not tolerate intrusions of any kind, whatsoever. Breaching all such security cordons, it was my pleasure to engage myself in terrorist operations within her fortress. The treatment I received was quite a thing, you know—thanks to mom and valiamma, I could roam about the kitchen as the proverbial jumbo in the sugarcane-field. It was at this juncture that greatness dawned upon me, like Siddhartha getting enlightened instantaneously under that Peepal tree in Bodh Gaya. Treading upon the Kalidasa hidden somewhere in me, grandma decided to sent me to learn Sanskrit verses!
There was a Sunday school at Mannanam, belonging to the Nair Society. Every Sunday, a couple of teachers would come there to coach pupils in Sanskrit, epics, music, dance et al and conduct occasional art competitions. Some elders would take the lead without any compulsion or motive. The people had a feel for their locale and its public issues –-sort of a sense of community, as if the joint-family habits had diffused into the general fabric.
It was at this venue that I happened to make the first ‘arrest’ of my life. A play based on the story of Dhruva was decided to be enacted on the anniversary day of the school. I was quite certain to be in the cast for the play to be a success. The general consensus, however was that I should be kept away from the premises for the play to succeed. That it was decided accordingly with the active connivance of my elder brothers Venugopalan Nair, Mohan Bose and Sundar Bose, was reported by a reliable source viz Sukumar Bose, my younger brother.
Scene: King Uthanapada’s palace. The king has taken his seat rather throne, duly accompanied by the queens—Sunithi and Suruchi. Dhruva, the little prince is disallowed to embark on his dad’s lap by Suruchi, the stepmom…
As the play was climaxing on the stage, another one began unfolding, behind. I was not at all willing to sit in the audience, mutely suffering the humiliation meted out to me. Enter Manichettan of Kottamurikkal, an acclaimed local expert in resolving all and sundry. I presented my case and he instantly obliged: ‘’ so, you wanna act in the drama. What’s the big deal? Leave it to me.’’ Banking on his word, I declared a temporary truce. Manichettan dressed me up in a khaki outfit (that of Boy Scouts) put on a pea-cap carved out of cardboard and tugged round the waist with a borrowed cross-belt. Just a glance in the mirror and I was overwhelmed—I’d become a cop!
‘’ Now, you’ll act on the stage’’ Manichettan enthused me. With the power of the cop emanating from the attire already seeping into my adrenalin, I straightaway marched on to the stage.
King Uthanapada was caught unawares. For, such a move was not in the script. Grabbing the hand of the unsettled king, I declared; ‘You’re under arrest’. Havoc ensued. The audience booed and hooted. Someone pulled down the curtain, but it got struck halfway through. The king fled backwards, duly followed by the queens. To make matters worse, their make-up gadgets broke open, unveiling the male bodies beneath those damsel -garbs!
The historic episode of ‘arrest’ brought me a rigorous punishment, home. The family court’s verdict: ‘nobody should speak to him’. I’ve read somewhere that the people of Ireland once decided to isolate a man called Capt. Boycott and thus the word boycott entered the English legion. However, neither the linguists nor the historians have yet discovered that the concept of boycott had already been materialised indigenously in a community hall in Mannanam.
Our childhood was quite different from that of today’s generation, conditioned by instant food and instant entertainment. No one would cater to you anything on a platter; instead you had to mend for it. Loitering in the back-yard, one would chance upon a fruit or two. If requested some elders might pluck in a fruit with a long staff. It was fun, sucking nectar direct from the plantain bud. The big mango tree in the front yard would not mind spraying its blessings, still it needed a pretext—that of a breeze. And of course, Sivaraman, the palm-tapper would get you any tender-coconut you point at.
Entertainment too was no different. One could play Kuttiyum kolum— the indigenous form of cricket. But then, befriending other kids you had to build teams on your own. Running, chasing, hoist-up and jumping were all okay, till the tumult exceeds the elders’ benchmark. Suppose you wanted a ball to play. Elders would help in cutting down a coconut palm leaf and you had to weave a ball out of the leaf –let. The know-how was common in making horns by arranging these leaf-lets in a peculiar way. And it was almost an art; producing varied sounds using various plant leaves around.
Learning by doing on your own, thus experiencing everything first- hand. That was the lesson generally imparted to children. Much later, reading Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful, I came across the ‘joy of doing’ as a philosophical concept .Our elders were trying to inculcate a similar mind-set in us, without being vocal about it.
Though I was residing at my maternal home in Mannanam, dad’s home at Kaippuzha was my abode. If caught on the wrong foot for some mischief or so, escape to safety was easy, the distance between the two houses being, hardly a kilometre or two.
My father’s home has in its front, a large paddy tract, beyond which flows a rivulet. Travel was by in- land waterways alone, till my grandpa’s time. Roads and motor vehicles came later. Getting down from the canoe, people used to wash their feet in the small plash beside the Padippura or the mini-house that adorns the entry point of the whole complex. It was a double-storied structure with four rooms and a hall. Crossing over the padippura, one reaches the central court-yard with its thickly laden yellowish river sand. The real house sprawls around this pretty yard, with kitchen, portico, bedrooms, mid place and all that.
My paternal home was more than just a house, that more being a little much more. In the expanse of nature, the house-building was the space reserved for the inmates’ private lives. A house becomes a home only when dad, mom, sons, daughters, grandparents, grandchildren, in-laws et al converge. Pets, domestic animals and even the small creatures around have their own space in this familial integration. Erstwhile household utensils too had the family honour and identity bestowed on them. Pulley and coir string, various stone grinders and wooden measuring vessels of yore…all carry the touch of our ancestors. And hence, they are not just some objects. They do have a soul. Remember the Seattle chieftain’s legendary letter to Franklin Pears, the then President of the U.S.
We are part of the earth, and it is part of us. The perfumed flowers are our sisters. The deer, the horse, the great eagle, they are our brothers. The rocky crests, the juices in the meadows, the body heat of the pony, and man—all belong to the same family…… all things share the same breath—the beast, the tree, the man, they all share the same breath….The sparkling water that flows through these streams and rivers is not just water; it is the blood of our ancestors. The murmur of this water is the voice of my grandfather….
It was almost a similar emotional wisdom that our house, utensils, land, its flora and fauna, all evoked in us. Sometimes I feel, the Seattle chieftain hails from Kaippuzha.