Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Spooks, elephants and the odd banana. Or notes from Kerala

To me, Kerala has always meant only one thing - my paternal grandfather’s home in Kochi. Every other year my family and I would spend a week or so in a damp house that always smelled of coconut oil, banana chips and clothes that were never really dry. The floor was always clammy and the walls were covered in old calendars – some dating as far back as the Emergency. As I grew older my trips to Kerala became more and more infrequent and soon I was only making a days stopover at Chitoor House on YMCA Lane before moving on to attend weddings in Guruvayoor and other temple towns.

After a gap of almost three years I revisited Kerala last week. Chitoor House has since been sold and my aunts and uncles have moved to apartments across the city. Though I never particularly liked the house I felt sad. Another link to my past had been severed.


It is a shame I take terrible pictures, for Kerala is all colour. Black umbrellas shiny and slick with rain. A countryside that is wild, abundant, green and lush. Not for Kerala the prim and proper vales of South Buckhingamshire. Red hibiscus in profusion. Yellow bananas hang heavy in shop fronts. Terracotta tiles, purple lungis and gold bling for Alappat Jewellers. It is as though someone has set the colour contrast bar on the television at the very last bar.


Fantastic houses are found in the most humble of corners. To the trained eye (or any set of eyes for that matter) they may appear gaudy and in bad taste. But these dream houses in mango yellow with columns reminiscent of Grecian temples and massive wrought iron gates straight out of Dynasty never failed to bring a smile to my face. Good design be damned. These were the very earthly realizations of castles once built in the air.


Bhima, Josco, Alukkas are all familiar hoarding sights in this state. But the last thing I expected to see was a board for Hypnotherapy Training outside a decrepit building on the road to Edapalli.


At Moozhikulam we met Meghanathan and Megharjunan. Megharjunan was sprawled in his side being scrubbed and washed by his two minders. He was to be offered to the temple that Monday and was being made decent for the polite society he would be keeping. Meghanathan seemed upset at the lack of attention coming his way and tried to turn the spotlight back towards him by waving his trunk at the odd passerby. I think the picture we took of him did a lot for his self esteem.


At Chottanikkara the Bhagavathi is a benign, smiling presence. A pleasant face that belies the darker side of the temple. For it is at Chottanikkara that those believed to be possessed of spirits are brought to be cured. These men and women can be found sitting in corners softly talking to themselves or making their way around the temple calling out the Goddesses’ name. A giant arasamaram stands near the Keezhkaavu its bark covered in giant black nails as a mark of those that have been exorcised here. Tiny plastic dolls are skewered to the tree, arms and eyes missing as though they have been roughly handled by a spoilt child. My mother recalls fainting the first time she ever saw this tree. I wondered how long it took to cure a person here. And if spirits did indeed reside in the bodies of those afflicted where did they go once people were cured? Did they evaporate and become one with the Universe? Did they float away like a dark rain cloud? Or perhaps they were closer by, sitting on one of the higher branches of the tree on the lookout for their next victim.


My grandfather is no more and the house that once stood on YMCA lane will soon be gone. But this time I left with another reason to return - Kerala herself.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

at home

The mottled mosaic floor with the tiny crater at the junction of the third and fourth slab to the right of the living room door has gone. My feet touch terracotta coloured tiles now.

The white formica cabinet doors are gone. The milk cooker whistles in a Tuscany coloured kitchen.

My bed with its white plastic headboard decorated with a lone hologram sticker of Hanuman (after my sister told me the story of Pet Cemetary) is gone. Antique rosewood beds are what I now sleep on.

Sophisticated slate grey has hidden the clowns that once decorated my bathroom walls.

In the soap dish a large sickly green bar of Cinthol reassures me that all has not changed.

Thursday, October 05, 2006


A guest post by Sri Tom Cruise Chellam (with lots of Tamizh bits)

A leisurely stroll down Kennedy Street from Luz Chruch Road will bring you to Oliver Road. Take a look at the ground in front of the last three houses on the right hand side. You will see some of the most amazing kolams. Amazing because of the very high level of geometric precision and artistry that go into creating them.

If you are a sufficiently early bird, you might even get to see the Mamis trying to outdo one another – their lips moving as rapidly as their hands. Reviewing the sundal they got yesterday and where they are headed this evening. A few days ago the conversation went something like this

M1 : Enna mami, kolamellam pottachu polirukku
M2 : Mudiyala thaan. Enna pannarathu Navarathriyache. Podama irukka mudiyuma?
M1 : Amam, amam. Nan sitha late.
M1 : Kappiyacha?
M2 ; Chettha munna than aachu. Podi vere vela eathiputtan antha Leo kadangaran
M1 : Ongathu milk cooker chattame kekkalaye
M2 : Oh ! Athuva. Milk cookerukku oru remote control earpadu pannitten
M1: Ennathu? Milk cokkarukku remote controla? Enga kedakkarathu? Saravana storsilaya Thangavel Nadarlaya?
M2: Athu kadelayellam kedakkathu
M1: Pinne?
M2: Enna mami, ithu kooda theriyadah? Enga aathukkarar than. Milk cooker whistle adicha, hallila okkandundu avara koopittu adha setha simmila veyyungo pen. Avarum poyi atha simmila vechiduvar
M1: !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Ready, steady, charity - 7

Inquisitive Akka's 3 - Chikungunya, rasapodi, crackers

Her joints were swollen. Her fever raged like her irate mother-in-law. She was confined to bed, the television had been unplugged (God knows what had happened on Yen Pondatti Thangam) and she was on a diet of stale crackers (sprinkled with rasapodi.) It was just a particularly vile fever, she consoled herself as she swallowed another crocin on the sly. What had the Doctor called it? Chikungunya! Madasambrani! Didn’t he know she was a Brahmin?

Monday, October 02, 2006

Ready, Steady Charity 6

My sister's words: Arnie, Lois, Puli

The washing machine shuddered to a halt. Ramanujam's ageing hands flipped the lid open and his cataracting eyes peered at the twisted, serpentine heap of petticoats, brassieres and trousers. With a sigh, he heaved the bundle of clothes out and threw them in to a plastic bucket.
How had it come to this? How was it possible that he (who had been nicknamed Iyengar Puli by his college mates for his prowess in a boxing ring) was hanging out his wife's underwear to dry? 'Lois Panties' the label said. 'Idhukku onnum korachal illai' he thought savagely. The woman had been his downfall. His Mother had warned him about her.
"Don't marry this one kanna. Vendaam. Amma will find you a nice girl."
He had pushed aside his mother's remonstrance’s and gone ahead and married Kamali. Thank God Amma wasn't around to say I told you so.
The steaks had been replaced by vendakkai ('But I belong to the Blue Cross! How will it look if my husband eats meat?'). The training to become the next featherweight champion was replaced with a job at the local bank ('If anything ever happened to you...' - never mind that 10 years service at the Mandaveli Branch had slowly killed him anyway). The pictures of Arnold were replaced by images of pot bellied Ganeshas. The children that they were saving all their money for never came. And so they got themselves a dog. Or rather she had. Arnie (nakkal!) the Pomeranian was her baby.
'Yenanga. After you've hung the clothes out to dry don't forget to feed baby.'
He silently went to the kitchen. The blasted dog was whining and pawing at the cupboard already. Ramanujam opened the can of dog food and carefully spooned the chunks of meat in to a tiny sterling silver bowl. He placed it on the floor and watched as Arnie attacked it with relish.
'Lucky Bastard' he sighed.