Wednesday, August 22, 2007


By and by, the din from afar, till now a diffused hum, gets more distinct. It is no more a vague noise, you can recognize the resounding tribal rhythm of the drumbeat. The first sign that our destination is near. The primaeval pulsation rises above the cacophony of the milling crowd. Unable to contain the anticipation, my little son canters, me in tow. The rustle of the dry leaves as they get crushed under our feet on the cart track. The village path is lit only by a few stars. I look up: the monsoon having receded, the azure sky is bereft of dark clouds.

My thoughts go back to my schooldays.
* * *
I wrote ‘THEYYAM’ in bold letters at the head of the page and underlined it. It was our English Composition period in Class VII. Easow Master had given us thirty minutes to write an essay on ‘When I Grow Up, I Want to Be A …..’.

I pondered: why do I want to be a Theyyam? They were indeed powerful: they heard the complaints and prayers of the hoi polloi and conveyed them to the Gods ‘recommending favourable consideration’. Gods spoke to ordinary men and women through the Theyyams. One shared one’s anxieties with him. You thanked God for His mercies by dropping offerings into the open palms of the Theyyam. The only persons the Kaaranavar, presiding head of the family, bowed to in respect were Kunhappa and Ramunni when they donned the garb of the Theyyam. The Kaaranavar who only knew how to order people about listened to them. Was any more evidence needed for the Theyyam being all-powerful?
* * *
That was a lad on the threshold of his early teens. I look back in retrospect to ferret out a convincing explanation for my longing.
* * *

‘There, I can see the light,’ shrieks my son as he turns right along the curving road. Enthusiastic and eager to reach there a minute earlier if he can could, he is trotting a few steps ahead of me, impatient that I am not keeping pace. When I catch up, I too can see the halo of lights in the otherwise dark sky in the general direction of the location of my Tarawad. Theyyam would be performed in the courtyard of the complex.

The headquarters of the Tarawad comprises three blocks of buildings constructed in different periods of time: one is the traditional single-storeyed ettukettu, the two-storeyed main building seems to have been influenced by Dutch architecture and the third, called the Banglaav (Bungalow) is more like a club-house.
* * *
Why did I want to be a Theyyam when I grew up? Perhaps I was enamoured by the mumbo-jumbo that he uttered, eyes heavenwards and hands outstretched. Perhaps because his prophecies, unintelligible though they were because of the quaint expressions used and the quiver in his high-pitched voice, were awaited eagerly by the devout dowagers. Perhaps I was fascinated by the fact that he ‘communicated’ to and on behalf of the Almighty. He seemed to be closer to God than my grandmother who fasted on Mondays, Ekadasi days, new moon days, full moon days and several other days of the month. He could bring solace to women worried about the waywardness of their husbands or illness of their offspring.
* * *
We are presently in the courtyard in front of the Banglaav where traditionally the Kaaranavar would entertain visitors and spend his evenings with his friends, often imbibing the tipple. Going ahead, you can see the performers in different stages of preparation in the raised ground near the Kalari. Some have had their make-up done and all their gear on, nearly ready to make their appearance. Those whose turn is scheduled for the latter part of the night are yet to don the accoutrements.
* * *
The first thing that comes to my mind when I think of Theyyam is not the colourful show that unfolds before you or the sounds that accompany it, but the smell of Theyyam. The smell of the coconut oil as it is consumed by the flares, the mildly acrid smell of turmeric, the smell of arrack and beedis, the smell of the plantain leaf getting ‘cooked’ as piping hot rice is dropped on it, the smell of the wooden logs as they turn into embers and then to ashes as the fire into which Ucchitta Bhagavati plunged herself dies down.
* * *
There is a nip in the air, for it is the month of Makaram (End-January). Small groups of people are huddled together and watching the goings-on. Members of the family walk about with an affected demeanour: it-is-in-my-Tarawad-that-this-event-is-taking-place kind of air of authority.
* * *
What is the origin of the pantheon of pagan gods that streak in and out according to a rigidly drawn up schedule? Old-timers believe that they all reside in the Kalari. Unhappy with the misdoings of the earthlings in the past year, they walk out of the Kalari. If they are allowed to do their bidding, they might wreak havoc, epidemics and natural calamities. To avert the disaster, the human beings placate the gods by giving offerings in the ensuing during the next two days. After Wworshipping and appeasing the deities, they coax them back into their residence for one more year.
* * *
Theyyam used to be the only time womenfolk in the village who never ventured out could get their stock of adornments and cosmetics – bangles, trinkets, kaajal, chaanthupottu, cheap perfume and talcum, safety pins, hair clips, false hair, and a host of other things. Kids would cadge money out of uncles and fathers and exchange them for balloons, whistles, balls or wooden toys. They come in all colours, shapes and sizes, and any amount of money that you have is too little.

I stop before a vendor and look at his ware. I spot the tiny tin boat which comes alive if you keep a small lighted wick inside it. My eyes widen in imagination as they conjure up the vision of the boat chugging along in a trough of water. I fulfil a boyhood dream as I exchange a fiver for the boat.
* * *
Theyyam is not just cacophony and smells. It is also a mélange of spectacles and sights. The headgears of Kantaakarnan and Thai Paradevatha are tall and heavy: the performers have to strain themselves to maintain their balance. Gulikan reclines on a tree and Kuttichaatthan’s pranks entertain. The colourfully bedecked Bhairavan, Vayanattu Kulavan and Muchilott Bhagavathi are a treat to the eyes. Only natural resources like tender fronds of palms, leaves of mango trees, a blend of turmeric and lime, etc that are used in the decoration and make-up.
* * *
Logs of dried wood neatly stacked in a pile in the courtyard in front of the Kalari are being set fire to for the grand spectacle of the night – Thee Chamundi’s fire dance. The Kaaranavar is seated on a low wooden stool watching the proceedings, detachment writ in his manner. Till he signals to the performer, Thee Chamundi would keep walking in and out of the burning embers.
* * *
Most of the Theyyams are grossly exaggerated legends or stories that reflect the fear of the man, defenceless when confronted by nature’s fury, epidemics or wild beasts. Take Vasoorimala or Pulikkarinkaali or Acchiyum Kuttiyum (Mother and child), for instance. In the days when man had not reined in diseases and nature, all that he could do was to pray that they do not assail him!
* * *
At the end of the half an hour, when Easow Master announced ‘Time is up’, I turned in a sheet of paper, blank except for the word ‘THEYYAM’ written atop.

Shatranj ke Khilaadi

Come Friday evening, me in tow, grandpa would amble towards the banana trees grown as intercrop in the coconut grove. With a pen-knife, he would snip a couple of fully grown leaves of the plantain tree. He would then carefully segregate the spines of the leaves for me to carry home for the weekly ritual.

Grandpa would splice and cut the spine into specified shapes to fashion two sets of pieces for playing Chaturangam. The thick end would become the king, the slender pieces would make the pawns. The minister, the chariot, the horse and elephant (not queen, rook, knight or bishop as in the modern version) were made from the remaining portion.

That was part of the preparation for the weekly visit of M, the headmaster of the local school who would play Chaturangam with him. M was not just a sparring partner of grandpa: he was also grandma’s cousin.

Even since their common passions – astrology, poetry, literature and Chaturangam brought them together, grandpa and M would spend the weekends in each other’s company pursuing these interests. This was a routine practised for decades.

The two would exchange pleasantries sipping the hot tea which grandma would make as soon as M came in trudging the stone-paved path flanked by crotons and hibiscus. After the cuppa, a mandatory walk in the sylvan paddy-fields discussing a poem that had appeared in the recent issue of the Mathrubhoomi weekly or a story in Mangalodayam. This would be followed by a wash in the pond in the compound.

The two would then walk back to their favourite spot, the wooden platform in the sit-out, and place themselves a few feet apart, each leaning against a pillar. Grandpa would use charcoal to reinforce the fading lines of the 8x8 square drawn on the wooden platform.

They would soon move on to more serious business. They could be seen discussing the post-partition trauma. It could as well be a debate about the influence of an aspect of asterism in astrology. At times, they would try their hand at a paperless translation of a verse from Kalidasa’s Shakuntala into Malayalam.

After dinner, they would shift gears and move over to a series of games of Chaturangam. Not many words would be spoken after that. You could only hear grunts and ‘hum’s which had specific meanings – a doubt, a question, an exclamation, a challenge, a compliment – anything, depending on the variations in the pitch, length and intonation of the ‘hum’.

And the game, aided by a hurricane lamp, would go well past midnight. The spells of silence between two moves would be interrupted only when they decided to break for a session of pan-chewing.

Me, a six-year old lad, was like Snowy in the Tintin comics, their constant companion (but without his entertainment value) but nor much of a nuisance either. I would look forward to Friday evenings and the rendezvous between the two.

That Friday evening looked no different. The usual routine ensued: pleasantries, tea, a long walk, some nuances of poetry and astrology, a wash and dinner, followed by chathurangam. When the discussions died down and the two settled down to a game, they entered the zone of silence broken by grunts and ‘hum’s. I felt sleepy. Head on grandpa’s lap, I lay on the mat and dozed off.

It must have been a little – or a long – later. Lifting my head off his lap as gently as he could, grandpa said, “Let me fetch some water.” The words that broke the silence and the movement disturbed my slumber. Grandpa walked towards the kitchen.

From the corner of my eye, I watched uncle’s left hand moving towards the square. In a swift, but stealthy movement, he snatched a piece of his opponent and flung it into the darkness of the courtyard.

When grandpa returned, it was uncle’s turn to take a break. Using the opportunity, I sneaked to grandpa about uncle’s unethical action. Unmoved by the revelation, he admonished me in soft tones, “Shh… later.” Grandpa lost that game.

Later, I asked grandpa about uncle’s impropriety and his (lack of) response to it. He said, “The game was in a stage where unless he did that, he would lose.”

I could not digest that one. “But why should you let him win?” I queried.

“You have to let others win too,” he explained, “if you want to continue playing.” As that sank into my young mind, he added, “At such critical stages, I always go to fetch water or get a replenishment of betel leaf and accompaniments.”

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Presence of Mind

North Malabar in the dawn of the 20th century. Koodali and Kallyad were two small villages about twelve miles apart. There was no transport those days and you had to walk from one village to the other. To add to the woes, there was a gang of thugs which frequented the route. They were particularly active in late evenings and early mornings. Small groups were particularly vulnerable. Solitary passengers never passed that way between dusk and dawn. The thugs would pounce upon the unwary passenger and rob him of whatever gold he wore or money he had.

Damu and Kelu, about the same age, were cousins from Koodali. They got married within the space of six months of each other. The similarity did not end there: their wives too were related to each other. They were: second cousins hailing from Kallyad.

Damu was a school teacher by profession. Contrary to custom, even after his marriage, Damu continued to stay in his own home, as Koodali was closer than Kallyad to Damu’s school. He would spend the weekends in his wife’s house. Kelu was in business. He would buy cash crops like coconut, arecanut, pepper and cashew and sell then in the nearest town. He would offer an advance, and make a token payment, to have a lien on a year’s crop in a coconut grove or on all the areca in a plot. Or he would acquire the right to a season’s cashew by making an advance payment.

It was the practice of every such businessman not to pay the contracted amount in full. Payment would be made in bits and pieces and at the end of the year, some excuse would be offered for not making the full payment. Typical excuses were: the quality of the crop was poor, the quantity was less than expected, the season was short because the rains came too soon, the summer was severe and tender coconuts dropped, causing great financial loss. He would normally get away by paying no more than eighty percent of the amount originally agreed to.

Damu, the school master, had inherited some land and the savings from his salary helped him acquire more. In a particular year, Kelu offered an advance to Damu in exchange of the right for the crop of coconut in the ensuing year. A firm believer in the dictum that doing business with a friend will terminate the friendship, Damu promptly refused. He said, “If the full amount is not paid, I can quarrel with Mammu Haji. Can I do that with you?”

Kelu was insistent. When some senior relatives intervened, Damu had to relent. Finally, they arrived at a satisfactory solution acceptable to both. The full amount would be paid in advance. Soon, word spread in the village that Kelu had contracted for Damu’s crops for Rs 500 (which was a lot of money in the 1920’s).

But then when the day of reckoning came, Kelu was short of funds: He had only Rs 450 with him. Kelu assured Damu that the shortfall of Rs 50 would be made good before Onam when the sale proceeds of the first plucking of the year would flow in. That sounded reasonable and Damu agreed.

It was a Friday evening. Damu was on his way to his wife’s village. There was a lurking fear in his mind: the thugs. Still he mustered courage and quickened his pace, determined to cross the den of the thugs before they took charge. A couple miles on, he saw a figure ahead of him. If he could catch up with him, he thought, the two would be more formidable than his lone self. So he walked faster. Soon he realised that his pace-setter was none other than Kelu. He called out. Kelu was also on his way to Kallyad to his wife’s house. He was returning from the market after selling some goods.

They walked together, exchanging news and comparing notes, each secretly hoping that they would not encounter the thugs. They did not give vent to that hope because they were afraid the fear might be contagious.

As luck would have it, three hefty men, moustachioed and menacing, loomed large before them. Now there was no escape, the two friends realised.

“Remove your rings!” one of the thugs ordered, while the other two grabbed the victims to ensure that they would not run away.

Damu and Kelu rid their fingers of their wedding rings.

“Out with the money!” was the next command.

While the poor school teacher fished in his bag for the small notes and loose change, Kelu took a couple of notes from the folds of his dhoti around his waist and thrust it into Damu’s hand: “Here is the 50 I owe you!”

Friday, August 10, 2007

True Blue Brit

‘God does not make them anymore,’ said my wife, desperate that the obvious errors our son had made in his exercise book had escaped the attention of the teacher who had checked the homework, ‘I mean English teachers of yesteryears’. With those words, she lapsed into a reverie that took her back to her schooldays in St Thomas’ Girls High School, Calcutta where the glaring eyes of Mrs Turner could burn a hole on the paper which had the mistake.

I too was transported to my college days in Alleppey when we had our share of meticulous professors. Professor Baliga who taught us English was one such. Despite his area of specialisation being the language of the Empire where the sun never sets, he was not enamoured of the western attire. Out and out a nationalist and a Gandhian, the venerable Professor always wore starched khadi – a Gandhi cap, an ochre kurta, white pyjamas and a long shawl neatly folded and draped around his neck, much like a dupatta. Complete with that flowing salt-and-pepper beard and the grey umbrella which he carried wherever he went, the unshod teacher looked every inch a caricature. In short, he was an antithesis to the archetypal English professor. Every morning and evening he would walk the two miles that separated his austere home from the college.

For him, English was a passion and he had a phenomenal memory from which he could quote extensively from Verity’s commentary on the Bard. And the way synonymous words would flow from his tongue had to be seen to be believed. Much to the delight of those who shared his passion, he would kneel on the platform and taking on the mantle of Iago, he would say, ‘I request thee, Desdemona,’ and add, ‘I entreat thee, I beseech thee, I implore thee, I beg thee, I supplicate to thee, I appeal to thee, I plead to thee’. He would go on and on.

Expatiating on the theme that the course of true love never runs smooth, he would cite the case of the Montagues and the Capulets who did not allow the romance of young Romeo and Juliet to come to fruition because of ‘the feud, the enmity, the acrimony, the hatred, the ill-will, the vendetta, the hostility, the antagonism, the hate, the bad blood, the quarrel, the row, the rancour, the bad feeling, ….’ which the two families had harboured for each other.

Professor Baliga would get highly involved with the theme being dealt with. According to the college folklore which is replete with interesting episodes featuring him, when teaching ‘Alice in Wonderland’, he would ‘become’ the Queen and shriek, ‘Off with his head!’ accompanied by an action which saw his umbrella flying out of the window. Classrooms would be packed on the days the assassination scene in Julius Caesar was being taken up, for, legend has it that countless are the fountain pen nibs had met with untimely demise when he played the role of Brutus and stabbed the blackboard (Caesar to the learned Professor).

He loved his students so much that he would ignore the tittering in the backbenches which would have triggered off any other self-respecting teacher into throwing them out of the classroom. Not so Professor Baliga. The only lapse that he, deeply in love with the language, just could not tolerate was bad English. One incorrect usage by any student in the classroom and he HAD it!

Our mathematics lecturer, not too strong on his grammar, was teaching the students how to find out the locus of the centroid of a triangle formed by the intersection of a plane at a constant distance from the origin with the three axes. He began, ‘If suppose let ‘d’ is equal to the distance of the plane from the origin…..’ Story goes that Professor Baliga who was passing through the corridor and had heard him, barged into the classroom and corrected him ‘Let ‘d’ be the distance’ and left as fast as he had come in, allowing the mathematics teacher to proceed with the lesson.

One inclement morning, on his way to the college, he offered shelter to an undergraduate who was waiting for the drizzle to subside. They got talking and things progressed well till the lad apparently said something like ‘The members of the football team of our college does not have the stamina …’ The Professor could not stomach this solescism on the part of his student, and shouted, ‘Get out of my umbrella!’

A Brand New Year

December is the month when we take stock of what we went through the year that just slipped by and draw up the final balance-sheet. This is the time for New Year Resolutions.

Many of us see the new year as the time to make course-corrections in case there have been deviations from the straight and the narrow. Small wonder, then, that resolutions, more often than not, have something do with giving up a bad habit, though some do resolve to pick up some new skill.

Anil Koshy who used to finish two packs of 20’s a day vowed to himself six years back to give up smoking and has stuck to the decision. The divorce from Lady Nicotine, once decided, was final. Never again could she seduce him. Many are not lion-hearted like Anil. Though used to just a cigarette after a meal and not more than five a day, Hariharan found that he could not stick to his new year resolution beyond the 4th January. Quoting a humorist, he says: my prayer is “Oh Lord, lead me not into temptations, for I have a low threshold.” He appears to be a little more strong-willed than Oscar Wilde who confessed his absolute helplessness when he admitted, “I can resist everything except temptation.”

There is an interesting story behind the new year resolution that a few colleagues in a government office made in 1991. This group got together one evening for ‘the last drink of their lives’, because they had decided to kick the habit. So, there they were, at the usual joint on the usual day at the usual time to raise the glass in toast for the last time ‘for old times’ sake’. Bharathan never drank but he was an integral part of the gathering because he would treat them to the soulful Kundal Lal Saigal numbers complete with the feeling and the nasal accent.

As they uncorked the bottle, they exchanged the latest filmi gossip and shared what they had heard on the office grapevine. Over the bubbly, they dissected Salvador Dali and deconstruction, Rashomon and Derrida as any self-respecting Malayalee is wont to. As the animated discussion on post-modernism heated up, Bharathan, who had never had a drink in the past, poured a drink for himself ‘for company’s sake’.

And he has not looked back. He has to have his two drinks every evening!
Opinions are divided on whether it was the case of a non-resolution or a resolution in the reverse gear.

Eight-year old Ashwin says his new year resolultion is to ‘put away the third chocolate for tomorrow’. Little does he know that his mother has upped the ante on him by resolving not to give in to the tantrums he may throw in support of his demand ‘for the second chocolate’!

Paraphrasing Descartes who said, ‘Cogito, ergo sum’ (I think, therefore I am) Arun, who is eagerly a waiting the results of the CAT for gaining entry into the portals of the hallowed B-school, is given to saying, ‘I think, therefore IIM.’ He is not one to waste the six months between the test and the admission. Till then, he says, “I’ve decided to learn a foreign language. And French it will be.”

His sister is, however, not very optimistic. Malini predicts that if the spelling and the pronunciation do not get him, the gender will. Well, she knows how her brother struggled with his Hindi where it is ‘meri kitaab’ but ‘uska pustak’. For the life of him, Arun could not understand why. Malini knows that though, to the eyes of the unsuspecting learner, soup has no masculine or feminine features, in French, it is masculine if called potage and feminine if called soupe.

The other day students of a local college were seen playing a game in the India Coffee House. They were running a contest on the best new year resolution for 2003. A rugged-looking bearded chap in a shaggy T-shirt and cargo trousers, obviously a backbencher, said, “I will sit in the front bench and embarrass the Malayalam lecturer who will send me out of the class.” He’ll have the best of both worlds: not lose out on the attendance, but get the freedom he yearns for. A baby-faced boy said, “I am not going to play hookey with the hostel fee and spend it in movie halls.” We do not yet know if he was making a pledge he would not be able to keep.

The game evolved, as time slipped by. You could pretend to be someone else and come up with novel ideas. One with a crew cut imitated the mannerism of a well-known political leader and said, “Wait for a fortnight: I’ll announce my new year resolution on the 12th January. Till then I will not speak a word about it.” One of the two girls in the group assumed the demeanour of a social activist and announced, “I’ll include authors among the endangered species and give them protection.” In an obvious reference to the Indianisation brigade, the other girl said, “New year resolutuions, like Valentine cards and MTV, are a western concept. I will have a Nav Varsh ka Dridh Sankalp”. With a twinkle in her eye, she adds, “But I’ll wager ten to one that you’ll have to wait for three more months - for the advent of Chaitra maas - for the Nav Varsh of the Saka era.’

If we are not true to ourselves, these resolutions can become farcical, points out octogenarian Appunni Kurup. Today’s youngsters, he says, may not have heard of the practice among those aging pursuing their path to salvation of giving up something after a pilgrimage as a token renunciation. After trudging all the way to Kashi, his uncle Ravunni Kurup resolved never again to touch bitter gourd. It is not known to many that he would prefer hemlock to this vegetable. On days bitter gourd found its way to the dining table, Ammalu Ammayi was fated to be the victim of a bitter tongue-lashing.

There are novel resolutions that people come up with. Sarada Menon believes that finally, wisdom has dawned on her husband Sadananda Menon. He turned sixty this year and his new year resolution is not to have any new year resolution at all. A resolution not to make any resolutions might remind the historically inclined amongst us of the clichéd expression ‘the war to end all wars’. Coming as it does from someone who has made at least forty new year resolutions only to break them as soon as they were made, she says it is indeed a wise decision. One only hopes that Menon does not break this resolution!

So, what is your new year resolution?

Proverbs V.2.0

Our heritage is indeed rich: there is an adage to suit every situation, happy or sad, every person, cautious or reckless. But times gave changed. As with the times, so with the sayings.

These days, several of the old sayings have got modified (Or, should we say morphed, in keeping with the technology-enabled times?), some a wee bit, some a lot, to convey contemporarily relevant messages. There was a time when the proverb ‘Those who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones’ was a cautionary advice to the vulnerable lot. Today, the last two words get excised to yield a modern day proverb ‘Those who live in glass houses shouldn’t.’ Period. A sad commentary on the times when even the unwary and the innocent are exposed to dangers. Witness the passengers who travel on a bandh, sorry, hartal day and get pelted with stones.

‘Familiarity breeds contempt.’ Of course. The untrammelled growth of population made someone shorten it to a straightforward ‘Familiarity breeds.’

It is not as if deletion is the only way in which proverbs are retold. Extolling the virtues of being ‘Early to bed, early to rise…’ we were told ‘The early bird catches the worm’ but the insolent has a repartee, ‘Serves the wretched worm right; why did he get up early?’ Talking of birds, ‘Eagles soar’, our masters told us. They cited the example of the big bird to urge us to strive, perform and reach greater heights. Do they have an answer to ‘Eagles may soar, but weasels don't get sucked into jet engines’?

‘He who laughs, lasts’ is what we have heard all along. The currently popular version, taking a dig at those who are not too quick on the uptake is ‘He who laughs last, thinks slowest.’ Many of those who believe ‘Love is blind’ also agree that the addition ‘but marriage is a real eye-opener’ is perfectly acceptable.

If some proverbs get shortened and others get extensions, there are some which get transmogrified too. Like ‘Absence makes the heart wander’ to reflect the state of the philanderers. Giving a thorough twist to the expression ‘friend in need’, the popular saying gets changed to ‘A friend in need is no friend of mine.’

The wise men had told us ‘If at first you don't succeed, try, try again.’ We are so self-conscious that we do not want others to know about our having attempted and failed. Or loved and lost. Therefore we have the modern-day counterparts modify the advice to ‘If at first you don't succeed, destroy all evidence that you tried.’ There is a variation which says, ‘If at first you don't succeed, then skydiving isn't for you.’ Macabre, of course, but reflecting the sense of humour we seem to enjoy.

If that is a reminder of the modern-day sports, here is one to tell you that today’s weapons are not the primitive ones our forefathers used: ‘Those who live by the sword get shot by those who don't.’

Even scientific laws have been re-invented. Sir Isaac Newton would nod in agreement with his third law look-alike ‘For every action there is an equal and opposite criticism.’ We all know that ‘Light travels faster than sound.’ How do you like the appendage ‘This is why some people appear bright until you hear them speak’?

Here is a gem ‘Change is inevitable, except from an ATM’, something all of have experienced at one time or another. The first part of the proverb perhaps explains why proverbs too don new garb in different times!

Death of A School

It was with a tinge of sadness that I heard that a multi-storeyed air-conditioned commercial complex would come up where my alma mater stood. The proposed closure of ‘uneconomical’ schools in Kerala had nothing to do with the demise of the institution where I had the last two years of my schooling. It was no Sherwood or Doon, Mayo or Yercaud, it was HEHMMHS.

Located bang in the middle of the bustling market in Mattancherry, Hajee Essa Hajee Moosa Memorial High School, named after the benevolent founder, was far from being one of the top-of-the-shelf schools. One does not know the exact contributory factors, but even during my student days it was a poor cousin of the neighbouring schools - The Gujarati Vidyalaya and the Tirumala Devaswom High School, run by rich committees. Not so the HEHMMHS (To most, the expanded version was more than a mouthful) which was run by a trust to which not many contributed.

The upkeep of the imposing two-storeyed building was neither prompt nor frequent. The heirs of the founder either had different priorities or had fallen into bad times. It was perennially starved of resources. The students were left to fend for themselves during the periods earmarked for drawing, craft, sports and games, drill etc, because there was no men or material for these classes.

Teachers had to go great lengths in their efforts to teach the students without the help of teaching aids. Predictably, the school did not have a laboratory. Mr Subramanian who taught us Chemistry would hold up a piece of chalk and say, ‘Suppose this is a test tube’, point to the chalk powder and say, ‘Suppose this is potassium chlorate.’ Holding it above his mailed fist which would double as a spirit lamp, he would go on, ‘Heat the test tube and oxygen will escape.’

But the teachers there were a dedicated lot. Like Mrs Thressiamma whose love for Physics made her announce extra classes on Sundays, undeterred by the fact that the attendance even on regular days was poor. Though one could pass SSLC those days even without securing pass marks in Hindi, our teacher Mr Namboodiri would pour his lungs out. Pranksters, bored with classes and looking for diversion would request him to explain the meaning of Hindi film lyrics like ‘Dil-e-naadaan, tujhe hua kya hai…’ or ‘Zindagi pyaar ki do-chaar ghadi hoti hai…’ and he would oblige, ever so patiently.

The khadi-clad Mr Venceslaus who was a municipal councillor too and taught us English, the Mathematics teacher Mr Govindankutty who also ran the school’s bookstore, the stern Mr Joseph whose cane taught us more than his History classes, Mr Sadanandan, a rationalist and a brilliant speaker, who taught us Malayalam but he could handle any subject for any class, the ageless Arabic Munshi Mr Syed with his neatly trimmed grey beard (He looked upwards of 60, but claimed to be in his late forties), the reticent Headmaster Mr Mohamed Ali – it was a great team.

Though handicapped due to lack of funds, the school did very well in extra-curricular activities like the youth festivals, inter-school sports, etc. In fact, it posed an effective threat to all the ‘good’ schools in the district in the competitive events.

The physical demise of the school, I am told, was caused by lack of maintenance, but on a higher plane, it was because it failed to attract ‘business’ – students and parents shunned the school because it did not ‘produce results’: in the 70’s it had the dubious distinction of drawing a blank at the SSLC examination.

The alumni of well-known public schools might, in later life, become renowned in different walks of life and prove resounding successes in their calling. If anyone who has I have been moderately successful in life discloses the fact that I passed out of HEHMMHS to someone, you can be one to ten that he would be asked, in disbelief, ‘How did you reach this position, then? Don’t tell me you studied there!’

The spiffy commercial complex rising from the debris at the junction of New Road and Palace Road is verily a sign of the times – commerce taking precedence over education. Yet, to the likes of me, it would revive the nostalgia-tinted memories of our balmy days in HEHMMHS, despite its failings.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Educating Rajan

“It’s fo’lō, not fōl’o,” my well-meaning better half corrected me for what must be the nth time. It is not as if she takes great pleasure (or pride) in picking nits in my pronunciation; it is just that like any self-respecting wife, she prefers her husband’s diction to be nothing short of perfect.

The first time she corrected me, I must have blushed, if that were possible for a brown-skinned Indian. That was over thirty years back. I do not blush any more, because my children, schooled in English-medium institutions, too pick holes in the way I say ‘laugh’ or ‘easy’ or ‘is’. Instead of making me blush, it sets me thinking.

Blushed I must have because in my younger days I used to have the severe inferiority complex a small-town guy is apt to suffer from. My colleagues were all refined metro-citizens (This was much before the expression 'metrosexual' was coined by Mark Simpson) who knew how to eat, how to speak, how to dress. I must confess that their inputs as well as those of my wife have contributed to what I am today. How far they have succeeded, I do not know. And I shall never know, because not everybody is as well-meaning as my wife.

It is not at all difficult for me to visualise a situation where people I rub shoulders with may people comment: “Did you see how he was using his fingers to eat? How messy, na?” Or, worse still: “Didn’t he look as if he is just out of the zoo?” Or maybe this: “I was trying so hard to control my laughter every time he said ‘economist’. Weird!” They might not mention a thing to me about my flawed accent, but laugh they would within their sleeves and suppress a chuckle or exchange knowing smiles.

Ok, so I was saying how my wife’s comment set me thinking. The point is, we are all Indians, and irrespective of the state we belong to, we have certain things in common. We all use our hands to eat. And, traditionally, we are also used to eating sitting on the floor. We usually speak our mother tongue at home, which is not English. We all have our traditional outfits – the kurta-dhoti and the saree being common to most cultures.

The two-century old British rule, however, created a class of people that was socially British but culturally Indian. Their table manners, for example, were that of the Sahibs (the British); but the attire of their womenfolk was thoroughly Indian: could you imagine a respectable Indian woman wearing a frock? These people were called the Brown Sahibs. Example? The ICS-wallahs from India, who go for morning walks wearing white shorts and canvas shoes, a swagger-stick in hand, called the ‘Haw-haw-Sahebs’ by a cynical friend because their loud resounding laugh goes ‘Haw! Haw!!’

After the British left our shores, they became the rulers; and soon after a class was formed that aspired to be the Brown Sahib. That’s the class most of us belong to — the Dark Brown Sahib.
While the Brown Sahib was the prisoner of circumstance, the Dark Brown Sahib is the prisoner of attitude. While the Brown Sahib was loyal to the British, the Dark Brown Sahib has gone a step forward: he worships the white skin of any nationality. So when a Frenchman speaks English with a French accent, they find it cute. But when a Malayali or a Bihari speaks English with an accent, he is considered a bumpkin and becomes the butt of jokes.

If a British expat wears a Fab India kurta and a dhoti to work, you are likely to find him cool, but an Indian won’t wear a dhoti even when he is out shopping. When a German diplomat refers to the Father of the Nation as ‘Gaa-n-di’, you consider it a given. When a French girl misprounces the name of Amitabh Bachchan, we are willing to make allowances, we even find it cute; but if an Indian woman says ‘Albert Kam-us’ instead of ‘Albe’r Kamyoo’ or ‘Ver-sace’ instead of ‘Ver-satchi’, she forfeits her right to be admitted to high society!

And can you imagine an Italian girl admonishing her boyfriend for not having heard of the samosa and imli-ka-chutney or avalose-unda and kuzhalappam or dhokla or luchi-maangsho? But you can imagine the plight of an Indian man who loudly wonders what spaghetti is when he is taken to an Italian restaurant (in India) by his collaborator. Should the winds of globalisation blow only from the West?

At times I really think of joining English-speaking classes, apart from going to the Alliance Francais du Trivandrum to learn a bit of French or signing up for German classes. And maybe enroll in an etiquette class too. But… wait a minute: won’t I be killing many birds with one stone by going to a skin-grafting clinic instead, a la Michael Jackson?