Though we were from a rural background, my father’s frequent transfers took us to cities. My father was keen that in the process, the children should not become urbanised. Don’t forget the tradition and the culture we come from, he’d say.
Towards this end, during long summer holidays, he would send us to our grandparents. We too looked forward to these breaks when we could free ourselves from the tyranny of textbooks, homework and a Martinet of a father. Unadulterated merrymaking: goodies to eat, games to play; cart-wheeling, cavorting and swimming in the pond in our village home.
Though we were on a holiday, dad had dictated a regimen for us: a bath in the morning, a visit to the temple, a few pages of the Sidhharoopa, Amarakosha and Subhaashitaani (so that we could brush up on our Sanskrit) and a few pages of Wren and Martin’s English Grammar. Selected parts of Kerala Paanineeyam by Raja Raja Varma on Vrittas and Alankaaras were also mandatory. We could go out to play only after these tasks had been completed.
In the evening, we had to turn in by half past five and have a bath. After the prayers, we had to recite multiplication tables, mathematical formulae, days of the week and months of the year (three versions; Malayalam, Gregorian and Saka) and an assortment of other things we were supposed to remember. Grandpa was asked to ensure that we stuck to this regimen.
Our cousins, unfettered by such shackles, would be ready for fun and frolic soon after breakfast until after sundown. Not us. It was not until 11 am before we finished the chores even if we skipped a few pages and rushed through the job. And 5.30 was our deadline.
Naturally, our native cousins, not bound by such restrictions, were objects of our envy. (It is a different matter that in our later life, this regimen gave us a great advantage over our rivals in competitive examinations.)
My father had also asked grandpa to take us to the performances of art in the village, of which there were plenty. These were mostly folk arts, temple festivals etc which took place at night. We would spend a couple of hours at the venue and return, having gained a glimpse into the rural legacy.
A couple of times in a year, there would be a performance of Kathakali, Ottan thullal or Krishnaattam in the large courtyard in the house of the local janmi (landlord). All this was a part of the economy and social welfare, Grandpa would explain: the working class was provided with a night of entertainment; the artistes with some remuneration, grains and new clothes; housewives a change from the routine (And the chieftain got an ego-trip!)
Grandpa himself was well-versed in the nuances of these art forms as well as mythology. Before the performance, he would narrate the story to be staged. During the performance, he would ‘introduce’ the characters to us and patiently explain the meanings of the verses and the significance of the mudras.
It was one such occasion. The Kathakali performance scheduled for the day was Duryodhana Vadham. In the afternoon, we were told the outline of the story. That evening, dad came lugging his suitcase. His visit marked the beginning of the end of the holidays.
The performance began after dinner and would go on till early morning. The tall brass lamps were lit, the euphony of the musical instruments and the scent of incenses filled the air. The entire village thronged the place, their eyes shining with expectation. The black, red and green curtain came down, with the scene where Dharmaputra and Duryodhana play dice.
The sagely former did not impress my young mind as much as the wily Duryodhana did: his colourful make-up and his gear complete with the mace as opposed to the plain Dharmaputra must have done the trick. Duryodhana was at his vicious best when he screamed, “I’ll not give you even an inch of land.” After that, the decibel level declined, as it was life in the forest for the Pandavas and Draupadi that was featured.
I felt sleepy. I must have nodded off momentarily, but woke up with a start when I thought of my father: he would take me to task if I were caught napping. I tried to keep my eyes open, but tired as I was from the day-long frolicking with my cousins, I nodded again. My grandpa understood my plight and asked me to go to sleep.
I was more than willing to obey. I made some space for myself and lay down on the mat, my head on his lap, trying to sleep. Two things stood in the way. I was scared that my dad would find out that I was sleeping when I should be ‘getting my education on tradition and culture’. And I was keen to see Duryodhana in full cry.
I requested my grandfather: “Please wake me up when my dad or Duryodhana comes.”
The elders sitting around us broke out into a loud guffaw. I could not understand why.