If you have a problem, fix it. But train yourself not to worry, worry fixes nothing. - Ernest Hemingway

Monday, 13 April 2009


The folding umbrella was yet to appear in Indian markets. Umbrellas were long, slim and sexy. And I had grown up in a place where people held closed umbrellas by their handles, that is, upside up. But I never stopped to think about it until arriving in Kerala.

If technology has given us conveniences like collapsible brollies, it has taken away some too. One of them is the low flying commercial aircraft. In a bright December morning, I changed plane at Chennai and boarded a made-in-India Avro. There were no hatches above the seats, our hand luggage was dumped at a corner of the cabin and secured with a net. In Kerala, our plane flew low over a lush green sea, barely metres above the serrated fronds of millions of coconut palms. Through occasional gaps in the foliage, you could also see meandering rivulets, tiled roofs, churches-mosques-temples with glistening sandy compounds, schools, and children cheering lustily at the aircraft.

It was a time when I still smelt of college. Back home, when I had landed myself a job in Thiruvananthapuram, the capital city of Kerala, I took out an atlas. Putting one prong of a compass on my hometown, Kolkata and the other on Thiruvananthapuram, I drew a circle with Kolkata at the centre. The circle included Lahore, the Yangtze River, Nom Pen and Hanoi.

It was to be my first day in office and I left my hotel nattily dressed, in a grey business suit. As I walked out into the road, I realized it had been a mistake; I stood out like a joker in a stream of men and women in sparkling white dhotis and saris. Not a pair of trousers to be seen anywhere …. People around watched me with bemusement, and the local mongrels, with suspicion. There were a lot more office-going women on the streets than one would find in North India. The men invariably had pencil thin moustaches and the women, shocks of beautiful long jet black hair.

It was a pleasantly sunny morning but both men and women, each one of them, carried an umbrella, holding them – for some curious reason – upside down.

My office-to-be was in a quiet corner of the town – a small branch office of a bank with a few people behind a counter – none in front – and a lonesome man sitting in a glass cabin, the door to which proclaimed in three languages that its occupant was the manager. My future boss: an old man slouching behind a pile of registers, smoking a poor man’s bidi, and observing me with a glint in his eyes. A three-piece suit obviously makes a different impression upon a banker compared to what it does on the common man or mongrel. He stubbed out his bidi quickly, stood up and offered me a seat. Then he lit a long cigarette with flourish and asked me what he could do for me. When I said what he could, his face fell. Without more ado, he put out his cigarette, put it in his drawer carefully, and fished out the half-burnt bidi from the ashtray to light it again.

Exchange of pleasantries with the boss was followed by an introduction to my would-be colleagues. I was taken around as someone who had come all the way from the North-east to join the bank. The men were friendly and enthusiastic; they shook my hand firmly. When it was the turn to meet the only girl who worked there, I committed a second, and a rather serious faux pas. As she was shaping up to do a namaste, I grabbed her right hand and shook it vigorously as if I felt obliged to return the warmth conveyed by her male colleagues. A hushed silence descended on the premises, the girl blushed violently and I was politely escorted away.

I didn’t know that let alone shaking hands, you were not even expected to sit next to a member of the opposite sex on a public bus in Kerala. The neighbouring state of Tamilnadu had stricter rules. Seats on one side of public buses were reserved for women, deferentially called ladies’ seats, like anywhere else in India. But unlike elsewhere, a low railing ran along the centre, enclosing an area, which for want of a better word, I would call the ladies’ stand! A man sitting on a ladies seat or standing in the area reserved for women would be penalized. However, I am not sure if there was any penalty for violating the ladies’ airspace.

My ignorance of the cultural nuances of my hosts cost me dearly. In office, I was marked as the guy who shook hands with Rani Joseph! Yet, the gravity of my crime didn’t quite sink in until much later. By then, I had become chummy with my boss and the rest of the crowd, including the girl under reference. One evening, while my boss and I were sharing a drink, he told me, ‘Forgive me for asking this question – you seem to be a normal fellow – tell me, how on earth you could shake hands with a girl? I can even try to understand the psychology of a rapist, but what kind of perversion is that?’

People from some other countries might consider the phrase elected communist government an oxymoron, but it is a political reality in India. Kerala was the first state to have elected a communist government in 1957. It was a watershed in modern history: for the first time anywhere in the world, communists came to power through the ballot. It was a working class government headed by a man from the upper crust of the social elite, who had personally fought many battles against the caste system. But communism hadn’t apparently impacted upon the people’s behaviour very deeply. A rather high barrier between the genders was just one aspect. Often, on meeting a new person, the first question that I would be asked was, ‘Which caste do you belong to?’ And the second: ‘How much is your salary?’

The second of course is a pan-Indian query; in some places, people might even ask you how much you made under the table! But one facet that bore an unquestionable imprint of communism was the political rallies and processions that were, and still is, an integral part of life in Kerala.

I stayed in a hotel and was looking for a house, which was not easy to come by. The community of landlords there firmly believed that every bachelor was a philanderer. One afternoon, as I was about to cross MG Road, the main thoroughfare, I was stopped by a procession. I was hungry and eagerly waited for the jatha to end as my destination on the other side was the Indian Coffee House, where I would snatch a quick bite during lunch break.

Suddenly, a fight broke out between the men in the procession and their unseen political rivals. Both sides started pelting brickbats and soda-water bottles. The passers by vanished in a trice and the shops downed their shutters. I took shelter at a corner created by a building jutting out into the road. Not a safe haven, but the best available under the circs. Not one non-combatant was on the road, except for me and a stately woman in her late-fifties. She was standing beside me and surveying the situation with obvious disdain and unconcern. She was beautiful, tall, dark and in a white sari. After some time, there was a lull on the street and a far-away siren signalled the advent of police vehicles.

My companion told me something, not a word of which I could understand, except “police”. But I could notice a trace of anxiety in that remarkably calm person. In a flash, I understood what she meant, ‘Brickbats might have missed you, but the police lathis won’t.’

I was still wondering what to do when she caught hold of my arm and pulled. She walked remarkably fast for a woman of her age and led me along some roads and narrow alleys to her house.

That is how I met Saraswati Amma, an extraordinary materfamilias, and found a roof over my head in Thiruvananthapuram.

Before going to office the next day, as I dumped my backpack and suitcase in a small spare cottage in Saraswati Amma’s compound, I saw a big moustachioed man vigorously washing clothes in the open. He was Manian, Saraswati Amma’s son-in-law. As Manian was washing, his wife Savitri left for office. Quite a few of the household chores were his responsibility. Besides washing clothes, he would wash their three-year-old son, Kuttan. Every morning during my stay in the house, Kuttan would run around the compound shouting “Kulikkyaenda!” on his tiny but athletic legs. Papa would run after him. Manian was rather stocky, and his son would often outwit him with sudden turns and deft dives.

Of the few Malayalam expressions that I somehow picked up, “I don’t want to take bath” was the first. Saraswati Amma’s elder son, Govindankutty lived with his in-laws, which was referred to as his wife-house, in a literal translation from Malayalam.

She served me a steaming cup of frothy tea and a boiled plantain. The curious combination came as another minor culture shock.

Originally, the Nairs (or Nāyars) were a martial community, who were feudal lords, land officials and members of the militias that protected the tiny Kerala kingdoms before the British conquest in 1792. Later, they did exceedingly well in education and have become successful in all the vocations that educated Indians normally take up. Earlier, the community was matrilineal. A Nair family owned property jointly and included brothers and sisters, the sisters’ children, and their daughter’s children. As property passed by inheritance to the female offspring, Nair women had an important position in the family. But the legal head of the family was the oldest man, traditionally known as the Karnavar. Interestingly, neither the Karnavar nor the senior-most woman wielded absolute power. Rather, they were two fulcrums in the family power structure.

This system has been abandoned over time and Nairs have switched over to the patriarchal structure of kinship and inheritance. This story is about a time when the past overflowed into the present. Saraswati Amma, whom I started calling just Amma, was the undisputed mistress of what she surveyed.

Her husband, Kunjukrishna Kaimal was a happy-go-lucky fellow who was contented to play the second fiddle to his wife. His face, criss-crossed with innumerable lines, was always smiling. A former serviceman, he had seen action in North Africa and the Middle East. He had walked down so many roads that you could safely call him a man. And as it often happens, varied and trying experience invested him with a calmness and self-assurance that nothing could upset. He had accepted with quiet dignity the fact that his second son was physically and mentally challenged.

He soon became a friend and guide. Those days, I would sleep early, 10 PM used to be midnight for me. Once, Kunjukrishna Kaimal pulled me out of the bed and took me to a Kathakali performance, which ended at sunrise the next day. On Sundays, he would sometimes take me out to see Kalarippayattu, a martial art form practised in Kerala. The performances used to be brilliant exhibitions of power and agility, where two lithe contestants dressed only in dhotis would jump high in the air and perform stunning acrobatics with a sword and a shield. Incidentally, Kalarippayattu had been almost an exclusive domain of the Nairs, a part of their martial traditions.

The four walls of my room were decorated with 43 framed photographs of Saraswati Amma’s forebears and members of her extended family. Being from a nuclear family, I initially felt the somewhat atavistic exhibition was ridiculous. But later, I realized that, as someone from a family that had been displaced during the Partition of India, and that had later splintered into many tiny units, I didn’t know what words like family meant to an archetypal Indian. Perhaps, in a desolate village in what is now another country which I have never seen, there was a house with similar snapshots of people with some of whom I bear a striking resemblance.

Although it was not part of the deal, the morning cuppa started coming to my room every day. Then the breakfast. Occasionally, Amma would call me for dinner too. Human relationships develop in imperceptible silence, like dewdrops falling on a meadow. One evening on returning from office, I found the forty-fourth framed photograph on the wall: yours truly flanked by a beaming Kunjukrishna and a stiff Amma.

Next year, the monsoon hit the Kerala coast punctually on the 1st of June with a deluge. And then it rained continuously for sixty days.

There is much similarity among the modern Sanskrit-based North Indian languages. The Dravidian languages, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam have a different origin. As a Bengali, although I can make some sense when Assamese, Oriya, Marathi or Gujarati is spoken, I couldn’t understand a word of Malayalam. In Amma’s family, everyone except her spoke some English. Being an ex-serviceman, Kunjukrishna spoke better Hindi than I. Only Amma, her youngest offspring and I didn’t have a common language to share.

Towards the beginning of the sixty-day rain, one evening, as I was leaving for supper, Amma stopped me. I didn’t follow a word she spoke, but I could understand her as lucidly as I did on the first day, ‘You shouldn’t go out in this rain. Come in and join us for dinner.’

I, in Bengali: ‘No Amma, I have been taking advantage of your hospitality. Let me go.’

She smiled, ‘You shouldn’t defy elders. Come in.’

It was a command.

Such bilingual, or rather, non-lingual conversations became routine over time. Despite her total ignorance of Bengali, she began to understand me perfectly. And I tried to reciprocate.

The fact that her last child had been born with congenital problems cast a shadow of perpetual sadness on Amma’s beautiful face. Gopalan was around twenty. He could move around with difficulty and had the mind of a three-year-old. As he had been born with a cleft palate, his speech was garbled. His parents and siblings alone could understand what he said. And he painted beautifully, mostly with bare fingers.

One day, when no one was around, Amma called me. She put her hand on Gopalan’s shoulder and said something about him. The only other words that I clearly understood were Kamakhya and Guwahati: ‘I want to share something with you in confidence. Please don’t discuss this with anyone. Manian told me there is a god-man in Kamakhya who has done many miracles. He lives near Guwahati. Can you take Gopalan, his father and me to Guwahati?’

I didn’t have the heart to tell her that it would be pointless to take the sick child and the old man to the other end of the country looking for a fraud. So I said, ‘Yes, of course, I can.’ After some thought, I added, ‘Why don’t we organize an exhibition of Gopalan’s paintings?’

Neither the trip nor the exhibition ever materialized. A week later, my father died at the age of 57 after a massive heart attack. After years of struggle and many bitter failures, he had been able to set up a fairly successful business venture. It was not grandiose, but neither was it small enough to be abandoned. Besides, we had to think of his twenty employees. As the only offspring, I had to step into his shoes.

The day I left Thiruvananthapuram, Amma said nothing. Perhaps she wanted to tell me that her relationship with me was beyond words.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I completely agree with Mr. Suvro Chatterjee. You were really born to be a writer.

    Please do keep us enthralled with such brilliant posts!

  3. Though you put a label of short story to this narration,it appears more like a memoir converted to story with your excellent skill of serving.During the long journey undertaken,we all met so many interesting people throughout but not many of us could recollect and place them in such simple and beautiful language.You remind me of my favorite author Bimal Mitra who used to end short stories such abruptly when the readers started expecting more.Excellent, Santanu.

  4. I found the piece a bit too long.

    Being a Mallu, I can vouchasafe the first part as absolutely true. I found it hilarious. That was enough material for one post.

    The short story part (Sarawati Amma) could form another piece. The anthropology of Nairs of Kerala could form a third post.

  5. There is something adorably, old-world-charm in your writing, which I love. Your love for Kerala is quite evident since I found your narration and the details very much unlike an outsiders. I found your walk past memory lane quite warm and higly expressive. You deserve wider audience, dada(if I may call you so). I feel your posts have not been received the way it deserves. Try a book, seriously and it would find a publisher for sure.I have never been so confident with anyone’s blog and writeup. Your liking for kerala is quite familiar to me, as it sounds similar to my personal liking to anything Bengali. From sweets to women, to literature. Probably out of my love & respect for tagore and Satyajit ray.

    Though malayalam is a dravidean language and closely related to tamil, it uses sanskrit much more than any other sounth indian languages(unlike tamil). I studied sanskrit in schools from 5th till 9th(4 years) and it was very easy for me to grasp.



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