Wednesday, October 14, 2020

TRICHUR


It was 1933, when this affair shook my life, and I remember it led me into smoking. As a teenager I always thought it to be a bad idea, but I was beyond twenty now, mature enough to test the thing’s reputation as a stress reliever. One would be initiated into smoking not with cigarettes then, but with
beedi. If you are from my generation you’ll recall that cigarette was out-of-favour in the whole of India, in deference to Mahatma Gandhi’s ‘Swadesi’ call. I’d pass hours at my brooding-point under a clump of swaying coconut palms under the gaze of the under-repair Tangasseri Point lighthouse at Quilon, trying to emit smoke-rings, which was quite a task with beedies, given the measly amounts of smoke they produced. Peace reigned, to the sound of the emerald waves lapping on the shore, kites swooping down to pick up the stray matti that popped up like a cork now and then. Good old Quilon coast! I could watch these sights but not feel them inside, alas, given the prevailing circumstance.

The trademark red diagonal stripes of the stately lighthouse were, I remember, largely blotted out by patches of jacketing that served to mend the cracks that had sprung up here and there, which, under the dying lights of the setting sun, looked like gnarled hands of a bloody gigantic witch clasping the tower. And what was I doing at Quilon, I was in attendance upon Acchachan, my grandfather, who lay very sick at District Hospital, Quilon, which, on account of the skills and care bestowed upon patients by the Swiss Holy Cross Sisters offered the best medical care in the whole of the Travancore state.

But to fully appreciate what I relate, you must follow me through the crazy maze of kinship that Kerala society once was. Or like a bloody house of mirrors you may say. Vivekananda called Kerala a ‘mad-house of castes’. Even Malayalees of the present generations are surprised to be told about unsavoury practices like Mulakkaram, or the breast tax, and I suspect modern Keralites think it best to let the skeletons lie in forgotten cupboards of society. But, this is what I feel, contemporary social evils can all be traced to the Nambudiri bhumi atyagraham which loosely means ‘greed for land’. And every social thing in Kerala is ultimately traced back to Parasurama, who reputedly created the Kerala cosmos, and planted Brahmin clans there. Detractors claim that the Nambudiri Brahmins were created by him out of fishermen, by fashioning the fishing-rod strings into sacred thread, that is the yadhnyopavitham, a claim not to be taken seriously, for, in reality, they had migrated from the north. Parasurama is still around, the Puranas say… niṅṅaḷ dirghakalaṁ jīvikkaṭṭe daivam!

My Acchan, who harboured some scientific curiosity loved to say that kinship in Kerala is as complex as the theory of relativity. You’ll notice the laboured pun in the idea, concerned as it was with ‘relatives’. Just to highlight our scientific temperament, Einstein, like no other scientist, caught the fancy of the Malayalee mind, and it is a matter of record, Albert Einstein was offered a Professor’s post in the fledgling University of Travancore by the Travancore State Diwan, Sir C.P.Ramaswamy Aiyar, for a fixed monthly pay of Rupees 6000.00! Alas he chose Princeton over Travancore. Acchan, charlatan, thought that was brilliant business, the pun and all, though I was not impressed. Not that Acchan cared overmuch for others’ opinion. His manners, or as we say in Malayalam, maanyers were highly boisterous, his right hand perpetually raised, seeking to  imprint a high-five on the companion’s hand, to the shriek of adipoli!! or kidduu!!!

But Acchan’s Acchan, that is Acchachan, was the very opposite of that- restrained and stoic, philosophical. Kind, profound…I am somewhere in between, but closer to Acchachan, I fondly hoped once..no longer, as you’ll soon witness. Apparently his genetic imprint, and his father’s, were so dominating, my Ammooma always said, that in the clan, ceṟumakan mutt Acchaneaṭ samyamuṇṭ- boys take after grandfathers!

Acchachan was a Nambudiri, so also Acchan, like the Adi Sankaracharya, members of the Brahmin sub-caste considered widely to be the acme of Vedic culture, very orthodox. A strict code of bloody ‘purity’ was built around themselves by the Nambudiris. Just to illustrate,  every lower caste was prescribed a distance upto which they could accost a Nambudiri. For example the safe distance to be maintained by fisher-folk was 24 arms-lengths! But this holy whiff entirely bypassed me, in spite of my being a direct male descendant of Acchachan! I was a Nair, not a Brahmin, but a kshatriya technically.

Of course all this was to finally change with the Madras Nambudiri Act 1933, and Acchachan was part of the reform movement, as I shall shortly explain. But see how bloody mulish are bad habits, here and there you will still find relics of Marumakathayam or matrilineal ways in our language and culture- for example even today the wife often addresses the husband as chetta, something like bhaiyya!  So a Nair family consisted not of husband, wife and children, but of brother, sister and the sister’s children from the man who in turn inhabited in his family in his sister’s homestead. If a Nair boy somehow happened to marry a Nambudiri girl, for Nairs, their children would be, Nambudiri  and vice versa, because the Nambudiri was above the Nair in social hierarchy, even though the latter was much smarter!

Acchachan, being the first born, inherited the family estates as per the Nambudiri practices and was the paterfamilias of the illam, that is the correct word for a Nambudiri estate. Acchachan never used his caste title, but was known to everyone as Kesavan, and would, impishly, sign as ‘K7’. Acchan, that is dad, was spared of that responsibility, and he was the youngest of Acchachan’s sons. Only the eldest son could have a regular marriage, so that the pre-eminence of the eldest son remained unquestionable, and the younger sons had to rest content with Sambandam, an informal arrangement basically for procreation. A man could enter into Sambandam merely by gifting a mundu, in the presence of an oil-lamp, to the Nair girl, who belonging as she did to a matrilineal set-up, could say poda to her ‘husband’ by simmbly returning the bloody mundu. My Ammachi, though, I should mention, treasured her mundu and kept it along with her jewellery in a private corner of the family steel cupboard! Such was their love, Acchan frequently stayed with us…

All that ended with the Madras Marumakathayam Act 1933, after which no Sambandam remained and the bloody thrill was gone! But while it prevailed, the maternal uncle of children was responsible for their upbringing, not the biological father, and the household or Tharavad was headed by the senior-most lady, or the matriarch, though the real power still vested with the eldest male, the karnavar..

So I and Acchachan were like two parallel lines running close like rails of a railway track, never meeting but drawn towards a common point. He had a certain fondness for me. One, both of us were very fair, and I bore uncanny resemblance to the child Kesavan, Ammoman used to say, which was of a piece of her formula of ceṟumakan muttAcchaneaṭ samyamuṇṭ!

I and Acchachan had much in common, both of us were equally drawn to literature and painting. The late 19th century and the early 20th were the renaissance years for Malayalam literature. Christian missionaries with their perseverance and curiosity were the prime movers of this literary movement. The Samuel Johnson of Malayalam, who painstakingly compiled the first Malayalam-English dictionary was  German missionary, Herman Gundert. Acchachan had a well-stocked library, and the most well-thumbed  books in his collection were the Malayalam-English dictionary by Gundert, the Abhijnanasakuntalam of Kalidasa translated by Kerala Varma, and not the least, his beloved novel, Chandhu Menon’s Indulekha, said to be the first Malayalam novel to be written. It’s about Nair society, though the preoccupation of Acchachan was Nambudiri reform, but as dad used to say, Nambudiris and Nairs are two sides of the same coin!

If one has to summarise the social changes that were in the offing, one has merely to remember Indulekha! The British, steeped in Victorian tradition never ceased to be horrified with Nambudiri excesses, Sambandam marriages, and the apparent promiscuity prevalent in society. The Church was also in a ‘reformatory’ mode, even as the Queen was not amused. The attempts to remould Kerala society in the British mould was bound to succeed as the Royal House of Travancore (and Cochin as well) threw its weight behind the movement. Basically the contradictions between a society trying to emulate the patriarchal  West, and the matrilineal systems at home became too much for the Travancore royalty. With their sharp intellect, the ruling class read the writing on the wall and correctly concluded that the world of the future would be dominated by the western mode. Queen Victoria, it is said, was delighted with the famous Travancore queen Rani Lakshmi Bayi when she refused to divorce her husband Kerala Varma, that is the writer of the Malayalam Abhijnanasakuntalam, at the behest of scheming courtiers. Queen Victoria appreciated the ‘moral fibre’ of the Rani and gradually Christian morality percolated downwards. The writer Chandhu Menon was himself an employee of the British administration.    

Madhavi, the heroine of Indulekha was the new ideal for Malayalee womanhood who wouldn’t suffer Nambudiri excesses. She is dedicated to her husband, and fights back when her virtue is questioned. Her sensibilities are very English. My Acchachan would illustrate his points with instances from Madhavi’s life with such fervor that as a child I always thought Madhavi was some real handsome lady in our neighbourhood! In fact, Madhavi was the heroine’s horoscope name and Indulekha was a sobriquet lavished on her on account of her beauty by Krishna uncle. However the name Madhavi is used only by her soul-mate, that is Madhavan! Madhavan-Madhavi, you see!

Acchachan loved Raja Ravi Varma and his paintings, every Ravi Varma tells a story he would insist. He is the creator of the creators, and the images of various Gods that reside in the Hindu mind are his creations! His favourite painting was Ata Acchan Varunnu that is, “There Comes Papa”. The painting depicts Ravi Varma’s daughter Mavalikera holding the baby Setu Lakhmi Bayi, the one who, as an adult happened to impress Queen Victoria, as I told you earlier, with the family dog beside, waiting expectantly for the father to arrive, as if, to complete the picture of a modern nuclear family!

So basically Acchachan saw the world through English eyes and therefore found allies in the reform movement. He would talk about V.T.Bhattathiripad, the very talented leader of the Nambudiri Yogakshema Mahasabha much his junior. Known as VT, he had, just like Acchachan stopped using the caste-name Nambudiri. Somehow Acchachan often visited Trichur, where he had occasion to watch the progress of VT, who studied at the Edakunni Nambudiri School, where he also edited the youth magazine Vidyarthi copy of which Acchachan invariably came back with. Made me read the editorial note, which of course was of no interest to me, I would rather trawl magazines with pictures, or read the Kaumudi..

The reforms attempted by the Mahasabha revolved around the plight of unmarried Nambudiri women and Nambudiri widows. The eldest Nambudiri son was expected to take on a Nambudiri bride, or several of them, and the younger ones, like Acchan entered into Sambandam with Nair girls thus leaving out one set of women: the unmarried Nambudiri women who were cursed to remain life-long virgins. A Nambudiri widow could not re-marry. Together they constituted the bloody ‘Antherjanams’, or ‘people inside the house’, meaning they could not step out of the household, and if at all they had to, they had to move about in a formation more like a Roman phalanx, lest the eyes of a stranger fall on them. The system, if it can be called so, resulted in a matrimonial gender imbalance which caused social tensions, and created opportunity for the Nambudiri male to revel in debauchery, while all the time earning punyam, because all this apparently had the sanctions of Parasurama! The slogan VT gave was “transform the Nambudiri into a human being”. And Acchachan with his sense of compassion and equality of all human beings became their torch-bearer in Venad!

Nothing is as powerful as an idea whose time has come, and so it was with the Reforms .As a result of the many Resolutions that were passed by the Mahasabha, the conferences and not the least, stage shows, the Prahasanams, under their aegis, a number of legislations were enacted by the Houses of Travancore and Cochin, though the Kerala Nambudiri Act was passed after Independence.

A Plague raged in greater India in 1932-33, but thanks to the Public Health Department, which set up observation stations at every entry point, not a single case happened in Kerala! However fate had decided to corner Acchachan, and when he returned from the Silver Jubilee celebrations of the Sabha held at Karalmanna near Trichur, he developed cough, cold and high fever, which was later diagnosed as Winter Fever, though there is hardly any winter in Kerala, only rain, rain, and more rain! Perhaps the strain of the 300 mile journey, changing trains, from Trichur to Sengottaii to Punalur to Quilon to Trivandrum to Attingal, got the better of him. Of course as the crow flies the distance may be half of that. Acchachan, though, was full of stories from the conference, boasting that one thousand Antherjanams had participated, and was particularly impressed by the Prahasanam staged by some amateurs, which he found more gripping than any Nambudiri Kathakali show or any Nair Kalaripayattu show! My Ammooma administered to him the usual turmeric prasadam, and the usual Nambudiri manthrams, but  Parasurama was unmoved, and given Acchachan’s faith in Missionaries, it was decided to take Acchachan to Quilon, which was, fortunately, quite close.

Naturally Acchachan’s choice of companion fell on me, and I always had a sense of loyalty towards him. But it was a sad journey. It was raining off and on and you can imagine what the Kerala landscape would offer, looking out of the window of a train in gently falling rain, an endless expanse of green, glassy rain-drops refracting myriad hues of green, but that day the shade of clouds played on my gloom. The only source of warmth was a wad of Rupees 5,000 which was entrusted with me by Acchachan at the commencement of journey, not that I had designs on it, but this was the first time I had touched so much of dough.

Acchan was a Bradshaw person, and would wait like a crow on a tree for the latest edition to arrive, and he generously donated one of his retired copies to us, according to which the rail distance was 40 miles, and after 2 hours of travel we reached Quilon. The Mahasabha guys were waiting impatiently for our arrival. A car with a TCQ number plate was pressed into service, and the old man, who had survived the epic journeys of the last few days was straight put on oxygen support. Apparently the entire admission formalities were completed by Mahasabha volunteers, save the mandatory what’s-it-called, which has to be filled up by ‘next-of-kin’. The fund for admission had been arranged before-hand by Acchachan, when and how remained a mystery to me.

The Quilon Hospital was a small affair, only 15 beds. It was a revelation to me, how rich Acchachan was. He was housed in the best room, with an ante-room for the attendant. Not that I had anything to do with the treatment, the Swiss Matron Annali was around when help was required. The main treatment as I learnt was Oxygen, for serum therapy was not indicated in acute cases, it worked in early detection. Sulphonamides and Penicillin were yet to be made commercially available.  Fever would sometimes reach as high as 106 degrees F and Acchachan would become delirious. For fever, he would be administered Salicin, which I suppose is same as Aspirin. The sisters would resort to sponging if temperature exceeded 104 deg.

During one such bouts, Sister Marieli rushed out of the old man’s room, I was lazing in the ante-room. They used to call him Opa, like the Tamils’ Appa, I thought. Opa wants you quickly she said. Opa was struggling with a bout of delirium. I was so worried, I stood with my legs shaking. Acchachan was deranged and unhinged, expostulating and desperate to tell me something and he waved out Sister saying doore po! doore po! Vaathil adaikkoo!!! Door close please!!

What he said next raised the hair on the back of my neck. Does Thaathri know about my illness Mone! he said, she will be very worried! A bolt of lightning struck me as I heard him say Thaathri. A hundred years of the sordid existence of Antherjanams, the meanness of Nambudiri society flashed across my mind. As it rose, it abated. Relieved I remembered Thaathri was lost to Kerala 30 year back and no, no, Acchachan could not have been one of her consorts.

I’m not sure about Indulekha, but Thaathri was for real, the Kerala Joan of Arc virtually burnt at the stake! Her life was not the subject of a novel like Indulekha by then, but was living, earthy memory in the first half of the 20th century. Only the previous year, that is 1932 had seen the demise of a prime character in the saga, Rajashri Sir Rama Varma XV, who was the Cochin King during the Smarthvicharam, Thaathri’s inquisition as per shastras.. The late King had aborted the inquiry proceedings in 1905, allegedly as he was the next on the list of Thaathri’s illicit consorts. He lent strength to this surmise by abdicating the throne in 1908. However as a matter of fact he had fallen out with the British Resident and decided that he had enough.

Thaathri, is the Malayalam form of Sanskrit Dharitri, earth goddess. She was a Nambudiri girl married to an old widower as a mere 9 year old! Thaathri blossomed into an extremely beautiful girl, apart from being wily, and so bold, I don’t think even Parasurama could have looked her in her eye. But she burnt a hole in Parasurama’s creation when she struck like a meteor! As a fall-out of her Smarthvicharam conducted by a constellation of Namudiri priests, sixty-five ‘respectable’ citizens were arraigned, many were excommunicated, and a couple of them even communicated suicide. She had painstakingly documented her visitors’ capers, and could establish each and every intimacy, even placing accurately the grandees’ bloody moles on thighs and all .

But ‘Thaathri’ from Acchachan’s mouth..bhayamkara..ende ammo! It was perplexing to say the least…Anyway in Acchachan’s incoherent blabber Thaathri got transformed to Chitra. Chitra an ex-Antherjanam, Chitra, who had a big girl and an unni boy and stayed in Arimbur or Nadathara was it, in Trichur. The old man kept on raving incoherently and largely inaudibly. Something sounded like kuṭṭikaḷe paripālikkuka and enne kapatabhaktan siksikkuka Parasurama, admahatya ceyyuka, weeping in spells. Do you have a beedi Mone! he entreated in between! In his moments of alertness he seemed to have caught the smell of tobacco on my persona. The bloody long and short of it was that  Acchachan had what Tamilians call chinna veedu, little home, back in Trichur and, he felt guilty, entreating Parasurama to punish the hypocrite, and worried about the kids who were supposedly Acchan’s truant step-siblings, assuming whatever the old man was spouting was real! I was avoiding his wild gaze, nursing feelings of betrayal, anger, sorrow, pity..and wondering why the bloody hell I came here! “Thank God Chitru I met you before I came back from Karalmanna”,  he said..which I construed as circumstantial evidence for the veracity of the story…must be all true for he had just returned from Trichur. Ha ha, and so that’s why Ammooma used to wonder why he always had one foot in Trichur!

As a result of the sponging and pills, Acchachan’s temperature plunged, followed by my respect for my Acchachan. The moment I dreaded arrived soon enough. Acchachan recovered in a weeks’ time. Did he remember the Hamlet-like febrile soliloquy at all? Did I really hear what I thought I heard? Was it a bad dream? Acchachan would look on pensively at me, clear his throat and stop in his tracks, or so I thought. His brain was made of sterner stuff, and on the evening before his discharge he tentatively enquired, avoiding my glance, if in his unconscious spells he had talked about Chitra. Yes, I replied curtly, and I am sorry you are like any other Nambudiri yoke, that’s what you told me. Acchachan sat back resigned, wisely refraining from fanning the fires.

The trauma was unbearable. Here was my ideal, my beloved, my childhood friend, my Acchachan, revered Nambudiri reformer of Venad, who fought for the rights of Antherjanams, confessing to an illicit liaison with an Antherjanam, unbeknownst to anyone! It was as if I was carrying a bloody live grenade on my body, and which I could not cast away. So, what was I supposed to do? Tell Acchan- will he launch into a high-five? Tell Ammooma? Write an anonymous letter home? How could this trespass be forgotten and forgiven? At least someone apart from me should know..

The journey back home appeared much shorter than the up-journey. For the most of the time, I planted myself at the bogie entrance, eyes trained on the telegraph poles and wires, on which could be seen droplets of rain fall, tremblingly shuffle with the winds, coalesce and drop down to the earth. On the illam, there was a grand reception, and I was treated as a hero, who had pulled the old man from the jaws of death. Acchan even had tears in his eyes, that was the first and last time I saw him like that.

I was in a hurry to leave Attingal as soon as possible. I graduated that year and got a scholarship to attend the Sir J J School of Art at Bombay. I may have turned my head away from Acchachan, but the values and aesthetics internalised since my childhood were like a reluctant legacy. An exposure to the outside world inculcated in me a more balanced and inclusive view of morality. Gradually, the feeling of betrayal lost its sting, and grudgingly I admitted to myself that extenuating circumstances were possible in Acchachan’s case. I had not sought any further information on the how this chinna veedu thing could have come about, at what stage of his life. The episode changed my mental make-up forever. Cigarettes started getting manufactured in India in a big way after Independence, and I could bid farewell to the beedi. I became more discreet, lest I should have to harbour secrets of my own, which I could accidentally reveal to my as yet unborn grandchild in a bout of Pneumonia!

The thought of spilling the beans on Acchachan never arose in my mind. Our relation was sacred, I still believed, all said and done. It would have been betrayal. But I never spoke or wrote to Acchachan after I left Trivandrum. Acchachan could be carrying an apprehension about my conduct, and worried about my depth to keep the secret known only to me in the whole clan. Never did I have any interest in knowing more about our larger family of Trichur, I ran from even thoughts about them!

One day I was to learn that the curtains had still not fallen upon the story. Acchachan left us seven years after the fateful days spent with Acchachan at Quilon. I did not feel an urge to attend his last rites, and by then the clan had grown, and I had outgrown the clan.  Shortly thereafter I got a letter from a solicitor in Quilon. Acchachan had left a letter for me with him. I was requested to call the solicitor and fix up an appointment which reluctantly I did. I was told to be there with my identification papers. Railways were a lot better by then, less zig-zag, or as we say sigg-sagg and I reached the law-firm’s office at Quilon at the appointed hour. The solicitor was a busy man and quite impersonally handed me a moderately heavy envelope, after checking my identification, took my acknowledgement, then showed me up to the door, at last uttering a few words of condolence, which I thought was kind of him. I went back to my lodge, envelope in my coat pocket. I carefully tore open the envelope, and out fell a steel key, a Godrej emblem etched on the bow. There was a letter in a shaky hand signed K7. Acchachan briefly thanked me for being such a valuable company at District Hospital and securing him from the jaws of death. This is the key to my locker in Kutchery branch of State Bank of Travancore, he wrote. Take the key with your identification papers to the Manager and take the contents, and surrender the key to the bank. Do not share information about this legacy with anyone please, Mone!

My return ticket was for the next evening. At 11.00 I reached the bank and went straight to the Manager. Acchachan was held in high esteem by the bank, and I was not told to come next day or next week, as is the common practice. Go to Mrs. Thangammal, show her your identification and access your locker, leave the key with her and take her acknowledgement. You also have the option to get the locker transferred to your name after opening a new account, we shall waive the Introduction, since you already have an account with our D.N.Road, Bombay branch. We wouldn’t mind that, that will be a blessing for you, there is a three year wait-list for our lockers. The lady was quite efficient, had no difficulty in interpreting my papers, took my signatures at roughly 18 places, and led me upto the locker, and left after operating her master-key. Inside the locker there was another envelope, which contained two wads of hundred rupee notes! Rupees 20,000!

 

My heart leapt! I looked at the vault door instinctively! The first time I held so much cash was also at the instance of Acchachan, and now after his departure. It should have been worth 600 tolas of gold! Or a palatial house in Quilon or why even Bombay! A wave of mortification swept through me! Narayana! Was I coveting those riches? I replaced the wads with their envelope in the locker. It was hush Money no doubt. The reward of keeping the old man’s secret. It was accompanied by no message, no missive, no explanation. He must have spent the rest of his life under threat of being stripped of his status, his dignity. I felt sorry for him, and livid at the same time for assuming I’d be ripe for a reward. To the best of my knowledge about family affairs, nobody got a windfall from Acchachan’s testaments. That Money was, for me, untouchable, and sure I was bitter at being presented with such a dilemma, and so crudely!

Anyway I could also not leave the Money there, I was sure the bankmen would not pinch it, it would just rot, no? I picked the envelope and the bloody cash like a dead rat and deposited it into my coat pocket crinkling my nose mentally, unsure how I’d dispose of it. I informed Mrs. Thangammal of conclusion of my business on the way out, handing her over the Godrej key. She in return handed over the acknowledgement, which I would have certainly consigned to the waste-paper basket, had she not been around. Strangely, she accompanied me to the main door, and from the top of the staircase, pointed to a building. That’s the Quilon office of the Yogakshemam Mahasabha, she said. Your Appooppan was a famous Nambudiri man. My name may be Tamil, but I am a Nambudiri, sort of, she giggled. There is a photograph of your Appooppan in the office, the Maaaneger told me, you know, they have their account with us. Ha ha, the bank has nursed the Malayalee trait of knowing everything about everyone nicely, I thought. It was the idea of taking a glimpse of Acchachan’s photograph that hit me, I was so curious. I walked up to that dilapidated structure, and after hesitating a bit, walked in. Only one gentleman in a clean shining mundu, reading Manorama. The Sabha had fallen on bad times, with a running battle between the members and the office-bearers going on and on, all reported in the press. It appeared the office had no cleaning staff either. I froze when I looked at Acchachan’s picture above the side window. It was a young Kesavan. Nambudiri Kesavan, the legend said. Would Acchachan like the “Nambudiri” I thought . The VT culture had perhaps ended. The man looked up questioningly and seemed apologetic about the disarray, and said it is now like this only saar I sayyy… vera entha parayaa! Suddenly the expression turned to one of astonishment. Looking alternately at the picture and me he said are you the nephew of Kesavan Saar who was with him in his illness in the District Hospital? I only drove you from the station! God, you resemble him so much! It could be you picture, I sayyy..he he he ende ammo! I’m his grandson I explained. Irikku! Please sit saar! Ninnaḷkk keaphi kuṭikkumea? Coffee? Will take some time saar he he he! The picture we got from his home in Attingal! We lost a very great man, your uncle, I mean your grandpa I sayyy..! Tell me, what can I do for you!

 In a flash it came ! A divine revelation! I reached for the envelope with the cash, drew it out and placed it on the table. A donation I said, for the Sabha’s work. He hastily took out the cover and tried to comprehend the amount. Ammo! Tondy? This is more than what I earned in my whole life! He ran for the telephone frantically, but it was dead. He put on his slippers and started for the door, came back breathless, saying what should I tell the Secretary, he is in Trivandrum today, scratching his head. I said no, no, no please we don’t want publicity at all. I have to catch the flight, give me the receipt and let me go in God’s name!

They call me Ammavan, I’m the Treasurer, he said, rummaging drawers for the receipt book, which took a while...nobody donates or cares for poor Nambudiri women now, I sayyy…so the receipt book is…I don’t know…but there it is, he got it out of the drawer and dusting it he bowed to Acchahcan’s picture, counted the Money, and started writing slowly like a child. Even after he dies he remembers the Antherjanams, must be the biggest donation anybody gave them I sayyy…What is he writing for Donor’s Name I wondered, without asking me my name? Seemed impolite to me to ask. Finally he blew on the ink, carefully folded the yellowing paper, placed it in a decaying envelope and handed it over to me, eyes moist !

What a relief! I stepped out and after walking a dozen steps, and ensuring that Ammavan had retreated into the room, took out the envelope. I opened the receipt. It was filled in cursive letters fondly. The Donor’s Name said “Nambudiri Kesavan”! What a perceptive man, Ammavan, I thought. Knew what the situation demanded! Or that I looked appropriately destitute!

So I had check-mated Acchachan. The whereabouts of King Bali are not known, but Acchachan I’m sure is in heaven and smiling at his Mone’s smartness and generosity.

  

Friday, July 24, 2020

REWA


Rama was a little girl from a Brahmin family in Rewa, then a small principality, and now a district in Central India. Her father Pandit Dwivedi was a priest, living off alms, that is the dakshina he was entitled to, for performing religious rituals. When the girl turned eight, the father found a match and married her off, as was the custom those days. The boy was also from a priestly Brahmin family, the Mishras, and was fourteen years of age. On the very second day of their marriage, calamity struck. Rama’s groom died of snake-bite, leaving her a child-widow at a tender age.

Since Rama was now part of another family, the so called gainers, the Mishra widow-sorority descended upon the loser-home and took Rama into their custody.

Rama had made such a pretty bride, in a red joda, red traditional bridal ghunghat, the henna on her palms and feet, the shimmering gold and silver bedecking her, forehead to toes. The Mishra-widows, three in number, claimed the distraught girl and whisked her away against the wishes of Dwivedi and his wife. One of the three wailed incessantly as if to the gallery, dwelling over the departed boy and the others joined her in cursing Rama at the misfortune she had brought upon the family. Once in the Mishras’ home, Rama’s little frame was hemmed into the centre of the courtyard by the wedding guests and curious onlookers. The trio first shattered her bangles, as if to illustrate her fractured future to her. She was shorn of her bridal finery and make-up and wrapped into the remnant of one of the senior widows’ tattered white dhoti. There was no blouse for her, as stitching one would take some time. Rama was in no state to respond in kind and was weeping away silently, now and then calling out to her mother. Unbeknown to her, by then, the village barber had arrived with his unpropitious implement-box, waiting to author the end of the Act, shearing the girl’s hair, that is.

Rama was understandably fond of her long golden tresses and the dreaded moment had arrived. She had not mourned sufficiently the departure of her groom for she was too young to contemplate the consequences yet, but the prospect of losing her hair was immediate, and meant the loss of all that she treasured of her persona, and she struggled to free herself from the clutches of the widows, grieving and sobbing, succumbing to the ritual at last.

The barber was a kind man, but the manner and technique of shearing the locks of such a small girl was quite repulsive. A child could not be expected to offer a stiff and steady pate to the shearer, and the only way out was for the child’s head to be held between the man’s knees, with the child’s face downcast. That was the socially accepted technique. The head, held thus in a vice-like grip could be shorn without much ado. The girl lost her hair, leaving a few bruises, on which the barber was considerate enough to apply some turmeric paste. The hair were cast on the pyre of the departed boy by none else than the barber.

The girl went through the trials and tribulations of being a Hindu child widow, but hair have a way of growing and Rama had to be relieved of the wretched stubble every fortnight, as per the custom. This meant a repetition of the obnoxious tonsure ordeal twice every month, till perhaps she should carry her own head.

Mercifully, though, the barber, who everyone called Thakur, was 65 years of age when the girl first underwent this abominable treatment. Though his hand was steady, he was wanting in hygiene and every fortnight Rama had to brace herself for this sweaty stench emanating from his privates. On his part, Thakur would drag his feet till the afternoon to arrive for the ritual, for tonsuring a child-widow was hardly a prospect a decent person would look forward to. For this he would get half-an-anna, and that too, at Panditji’s convenience. Rama though was quite comfortable with Thakur as a person, he was one of the few who would genuinely smile at her, and not consider her touch inauspicious like the others did.  

Life went on and Rama gradually adjusted to the fearsome regime. She took the starvation, the discrimination and the apathy in her stride. She was an intelligent girl, almost precocious, and taught herself the rudiments of arithmetic and language with the help of her late husband’s books. She made herself useful to the family, keeping accounts and even reading out the newspaper to her father-in-law who was losing his eye-sight with advancing age. The Trio of senior widows too lost its edge with the departure of the eldest, the most fiendish of the three. The next elder struggling against arthritis, became to an extent dependent on Rama.

But misfortune had not yet left alone of Rama. Around three years had passed when Thakur the barber died.

Thakur had five sons out of which the older four were away from Rewa seeking livelihood. The youngest was called Kanu and was eighteen. He was studying for his Matric and was a tall strapping lad, full of verve and ambition. He was also the sole inheritor of his father’s craft and the village counted on him. There was no way he could abdicate his responsibility, for he was now the sole bread-winner of the family. He was adept at his native job, having stood in for Thakur on occasion, and embraced the family calling without qualm or demur, certain that one day he and his family will move up the social ladder.

Even so, the death of an inconsequential barber had some grave consequences when it came to Rama. The technique of tonsuring her head was destined to survive the Thakur, so ingrained was it in the situation. Given the girl’s delicate physique, there was no other way it could have been done. Kanu had seen this hapless girl with the large liquid eyes when he had accompanied Thakur to the Mishra home now and then. Sensitive as he was, he had bolted from the scene when his father held Rama’s fine cranium so awkwardly.

On the appointed tonsure day, Kanu played truant. Rama too had prayed the whole day to Durga Maa for deliverance from such a mortification. Thakur was old enough to be her grandfather, but not Kanu! Rama, having crossed puberty by then, could not submit the way she did to Thakur. What was merely unhygienic in Thakur’s hand threatened to become an act of depravity in his son’s.

The next day saw the Pandit’s wife and daughter remonstrating over the crop of hair on Rama’s head and what it would do to the Brahmin family’s prestige. A messenger was dispatched to Thakur’s house who reminded Kanu of his filial and religious responsibilities, quoting extensively from the Bhagwad Gita. Kanu promised to be there by evening, and yes, before sunset.

Rama locked herself up in the tiny widows’ room and ate nothing the next day. I’d rather hang myself than submit to such lechery she promised herself. Evening brought with it Kanu and the unpropitious implement-box. The family left the two alone in the courtyard, lest they be distracted. Kanu decided to shear the head, carrying on in the way he would proceed with any adult. Spreading out his gamcha on the stone-paved yard, with his box to his right, he made the girl sit opposite him. Gingerly, his hands and body trembling, he held Rama’s face in his left hand by her cheeks, thumb to her left, four fingers to the right and placed the razor on the top of her head. This was the first time in his life he held a girl that way. He panicked and cut a gash on her crown, and there was blood everywhere! The turmeric paste of his however succeeded in stanching the blood-flow, but the mission had to be abandoned for the day.

Pandit Mishra was livid with what they had done to his court-yard. Your father was not a fool that he did it the way he did boy, he roared. Come early tomorrow and don’t disappoint your father again, he said pointing skywards.

The injury and the shower of blood had left the girl chastened and she lost all remnants of resistance, submitting tamely the next day. After what happened to the decorous courtyard the previous day, there was a change of venue. The ceremony was carried out in the widows’ room, door closed, only the two inside. The job was done quickly, observing utmost silence, skirting last evening’s gash, presumably following Thakur’s procedure. The girl sat sobbing inside and Kanu left hurriedly with his kit, without meeting anyone’s eye. The family sighed in relief, and the widows sitting on a cot outside simpered.

Nothing happened the next day, and the next, but what happened thereafter is recounted by people of the village to this day. Kanu and Rama eloped. For me that was poetic justice and I’m sure they lived an auspicious life at the good place that provided shelter to them.

Friday, July 3, 2020

RATNAGIRI

ABOLI
In everyone’s life there’s a Summer of ’42, and I am no exception. In my case it happened a decade ago, in 2011, which will be remembered as the year when the magic vanished from the Indian Classical stage, that is, when Pt. Bhimsen Joshi died.

There are string trios, there are piano trios, and there are even mixed trios, like Nirvana, and we dubbed ourselves a home-grown vocal trio, devoted entirely to Indian Classical Music, Hindustani, to be precise. Prajakta, Rutuj and me, Prathamesh. “Accompanying Prajakta Apte on the Samwadini is Rutuj Bapat and on tabla, Prathamesh Kulkarni”.. That is how we used to be announced, on the stray occasion a ‘comparer’ was around..

Our home Pune is different from the rest of the world so far as Classical music is concerned. There is a sense of mission, of ownership. The art and profession of music has reached a sort of critical mass here. There is money in Classical music, not in a crass materialistic sense, but in the sense of value. Our trio was not averse to worldly trappings, but our music meant much more to us. We equated the pursuit of music to the worship of Goddess Saraswati, everyone professes that, but we were Believers..guileless Believers. We saw the Goddess in our Guru, and if you belong in Pune, you’ll greet your senior by bending down to touch his or her feet, regardless of whether you are a musician or not.

Prajakta, Rutuj and I. Accidentally we had come together, like a planetary conjunction. They say, it is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. Our Pune variant is: a serious vocalist with moderate means, must be in want a ‘reasonable’ tabalchi, or tabbalji as they respectfully say here, and a peti-wala. The three of us came together in the course of random molecular motion dictated by the mechanics of Prajakta seeking suitable accompanists.

Pune audiences will go to the world’s end to indulge youngsters and newbies, and we could as a trio keep busy by ourselves, the three of us were self-sufficient, in healthy complementarity  Of course the star was Prajakta and people beholding her on stage for the first time would be relieved to see that such a decorous voice belonged to a such a pretty face…

Just as the default instrument in Western is the piano, in Indian it’s vocal. The piano has fixed notes while the vocal chords are akin to a violin. That default instrument is responsible for the way the notes or swaras are defined in the respective systems. I was a physics student who took acoustics seriously and had familiarized myself with the science of swaras, based on frequencies. Prajakta was put-off by mathematics, like most of humanity, but her intuitive swara was strong. Rutuj was the happy-go-lucky type who had the intellect to understand harmonics, but was lazy.

Indian music follows the ‘natural scale’, consisting of the keynote, usually shadja, and its overtones. In the natural scale, the ratios of frequencies of any note with the successive note on the same scale are different. It is called the ‘just intonation’ technically and this is the point of departure for Indian Classical and Western Classical. Western, on the other hand uses the ‘equal temperament’ scale which involves choosing a set of notes having minimum mutual dissonance, so as to enable a fixed note instrument like a piano to play the widest gamut of tunes. But the Indian ragas require notes differing by subtle shades.

Western classical was always in the background of my consciousness, like a foil to the music we practised. There would be these huge arguments between the three of us on the relative superiority of Western Classical and Indian, Prajakta and I pitching in for, you guessed it right, Indian, while Rutuj was enamoured of Western. I had a sneaking suspicion about the finality of our claim, but one had to stand by one’s livelihood isn’t it? And stand by Prajakta…

Like many great Hindustani vocalists, Prajakta had this small difficulty with the tala, or rhythm. A tabalchi has a major responsibility in such a situation, and can make or mar the show. Aside from stretching and bending matras, or beat-intervals to accommodate her erring taans during concerts, I was also her tala tutor. You have to get the laya, the grace and tempo into your body and mind, I used to tell a nervous Prajakta before recitals. Madhya laya is your heart-beat. One of her birthdays, I gifted her an electronic tabla, prescribing that she set it in the morning to madhya laya of the tala to be used in the ensuing recital, and let it play endlessly in the background, so as to etch it in your RAM- the read-only-memory. That helped a lot and episodes of the type I have mentioned above became rare, and Prajakta ended up calling me Guruji in jest, when we took the stage.

We were young and it was human after all, the whole world seemed full of romance. Flirting is unknown in our universe. It would embarrass me to wake up sometimes in the night, ear-lobes flushed, choking, feeling Prajakta’s presence around, her soft breath mixing with mine, stinging in my nostrils like a tangy fragrance…embarrassing, for she was a fellow pilgrim on the path leading up to Saraswati. Keep it platonic Prathamesh, I would tell myself, but…hmm!

Normally accompanists cannot aspire to hang out with the lead, but in our case, rather than fraternize with her peers, Prajakta would abide with the two of us. We would reach the venue of our concerts on our bikes, Prajakta riding one of the pillions. My tabla would be in my lap, straddling the fuel tank. Rutuj was at a disadvantage when the pillion was involved, for he had to secure his harmonium on the pillion, unlike me. Anyway, even when we were travelling without our instruments, Prajakta preferred to ride with me, for I came out as safer of the two of us. It was sheer heaven when once in a while Prajakta’s soft frame brushed against my back.  I would sometimes discern this mischievous gleam in her eye when she alighted at the destination, her hand firmly placed on my shoulder for support. Or was I imagining things?

Amusingly, as the green shoots of endearment emerged, I started getting a different feel from lyrics, particularly semi-classical, like thumri or dadra. I started comprehending the poetry of the bols of the composition, which we always approached sort of mechanically.  Khayal gayaki was always indifferent towards the words of the compositions, and many great vocalists look upon words as so many pegs where to hang their swaras. Bols could be trite, like the usual gripe against ‘saas’ and ‘nanadiya’, whether the raga was light or sombre. Prajakta joked that the creator of most traditional bandishes, Sadarang, was perhaps blessed with a particularly nasty mother and sister! A big smile always appeared on her face when in the course of a recital she came to this part. I’m not sure it happened to her, or to Rutuj, but that was the first time I realized the emotiveness residing in allusions to rain, clouds, the piyu or sanwariya that is beloved, in light classical! Why only classical, even Hindi movie songs took on a new meaning, and some of the lyricists I disdained rose in my esteem!

Prajakta was simple, uncomplicated, a bit nonchalant, and was not ruffled easily. She did not appear overtly emotional, but once you got to know her better, she was as sensitive as anyone else. Bageshri, which moved me to tears, also affected her likewise. Rutuj was not our type. He was so deep into each raga at an intellectual level, you could say the familiarity bred indifference…

Prajakta had a striking built, and had a certain grace. A habit of hers which I found endearing was her constant humming under her breath. I read somewhere, happy people do that. Mostly it used to be some Hindi film song based on the raga of her forthcoming recital, for which she would practice hours on end. She avoided even listening to a raga which was close to the one she had to sing next, for fear of contamination. She had to sing Puriya once and I tuned in to Marwa accidentally, and boy…how she got wild at me! Between Rutuj and me, she tried to keep equidistant. Both of us had a tendency to look at each other’s plate so far as her attentions were concerned. Obviously, tabla and the harmonium were equally important for her!  I furtively kept a tab on the number of times she exchanged glances or nodded in approval sympathetically with either of us at some turn of musical phrase, we ran almost even! At our jokes even, she laughed and laughed in equal merriment! And even Prajakta’s parents, themselves musicians, showed an equal deference to the both of us!

Our trio by and by attained a respectable status amongst audiences, invitations trickling in mainly from upcountry places like Aurangabad, Nasik, even Indore!  In October, on 6 October 2011 that is, which was the Dussehra day, we were invited to perform classical, followed by abhang and bhavgeet at Ratnagiri. The recital was in the morning, and we would get to present morning ragas like Bhairavs or Todis, which are nowadays losing out to evening and night concert ragas like Multani, Yaman or Kalawati, as audiences prefer evening engagements. That is the charm of Diwali pahat or Dussehra pahat- audiences can listen to early morning ragas to their heart’s content.

Prajakta’s recital was arranged in the precincts of the Thiba Palace, which was in fact a revelation for the three of us. It’s a beautiful palace in Burmese Buddhist style built in 1910 by the British to accommodate the deposed, incarcerated Burmese King Thibaw Min. Bal Gangadhar Tilak, the most illustrious son of Ratnagiri was exiled by the British to Mandalay from 1908 to 1914, and the Burmese King was exiled from Mandalay to Ratnagiri from 1905 to 1916! Whether this reciprocity was coincidental or by design, the Govt officials we met there could not tell..

We were to arrive in Ratnagiri on the fifth evening, perform on the morning of Dussehra, that is the sixth October, and depart for Pune on the seventh morning, thus spending two nights and a day at Ratnagiri. The road from Pune to Ratnagiri is circuitous and we went via Amba Valley in a cab. The journey was uneventful, but the post-rain Konkan was all emerald green and a pleasure to behold. We had been warned that the audience would be ‘discerning’ which somehow weighed on our minds. We were put up very comfortably at a swank new hotel, called Konkan Niswarga close to the beach and the roar of the sea and a heady oceany smell were our constant companions. I and Rutuj were on the third floor, sharing a spacious double room, and Prajakta, on the second floor in a similar room, which she had to herself. Rooms number 303 and number 202, two numbers I’ll always remember.   

The recital was scheduled for 6 morning and so we decided to have an early dinner and turn in by 10. We took a stroll after dinner, and Prajakta, who like all Marathi girls, had a fancy for bedecking hair with flowers, kept looking for flower-braids made out of kewra and aboli, for which Konkan is known. It’s too late for gajras we were told, we assemble them at 7 in the morning, a flower-girl told us, and you’ll find me at the local beach. We parted with the usual three-way hi-five, which was our custom.

As is usual for Maharashtrian venues, things worked with clockwork precision. The enclosures were full and audience, predominantly seniors. Prajakta sang Bilaskhani Todi, followed by Desi, topped with Abhishekiji’s Bolawa Vitthal, Ashatai’s Kenhwa tari pahate, and ended with a Panditji’s befitting Bhaja mana ram charan sukhadayi in Bhairavi, for which she got an encore. Indian audiences are parsimonious so far as applause is concerned, but that day, perhaps due to the early morning hour, sea breeze, and the classic ambience, the emotional build-up was unmistakable and there was a spontaneous applause. Throughout the recital there were ‘kya baat hai’s and ‘wah, wah, wah’s, mostly for Prajakta, a few coming Rutuj’s way. Audiences pay attention to the tabalchi mainly in instrumental recitals, in fact the tabalchi ambushes the audience till there is an applause! However, any day, I’m not the one to upset the lead with clap-traps. The chief guest happened to be a cashew-nut dealer, and we got a kilo of unshelled raw cashew-nuts each, in bonus! Breakfast, or rather the brunch was sumptuous, cooked in Malwani style. People came right upto the entrance to see us off, exchanging the usual vows to invite/perform next year, and the next! Someone would personally come to Pune with the album and the CDs and the recordings, we were told…

Suffice it to say that by mid-day, we were swimming in an ocean of bliss and contentment. This was perhaps our best show ever. The star of the Dussehra pahat was indeed Prajakta, who giggled endlessly at our jokes, and I couldn’t keep myself from admiring her flushed cheeks and wayward tresses all the time. A hundred waves would rush through my whole being, when our shoulders brushed…

We were to check out by 9 next morning and we rounded up the day after doing full justice to the aquatic delights of Konkan, that is the pomfrets the bombil, and the rawas. It was 9 by them time we took to our beds, and the two of us instantly fell asleep, exhausted emotionally and physically as we were…

Shortly, I woke up with a start, around 11... I did not want to lose Prajakta! My mind sank at the thought of parting ways with her someday! I wished to set my eyes upon her that very moment, look into her eyes, and ask her if she’d be mine for ever! I was certain that she cared for me. And if she said yes! The name Ratnagiri had always sounded felicitous to me, didn’t it? On an impulse I got up, changed into a silk kurta and trousers, brushed my hair, looked into the mirror and wished me good luck. She had her Masters’ exam the day after, and needed to read Pt. Bhatkhande’s Kramik Pustak Malika 4 which she was carrying, she had told us. Rutuj was asleep, snoring mildly. I opened the door and latched it, leaving it a little ajar. I walked on cat’s feet, preferring to use the staircase, Prajakta’s room was the second one towards the right. I could hear the rustle of pages turning, from the room. And a Chandrakauns being hummed. I reached for the door-bell, but shrank back, thinking it would be more appropriate to deliver a light rap, given the unearthly hour. But suddenly I developed misgivings about the propriety of this nocturnal mission for Prajakta’s quest. What will she think? Here we embark on a journey to expose our blessed art, and I hasten at this hour to propose to our Muse. I turned back, sanguine at my own decision, after all I could wait till we reach Pune, El Dorado was only of a day away!  
I came back relieved, took refuge in my bed, and pulled the soft quilt on my head.

It was six by the time I got up, still dark outside. Rutuj snored happily. I emerged from the wash-room, my morning chores over, after an hour or so, ready to take on the world! Rutuj was in jeans and a silk kurta. Did you step out for a morning walk, you appear to have changed…I asked. Rutuj whizzed past me towards the wash-room, mumbling something I could not make out.

We met, the three of us, for breakfast in the restaurant at around 8. There was a couch behind the dining table, and two chairs opposite. Prajakta, glowing in her pink dress, an aboli braid adorning her hair, eased herself in the couch, and hastily Rutuj claimed the other couch seat, which was somewhat unlike any of us, normally we, the boys would have taken the two chairs. They glanced at each other. Rutuj got me the aboli braid in the morning, she said excitedly. Shall I tell him said Rutuj to Prajakta, let him be the first one to know... Prajakta’s eyes were animated, and shone, as light from the morning sun fell on her beautiful face at an angle. Rutuj, she said haltingly, savouring each word as she spoke, knocks my door at 11.45 in the night, and standing in the door proposes to me…and Prajakta says I’ll ask my parents first, Rutuj laughed. No, I said yes first and then told you I should talk to my parents before we tell anybody, they’ll feel bad otherwise. True said Rutuj, taking Prajakta’s hand, I was so nervous till your came up and whispered Yesss through the closed door and no one was there when I opened the door…

This whole exchange lasted not even half a minute, and my world came to a standstill! That explains why Rutuj woke-up in his jeans and silk kurta, I thought.

It’s beside the point to tell you about my feelings, but I do go over that Dussehra day now and then, the day my Universe changed. I dismiss the thoughts of being a loser, it is only that at that instance Rutuj’s instinct was superior to mine, in any case I was standing before door number 202 half an hour before, and he happened to somehow breast the tape before me!
 

Saturday, February 2, 2019

TALE WITHOUT A MORAL

Hello!, God bless you sons…. Deo borem korum ! I am Julius Rebello, Father Julius Rebello. Not to be confused with Julio Ribeiro, the feisty policeman, the…what do they say, Paadma Bibusan Ribeiro. But names apart, there remains one more bond of mine with the old man. Both of us were in the police force, he before his retirement, and I before my ordainment. Only one alphabet distinguishes our ranks held last. He was a DGP, and I, a DSP…

Lest I forget, a word about what brings me here. I met this precocious Catholic girl of seven who is apparently a writer of some consequence…better than me, may the Lord bless her. I think Maria D’Costa, or perhaps Maria D’ Silva, some Maria to be certain….as our Bishop the Reverend Mario Castelino assures us, Maria along with her male and female variants Mary, Mario, Mariah etc. etc. is the commonest given name on the planet. Makes remembering less of a pain at my age…This young lady mostly writes in the vein of Dame Agatha Christie, but with a Biblical moral at the end, and one day, after the Children’s Mass, somehow held me with her query, two queries to be precise. One, why is there no organised crime of the Sicilian variety in Goa, rather in India for that matter, and two, why are names like Brasi, Sollozzo or Gonsalves, names which lend a rare menace to crime fiction, so rare in the annals of Crime in Bharatha, that is India. God bless her! Pertinent queries, well-meaning, not meant to offend the priestly order. After all they were put to an ex-cop…Moreover a priest cannot refuse to address a human query just because it is outrageous, he must measure it up against the Lord’s word.  It is certainly the right of every writer to seek fertile pastures for his or her prose, and of course as the Latin proverb goes, ut sementem feceris ita metes- you reap what you sow…

But first I must address the question that should now be uppermost in the attentive reader’s mind. Is it not oxymoronic- a policeman-priest? Agreed, ‘tis a bit tricky, a policeman becoming a priest. But in today’s world there is a tragic resonance between the two professions, if I may say so. As the Jesuit Post succinctly puts it, both are today “mistrusted groups with accountability issues”. Take that!

Aside from the philosophy of it, two practical issues stand out. One is the working language, the essential tool of trade. The two worlds, one, that of the Lord’s Law, the other of Man’s Law, work on entirely different planes. The simplest way to put it, one tongue was created by God, the other…could you guess it?! The police vocabulary has by now been largely banished from my processes. As they say, cum ianuam claudit Dei opens a fenestra - id est, God closed a door and opened a window, or still better, the other way round. In the ultimate analysis, aside of prepositions, articles and conjunctions, I’d say the only word common to Churchese and the police lingo is Son!

The other conflict is more daunting, touching upon the difference between ethics, Christian and Secular. Suppose someone from the flock approaches the confession box and admits, within the Sacrament of Confession, to a murder. The Lord’s commands are crisp and clear.  If the subject is contrite and agrees to the penance decided by the priest, the latter is bound to forgive the confessor in Jesus’ name. Of course the confessor as a Catholic must abide with the Catechism of the Catholic Church. No exception is made, whether you are an ex-DSP or an ex-DGP or an ex-Sheriff or a Police Chaplain. I have myself spent sleepless nights on the horns of one such dilemma, wondering whether the fact of my being a recipient of Government pension would have any bearing on God’s expectations from me. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, particularly 13: 1-7 is quoted by many as the Bible’s word on obedience to earthly powers, but according to many authorities, the interpretation is taken out of context to ‘bolster the bourgeois attitude of later Churches’, especially the Lutheran, God bless the Lutheran brothers ! Commonsense would ordain that as Jesus made such a huge sacrifice for us, civic rules should be held subservient to His Gospel.

My referee Fr. Kunnankal of Our Lady of Remedios Parish, Betalbatim,  locally called the Malate Church, also must have wrestled with the selfsame dilemma, vicariously, before the Parish sponsored me for my ordainment at the Patriarchal Seminary of  Rachol.  The first question he asked himself was cur vis faciam?  Why should he want to do it, that too abdicating a respectable Government service? Basically my own father had always wanted at least one son of his to serve the Lord. Father Kunnankal adored the sentiment, citing a…a Malay-alee proverb which roughly translates to “you will earn equal dignity if you have a priest or an elephant in the family..” Yes, an Elephant! I had faithfully attended the Mass, participated in Prayer Services, received Sacraments, which helped. So, with His blessings, at Rachol I did the three-year Philosophy course, with the Government of India chipping in with a degree from IGNOU of Delhi, which I took as a good omen. From thence to my parish at comely Betalbatim for my year-long Pastoral Praxis, ending with the four-year Theology Course, finally emerging as a priest, sure, after a diaconal stint at parishes, some near, some afar.

So why no Sicilian mafias in our Nation? Let me don my old police hat for a moment then…Well!  In our great nation, thievery has been practised more as an Art, not as a Science. The University of Chicago once commissioned a study of urban drug syndicates of America, and were delighted, what else, to discover that they were organised exactly like the McDonalds franchises, and in India one won’t be surprised to be told that such and such McDonalds outlet is run like a Pa and Ma store. That’s the West for you! The Orient, whether it is the spiritual walk or the artistic sojourn, relies on Individualism. That interesting gentleman Rabi Sankar could be sitting alone on the top of the Everest practising his ragas, and enjoying himself in fullest measure. But a Western Classical presentation works like giant clockwork, every cog and chime playing its part without the isolated performer having a clue about the symphony as a whole! And seriously I am sceptical as to the omniscience of the gentleman who waves so frantically at the head of the whole caboodle…

Now permit me to lead you unto anno domini 1961. The year of the liberation of Goa from the Portuguese yoke, or the liberation of the Portuguese from the white man’s burthen, there are always two opposing views. I hark back Maria  D’ Sa, seven years of age, to this year of turmoil. Here I plan to narrate my little story which as the papers of today put it eloquently, ‘showcases’ the milieu dear Maria yearns for.  

So this happened in 1961, in the twilight period when India was rushing in to reclaim the Goan bride, and the Portuguese were leaving Indian shores in haste. To give an illustration of the scramble, on 9th December 1961 the ship MV India arrived at Marmugao on her way from Timor to Lisbon : in spite of the instructions of the Government of Portugal to the contrary, 700 European Portuguese broke into the ship even as the Governor General Manuel Vassalo e Silva watched helplessly..

I was about the same age as Maria is today. It was a great upheaval, when the old order changed, yielding place to a new order, disorder, as many of my Catholic friends would aver. The mantle of western superiority our anglicised set dons is matched only by the xenophobia the Brahmin community of Goa glories in... The last word in this acrimonious discourse is what a perceptive Hindu Goan writer notes: I argue for a more layered understanding of the concepts of mimicry, hybridity and resistance in relation to identifications from these two communities, so he proposes. I don’t know what sense this makes to a non-Goan though..

Returning to our story, I don’t know what charm this childhood memory holds for me, but I can never walk past it. Perhaps the brattiness of the kid in the story strikes a chord, perhaps it has to do with the old Portuguese-Goan mystique, combined with the insecurity and peril that pervaded the times. Not that seven year old Julius had so much as an inkling of the issues, he was a contented lad growing under the benign shade of his grandparents.

Senhor Santiago Rebello and Senhora Ines Rebello were the parents of my dad, my Vovo and Avo, all the three of Portuguese stock, while my mother was a converted Brahmin. That makes me a Luso-Indian. The marriage ended in a separation, and I, sole product of the marriage, went on to live with my grandparents at Betalbatim, now known best for the Martin’s Corner. Grandpa and Grandma didn’t hanker after Portugal’s hospitality and now rest peacefully side-by-side in the cemetery at Our Lady of Remedios Church.


My Grandmother that is Avo Ines’s fond possession was a priceless set of exquisite  Portuguese filigree gold jewels, complete with a viana pendant, which was supposedly now serving the fifteenth generation in her female lineage, come to her as dowry. Pretty much of Betalbatim knew of its existence. In an unguarded moment, given the troubled times, the set was alas, stolen. The Police sergeant visited us suo moto but Grandpa, offered help, politely declined. The moment the police left, he made a couple of calls on the phone, and the phone replied soon enough. Grandpa spoke in Portuguese, which was alien to me, to my generation in fact, such was the schooling. He smiled grimly, donned his jacqueta and sombrero, and kissed Avo goodbye as he hurriedly stepped out.

The phrase he uttered as he hung up the phone sounded to me like “tram-carra-pour”, which rang quite exotic and amusing in my mind, and, as a kid would, I kept repeating it to myself, noisily wheeling and carting a little metallic tramcar that was part of my toy collection. The words had their own connotation for my Avo in the given situation and they apparently made her tense. She asked me to cease that bratty chant of mine. In return I asked what the words meant, she said “Lock the door”. 

I discovered the significance of those words years later when my Dad unravelled the tale to me. When the phone had rung back that day, a friend of Grandpa had called, informing him that he was now swigging feni at this small Portuguese café, and was witnessing noisy bargaining between two men over Avo’s famous jewellery, spread-out on a corner table. The exact words Grandpa muttered were “trancar a porta” which, intoned in his rustic dialect, sounded like “tram-carra-pour”... The friend had been instructed to lock the door of the café from outside.

The fate of the jewels became known to me forthwith on the evening of the theft itself. Grandpa had returned home with the missing jewellery in half-an-hour.

Hope that story assuages your curiosity to an extent, Maria, though I am sorry I can’t detect a moral in the story the way you so admirably spot in yours!