AKSHARAM AYYAPPAN, A TRIBUTE
Once there was
a little girl,
of an unknown father
an unseen mother.
her little hand
and took her
to a street.
is today called
The Red Street.
– A Ayyappan, from his book ‘People the Colour of Coal’, published by D C Books. Free translation by blogger.
FRIEND OF ALL I SURVEY
The morning was very cold, depressing and I was in front of my old laptop, prepared to spend a lazy Saturday reading online newspapers over a cup of black tea. When the PDF edition of Mathrubhoomi downloaded it showed a rather pleasant colour picture of poet A Ayyappan on the front page. My heart sank when I read the sub caption. Ayyappan was not with us anymore.
It was during the mid seventies that I first met Ayyappan. Trivandrum’s University Library was next to University College and right across the road was the magnificent Victoria Jubilee Town Hall. I was doing my final year B Sc in Geology and the Library was a favourite haunt. There was a cheap students’ canteen and a primitive gym behind the library. The library, in those days had a clean, well maintained garden. Its lawn after sunset was our favourite meeting place.
The regulars on the library lawn were Prabha, Salim, Jinan, Sreekumar, Laurens and a few more that drifted in and out of the company. Most of them were a bit elder to me and it was a matter of pride that I was accepted when I used to drop in two or three times a week. Aksharam Ayyappan was senior to all of us, but then, he did not belong to any age group in particular. In his late twenties, Ayyappan was a slightly built, pleasant man and already a well known modern poet. He had none of the affectations that came with the young and famous and did not have much money to spare, like the rest of us.
Except for me, the Library friends had already finished their graduation and were looking for jobs. Prabha, who was a couple of years senior to me in the Geology Department had joined for LLb. Laurens had walked out of the College of Fine Arts, Trivandrum declaring that they had nothing to teach him. If I remember correctly, Ayyappan had closed down the literary magazine ‘Aksharam’ that he was editing and publishing. The rest were job hunters and perhaps in no hurry to find one.
Ayyappan almost always wore a long kurta with deep pockets and a white dhoti. Kerala had not banned arrack and 180 ml packets were sold in clear polyethylene sachets for two rupees. On good days, Ayyappan would have a few of these sachets in his kurta’s deep pockets. Arrack, Charminar cigarettes and Dinesh beedis fuelled all discussions, which would last into the wee hours of the next morning. I had a blue BSA bicycle which was very much in demand for getting ‘supplies’ and for dropping the needy home. Thankfully, there were no mobile phones and nothing could intrude our moonlit nights. The old campus watcher was our friend and had a good nap if we were around.
If he was in the mood, Ayyappan would sing in a rustic but haunting voice and we would listen, half present, half lost in many worlds. Cannabis, though frowned upon, was not considered a major evil. Most of us could take the string off a beedi, unfurl it without breaking the brittle wrapping leaf, throw out the tobacco and refill it with the sacred herb and re-roll to perfection in pitch darkness. A fifty paise packet of ‘shiva mooli’ could make half a dozen beedi joints. Harder drugs never found their way into our evenings and most probably it was the reason why we went on to live our lives later.
The gathering would discuss anything under the sun, from cult movies and modern literature to the menu in famous toddy shops. Most of us were familiar with Ayyappan’s poetry. We never had to buy his books; he would always give us a free copy from somewhere. If one had a rupee, the University canteen could sell us a masal dosa and a cup of strong tea. Life had very little needs.
During late seventies Narendra Prasad held rehearsals of his cult dramas in Chalai High School. It was Ayyappan who took us there for the first time one late evening. These crudely lit rehearsals were attended by great stage and film actors like Nedumudi Venu and Leela Panicker. Once, the great John Abraham himself turned up. We would watch silently from the verandas of adjoining buildings, as if it was a solemn duty. I remember Ayyappan telling us that true art could exist without any glitter. We were all served parippu vada and black tea during the breaks. No one asked who we were. We were all Ayyappan’s friends. There was something universal about it. Anyone could be Ayyappan’s friend.
A couple of years went by. In ‘79, I returned to Trivandrum after a brief stint in Calicut. I had found a small job in a bank and had a few tenners to spare during the first half of the month. There was the famous Xavier’s Restaurant near the Great Post Office and its Annexe near the YMCA. Having a job meant that one could have a drink or a meal on credit till the next pay day. A barman becomes something of your best friend, more reliable than your bank manager. There was Ananthan and Mani in Magnet Hotel, Narayanan in Pankaj, Bhaskaran in Xavier’s, Baby in Devas and Jose in May Fair. Many of us are deeply indebted to all of them for holding up our respectability in places where men meet and are ‘judged’. When a barman accepts your creditworthiness, you are a pillar in a ‘floating’ society. I continued to see Ayyappan off and on and perhaps am responsible for a tiny bit of damage done to his frail frame. However, I have never refused Ayyappan a drink at these watering holes.
Then one day, I had the shock of my life. I was living with my parents and was in my room. It was early in the morning and my father knocked on my door. He was a well known lawyer and wanted me to come to his downstairs office and meet a dear friend. It was Ayyappan and he had come home to borrow some money for an urgent journey. Ayyappan did not bat the proverbial eyelid when I was introduced. Honestly, I never knew that Ayyappan was my father’s friend. Probably he never even knew we were son and father before that morning. It was a coincidence that my old friend Prabha, after his LLb, was then working as my father’s junior. I bet Ayyappan did not know that either. Ayyappan never asked anything personal questions about anyone and accepted people as they were. He was the frailest gypsy that ever roamed.
Many of us knew him simply as Aksharam Ayyappan, after the magazine he once edited and published. His real name was A Ayyappan and many think that the ‘A’ stood for Aksharam. He was not known to correct anyone, but the ‘A’ was for Arumughom, his father, a goldsmith who died when Ayyappan was a child.
Later, when my own life made living difficult for me, I have refused Ayyappan money. Several times, in fact. He never took it to heart. The next time we met he would smile guilelessly ask again, as if he had never done it before. I have always felt a pang when I refused Ayyappan money. It was a little more severe than the guilt I felt when I gave him cash for a drink, knowing that this delicate man with the large heart was drinking himself to death. Before I had a job, Ayyappan had stood me a drink several times. He would happily part with a plastic cover of arrack if he could spare one.
Mathews, the Manager at Current Books at Statue Junction was a personal financier that often helped Ayyappan when he had a very dry throat. He would go in and ask, “Mathews, my books are not all sold out, are they?”
Mathews would smile and say, “No way, we have plenty in stock”.
Ayyappan would then wink at me and tell Mathews, “Then you have plenty of security. Give us twenty rupees”. I loved the way he said ‘us’. His books needed to be sold for ‘us’.
Once I found him scribbling something on a piece of paper beneath the famous mango tree inside University College. I sat near him and lit a beedi, not wanting to disturb him. When he had finished, he looked up and asked me if I cared for a drink. I told him that I could use one, but had no money. Ayyappan giggled and said that he did not have any either. He wanted me to give him a lift on my bicycle. I sat him on my crossbar and pedalled in the hot sun to Kerala Kaumudi office in Pettah. Leaving me outside, he went in and returned ten minutes later with the grand sum of fifty rupees. He had just sold the poem he had scribbled half an hour ago. Those days, a full bottle of Hercules rum cost less than twenty rupees. I asked him about the poem he had written. He said he did not have an opinion about it yet and asked me to look for it in the next issue of the weekly. “Let it be anything, but it has bought this evening for us”.
Ayyappan had thousands of friends and they will have many stories to tell, some true, some false, some exaggerated. Many of his friends do not know each other. If Ayyappan had suddenly won a million rupees in a lottery, no one would have gone to him and asked him to settle an old debt. It was the world that we live in that continues to owe him, for refusing to take his rightful share from life.
Ayyappan must have written hundreds of poems, all of which have bought joy to him and others. Now that he is gone, they will continue to do so, like an old cask of wine that refuses to stop bubbling.
the streets of Greece.
in seven cities.”
Note: One bad news follows another. I have been trying to reach my friend Prabha, Trivandrum, on his mobile phone since yesterday. I wanted to know if he was attending Ayyappan’s funeral. No one answered. Today, Prabha’s son Vivek called me back enquiring about the missed calls. I was speechless to learn that Prabha had passed away in June following a heart attack. Prabha retired from the Sales Tax Department as Joint Commissioner and was practicing as a tax consultant and lawyer. One more friend is gone.