Category Archives: Lost in time



A Ayyappan, picture courtesy, Mathrubhoomi

A Ayyappan, picture courtesy, Mathrubhoomi

Once there was

a little girl,

of an unknown father

an unseen mother.

Someone grasped

her little hand

and took her

to a street.

That 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.


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.

Stop Press:

“Homer alive

begged through

the streets of Greece.

Homer dead

is buried

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.


An ancient kingdom, its people

An ancient kingdom, its people

My mother’s family came from the very southern tip of India, an area then known as Naanchinaad. It included present day districts of Kanayakumari, Nagercoil and possibly parts of Thirunelveli. I say so because we had branches of the family settled all over the place till about fifty years ago.

Though largely Tamil speaking, till Indian independence, many of these areas formed parts of the ancient Malayalam speaking kingdom of Travancore. In stark contrast to the soft and musical Tamil, Malayalam is full of hard consonants, true to its Sanskrit influence. A Keralite living in these parts picked up Tamil easily, but for a Tamilian, Malayalam proved to be a life long struggle. It is still so, with many Keralites becoming Tamil movie stars and politicians, blending easily with the culture on the other side of the huge Western Ghat mountains. Thanks to their roots, my maternal relatives were naturally bilingual, at home both with Tamil and Malayalam.

Till 1795, The capital of Travancore was situated at Padmanabhapuram, near today’s Nagercoil city. It was moved to Trivandrum, a completely Malayalam speaking area of the kingdom by King Marthanda Varma. Padmanabhapuram is now in Tamilnadu, though many Malayali families are still living around the sprawling four hundred year old palace. This well preserved palace is now a protected monument and a major tourist destination.

Naanchinad was known as the granary of Travancore, and comprised of vast paddy fields, broken mountains, many rivers and ancient Hindu temples with stunning entrance towers that stood seven storeys tall or more. Here, the earth was rich and the climate kind. There were large ponds sporting bright crimson lotus flowers by day. At night, the blue and ivory water lilies opened up as if by magic. Folklore has it that the lotus is in love with the sun and the water lilies favour the moon. Black granite cliffs rose abruptly from the plains and flashed crystal bright waterfalls and rainbow spectrums during the monsoons. The people were gentle farmers with open smiles and simple needs. It was a beautiful, evergreen landscape and in many places, retains its charm even today.

Those were times when castes and communities were serious issues and set clear divisions among men. Muslims and Christians were almost unknown in the area in during the early reign of Travancore kings. My mother’s folks were of a Hindu community called Naanchinattu Pillais. Though not Brahmins, they were vegetarians. and married their women in front of a sacred fire. The bride and groom then walked seven times clockwise around the holy flames to seal the bond. Essentially landlords, they owned vast tracts of paddy fields and everything around it. Well literate, they were also very shrewd businessmen. There were also other Pillai communities in the area such as Chetty Pillais, Eranial Pillais, Konars etc. These are not to be confused with Naanchinaatu Pillais though some intermarriage must have taken place in later years when the caste system lost its rigidity.

The men who worked in the fields were of lower castes, but were treated fairly by the landlords. The relationship between the workers and the landlords continued unbroken for centuries without any actual oppression. Half a century ago, the socialists and communists came along and convinced the workers that they were little better than slaves. Their governments restricted land ownerships to a few acres and organised farming went to the dogs. Strong ethnic varieties of seeds and livestock were replaced by tissue cultured impostors that did not last two monsoons. Christian missionaries came along and offered racial equality through religious conversion. On the good side, the missionaries also brought good schools for the converts’ children. The educated children turned their backs on farming and wandered away happily to become bus conductors and office clerks. Time, the ever great time, had finally brought an end to a beautiful way of life, an agricultural system and everything else that went with it. Naanchinaad died and the Pillais strayed away like schooner captains set adrift on small dinghies. The communists and socialists went away too, to destroy other citadels of exploitation, never offering a stable substitute to sustain the traditions and culture that give a land and its people their proud and colourful flavours.

Besides being vegetarians, the Naanchinattu Pillais followed the very strange inheritance system of Marumakkathayam. Explained simply, under this system, a man’s wealth was inherited by his sister’s sons rather than by his own children. This ensured that women became secure and that the wealth was gathered around them, allowing an unbroken chain of agricultural practices and traditions. The Maharajas of Travancore followed the same system, whereby the next king was a direct nephew rather than a son. Since the Nanchinattu Pillais understood the system, they found favour with the king. The fact that they were educated and shrewd found them key employment with the government. Many became ministers, accountants and heads of various departments when the kingdom shifted its capital to Trivandrum in 1795. A great granduncle of mine, Sthanu Pillai, was the automobile engineer at the Travancore Palace. He looked after the maintenance of a large fleet of limousines owned by the king. A great grandfather, Madhavan Pillai was a civil engineer who built several of the aqua ducts in the Kanyakumari and Nagercoil districts. Many of these still exist and are functional. Most Nanchinattu Pillais eventually settled around Trivandrum and became qualified professionals and businessmen. They also intermarried with the Nair community and shed their vegetarian ways.

Once in a blue moon, I visit the imposing stone temples at Sucheendram, Padmanabhapuram and Kanyakumari. Once inside, it is several measures cooler and calmness descends on me. I run my fingers over the carved granite pillars near the sanctum sanctorum and marvel that blood of mine has stood in the very spot and touched the same stone many centuries ago. Temple bells ring out, incense is burnt and bright camphor fire lights up the Lord’s silver masked face. The main evening worship has begun.

Another time, when I came out of the Aadi Kesavaperumal temple, I saw a red flag and a huge poster. The temple employees have formed a communist union for themselves. I walked away quickly before anyone could recognise and exterminate another surviving feudal pest.

I have never forgiven the men who decided on the boundaries of states when India became a republic. Nor the ones that weeded out systems and their inherent harmonies, without offering any alternatives. Remember, next time you visit this place, if you find anything beautiful on this ancient land, it was created a long, long time ago.


a) The Nairs were another upper class community of landlords living in the area near Padmanabhapuram. Many Nair men were soldiers by profession and later the Nair Brigade formed the backbone of the Travancore state army. However there were very few Nair families living in interior Nanchinaad to the east of Padmanabhapuram.
b) Little of this content is researched. Nor should it be considered the work of a professional historian. The knowledge comes from listening to three older generations, none of them alive today. Some of the old folk might have added a little colour to their memories. Most of the facts fit together, and so, there must be a large amount of truth in the stories. I wish to offend none, except perhaps the Communists. Ha ha, there, I have taken bail again.