Category Archives: Times and Places

AKSHARAM AYYAPPAN, A TRIBUTE

AKSHARAM AYYAPPAN, A TRIBUTE

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.

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.

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.

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OF CORPORALS, CAPTAINS AND GENERALS

OLD HOMETOWN NEWSPAPERS

 During my boyhood in Trivandrum in the sixties, Kerala Kaumudi was the most circulated and widely read newspaper in the capital. The Calicut based Mathrubhoomy, thanks to the formidably highbrow stuff published in its Weekly, was considered a bit too posh. Kottayam’s Malayala Manorama was yet another product from Madras Rubber Factory, a flavour it manages to carry, to this date. In those days of manual typesetting and composing, Kerala Kaumudi had the distinct advantage of having its press and other facilities in the city. Trivandrum, though the capital of Kerala, was not considered a major market by the newspapers from the north. Commercial newspapers need an atmosphere of entrepreneurship and fund backed adventurism in the local markets to thrive. For the Fourth Estate, unfortunately Trivandrum in those pre political-mafia days was very small-time. In simple language, there was little advertisement revenue in the city of ‘Sarkari Babus’*.

One of my clearest Trivandrum memories is that of our King. Every morning, His Highness Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma was chauffeur driven in his Studebaker Commander from his palace at Kowdiar to pray before the family deity at the Padmanabha Swamy temple. I distinctly remember that the registration number of the old straight-six car was KLT 1. Despite the car being American, it was a right hand drive model and His Highness used to sit on the kerbside of the back seat. Though he was a king without a kingdom, he was deeply loved and respected for his humility, austerity and simplicity. His hands were locked together in an eternal and honest Namaste to his Lord and his People, a gesture never sincerely copied by any politician since.

The freshly poisoned communist recruits were the only lot that turned their noses up at the harmless King. As champions of the poor, they masqueraded as the brave warriors who had ousted the King from power. Now, having ruled for about three decades collectively, the Communists have turned his once lovely kingdom into a showpiece of chaos, nepotism and corruption. The top leftist leaders are seriously involved in building an opulent Communist Empire and wear invisible crowns. They even maintain court jesters and courtesans in their proletarian Barnum and Bailey show.

In the 1960s and early 70s, Trivandrum was mostly a city of pompous but very middle class officials, government clerks and a few well grounded socialist intellectuals. The original well-to-do natives were conservative to the extent of being stuffy and aloof.  Those who visited the city briefly and the deeply sarcastic settlers from north Kerala were seldom admitted into the circles of Trivandrum’s upper middleclass and aristocracy. So the only Trivandrumites they ever met were the likes of domestic servants, fisherwomen and market vendors. They had every reason to believe that all Trivandrum folk spoke like Suraj Venjaramood.

Sorry for going off at a tangent, after I started with newspapers. Yes. Those days Kerala Kaumudi was still a free newspaper and was not remote controlled by communal undertones. The style or personality of a newspaper slowly grows on you. Even in the seventies and eighties, when Kerala Kaumudi was widely criticised as the mouthpiece of a particular community, my dad continued loyally with his old paper. Perhaps it had something to do with his deep friendship with K Balakrishnan, the editor of Kaumudi Weekly, which though a namesake, was a different entity. Today, Kerala Kaumudi probably holds the third spot in Trivandrum’s circulation charts. From the remoteness of my small Sussex town, it is still a favoured paper for me since it is the only Malayalam Daily that makes available its full edition as a PDF file online, totally free of cost. Recently it has also made its old editions available online in the archives section. I usually save the pages with interesting articles for a later leisurely read.

 AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN

 

Captain Raju Daniel

Today, with a little spare time on hand, I was going through a saved page dated 15/01/2010. It carries a piece written by Kovalam Sathishkumar about a chat he had with senior Malayalam screen actor, Captain Raju. Raju was indeed a Captain in the Indian Army before he joined the movie scene. Though he usually appears in negative roles, he is known to be one of the few gentlemen in the industry. Many years ago I have had the opportunity to work with his younger brother and I conclude that uprightness runs in the family. Lalu Alex is another known good soul and curiously, he too is a villain.

In the narrative, the Captain speaks about his experience of serving at the lines of conflict along the northern borders. He modestly discloses quite a few ground realities of army life, motivation and patriotism. He also has the wisdom and maturity to acknowledge that the enemies across the border are nothing but ordinary men like us.

What brings me to write this post is a comment which appears towards the end of the article. Here, there is a remark that if he had not left the army to act in the movies, he would have been a Lieutenant General by now. I am not sure if this comment came from the interviewer or from the Captain himself. Whatever be the source, I would like to dispute this little claim, without casting a slur on the good Captain’s name.

Commissioned officers in the Indian army come from two sources. The first lot are officers who join on a Permanent Commission after graduating from the army’s own colleges. The others are graduates who come from the main stream. The latter group is offered a short service commission of about five years or so. Based on their demonstrated capabilities, the army may offer them a permanent commission at the end of their contracted period. A friend of mine, a Colonel with the Artillery, tells me that less than twenty percent of Short Service chaps make it to a permanent commission. Also, the direct Commissioned Officers hold a few advantages over the Short Service chaps. They are usually a bit younger when they get the Commission and are considered more blue eyed, by virtue of their longer association and training with the army.

Most Short Service Commission officers are happy to leave the force at the end of the contracted period. There are many lucrative opportunities for them in the public and private sectors. They are very much in demand as well trained and disciplined recruitment material for top security and administrative jobs. Most of them make more money in their later civilian careers than they would have ever made in the army.

As for the Short Service officers that stay on, very few of them make it to Brigadier level. Usually, the upward climb ends at Lieutenant Colonel or Colonel. It is a known fact in the Indian Army that if you do not make it to full Colonel in your early forties, the real top brass posts are out of reach. In this context, I assume that Captain Raju was allowed to leave after five years of service because he was on a Short Service Commission.

History tells us of a vertically challenged Corporal who went on to become a formidable General and an Emperor. A handful of officers from Short Service cadre have indeed become Lieutenant Generals under exceptional conditions. I have no doubt that Captain Raju was an exceptional officer and always, a perfect gentleman. Cheers.

Notes:

1. ‘Sarkari Babu’ – Hindi for Government Clerk 2. Captain Raju’s picture- courtesy Kerala Kaumudi

ATTUKAL PONGALA, PALM LANDS AND JOHN MARY

Pongala in progress

A sea of women returning from Pongala

ALL IN GOOD FAITH

I first met John Mary in the mid nineties, when he was the Chief News Editor at New Indian Express,Trivandrum. I remember him as a bearded, cheerful and peaceful man living with his children and charming Brahmin wife, not far away from his office near Sasthamangalam. Indeed, he and his wife have gracefully played hosts on many weekends to our motley bunch of friends. The food was generous and the ambience lovely. We shared a potpourri of friends including writers, journalists, movie technicians, doctors, builders, photographers, pensioners, assorted adventurers and career drinkers.

Those days, other than the now extinct Country Club, our favourite hunting ground was a quaint, crumbling old place called Palm Lands, a stone’s throw away from the Government Secretariat. There were about twenty five private rooms with attached baths, all occupied by individuals on the way up, stagnant or washed out, as one may see it. There were also some refugees, as in all cities, who needed a temporary camp before launching their next pursuits. Whole families of toddy cats lived above the wooden ceilings, coming out to play in the trees on full moon nights. Yes, Palm Lands had its Sharks, Sheikhs and Good Samaritans.

Palm Lands comprised of a group of century old, single storied tiled buildings. There were long verandas and big windows with folding wooden shutters, typical of colonial Kerala architecture. The grounds were large, with parking area, palm trees, an ancient mango tree and a particularly large almond tree. The courtyard was almost always littered with fallen leaves and twigs broken off by the wind. Dusty cars and bikes were parked carelessly. An old woman of dubious past came from the notorious nearby slum and swept the courtyard and verandas when it suited her. She would also buy us cigarettes and bottled soda for small considerations. Palm Lands was indeed prime nostalgia material. During its heydays Palm Lands was the residence of people’s representatives belonging to Sree Moolam Praja Sabha, an ineffective flatterers’ assembly put together by the King of Travancore.

Coming back to John Mary, my friend with whom I have never had a cross word, he used to visit Palm Lands most Sundays, when the gang gathered to discuss anything from movies and literature to legalisation of prostitution and accepting gay people into mainstream life. We had a couple of retired army officers in our fold and the window sills would be lined with rum bottles. Brand names like Hercules, Contessa, Buccaneer, Old Monk, Christian Brothers, Old Port, Negro, Black Panther and Celebration mixed freely with water, soda and on special occasions, tender coconut water. (Believe me, there is no greater soothing mixer in the world than the last mentioned, lending palatability and respectability to the harshest paint remover ever imbibed by man).

John was a very soft spoken person and was very up to date with happenings around the world. Driving up in his new Maruti Suzuki, which few of us could dream of owning, he usually came with a container of delicious home cooked food and a bottle of ‘good something’ that the rest of us wouldn’t waste our money on. When we ran out of essential supplies, he would be the first volunteer to jump behind my dated, noisy Enfield and venture out for replenishments. It was a great pleasure to be with him, because he was not your standard paparazzi, freeloading and fouling up everything in range.

As one gets older, the bush that you beat around becomes more elaborate and denser. Right now, mine is as big as a medium sized tiger sanctuary, and of course, as is the general rule, without any tigers. This miserably wet, cold English morning, I am brought to remember John again after more than a decade. My good friend Najeeb Arcadia has forwarded me a link on Attukal Pongaala. The article dated 02/03/2010 is published on the BBC News site and is authored by a certain John Mary. Coming from Trivandrum, it can not be anyone other than my long lost friend. I also assume that there is no other John Mary in south India whose article will be accepted by BBC.

The BBC Article

Being an original native of Trivandrum, I can claim that I have more than a rough idea of the Attukal Pongala festival. Going through John Mary’s article, I wish to elaborate on the following points.

The Hindu deities and schools of worship can be more or less classified as Vaishnavite, Shaivite and Shaktheya, being respectively based on Vishnu, Shiva and Shakthi. The last mentioned, is feminine and is the material representation of all universal power. Shakthi in several different forms is symbolized in all Hindu schools of faith, whether Vaishnavite or Shivaite. She is Saraswathi, Lakshmi, Parvathi, Maha Kaali, Ganga and Kannaki of the Tamil legend (in her later spiritual form). ‘Bhagavan’ and ‘Bhagavathi’ broadly represents male and female forms of Hindu divinity. In short, any male deity can be addressed as Bhagavan and any female deity can be Bhagavathi. The deity at Attukal temple is widely believed to be a manifestation of Kannaki. Tantrik rites practiced at a particular temple determine the particular manifestation (or form or ‘bhava’) of the Bhagavathi enshrined therein. The statement in the article that Attukal Bhagavathi is an incarnation of Saraswathy and Kali needs to be examined. These two forms stand farthest apart in the manifestations of Shakthi. Shakthi in plain translation comes out as power. (Here I am not ignoring the Bengali concept of Kali also being the God of Knowledge, the story of Kalidasa etc. But Attukal is nearer to Adi Shankara and too far south. The rites of worship at Attukal, as far as I know, are of a ‘satwika bhava’, suitable for a calmer deity).

The article states that the women devotees ‘howl shrilly’ at the culmination of this religious event. I find the same an unfortunate choice of words. One howls in pain and anger. Howling is also associated with dogs and wolves. The peculiar sound made by women devotees is a form of yodelling. In south Indian Hindu tradition, it is an auspicious vocalisation associated with temples, weddings, births of babies and the crowning of kings. It is definitely not howling. In vernacular, this rather high pitched call is known as ‘kurava’ and can be heard a long distance away, which may well be the purpose.

Pongala is not a meal. It best describes the moment when the cooked rice and jaggery boil over the brim of the cooking pot. The offering may also include other sweet concoctions and rice cakes.

As John Mary mentions, Pongala was indeed not as elaborate thirty ago. It was mostly the domain of the working class women of old. (Read labour class. Fifty years ago not even 1% of educated women from middle and upper class families worked). But today, one will find the rich and poor, young and old, natives and pilgrims from far away at Attukal. You will need them all to make up three million women on a single day in a single town at the same temple. The Guinness Book of Records vouches for the fact.

In the past, most paddy farming communities had their harvest deities. These deities were briefly enshrined and worshipped in temporary temples called ‘Mudippuras’. When not worshipped, for the rest of the year, the deities were kept safely in the landlords’ matriarchal houses. It is judged that long ago, Attukal deity too was a Mudippura goddess. When the growing cities swallowed up all the paddy fields, the harvest festivals came to an end. Some affluent households made permanent temples for these family deities as a mark of respect and to preserve the traditions. The Mudippura temple at Jagathy, Trivandrum is another classic example.

Notes:

In this little write up here, I am not attempting to correct a respected and senior journalist like John Mary. All I want is to add a couple of notes of my own. One may read John’s  original material at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/south_asia/8544038.stm

I haven’t seen or heard from John in twelve years or so and would love to hear from him. I hope he is doing well at what he does best.

My maternal grand father’s elder brother, a certain Mr Sthanu Pillai, from a small township called Neyyattinkara in the outskirts of Trivandrum was the House Manager at Palm Lands during its glory days as the residence of the King’s ‘sycophant parliamentarians’.

All the last occupants were thrown out and Palm Lands was demolished about seven or eight years ago. I can not blame the real owners of the property for doing so, because it was a pot of gold from the point of view of real estate developers. But while it lasted it was one of the last bastions of free thinkers and loving friends in an otherwise uncaring city. Today, it is truly prime nostalgia material for a few dozens like me.

The official website of Attukal Temple is http://www.attukal.org/

I have heard some weird pronunciations for Attukal Pongala. It is best read as ‘Aattukaal Ponkaala’.

Picture courtesy, www.keralakaumudi.com

Any suggestions for additions or corrections to this post are welcome. Cheers.

PADUKONES- OF FATHERS AND DAUGHTERS

Prakash Padukone

Prakash Padukone

I have mentioned somewhere in this blog that the Metro Newspaper, distributed free every morning in London and other major cities, is a firm favourite of mine. Belonging to the Daily Mail group, it is well laid out and professionally edited. Though printed only on weekdays, the paper’s area of interest is fairly wide and covers international news reasonably. The sickening puns seen on captions, used widely by popular working man’s dailies, are conspicuously absent, making it a pleasant and no nonsense read. For its substance and neat looks, I generously overlook the odd page or so dedicated to the Hiltons, Allens, Winehouses and other social curiosities.

 

The cover of Metro dated 13/01/09 carried a picture of Deepika Padukone, the Indian actress, pin-up girl and model, not necessarily in that order. Along with Akshay Kumar, the Indian actor, martial arts expert and self confessed Punjabi cook, the lady had graced Leicester Square to promote the Hollywood-Bollywood production ‘Chandni Chowk to China’.

 

 

 

Deepika Padukone

Deepika Padukone

What was missed in the accompanying report was that Deepika is the daughter of Prakash Padukone, the charming and handsome badminton player who won the All England Championship in 1980. He defeated Liem Swie King of Indonesia in that memorable final game. Born in 1955, Prakash was the Indian national champion for seven consecutive years from 1972. At the age of 16, in 1971, he won both the Indian juniors’ and the seniors’ titles. His other wins include London Master’s Open, the Danish Open, a Commonwealth Games Gold in 1978 and the Swedish Open. By his own admission, Prakash learnt his game in a wedding hall, which afforded little light to see the shuttle properly. A dignified gentleman, he has never lobbied for awards or solicited fame. His favourite pastime is listening to music and his favourite sports hero is Bjorn Borg.

 

I do not know if the catwalk queen daughter forgot to mention her father, an all-time hero, to the media. May be, the newspapers, Metro and others, decided that a sweat and blood man had no glamour value on a front page feature. In Sanskrit, Prakash means light, radiance, luminosity etc. Deepika, in turn means ‘that which is of light ’. The father indeed had vision when he named his daughter. I hope she lives up to it. Till she does, Prakash continues to be my hero.

THE LEGEND OF THE TREE DWELLING COBRA

 

Mr Sreenath with the King Cobra he captured on 07 March '09 from Aralam Farm, Kannur, Kerala

Mr Sreenath with the King Cobra he captured on 07 March '09 from Aralam Farm, Kannur, Kerala

 

 

 

PART-1

With due apologies to the likes of Romulus Whitaker, Brady Barr, Jeff Corwin and Steve Irwin, snakes were never too popular with the average person. Yet, there is a universal fascination for these creatures, albeit cloaked in loathing and dread, the reason why the aforesaid gentlemen succeed in popping up on primetime TV. It also needs to be said with great respect that these herpetologists have done a great job in bringing environment related issues to the layman’s living room.

My home state of Kerala in South India has more that a fair share of the lethal ones. The spectacled cobra, Russell’s viper, saw scaled viper and the deadly banded krait lead the pack. Some parts of the rainforest are home to the elusive king cobra, the largest venomous snake in the world, one live specimen measuring almost eighteen feet, as its keeper told me at the Trivandrum zoo in the 1980s. He could as well have claimed it to be thirty feet long, since no one would step in with a measuring tape. Such was its fearsome deep hiss, hood raised tall enough to look me in the eye from behind the glass partition.

In the seventies, our household had a live-in cook named Ammu. At the age of fifty, she had no living relatives and had chosen to be a spinster. She was indeed a very good cook if she put her mind to it. When she went on leave, she visited temples, oracles and shamans and came back with all sorts of strange stories, amulets and magic powders. She lovingly placed the charms in hemispheric coconut shells and buried them at various strategic points around the garden and especially outside the window of her ground floor bedroom. She firmly believed that this would save us all from evil eyes and bad spirits. It was generally agreed by the grownups that all of Ammu’s troubles came from her long spinsterhood. My dads’ elderly driver Khan Sahib was of the secret opinion that Ammu was still looking for her man and warned Chandran, the office boy not to step over any of her buried stuff.

Ammu was the daughter of migrant farmers who had settled on forest lands in the foothills of Western Ghat Mountains in the 1930s. Theirs is a blood and sweat story of wrestling with fertile yet wild land, fighting off beasts and suffering long stints of strange forest illnesses. Ammu had a large repertory of highland and woodland stories. There were also detailed reports on various temple festivals and pilgrimages. We children were forbidden to listen to her tales, generally classified by my parents as hocus-pocus.  This taboo prompted us to sneak around the house to the small lean-to outside the kitchen during their afternoon siestas. Ammu would seat herself on a large jute grain bag and carefully prepare her betel nuts, leaf and lime paste for a good afternoon chew. We kids sat at a safe distance, not to be splattered by the red juice when Ammu’s stories reached their tempo.

Ammu had stories about logging stations, killer elephants, mahouts, floods, man-eating leopards, truck drivers, boat people, tea plantations, hunters armed with single barrel muzzleloaders and everything else that touched the lives of highland farmers. She told us of thunderstorms that lasted days, floods, disease and death. She also had a few country songs, more like ballads. One described men riding huge logs down swollen rivers during the monsoon. Another went on to tell the legend of Mallan Pillai, who tamed wild tuskers and was finally killed by one. It was all from another world and time and we listened, entirely captivated.

One of Ammu’s stories came from her own experience. She had an uncle named Balaraman who collected wild honey from the forest with his young nephews. Wild honey was always collected in sawn-off bamboo stems and sealed by a waxed wooden plug. During one such expedition, he was bitten on his scalp by a tree cobra. He lived barely long enough to climb down the huge tree and died on his favourite nephew’s lap. Ammu always cried when she told this story.

PART-2

Having never heard of a tree cobra, we often asked Ammu to describe it. Again and again, she insisted that it was not a big snake, not thicker than a woman’s finger, with a thin hood and lighter coloured bands. She insisted that it was known by the local names of ‘illi moorkhan’ and ‘komberi’. Later in life, I asked many snake charmers about the cobra that lived in the trees. Most said that there was indeed a ‘komberi’, but few had seen it. Those who claimed a sighting always gave contradicting descriptions. It was differently described as huge, green coloured, with the comb of a cockerel and so on. One confidently said that the ‘komberi’ was so vengeful and sure of its kill that it left the area only after seeing the smoke from the funeral pyre of its victim. It was indeed frightening and ghoulish.

Irulas are a famous snake catching tribe from Thiruvallur district in Tamilnadu. On a hot May morning in 1980, I came to know that a group of Irulas were catching snakes in the sprawling University Campus at Karyavattom, Trivandrum. It was only a thirty minute ride and I set out immediately on my friend’s old Jawa bike. It was a late Sunday afternoon during the summer holidays and the campus was deserted. I finally located a group of small dark men dressed in khaki shorts and tucked up lungis. They were relaxing under the low spreading branches of a cashew tree. There was a smell of burnt hair and a fair sized bandicoot rat (Bandicota bengalensis) was roasting over a fire. Irulas were expert rat catchers too, greatly valued by farmers of the rice paddies. It was a good working arrangement, with the Irulas keeping all the rats they caught and also the paddy recovered from the rat holes. Any snakes caught during the process were a bonus and would be later sold to snake charmers. No money was ever exchanged for their services.

The leader of the team was a wrinkled old man called Maari. Though he was a bit reluctant to talk in the beginning, he relaxed when he realised that I was not a policeman. In my best Tamil, I told him that I wanted information about snakes and that no one would know them like he did. I handed over my pack of Charminar cigarettes and was rewarded by a huge smile. A young boy was despatched to find a bottle of arrack, which I sponsored, and it was party time. Maari showed me half a dozen round plastic pots, mouths fastened by sack clothing and string, the day’s catch. There were half a dozen Russel’s vipers and an equal number of spectacled cobras. The prize catch was a black cobra, almost seven feet long, though Maari insisted that it was just an ordinary one, with just a change of colour. There was also a non-venomous sand boa with a rounded thick tail, making it look like having two heads. To my surprise, Maari informed me that they no more sold their snakes to charmers. Instead, they were bought for a good price by venom collectors. He also admitted that many of these venom dealers were private businessmen who had no licences from government bodies.

Maari handled the agitated, freshly caught snakes quite casually as he returned them to the pots. The Irulas never carried any antivenin and relied on their own herbal medicine which seemed to work, at least for them, despite the scepticism of allopathic doctors. Irulas getting killed by snakebite was almost unheard of. They were often seen hawking their medicines and charms at village fairs and temple festivals. Also, there were no tales of farmers being saved by Irula medicine.

An hour or so later, politely declining a choice piece of roasted bandicoot, I asked my pet question. Is there a ‘komberi’, and has he ever seen one? His eyes lit up. Relaxed by the potent arrack, he nodded slowly. Yes, once he caught one from the bamboo forests in Kodaikanal foothills. It had died before he could sell it. I asked him how it looked like and to my great excitement, his description matched Ammu’s, word for word. And yes, he had indeed caught it from a tree. When I rode away that evening, something made me trust him, though no zoologist or herpetologist had ever written anything authentic about a tree dwelling cobra.

PART-3

Another two years went by and along with three other friends, I was camping rough in the pine woods of Kodaikanal, the famous hill resort in Tamilnadu. We were befriended by a colourful character called Horseman Velu. Aged about sixty or more, he was the ‘daddy’ of all horsemen who operated around the Kodai lake. He could out drink most men and had great affinity for cannabis which seemed to have no effect on him. Velu appointed himself as our guide and we took an immediate liking to the old rascal.

For the next five days, Velu took us for the trek of our life. From Kodaikanal, we trekked to the villages of Kukkal, Manjampetti and Poompara. Trekking through Mathikettan Shola National Park, we met tribal chieftains who ruled forest lands as if the Indian Republic never existed. Churuli Chami Pillai was the chief of Poompara village and he had his own bodyguard complete with an antique Purdy twelve bore double barrel. We were the honoured guests of Kona Kotta Chami, the chief of Kaattu Kona tribe.  Almost a week later, we came out of the wild, following the Pambar River, which flowed with a roar through deep narrow ravines cut steep into the rocks. We had walked right along the borders of Eravikulam National Park, home to Nilgiri Tahr, the endangered mountain goat. During  the week we had been chased by wild bison, and stalked by packs of wild dogs. We finally ended up dirty, blistered and raw skinned on the highway to Munnar, where we flagged down a truck and bummed a ride to the extremely polluted Munnar town.

 

Baby King on a tree branch.

 

It was in the Mathikettan Shola National Park that I had my first clue about the ‘komberi’. The Shola forests have extensive bamboo clusters, home to the snake eating King Cobra (Ophiophagus hannah). It was Velu who opened my eyes. The king cobra is the only snake that builds a nest and stands guard over the eggs. After a period of incubation, the eggs hatch almost simultaneously and the young ones have to fend for themselves. These hatchlings are about half a meter long, complete with a potent venom and tiny hood. To fit a few last pieces to the jigsaw, these baby kings are indeed banded and take to the trees soon after hatching to escape from all sorts of predators including their own kin. They stay in the trees till they are sufficiently large enough to hunt their traditional prey, meaning other snakes. While living in the trees, the baby kings definitely have enough venom to kill an adult male, as explained by Romulus Whitaker, the foremost authority on king cobras.

Gentlemen, Holmes has the honour of telling you that he has solved the longstanding mystery of the ‘komberi’ and the death of Ammu’s beloved uncle Balaraman, while collecting wild honey in typical king cobra country. Yes, he was definitely bitten by a baby king hiding in the branches of a tall forest tree.

Concluding Notes:

a. If anyone knows better, please write to me. I shall be happy to stand corrected.

b. In 1973, Ammu went away on one of her pilgrimages and was never seen again. May be she found her man.

c. A friend from Kodai tells me that in 1985, Horseman Velu was shot dead in the Kukkal woods by forest guards while resisting arrest on a poaching charge. Knowing him, it would have been easy for poachers to befriend Velu. He was a fine old man, right out of a Clint Eastwood movie or a Kazantzakis novel.

d. To the best of my knowledge, there have been no deaths attributed to the tree dwelling cobra during the last fifty years or so in South Kerala. Any breeding areas of king cobras in this region are also not reported.

e. Baby King Cobra on a tree branch; picture courtesy: Tlau Vanlalhrima, Aizwal, Mizoram.

A RIVER CALLED TIME

It was in the early sixties. The Communist Party in India had just split in two, with the intellectuals and idealists lining up on one side and the street smart leaders with the majority of the cadre on the other. The first major war with Pakistan was just around the corner. US troops were considering a ‘brief’ working holiday in Vietnam. But all those things were happening in a far away world that we kids knew little of.

Those days, we lived in an old rambling tiled house with too many rooms and too many doors offering exits to the open courtyard. A family of palm civets lived in the huge attic. Mongooses and foxes had colonised the surrounding wooded fields. A river with steep banks flowed behind the house, before swinging around and ducking under a tall bridge. Trivandrum city still retained the atmosphere of a large prosperous village rather than a state capital.

In the morning, Trivandrum woke up to two distinct sounds. First came the rolling roars and explosive grunts of the huge male lions from the city zoo about four miles away. Then there was the steady drone of the twin engine DC3 Dakota airplane that brought the morning’s Hindu newspaper from Madurai, the temple city in Madras State. The air was so clear that one could hear the Dakota for over fifteen minutes till it landed at the seaside airport seven miles away. This Dakota and its clumsy looking contours were one of the icons of Trivandrum life during those times. Much later I would read that it was the longest serving aircraft ever and that it had dozens of nicknames including ‘Gooney Bird’ and ‘Old Fatso’.

The Killi River which flowed near our home never went dry in those days. There was some serious fishing upstream and we boys went to watch on lazy afternoons. Once I saw a man land a thick eel like fish three feet long. It was caught by an old man named Kunjan who kept stud bulls near the rice paddies. He told me that the fish was called a ‘vlank’ and that its fat could cure asthma. It would be put alive in a vat that contained rice flour. It could survive for more than a day out of water. Writhing around, it would dislodge an oil from its skin, readily absorbed by the rice flour, which would be then prepared for the medicine. Local legend had it that the vlank could move like a sidewinder across land, from one body of water to another on new moon nights. ‘Braal’ and ‘aattuvaala’ were two other medium big fishes they regularly caught from Killi. Braal looked something like a fierce pike while the aattuvaala was flatter and had scales that flashed like silver coins in the sun. For some unknown reason, river fish was taboo at home and was never cooked or served.

DRYING RIVERS

Fifteen years later, my love for this river made me trek trough the south end of the Western Ghat mountains in pouring rain, guided by a Kaani tribal called Kuttan. There were leeches everywhere and herds of wild elephants were moving to higher grounds for fresh grazing. Walking around the Neyyar reservoir and slithering up muddy trails, beyond the wild Meenmutty Falls*, I stood in a rock crucible, knee deep in crystal clear water that oozed in from the surrounding undergrowth and mist. On all fours, I drank greedily like an animal, the water tasting like a hundred herbs and washed rock. Blood from the leech bites, which refused to clot, made smoke patterns in the water. I was where the Killi began. That visit changed me and in the following years I would trek the mountains and monsoon forests of Western Ghats several times. More of that later, perhaps.

All of that is a scene from the past. My friend’s nephew tells me that the place has now been vandalised with broken beer bottles and plastic waste. For a few hundred rupees, a boat man will take you across the reservoir with the silent consent of the corrupt forest guards. The deer, mountain squirrel and the lion tailed macaques have been hunted to near extinction. The harsh echoing call of the hornbill is rare. Majestic tuskers are absent, with the tuskless mozha males passing on their genes to the next generation of baby elephants. Mafias distil moonshine in the woods and bribe the ancient forest people to transport the brew in small canoes. Constantly pestered by the criminals and officials, the Kaani tribes have lost their roots.

Coming back to river fish, many years later, I tasted braal at the legendary 6th Mile toddy shop in Alleppey. Marinated in a paste of red chillies, turmeric and salt, deep fried in coconut oil, it tasted divine with the sour sweet palm toddy. Last year during a trip home, I asked a young fish vendor for braal, aattuvaala or vlank. He had not seen a braal in a long time and never heard of the other two. Riverside fishermen in different areas had different names for the same fish, I consoled myself. Two days later, I stood on the bridge above the Killi. Greedy and uncontrolled sand mining had ravaged the river. Tufts of wild grass grew on small islands of broken rock. The trickle of sewage that flowed from one murky green pool to another had the sheen of floating oil. Nothing could live anymore in the once plentiful river. It was truly disembowelled and murdered. Another world has closed its doors on me.

*Note: Looking for Meenmutty Falls can be confusing. Most trekkers who venture in to rainforests to the south of Western Ghat Mountains are led to believe that there is only one in existence. Most of the places in this remote area are named by the Kaani tribe. For the tribe, Meenmutti is simply a steep waterfall in a river or creek that prevents the fish from migrating upstream. (Meen = fish; mutty = stop, dam, barrier etc). I have been to at least three, all named Meenmutty. Surely, there will be more, since mountains around the Agasthyakoodam Peak are crisscrossed with streams and blessed with ample rain. Three or four good sized rivers originate from this region.

*During the D-Day celebrations in June 2009, British 3 Para did a symbolic Para drop at Pegasus Memorial in Ranville. The aircraft that participated were Dakotas and the relatively much younger Hercules. Old Fatso flies on.

For info on DC3 Dakota, see http://www.dc3history.org/alialis_c47.htm

Compulsory Disclosures

Namaste’. My friends who have visited this site insist that I should tell a little more about myself. There is nothing impressive to say. These many friends of mine call me Prithvi and I have known most of them from childhood and teens. More formally, I am Prithviraj Bhaskar Shankar. It is a very impressive name with historical and mythological references. It also has some very hard consonants ambiguous vowels. I have given up trying to live up to it long ago. Most of it is inherited from ancestors long dead, burnt to ashes and all final traces washed away by many Indian rivers. So thankfully, I have been cut down to size by my many friends for whom I am plain Prithvi. Prithvi means Mother Earth. But my physically stronger friends insist that it stands for Plain Dirt, which is a fair equivalent. I have many friends who are physically stronger.

I was born in the then sleepy town of Trivandrum, capital to the beautiful south Indian state of Kerala, in 1956. I remember my mother telling me that one could buy three dozen honey sweet mangoes for the fancy price of one rupee during those times. For about Rs 8000, you could drive away a shining 8HP Morris Minor car from the showroom in Kochi. Today, one Sterling Pound will fetch you eighty rupees and a US Dollar, half as much. The last time I was in my hometown, a good meal and a two shots of rum cost me 15,000 mangoes, going by an old yardstick. That is a full truck load, believe me.

 

I was sent to local government run schools and colleges, all of which gave me an education in every sense of the word. These institutions, in those times, took in the sons of both rich and poor and we never asked what your classmate’s dad did for a living. As far as I know, the policies of these alma maters are still the same, but the rich are sending their kids elsewhere, where they rub shoulders with ‘equals’, creating a class consciousness in young minds. It is indeed a shame.

 

If anyone asks me where I belong, I will say that first of all, I belong to an area of Trivandrum called Thycaud. I belong to Model High School and Intermediate College, both located in Thycaud, where I did my school and two years of pre-degree. I belong to the Thycaud Police Ground where I learnt my hockey. I belong to a hundred lanes, corridors, tree shades, verandas, scents and colours in the locality. I belong to its temples, tea shacks and secret dens. I also belong to the University College, where I barely managed a degree, in Geology, and the Indian Coffee House near it. I belong to every cricket pitch laid in Trivandrum in those times and every drinking hole that ever popped a cork. Cheers.

 

Other less important things include employment with a bank, running an advertising consultancy, a long stint as a print production man, freelance copy / content writer and other assorted errands. There were also much regretted involvements with trade unions and communism. The present finds me in the ridiculously expensive city of London, with a collar half blue, half white.

 

Known to some and unknown to many, I have been indulging in the vaguely defined realms of modern poetry for many years. The reader is warned that some of the surviving pieces may appear on these pages at a later date. A major chunk of my poetry is with my many friends, scribbled on the jotter friendly insides of cigarette packs and other available stationery. If they still have them, please send me a photocopy. I could never remember a line I wrote, but will recognise anything if it is indeed my own. That describes me, more or less. Period. Thanks.