Random musings of a wandering soul

Archive for the ‘kuttanad’ Category

Finding Fireflies

imageAnother lazy Sunday evening in Bangalore, the place that is now home. We were watching ‘Queen’ for the umpteenth time when power went off. The curtains were not drawn, it was pitch dark for a moment. Lights came back almost instantly, rest of the family promptly went back to Rani and her drunken antics. Not me, I had travelled miles by then. More than six hundred kilometers away. Where the moon throws her silver anklets into the river and she smiles coyly in return, flowing gracefully, like the languorous moves of a Mohiniyattam dancer.

Is it when you cannot have something anymore, that you yearn for it endlessly? In moments of ecstatic happiness and soul breaking sadness, I go home. In my mind and spirit. To Kavalam, to those days that are gone forever. The house wears a forlorn look, like that of a mother who longs for her kids who are far away. My home, where I go in search for my soul as it keeps wandering back. It just refuses to let go.
Our grandfather must have longed to be a school teacher. That’s how he built his home, one long line of rooms, with an endless veranda that went around. With doors in the front and back and endless windows. Not the tiniest bit of sunlight nor the gentlest breeze could escape, they went in and out the whole day. Nights were special. And those hours of power cuts, official and unofficial. One tiny candle shedding its light in the sitting room, we would all gather on the veranda, one of us would be walking up and down the yard. Talking about nothing in particular, or something serious.

And those silences in between. They came creeping in with the sound of the crickets, gently wafting in with the aroma of tender mango flowers. The rustle of the coconut leaves and the thud of falling mangoes now and then, the scary howl of wind and an owl here and there, sometimes the satisfied grunt of the cows from their shed as they stirred in their half sleep, those were the lullabies that would lead us into half stupor. It was on one of those evenings that darkness totally engulfed me.

The night was pitch dark, unusual even for a village where the only public lights were those blinking ones mounted on a tree trunk. The leaves were still, the river lay placid. Even the fishermen were silent, their boats just floating along, the oars gliding smoothly through the water. Going through a particularly difficult time in life, the darkness was seeping into my soul as well. As I lay supine on the thatched mat, my eyes slowly drifted beyond the yard. From the silhouettes of the trees, up above the coconut trees, searching for some light within and out, my glance turned, as though guided by a divine force, to a group of trees that grew up together and were the best of friends even in their old age. One tiny light among the branches, it slowly spread and split into hundreds and then thousands, as if the stars that went hiding from the sky that night had come down to meet me. To lift me up, to show me the path, to remind me that even a tiny star can give solace to a wounded soul.

And that it is in our darkest hours that we see the magic of fireflies.


picture courtesy : fireflyexperience.org

Those Saturdays of August

The sleepy town slowly opens its eyes as the fury of monsoons turn into a pleasant  drizzle. The angry rivers have calmed down and the churning lake lay placid. There is a bright sparkle in those eyes that is otherwise stoic. The rhythm of a land starts reverberating in their steps. It is that time of the year, when the heart of a land beats in perfect rhytm to the clarion call of its boatsmen, “Aaarrrrpppo, Irrrro, Irrrro, Irrrro.” And for us kids, the culmination of an year of wait.


The story goes back to the wars of yore between the small water logged kingdoms of Chempakassery, Kayamkulam, Thekkumkoor and Vadakkumkoor, parts of today’s Alapuuzha and Kottayam districts. The king of Chempakassery was a worried man after continuous defeats. He did a root cause analysis and arrived at the conclusion, his war boats were too slow and ill prepared. So started a search for an aashaaari, or a boat craftsman, that zeroed in on one Koduppunna Venkitanaryanan Aashaari. The rest, as they say, is history. The Aashaari crafted a long, sleek boat that could cut through water and carry more than hundred warriors at the same time. The long boats that were more than hundred feet long were called ‘chundan valloms’ after their pointed sterns. Wonder who translated it as ‘snake boats’. The helms supposedly looks like the hood of a king cobra. I’ve always thought it looks like the decorated trunk of an elephant.  Anyway,  the king of Chempakassery never had to look back again. The bollywoodesque epilogue has a dashing young guy sent as a spy by the king of Kayamkulam to learn the art of boat building. Seducing the aashan’s daughter and with promises of marrying her, the roguish spy learned the secret and promptly disappeared to build similar boats for his king. Alas, when it came to the proof of the pudding, or payasam as you would have it, his boats were nowhere near the original aashaari’s. The master craftsman was a crafty one, for sure.

The snake boats must have continued to be used as boats of war, but no particular stories seem to be recorded till our first Prime Minister decided to visit Allleppey and Kottayam in 1952. Around ten such boats accompanied him as he traveled in a motor boat across the water and a race was organized for his enjoyment. And enjoy, he did! Apparently, he was so excited that he jumped into the winner, the ‘Nadubhagom Chundan.’ He went back to the capital, but the excitement stayed with him. He had a replica made in rosewood and sent it back to Kerala and thus was born the now world famous Nehru Trophy Boat Race.

There was a time when I used to literally detest my village. Those were the days of youth and foolishness, when fast was better and slow was looked down on. Imagine a place where you could reach only by boat, that too after travelling for more than an hour and half. Wow, you say? Bah, would have been my retort. There were no roads, the only mode of transport was motor boats or the ones that someone had to row. Years had to go and the place turn distant for it turn into longing. Anyway, let me get back to our yearly wait.

The second Saturday of August needed no reminder in a calendar. It is etched in stone in the heart of every true Kuttanadan / Alleppey-ian. And like most of the other homes in the town, it was a day of festival when all the friends and relatives would descend in droves and walk as one to Punnamada Lake. No GPS was needed, the genes were grafted into the feet at birth.

Our family was large, especially on my mother’s side. Between my grandfather and his three siblings, there were thirty kids. And many of them were  just a few years elder to me. Yes, my uncles and aunts were more like my siblings. Led by my normally stern grandfather, at least fifteen of them would arrive by ten in the morning. Our young feet would be tapping in impatience if they were late even by minutes. The fire in our kitchen would have been burning overtime for the past few days, ending up on  a dining table that had not even a single inch uncovered by food. Off we would go, after a sumptuous lunch, with packets of crisp cutlets and bottles of water in hand, obediently like school kids out on a break, with grandfather in lead.

The Punnamada Lake borders the town of Alleppey and its canals lead to the largest lake In Kerala, the Vembanad Lake. The otherwise quiet waterways comes to life from early July, the time when the season of traditional boat races, or vallom kali, as it is called, starts. This was years before tourism and its by product, the house boats, became ubiquitous. Temporary galleries would come up, made of the trunks of arecanut trees and firmly held in place by sturdy coils of rope. Made in Alleppey, it was, totally.


Spending money on fun was anathema, but this was life itself. And my grandfather would have only the best seats. By default we would, too. Another wait started. We had to claim our seats by 12, first come first served was the norm and the races started at 2. First would come the procession, all the participating boats out in full splendor, the boatsmen rowing in slow rhythm, the oars against the water as one, to the tunes of the traditional boat songs, the vanchi paattu.

The races started with the prelims or ‘heats’ as they were called. Four to five  rounds each and four to five snake boats in each round. The winners of these would compete in the finals. But in between, would be the others. Veyppu vallams, used for cooking, or veyppu, as it is called in  Malayalam, the Churulan vallams, that finds its name from their curved ends, and the Iruttukithi, literally meaning one that traverses darkness. The last one was supposedly used by pirates and hence the association with night. Then there was the customary round of woman’s boat race, usually in the Churulan variety. These were but mere interludes, when we feasted on cutlets and watched the antics of drunk guys frolicking in water.  The navy helicopters would come and we would watch in awe as the troopers parachuted down, dutifully bursting some colourful powder into the atmosphere, whence the very same copters would come back for rescue.

The fun started in all seriousness after that. First round after the interval was all the fourth place holders from the heats, then the ones that came third, the losers final and then the race of the day. The Nehru Trophy Finals. Yes, we had our favourite clubs and boats too. The sleek Kaarichaal, the stately Nadubhagom Chundan, the legendary Kavalam  Chundan whose heydays were over by then, the famous Jawahar Thaayamkari, the rebuilt Aanaari Puthan Chundan, were names that were etched in our hearts. And the last fight would almost always be between two stalwarts, UBC Kainakary and Kumarakom Boat Club.

The starting point was far away, for the track had to be that long for boats that were more than 100 feet long. The small transistor that grandfather carried came into handy to know who was leading. The whole gallery would move as one. Glistening bodies arching in rhythm, hundreds of oars cutting the lake as one, a single beat in those hearts and in ours, the ‘hee haw’ of the helmsmen, anything could change in a matter of seconds. The boats well oiled in sardine oil the previous day, glistening in the evening sun and gliding across the waves, and the quintessential nail biting finish. The winners raising their races in a unified salute, was a sight that filled our hearts to the brim and sometimes made it overflow, irrespective of who the winner is. I have goosebumps all over even as I watch this.

We grew up and apart. One after another, the family dispersed. Living room couches took the place of those makeshift galleries as Keltron TVs moved Punnamada Lake into our homes. As other interests and life interfered, Nehru Trophy turned into a news item in Malayala Manorama. As I read the Sunday newspaper announcing Jawahar Thaayamkari as this year’s winner, it doesn’t take even a moment to get transported back to those second Saturdays of August. And I realize, it is no more the races that I miss. It is that feeling of togetherness, of being connected. That seem to be lost, forever.

(photos courtesy – The Hindu, The New Indian Express)

‘Where the Rain is Born’*

“Some people feel the rain. Others just get wet.” Bob Marley must have said this after a visit to Kerala in the monsoons, I’m sure.

Distance make hearts grow fonder not just between people but places as well.

As you grow old and away from where you were born and brought up, particularly when you have more than a lot of happy memories associated with it….. a drop of rain on your forehead as you lift your face up to that cool breeze is all that it takes, to lift you back in an instant…

to the echoing laughter of your childhood,
to the mangoes that dropped on your head,
to the puddles that your young feet splashed in,
to the branches that you swayed from,
to the oars that your hands held,
to the river that you jumped into,
to the gale that blew the thatch off,
to the drops that drenched you,
to the smell of rain washed mud,
to the taste of sun dried jack fruits,
to the python that gobbled up the chicks,
to the ducks that glided in the pond,
to the calves that frolicked in the grass,
to the palm that shivered in the wind,
to the kittens that snoozed in the kitchen,
to the stray dog that wandered in,
to the home that you left behind,
to the place….
where rain was born

* title borrowed from ‘Where the Rain is Born, writings about Kerala’ edited by Anita Nair

Image courtesy : Google

Home Alone

kavala“Mmeee…”, we would shout after opening the gate. If it was morning, she would come out smiling from the kitchen. If afternoon, you would first hear the shuffle of slippers, she would be getting up from her daily afternoon siesta, again with the very same smile on her face. And if late at night, there she would be sitting on the sofa, after her customary bath in the evening, with a liberal splash of Cuticura powder on her face and the smile would still be there.

The house was no more a home after she left us four years back. Visits went down drastically and almost came to a stop after the remaining lonely soul also moved out to be with the son. Home had always been a place where the doors were open with lots of laughter inside. And now, there I was, trying to pry open the rusted lock on the gate, looking around at the dried up plants, the cobwebs and dust on verandas. For the first time I had returned home to closed doors, with only memories for company.

That I would feel depressed and may even break down in bucket full of tears was a given even as this trip was planned. And I was totally prepared for excatly that as I opened the gates. But as I walked in and opened the door, a sense of calm seemed to envelope me. The rooms were covered in dust, there was work to be done, but all through this, a peaceful feeling permeated my whole being and it seemed to tell me, this is still your home.

The room on the western side, the’padinjaare muri’ , as it was called was a haven for us. My mother used to complain that her kids disappeared to this room as soon as they reached home. There was something about it that instantly gave you a warm feeling, that soothing feel that lulls you into a sleep that was calm and free from worries. Why was I even surprised that nothing had changed? The moment the house was spruced up and the girl who helped me had left, my body hit the floor and mind and soul eased into a much needed sleep. It was as if the walls made a soft cocoon for me and the cool breeze was singing a lullaby.

The next few days were no different. My sister reached that night with our fairly new sis-in-law. We had one of the best times in a long time. No men and kids, just us meeting up lots of old friends and family that we hadn’t met in years. Hearts truly grow fonder with years. Two meetings will be remembered fondly for a very long time. Incidentally, both were my brother’s friends, and we must have last met them more than twenty years ago. The sheer joy on ther faces, the non- stop, “I can’t beleive it”, and the wide grins as we talked about those fun filled, care free days, is going to stay with me for a long time.

We spent some relaxing time with some dear relatives just listening to old family yarns, some skeletons tumbling out inadvertently and some still kept very safely in family vaults. The end of those four days, there I was , tired to the core physically, but totally relaxed, happy and content in mind and soul. I had gone home expecting to come back sad and depressed, but the journey taught me a few things…….

……that yes, it is the people in a house that makes it a home. But a home is a home as long as you have happy memories associated with it
…..your dear ones take care of you in a deeper sense, irrespective of whether they are with you or not. I could feel my mother’s calmimg presence within those walls of brick and mortar. It was as if I could almost see her in her usual places throughout the house
…..distance actually makes hearts grow fonder
…..accidental meetings can sometimes give you more joy than planned ones
……old memories are as fascinating to the young ones as it is for the older generation. My young cousin was sitting open mouthed all through our reminiscences with regret writ largely over his face that his childhod was totally different
…..and most of all, the fact that we are actually much tougher than we think we are. Our yard was a virual riot of colours when mummy was alive. Now it is almost arid. But , there are still some toughies that survive on the love that was showered on them when they were growing up. Isn’t it so true for us as well? When things seem to go wrong, when a feeling of sadness tries to creep into us, don’t we always delve deep into the reserve of love and strenghth that was poured and sometimes stuffed into us? Like these lovely flowers that still spreads cheer as I opened the gate with trepidation in my heart..

Lessons from the Yard

Last project for son was Natural Disasters. Thinking and writing about nature, as always, takes me back home and the wonderful childhood that we had. Those days, we never had environment as part of a project or even as a subject.  Now I wonder whether that was because, environment was actually a part of lives. Our lives were so entwined with the nature around us that we never had to learn about it in class rooms.

The fondest memories of childhood and summer holidays are the baskets that would be ready in a line for us on the veranda when we get up in the morning. There would always be a small army of kids and morning ablutions were always in a hurry. Competition started early those days. The baskets were for collecting the mangoes that had fallen from the trees in the night. The one who collected the most would get a twenty five paisa coin from our grandmother. Those days, it was a treasure. There were almost twenty mango trees, each a different variety, all planted and nurtured lovingly by my grandmother. It was not just the thumb, her whole body was green. She did not have a life that was separate from her land.

Once the mangoes were accounted for, the next process was extracting the juice. We hadn’t heard of juicers then. Each of us would be given a “muram” – sort of a large sieve. The mangoes were grated in the sieve and the juice taken and handed over to ammachi (that’s what we called our grandmother). She would mix some rice flour and then some ingredients and spread it out on a mat to dry in the sun. This process went on for days, a new layer added each day, till the mango paste was thick enough. Once dried well enough, the mats with the pastewould be rolled and safely kept in huge earthen pots. Ammachi would give us tiny pieces to taste saying when mangoes are available now, have that, and when the season is over, she will give us the preserve. That was first lesson in saving when there is plenty and using the savings when there was none.

We had lots of chores in the mornings. Next would be the cinnamon tree. We had to scrape out the bark and this had to be done in a precise and delicate manner so that the trunk could heal properly and give us more bark next year. Another lesson – every hurt will heal, it is just a matter of time.

The ‘parambu’ (yard) was a mini forest. There were so many fruits which I doubt my kids will ever see or even if they do, would enjoy gorging on as we did. There were jack fruits, guavas, lololikkas (not sure what this is called in English), chambakka (water apple), ampazhanga, wood apples, pomegranates, there was even an orange tree which bore pea sized oranges. The huge kambili/bumbloose naarakam(pomelo fruit – just googled it, never knew its English name🙂 )tree bordered the pond, the fruits of which were the last resort for us if nothing else was available. The vegetable patch yielded everything that was needed – ginger, chillies, yam, bitter gourd, bottle gourd, string beans, there were even coffee plants.  Plantain trees across the yard waved its leaves in the afternoon breeze. The plantain jam that ammachi used to make was just out of the world. I still think of her words when I now buy it at 40-50 rupees per kilo – “you will not realize its value when you have it in plenty”. Doesn’t it apply to everything in life?

Another high point was the chicks and ducklings. There would be at least 3-4 hens hatching eggs. Did you know hens were used to hatch duck’s eggs as well? We would eagerly wait for the hen to shift her position to see whether the eggs were breaking. The sight of a tiny beak slowly pecking its way out of the shell and the wonder in its eyes while they turned their head around and slowly stepped out into the world is something else. The hen that hatched the ducklings would be the most hilarious one. The consternation on her face and the desperate cackling when her ‘kids’ jump into the water left us in splits many a time. We have watched these hens and ducks being killed too. All of us would run after the one that was identified for the guest of the day and sometimes the poor thing would just give up out of sheer exhaustion. Life and death were so much a part of our lives we never felt anything wrong then. Isn’t life also sometimes about who outruns who?

Lunch would be what and how much was served in our plates. I have no memory of any one of us having a say on the menu or even stating our preferences. No one was allowed to get up without finishing everything that was served. When we were slightly older, we had to wash the rice for cooking, help in chopping the vegetables and whatever little we could. Even a single grain of rice or the tiniest piece of vegetable was not allowed to escape in the process. All these were lessons in utilizing the available resources to the maximum and with absolutely no wastage. My grandmother would have cursed me to hell if she spent even a day in my kitchen today.

I have mentioned in a few of my earlier posts about my home – it is one of the 50 places that you must visit before you die according to National Geographic. Nestled between Kottayam and Alleppey districts in Kerala, Kuttanad is an area that lies below sea level. Blessed with waterways of all shapes, sizes and names, how can a holiday be complete without the frolic in the river? We learnt swimming holding on to the trunk of plantain trees that would float. We have even made rafts out of it and rowed to the other side of the river. There would be a forced rest of an hour after lunch and then all pairs of ears would be on the old clock to strike three. And off we would jump one after the other into the water. We were so wild that after two hours we would have kicked up all the mud which in turn would deposit on our bodies. Dirtier bodies would come out of the river and run to the bath room to have a proper bath.

We learnt to share, work and play together, be independent (most of the activities would not be monitored by anyone, but we were expected to be perfect), fight and make up, hurt and heal, in short a miniature version of most everything that we would have to go through later in life. What I have put in words here is a very small part of these experiences and the emotions that I go through whenever I think of those days. There were visits to our relative’s houses, they would come visiting, there were family gatherings, functions, festivals in the church, the days were packed and there were never a dull moment.

I remember reading somewhere that plants too have emotions and feelings. No one in my family would need proof for this. Remember the mango trees that were brought up with utmost care and love by my ammachi? None of them flowered the year she passed away!

(all pictures  courtesy – google images)

>Of rivers, boats and some childhood memories


picture courtesy – www.keralatourism.org

Imagine a place where there are no cars or buses or even roads. Only water everywhere you see – rivers, lakes, canals, ponds, wells. Yes, I am talking about Venice- not of the west, the very humble eastern sister – Alleppey. Now a picture comes to mind – backwaters, houseboats and lakeside resorts. That is one place which has remained almost the same even after twenty years.

Most of my childhood memories are entwined with water and boats of all kinds – motor, country, large, medium, small, tiny. Both my parents hail from Kuttanad*, the Holland of India (see how exotic we are – actually, the similarity begins and ends with the fact that both Holland and Kuttanad are below sea level). Those days, instead of the customary boundary wall, most of the houses there would be separated by a waterbody – a small canal like waterway. Can you believe this small canals used to be our ‘car sheds’. Instead of cars and jeeps, we used to have boats of our own – most had country boats and the more affluent had motor boats. The house boats as you see it today were not really unseen then, but instead of air conditioned bed rooms with modern furniture, they used to be filled with goods being transported from one place to another.
The main livelihood of the people was farming. As everywhere, there was the landed class and the mass who used to work for them. You might have seen fields being watered for cultivation, but have you ever seen fields being drained of water for cultivation? Well, that is what we are, a set of quite contrary people.
One day at the beginning of the last century, one particularly enterprising ‘janmi’* was travelling in his country boat through the vast expanse of water that was Kuttanad then. Oh, I forgot to tell you, we had our own version of drivers too. The person who used to drive the boat. Steering a country boat is an art in itself. When you are watching it from the banks, it looks very simple. Try directing a ,medium size boat, slightly larger than that in the above picture, with a long bamboo pole. Climbing Mount Everest might seem easier. Well, let me not digress here. The driver of this particular ‘janmi’ saw some mud sticking to the bottom of his bamboo pole and noticing something special, tasted it. Then he gave a little bit of that mud to his ‘muthalaali’* to taste. To cut a long story short, thus was born the below sea level farming in Kuttanad. This smart fellow created bunds from sand and mud around thousands of acres of water and then pumped the water out, planted paddy and created an agricultural revolution of his own. That is how you find velvet green fields wherever you look at. The plight of the original paddy fields is story for another post altogether.kerala2
Realtors in cities put a premium on waterfront apartments these days. For ordinary folks like us, water in front of our houses was taken for granted. How can I forget all those summer holidays when some 10-15 of us used to rollick in that small canal in front of our mother’s house for hours. We used to kick up so much mud that finally we had to have a proper bath in the bathroom to make ourselves presentable. Our parents never used to bother what we were doing. Come to think of it, the parents were never there. It was the grandparents and the yet to be married aunts and uncles who used to be our care takers. Then there was my great grand mother whom all of us were petrified of. The last resort for my aunt if any of us refused to get out of the water was one call, “valyammachiii…”*
Every morning my grandmother used to go to church in the mini version of today’s house boats. It was called a ‘valavarayan vallam’. Medium sized, with a roof over half its length, high enough for a grown up to sit and a toddler to stand, this and the vallakkaaran – the driver – was a symbol of affluence those days. The vallakkaaran was the Man Friday to the master and mistress of the house.
I don’t remember the last time  I  got into a country boat.  Somehow, as you grow old, all the charm seem to disappear or we turn a blind eye to it. It takes a child to make you see again. That is just what my son and nieces did last December. They were after my brother to take them on a boat ride and I am still not sure who enjoyed it more, the kids or their mothers. While writing this, so many childhood memories come rushing in to mind. I think I’ll have to dedicate a post on each one of those.
p.s. edited to add Kerala Tourism pictures on request🙂
kuttanad – an area between Alleppey and Kottayam districts in Kerala, mainly known for its beautiful backwaters, paddy fields and houseboats
janmi – land owner
muthalaali – master
valyammachi – grand mother