After the ruminating sojourn at Changi, the full flight to Cochin was uneventful and mercifully not too long. As expected most of the Mallu crowd in the trip had a couple of bottles of booze each, safely clutched in their hands. Later I found out from my BIL that the Far East tour packages were nowadays affordable for so many to travel around. The Cochin airport formalities were quick, though the health crews were at work scanning our foreheads (people from California were on the hot list) with infra red scanners for signs of H1N1 fevers. A form had to be filled up and I was quite prepared for all that from Singapore itself where warnings of Swine flu were being broadcast in all languages, including Tamil.
My brother and our old driver Mani were there to receive me at the airport and it was great seeing the old driver after so long. He had left us as the driving assignments tapered off and everybody flew the coop. Working multiple jobs as cinema operator, money collector and driver for a Chetty was not fun it appears, so he came back to Pallavur and now freelances as a driver. Almost like family, this chap Mani, we knew him since childhood. The drive back was a bit scary even though it was well past midnight, I could see that the crowded roads, bright halogen headlights and ageing were catching up with the driver.
Also, I was getting hungry as I had not eaten in the plane, but there were no thattukada’s (street cart food) that night due to the rains. No problem’s, said my brother, let us go to Mannadiar’s on the way, for that is always open, but he asked again, are you sure? When we reached there eventually, the board declared Veg & non veg, 24 hrs or something like that and I saw why my brother was asking the question. It was a small place, and the last time the walls had seen paint was I believe, some time in the early 19th century. A low ceilinged hall with a dozen benches and wooden tables strewn around and a few truck drivers & drunkards lounging and chomping away, was what met my sight. Normally I do not bother too much about such things, but right after spick and span Singapore and without the local bacteria in my stomach to give me some immunity, it was a bit disconcerting. Anyway, as they say, fortune favors the brave. I cast a gingery look at my brother, who had a smile on his face. He said, it’s ok, don’t worry. We did look odd, well dressed with shoes and all, in the midst of lungi clad half sleepy drivers, but they didn’t care anyway.
Soon came the bearer cum owner mannadiar, and what I saw of him was really scary. With skin possessing a hue and texture of an elephant, his bare body with just a koya lungi round the midriff was glistening with sweat. Splotches of some ancient skin ailment mapped his back, but his smile was 70mm. Grime could be seen aplenty under his finger nails. He said, we have dosas, chappatis and eggs, but only Sambar, chammandi and Ulli chatni to go, Ok? I went for the Chappati with an omelet. As we waited, 2AM in the morning, I wondered what I had got myself into on the very first day of the vacation. But when the food did land up on the table, on the banana leaf, it was simply superb. Thin and oily chapattis, with a super double omelet, the taste was just great. I passed on the sambar, but could not resist the two chatnis. And for the first time, I ate chappati with them, quite enjoying the combination. The place where you washed hands after …well, I better not describe it.
Reaching home in the wee hours of the morning, Pallavur smelt the same, of hay, cows, trees and all that. I was at peace, finally, office and US quickly forgotten.
But first things first, as they say. You have to protect yourself from mosquitoes, which were a plenty in farming areas. If you ended up catching the endemic Dengue, Chikungunya or tomato fever, you were in deep trouble. A number of families I knew already were suffering from the debilitating joint pains that remained after the Chikungunya fever. So the ‘Off’ mosquito spray (guaranteed to ward off even the west Nile virus) that I had armed myself with, typical of NRI’s (my friend once brought a carton of bottled water from the Middle east for his vacation – I drink jeeraka vellam though) was applied with gusto at 3AM., and as I went through the motions, I saw my nieces and nephews watching me with great curiosity. I am sure they were storing these funny sights & conversations in their memory, to spread around when schools reopened after Onam. But they were all ears when I started narrating the scene at the mannadiar hotel.
A quick sleep and then started the fascinating days of playing around with nephews & nieces, catching up on the local gossip and so on. But the problem was actually food, the immense quantities that I was forced to eat. As a cook had been hired for the interim, the possibilities were endless, so all the things I liked (or the list they believed I liked from childhood days which sometimes also covered food I liked no more), were made. The problem was that I ate sparingly these days but that argument did not work with people who were making all this food specially for the starved desi from California . So by noon, with the jet lag and all, I was a physical wreck, loaded with food to the gills and my entire system rebelling. It took a couple of days and liberal swigs of dashmoolarishtam and quite a few hajmola, for all that to settle down (but I can tell you, even today two days after getting back to USA I am yet to recover completely) and as you can imagine, mannadiar’s food was not a problem at all…
Meeting a number of relatives was the next thing to do, and there were plenty of reasons, marriages in the family, illnesses, operations, old age. As I met them all, I could see the ravages of age on many of them, but the joy of meeting was greater compensation than the trouble taken in driving around. The old timers, the farm workers were all still around and alive, and many would come by to say hello. The temple was thriving and as usual, when I saw the unattended temple drums, I could not resist a couple of quick beats. Later when I met the resident (drummer) marar, he said, that he would have been pleased to come over home with the drums so I could try them out at my leisure. I squirmed in embarrassment hearing that from the stalwart drummer. The man was obviously pleased seeing me after a year, and I had written about him and his forefathers just the previous year.
My younger son was soon at home with the place, he had even been on some eye camp to the interior forests, a place called Parambikulam, where the Adivasis were treated by some eye doctors. The boy and his cousin sis were entrusted the task of keeping records, names, ages, etc during the camp.
After a week, we were off to Calicut. Wow! the place was indeed getting crowded. The over bridge work was not finished yet, the pot holes on the roads were massive (some potholes even had large saplings planted by the angry public. The pic here is actually from Chennai, used only for illustration) and the continuing Japan pipeline project had by now made the local populace, deeply resentful of Japs, as I had written earlier. Anyway, those were small things really, as I spent another interesting week at Calicut, and there were many things in store.
Attending CKR’s son’s wedding reception was fun, great food and all, then I was launched as a guest speaker to deliver a historic talk on Abraham ben Yiju and the Genizah scrolls to a bunch of unsuspecting history enthusiasts as trains chugged past the Chavara hall, It was an experiences which also got reported in the press. As this was all going on, another blogger friend was recovering from a bypass surgery, and I also established contact with bloggers Raji and Hari over the phone. It was fun to talk to them after all these months of seeing their names on the web. Blogger Nikhil, who was visiting Kerala, passed by and we had a short chat about this and that.
Meanwhile, the number of fever cases in Malabar were rising rapidly and as expected the arguments were being made with regional splits, Wise people said, last few years it was in Travancore & Cochin, now it has come to Malabar, with their southern curse. By this time, we were also expert tennis players, not because the US Open or my own familiarity with the game, but because of the frequent use of the tennis bat mosquito killer.
Armed with the electric mosquito bats, we would sit on the portico, liberally sprayed with ‘Off’, enjoying the evening rains. The mosquitoes would smell the ‘rich foreign’ blood (as relatives joked) and come in swarms, and we would be prepared to execute fine sliced backhands, forehand drives, overhead smashes, delicate back hand drops and so on. The mosquitoes would pop on the strings like a ball smacked by Federer or Klijsters, with the only difference being the smell of the burning insect that followed. It is well known that the ‘bat’ (Chiroptra mammal) controls mosquitoes, but look at the irony of it, today the bats are gone or going away, but you need a tennis (like) bat to control mosquitoes. But beware; these bats pack quite a punch, getting a shock of the strings with fresh batteries can be quite painful.
From extensive trials and experience, I can now say that the Hunter brand is the best of the lot, though not child safe. As the evenings stretched and the dusk set in, the pile of exterminated mosquitoes would satisfyingly grow. There was one problem though, the problem with people asking what perfume I used, for most mosquito sprays have a strong lemon grass scent. It is like you had thai soup or something and this scent masks even the strong scent of the ‘Davidoff cool water’ eau de cologne that I normally use.
After regular & timely food ingestions 4-5 times a day, I would recline and retire to read the immensely enthralling Brigadier stories by the great Malayatoor Ramakrishnan (BTW some people have started comparing me with Brig Vijayan Menon and his tall stories). My book purchase continued and the book bag was soon all of 25kgs. A book fair, albeit small was going on at the Krishna Menon stadium, and ironically at that very spot, I purchased a book written by Kushwant Singh, where he soundly abuses Krishna Menon, his one time boss. I got much more interesting material, thanks to the help of authors, my BIL and many others. More on all that later.
Otherwise, I would walk by Calicut roads, as usual. I skipped Balu’s as they had new and unresponsive barbers this time around and visited the popular ‘Boys saloon’ for a haircut. Now that was indeed strange, a saloon in Calicut with barbers from Delhi who spoke only Hindi. This time, I also chanced upon Calicut’s first organic shop. Well, it is strange, really, we in Kerala who were used to organic food and organic packing & recycling upto the 90’s forgetting all that in a hurry, in the throes of development, now to re-launch everything proudly as ‘organic’ once again west like. The shop is called Elements. Then one early morning, we even drove to see Pantalayani Kollam, a port from ancient Malabar history.
Onam was celebrated with gusto, the liquor shops sold over 35 crores of booze in one day ( total of 50 crores in two days) and the papers were full of news of some financier bloke Paul who got knocked off by a couple of goons. The papers also reported extensively on what could have happened to lots of money in the killer’s car, which vanished mysteriously. A movie was also announced based on all this, a couple of days after the event.
The various hotels were every crowded, but we did manage varieties of Malabar food during evenings, and the Paragon Biryani beat them all this time in sheer taste. As the days went by, I managed to speak to eminent people and writers like NM Nampoothiri and Nandan and sat back later, marveling at their simple nature & responses whilst talking to them over their writing. So much more happened, but let me get to them, later.
Soon it was time to get back, the long long flight was murderous, but we are still alive and the good memories of the two weeks, keep us going.
Back home now, California is hot like hell, wild fires are being reported, and the economy is still going south. Meanwhile, we are getting ready for yet another relocation, this time to Raleigh, in the east coast of USA. Busy days ahead…
Pothole pic from team BHP.com
Hunter pic from manufacturer web site
Onam leaf BBC