And they got married
The reassuring click of the seatbelt was the thing which jump started ruminations on the month long visit to India. The plane was about to commence its 15,000km trip westwards (with a transit stopover in Dubai) and I slipped into a long and slow train of thoughts, snaking through those marvelous thirty days like a meter gauge train, remnant from the days of the Raj.
Squabbles at and about the Calicut airport had ensured that I would neither land nor take off from our home airport, and we were moved to neighboring Cochin. Ironic isn’t it, for that was exactly what happened since the first wars between the Vasco da Gama and the Zamorin of Calicut dating back to 1500’s, with the Cochin Raja winning a bulk of the spice trade. During a long layover at Dubai’s teeming airport, I idly watched the masses troop into the latest sin-city of the world, while the many who toiled at the airport kept it spick and span. The guy sitting next to me turned out to be a Pakistani living in Australia, visiting his home in Lahore. People from two ends of the world, moving towards opposing countries in South Asia, and chatting at the only neutral zone, Dubai!!!
The monsoon over Kerala had been delayed and much weakened with the dipole people having a field day, triumphing their dire forecasts. It was in this atmosphere that I set foot at Cochin and drove with a Moplah driver Sartaj to Calicut. A pleasant chap, he updated me on all that was happening in ‘gods own country’. He was totally amused when I, coming all the way from USA chose an ordinary eating place and ordered Malabar Porota and egg curry over other fancy dishes. When I explained that the freshly made Porota was one thing not available in the US, he was mystified, for he said ‘my mother makes it often at home, why can’t you people do it’? Then he wised up and added, I know, it is because you cannot get the right flour in America, in fact my mom struggles to find it here!!! Anyway he was an enthusiastic talker, and happy that Ramadan was around the corner after which he would get married and buy his own Innova taxi car. He was not sure though if he would let his ‘dentist to be fiancée’ work, and I had a tough time trying to persuade him to not even think of keeping her at home. He was more worried about care for his ageing mother. So you see, yet another chap, modern outside, but conservative inside!
And with that I had made my entry into my old haunts, and as the Toyota Innova car sped through new roads, much nicer than the old potholed roads once frequented by the majestic Ambassador taxi, I could not help but notice development and building work everywhere. Sleepy half towns had metamorphosed to busy towns, with garishly painted high-rises and everywhere you could see the influence of money sent by workers working in the Gulf. Large boards advertised Kuzhi mandi, a Yemeni form of Biriyani which seems to be the ‘in thing’ in Malabar, which Sartaj quickly added was not so tasty, but just something new.
A five hour drive took us to our destination at Calicut where I joined my wife who had arrived earlier and other relatives. The house was abuzz with the impending marriage of my wife’s nephew and various other long pending estate matters related to my mother-in-law’s untimely demise last year which still had to be sorted out. The bags were quickly unpacked and soon I was out in new garbs, a white dhoti and a half sleeved shirt. My old ‘kalan’ umbrella was taken off of its resting hook, and thus clad, I became a local once again, though my brother in law gently reminded me that nowadays people wore the dhoti only for ceremonious occasions. But then, who cared?
I had a week at Calicut before the next event, and this was spent touring the various book stalls scouring for new history books. My niece was a trifle unhappy as she had been allocated a seat for BA history, not a subject of her choice, and my attempts at persuading her to go for it, if only to follow my passion, fell on deaf ears. Her mother quickly added that it would be a disaster and everybody at home would have to live with yet another bore with an astonishing capacity to elicit a yawn from a person who had just imbibed two tumblers of chicory laced south Indian coffee. As my wife fretted over the tailors of Calicut and their poor quality, I went about collecting books. A few kilograms of books were quickly purchased, much to her disgust (she warned me that bag space was reserved for all the stuff she was going to buy and books were only secondary) as I looked the other way. Some real estate matters had to be sorted out and discussions with lawyers and chartered accountants took the rest of our time in Calicut.
With that done and dusted, we moved on to Palakkad. Sartaj was again the driver and it was his first visit to the interior villages near the ghats. Amazed at the green fields and a completely unspoilt locales, he could only wonder if such places existed. Well, Pallavur, where we were going to, still had just one school, a temple, a post office, a bank and perhaps three or four shops serving perhaps two thousand people. Here again an event was in the offing and was the reason why we were there, this being my own nieces wedding to a cousin from another leg of the extended family.
|Pallavur - Photo Arun|
Ah, I can write reams and reams about this small village and its people. It is still the same place about which I had written many a time earlier and you all can see a view from this fine panoramic picture taken by my second son. I saw now that many people I knew were all ageing, and a number of younger offspring were appearing for functions and on the roads. The mosquitoes were still there and our cans of ‘off’ repellent quickly proved popular with the many who had come from various parts of the world for the wedding. The mosquitoes were not too happy I suppose, but I assure you my friends, they are quite clever. If we sprayed our exposed surfaces, which they normally frequented, they would spend an extra minute buzzing around to locate a hidden vein or artery far from the chemicals, like near the ear or on the face or through the fine muslin dhoti, with a vengeance to make you swear and jump. The wafting hands of the hapless visitor originally planning a quiet sojourn in the easy chair was a sure sign of the angry mosquito at work, unhappy at being kept away by the nasty chemical. The decibels of chatter rose up and down with some amount of irregularity and was interspersed with the drone of the Anopheles or the Culex species, with or without the Dengue virus……
The village temple beats and music had started, as it was soon time for the evening prayers, and my brother informed me that the one person I was looking forward to meet, drummer Sridharan (Appu marar’s progeny) was touring USA, with a Kathakali troupe. I was planning on discussing some facets of the Kerala music style Sopana Sangeetham with him actually…
But all that was soon forgotten as wedding discussions took precedence, we still had to invite a few more people the old fashioned way, visiting individual homes, and my cousin and I this time around, visited the homes of all the people who worked for us in the past as well as the Tamil Chetty dwellings in the village. Vaithi pattar arrived and prepared a number of goodies, laddus, mixture, mysore-pak and jelebis, for occasional consumption.
The food was catered from a nearby supplier and some 40 guests (including a few from the North) were expected for a week until the wedding. Shamiana’s were erected in front of the ancestral house and the bridegroom’s house, which conveniently was neighboring.
And the rains came, well, not just so, it poured. Indra had really released all those waters held captive by Vritrasura, I suppose, but what a relief it was as it cooled the place considerably, from a 90 degrees, 90% RH to a more tolerable level.
The visitors came the next day, to experience Kerala and the rains, and as ill-luck would have it, one of the girls fell into the nadumittam in the nalukettu, right on the first day. The limping girl, a newly wed bride promptly latched on to her doting husband’s hands for the next few days and never let go. But I can tell you, they all enjoyed the rain, they enjoyed the village and they cared a hoot about the mosquitoes. I think they relished the food too…
We had a lot to do for I was to help compere the Sangeeth event planned to happen before the wedding. I was soon introduced to Reshma, my nephew’s wife, who was the chief planner of the Sangeeth (they had only been married a few months ago). Pad and pen, and later a laptop at hand, we set about charting the activities covering the intros, music and dances. The DJ was to come from neighboring Coimbatore.
As the hours sped by, more relatives trooped in and out. Discussions ranged from politics to family issues, films, songs and so on and so forth. I was sitting smugly with just the task of supporting with the compering of the event when a bombshell was dropped, that we had to partake in a few dances. No amount of excuses could get me out of it, for only a month previously I had been hauled up on stage in Ohio by Rimi Tomy (a popular show host and now an actress) and made to dance a few steps. This video had passed around members of the family (snigger worthy!) and was used effectively as a tool to get me to participate. So hiding all the fear and nervousness, I cast away the dhoti and donned a pair of Bermuda’s to join the groups for dance practice (Shoba was also pulled in). All the fear was soon gone, for such was the enthusiasm of the older and younger participants. The choreographers (the bridegroom Vineth and his brother Ajith) were of Bollywood class (being from Bombay!) and they took us through some steps to create a semblance of a performance which the onlookers were quick to appreciate and assure were of watchable quality. Looking back, how I enjoyed those four days with those young people. I was then reminded of the fascinating novel Drifter’s by James Michener and at many an occasion likened myself to George Fairbanks in the novel.
The hours flashed by, and the heady preparations rose to a crescendo, as the dancing improved and the walls started to shake when the volume of the speakers increased. New technologies such as iPad’s, coupled with Bluetooth and wi-fi helped get the music blaring when needed. A newly married couple, friends of the bridegroom from Bombay insisted on practicing their dance item in privacy, while we wondered if it was indeed a dance they were practicing or complex versions of Kamasutra!! The older people grumbled about the sound and how it affected their beauty sleep while our own rheumy knee joints complained about the disturbance to their not so dynamic existence. Tired at last, people slept where they found space, and fortunately the power supply did not fail often. In the mornings we trouped out bleary eyed, to the dining areas for the idlis, vadas and puttu served on banana leaves. Staid family members warbled or sang now and then, to ensure that their skills were also demonstrated while older listeners wah wahed. Days turned to night, limbs flailed and the mosquitoes got even more irritated, finding no parking space. The wedding preparations were truly on, like no other. My brother and sister in law were not spared either, for they had to waltz with the couple wearing formal clothes.
Our sons arrived from the US, one after a long span of 12 years while the other after a 5 year gap. I assume they were taken aback with all the hustle and bustle and activity, but the younger one joined the team quickly, though looking quite a bit embarrassed by his father’s antics on the dance floor. He was seen shaking his head in disgust often, at the spectacle his old man was creating…
Breakfasts were followed by succulent lunches, all vegetarian, followed by high tea and then dinner, with frequent infusions of herbal water to keep us all going and soon it was the day of the sangeeth event at which point we quizzed the parents and the couple, took them through their love story and peppered it all with some smart dances and performances. The couple who practiced in secret came up with a superb performance, and as it turned out, all other performances were pretty good. Yours’s truly performed well as a co-host and on the dance floor, though some were seen to remark that his white glasses (purloined from his son) were a bit too garish, but that the evening was a grand success… It is still being discussed, I presume and will be (or so I want to feel). Some others had stealthily retired to a private room to imbibe an invigorating beverage or two, while others not in the know were unhappy that Kerala had gone dry.
The next day a smaller group sped off to Guruvayoor, and the stop at ICH there for the cutlets was not missed. This was when I met a fascinating young fella, Dina Karan, who took us along in his car. I cannot but express my admiration for this young lad, actually a gentle giant with an even bigger heart, an entrepreneur of two businesses as well as owning and running a school. It was fortunately not so crowded at Guruvayoor and my efforts at obtaining a copy of KVK’s book on the temple was unsuccessful. Other nearby relatives were met and early the next morning we witnessed the quick Talikettu wedding ceremony of the couple in front of the temple. People still find it amazing to see and hear that the event takes no more than 5 minutes. That done, Dina had to get us back to Palghat in quick time in his SUV, which he did, for he was a great driver, deftly handling the crowded Kerala roads. I will always remember that four or five hour trip, with Nikita in the front, a shawl draped over her to cover up all the jewelry, Dina driving with a fierce and focused countenance, Varsha, Kartika and Shoba in the middle row while Vineth and I were hunched over with the bags at the back. A jolly trip it was, with a lot of singing and merry making, and Kartika prodding us on with marvelous song suggestions. At Palghat, the formal event started after we got there, with many friends and relatives in attendance. A sumptuous lunch was served after and with that the day’s events were brought to a close. Dina returned to Tiripur, and we to Pallavur. An impromptu music session followed, where we all tried to sing, Vineth of course taking the lead as he is a wonderful singer and then we had a great time ribbing the couple about the first night....The next day showcased a reception to the villagers and as the house started to empty, with guests and relatives starting on their return trips, promises to stay in touch were sadly exchanged.
|Nikitaa and Vineth|
We moved on to Cochin before proceeding to Calicut, to drop off a son at the airport and visit a cousin in Cochin. Phew, Cochin City I can assure you is a right royal mess, with the metro work and the horrendous traffic jams. But then again, Calicut will soon follow suit. At Calicut, we had some other matters to tend to while our niece Devu and her team planned the Sangeeth and other related events for the second wedding. She did a yeoman job and ensured that it was memorable and efficient. We did have a little snafu (that word is actually an interesting military acronym – google it if you want to know) when an aunt fell ill and had to be hospitalized to recover from dehydration, what with the intense heat and humidity.
Calicut has changed a lot, the juice ‘mash’ now sports large industrial gloves on his hands to save his fingers from the citric acids while squeezing limes, a new Zamorin is in place, the roads are chockablock, many a high-rise is being built and people are just spending a lot of money. Added to all that, it was Ramadan time and many of the popular hotels had closed down for maintenance (but we had ensured that we did not miss the Bombay hotel biriyani before it closed). Paragon was open though and still maintained their old standard, but they had no more new stories of hotshots visiting them….
Newspapers were abuzz with the story of pirated DVD versions of Premam, a hit movie and various other events while the monsoon played truant. I can assure you my friends, it was too damn hot and humid, even for me!!
A new mall called Hi-lite had been opened and proved to be full of brand names, looking a lot like a US mall. The barbecue kitchen there was a revelation, and the food fantastic, to say the least, though one must be quite hungry to consume all the stuff they have on offer. The bypass was becoming the in-place, with all kinds of new shops. I wonder how Calicut will look after some time.
Calicut was many things to many travelers, delightful, bustling, quiet, war torn, rainy, sleepy and so on and widely written about, eons ago. Today it has lost all its character, and if you compare it with David Lear’s description a hundred plus years ago (1874 to be exact) terming Calicut the summer of Eden, you just wonder.
Lear had said - I mooned about those beautiful lanes and roads, the exquisite vegetation of which beats all chance of description. The plentitude of palmery here is overwhelming! Those deep grey-green misty hollows full of endless vistas and series of palm leaves and stems! It is all but impossible to give any idea of these beautiful Malabar lanes, since their chief beauty consists of what cannot be readily imitated; to wit, endless detail of infinitely varied vegetation, and constantly changing variety of moving figure panoramic effect. The colour, too, of these scenes; the deep and vivid green, the red soil roads, and the brilliant white and scarlet dresses of the people, make all Malabar drawing a painful riddle. I found it too difficult to draw standing up in the middle of hot road, with crowds of people around. These Malabar folk stick like burrs or flies; you can't get rid of them, and on the 'one fool makes many' principle, you find yourself in a multitude, what can one do against the eternal rain? At this moment it is raining as if it had never rained before-cats and dogs.
About the beach - How pretty and orderly all this part of Calicut looks!
That is one part of Calicut which has changed so much, the beach has been beautified, sea view apartments built, the filth has been mostly removed and by evening, everybody is there to look at the Arabian Sea and be part of the evening multitude…..and have a good time.
The second wedding went off well, with the Sangeeth also a resounding success. Remarkable an event in many ways (Remember what I had to say about religious amity in Calicut?), my wife’s nephew Sid married Lisa Mary and the function was solemnized in a reception hall owned by a Muslim friend! As usual the cousins were all there, replete with a lot of merry making and consumption of great food, though a bit somber with the aunt’s illness, from which she subsequently recovered fully…
The theme color for the ladies of the family was yellow and orange and it is said that many of the hapless lady guests trooped into every cloth shop in Calicut trying the find a yellow saree or dress in time, so much so that the event and people were well known in most shops. As girls and women put on mehndi on their hands, special events marked evenings, like a performance welcoming the bride, with the folk singer extoling the virtues of the bridegroom, impromptu singing, catered food and what not. Everybody wanted to make sure that they were in line to bless the couple, as is a must in Kerala weddings.
The demure bride seemed a bit overwhelmed with all the new ceremonies, but we hastened to put her at ease with idle chatter as Sid was busy sorting out matters before their quick return to Bombay, where they both worked. A visit to the registrar (I could not but help recall that one of the first registrars who sat in that very office was my own grandfather!) to witness their legal marriage was an interesting aside. The special marriage act rules required the couple to fulfill the condition that they were neither idiots nor lunatics (neither party should be an idiot or a lunatic at the time of registration)! Hmm, no wonder they call the English queer, only they could have instated such a rule!!
|Sid and Lisa with parents|
And finally it was time to return. Sartaj again was the taxi driver who took us back to Cochin airport. We did startle him again when we asked him to stop at a road side Indian coffee house to have a last meal of cutlets and ghee roast. I presume he was wondering on his lonely drive back, about those funny Americans who wanted to eat only at such lowly places and of course, I am also sure he has different impressions about us compared to many of those Malayali foreign returnees who spoke with newly acquired accents and threw money around…
|At the registrar's office|
But like every other trip, we met so many new and interesting people who would remain in our minds and hearts, like the driver Sartaj, the impressionable Dina, new friends like Varsha, Reshma and Kartika, and so many more….
But I cannot end without introducing an even more interesting character, named Chotu, for he was the professional photographer during the event at Calicut. It is said that before he became an accomplished event photographer, he used to accompany his friend Jayan, an AIR artist who clambered coconut trees (part-time – you have no idea how strenuous that is) to fell coconuts. Now Chotu never climbed coconut trees, but he was an oddity because he was not a Malayali and spoke only Hindi. He had landed up in Calicut, after running away from his faraway Uttaranchal home as a teenager (don’t ask me why, I forgot to ask Chotu). Why he chose Kerala was also not clarified as my own meeting with him was shorter than I liked. Anyway as the story goes, he wandered around with Jayan who took him under his wings and when Jayan started to work with Doordarshan at Trivandrum, Chotu accompanied. One day he found time to visit a circus. There he met a Russian who as it turns out, curiously tried to sell him a Zenit 35mm SLR camera. Chotu had no need for a camera, and neither of them could converse for they had no common language. Talking with signs and eyes, the Russian in the circus made it clear he wanted to be rid of the camera and wanted some money in return. He wanted Rs 5,000, and without a plan in mind, Chotu replied that all he could raise was RS 1,000. The Russian agreed finally and Chotu (means ‘small guy’) ended up with a Zenit camera and a nice leather case. Not knowing what to do with it, he decided to go to the beach and take pictures of beach scenery, because somebody told him that is what you did with a camera. He shot away, taking in the palm trees, the beach and finally some bikini clad foreigners.
When he had the reel developed, he was not surprised to see that most of the pictures were duds. Of the 37 he shot (now those who used cameras in the 70’s through 90’s will know that you can get only 36 shots legally, and the 37th is usually an iffie) only the last four of the bikini clad females came out right. Chotu was mystified, why did the last four work out right? Were the girls blessed or was it because of their complexion? You never know with these foreigners, he thought. He went back to the studio to find out and find out he did, that the shutter stop setting was perhaps just right for the low light since the last four shots had been taken with the setting sun behind the scantily clad lassies. So the next week, he spent another hard earned Rs 120 on a new roll of film and with a book in hand carefully set the exposures and recorded them against time. Soon he had mastered the Zenit…
And that was how he became a photographer, and having decided to settle at Calicut, mastered Malayalam though speaking it with a slight accent. He is now a popular young fella in Calicut (I forgot his full name and in any case nobody other than he, uses it anyway) and covers many a wedding event. He, I believe, is now on the lookout for a life partner.
These day things have changed so much in Kerala, where once North Indians were hardly seen. Today there are so many migrants from Bihar, Assam, Bengal and all those NE parts. Malayalis are employing them for all kinds of work and many a Malayali now proudly claims to be fluent in Hindi, thanks to these job seekers.
Ah! Well! I have been rambling on and on as so many miles were traversed by the large A380. The pilot has announced that it will soon be time to land in JFK. They want us to put on our seal belts, upright our seats and raise the tray tables.
The seat belt clicks again, severing my memories of that glorious month in India.
Nikita – You asked me why I thanked you after the wedding, now you have a complete answer, no?
And with that, let me sign off…..
Here I am, back home……..