The Pathana at Pallavur
The muted sounds of the CCU were permeating my consciousness, I was supine and I had nothing to do. After a while, I was scanning the hall, starting with the fluorescent lights, and stopping often at the flickering tube that escaped the maintenance rounds. I noticed that they hummed, like they were alive, perhaps due to older ballasts, or was it so that the hum was from the air-conditioning? And then there were the gurgles and hisses from the various fluid and gas lines and cocks, valves or spigots as they called them here.
Now you can understand how bored I was, and I was starting to doze off, with the reassuring sounds of the busy hospital lulling me to sleep. It was then that I picked up a conversation in the distance, in Malayalam. I could discern two accents, one being Kottayam Malayalam and the other somewhat strange, it was Malayalam alright but with a very heavy Tamil tinge. I had heard that accent before but I just could not place it then. The voices revealed much more, that one was being spoken by a confident nurse (it must be Thresiamma), while the other was more childlike and hesitant, as though she was finding it difficult to converse in this tongue. I thought she could be a Tamilian lady who had picked up this difficult language sometime in her past. The voices faded as they moved to the farther end of the ward and I lapsed into a fitful slumber. The drapes around my bed fluttered in the light breeze as the piped and hydrated air gushed in at just the temperature and humidity set by a computerized system.
I must have slept for not more than 15 minutes when the very same voices, now louder and close, woke me up. Through bleary and half open eyelids, I recognized the Malayali nurse, Thersiamma, she strayed not from the ‘tending to chubby’ build, practically attired, ramrod straight stance and a tough countenance, but her eyes were friendly as always. The lady standing next to her was totally different, for she was definitely plump, incredibly fair in color, her skin texture tending to a kind of translucence. She was certainly on the wrong side of her 50’s but life had treated her well and her unlined face was home to strikingly large and smiling eyes, she was indeed pretty, even in that late middle age. As I was looking at her, my eyes now wide open, I could see the face of the nurse taking on an ominous frown, obviously disapproving of any attempts to flirt with her boss!!
The pretty doctor took her eyes of the chart and looked down at me. Something was familiar about her eyes and face, but I just could not place it. The lady looked at me, screwing her eyes a bit and went back to the chart, then again down at me, then again back to the chart. Are you from Kerala?
Where in Palghat?
Her eyes now widened in alarm and locked.
That was when realization hit me like a thunderbolt. Of course! I moved my eyes to the left corner of her coat to check the name, yes, part of it was just what I thought - Dr Maimunna Faizal. I did not say anything, for I was not sure what to say, but muttering an affirmative, I continued to look at Maimunna, a trifle sheepishly. The doctor did not say much more, just tightened up and went through the routines of a perfunctory examination which doctors on rounds tend to do, check your lungs with a stethoscope, look under your eyes, check your pulse and the such. I was there for a angioplasty, the present day plumbing routine on your arteries to remove plaque buildups, resulting from an affluent and sedentary lifestyle.
It had been a fairly uneventful period of rest following a successful procedure and I was recovering famously or so declared the pretty and plump Dr Maimunna. But her voice betrayed her, for it was a wee bit nervous and the nurse missed not the looks her doctor were casting on this patient. She steered her doctor quickly off my bed and they were off to the next, after drawing my drapes back to ensconce me into my own insurance paid private hospital space.
Tremulous is not just it, but I think my mind was racing furiously into its recesses, to recover memories from my youth, of days more than 40 years into the past. It was difficult, a few events came to the fore quickly, but the details would not and it took me a good 2 hours to figure whatever little I could, concerning a girl called Maimunna and Pallavur. Amazing, I muttered, how on earth did this girl surface after so many years, and of all places as a cardiologist in Raleigh? What an amazing coincidence, to have come across a very person, the very same family which was once the cause célèbre in our obscure village of Pallavur?
I am sure you guys are wondering what kind of a silly story I am planning to regurgitate, assuming of course that it could be one of those silly childhood infatuations. In a way it is, but mostly it is not. As you would have guessed, I have to take you to our village and the 70’s.
I still remember that hot summer day, Mani and I were on the parapet wall and listening to the cricket commentary on my trusted little Keltron Transistor radio. I stopped to smile, thinking how a radio got its name from one of its minor components, the transistor, a part which had unceremoniously unseated the venerable radio valve that used to rule the roost. Anand Setalwad was droning away and we were all waiting eagerly for AIR to switch to the more enthusiastic Suresh Saraiya. BS Chandrashekar my favorite, was bowling and the Englishmen facing him were behaving like cats on a tin roof, dodging his vicious leg breaks and googlies. Just as the mike was handed over to Suresh Saraiya, a bullock cart appeared on the road connecting Kizhakethara to Kunissery and stopped in front on the post office. The post office in those days was housed in the nice home which had been rented out for that purpose, close to Kizhakethara.
Across the post office was a little cement home which had been built by Koran, Raman Nair’s supervisor. In fact people used to wonder how this bloke saved money to build his own hovel. It was not difficult actually, for he was the only one among the field workers who was careful with his earnings. He did not drink or whore around, and after a couple of decades saved enough to buy a small bit of land from Nair. That was the first of the big scandals in our village, as a landlord sold land to his serf. But my uncle had intervened and eventually the villagers accepted the fact. Now Koran had become old, his wife had passed on and it appears that he had decided to move to Kozhalmannam, where his daughter lived.
The bullock cart looked strange, it was not like one of those plain Palghat varieties, it was more ornate, there were colored ribbons festooning the vehicle, the shape itself was different and the bullocks pulling the two wheeler were bigger and healthier. The smaller wheels did not creak and groan and they even had a rubber padding around them. It was a summer afternoon, very hot and you could see the shimmer over the tar road, which was softer here and there. Krishnan Kutty, that son of the priest, had his Hawaii slippers stuck in the tar the other day! The cart stopped, the bullocks looked around and settled down, I guess they sighed with tiredness, after a long trek from god knows where. The whole incident was happening just a few hundred yards away from us, although a little curve in the road covered up parts of our sight.
A burly middle aged man alighted from the front, and we could make out that he was an affluent and purposeful man. His attire was quite alien and he sported a great big green Mecca belt around his waist and a fierce mustache and a beard under his beaky nose. The shirt he wore was clear white, his lungi was checkered, riding well above his ankles and his hair was not black but brownish red. What was most striking about him was his great height, sharp eyes and his somewhat haughty bearing. Next to jump out from the rear of the cart was a rotund lady, attired in bright Muslim clothes, more like a gown, and with her head covered. Last of all was a young girl in her teens, wearing a bright green skirt, a white blouse on top. Uncharacteristically her head was not covered and we could see from the distance that she was a beauty, incredibly fair and tall, but a little pudgy.
The cricket ball had changed hands, Bishen Bedi had replaced Chandra and his tight maiden overs were tiring the English. Now Balu Alaganan was droning on, and our attention strayed from cricket to the activity across the post office. The Pathan, for we assumed he was one such, had untethered the bullocks and tied them to the tree in front of the house. The woman and the girl were systematically removing their belongings from the cart and taking them to Koran’s house.
Mani, I am sure you remember my live-wire cousin, for I had introduced him some time ago, could not take this any longer. He had to find out what was going on and in a jiffy he was off, headed Eastwards. I had to smile seeing Mani go, his brown dhoti at half mast, hands and legs pumping furiously, eyes screwed up, head inclined up and Northwards as though it was tracking the wind. I went indoors, as I knew Eacharan had arrived after the weekly shopping at Alathur, some time ago. There were fresh and hot SNR banana chips to be munched.
I saw my uncle at his usual place, lounging on the rattan ‘easy chair’ with his legs draped on its extendable leg support. He had woken up after his afternoon siesta a little while ago and seeing me asked what the cricket score was. I was more interested in narrating to him what I had seen, that a Muslim family was settling down in Koran’s house across the post office. What I had not expected was to see the look of alarm turning to consternation on his otherwise resolute face. He dropped his legs down, pulled in the leg stops and sat up to ask me ‘Did you say Muslim’? And I answered ‘yes, they are Pathan’s, I think that fellow is 7’ tall! He has come with his wife and daughter’.
What I could not have imagined was the furor this event created in our otherwise obscure little village. In fact it took no more than a couple of hours for various events to unfold.
That evening Mani and I went to the temple. My brother was studying in Coimbatore and my cousin was studying rural management in Gujarat. All the other cousins were here and there, in Madras or Bombay while I was alone at Pallavur for a study holiday. So there was not much to do other than read, gossip with Mani or smoke a forbidden Passing-Show (only one we could afford, the cigarette with no filter but looked like it had one) cigarette and visit the temple to ogle the girls who came for evening Deeparadhana. In those days that was the only place where one could do a bit of honest flirting in Pallavur. Youngsters gathered there and not surprisingly many girls came too, to offer their prayers, looking demure and pretty, in small groups, with the heady fragrance from jasmine flowers trailing their wake.
I had a crush on my friend’s sister Lakshmi and so I was hoping to see her that day. She did come, wearing a blue skirt and half saree (dhavani – they call it) and looking ever so pretty and bashful while I was wondering how I could muster some courage and start a conversation with her, but with all the people around, it was proving neigh impossible. So Mani and I sat at the temple ledge and just looked and ogled. Lakshmi and her sister had finished their prayers in the Sreekovil, she had completed her pradikshanams and was soon off on a tangent, homeward bound. I had again lost an opportunity to talk to Lakshmi and there were only 20 days left of the study leave left to further this potential affair. In the engineering college, it was not a problem talking to girls, but here closer to home it was too complicated, the families knew each other so well and all news reached home in a jiffy.
Usually, the village retired for the day when the sun set. People went indoors to escape the heat, the mosquitoes, and listened to Vividbharati and other local AIR programs on the radio (no television to watch, those days). Interestingly, the village had just two phones, one in the post office and one in the company mill, as it was called. The mill was where paddy was de-husked and milled and polished to make white rice as you see it in shops, and my friend Babu’s family ran it. They also manufactured par boiled rice from raw rice, a process which created a fantastic aroma if you ask me, I can still smell it in my senses!
As usual the voltage dipped with Babu’s Mill working overtime and we all cursed him. I was trying to find a book to read, my uncle had a fantastic collection of books, some entirely unreadable and covering terrible subjects like world history. There were books on the great wars and anthropology. He also archived a number of old Readers Digest issues, Life magazine and Imprint magazines which were the best. On some days my aunt from Koduvayur brought in old pocketbooks for me to read. They were usually Perry Mason books which her cousins had picked up during their train journeys. I would devour those fascinating mysteries sitting next to the brightest lamp in the house.
Today it was all different. By 6 PM, the village think-tank appeared at our door steps. Karavatte Raman was first. Soon to come was Krishna Aiyer, then there was Aravancheri Raman Nair. Vadasseri Krishnan Nair followed and FACT TRS Iyer completed the entourage. Ooops, I forgot, after a little while, one more person landed up, Subedar Ananthan Menon. Sometimes I think we have the strangest characters in our village, comprising people from three communities - the Nair landlords who had their nalukettu homes, Iyers who were once upon a time associated with the temple and lived in the agraharams near the Tripallavurappan temple, and a few people who started and settled down due to marriage connections with the aforesaid landlords like Subedar Ananthan (he was actually from North Malabar). Of course there were Cherumans who worked in the fields, as well, but they were not represented in temple matters, those days.
The people of the village had only one occupation, agriculture, more specifically growing different varieties of paddy. That’s why you see those endlessly beautiful green paddy fields north and opposite our house, right upto the bottom of the black hills of the Western Ghats in the distance. On the rocky hill nearest, beyond the leaves of the Palmyra palms dotting your sight, you could see a little temple atop the hill and on cooler days, we cousins trekked up and lounged there till the sun set, shooting the breeze and chit chatting.
Of the families boasting some importance, Karavatte Raman was the remnant of a once prosperous tharavad, all that affluence lost when an uncle squandered it all away in the past, though they retained their position among the village elders. Nowadays he ran a Landmaster taxi and it is said that everybody in our village had travelled on it at least once, with normally specific reasons such as - a wedding at Guruvayur, the hospital in Palghat, the railway station at Olavakkode, the Palani temple or saree shopping at Trichur or Coimbatore, for a wedding. If somebody got bitten by a snake or a dog, Raman would speed the stricken patient to the GH at Palghat, though the speed is not what you believe, it was possibly 30-40 km per hour, and you would still reach Palghat in a half hour at best. He had a son, Mohanettan, whom I have on occasion seen cozying up to Aravancheri Malu in the dark recesses of the temple. Let him be, lucky fellow, though I don’t like Malu, she never gave me a good vibe. I don’t know too much of the Vadasseri tharavad, in fact I do not recall seeing many youngsters from that family, all of them were older people, so out of my circuit.
FACT Iyer gets his name because he used to work in FACT Kalamassery and had recently retired. He was a very helpful and philanthropic man actually, and would ensure delivery of fertilizers for the farmers of our village at special rates due to his company connections. He was the main person on all temple related activities, the temple committee president actually. Krishna Iyer on the contrary was a little eccentric and more interested in Yoga and some occult studies. I was told he used to teach history in Calicut and was an author of some history books and one on the Zamorins of Calicut. My uncle used to discuss matters with him for hours sometimes, and Iyer could often be seen cycling from one end of the village to other, dhoti tied round his neck, lost in thought.
Ananthan Menon was an oddball, he had returned after the Second World War from the Assam border where he served with the British under a general called William Slim. He used to tell us all kinds of stories and in general it was accepted that he added a 70% exaggeration factor, so we never knew exactly what and how much to believe. Like he used to say that black American prisoners were building a road to China. Nobody believed him at first, but it was only some year’s back that I read details of the Ledo road and the handiwork of the Americans at the CBI Theater, and how the Chinese Madam Chiang (Soong Mei Ling) got Americans to do it. Anyway, the villagers called him Vidals Ananthan (exaggerator Ananthan), but of course due to his apparent knowledge of all kinds of matters, he was part of the think tank.
The discussions were held at our poomukham or what we called the Porathalam. Everybody was animated, the decibel level went up, and my Gandhian uncle looked troubled. That was the scene I observed after I got back from the temple. The matter was simple. Pallavur had three strict commandments since time immemorial. One - the village would allow only Hindus to live within its temple Sanketham. Two – No coconut tree would be used for toddy tapping, ever and Three – People could go to other places to live and work, but they had to come for the yearly Navarathri festival in September or they would not be considered legitimate citizens. The first one had now been broken, and nobody had anticipated that a Pathan family would acquire Koran’s house.
Raman Nair mentioned that the rumor was that Koran had borrowed a sum of money from the Pathan who was originally from Putunagaram across the Tamil border, for his daughter’s wedding but had not paid back. Koran, by virtue of the stamp paper he had signed, had no recourse but to leave the house when his wife died to the Pathan and move to his daughter’s place. That is how the Pathan got the house, square and simple.
The elders were in a quandary, what to do next? The law would not serve any purpose, the Pathan would win and any argument over obscure and ancient edicts would not stand upto the test of the legal systems. As a quiet and harmless village, goondagiri which you see in movies was also not a direction to consider. The motely group decided to task the only person who spoke Hindi (they all assumed Hindi would be more persuasive) – Subedar Ananthan to go and speak to the Pathan. Ananthan without any further delay strode purposefully, you know what – a military man can be easily identified from his stride, its measured length and the simple movement of hands – the left hand will always follow in perfect synchrony to the right leg even when not marching and the hands won’t be idly swinging about like other’s tend to do.
Meeting the Pathan, who ceremoniously offered him a glass of red Rhoo-afsa, Menon explained gruffly the quandary the village was in. The Pathan, Afzal Khan was his name, politely told him that they had sold off their small hovel in Pudunagaram and had moved into this house, that they had nowhere else to go and that they had no plans to do anything else other than starting a small shop and maybe attach a small hotel to it over time. Menon came back and reported the matter to the group, who were aghast. A Muslim hotel now? The Iyers from the agraharam were trembling - What if they served beef and other non-vegetarian items in the village? Something had to be done, and in the end, they all hoped that my uncle would figure out a way.
My grandmother’s stentorian voice cut across the hall, she stated that it was already late and that the lamp lighting at dusk had not yet been done. This was a polite reminder for the think-tank to wind up their meeting and get lost. My grandmother was known to be very strict and even her son, my uncle the Karanavar of the tharavad, would obey when her voice was raised. My cousin sis soon walked in with the lamp and sat down to mutter the prayers on the kolayi or corridor adjacent to the thalam. My grandma would not have that, she wanted the prayers loudly sung and heard by all in the house. I saw that my uncle was distracted and troubled, he was trying to figure a solution and was perhaps using all the management experience he had gained from his corporate days in Calcutta.
After dinner, I tried to imbibe some knowledge from BL Theraja’s electrical engineering text book but was soon left wondering why they prescribed a book purportedly written by a librarian, not even an engineer for us, but it was all heavy going and thoughts of that pretty Pathana kept intruding my thoughts. Scenes of belly dancers from Persia (that’s how they show it in movies) kept flashing at the back of my mind, and in my dreams, I was soon prancing about with the Pathana.
Next morning, I accosted Mani and appraised him of the previous evening’s happenings. We decided to walk past the Pathan’s house. The father had gone out and the girl was up and about in front of the house. Before I could, Mani asked what her name was, and she answered without hesitation or a blink – Maimunna. There was nothing more to add or ask, and that was when we stole our first looks, and our glances locked. Like they say in those novels, I was simply rooted to the spot for a while, and I interpreted that the look conveyed a more than subtle startup interest. My blood pressure rose, I guess, so also my heart rate, so much so that I was alarmed to hear its thud thud. At close range, she looked fascinating, a bit on the plump side, charming and pretty. Mani pulled me away and we got back to doing other tasks like going to the post office to collect letters, a swim in the pond and more attempts at trying to master Theraja and Benjamin Kuo’s Control systems, for the upcoming exams. But Maimunna was a distraction and electrical technology, a nuisance.
Days passed by, the think-tank met often, voices were becoming louder, and my uncle was getting more irritable, after all he was planning to stand for the Panchayat president’s post and this was becoming a litmus test, it would not be good if he failed to find a solution. I knew he was very unhappy about the whole thing, on one hand, his principles were guiding him to let the Pathan be, but on the other hand, he did not want any kind of disharmony in the village, if he could help.
As for me, I wasted days and nights dreaming about Maimunna, but doing absolutely nothing to further anything on the romance front. I would force Mani to accompany me for walks past the Pathan dwelling and the girl and I would exchange glances, but that was it. Kind of stupid, don’t you think? But you can understand I suppose, it was too large a chasm to cross. Needless to mention that my interest in Lakshmi had waned.
This is not the kind of love story you have read, seen or heard of, it went nowhere. As it transpired, my uncle figured out a solution. He identified an area in nearby Ayilur where the Pathan could be relocated to. The villagers decided to split the cost of that plot, the Pathan could sell this Pallavur house to a worker in our employ and move there. My uncle was of course nominated to pitch the idea to the Pathan. Roughly a fortnight had gone by.
What happened was anticlimactic. When Afzal Khan was summoned to our place, the proud man had something else to say. He had heard about what was going on and had decided himself that this was not where he wanted to settle down, he had decided to move to Koduvayur, where he said, business prospects were better, there were many Rowthers and kinsmen and that they could even visit a mosque regularly. His said that his ancestors hailed from some Pashtun province and had moved to Madurai, generations ago. They had eked a living first as Kabuliwalahs and later as money lenders. Now it was time to do something else and his wife and daughter hated the bad will he was getting, lending money, that was why he had decided to start a shop. Anyway it was not meant to be in Pallavur, and hopefully they would do well in Koduvayur. A week later, they left. As I was getting ready to go back to college at Calicut, I heard the bullock cart tinkling and trundling its way through the hills and the forest road, headed to Koduvayur. I caught a glimpse of Maimunna and her mother seated within, both were looking straight ahead, neither unhappy nor forlorn. Perhaps this was not their first experience of being considered as outcasts.
That was so many years ago, was this the same Maimunna?
I was woken out of my reverie by the arrival of the doctor. This time she was alone, sans Thresiamma. She sat on the edge of my bed and asked me if I was the Pallavur lad she had once seen but never talked to. I nodded and she smiled, a wry smile.
‘You remember how you all drove us out of your village?’ She asked.
I had no answer.
She continued, ‘You know, we went to Koduvayur and I studied in the school there. Then I did my pre degree in Victoria and later got admission into the medical college at Trivandrum’.
I pretended not to be surprised.
She added a bit more of personal information– ‘After marriage, I landed up in America and have been working my way through the system. I am filling in for a friend in this hospital this month and we will move to New York, Faizal has obtained an appointment at the power utility there and I have got a job at NYU’.
Now looking at the chart, she went on – ‘So this is your name! I never knew that you had such a funny name! I kept mum, and she professionally filled me in - that my heart was OK, that my vitals were looking good and that I would be discharged soon….perhaps she wanted to add - ‘to lead the life you had chosen’.
With a pat on my thigh and a little sigh (did I imagine that?), she was gone.
I never saw her again. But I wondered often about that month in Pallavur and how the rules of coexistence were decided by a community. Perhaps it was wrong, perhaps it was right, but life in a village cannot be equated with the life in a crowded city like Bombay, I suppose.
The village is still the same, the rules remain, nothing has changed, nothing will, I presume….
For it is, a village frozen in time.
The Pallavur Sanketham’s rules are factual. KVK Iyer mentions it in his history papers and books. This story however, is pure fiction and just a figment of my imagination.
I had written a more detailed article on the sankethams of Malabar, do take a look at it, if such matters interest you. One thing is still not clear, how Pallavur had such a big temple when the village around it had so few people. Perhaps it all came about as a result of a rumored pillage of the Pallavur temple by Tipu’s marauding forces in the 18th century.
Pathana - meant to signify the feminine gender of Pathan, does not exist as a word – it is my own go at it.
I will also let you in on another not so well known fact - One of the three uralaers (sanketham trustees) responsible for the Pallavur temple was from EMS Nambuthirpad’s Illam. EMS describes his very first ride in a car from Vellangalloor to Pallavur, in his autobiography.
Along the way, I learnt that greenish colored drapes and gowns was chosen after the color of medicine, when a bloke named Harry Shermann in 1914 established that green was perfect for any kind of discriminatory observations and calm confinement.