Lawrence of Arabia - His life in British India

Most of you would have seen the movie with the name (Note: This is not a movie review or a biography!), many of you may have read a bit here and there about him, that Lt Col TE Lawrence, working with the Arabs in the deserts North of today’s Saudi Arabia led the 1916-18 revolt against the Turks, and helped establish Arab lands you see today. As a person who studied pottery and went to the Middle East to be an archeologist, he soon found his way into international politics and armed uprising, of the illiterate Bedouin. He was quickly accepted as a quasi leader and a fellow by the rugged but rival factions of various tribes and Lawrence adopted many local customs and traditions (many photographs show him in the desert wearing Arab garb and riding camels). His final victory in the desert was establishing the liberated Damascus as the capital of the Arab council, with King Faisal as the head, but it was not to continue. During the closing years of the war he sought, with mixed success, to convince his superiors in the British government that Arab independence was in their interests. Disappointed and depressed, he moved back to Britain and was lost to the world, though figuring occasionally in UK news. His friend and American journalist Thomas Lowell had by then propelled him into the world media as a hero, which Lawrence as it appears, was never ready to accept. Anyway, Lawrence had his weaknesses and faults, but was always an eminently interesting adventurer.

TEL as he was known, worked later for W Churchill, but during his life in UK as a civilian, found the public glare on himself too hard to endure. Changing his name to John Hume Ross, he joined the tank corps in England but left soon after. In 1925, he joined the RAF and asked for a posting to India. He spent three years in relative obscurity in British India, and went back to Britain, to die in 1935, in a motorcycle accident (Some enthusiast’s say he did not and that he went back to the Middle East as a spy (Like Subhash Chandra Bose, he figures in many such hypotheses)). But even his death had a silver lining. Today’s use of helmets are a result of doctors studying the mortally ‘head injured’ TEL unsuccessfully fighting for his life.

OK, so much is commonplace, but what did he do in India? Actually he worked for the RAF in today’s Pakistan, starting in Karachi. Some of it was routine clerical work, some of it, still filled with intrigue. Let us take a look into those missing pages of his public life, of which not much is written about. Probably it was too sedate a period in his otherwise turbulent life, probably it was something else entirely, but for me, it was an interesting journey, trying to uncover the story, for I have great admiration for this man. I yearn always to be like that, in strange lands, doing things nobody else did. But we will all have our dreams, while others enact it in their lifetime (See TEL’s quote at the end).

Many questions till remain unanswered - Was he recovering from nervous strain or writing books in addition to routine work in the RAF or was he an anti Soviet British spy in the NWFP? Did the person who considered female contact not quite right, one who desired ultimate chastity, and later arranged for people to whip him, get married while in India? Interesting, eh?

By Dec 1926, Lawrence had completed a draft of his biography, the ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom’ which was yet to be published. His great friend GB Shaw the writer and Shaw’s wife Charlotte were soon to help him edit it. His next work, ‘Revolt in the desert’ was ready for release and TEL used all his connections to secure a 5 year posting at the RAF station in Northern India. On Dec 8th, he set sail to India, in a troopship. But there was another twist. Thomas Edward Lawrence, who had become John Hume Ross to escape public scrutiny, now changed his name to Thomas Edward Shaw. Lawrence the persona as we know him today, was journalist Lowell Thomas’s making, the one exalted identity which he wanted to escape from, and thus it was that he ran away to India. Destination, Karachi, NW British India.

At Karachi, TE Shaw took a train to the nearby Drig airbase. As he chugged on, he saw that the terrain was somewhat similar to Arabia; TEL liked it and soon settled down to the humdrum routine of military life in an outpost. He did his own chores, hating the way the others treated the Indian, though he did nothing much about it other than mumbling a bit. His job was a clerk was mostly confined to barracks. Imagine the ex Lt Col, now working in the RAF as a lowly clerk and messenger boy, keeping records on engines, repair logs and the such. It was boring and TEL started to add to his book collection, soon reaching 250 within the year. Listening to the gramophone was also a pastime, and he lived frugally, lending money to others and working without a break. Very few knew his real identity, which anyway was legally changed by June 1927 to TE Shaw.

Winston Churchill writes to Airman Lawrence on May 16, 1927: “In fact, when I put down the Seven Pillars, I felt mortified at the contrast between my dictated journalism and your grand and permanent contribution to English literature... The impression it produced was overpowering. I marched with you those endless journeys by camel, with never a cool drink, a hot bath, or a square meal except under revolting conditions. What a tale!”

1927 did not do well to TEL’s health, he had dysentery, problems with his hearing & eyesight and his wrist which was broken earlier continued to trouble him. He felt cold and caught colds in the otherwise hot Karachi. But he worked the evenings writing loads of stuff. Some of that was actually well over 100 letters exchanged with GB Shaw’s wife Charlotte over two years!! Just imagine, he was 38 and she was 70, in the year 1927. She was the mother figure pouring out her heart to the young Lawrence, matters that even her longtime husband GBS had no clues about. She sent him food parcels and edited all his work from then on. Unfortunately he burnt a lot of her replies though she did not. During this period he wrote yet another book, this one on the RAF called ‘Mint’. All in all, things were going well though he was depressed, but the mind weary 39 year old TEL, who felt like a ‘wing crippled duck, and a squeezed out orange’, wanted to try for another extension in India, until 1935. Lawrence describes conditions at the RAF base in Karachi: “Our beds are narrow and close together, our cooks awful; our life harried by orders” (letter to Apsley Cherry-Gerrard, April 4, 1927, Karachi)

At this point, things would take another turn. The commander, deeply distrustful of special correspondence between TEL and his big bosses in Britain, wanted him out. Soon Lawrence (Shaw) was about to be shunted somewhere, when another big gun, a friend of his, interfered and removed the station commander. The new chief was no better for Lawrence, and soon TEL was posted to Miranshah in the NWFP, 10 miles from Afghanistan, where a 400 square yard fort had been appropriated by the British, complete with an airstrip.

Now I wonder, why put this man there of all places? (Do you recall that Champaka Raman Pillai was to come to the NWFP and that it was to become the location for the launch of the Azad India movement? Operation Tiger was being put into place by the Nazi’s as well – but let me not complicate all this too much, that was much later, towards 1942-44). This fort near Waziristan had 5 British officers, 20 airmen, 700 Indian troops and segregated living. Lawrence remained an airman and would not take any exams for fear that he would be promoted. So here, he became a store keeper and clerk typist. Can you again imagine, a personal friend of Thomas Hardy, GB Shaw, EM Forster, Churchill, winner of medals & honors, a one time Lt Col, now working as a typist? And it was here that he took to translating French books and the Odyssey from Greek. It was June 1928 by now.

By September, it was all to change with a London Evening news headline that read ‘Lawrence of Arabia’s secret mission’. He was supposedly spying on Bolsheviks in Amritsar, wearing a turban and robes according to the report. The news created uproar in India and the social circles of London and TEL had to be removed quickly. By November, a tribal revolt was brewing in Afghanistan. Given a choice of Singapore, Aden or Somalia, TEL flew back to Lahore and then to a P & O steamer - SS Rajputana from Bombay back to the ‘blighty’ on Jan 12th, 1929. He finally left, in his own words ‘almost the quietest place I have struck’. He said, ‘I am being hunted and I do not like it. I have a terrible fear of getting the sack from the RAF and can’t rest or sit still’. Soon, he had become arch imperialist spy in the press. They would not allow him to disembark in Cairo on is way back and huge groups of reporters waited for the ship to dock at Plymouth to interview the man who wanted to vanish.

Lawrence finally settled down in horribly cold & freezing England, where Charlotte Shaw and other friends anonymously purchased for him an expensive motorbike, gifting him a hobby that would lead to his eventual death a few years later and poignantly shown in the opening scene of the movie. His head hit the handle bars and massive cerebral hemorrhage speeded his death. Today the helmet we wear, reminds us of that TE Lawrence…

The Miranshah ‘spy’ controversyMuch of this is of course not proven and based on rumors at that time, my mentioning them is just to complete TEL’s stay and related events. While TEL was in Miranshah a public uprising occurred in Afghanistan and the king Amanullah was deposed. Lawrence was accused of working as a British Spy. One of the garbs he supposedly used was that of a Muslim cleric, Pir Karam Shah. I doubt this for it was not easily possible for a Westerner to blend with Afghans & Indians, especially with Lawrence’s blue eyes, pale skin and his knowing only Arabic and not Pashtun, Urdu or Hindi. During one event, a Karam Shah was indeed accosted by an angry mob and was seriously injured (some other reports say that he was accosted by TEL’s wife’s father’s wrestlers when they found out that Shah was Lawrence), the mob was fully convinced that he was 'Lawrence of Arabia' in disguise, But it was ‘later’ reported by the Imperial Civil & Military Gazette that the person was indeed the real Karam Shah. A strong denial that he is Colonel Lawrence, or that he is in any way connected with any State or Government, was then issued by this Syed Pir Karam Shah. Nevertheless the story would not go away.

Tariq Ali, the Pakistani novelist had written, “Surely he [Lawrence] didn’t go all the way to the Afghan frontier just to translate the Odyssey. His skills in fomenting tribal conflict were highly regarded and the British were desperate to topple (Soviet sympathizer & radical) King Amanullah. They needed Lawrence, with his knowledge of Islam and facility in Arabic to exhort the tribesmen against their radical, modernizing ruler.” He told Observer the following - 'Lawrence was deployed in a secret role in Afghanistan to destabilize the regime of the then king. It was a highly secret operation and very sensitive. Lawrence was highly regarded in Afghanistan because he spoke Arabic which tribesmen see as the divine language,' Ali told The Observer last week.

Extract from Lawrence of Arabia - The Man and the Motive - Anthony Nutting )

He had not been there (Miranshah) more than a month when, in spite of strenuous precautions, his presence in this embattled area of Britain's imperial domains became known to the American press, who had for long been looking for an exciting story to fasten onto his return to the East. The Soviet newspapers started an immediate outcry that Colonel Lawrence was spying in Afghanistan and the British Minister at Kabul requested that he be sent back to England. Relations between the Indian government and Afghanistan were then at a most sensitive point and Lawrence's continued presence on the Afghan border would have risked a serious incident. He returned early in 1929 to a barrage of comment and speculation in Britain. Unfortunately for him, just before he was withdrawn from Miranshah, a rebellion broke out in Afghanistan which led to the deposition of the King. Labour politicians and the left-wing press in Britain became convinced that Lawrence, whom they had long suspected as being in reality a leading British intelligence agent masquerading as an ordinary airman, had engineered the Afghan conspiracy at the instigation of the government of India. Questions were asked in Parliament and, at a demonstration staged on Tower Hill by a group of Communists, Lawrence was burned in effigy!

Lawrence’s marriage in KarachiTariq Ali also reported that Akbar Jahan, Sheikh Abudulla’s wife was first married to T E Lawrence in 1928, while he visited Kashmir. He states that the information is from Akbar’s brother Nedou. Apparently Lawrence before leaving had to divorce her. This again is difficult to believe for Lawrence was well known for his distaste for physical relationships and women and had a major issue like undergoing self flagellation with a whip (which curiously he never did while in India!). But then, who knows?

Quoting a Guardian report – Tariq Ali was told of the marriage by a former senior civil servant from the Himalayan mountain state of Kashmir which was part of the British Raj until independence in 1947. The civil servant said he was told by Benji Nedous, the brother of the bride. 'It was kept fairly secret,' Ali said last week. 'While Lawrence was stationed in India he used to go to the city of Lahore like many other officers, to relax. It was known as the Paris of the East and the Nedous family had a hotel there that was popular with soldiers wanting to rest and drink and so on, and that is where he met her.'

Ali said that he was told that the woman, called Akbar Jehan, was from a good family and was a Shia Muslim. 'It was the Shia practice to have short-term marriages that are very quick to arrange and dissolve. The exact details are a mystery and very few people knew about it, but I am completely convinced that Lawrence married the girl.'
A related Hindu report summarizes the same facts

Personally – I think the Lawrence in Afghanistan as a spy is a tall yarn, so also the Akbar Jahan Wife story that followed.

Lawrence in Jandola
He also visited the army mess in Jandola and gifted them a copy of his ‘revolt in the desert’. This act would not have occurred had he been undercover.Reports state thus - He visited the area in 1928 in the guise of an Aircraftsman Shaw; benighted there by a broken down truck and accommodated in Officer’s Mess. He kept them enthralled by tales (some, perhaps, almost true) of far Arabia and left them a volume which is still treasured by the South Waziristan Scouts officers. “This book, he inscribed on the flyleaf, was written by me, but its sordid type and squalid blocks are the responsibility of the publisher. It is, however, the last copy in print of ‘Revolt in the Desert’, and I have much pleasure in presenting it to the officers of the South Waziristan Scouts in memory of a very interesting day and night with them”. This book is apparently lying in the South Waziristan Scouts Officer’s Mess, Wana.

Some detail on the Dirg base – Today called PAF base Faisal
Soon after the India Command of the Royal Air Force was formed in 1918, with a projected deployment of 8 squadrons on the subcontinent, an aircraft repair depot was established at Lahore with a detachment at Karachi and a port depot at Bombay. In 1922 the main unit was shifted from Lahore to Drigh Road. This was to remain the station's chief function until RAF Drigh Road was handed over to the Royal Pakistan Air Force in 1947. T.E. Lawrence wrote to Charlotte Shaw 28 January 1927, "The Depot is dreary, to a degree, and its background makes me shiver. It is a desert, very like Arabia: and all sorts of haunting likenesses (pack-donkeys, the colour and cut of men's clothes, an oleander bush in flower in the valley, camel-saddles, tamarisk) try to remind me of what I've been for eight years desperately fighting out of my mind. Even I began to doubt if the coming out here was wise. However there wasn't much chance and it must be made to do. It will do, as a matter of fact, easily."Air India’s JRD Tata took off from Drigh Road Airport, Karachi, carrying a mail of Imperial Airways, in a tiny, light single-engined de Havilland Puss Moth on his maiden flight to Mumbai via Ahmedabad. On 26 December 1977 Drigh Road Air Base re-named 'Faisal Air Base' in honour of King Faisal II of Saudi Arabia

T.E. Lawrence: biography of a broken hero - Harold Orlans
Lawrence of Arabia - The Man and the Motive - Anthony Nutting
TE Lawrence Studies
Impressions of TE Shaw

Karachi Photo – TE Lawrence Studies

Others from www - thanks

"All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity,but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible."

—T. E. Lawrence from "The Seven Pillars of Wisdom"

Achanak and a slo-mo back to the 70s’

Last month, after a period of some 16 years, I watched the movie Achanak again, to mutter to myself at the end, what a movie it was and by today’s standards, what a movie it is. I remembered seeing it at Lido Bangalore, ages ago, walking down from Cubbon Road, with some friends.

Directed by Gulzar & co produced by Hrishikesh Mukerjee, this thriller brought out the best from a dashing Vinod Khanna playing an Army officer who comes back on a short vacation, to see his wife in the arms of his best friend. He kills them both, one by one and hands himself over to the police and after an ensuing court case, is sentenced to death. While the girl’s father Ifthekar, who is also Khanna’s superior officer, appeals on Khanna’s behest at the high court, Khanna flees captivity, but is found and shot by the police after a thrilling foot chase. Fighting death with cerebral thrombosis, he survives miraculously and recovers, only to be taken back to the gallows. Or is he? It is a brilliant movie and if you, the reader have not seen it, try to (DVD’s are available) . Even today, it will measure up to most standards. Based on a short story by KA Abbas (who also wrote Mera Naam Joker, Jagte Raho, Awaara, Shree 420, Bobby & numerous other great scripts & novels) titled Thirteenth Victim in the magazine Imprint, supported by a cast of Ifthekar, Farida Jalal and Om Shivpuri, the lead by Vinod Khanna is superb.. But then this is not a review, there is obviously more, as you can imagine.

The original story (dating to 1958-59) was ‘apparently’ based on the very famous Kawas Nanavati case. Now this would be known to certain people, mainly Bombay’ites. Kawas was a dashing naval commander who was in the employ of VK Krishna Menon while he was high commissioner in London. While at the UK, Kawas met and fell in love with a lovely English girl Sylvia. They married, and returned to Bombay. Kawas a Parsi, had to travel frequently and it was thus it seems, that Sylvia ended up having an affair with Kawas’s friend, a Sindhi playboy named Prem Ahuja. Now some of you may wonder why I mentioned the communities of these people, well, it was for a reason of course. As the press & court minutes conclude, Sylvia had a roaring physical relationship with Ahuja, but she wanted a more permanent married relation. She was prepared to leave Kawas, but was at the same time getting increasingly confused over the affair, and Ahuja eventually backed off..

As it happened, Kawas came back after a trip and found a disturbed Sylvia. She confessed about the affair with Prem Ahuja. Kawas took it calmly, picked up his service revolver and a few cartridges the next day, from the naval stores, dropped his family at a movie theatre, then went and accosted Prem Ahuja and asked him if he would marry Sylvia. Prem retorted that he had no plans to marry every woman he had sex with. Kawas as it appears shot him dead. He then turned himself in to the police.

The court case which followed was sensational, as Kawas pleaded non culpable homicide, Bombay wad soon divided, Parsis vs Sindhis. Karanjia (also a Parsi) of the ‘Blitz’ newspaper took up the publicity for Kawas. Blitz was soon in hot demand and sold at Rs 2/ each instead of the usual 25 paisa. The dashing officer was on the paper regularly and many swooning women if I read right, sent Rs 100/- notes with their lipstick smears to support him. The trial that followed was a Jury trial. The jury acquitted him 8-1 but later the presiding judge dismissed it saying that the jury was unduly biased by newspaper reports and other publicity.

That was the last time a jury was used to judge a case in India (My friend Nick Balmer was telling me how hard his forefather Thomas H Baber of the East India Company tried to bring in Juries in Malabar trials. Well, they were indeed used in India, until it was abolished in 1959 after this particular Nanavati case). So as you saw, the session’s judge refused to accept the ruling and referred the case to the high court. Kawas was sentenced guilty and imprisoned.

The $&#@ hit the fan as they say and the public went berserk. Ram Jethmalani was the skilful defense counsel. The central government was involved, Nehruji as well or so I read, and the armed forces, threw their weight behind Kawas Nanavati. Finally Vijayalakshmi Pandit, then Bombay Governor pardoned him (after a formal personal pardon by Ahuja’s sister) and she also pardoned a prominent Sindhi businessman who had a government case lodged against him, to compensate Sindhi uproar. Nanavati later emigrated to Canada.

That was the story on which this movie Achanak was supposedly based. Incidentally another more directly related movie is Sunil Dutt’s ‘Yeh raste hein pyar ke’.

What you read above was just a brief introduction to the case, for the Nanavati story is long and lurid, with much of it well documented in the press, if you care to look. Kawas was the character pictured loosely in Achanak, which came out in 1973.

All this made me recall the 70’s for it was just a year later that Protima Bedi streaked across Juhu beach (To help launch ‘Cine Blitz’). I was not there to see it, I had only heard about it while at college, but recently I got to see the blurry snaps. Wow! She was some woman, is all I will tell you.

Ah! The late 70’s were great, the college days. We had no TV then; it was all radio and newspapers. Bellbottoms were coming along and reaching proportions rivaling the Liberty bell, long hair was ‘hep’ and we sported hair bands (at least I did, on my forehead like Mc Enroe, over long hair). I still recall going to the Pallavur temple with a head band and the staid old mama’s in ‘mundum veshityium and onnara beneath’, looking at me like I was from Mars. They would ask me, are you not Chella’s grandson? Just to make sure.

Belts were broad like hell, big buckles and all, shoe heels were inches thick (men’s heels), RD Burman was king and Dum Maro dum was the anthem. In Malayalam and Tamil, Kamal Hassan was the person to copy, for style & looks. Riding aYezdi, an old Java or a Bullet mobike with a smoky & noisy exhaust was cool. Smoking cool (mentholated) was not cool, but smoking Charminar, Charms or Gold Flake was. Liril soap was to hit the scene soon, to take over from Rexona and Hammam and Lifebuoy, and Karen Lunel would become a national heart throb for a while, followed by Nafisa Ali…Go to this old blog of mine, if you want to heat that old Liril ad music..

Then the hair style went from long flowing hair to a mean step cut, which was horrible actually, come to think of it, but then we all did it for a while. The moustache drooped, ala Charles Bronson, for those who sported one.

They have all been relegated to fond memories, for Imprint (I read ‘Anderson tapes’ and ‘Elephants can remember’ serialized in Imprint) which had the Achanak story is no more, Blitz is no more, Protima is no more. Achanak is still around, if you care to look for it in some video shop. And memories are always there, to take you back to those romps in the good old days..

Back home

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
Hunter pic from manufacturer web site

Onam leaf BBC