A wedding to savor

Last month, I was at a house warming, as my classmate and friend who had moved to US from China had finally moved into his new house. It was here that I met Ammal (let me call her that, in deference), and got talking to the 70 plus but perky lady. She was asking my wife where we were from. When she said Kerala, her face changed, and virtually blossomed. She exclaimed that she too hailed from Kerala and would be delighted to talk proper Malayalam after ages. Her offspring were more adept with Tamil, and that she missed conversing in her real tongue. When she heard that I was from Palghat, she was happier, for she hailed from Palghat too. When we zoomed the GPS down to where in Palghat and I said Pallavur, she was ecstatic; she was from the neighboring village Kunisseri. And so we got talking of people, of events and happenings in that part of the world, a very small part, less than a speck on the globe. As we talked, I realized that our small villages were so different from the hustle and bustle of a metropolis, and unknown to many. I had written about the Pallavur earlier, but it has been a while since I revisited the topic. And now there was a reason to get back, so here I go.

Most of the readers in this part of the world and India would associate an Indian wedding to one of the movies they have seen featuring a Bollywood style wedding with lots of events, spread over a number of days, featuring gloriously attired and great looking men and women, lots of food, fun and frolic. Well, I was in India recently, to partake in a similar family affair, featuring my niece. As most of you know, life in Kerala is a little different from the rest of India and for that matter, customs and traditions also differ from the other parts of the country. Maybe it would be a good idea to briefly recount how it went, for those interested. It had most of the above stated elements, but was still distinctly different.

Weddings in a traditional Malabar Tharavad are typically of two types. The boy’s wedding is never one that is considered lavish, because of the matrilineal leanings still existing in Malabar society. So the girls’ wedding is the important one and it is important to note that the wedding costs are mostly met by the girl’s family. The last time a girls wedding took place at our home was when my sister got married years ago. And the next was, interestingly, this one, involving my sister’s daughter. The calls came out by the third quarter, with the dates set in Dec. Tickets were booked, and anticipation of the trip grew. Discussions were held animatedly, as my brother reported, involving my sister, her husband and my brother, the main conductors of the event. My brother’s daughter was roped in as a junior coordinator, which was a surprise, for in the old days the oldies never delegated any authority. Expectations grew further as my sister and hubby flew down from Assam and reopened the Tharavad house and set about getting it shipshape for the wedding. The overgrown shrubs and trees were trimmed and many a branch that grew over many years taking directions and shapes indeterminate, were chopped by workers bearing new trimming machines from Tamil Nadu. I heard over the phone reports that light had reached parts of the overgrown areas after centuries.

Pallavur is a small hamlet, a typical remote Palghat village, home only to farmers. While almost all houses have phones and cable and all that today, the structure of the village has not changed in the last 50-60 years. One end termed Kizhakethara is home to a few shops and a small tea shop. It is also where people board buses to the Palghat town which is some 20 kilometers away. The centerpiece of the old days in the village was the magnificent Siva temple and well regarded by people of the region. Three categories of people live there, the Nairs who own and till the paddy fields, the Agraharams around the temple (some 100 row houses) which once housed many a Tambram (Tamil Brahmins who worked around the temple) but now home to new tenants after the Tambrams moved to Chennai or Bombay to be with their more affluent offspring. The Nairs are the bulk of the people who live in Pallavur and perhaps number some 150 households. The rest is an assortment of people, the support staff of the old times, field workers, migrants, some traders and so on. A remarkable statistic is that like many of the other villages, Pallavur is mostly Hindu. A Catholic Syrian bank, the lone bank of the village perhaps hosts a Christian manager sometimes. The Chinmaya School close to the hills, the pride of the village today, is a popular school which attracts children from faraway places. The post office, sparsely staffed, handles the mail for the homes in the village, the money orders and deposits. The village prospered in agriculture mainly after the Malampuzha water canal was drawn to the place bringing water to the parched fields.

On a fine sunny day, Pallavur is serene, there is hardly a vehicle on the lone road that borders the village which bisects the habited part and the fields, with a backdrop of the tail end of the western Ghats. Look to the east and you will see the Blue Mountains, the Nilgiris, though the closest tea estate is the Nelliyampathy estates. Westwards is Kunisseri, Alathur and the towns of Trichur and Cochin some distance away, through the NH47. Eastwards are the villages of Pallassena, Nemmara and Kollengode, terminating in Chitoor and then hitting the Tamil borders. The people of Pallavur speak the very special Palghat dialect and are also mostly familiar with Tamil. In Dec the Palghat winds start, cool and crisp, and dry enough to chaff lips lasting through the months of January and February. It is still hot though in December, and this year was no different. The mosquitoes were eagerly looking forward to new visitors, and it was as though they were notified that a bunch of out of towners were on the way. Like a motorbike growling to take off, they were waiting…..

The Malampuzha canal water had filled the fields, so the wind heated by the hot granite hills had cooled off by the time it hit the houses south of the road, bringing respite to the hot and weary, but eliciting grumbles from the old and arthritic. Their joints creaked and groaned and painkillers met gastric acids before getting dispersed to the target areas, bringing solace to the suffering. In the old times, visitors would be enthusiastically jumping into the waters of the two ponds we have in the house, but after years of disuse, there are now virtually abandoned, and just serve as repositories of water for washing and cleaning purposes.

Our house is a typical Nalukettu, with lots of sarpakkavus (snake temples), a daivapuura (an in-house temple), two ponds and large back and side yards housing bamboo and many other types of fruits and other kinds of trees. As you train your eyes from the front seating areas, you can see the lush paddy fields, the tips of the rice plants swaying in the wind. The home itself has two rooms cordoned off for various deities, long lost karanavar uncles etc who are worshipped regularly. No sounds of modernity intrude into this solace, unless there is a cricket match or it is evening. In our days, the morning sound waves were rudely interrupted by the loud loudspeakers of the temple belting out Sirgazhi Govindarajan’s Maruthamalai… or MS’s Suprabhatam. The younger ones would not be bothered, snuggling and rolled up in their blankets, while the older ones were twisting and turning due to the relentless assault on their eardrums, and trying to ignore the signal to wake up at an unearthly hour of 5AM. Alas, new legal regulations ensure that the sound levels are turned down, so we do not hear Sirgazhi anymore.

If there is a cricket match, the younger people are crowded around the TV set frequently erupting with screams of 4 or 6 or out or shouts of absolute disgust aimed at a particular batsman, bowler or fielder, Indian or foreign. Evenings are different these days, women are no longer singing Narayaneeyam or browsing the Bhagavatham books, instead they are engrossed with many weepy TV serials lapping the airwaves these days. Nothing will get them to move from their bolted down positions, till the heroine has finished her crying and the serials has ended for the day. You will not fail to notice the stentorian ladies of the house surreptitiously wiping away tears from the corners of their eyes with their sarees before slinking away to the kitchen and berating the maids. But there is one thing that can disrupt all these and bring about total silence to the village, mind you, it is not the demand for a 2minutes silence on Gandhiji’s death anniversary, but the two hours of the day when power fails, in the morning and in the night. Many a house has an inverter, but they drive only lights (these days the LCD TV’s also survive on the meager capacity of those inverters, so it is a different matter) and a fan or two.

As the despatcher at Kalamassery or Trichur goes about his daily plan and flips the switches that would trip the main breakers and start the load shedding sequence around these areas, the village of Pallavur is engulfed in darkness. The people come out of the sultry indoor halls and line up to sit on the steps and start out important discussions about the state of the country, gossips about many a relative, day to day affairs and so on. People are more frank I think, when their faces cannot be seen by others, so men and women are more forthright in their views during a power cut. As the discussions get animated or languid, depending on the situation, the mosquitoes come out with a vengeance.

Without the whirring fans creating havoc on their aerodynamics, they fly with abandon and come with war whoops (the familiar high pitched drone actually) to launch an attack on your body, resulting in much arm waving and slapping and cries of disgust. Somebody would shout out to light a tortoise coil, which would be quashed by another who is allergic to those fumes. The mosquitoes would use their hour wisely, imbibing as much of the red stuff as they could, for after the power returned, the electricity heated chemical fumes and the super strong fans would prove difficult for them to handle. Over the fields, you could hear crickets, and frogs. The birds had all retired for the night, but the mournful sigh of the evening owl would emanate with regular frequency from the large trees above the sarpakkavu. The howls of the supersonic bats that frequented the area were mercifully outside the human hearing range. The end to a typical Pallavur day was nearing….

The temple beats would soon be silenced. Sridharan marar would have gone back and had his supper and commenced with the last lessons in his gurukulam where a number of children were being trained in the art of Chenda drumming. Krishnan Kutty (a portly man, no longer a kid – the son of the erstwhile temple priest) has shut down the temple kitchen and retired. The temple itself stood isolated and shut down for the night. People remained for some time to discuss the politics of the temple and the events surrounding the previous 7am vilakku, and the story of the seven elephants that so irritated everybody. Out in the Kizhakettara area, the temple elephant felt lonely, missing his friends from the Nilambur forest where he grew up. But that was an elephant’s life, and he had learnt to handle his loneliness, meeting some friends only during major festivals like the Trichur pooram when he would come across a couple of his cousins if they came. He stood swaying back and forth, foot chained to the tree, chewing without rancor palm leaves as his mahout drifted to a deep slumber.

Paddy cultivation is as I said, the main past time of most households in the roughly 2 square mile area the village takes. Much of the discussions relate to the price of paddy, the machines that were leased by Tamil owners to till and harvest the fields, the cost of fertilizers, the amount of rain or water from the Malampuzha dam and so on…Mercifully the workers are still local, not the imports from Bihar and Assam that you see everywhere else in Kerala these days (seems Kerala is Bihar’s and Jharkand’s Dubai, since they can get upto Rs 300 per day compared to Rs 40 in their home towns), but then again, I cannot imagine the use of Hindi in Pallavur’s paddy fields. Don’t be surprised, even in Bombay hotel at Calicut, a Moplah hotel, the waiters and cleaners are people from the NE who speak only Hindi. It is wiser telling them what you want in Hindi if you ask me. Same is the case at the salons and barber shops.

You know, I can go on and on, I would still not be done describing my village of Pallavur, a place I so cherish in my mind. But this was where we were headed to, for the wedding armed with a couple of bottles of OFF mosquito repellent (people may wonder why I mention mosquitoes so many times, it is because they are cause for the back breaking Dengue and Chickungunya fevers which are not treatable or well understood in places like USA. So it is not a good idea to contract them from an enthusiastic mosquito which had been hijacked to be carriers by these viruses).

The flight to Calicut was uneventful. My wife had left earlier though her plans had been thrown out of sync by Hurricane Sandy. It was great to meet some of my history friends at Calicut, and I was treated to an audio visual presentation around the 1790 Battle of Calicut by Dr Noone, and I met CKR and Premnath as well. A couple of outfits including a churidar kurta were purchased for the wedding, while the better half was scrambling after tailors to finish up her blouses etc and searching for accessories. Calicut looked even more crowded and driving around was becoming a pain. The skyline was changing rapidly, it seemed, and most of the well-known restaurants had drifted out of popularity. So much so that the only three one could depend on were Bombay restaurant, Paragon and Kingsway. Premnath, my friend (you may be surprised to hear this) has completed a 400 year family tree, no mean feat for people in Kerala who hardly know anything beyond their grandfather. He always has fascinating stories, like the Thampurati’s milk story, which I will recount another day. In the meantime, I read two of Sudha Murthy’s charming books. Strange, I must say for in her collection of 80-100 stories covering most parts of India, not one features Kerala or people of the Malayalam!!

It is great fun to be visiting home after a year and to catch up on matters, each time I hear something that amazes me, like this person in Calicut who had two wives, the elder and younger sister and no problems to boot till his death. I was supposed to meet him (but did not as I found out that he was deceased) or his successors, not to exchange notes or anything, but to see a redone picture of my great grandmother, a real beauty, if you ask me. That was the lady the Zamorin Ettan Thampuran wed in the late 19thcentury (more on that another day), and well, looking at her, I would too, she was a striking beauty.

Regular phone calls with Palghat updated me on the preparations underway. Everything had been arranged, the Trichur hall, the Guruvayoor activities, the three receptions at Pallavur, Nemmara and Trivandrum. The groom was on his way down from New Jersey. Intra family discussions, usually the hot points during a marriage preparation were proving to be healthy and constructive. The Saree purchases had been completed, at Coimbatore. My niece the bride to be, was finishing her project and winding up in time, at Cochin, where she worked. Most of the arrangements were going well and the weather was holding up, no spoil sports like rain. The power cut was a nuisance, but not a big hassle. The D Day was near and it was time to drive out from Calicut to Pallavur, some 150km away. My sister was getting her BP up with all the tensions and BIL smoking away like a chimney to reduce his. Things were looking good.

For me, it was time to switch dialects. As you can imagine, there are so many dialects in Malayalam. The Cannanore or vadakkan dialect, the Calicut dialect, the Palghat dialect, the Trichur dialect, the Cochin dialect, the Kottayam dialect and the Trivandrum dialect. I can do about three or four of them having lived in Palghat, Calicut and Trivandrum, so as I move, I switch to the dialect suiting the locale. My wife never ceases to be amazed at how I can do it, but well, these are all tools of survival for a nomad, I explain.

A number of close relatives were traveling down to Pallavur for the wedding, from Chennai, Mumbai, Bangalore, China, Malaysia and US but not until closer to the wedding date. Many more activities were to be concluded before the event itself, mainly the invitations. In our part of the world, everybody (at least within the confines of Kerala) have to be physically invited, not with invitations by post or phone calls. A man and a woman had to go and invite everybody related. Some are a must must, while all others are must. By the time I had reached, my sister and brother had covered all long distance invites from Trichur, Cochin and Calicut. The local ones were my responsibility as I had experience with some previous weddings. So as soon as I got home, the lists were being readied naming the homes to visit and the type of cards to be given out. Discerning readers might ask about the type of cards, well, you see some (closer relatives & family friends, as well as village seniors) are invited all the way for the wedding at Guruvayoor or Trichur, while all others are invited for the reception.

All the guests would be at Pallavur for a week, so all arrangements for a week had to be carefully planned as the village had neither hotels nor lodges. Primary was food, which had to be varied and good, for that is one aspect people talk about after weddings. So my niece and I set about laying out the menu for the following week, breakfast, lunch, tiffin and dinner for 50 of the family. One may wonder, did all of these people live in the main house or in hotels or what? Well, many were in the main house, some in my brother’s house and others at my cousins in the same compound. The kitchen was opened out only in the main house with two cooks in tow, a senior cook and the junior hired for the event. The major issue always was the distance to Palghat which meant that the three cars made available were always on the road, setting about some errand or the other.

Another glorious morning and the catering agency owner had come in with his voluminous menu. We set about negotiating the menu items and the prices, and the guy seemed very nice and accommodative as most people in those towns are. Before long, the next catering project was underway when Vaithi Pattar and his assistant came in to make the first batch of LMMJ.. laddoos, mysore pak, mixture and jilebi. This mind you was not for the wedding but the pre wedding visitors and the family.

Where would the 50 or so people from the family congregate and sit down to eat? In the old days you lined up on the floor in the cavernous house, but these days knees and joints are not upto such strenuous stuff, so regular seating had to be provided. And key to this is thus the erection of the wedding shamiana or tent. The tent people came and rigged up their outfit, but my brother was miffed at the quality and as you can imagine, this resulted in top of the voice arguments and bawling between him and the shamiana owner. After much berating and threats, the matter was settled and a more modern tent erected, to the satisfaction of all concerned. My concern was if my brother would suffer from a stroke though, he was that animated and furious. Upon quizzing him later as to why he got so worked up, he said that this was the way things are done in the village. It amuses both parties apparently, and is a good exercise to get the blood streaming smoothly through the veins & arteries!!! Anyway the roof was on and the front yard was now under some colorful canvas cover. 50 or so chairs and tables were drawn up on one side and the other side left empty for other purposes.

A western bred person would have been alarmed at the kitchens and the way food was made and served. But in the aseptic environs of a village, nothing untoward happens. Even the water is drawn from wells, so apart from the slightly earthy taste, it is fine, These days the water is boiled with all kinds of herbs and the resulting pale pink water is perfectly potable even for a sterile American gut like ours. The only problem was that the water was always tepid or hot, never cool or cold, due to the continuous manufacturing ongoing to meet demand. Vaithy pattar’s jilebi making was a pleasure to watch and his mixture recipe unrivalled. You see, the mixture has to have the right amount of hing and chillies, otherwise it tastes fairly benign. The laddo has to be the right texture with the boondi held tight, and just the right amount of sugar and camphor. Vaithi added a bit of cloves to give the ladoo a slight kick, which did not meet my favor through. The mysore pak had to look like the Malabar laterite brick and one should be able to bite through without any exertion on the teeth (note that the Palghat MP is not the ghee MP that you get in Krishna stores or grand sweets, it is more crisp and brittle) and the jilebi, yuuum…nothing to beat a Palghat TNVR jilebi. Vaithi’s jilebi was ok this time, though he blamed our purchased flour since the jilebi did not come out that good. In fact he castigated my bother stating that his reputation was being sullied by this lower standard flour. For the main event he insisted that chana dal be purchased and freshly ground, and that we should not purchase readymade flour.

Getting ready to go invite people with my cousin sis
 - geared up for the fierce palghat sun
My sister in law, cousin sis and I commenced the door to door invitations. It was after ages that I was trudging the length and breadth of Pallavur, the nooks and corners of the village, the rich and the poor, the worker and the landlord, the Brahmin and the Nair, the lower and upper classes. We had to recite the invitation and the key days and times, to the male and female representatives of the home we visited. Tradition imposed that we had to be seated while the invitation was read and the cards handed over, while the hosts offered us tea and snacks which we politely refused, as that would have meant ingesting a few gallons of liquid into our guts in little time. Most of the people were being met after ages, so a number of questions about our wellbeing were exchanged, of people coming and not coming and of children and so on.. Sometimes, our entry into a home was at the wrong time, with the women coming out of deep slumber with dress and hair in total disarray and many such interesting situations. But this entire thing is so difficult to describe in words, entering homes of apparent strangers, mansions or huts with equal deference. How they receive us with total respect and how they all (mostly) attend each other’s events to keep the fabric of tightly knit village relations in place, is simply amazing. This actually took us all of three days, morning and afternoons, and you see a lot of Palghat scenery as you trudge through fields and narrow lanes to reach some distant farm houses. A drink of cool well water is about the best reward you get for all the hard work, but still well worth it.

The relatives were starting to arrive, the boisterous Malaysian and Mumbai cousins and children were in and soon the Bangalore & Mumbai crowd. The bride to be reached home after finishing up her projects. The Chennai crowd came only the next day. In fact I was meeting many of them after ages, the children had all grown up to become handsome and pretty young men and women, a couple had become doctors in the meanwhile, others were already gainfully employed. I liked the lively and hangup’s free crowd. Unlike many other weddings we do not indulge in alcohol (except on one day when I donned the role of bartender) in these festivities and I guess that was good, kept it all great and healthy. The food from Thangam catering was really good and well, everybody ate and ate all the time, but evenings were when we let our sleeves down (actually dhotis shorts and salwars were the attire). Speakers were rigged up to a few laptops and music was in the air, lively movie songs from Tamil, Malayalam and Hindi which the youngsters danced to for hours. Games like antakshari took up the space between breathers.

The women drifted away during the mornings to get themselves done up and beautified, the mehendi girl was at work, while the bride and her bridesmaids went to Trichur for more sophisticated bridal make overs. After lunch and gossip, betel leaves were chewed with gusto imparting the familiar reddish hue to everybody’s lips and mouth as everybody caught up on all the lost time, chatting away & joking. My Malay nephew’s days at Manipal for his medical training proved to be hilarious. Some of the stories related to his gynecology rotation were even more interesting and everybody laughed till they cried, especially as he was a fantastic narrator. Once of the nieces was an excellent dancer, so she led the sway. Older people drifted away to corners to discuss family and temple politics while younger ones were into movies and others into more romantically inclined activities.

A slight hitch came up when we heard that the bridegroom’s party size would exceed previously discussed numbers, but a risk had to be taken as the hall was limited in size.

Soon it was time for the wedding, the bride and her parents as well as ourselves went to Guruvayoor the previous day. The place was packed with people, Ayappa devotes from Andhra, Tamil Nadu, Kerala itself and Karnataka. The wedding was to take place at 530 AM the following day, the first of many hundreds. If you did not know the Nair temple wedding , it is pretty simple, just the tying of the thali, the ring exchange and the ceremonious walk around the lamp in front of the temple. All it takes is 5 minutes. Our task was to get that done efficiently and move on quickly to the main venue in Trichur some 30 km away where the formal events were scheduled for noon. The previous day we had got to meet the groom and his family, he proved to be a nice chap without any hangup’s. The event went without a hitch. The morning event done with, the attires had to be changed, for the events at trichur. The bride had to be decked in all finery and the family gold, as is the norm. Professionals were employed for the purpose, and 4-5 girls went to work on the bride.

The Lulu convention complex at Trichur is home to large and medium sized halls, While the main hall is used for mega functions involving 2000+ spectators, the smaller one was chosen for our purpose as some 600 were expected to grace our event. The guests started to arrive soon and it was great to meet many people after so many years. The wedding function itself involved exchange of garlands, pudavas, chains and rings, after which all and sundry fed the bride and bride groom with milk and plantains. A sumptuous lunch, the traditional Kerala thali followed after which time was utilized for chit chatting and catching up on the lost years. While many of the invitees came on their own, the Pallavur (some 50km away) invitees reached by two buses whereas the Trivandrum invites (many hundred km away) came in two buses to the venue. A music troupe provided Carnatic music background throughout the event. After the events and the wedding were concluded at Trichur, it was time to move on to the next, which was the formal arrival of the couple at Pallavur followed by more drinking of milk and eating plantains fed by those who missed doing it at Trichur. A dinner followed (you must be wondering how one can indulge in such nonstop eating – but that is how it is, evident by the many pounds each gained after the event) and lots of dancing and singing. The final ushering of the bride and the groom to their bedroom was the highlight of the day and proved a little bothersome (in a fun way) for the couple since the kids would not leave the nuptial chamber till they were properly compensated monetarily.

The next days were all reception days, dressing, meeting people, more eating, more music and dancing, and talking away, of times of yore. I guess this is when legends and stories pass on from generations and this uncle of course had many a story to tell and pass on to coming generations. Thus came about the conclusion to a nice wedding function. I think this piece of writing has become long enough, not much more to say in finishing off, as everybody soon left, in batches, with a promise to meet every year and recreate the scenes. More weddings are on the way and so there will be much more left to experience, I suppose.

Back home, life has taken no less an interesting course, the kids are home, Christmas eve is here and New Year’s soon after.

So friends, here is wishing you all a merry Christmas and a lovely, prosperous and happy new year.