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Thursday, November 21, 2013

Great Grand uncle of mine

He would be  up and about in the dawn , a man of regular habits ,one could time a watch with his moves

living in England and the English had made him imbibe many of their customs ,their punctuality and value for time .

VG Nair was known as a brown sahib in the small village of Parappanangadi .

A brown sahib in indian dress

The one railway platform Parappanangadi was always ignored by the mail and express trains as they thundered past it with disdain  in fact they did this with a distinct sneer as they increased their speed once they crossed the bridge over the river just before the station .

 Ravunni the red turbaned porter with a limp had always had a suspicion about this  ,he was a permanent fixture in the lazy station ,like a picture hung on its wall  ,he lived there day and night ,it was his job in the nights to wake up and stand with his hand outstretched holding the key

The key was something old timers who have seen steam engines would  remember ,it was a fool proof railway invention where every station had to give a  metal ball which was tied securely to a round leather case fixed in the loop of a huge bamboo key ,for trains that do not stop someone holds it stretched to be looped  by a leaning assistant from the steam engine ,the key from the train would be just thrown to the platform which would be collected later only on inserting this key would the rails join before the next crossing and thus the train proceeded  safely and in fool proof fashion .

This tricky job of stretching out the key specially in dark rainy nights with a kerosene  lamp or a bon fire was given generally to old porters

it was an awesome sight ,as the train thundered past with its steamy belligerence and belching angry fumes  the fireman leaned out in practiced nonchalance with his hands stretched out to catch the huge key extended by Ravunni whowould  stand like   a rock  in the dark with a huge flaming torch on his other hand to identify himself ,it was never missed but  always Ravunni was put slightly out of balance by the daredevil act that he had to correct his stance which he did without fail ,as the winking lights of the fast disappearing train sped into the horizon .

this image of a man standing with a key in a dark night to a roaring steam engine is embedded in my mind even today

Ravunni  would then return to his deep slumberand  the brew inside him assured him of that

Come  day time he would have a quick bath in the waiting room combing his beard with his fingers and tying his turban around his unruly hair ,the tea and steamed rice  in the nearby shop would invigorate him to go about his work which would include carrying loads of luggage to far houses of the rare passengers who would get down from the slow trains that deemed to stop in this place ,his thin slippers would step gingerly over the sharp stones as he  trundled balancing the bags talking as he walked .

He always looked forwards to the browns sahibs visit either on his way to Kozhikode ( Calicut ) or back which he took at least once in a month ,this was a man Ravunni  respected ,one  could see in his face that he was a learned man from a cultured family and even though he had English habits he wore a spotless white dhoti and bush shirt which hung on his tall frame if it was rainy or early in the morning he had a brown coat over this he also had  an ornamental walking stick which added to his dignified presence .

Sankaran  nair his man butler cum secretary walked close to him carrying his huge umbrella with a curved handle and some books in his hand

 VG sir was a doctorate in chemistry and was known to have held a high position for years in the Bombay Morarjee mills leaving them for retiring to his native place after winning a court case against them on a matter of principle

 he was known to the village as one scientist who made waves in England even to the extent of getting some patents in textile chemistry his chosen field  ,he had left all that and today was like any rich landowner looking after an extended family of nephews and nieces ,he had never married ,and to him his family was the more than sixty inmates of his huge house

Those days such big houses were common in kerala and were called Tharavadus ,following matrilineal system the uncle had a honored place in such tharavads where the nieces lived with their children ,husbands making periodical visits .

Generally the household matters like servant handling cooking matters temple pujas were dealt by the nieces in accordance to their seniority and the senior most nieces were like ministers in a royal durbar holding  great power with direct access to the grand uncle himself ,some even went to the extent of ticking the big man for perceived misdemeanors  .

For the children it was one big playground ,generally left alone to tend themselves with their mothers busy in their own errands or temple going or servant dealing or cooking the children were like flocks of sheep with a rare shepherd to guide them ,they knew their limits and were careful not to be seen much in the presence of the grand uncle or other sterner seniors ,school days involved walking at least for 4 to 5 km at times in poring rains with dark umbrellas and getting into the red roofed yellow walled building near the railway station where  many of the droning voices of their teachers were drowned by a rumbling train or shattering thunder and rain,

during karkadakam or the dark monsoon days the school was mostly flooded as the whole place turned into a green water world ,children safely stayed at home ,this was the time they stole into kitchens to steal jiggery or mango pickles and get into dark attics to play their games ,generally the children kept to their world and the adults to theirs but both were mutually aware of the other

summer would see  their teeth tingle with sourness as they bit into unripe green mangoes sprinkled with stolen red chilly powder or climb cashew trees and suck out the acidic juice while pocketing the cashew nuts to be roasted later over fire

jack fruits were plenty and many tummies had to be quitened with a mixture form the local compounder  after a gluttonous orgy of jack fruit eating frenzy

,children played well ate well and were generally free of any stress those days .

Nambiar vattam zindabad howled the gang of children when they saw the folded dhoti clad  Nambiar the chief cook ,he was a prized possession of VG uncle and though others tried to lure him with offers of lucre he stuck loyally to Thekkepat Kovilakkam  and for this he was bestowed with vast viceragal powers .

no nieces dared to cross sword with him and the senior most velliya muthamma or big mother conspired with him on matters of menu and came  to an understanding ,it was left to Nambiar to oversee the menu but to do the job he had two hands

one was svelte Ammini whose seductive hips tantalized many nephews to eternal visits to the kitchen to inspect what was brewing and what not ,Nambiar was well aware of such tempting possibilities and virile beings that roamed the house  and his stern roving eyes would discourage any such frivolities

he himself  was too old for such carnal temptations and only lost himself to the  cuisine itself ,it was his job to make Ammini do the work and for her assistance was Unal………who was an antithesis to Ammini……and her charms ,Unal ……was the hardworking loyal dog who did the odd jobs as an assistant ,there once was a story of a slithering snake biting Ammini…….which I had recounted in an  earlier post


many a heart missed a beat that day only to be resurrected with her saucy comeback !

It was only Nambiar who was allowed to cook for the big uncle  for he knew how fluffy the omelette needed to be or in which place the fork should behe knew how warm and soft  his toasts would be he knew how his English loving master liked his porridge his cup of ovaltine or his fineimported  biscuits to be

Uncle generally had his breakfast or dinner alone in the north hall where he sat like a king in the huge dining table Nambiar would serve his food quietly and stand with folded hand while Sankaran nair would walk busily up and down

 at times an elder niece would break in with a question as administrative matters were discussed  over uncles  mouthfuls

He would then stretch out in the wooden easy reclining chair with two huge foot rests spreading out his dhotied legs modestly as the workers lined up to receive their wages

 every single paise would be noted meticulously in his neat handwriting into his ledgers all so methodical and precise the scientist in him was always in the background ,

monthly once he would go for a tour to his lands around the house and it would last for two to three days as they were plenty and vast

During harvest season he would be very busy as loads of grain would be carried by dark sweaty men and women from different fields and the western compound would thunder with their feet trampling out the hay which would be gathered into small molehills the granaries would fill before the rains came  crashing  down to continue for more than three months ,many of the poor would then stay in makeshift huts in the ground as thiers would get flooded and were looked after and tended by their master whom they loved as much as he cared for them

 this was true socialism one born out of love not of fear as it is today .

Uncle would go to Kozhikode or Calicut at least once a month where he would have a huge list of to do things  so much so he would invariably stay there in some relatives house or in Mankavu kovilakkam from where one of the nieces husband hailed form ( my grandfather )

he would meet Dr Balakrishnan during his visits to check on his ailments

Dr Balakrishnan was occasionally brought to Parappanangadi by first class in the passenger train from Calicut

 it was a big event as the doctor came to kovilakkam with a retinue of servants who had go to the station to receive him and carry his bag

,Ravunni too joined such processions ,grand uncle would ask all nieces to bring their children if they had any problem to see the doctor and slowly a small clinic would be formed there

The good doctor   would go back by the evening train after a sumptous nambiar special lunch and he would be  laden with fruits and nuts and chips and his  fees

Grand uncle was a passionate reader he would order his books from Britain and his shelf was heavy with encyclopedias and short stories classics in leather bound luxury adorned his bookshelves he would sit majestically in the big red tiled hall behind a mammoth table to do his writing in his fine hand with exquisite pens

As I had described in an earlier blogpost his hoe and coe diaries were written meticulously for more than four decades every singe day without fail



The freedom fighters  of the village never used to like grand uncle

 he too had no love lost to them being the anglophile he was ,to him Indians should start talking of freedom once they acquired the good habits of the British  like hard work and punctuality which he felt they  possessed in abundance ,he would never part with his money to them as donations and considered them as riffraff ,

all this are from small bits of information I had gathered from my mother before she passed away

how I wish I had met this uncle of mine


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