“Memories of childhood were the dreams that stayed with you after you woke”
It was in the year 1977 when Waappa got promoted as an officer. As part of this new role, we had to shift from the south end to the north end of the Island Township. We moved from the semi detached two bedroom quarters to a stand-alone Bungalow with a beautiful garden and a backyard filled with trees I had never seen before. Among these were numerous types of trees like Guava, Mango, Coconut, Neem, Fig, Drumstick , “Chambakka” and also a “Kada Chakka Tree” which was supposedly the tallest tree in the north end. The Bungalow itself was one of the oldest ones built by the British during the good old Raj days. It even had a “nadu muttam”(open air courtyard) surrounded by utility rooms including a store and a kitchen; later on this “nadu muttam” became home to huge crabs bought from “Mukkuwans”(fishermen) fishing in the back waters and for also numerous get togethers for women in our huge family. It was also the place where the three famous “A”s dwelled, namely the “Ammikall” (stone slab used for coconut grinding) the “aattukall”(Dosa Dough grinder) and the “Alakkukall” (Linen Washing slab). We had three spacious bedrooms, a study room, huge dining, living room, and an “Erayam” (foyer)
All my elder siblings had shifted the previous night itself to the new (old) bungalow unlike my parents and the youngest three including me who had arrived only in the morning. I remember the excitement travelling in the auto rickshaw with my parents and two fellow siblings. However, that quickly changed into shear frenzy when we reached our Bungalow. The first sight that I beheld of our abode and its surroundings will never fade from my mind. The Bungalow was facing the beautiful Vembanattu back water that was flowing majestically towards the open sea in between Fort cochin and Vypeen island. The morning mist was still settled on the smooth flowing backwaters. I could see the old buildings of fort cochin decked among the silhouettes of giant old trees and the forest of coconut trees bend down and kissing the waters of the Vypeen shoreline. The morning sun was shining bright and the lazy mist was struggling against all odds to cling on to the smooth flowing water. For the first time in my life, I witnessed a huge ship very similar to the dragon from my dreams. The red belly was gushing out dark dirty water. We heard a shrill whistle and saw a policeman standing on the jetty looking towards the ship and whistling. My brother Mohammed Abdul jalaal Dabbu pointed out an accident made by the big ship and a small ship, which was only one-tenth the size of the huge dragon ship. We were thrilled to witness this accident, as we had never seen anything as such in our entire life. My brother pointed out further that there was not much damage to the ships because the smaller one had huge pads and tyres fixed on its bow. We watched in awe at the freak accident until we were summoned by our older brother to enter the Bungalow and soon the whistling faded away.
Thus my happiest childhood days began with a beautiful note. A few months later, I became an expert in the field of nautical science and I learned that the little ship was a Tugboat belonging to the Port and it was pushing the huge ship through the channel towards its anchorage. Poor “Shakthan” the Tug was doing its duty with diligence. Why and to what object was the policeman whistling on that morning still remains an unsolved mystery till today. Was he practicing the art of the police whistle or was he as ignorant as we to misunderstand the event. I had no clue.
After the relocation to North end and Wappa’s promotion, the life style of the family still remained the same. With more money came more expenditure for my Wappa. I have no clue why they always give you just enough so that you remain at work and crave for more. Is it some kind of a secret mission by the corporates to cripple the employees from moving on. Anyway at home the “Illayima” (there is no proper word in English. lack of money is the closest I can get to) remained as always and for my parents every day was a struggle to survive. Every night I could hear them calculating the expenditure for that day and if they missed even rupees ten they would rack their tired brains to find out the missing link. Nevertheless, I would dare say that our home was one hell of a happy home…..It could attribute to all the children and animals in the house. Every small event such as breakfast or lunch was a prolonged ritual that were executed in phases like Infants, children and youth. The three youngest in our family that included me had the best time of our lives. We were almost always unattended and had the freedom to do what we fancied. We where always out of the house and exploring the northern part of the Island. There was a post office, an employees canteen, Wharf for ships, shaded Boat yard, large play ground with a huge Banyan tree, a “pettikada” (small shop of knickknacks and drinks which looked like an over grown match box and stood on four legs). After arriving in North end, my dream had changed from being a Sulphar carrying yellow man to “Pettikadakkaaran”.
We soon befriended the survey Boat (Moored right in front of our house) crew of the port. Since the port was located on a man made island, dredging was a continues process to deepen the shipping channels that were filled in by sand and slime that flowed into the backwaters from the sea. In order to find the deeper areas for the purpose of converting them to dumping grounds for dredgers, the survey boat went for duty every day far out into the sea to measure the depth of the sea. We soon became comrades to the crew, especially to “Boat ammawan” (Boat uncle) the “Srank” (Boat driver). One day we started up a conversation with “Boat ammawan”. He was a very old man with few teeth left in his mouth. The retirement age in port was 58 in those times, but we strongly believed that he was at least 100 years old….Wonder how he managed to work in the port even at that age. One day during the summer holidays at school, we had a deep conversation with “boat Ammawan” and made a pact with him. We were invited to accompany them all in the survey boat for a days work in the sea. On a Tuesday morning at 8.30 am we started our adventure. “Boat ammawan’s” crew of 4 members including a surveyor and the “engine room Ammawan” was joined by my brother Mohammed Abdul Jalaal Dabbu, my sister Maarjana Beegum Vatta and me. We were in a state of ecstasy when we boarded the boat by walking on a gangway that was only one feet wide. I was still in a state of shock and could not believe how we got permission from Wappa for this adventure. I still believe that he didn’t understand our request for permission as he was completely engrossed in a magazine called “message”. I know that he was quite addicted to this magazine. I still remember seeing him walking into the hospital room with the same magazine in his hand on the day I was born. He just had a serious look on his face with one eyebrow raised. All I heard was his strong “yes” and we did not wait any further in that area for him to change his mind. I guess in those days the word pedophile was not invented and hence my family had no apprehension in sending us kids for this journey. I remember how proudly we sat on the seat in front of the engine cabin facing the sea. We passed the Fort cochin and Vypeen “munambam”(pointed part of a land mass) that formed the “Azhimugham” ( mouth of the sea). We entered the open sea within quarter of an hour of our departure; My first venture into the Arabian Sea. We beheld the enormous hazy horizon in front of us. The blue sea had darker blue patches and when asked, “boat Ammawan” narrated that those were shallow areas in the sea where the “Jalakanyaka” (Mermaid) rests and sings while she awaits her sea prince who got lost in the storm. We asked if it was possible for us to see the “Jalakanyaka”. He explained that innocent and good children could only see it. In the whole trip I was on the look out for the beautiful “Jalakanyaka” from the story that my eldest sister Jumaila sara beegam had narrated to me. She was my acting mother since the day I was born because my Umma had allegedly became a heart patient ever since I came into this world in the form of a Vacuum delivered cucumber shaped baby after 8 hours of grueling pain suffered by my Umma. They say that my head was half way out and stayed there for 8 long hours. My wappa was requested by the doctor to make a choice between Umma and me. He had opted for my Umma and obviously I survived by the grace of the Port Hospitals ENT(Ear Nose Throat) specialist Dr. Rajappan. The story has a twist where in the Acting Gynecologist Dr. Shyamala komalawalli who in reality was a General Practitioner, panicked due to the precarious situation. You may note that I was adamant and was reluctant to come out of my Umma’s Cozy womb even after one month past the due date and hence the complication started. My poor Umma demanded to be blindfolded like Madam Ghandari Kumari Drithu due to her embarrassment of facing the Male Dr. Rajappan who in reality saved her son’s life. My friends, Is that not a valid reason to why I get confused often with even the simplest things in life?
i got woken up from the dream of mermaids and realized that we where speeding forward cutting the small waves across the sea. Very soon, the land was left behind and we reached the open sea. There was an eerie calmness and silence all around us. The only noise was of the Boat Engine purring. All the sea gulls and other smaller birds disappeared from vicinity. Far away in the horizon I saw a ship sailing towards it’s far away port of call. With a shocking dismay, I witnessed the ship being eaten away completely by the sea in the far away horizon. (I did not know at that time that the earth was a sphere and not flat. Later on in BC 500 Pythagoras was born to discover this fact).
All the three of us children jumped in unison by shock when a lightning struck right next to our boat followed by a nerve shattering thunder that I will never ever forget. Then came the heavy rain and storm. It was literally huge sheets of water being poured right on us. The sky turned into complete darkness. The boat started to sway and roll madly as if it had a soul of its own. The sky was as dark as night. I looked at “Boat Ammawan” who had a smile on his face and was looking at us with so much love and affection. He was merrily smoking a “Khaja beedi” (Local cigarette) amidst all the turmoil. The crew were all helping him by carrying out their duties. The crew was carrying out the survey very smoothly. For them it was a business day like on any other rainy day. I still remember the fear that remained in me for a very long time. The boat rocked all along the journey severely. Marjaana beegum vatta and Mohd abdull Jalaal Dabbu vomited profusely for some time during the journey. I being too young and ignorant to comprehend the situation except the fear factor remained without any seasickness. After two hours of peril, the rain stopped abruptly like the way it had started. The sun battled amongst the clouds to come out triumphantly to bask the sea surface with bright yellow morning light. We travelled for another half an hour more and soon could see another land very similar to ours. We passed through the “Azhimugham” to enter a similar channel. As a reply to my question to our whereabouts, “Boat ammavan” explained that we had reached where we had started. He showed us our beloved Island and lifted me. He said “Son we have reached Home”. The boat had carried out its work successfully and turned its course back to our island. In the vastness of the sea, I had not noticed when the boat had turned its direction to return.
We reached the jetty to accompany “Boat Ammavan” to Babu Chettans “Pettikada” where I used to be an apprentice during my holidays. We were treated generously by “boat ammawan” with “Soda Sarbath” (a special flavoured Lime juice) and “naaranga mittaayi” (sweetmeat). He then asked us “Children do you really know why our boat survived the storm. It is because it happened to be the same boat that carried Mrs Priyadarshini the Indian Prime minister when she had visited the port”.
My only regret on that day was that I could not spot a “Jalakanyaka” and I concluded the reason could be that I was not an innocent and good child. Since it was a very tiring day, the night had fallen early and I settled down to sleep at the same time as the birds, flowers and trees. I immediately plunged into a beautiful dream of a “Jalakanyaka” who came and rescued me from the stormy sea where I was lost. Early next morning I woke up fresh and happy to realize that I was the innocent and good child who was blessed to see the “Jalakanyaka”.
Illustrations Courtesy :- Farhan Kabeer (Kabeer) & Madhu