“Leelamma marichu……..enikonnu ponam……….endhuduthu ponam
pattuduthu ponam……….Endhee kerri ponam…….bussil kerri ponam
Busilley driver…….Thekkeley waawaa………Waawakkendhu kodukku
Oru naazhi payarru”
( Leelamma passed away,… I need to visit,……what do I wear when I go,……..wear silk when I go…..In what vehicle do I go……. I should catch a bus and go….. The driver of the bus is waawa from south……What do I give waawa for the bus journey………. One glass of lentil will be fine.)
Without any doubt I would say that life in the north end of W/island was the most beautiful time of my childhood. It was due to simple reasons such as it was the final years of my life in the Island, the activities, games and adventures we had outdoors and indoors sans internet and video games. We were raw and pure children of the earth, sun and rain, with toys made by our hands and games played with our own hands and feet and not by computers.
You need to note that I was part of a religious and conservative family , hence religious practices such as “Namaskaaram” ( prayers 5 times), “Noyambu” (Fasting duing ramadhan), “Zakath” (Tax / charity) etc… and many more was very common in the household. Especially during the holy month of Ramadhan every year, our house hold turned into a spiritual abode. All adults in the family fasted for the 30 days without fail and prayed and recited the Holy Scripture to the maximum. However being children, I and my two elder siblings Marjana Beegum and Abdul jalaal dabbu were exempted from mandatory fast. I boldly say that these 30 days in a year was the occasion when we children had the maximum intake of all the necessary vital minerals and vitamins into our body. Since our elders were all fasting, we were also tempted to follow their footsteps and often fasted though it was not mandatory. Fasting was quite stressful for a child to handle especially during school hours when my peers were enjoying hearty meals and chocolates during the break times. It was on this particular year that the school had purchased a new water cooler and it was installed in the compound for access to all students. Out of shear thirst and temptation during the fasting days I used to wash my face with the cold water and also ensured that a few trickles of water accidentally passed through my throat inwards. I truly believed that I could cheat the almighty everyday while I was engrossed in this activity. Hmmm… I guess I still continue doing such activities on a higher scale though.
I used to reach home from school within five minutes after the final bell had rung by our “Peon” (School handy man, delivery boy, assistant for all activities… remnants of British Raj days) Pithaambaran Uncle. From then on it was just a hop across the school ground and a jump over our home compound wall. On certain days a “Theruvu Naaya” (stray dog) chased me across the ground and I would reach home in two minutes.
One such day after being chased by the “Theruvu Naaya” I reached home very fast by jumping over the wall easily by stepping onto the heap of dry leaves and waste that was outside the compound right beside the wall. (We the proud Malayalees are extremely clean! We sweep inside our compound diligently every day and the collected dirt is religiously thrown outside for the authorities to ponder). Totally terrified and exhausted after the gruelling feat, I walked across the compound to reach the kitchen door via our “Nadu muttam” (Centre courtyard) to the welcoming aroma of south Indian delicacies being fried in fresh coconut oil. I ventured into the kitchen to a warm welcoming smile from my elder sisters; 17 year old Sheharzada Beegam and 16 year old Nooriya Bhanu. They both were red faced and sweating since they had been in the kitchen under the supervision of my Umma since afternoon. I will never forget their smiling eyes filled with care, love and tenderness towards me. I cannot also forget the fact that they looked extremely beautiful and were definitely the light of our family. They were busy preparing for the Ifthar (Fast closing feast) and “Suhoor” (the dinner feast) of the evening. With a pampering glance they asked me whether I had broken my fast by drinking water from the school water cooler. I denied bluntly swearing upon my Umma. I still wonder how my umma lived for 86 long years with all the false swearing I had done on her name. I have more than a few words to tell the people who claims that children are innocent. Being from a huge family that would qualify as a village in the current scene of things, we never enjoyed any luxury or comfort during my childhood. Holding the dignity of the family in the highest level which was managed effortlessly by my parents, it was survival through bare necessities in actuality. My umma made sure that none of her children looked needy or greedy. We always wore clean clothes and they were as good as the clothes worn by the rich kids around though very few in numbers. We never ate from our friend’s home while visiting them. It sometimes looked unnatural when we kids turned down sweets offered by elders from other family friends. We followed the strict orders from Umma, “never ever take anything from others, be happy with what you have”. But there was one month where no expense was spared as far as food was concerned and that was during the holy month of Ramadan. The food delicacies that rolled out from the kitchen through my elder sisters hands were lips smacking stuff. Samoosas, cutlets, Pazham porees, Ulli wadas, Unnakkas, Bondas, Mutta surka, Mutta maala, Chatti pathiri, Bread milk roast, cut fruits, juice, naaranga vellam, Rava kaachiyadhu, eendha pazham, pathiri, Orotti, chapathi, poori, Biriyani, neychor, chicken curry, mutton curry, Beef roast, fish masala, Motta roast … and the items can go on and on and on. I am sure my Wappa might have taken a few months to payback the debt he incurred during that month every year due to the extravaganza. Anyway the three youngsters including me had the best time of the year during this month. We were not expected to fast like all the elders in the family but could still enjoy all the delicacies. Often we three came in the way of our elders while they were busy cooking, praying or reciting the holy script every day. The holy month is very similar to the triple air mile offers done by airlines during the low seasons. During this month, the brownie points earned are believed to be 100 times more than the rest of the months. Even eternal paradise is on offer if we strike the right code on the right time of this month. No wonder all the grownups were buried in the spiritual search of Nirvana during these times. Indeed we were a nuisance for them and hence got banished often to our own seclusion. We three took advantage of these opportunities in very positive and constructive manner. Activities we indulged in during these banishments were probably the highlights of our childhood. Once on a Saturday afternoon when the whole household was in a slumber and Nooriya banu and Sheharzada Beegum were busy in the kitchen preparing for the “Ifthar”, we got a chance to sneak out of our bungalow into the street that faced the backwaters that was always busy. I still remember the sight that we beheld every day without fail. The tide had crept in and the water level was a feet below the bank. The boatshed opposite had all the beautiful boats moored and resting after their morning duty. The boat crew were also stealing a moment of their siesta after a heavy lunch from the port canteen adjacent to our home. A horde of “Kadal Kaakas” (sea crows) where flying all over the back waters diving into the water occasionally to pick the unfortunate fish who were stunt by the blinding sunlight and became prey to these birds. Fishing boats of all colours and sizes were sailing back to the fishing harbour at Mattanchery with their bellies over flowing with the fresh catch and smoke bellowing from the exhaust pipes. The dredger named Mattanchery was being piloted out of the channel with its hungry belly filled with mud, sludge and silt from the bottom of the channel. The afternoon ferry “Komala kumari” from Ernakulam via the Embarkation jetty, travelling to Fort cochin was chugging along with sparse passengers and more bicycles on the roof. Suddenly to our surprise far away in the “Azhimugham” (Harbour mouth) we saw the ship named “ Jugolinija” which belonged to the P&O shipping liner sailing proudly towards the port. We knew all the ships that regularly called at our port and we had very graciously chosen our ships on to our names and fantasised that we were the owners of those ships. The Majestic Jugolinija was owned by my brother Abdul Jalaal Dabbu. It slowly got berthed to the jetty adjacent to my house. After the initial confusion and rush, the ship and the crew settled down. We took the opportunity to walk towards the ship which grew in size and was totally a humongous monster by the time we reached the berth. In 1970s terrorist attacks where alien in our part of the world and security was of bare minimum. The CISF “Jawaan” (Soldier) who stood guard at the berth was a friend of ours. He allowed us to enter the berth and we called out to the crew for permission to enter the ship. We proudly informed the crew that we were the owners of the ship. With gaiety and laughter they invited us up the gangway to the ship. We spent almost an hour on a guided tour of the ship and were given a full treat of sweet meats, fruits and cheese omelette that was so tasty that I still have it’s taste on the tip of my tongue. We came out of the captain’s deck and heard a commotion and lot of shouting from outside. We looked out and found a small gathering of people in front of my house facing the boat shed. We quickly thanked and said goodbye to the captain and the crew; rushed down through gangway and went straight to the crowd that was increasing by the minute. They all were looking towards the edge of the bank and staring at an object that was floating. When we reached closer we noticed that everyone had their nose covered by their hands or handkerchief and there appeared a heavy dirty rotten stench that was spreading around. All the three of us immediately covered our nose with our hands and very conveniently started breathing through our mouths. Being short in stature, we wiggled and squeezed through the crowd and reached the edge of the bank and looked down. I had never seen such a revolting sight ever in my life. It was a human dead body floating in water completely bloated and wearing shabby torn blue sailor’s coveralls. At that very young age I realised why dead bodies were buried or cremated. Human bodies also rotted when exposed to elements of the outside nature like any other animal; it was a very sad but truthful realisation. I had only heard in the radio drama about death, cremation and burial of humans. Within half an hour the police jeep arrived with the sub inspector and constables who showed immense respect to the unknown dead body by removing their caps (I am sure they would have never shown the same respect if the sailor was alive). They were followed by the port hospital ambulance. The dead body was lifted out of the backwater by the help of “thendi Chekkanmaar” (loafers who roamed the streets of W/island but originally from the mainland Mattanchery). Among them was a boy called Salim Dhadha who had a huge hump on his back and could only limp around. He was the most helpful on that day, though I have seen him being abused and beaten up often by the same policemen. I remember one day how he was chased by the policemen after he got into an argument with a Caucasian tourist. He jumped into the backwater and bravely swam across the huge backwaters to reach the shores of Mattanchery safely. The only help he took was from the bed of “African Paayal” (seaweeds that is believed to have floated all the way from Africa). Salim dadha held on to the floating hard weed bed to take rest. He resumed swimming to the shores of Mattanchery were poverty, parents and his siblings eagerly awaited to devour on him.
After the seemingly long stint outside, we three were exhausted physically and were also feeling low due to the incidents. We reached home and found that my sisters were still busy in the kitchen. It was very tough to comprehend that they both were destined to do all the work in the house hold and kitchen. They were very young and in their sweet sixteen and seventeen, had tons to study, were often reprimanded by Abdul Kustom Asthar(my elder brother) for adding less or more salt in the food or seeing an area in the kitchen or home that wasn’t cleaned to his high standard.
Sheharzada Beegaum and nooriya Banu asked us in their very kind voices to go out and play for two more hours. We happily ran out to our favourite corner in the compound. It was right underneath the “kaattadi maram” (tropical Christmas tree). The whole ground was covered with the long strands of dry leaves. The dry leaves scattered were so thick that the ground was not visible. Abdul Jalaal Dabbu carved out the bus routes by parting the dry leaves using his strong hands to make beautiful paths Chris crossing all over the ground like a proper road network. Then we brought out our buses that were parked in the far corner which was considered as our bus depot. The buses were red bricks cut into different sizes and polished with names of the buses carved in the front and sides. My bus was proudly named as “KHAIS TRAVELS”. We played for two long hours with our buses plying on the streets of the Kattaadi City. The three of us played with all the vigour like any other children. We were ideal drivers carefully driving through our assigned roads, stopped at every bus stop taking in all the people waiting and reaching safely at their destinations where their loved ones waited. We were woken up from our utopian fantasy world when we heard our names being called out by Sheharzada beegam, inviting us to join them all in the “Ifthar” feast that awaited the whole family. We all sat around waiting for the “Adhan” (prayer call) from the Minarets of the far away Mattanchery Mosque that would travel across the back waters to reach our home.
As soon as the Adhan was heard, all the elders in unison drank water and started by eating “Eendha Pazham” (dates) with a small prayer uttered silently from each lip. It was very spiritual and yet so cosy. We all had fun and enjoyed the feast. I believe we enjoyed it so much because such feasts were not an everyday affair at our home.
Looking back at those wonderful yonder days, with tears in my eyes I remember holding the glass of Horlicks milk made especially for me by my umma diligently every day during the Ramadan month because I preferred it over the “Rava Kaachiyadhu” (Vermicelli and milk drink) that the rest of the family relished.
Even today, I religiously buy Horlicks at home not because my kids drink it, but because on certain cold nights, when memories of my Umma rush into me and I miss her terribly, I just walk into the dark kitchen silently, take out some milk from the fridge; heat it ; dump two scoops full of Horlicks into it and staring out into the dark through the windows, just gulp down the drink greedily wondering what makes it such a sweet concoction that I can’t get over it even after becoming an adult! Soon the realisation dawns on me that the sweet taste is nothing but the taste of my awesome childhood as I feel the warmth of my Umma’s love enveloping and soothing me. I just finish it and go back to bed to cosy up and feel absolutely peaceful after the ritual. There is no one to compensate that warmth.
Illustrations Courtesy: – Kabeer (Farhan Kabeer)