My Mentor part 1 – Harbouriley Pottan (The idiot of the Harbour)
He was standing on the banks of the river “Periyar” accompanied by a few new friends whom he had met at the Mammoth Ismail’s (Social-Religious-political organization) camp that he was attending due to Vappa’s compulsion. He was sent to the camp for the sole purpose of building religious values in his young mind. Abdul Jalaal Dabbu was 13 years of age, very thin from what he was before. His weight had reduced drastically due to the consumption of medicines prescribed by a fraudulent homoe doctor, Sun Menon for his asthmatic complaints. He was a very inquisitive one from childhood, so had not consumed the powder that was given to him and the outcome resulted in reduction of his weight; whereas his fellow patients grew obese due to the intake of the powder substance.
Wearing just a “thorthu mundu”, (half sarong used as a towel by keralites or rather swimming trunk of Kerala men), he stood at the riverbank playing with flat stones. Lately after a lot of practice, he could slip the stones on water more than seven times, though the record was 15 among his camp peers. He had just about started to learn swimming from the lessons given by his camp mates. Although he was from the water locked Island, there was no option for him to learn swimming since the backwaters were infested with boats and ships and was not a safe place to learn and the only other option was the swimming pool in the Samoodhiri Hotel, which was a five star facility next to his house in the island. This facility was out of his reach as such hotels were not a place frequented by regular Indians in those days.
Abdul Jalaal Dabboo took a deep breath and looked around him. The world was indeed beautiful; the serene look of the abundant waters of Periyar beckoned him to take a quick dip in the river. The wild flora that grew on the banks had a fragrance that had an allure of its own to his olfactory senses. There was a school of fishes swimming in the crystal clear shallow water. The morning sun was shining so strongly on the water that he could not look for long to that area as it blinded him. A smooth gentle breeze made the shrubs and all the “thumbapoo”“ (the tiny white flowers) sway and dance. There were two grand old coconut trees that were stooping and bending so low like two old women. They formed a bridge that ended ten meters into the river. The children had converted these trees into diving boards from where they dived into the river and swam their hearts out all morning. Abdul Jalaal Dabboo’s friend Humayoon Kabeer accidentally saw that perfectly formed circular scar on his belly just above his navel; he asked Dabboo the reason that caused the scar. Abdul jalaal Dabboo sunk deep into a reverie and his time clock turned 9 years backwards. His thoughts travelled to that day.
My memories take me to the time when I was actually resting in my Ummas womb, all-raring and ready to come out to the outer world. She says I was a quiet fetus unlike many of my siblings. I believe it could have been somewhere close to the first quarter of 1970; me almost having been carried by umma for seven months. My umma continued to do all the work including cooking for all my nine future siblings and Vappa. On this particular day, she was in very high spirits because it was Abdul Jalaal Dabboo’s birthday and she was making “Payasam” (Sweet made with milk and rice, a delicacy of Kerala) to celebrate his birthday. She had made it a habit to make Payasam on every birthday of her children and Biriyani on Vappas birthday. Then my friend you would think we had ten payasams a year and 1 Biriyani. Nay….Abdul Asthar kustom and Mehmood Allalath were born on the same day as my Vappa. Hence the number of payasams per year was reduced to 8. She was stooping very low towards the “aduppu”(Earthen stove). I do remember clearly that I felt very cosy while the warmth of the fire from the aduppu was warming up my abode where I was resting very peacefully. That was the first time I got introduced to Abdul Jalaal Dabboo the birthday boy. He could not resist the cravings he felt for the Payasam that filled a luscious aroma across the whole kitchen. Though I could not see him, I visualized him to be a very chubby boy who was turning 4 years of age that day. He was creating a commotion and disturbing Umma out of her wits. I heard her requesting him with all her love yet sternly to be patient because the dish was not cooked yet. He kept nagging her and the next moment I hear a loud shriek from Dabboo. He was poked by my umma playfully with the “oodhamkuzhal” (a cast iron hollow pipe to blow air into the stove for kindling fire) not realizing that it was red hot as one end of the oodhamkuzhal was mistakenly kept in the fire for quite some time by her. The red hot metal had touched directly on Dabboo’s bare belly, which protruded in between the lower part of his shirt, left open due to lost buttons and a convex tummy. The impact was directly above his navel and his skin burned leaving a perfect circular burn wound which later manifested as a beautiful scar that seemed to be made by an artist. I felt really sorry to hear dabboo crying in pain on his birthday. Nevertheless, I did hear and feel another emotion more sad and profound within me. It was my Umma’s pain that travelled through vibes from her heart to mine. It could probably be the first melancholic emotion I felt in my life.
The inevitable incident happened. Yes! I was born at 11.30 am on a Thursday morning in the month of July. I grew up among all my nine elder siblings and my Vappa and Umma. Loved, scolded, punished, pampered. Many moons passed by. The bonding between the three young ones, Abdul Jalaal Dabbu, Maarjana Beegam and me, Khais Rahiman grew in strength. We shared a friendship that was beyond what we see usually among siblings. I dare say that my elder siblings were not connected in the same way that we three were ! We had reached age of 13, 11(Marjaana) and nine when our two cousins Faris Wahabi and Faseela Wahabi from Dufai joined us. Our childhood took a different turn with the addition of these two unfortunate souls who were left behind by their parents residing in the oil rich city of Dufai. The latter part of life in the north end of island was completely transformed by their entry into our life. Faris wahabi being one year elder to Daboo was an influencial leader despite being a silent one.
Through them I realized one very important truth in life. “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others”; A text from George Orwell’s Animal Farm. In this context all five of us were children from age 14 to 9; we all were equal in status as far as treatment by our elders was concerned; Still for some unknown reasons, the mischiefs, arguments and adamancy shown by Faris and Faseelaweresilently endured by all our elders including Vappa and Umma. However, the strange phenomenon that ensued was the reproach and punishment met by Dabboo from our elder brothers. He was conveniently blamed and punished for every mistake committed by the rest of us. But he faced all the brunt with humility and submission, I never heard him revolt or complain. Now I realise that he didn’t complain because he felt pity for his so called oppressors.
Our family being a large one with so many members, we youngsters were bound to overhear gossips done by our elders; hence, we were no exceptions either. By and by we also got into the habit of soft gossip and supported our elders, we also mildly opined on the matters of elders. The only soul who never had any opinion on trivial matters or gossip was Dabboo. He never seemed to be interested in any such matters. Hence our relatives who frequented the Island and never got any juicy news out of him branded him as “Harbouriley Pottan” (The idiot of the harbor). The bottom line is that Dabboo stood apart and glaring from the rest of the clan. He never got into any loose talk from a very young age. For common people he was not very interesting. He had a cutting sense of humor, which flew over the head of majority of the people.
Lucky me; I saw him from a different perspective. He being only 4 years elder to me was an advantage for me in all respect. He took care of me and guided me in every aspect of my life from my childhood. Always Dabboo helped me to take the first step in every new endeavor in my life. Be it tree climbing, running race, drawing, painting or any such activity, it was he who introduced me to it. My goodness me, how much was I fascinated with his sketches, portraits and watercolor paintings. I still remember one of his early watercolor painting which unlike today was done on a normal A4 paper. It was a straight forward nature scenery. The huge pine trees colored in green and yellow, a small river flowing in the midst of the huts that were located at the foot of faraway hills, clouds bright and shining in the sky and a dark sun with shades of clouds covering her. I have been inspired by him to draw and paint, but of course one has to be talented to pursue something so noble an art form. But isn’t it providential that from last month I have taken up painting classes, though the inspiration for it and the seeds was planted into me by Dabboo almost 3 and a half decades ago. Another interesting world he introduced me into was the world of books. During leisure time at home, he always had a book in his hand immersed in reading while the rest of us were idling or playing. Those books where passed over by Dabboo to Nooriya beegum and Marjaana beegam. Some books were chosen for me to read. The emotional, political and social influence these books made on me was just phenomenal. While my peers in school were reading Hardy boys and Nancy drew, I was introduced to the world of Maxim Gorki’s, Childhood, Mother, Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Tolstoys Anna Karnina, War and peace, Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. The books where all dealing with social structure, the needy,the affluent and central characters of especially Russian books were of not so affluent society. Socialism and right for equality got grinded into me from a young age due to these books given to me by Dabboo.
My trip down the memory lane takes me to those wonderful afternoons in the northern end of the Island when the rest of the family at home where either out on work or having their afternoon siesta. Abdul Jalal Dabboo always had some plan to bewilder us at all times. He was our leader, my leader who I always looked up to; always my champion whom I copied because he could do anything and everything that I could not do. Our Bungalow at the north end of the Island stood amidst a cluster of flora. The trees and plants where in abundance in the compound and hence we never had direct sunlight anywhere in the compound. Three huge and luscious Guava trees grew in the front and back of the house. We had a few coconut palms, and numerous Mango trees, which added shade and also pleasure to our taste buds during the mango season. We used to climb on those trees and dwell on them for hours just eating the fruit and enjoying the beautiful breeze from the Arabian sea. The fragrance and the salty taste of the ocean used to travel straight onto us when we were up these trees. On this particular day Dabboo had a change in his usual plan of action. He told me that we were to embark on a great adventure and try to climb the tallest tree on the Island, which for some unfathomable reason was the “Kadachakka Maram”(A tree that had a similar fruit like a miniature jackfruit, but was used as a vegetable) that was right in our back yard. Yes my dear folks, the tallest tree was indeed in our backyard. Later on after a decade the chairman of the port himself had ordered for this old time legacy to be cut down as it hindered the signals or rather created blind spots for the Port radar system. The feat commenced a little different from the usual. This day, Dabboo asked me to start climbing first and he followed me (I still thank my lucky stars for it). The tree’s main trunk was very wide and we climbed by stepping on each branches which were itself very wide in the standards of branch width. As we climbed the ant infested tree, our garden became smaller, so did the shrubs at first and soon the mango trees and even the tall coconut trees got smaller as we both climbed higher. For the first time in my life I had climbed way above Dabboo. He had taught me the secret to conquer this tree. The kadachakka Maram had dry branches which where hollow inside and broke if we stepped on them, so we were supposed to test each branch by pulling and checking the strength before we took the step upwards. 35 meters above I looked down and saw that Dabboo was resting half way down. I noticed the red roof tiles of our bungalow, which had become so tiny by now. I could see patches of the backwaters shining under the hot afternoon sun infested with fishing boats returning with their day’s catch. I also saw the tugboat “Bristow” hurrying towards some ship in the outer sea with a loud blare of its horn. The cool salty breeze brushed on my body and face, I smelled of wood and the sap of the tree which was sticking all over my body, feet and hands. I felt on top of the world for a few seconds admiring the world below me and the next thing I know is that I had lost my footing on the branch because the branch was dry and hollow, it broke and I was on a free fall. First time in my life I felt the gravitational force of my weight acting on me. I knew that it was not the usual dream I used to have in those days about flying around and jumping from one tree to another and from one hill to another . I am sure many of you who were born before 1990 would have seen such dreams. You need to actually fall from a tree to know how terrorizing the fall is. My shirt was torn within the first few feet of the fall because the tree bark was very tough and rough. Obviously the next thing to happen was my chest and belly skin getting scraped and peeled. I thank my good fate that Dabboo had asked me to climb first and had followed me. The next second, I felt his strong hands embracing my whole body and bringing my fall to an abrupt halt. Until today I have no clue how Abdul Jalaal Dabboo gained that inhuman strength to hold me. He was probably 2 inch taller than I was; mind you, he was small in stature and was a bit stronger for sure. But he was only a 13 year old boy himself. Well his hold on that day allows me to write this story now. I dare say that he saved my life or at least saved me from a real fatal injury to my spine and broken bones. I was on a free fall like a dead bird and I am sure it was his sheer love for me that made him manage to save me that day. The bond which was growing every day got sealed on that day.
After one more year at the age of 60 my Vappa retired from the Port service. You may note that 58 was the retirement age of all central government employees. He had the advantage of two elements from his childhood. In the year 1925 It was not his father that accompanied him to enroll him at the Ambalapuzha school but it was his neighbor, who by mistake gave his date of birth 2 years later from his real birthdate (27 Feb 1918). During the admission procedure there was also a confusion on my Vappas initials and the neighbor promptly declared that his initial was “S” probably because he had a fancy for this alphabet. For whatever reason, My Vappa was known as “S” to all his friends and general public until his sad demise in 2008.
My vappas retirement in 1980 opened a new chapter in our life. He was forced to buy a house in the city because for some strange reason retired employees had to vacate from the quarters of the island they had served for so many years and had to give way to new blood that joined. He chose the place that he could afford, the last ward of the city corporation. The zone was called Vennala and our house was at the southern end of this zone at a place called Arkakadavu. The speciality of that area was that it was still part of the city corporation but with an atmosphere more laid back than a village. The local children literally ran behind the cars that rarely reached here. Yeah I know it is hard to believe vennala to be such a place 36 years ago. Well Arkakadavu was an apt place for any child who was a dreamer and loved nature. I remember the house warming day. Abdul jalaal Dabboo lead me and Marjaana beegum to the pond, we also had our friends Sindu and Deepa from the Island accompanying us. We had slowly walked towards the pond which was located outside our inner compound of the house. The bewitching fragrance of fresh blooming jasmine enraptured our souls. Our home was nested right at the end of a sprawling jasmine farm. We heard from Umma that the flower merchant “Chetti” (a caste name) who was the previous owner of this property used the water from the pond for jasmine farming. The complete property had a balanced water and irrigation system. A one meter wide canal ran all across the periphery of the property and it connected the main water bodies, the pond and the river behind our property. A great surprise was in store for us from Dabboo as we all reached the Pond. He asked us to move in silence and ofcourse we did that. As we gazed toward the bank of the pond, we saw the most amazing site that any of us could comprehend. It was a beautiful shining silver colored “Neerkoli” (water snake) resting on the “kulakadavu” (pond steps). It was obviously enjoying the morning sun and it slowly slithered into the pond due to our intruding footsteps. There in the shallow water we could see two tortoise swimming and a school of tiny fish. Dabboo lured all of us into the pond. We waded knee deep into the water and were shocked to see around fifteen frogs diving right into the pond from banks all around the pond. They were camouflaged and hence we couldn’t spot them earlier. The pond had lots of water lilies and red lotus flowers right in one corner. The flowers were all swaying and dancing to the rhythmic breeze. Dabboo went a little deeper and to our utter joy demonstrated his swimming skills he had learned from the Periyar river during his camp days in the previous year.
Dabboo is that soul who introduced me to nature and taught me to love plants and animals. We couldn’t dream of another exotic place to be right in the middle of nature. The main Mosque shared our eastern compound wall, which was quite famous among all religious communities in and around vennala. It was also supposedly the home to a few “Jinns” (heavenly creatures). Our young minds were again fascinated with stories related by Dabboo around this subject, which petrified Marjaana and me many a night. The mosque had a huge “khabarsthan” (Cemetery) which literally was in the woods. Numerous exotic birds such as local macaws, parrots, pigeons, king fishers, cuckoos etc dwelled in those woods. They were attracted to visit our compound because of the abundance of fruits available on the trees in our vast property, such as different types of Guavas, Mangoes, Jackfruits, custard apple, Papaya, Tamarind, and many other fruits which doesn’t have any English names (I guess) such as “nelli puli”, “Kodampuli” “Chemmeen puli”, “Ambazhanga”, “Urumaanpazham”. Oh my goodness, were we rich in nature ?. You can also imagine all the coconut trees too. It was not only the birds that enjoyed these fruits. The tree-climbing prowess we got from the Island was a blessing for Dabboo and I. most of the afternoons and evenings were spent literally on these trees. We had our share of fruits right from the trees before bringing down the balance for the rest of the family to taste. Dabboo taught and dared me to climb on every fruit bearing tree though some were very dangerous and slippery and many where infested with huge ants. I was his obedient disciple, and could do anything, as I trusted that he would be there always ready to protect me.
You may have noticed that all events that we children experienced were during the afternoons when the rest of the family was either sleeping or at work. It is only because we wouldn’t be allowed by our elders to do what we wished to do and hence carried out these feats hidden. On one such afternoon Abdul Jalaal Dabboo took us for an outing behind our compound towards the river bank. This river was semi salty and flowed towards the Vembanadu that eventually joined the majestic Arabian sea.
As soon as we reached the end of the lane that led to the river, Dabboo turned right followed religiously by us. We knew that it was the route to our new friend Kuttan’s house. What can I say about this house, it looked like a place that had jumped out of a tale of olden village days. The compound of Kuttan’s home was surrounded by water, only connected to the main land by a narrow pathway which was lined with “Paarijatham” (beautiful white loud fragrant flower plants) . The peninsula was surrounded by plenty of healthy coconut trees and some were slanting so low that they almost lay parallel to the water like bridges to nowhere. As we entered the compound, we saw Kuttan’s “Amma” Kousu chechi buying fish from a fisherman who had been fishing all morning in the river on his tiny wooden catamaran. In those days we didn’t call our friend’s moms as Aunties but rather as Chechis (elder sister). Kuttan was very excited to see his new friend Abdul Jalaal Dabboo. He immediately took us on a path made of clay and mud that cut through the river a few meters like a breakwater. We walked towards the end of the path and reached the tip where it merged into the river. Marjaana and I watched in great expectation not knowing what our hero Dabboo was up to. He and Kuttan sat on the ground for a few minutes and then Kuttan started emitting some peculiar noise from deep inside his throat which was not very audible. After a minute or two we saw something crawling out of a hole beneath the clear water. It slowly started rising up to the edge of the water. Maarjaana and I let out a shriek in unison. It was a very long water snake. The snake was our friend Kuttan’s pet who had heard his master’s call and had come out to greet him. Kuttan moved his hand towards the fierce looking snake and it slowly crawled on to his hand. We were witnessing sheer magic of life; of impossible relationships. We all wer given a chance to touch and caress Kutttans pet, though only our hero Dabboo dared to actually touch it.
Dabboo my hero taught me to love universally. He not only taught me the love of humans but also to love animals and plants and nature. Our lovely garden in Arkakadavu was a testimony for his passion. My garden in Qatar is another testimony of what he imparted to me during our childhood.
I am forcing myself to stop here because Abdul Jalaal Dabboo’s story doesn’t end here. I have only narrated the earlier childhood influence he had on me. I wouldn’t be able to do justice to him if I do not continue about him and his influence on me during our early youth and the latter part of my life.
For many years he remained the idiot of harbour, the loser in the family for a simple reason that he wouldn’t bother about gossips and was pretty blunt on his opinions and very straight forward to everyone. But his young siblings Marjaana and I knew who he was and his influence on me remains the guiding light that has given me a different outlook to myself and my principles in life.
One fine day on a bright sunny morning, the Xth class exam results were announced. Abdul Jalaal Dabboo created history by being the first member of our family to attain distinction in his exams. With this single stroke he wiped off his branding as the Idiot of Harbour.
If I were asked to describe “The Dabboo and Me …duo”from my childhood, these would be my words; then and now
The Unperturbed defines Daboo
The Enthusiast remains me
The Alternate defines Daboo
The Aficionado remains me
The Mentor defines Daboo
The Awestruck remains me
The Prodigy of the harbor defines Daboo
The Adherent of the Prodigy remains me
To be continued………………………
Illustration Courtesy : – Dr Farhan Kabeer (Kabeer)