ars iyer on mani and lakshmi
growing up years (part 1)
Early years in Calicut were difficult for all the kids although the brood that was growing up in Janaki Vilas took them on their strides. It was the height of the Second World War and sure enough the hard times the people in those countries actually fighting the War were facing were nothing in comparison. As our rulers the British government was deeply involved in the war efforts with both men and materials. While the British soldiers were fighting in the war fronts spread over Europe the Indian government was supplying materials to Britain which resulted in gigantic shortages in our country. Food, clothing and employment available were insufficient to meet the needs of the vast populace and many families lived under the poverty level. I remember the days when we had to go with scarce food to feed all the mouths and scarcer were clothes to cloth all. In my school days I had to do with just two sets of shirts and knickers for the entire week. I would wear a set for three days and use the second set for the remaining three days in the week. Those were the days when there was no uniform that even kinder garten kids wear these days. Sundays were the washing days and on Sunday afternoons I would borrow an iron box from a neighbour and iron my own clothes. As for food although we had plenty of fruits (jack fruits, mangoes and plantains growing in our back yard) rice and pulses available in the market were so poor in quality that grand ma found it so difficult to make them palatable. Our normal clothing was made in what they used to call ‘standard’ kora which were rather coarse. But festivals like vishu, onam were special when the elders would go out of the way to buy us, the kids, special clothes, prepare tasty food and buy firecrackers and distribute them between us. We were all happy and enjoyed life the way only kids could enjoy. My uncles who shouldered the burden of looking after a huge family on a limited income were never seen faltering.
However my childhood was not without some happy moments. My birthday was one. Every year my birthday coincided with another festival which was exclusive for the ladies of the house. On my birthday my mother used to give me a special bath early in the morning and dress me up in fineries. The ladies of the house also in their best dresses after an early ritual bath would be getting ready for special pujas followed by a repast of the choicest dishes. The men would have to wait till the ladies had their fill and then would be served the food. I could not understand in my young mind the significance of all this. Since I was the VIP being the birthday boy I felt ignored and insulted. I sulked and had to be brought around after a lot of persuasions by my mother. I recall the tenderness of my mother’s care and love. My mother who was an accomplished musician taught music to the girls in the family in her own way. The girls four of them my cousins would be lined up in the hall of our small house in Janaki Vilas after school hours and my mother would teach them the ragas, swaras, keerthanas etc. in a methodical fashion. While the girls were seated with their books my mother would be moving around attending to her household chores while closely watching the girls. Many times I used to join in the classes though not seriously. A few years later my mother who played violin brilliantly wanted to teach me to play the instrument but after a few days of teaching she fell seriously ill and could not continue further. It was a great loss to me.
During these days I had a chance to learn dancing too. The big bungalow in our compound had been let out on rent while grandma and uncles lived in one of the five small houses (Poomugam) originally constructed for giving on rent to augment our financial resources.The big house had been let out for a certain Mr.Mani who was the Branch Manager of the Calicut office of a big chemical manufacturing company in Mettur for a rent of Rs.25/-. This gentleman was a connosiuer of fine arts and was the Secretary of the local Fine Arts Club. He used to bring well known Carnatic music vidwans from Tamil Nadu to perform in Calicut. The music vidwans usually stay as guests in his house in Janaki Vilas. He had married the third daughter, Lakshmi of Mr.F.G.Natesa Iyer of Tiruchy who was a well known stage performer and had also acted in a couple of movies. She was a good Bharatha Natyam dancer and singer as well. In course of time we the kids, four of my cousins and me in the age group of eight to twelve struck up a friendship with the lady and spent most of our leisure time in her company. We used to sing and dance with her and some days when her husband was on tour we spent the nights in her house. She loved our company and gave us a lot of foods too, very welcome in those days. She taught us the first lessons of Bharatha Natyam. I picked up a few basic steps too. Once she organized a drama acted entirely by the kids. The dialogues were written by her and she also directed the play. I had a major part in the play which I acted with great aplomb. However this lady had a fiery temper too. This was proved one day as the following incident would show. A neighbour, a venerable old man, in a conversation with his friends had called this lady a chettichi a derogatory term in Tamil. One of the kids overheard this and promptly conveyed it to the lady. All hell broke loose and she was in a rage. She vowed that she would teach this gentleman a lesson he would not forget in a hurry. She had her husband invite the gentleman to their house. Surprised and not knowing the purpose of the invitation he arrived at their house next morning. He was asked to be seated and the lady disappeared inside the house. A moment later she came out with a bucketful of water liberally mixed with fresh cowdung and with a few expletives poured the whole contents of the bucket on the head of the surprised guest. Shocked beyond belief the gentleman rushed out of the house and with the help of the people living in the compound cleaned himself and left. Such was the fury of the woman scorned! All of us witnessing the incident from our houses did not know whether to laugh or be angry with the lady. Her brothers and sisters from Tiruchy who were also accomplished dancers and singers used to visit her once in a while and we all got to know them as well. As all good things had to end sometime, our friendship ended as Mr.Mani was transferred out of Calicut soon after. We never heard of them again.
In the heady days of my childhood (and perhaps as a precursor to my later life) I used to organize football tournaments for the young boys in the neighborhood. With two players a side and a tennis ball and the wide front yard in our home serving as our play area, we had great fun competing against each other. We had regular elimination rounds and the final used to be watched by even the elders. The spirit and rivalry was so high that we ignored even the injuries we sustained in the course of play. One such injury almost broke my foot. In the fading light of the evening, playing as a defender I was trying to clear a ball which was dangerously close to my goal and hit it with all the strength at my command to clear it away. Unfortunately for me the ball had strayed close to the side which was in darkness and there a big stone was lying around. My foot came in contact with it and the next moment I was seeing stars accompanied by writhing pain on my left foot. For the next few days my foot was in bandage and I escaped with a concussion and not a broken bone.
During my school days in the Zamorin’s College we kids aged around thirteen or fourteen years old were invited to the birthday celebrations of the Zamorin at his Thiruvachira Palace which normally comes in the month of August. Many kids from our neighbourhood set out to the Thiruvachira Palace early in the morning as a group walking all the way for about six kilometers from home. At the Palace after the usual ceremonies attended by the Zamorin Raja and his courtesans the children assembled were treated to a sumptuous lunch in the big dining hall which could seat over 500 persons at a time. After the lunch each of the kids would be given four annas as dakshina by the Raja’s men. There would be over thousand kids attending the function. The trek back home would be tedious as we had to walk in the blazing son occasionally relieved by a roadside shady tree. Nevertheless it was great fun for us the kids. Another interesting outing for the kids was the Avani Avittam. This function was exclusively for the Brahmin boys. Dressed in a mundu and bare upper body with vibhuthi plastered on the forehead and chest and holding a staff in our hands Sankaracharya style, a group of four or five boys from our neighbourhood would set off for a round of the town. We visit Brahmin houses and sing a verse invoking God to bestow on the family the gift of a male child as was the practice. In response the inmates of the house would present a komanam and a coin called chilli kasu (a pice) to each boy for the trouble. The komanam a piece of white or red cloth normally worn by boys as a loin underneath their mundu in those days would be tied to the staff being carried by the boys. After three or four hours we would return home fully exhausted but happy with the day’s ‘collection’. A collection of over 5 rupees was normal