My early memories go back to the year 1936 AD when I was a boy of five at a little known place called Perinkulam. It was a cluster of four villages in the state of Kerala on the west coast of Southern India. These four villages were populated exclusively by brahmins. We were smartas who acknowledged and worshipped all gods in the Hindu pantheon unlike Saivas who recognised only Siva as the supreme Lord or Vaishnavas for whom the Supreme Power was only Vishnu. For the smarta each god was only a different aspect of the ONE GOD. We were strictly vegetarian in the sense that we did not eat meat or fish or even eggs and confined ourselves to cereals, pulses, spices, vegetables and greens. Dairy products like milk, curds, butter and ghee were acceptable to us as these did not involve the killing of animals. Basically our version of vegetarianism emphasised ahimsa i.e. not hurting any living being for the sake of food.
Our forefathers had migrated to Perinkulam in Palghat Taluq from the Tamil speaking areas of the erstwhile Madras Presidency. We therefore spoke Tamil at home though our Tamil accent and vocabulary was influenced by Malayalam which was the native language of Kerala. Our Tamil was referred to as Palghat Tamil by native Tamilians who often joked about the way we spoke their language.
Perinkulam was surrounded on all sides by paddy fields separated by narrow embankments for retaining the rain water and for pedestrians to walk. The fields used to be flooded with water during the rainy season. Openings in the embankments allowed water to flow from fields at a higher level to those at lower levels. The gurgling sound of flowing water provided music to one’s ears. The undulating landscape with enchanting lush green paddy fields made one forget oneself, captivated by its beauty. During the rainy season the embankments were strewn with the shells of crabs. They were the remnants left by crows that feasted on the abundance of small crabs in the fields. Walking on the bunds was a task demanding skills in balancing oneself while walking. The path itself was narrow and during the rains, with the rain-soaked earth, it was slippery and one could fall into the flooded paddy fields if not careful .
Farming was not mechanised those days and the area of a field ranged from 2000 to 2500 square feet only. This was to facilitate manual operations of ploughing, seeding, planting and watering. Agricultural land, when passed on from father to children for generations, had become fragmented and individual holdings had become smaller and smaller. Land was generally owned by the higher castes among the Hindus. The actual agricultural operations were done by tenants under an agreement which ensured that the landlord got the lion’s share of the produce. The landlords exacted their pound of flesh even in those years when the rain gods had failed the farmer or unseasonal rains or floods destroyed the crops. The pathetic condition of the farmer gave rise to demands for land reforms. Ultimately, legislation was passed by the Government to transfer the ownership of land from the absentee landlords to the tiller of the soil. The landlords got compensation but it was a pittance compared to what they were enjoying during the tenancy days.
The villages had no electricity or water supply. A few had their own wells while others drew water from the community wells of the village. Lanterns filled with kerosene oil were used to light up the home in the night. The nearest place where there was a high school for boys and girls was Alathur about 5 KM from Perinkulam. This place also had a high school run exclusively for girls by the local board. Students from places as far away as 10 KM used to attend these schools. Generally they walked the distance in groups chatting, discussing local politics and joking about the eccentricities or mannerisms of some of the teachers.
Ours was a joint family consisting of my father, his two younger brothers, my paternal grand parents, my mother, my aunts and six of us children. I was the eldest of the children, followed by my two brothers with a gap of only two years between us.
Household chores were shared by my mother and the aunts. Being the senior-most, mother cooked food for the whole family and also attended to the needs of my grand parents. The aunt next in seniority used to manage the hard work like grinding soaked rice and black gram for making idlis and dosas and masala for vegetable curry. She also ground soaked cotton seeds for feeding the cow. Milking the cow was also her job. The cow was friendly only with her. It never used to allow any one else in the family to milk it. Sweeping and wiping the whole house was also her job. The junior aunt helped cut vegetables for cooking, draw water from the well, bathe the young children and feed them. A maid cleaned the cow shed, gave fodder to the cows and washed the cooking utensils.
Brahmins generally had an obsession about bathing in a river, a lake, a pond or such other water body. The whole body, including the head, had to be immersed in the water. It was not enough to wash up to the neck. After bathing one had to change into freshly washed clothes. Wearing the clothes in which one slept the previous night was strictly taboo unless the clothes were first washed clean and dried in the sun. A clean body was associated with a clean mind conducive to the performance of various religious rites. Such strict observance of cleanliness was referred to as madi in Tamil. Loosely translated into English as ‘ceremonial purity’, madi was an absolute must before anything auspicious was done. It was applicable both for men and women. Any physical contact with a person who had not bathed called for fresh bathing. Therefore we children had to keep away from the elders after they had bathed and changed clothes. We could touch them only after we ourselves bathed and put on freshly washed clothes. An early morning bath was prescribed for brahmins before they performed the morning Sandhya with the chanting of the Gayatri mantra. This mantra was addressed to Savita, the Sun God, beseeching Him to fill our minds with noble and sublime thoughts.
Women of the house could enter the kitchen and cook food only after bathing. This was absolutely necessary as the food was symbolically offered to the deity during worship. During their monthly periods they were not allowed to mingle with others or enter into the main areas of the house. They had to keep themselves aloof in a separate room earmarked for this purpose. They could enter the kitchen and other areas of the house only on the fourth day after bathing and wearing freshly washed clothes. We children were not allowed to enter the main hall when we returned from school. We had to take off the clothes which we had worn to school and put them in one corner of the passage. Those would be picked up by mother or one of the aunts and washed in the village pond where they used to go for bathing in the early morning hours. We had mingled with the other boys in the school irrespective of caste distinctions. we had, therefore, to take off the clothes before we entered the hall where the family deities were worshipped. These were the customs during those days. The purpose of these restrictions was perhaps to ensure a modicum of hygiene and to avoid infections.
Every morning, before sunrise, the space in front of the house (courtyard) was swept clean with a broom by my mother or one of the aunts. The courtyard was then sprinkled with water mixed with cow-dung which was supposed to have antiseptic properties. After this, the courtyard was embellished with beautiful patterns, known as kolam in Tamil, created by drawing white lines, with rice powder, around a series of symmetrically placed dots of rice powder. This was an art form which the girls of the family used to cultivate and master at an early age. Incidentally, the rice powder also fed ants which carried away tiny particles of rice powder in their tiny mouths.
Another daily ritual was the lighting of an earthen or bronze lamp just before evening twilight. The lamp used to be lit by my mother or one of the aunts in front of the place where the family deities were worshipped. Sesame oil with wicks of cotton strands were used for lighting the lamp. During the sandhya we children were expected to sit around the lamp and chant hymns in praise of the Lord. Most of these hymns were in Sanskrit, composed by great acharyas like Sankara. Habitual recitation enabled us to chant them from memory without fully grasping their meaning. The urge to learn the meaning of the stotras I had committed to memory provided the motivation for me to pursue the study of Sanskrit. The meaning gradually dawned on me in later years as I learned the rudiments of the Sanskrit language and improved my Sanskrit vocabulary.
Those were days of black and white movies. The actors themselves had to sing in song- and-dance sequences. There was no playback singing. Most of the movies were in Tamil and were made in Madras which was the capital of the Madras Presidency comprising the Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam speaking areas. The stories were drawn from the epics and the puranas of Hindu mythology. In the outskirts of our village we had a tent showing these movies. It was named ‘Mookan Talkies’. The word ‘Talkies’ in the name was to emphasise the fact that they were not showing the silent movies of the earlier days but talking movies.
For one anna one could secure a seat in the lowest class which was nothing but a thick layer of fine sand from the river bed spread on the floor. Behind the spread of sand was a few rows of benches followed by rows of chairs on a slightly higher level. I used to accompany the auntie next door who never used to miss a movie. My mother and the aunts visited the makeshift cinema only on very rare occasions. My grandfather frowned on such entertainment.
The cinema owned a jeep which was used for driving through the village distributing notices of movies to be screened. A band used to play in the jeep blaring out music through loudspeakers. Children ran behind the jeep collecting notices. Half the story of the movie was narrated in the notice. Readers were asked to see the other half on the silver screen. Outside the cinema hall little booklets containing the songs in the movie used to be sold for a small change.
In the village was a halfwit who lived alone and did odd jobs for the villagers for whatever they gave him. He was known as chozhiya Narayanan, chozhiya being a sub caste of brahmins. He had a push cart in which he used to carry and deliver the lunch boxes of students in the Highs school. He got paid monthly for this service. He could not count or do mental arithmetic. There were some who exploited this inability of his. He used to draw water from the common village well for some of the residents. He saw every show in the makeshift cinema hall sitting absolutely in the front near the screen. The cinema charged him only for the first show. The other shows were free for him.
The village was also visited frequently by the bioscope man who came with his equipment. For a quarter of one anna he showed pictures of towns, cities, places of pilgrimage, temples, rivers, mountains, sea beaches, natural beauty spots, animals and various other things of interest to children. We used to crowd around him waiting for our turn with one quarter of an anna in our hand.
Looking back on those days, I realise how much the value of the rupee has been eroded over the past 7 decades. A family of two adults and 2 children could subsist on rupees fifteen, a ridiculously paltry sum by the standards of the 21st century. My grandfather used to get a sack-full of vegetables for four annas (the equivalent of Rs. 0.25 now) from the weekly shanty those days. Once I remember to have picked up a one-anna coin (1/16th of a rupee) which my mother had kept in the kitchen. I went to the grocery shop and asked for jaggery (lumps of raw unrefined sugar) for one anna. I thought I would get a few small lumps to eat. Instead, the shopkeeper packed almost half a kilo of jaggery and gave it to me. I did not know what to do with it. I took it home and gave it to my mother. Hearing my story she laughed and, in mock anger, warned me against pinching money from the kitchen. Rupees fifteen which in the 1930s could support a family of two adults and two children for a month cannot now (in 2010) buy even a litre of milk or a litre of bottled mineral water.