LIFE IN THE VILLAGE
In the 1930s villages did not have electricity, We used kerosene-filled hurricane lanterns to light up the house. At times we filled a bottle with kerosene, made a hole in its cap and passed a wick made of cotton strands through the hole. The wick was lighted to create a naked flame which provided light for doing one’s work. It was also used by us children to read. Often, I walked the narrow lanes of the surrounding villages, in pitch darkness, holding the hand of my father and straining my eyes to find the path. At times we used to buy dried twigs or sticks, mainly from palm trees, neatly tied into a long cylindrical bundle easy to hold in one’s hand. We used to light this bundle of twigs at one end and walk the dark lanes and roads. As we walked, we had to keep the lighted bundle of twigs waving so that the flame is kept alive without being extinguished. For us children the dark nights were scary with imagined ghosts lurking in every dark corner. The darkness, the silence, the weird sounds of the night and stories we had heard about ghosts, all conspired to produce in us a fear of the unknown which took us quite some time to outgrow.
For cleaning our teeth we used rice husk roasted black in a pan and made into a smooth powder. Some times powdered salt and pepper was added to this powder. Those days dental care was supposed to be a luxury. However, our forefathers had better teeth than many of our young men. Their food habits and their disciplined living made up for any deficiency in dental care.
Each village had its own temple with its own deity. Daily morning and evening worships were conducted in all the temples. Many used to come for early morning darshan right after bathing in the nearby pond and with their wet clothes on. The main festivals in the temples were Navaratri and the chariot festival. These Festivals in the temples were joyous occasions for us children. Navaratri was the festival of dolls when the Goddess is worshipped in her aspect as the Mother of the Universe. The celebrations lasted for full nine days. We children used to line up for receiving the prasadam, a variety of eatables symbolically offered to the deity during worship and then distributed to those present in the temple. The boys who helped in organising all these were given extra helpings of the prasadam. We children also went from house to house to collect prasadam from households celebrating the festival by showcasing beautiful dolls or exquisite images of gods, goddesses, animals, birds, fruits and vegetables.
Each of the temples in our village had a chariot in which, every year, the deity was taken around the village in a procession. The chariot was a heavy wooden structure about 10 ft. high. The two wooden wheels of the chariot had a diameter of 5 to 6 feet each. The four sides had carvings of the images of gods, goddesses and celestial beings. The top platform was flat and there was a pedestal in the centre on which the image of the deity, made from the alloy of five metals, was placed. A superstructure was built on the top platform to hang ornamental garlands and other artistic hangings. Huge thick ropes of coconut fibre were used to pull the chariot. Devotees, in two rows, caught hold of the long rope and pulled the chariot with all their strength. There used to be a trained elephant which used to give a push from behind by pressing its broad forehead against one of the wheels. One person controlled the direction of movement of the chariot by using a wooden wedge of large size with a handle.
Every year, after Diwali, there used to be a celebration in the Siva temple on the banks of the Gayatri river where my paternal grandfather used to pray daily. During the festival the Idol of the deity used to be taken in procession, around the temple precincts, on an elephant covered on the front with a glittering piece of satin cloth with hemispheres of golden hue and other embellishments stitched to it. On each side of the elephant in the centre there used to be two or there elephants similarly decorated making a line up of five or seven elephants. The deity was held by the priest on the back of the elephant at the centre. Behind him sat another person holding a colourful umbrella made in satin cloth with a long pole. Another one behind him held aloft a pair of chamarams (made of long thick hairs of an animal of the deer family and held together in metal handles) and waved them in step with the panchavadyam. The fourth person behind held a pair of circular disks made of paper board with handles and having peacock feathers stuck around. He stood up holding the disks aloft when the panchavadyam ( symphony of instrumental music) was played. Boys of the village competed to take on these tasks during the celebrations. A couple of times I too got to wave the chamaram and hold the umbrella. The elephants used in these festivals used to be requisitioned from the households of a few wealthy Kerala Brahmin (Namboodiri) families who had lot of landed property those days.
In Kerala there are quite a few temples dedicated to the divine Mother known by the generic name of Bhagavati loosely translated as Goddess. Each family owed allegiance to one of these temples. They were supposed to visit the temple and pray there at least once a year. We owed allegiance to Parakkattu Bhagavati at Kavasseri, a village 7 KM from Perinkulam. We used to leave our house early morning with ingredients to make payasam (pudding), namely, rice, jaggery, ghee and a few pods of cardamom. Reaching the temple, we used to bathe in the nearby river or in the pond near the temple. Handing over the material for payasam to the priest, we used to sit in a place and chant mantras or sing hymns. The payasam used to be ready in about 2 hours. After offering it symbolically to the Goddess the priest used to put it in a vessel we had taken for the purpose. We used to given him a dakshina for his services. On the return joinery to the village we used to pass through a forest of teak trees. The leaves of the tree were broad and we plucked a few of them. The hot payasam from the vessel was served on these teak leaves to satisfy our hunger and to give us enough strength to walk the distance to our village.
In each of the Bhagavati temples, a pooram festival used to be celebrated with an impressive line-up of decorated elephants on the back of which were seated young men holding aloft colourful umbrellas, alavattam and chamaram. There used to be panchavadyam to which the elephants rhythmically flapped their fan-like ears. The celebrations continued to the wee hours of the morning with colourful fireworks. On one occasion I attended the festival with a couple of other boys from our village. It was about 8 PM when we reached the place. We were taking rest on the open veranda of one of the houses in the agraharam (a line of village houses exclusively inhabited by Brahmins). The front door of the house opened and the occupant enquired whether we have had our dinner. We replied in the negative. He unhesitatingly invited us to dinner with his family. Such hospitality was usual in the agraharams, especially on the occasion of the pooram festival.
It was the year 1942 AD and I was 11. I had completed my schooling at the aided elementary school. It was summer holidays with temperature racing to catch up 40° Celsius. That summer I learned swimming in the village pond. The pond had steps to get down to the water and there were separate partitioned areas for men and women. Each village had its own pond where the villagers bathed and washed their clothes. The boy next door was of my age and was in the same class as I. Together we used to go to the pond long before the evening hours. We spent there two hours daily swimming, diving and bathing. It was a welcome relief from the humid heat of the summer.
During the rainy season the pond got filled to its capacity, We boys used to compete and see who could swim and reach the opposite bank first. There used to be a pole at the centre of the pond. One could hold on to it if one felt out of breath and could not swim any further. The water in the pond was exposed to air and the rays of the Sun and appeared to retain its quality for people to bathe and wash their clothes. Bathing involved immersing oneself from head to foot in the waters of the pond after applying soap or other such material to clean the body. Looking back, after a lapse of almost 6 decades, I wonder if I could now persuade myself to take a dip in the village pond.
There were water snakes in the pond. They were harmless and we had learned to co-exist with them and was not afraid of them. They often lurked between the stone slabs of the steps leading to the water. They could be seen swimming in the pond with only their small head out of the water. Once, while swimming, I felt a pricking sensation at the tip of my right hand middle finger. Lifting the hand from out of the water I saw a water snake of moderate size clinging to my finger. For a moment I was taken aback but I vigorously shook my hand and the snake fell off and disappeared into the water. Water snakes are not poisonous but I was advised to fast that night as a precaution.
Our lives were simple and uncomplicated. Men wore a cotton dhoti of two meters at the waist which came up to their ankles. Some wore dhotis coming up to their knees only. An upper garment of a meter of cloth put on the shoulders was optional. Children up to 4 years went about in a strip of loin cloth only. People walked on the roads without footwear. During the rainy season walking on the slush on the roads led to ulceration between the toes unless one was careful to wash the feet after coming home. In fact one bucket of water with a mug used to be kept outside the front door to wash one’s feet before one entered the house. For common ailments no one visited a doctor. Household remedies based on herbs were used. Turmeric, ginger, pepper, garlic, gooseberry and readily available herbs were used to treat common ailments. Exercise for the body was provided by such day-to-day activities as walking, drawing water from the well, working in the garden and watering the plants, growing vegetables in the backyard, grinding soaked rice and pulses for idlis, pounding paddy to remove the husk, sweeping and wiping the floors, breaking logs of wood for firewood and a variety of household chores for which no mechanical aids were available those days.
Morning coffee was prepared by putting the required quantity of coffee powder in a dry vessel, pouring hot water into it, stirring it and allowing the powder to settle down. Then the decoction was poured out and milk and sugar were added. Coffee was ready to drink. Many used jaggery instead of sugar. Jaggery was put in the water while it was being boiled before pouring it over the coffee powder. For breakfast steamed idlis, dosas or other items like Upma were prepared. For lunch and dinner simple food was prepared with rice or other cereals and pulses. Vegetables or greens grown in the backyard were used to prepare different dishes like sambar, rasam and curries. It was common to have curd or buttermilk with cooked rice during lunch.
Many days while returning from the pond or the river it used to rain. I enjoyed getting drenched in the rain. Living in the village and getting exposed to the sun and the rain had sort of made the body weather-proof. I never used to get a cold by getting drenched in the rain.
Onam was the harvest festival in Kerala. It was believed that Mahabali visited his country (Kerala) to see whether his subjects were happy. It was therefore celebration every where for almost a week. Those days the area in front of the house was swept clean and sprinkled with water mixed with cow dung. Flowers of different colours were plucked and arranged in beautiful circular patterns on the space prepared as above. We boys used to hunt for flowers and bring them from far away places. There used to be healthy competition to see whose flower arrangement was the most beautiful. Apart from that, special items were prepared for lunch. One item was chakka prathaman a sort of pudding prepared from jack fruit. The sweet, eatable portion of the jack fruit was separated, cooked, ground to a paste, and mixed with jaggery and put on the oven or stove to boil. One or two coconuts were grated and ground to a smooth pulp in a stone grinder. The juice was squeezed out from this pulp and added to the above mix. This was chakka prathaman (jack fruit pudding). Special bananas called nenthra pazham could also be used instead of jack fruit. This was nenthrapazha prathaman (banana pudding).