Wednesday, November 24, 2010


By the time I left the elementary school,  I had mastered reading and writing in Malayalam.  I also learned the Tamil alphabets at home.  My father and my uncles used to read Tamil weeklies  Ananda Vikatan and Kalki which were very popular Tamil magazines of those days.  My mother also used to read them though her reading speed was rather slow.  From her I learned the letters of the Tami alphabet and mastered them in a week.  Compared to Malayalam, Tamil had fewer letters in the alphabet,  only about 30 against  51 in Malayalam.  Unlike Malayalam Tamil alphabet was not phonetic. Malayalam was hundred percent phonetic in the sense that each letter of the alphabet represented a unique sound. The alphabets of most of the other regional languages in India, except Tamil, were phonetic.   But each had a different set of symbols to represent the different sounds.  In Tamil many letters of the alphabet represented more than one sound.  For example the first consonant,  which represents the sound ‘k’ in ‘kind’  also represents the sound ‘g’  in ‘good’. It is, however, easy to write compound consonants in Tamil.  Write the first consonant, put a dot on top of it and then write the second consonant by the side of the first one. That’s it;  you had successfully  written the compound consonant. In other Indian languages writing compound consonants was more complicated.
I also learnt the Grantha script used in the hymn books of my paternal grandfather. This script was used in South India for writing Sanskrit  instead of the Devanagari script used in the North.  Since I knew vishnusahasranama by heart I took the book containing vishnusahasranama  in grantha script and identified each letter of the alphabet as I recited the hymn mentally.  In a couple of days I became familiar with the script and could read books in grantha script.  Basically the grantha script contained the letters of the Tamil alphabet.  It had adopted  letters from the Malayalam alphabet, as they were or with some modification,  to represent sounds for which there were no unique letters in Tamil.
In 1942 when I was 11 years old I was enrolled in class VI of the Middle School situated near the West Village of Perinkulam.  English was one of the languages taught along with Malayalam.  One of the teachers with a literary bent of mind used to recite to us  many interesting and beautiful poems from the great Malayalam poets   Tunjath Ezhuthachan,  Kunjan Nambiar, Vallathol Narayana Menon, Kumaran Asan, Ulloor Parmeswara Iyer and others.  I used to enjoy his classes.  Once he was narrating an incident  related to two poets who had knowledge of Sanskrit.  They had come for bathing in the pond. One was wearing an ear stud and the other was making tali, i.e. crushing the leaves of a herbal plant for applying on the head for removing oil.   They saw an aristocratic woman and her maid coming for bathing.   The following conversation took place between them.  They did not want the others bathing in the pond to know what they were talking about the two women who were coming for bathing.   
Q:   kaatilola ?        
R:    nallataali
The question  split into  kaa+ ati+lola   meant  in Sanskrit  ‘who is more beautiful?  The reply  split into nallatu +aali means  ‘the maid is good’.  Here ‘nallatu’ in Malayalam means ‘good’  and ‘aali’ in Sanskrit means maid.              
The other persons who were bathing and who had no knowledge of the Sanskrit language heard the question and split it into kaatil + ola     meaning ‘stud in the ear’ , since the one who put the question was wearing an ear-stud.   The reply was split into nalla + tali meaning ‘good taali’  since the one who replied was making thali to wash the oil from his head. They missed the intended meaning which was known only to the two poets.   This was what the poets wanted.  
The teacher  also told us about what is called samasyapurthi or Samasyaapooranam in Sanskrit.  Here the last line of a verse of four lines is given and the poet is asked to supply the first three lines of the verse such that the whole verse makes proper sense.  Here are a few examples:
The last line of the verse should end with  ‘ ka kha ga gha  nga’  that  is the first five consonants of the Sanskrit alphabet.  This is completed as follows:
Kaa thwam baale kaanchanamaala
Kasyaa putree kanakalataayaah
Haste kim te taalee patram
Kaava rekha kakhagaghanga

का त्वं बाले? कांचनमाला
कस्याः पुत्री? कनकलतायाः।
हस्ते किं ते? तालीपत्रं
का वा रेखा? कखगघङ ॥१॥ 

‘O little girl! Who are you?  I am Kanchanamala.  Whose daughter are you? I am the daughter of Kanakalata.  What is in you hands? A  palm leaf. What is written on it ?  Kakhagaghanga’

For the last line ‘gulugugguluguggulu’  the  completed verse is:

Jamboophalaani pakwani
Patanti vimale jale
Kapikampita shaakhaabhyaam

जम्बूफलानि पक्वानि
पतन्ति विमले जले।
कपि कंपितशाखाभ्यां
गुलुगुग्गुलुगुग्गुलु  ॥

“When a branch of the jambu tree is shaken by a monkey the ripe jambu fruits fall into the sparkling waters (of the pond or river)  making the sound ‘gulugugguluguggulu’ “

For the last line ‘tum tum tatam tum tatatum tatam tum’  ( ‘t’ sounds as in ‘teacher’)  the completed verse is
    Raajyaabhisheke madavihwayaayah
    Hastaat chyuto hemaghato yuvtyaah
    Sopaanamaargeshu karoti shabdam
    tum tum tatam tum tatatum tatam tum 

    राज्याभिषेके मदविह्वलायाः
    हस्तात् च्युतो हेमघटो युवत्याः।
    सोपानमार्गेषु करोति शब्दं
     टं टं टटं टं   टटटं टटं टटम्    ॥

It is the coronation ceremony of the king.  An young damsel carries holy water in a golden pot, up the stairs,  for the abhisheaka  of the king .  She is intoxicated by the honour conferred on her. The pot slips from her hand and tumbles down the stairs making the sound  tum tum tatam tum tatatum tatam tum’

The teacher gave us a verse in Malayalam which gave diametrically opposite meanings when the same words were grouped  in different ways.  It was real fun playing with words in this manner. 

Our teacher also started teaching Hindi to us after school hours.  Students who wanted to learn Hindi could join these classes.   Hindi was not one of the languages for study in the syllabus.  But Gandhiji was advocating Hindi as the National Language which could link all the citizens of this country.  I attended these classes and soon started reading Hindi books.  Hindi had many words of Sanskrit or of Sanskrit origin.  Malayalam was also sailing in the same boat. Therefore I quickly built up a good vocabulary in Hindi. There was, in our village,  a Hindi Pracharak appointed by the Dakshin Bharat Hindi Prachar Sabha.  The Pracharak maintained a library of Hindi books.  I read the collection of short stories by Munshi Premchand, one of the best known, loved and appreciated writer of short stories and novels in Hindi.  Though I could not understand every word of what was written, I could understand and appreciate most part of the narrative.
I also concentrated on English.   English Grammar was one of my favourite subjects. ‘Wren & Martin English Grammar and Composition’  was my constant companion.
By this time I had developed a passion for reading.  I read every thing I could lay  my hands on, whether it was in Malyalam, Tamil, English or Hindi.  I wanted to read our ancient texts in Sanskrit but, at this stage, I had to rely on translations to figure out the meaning of Sanskrit verses.  I was determined to improve my knowledge of Sanskrit so that I could enjoy reading, in the original Sanskrit,  the Epics Ramayana and Mahabharata (in which was embedded the Gita)  and also our classical poets Kalidasa, Bhasa, Bharavi, Bhavabhuti, Harsha and others.
In 1945 we again shifted our residence to the house next to our ancestral home.  Adjacent to this house was a pond which had long been neglected.  Hardly  any one in the village used it.   After we moved to the new place the village elders decided to clean the pond.  All the water was pumped out.  The fish in the pond found themselves out of water.  They were caught by persons from outside the village as our villagers were brahmins and were pure vegetarians.  When the rains came the pond got filled up and the water was crystal clear.  From then on my mother and my sister-in-law visited this pond for bathing and washing clothes.  My father and I used to walk to the river 5 kilometres away  for bathing in the early morning hours i.e. between 4.30 AM and 5 AM
After finishing middle school I had joined a typewriting Institute for learning  typing.    Letters had to be typed and, if any corrections were required, the entire letter had to be typed again.  It was therefore absolutely necessary to achieve 100%  accuracy in typing.  One had to be good in spelling and grammar  to produce a good copy.  With only a few months’ practice I acquired reasonable proficiency in typing.  The Institute was run by a person who was a typist-copyist at the Munsif Court at Alathur.  He used to bring home judgments,  depositions of witnesses and other documents.  These had to be typed carefully without errors. He gave those jobs to me and I completed the work to his satisfaction.  These assignments improved my typing skill and accuracy.  Though I was not paid any remuneration, I was provided with coffee or tea and snacks when I worked long hours.  The typing skills I developed during that period stood me in good stead during my service and professional life.  I could produce lengthy documents straight on the computer without looking at the key board.
The Typist-copyist was a devotee of Lord Rama.  During Rama Navami celebrations he used to arrange akhanda bhajan of 24 hours when there used to be unbroken  chanting of the following mantra:
                “hare rama hare rama rama rama hare hare
                  Hare krishna hare krishna krishna krishna hare hare”

                 'हरे राम हरे राम राम राम हरे हरे।
                   हरे कृष्ण  हरे कृष्ण  कृष्ण कृष्ण हरे हरे ॥ 

On some occasions it was the continuous chanting of

                 “Raghupati raghava rajaaraam Patitapaavana seetaaraam” 

                   ’रघुपति राघव राजाराम् पतितपावन सीताराम् ’

Devotees took turns in leading the chant while others followed them.  The tempo was kept up for full 24 hours from 6  AM to 6 AM.   During these celebrations I used to read from the Sundara Kanda of Valmiki Ramayana wherein Hanuman crosses the ocean in search of Sita and finds her in captivity in the Asoka vana of Ravana.   He destroys the Asoka vana and fights the demons and sets fire to Lanka.  He gives Sita Rama’s  ring with the name of Rama engraved on it to convince her that he is a messenger from Rama.  He assures her that Rama would  invade Lanka and release her from captivity after killing Ravana and the other demons. Sita is greatly relieved by the message of Hanuman.   She in turn gives Hanuman her chudamani  to be delivered to Rama to convince him that Hanuman had in fact conveyed Rama’s message to her.  Hanuman crosses the ocean again and informs Rama of the whereabouts of Sita and how she is grieved by her separation from Rama.  He also hands over to Rama the chudamani of Sita.   Rama is so pleased that he embraces Hanuman and says that that was all that he could give the latter.  Reading Sundara Kanda of Valmiki Ramayana is supposed to bestow success is one’s endeavours,  the same way Hanuman had succeeded in his endeavour of finding Sita. Reading about the exploits of Hanuman and his success fills our mind with positive thoughts of success  and thus psychologically prepares us for success in whatever we undertake.
In 1945 I completed Class VIII in the Middle School and appeared for the ESLC (Elementary School Leaving Certificate) examination.  English was not a subject for this examination in 1945.  Though I passed with creditable marks, I was offered admission only in III Form which was equivalent to VIII standard in the middle school.  The reason was that there was no  English  paper in the ESLC examination I had cleared.  When I consulted with my English teacher in the Middle School I found out that in 1946 English was being introduced as a paper in the ESLC Examination and I could write only the English Paper as a private candidate. I decided that instead of joining Form III in the High school I would write the English Paper and then apply for admission to Form IV in the High School.  I would save the fees in the High School and I would have spare time for extra-curricular reading.  Preparing for the English paper was an easy task as my grammar and vocabulary were good and I was confident of answering the questions in my own words.
1945 was an important year in my life.  As I was not attending regular school I was free to devote to other activities.  That year my father performed my upanayanam and  my younger brother’s.  We were given the Gayatri mantra and were supposed to do  sandhyavandana, morning just before the sunrise, at noon when the Sun was at the zenith and evening just before the sunset.  The priest initiated both of us into these and helped us with the mantras for a few days.   We were supposed to chant the Gayatri minimum 108 times in the mornings, 32 times at noon and 64 times in the evening.  After the upanayanam, we were eligible to learn the Vedic mantras.  I learned the  purushasuktam, srisuktamm, durgasuktam, pavamanasuktam and a few other mantras from the priest of our village.  Srirudram I learned from my maternal grandfather who was with us those days.
It was the custom those days for the brahmacharis (those boys whose upnayanam had been performed) to grow their hair.  Only the hair a couple of inches above the forehead used to be  removed.  For quite some time I was having long hair touching my shoulders.  I felt uncomfortable with such long hair especially in the summer. I used to wonder how the women  managed  their hair.  Ultimately I had my long hair cut and  I returned to the normal hairstyle for boys.
In the outskirts of  our village there was a  wealthy gentleman who was interested in our epics Ramayana and Mahabharata.  He used to arrange discourses on these epics by learned persons with a sound knowledge of Sanskrit and an aptitude for story telling.  The discourses often consisted of reciting the slokas from the original text and expounding  their meaning with anecdotes and examples from real life.  At times the discourses would continue for forty days or more at a stretch.  I used to attend these discourses and found myself fully absorbed in the exposition.  In particular I was very much impressed by the discourses on Ramayana,  Mahabharata and Bhagavata by the late Brahmasri Anantarama Deekshitar.  
I now started in right earnest on a systematic study of Sanskrit.  I committed to memory sabdamanjari  which gives the different forms taken by nouns of masculine, feminine and neuter gender  when used  in (i) singular, (ii) dual or (iii) plural and  in cases like (i) subject, (ii)direct object, (iii) indirect object, (iv)instrumental, (v)possessive, (vi) locative etc.  I also committed to memory  portions of Dhaturoopavali giving different forms roots of verbs take when used in the present, past and future tenses, when used as commands or requests etc.  To  increase my Sanskrit vocabulary I committed to memory a portion of Amara Kosam by Amarasimha of the Court of Vikramaditya.  I read the ‘Madhava Nidanam’  and ‘sharngadhara Samhita’ both treatises on Ayurveda.
During these days my maternal grandfather had come  to stay with us.  Since I was not attending regular school,  I was able to take advantage of his presence to improve my Sanskrit.  As per the plan proposed by my grandfather we spent about 2 hours each day first on Bhagavatam Tenth Canto and then on Adhyatma Ramayanam. Bhagavatam Tenth Canto is the story of Krishnavatara.  Adhyatma Ramayana was the story of Lord Rama as told by Siva to Parvati.  I used to read out the verses in the text and explain the meaning to the best of my ability.  Where I got stuck, grand father helped me out.  This routine continued,  uninterrupted,  until I joined the IV Form in the high school.  I immensely gained by this exercise and, to  some extent,  I could follow the ancient texts  and also enjoy the classical works of some of the great Sanskrit poets.  But it was obvious that I had to go a long way before I could gain an in depth knowledge of Sanskrit.   But a few slokas from the Tenth Canto were indelibly imprinted in my memory.  One sloka pictured Krishna when he and his cowherd friends were having their midday meal in Vridavan forest. 
   bibhradvenum jatharapatayoh sringavetre cha kakshe
   vamepaanau masrunakavalam tatphalaanyanguleeshu
   tishthanmadhye swaparisuhrudo haasayan narmabhisswaih
   swargeloke mishathi bubhuje yagnabhuk baalakelih

    बिभ्रद्वेणुं जठरपटयोः शृङ्गवेत्रे  च कक्षे
       वामे पाणौ मसृणकवलं तत्फलान्यङ्गुलीषु।
    तिष्ठन्मध्ये स्वपरिसुहृदो ह्लादयन्नर्मभिः स्वैः
        स्वर्गे लोके मिषति बुभुजे यज्ञभुक् बालकेलिः ॥

“Krishna had stuck his flute between the stomach and the dress he was wearing at the waist.  The bugle and the cane were held under his arm. On his left palm was a ball of smooth and soft cooked cereal.  On his fingers were varieties of side dishes.  Standing at the centre of the circle of cowherd friends he was making them burst into laughter by his jokes. The denizens of Heaven were looking with wide-eyed wonder at this scene in which the Lord,  who partakes of the offerings made in sacrifices, is having  lunch with his cowherd friends with child-like playfulness” 
Another sloka is a beautiful description of Krishna entering Vrindavana:
      Barhaapeedam natavaravapuh karnayoh karnikaaram
      Bibhradvaasah kanakakapisham vaijanteem cha maalaam
      Randhraan venoh adharasudhayaa poorayan  gopavrindaih
      Vrindaranyam swapadaramanam praavishat geetakeertih

       बर्हापीडं नटवरवपुः कर्णयोः कर्णिकारं
          बिभ्रद्वासः कनककपिशं वैजयन्तिं च मालाम्।
       रन्ध्रान्वेणोरधरसुधया पूरयन् गोपवृन्दैः
          वृन्दारण्यं स्वपदरमणं प्राविशद्गीतकीर्तिः ॥

Wearing a turban with peacock feathers stuck in it,  with his  body adorned  in the manner of a lead actor, with karnikara flowers adorning his  ears,  wearing  a garment of golden hue and a garland  of wild flowers, filling the holes in his flute with the nectar of his lips (i.e. producing sweet music from his flute) and  accompanied by the cowherd boys singing his praise,  Krishna entered Vrindavan which was thrilled by the touch of his feet.

Another sloka is from the praise of Kirshna by Brahma who had kidnapped the cowherd boys and calves and kept them with him for a year.  Krishna himself became the cowherd boys and calves  and played with them as before.  Brahma realised his mistake and begs pardon from Krishna. He says: 
          Utkshepanam garbhagatasya paadayoh       
          Kim kalpate maturadhokshajaagase
          Kimasti naasti vyapadesha bhooshitam
          Tawaasti kinchit kiyadapyanantah

          उत्क्षेपणं गर्भगतस्य पादयोः
               किं कल्पते मातुरधोक्षजागसे।
                तवास्ति कुक्षौ कियदप्यनन्तः ॥

“My Lord!  If the child in the womb of the mother kicks his legs,  will the mother be angry ?  Is there anything in the whole of creation which is outside your body?  Definitely not. So just like the mother forgiving the baby in the womb you should also forgive me since I am also like a child inside your stomach."

{The context of another sloka is this: Krishna plays the flute.  The music forcefully draws the minds of the Gopis towards him.  One Gopi says:
              Ayi murali mukunda smera vaktraaravinda
              Shwasanamadhu rasajne thwaam pranamyaadya yaache
              Adharamanisameepam praaptavatyaam bhavatyaam’
              Kathaya rahasi karne maddasaam Nandasoonoh

               अयि मुरलि मुकुन्दस्मेरवक्त्रारविन्द-
                       श्वसनमधुरसज्ञे त्वां प्रणम्याद्य याचे।
                 अधरमणिसमीपं प्राप्तवत्यां भवत्यां
                        कथय रहसि कर्णे मत्कथां नन्दसूनोः ॥

“O Murali (Flute)! You know the sweetness of the breath emanating from the sweet-smiling face of Krishna which resembles a lotus in full bloom.  When you are in the proximity of his lips please speak into his ears secretly about the  miserable condition I am in  (without his company)”]

[Note: The above sloka is actually from Srikrishna Karnamritam of Bilwamangala Swamigal but I  included this in the context of Srimad Bhagavatam by mistake]

The scene is where Krishna enters the yagnasala of Kamsa where every one is assembled to see the dhanuryagna.  To each one Krishna presents himself in a different aspect according to his or her thinking.  To wrestlers of Kamsa he is the thunderbolt, to the ordinary people he is  the best of men, to the women he is the very embodiment of Kamadeva, to the cowherds he is one of their own, to the wicked kings he is the one who disciplines them, to the parents he is a  child, to Kamsa he is mrityu (Death), to the ignorant he is viraat,  to the yogis he is the  Ultimate Truth and to the Vrishnis he is the highest God.  Here is the sloka:
   Mallaanaamashanih nrunaam naravarah streenaam smaro moortimaan
   Gopaanaamswajanoasataam kshitibhujaam shaastaa swaputorh shishuh 
   Mrityurbhojapaterviraadavidushaam tatwam param yoginaam
   Vrushneenaam paradevateti vidito rangam gatah saagrajah

    मल्लानामशनिर्नृणां नरवरः स्त्रीणां स्मरो मूर्तिमान्
         गोपानां स्वजनोऽसतां  क्षितिभुजां शास्ता स्वपित्रोः शिशु:।
     मृत्युर्भोजपतेर्विराटविदुषां तत्त्वं परं योगिनां
          वृष्णीनां परदेवतेति विदितो रङ्गं गतः साग्रजः||

During those days I used to read out from the Devi Bhagavatam in Malayalam to a small group of elderly women  who used to assemble in the opposite house in the afternoons when they were free from their household chores.  This activity continued for quite some days until the whole text was completed. 
In the late evenings my maternal grandfather used to read from the Adhyatma Ramayana for a group of elderly men and expound the philosophical portions contained in this text.  
What with all these activities, I forgot that I had to submit an application for writing the English paper of the ESLC examination early 1946. The last date was already over and I did not know what to do.  I approached my English teacher from the Middle school who drafted an application to the District Educational Officer explaining the circumstances of the case.  I submitted the application along with a request for condoning the delay in submitting it.  Luckily, I was permitted to write the English paper that year.  I wrote the examination and passed with creditable marks.  Now I was eligible for admission to Form IV in the Nellikkal Edom High School at Alathur.


  1. I came across your blog and found it to be very fascinating! It transported me to a different era altogether. Thank you for sharing such sweet memories. My grandmother was born in the early 1920s and I am a millennial. Given this huge generation gap, most of her memories did not transcend to us. It is so enriching when someone like you openly shares these powerful yet enchanting stories. I love Sanskrit and was able to relate to most of the texts above. Thank you once again!

  2. I remembered the lines Jambu falani pakwani.. and while searching for them came across your blog. It is indeed a fascinating read.
    I had heard this verse from my late father who would have been about your age.
    Please accept my namaskara

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  5. Namaskarams
    Do you know of any more such verses?
    Would love to teach them to my granddaughter.

    Kaa thwam baale kaanchanamaala

    Jamboophalaani pakwani

    Raajyaabhisheke madavihwalaayah

    My email id is

  6. Could I please have this Malayalam verse please, if you remember it?

    The teacher gave us a verse in Malayalam which gave diametrically opposite meanings when the same words were grouped in different ways. It was real fun playing with words in this manner.