Friday, April 10, 2009

Reminiscences of Vishu

View from Chenganda bridge,Cherthala , adjacent to home

It is holiday season for the students and kids in Kerala. How they await with fancied anticipation the mid summer holidays! Normally the vacation starts from the 1st of April and extends upto the 31st of May when the onset of the south west monsoons is announced. The summer has started, but the greenery is seen all around. It is also the season for ripened mangoes. Vishu, the second most important festival of Kerala Hindus is celebrated during the middle of April, most often on the fourteenth. Harvests are over and Easter is round the corner.
Astronomically, Vishu falls around the Vernal Equinox, the day when the duration of the day and the night is equal over this part of the globe. As per Indian astrology, Vishu signifies the sun’s movement to the first zodiac sign called Mesha Raasi. In various names, the festival is known all over India. For example, in north India, the Punjabis celebrate it as Baisakhi.

In these recession hit times, immersed in multifarious activities most of which bring only disappointing news, I recall my boyhood days in Kerala which take me back by four decades.
I spent my boyhood days mainly in Cherthala in Central Kerala which had most of the traditions of the erstwhile Travancore, not to forget some Cochin influences. Our ancestral house is a Nalukettu, and this Kovilakam had been there at least for over two centuries prior to which the family apparently had migrated from the north. The present building inherited by my mother under matrilineal system is a century old building in the midst of over five acres of coconut gardens and many big trees. It also had three sarppakkavus -sacred groves for worshipping deities and nagas or serpents-with thick vegetation and many ponds spread all over the property.
One side of the Nalukettu


Nalini Rama Varma, my mother -April 2008-

Those were the heady days of the communist movement in Kerala but the vestiges of the old jenmi system remained. For Thiruvonam and Vishu, the tenants used to bring offerings known as Kazhcha- Thirumulkazhcha, if you prefer to call so- in the forms of bunch of plantains, yams, ash gourds or pumpkins. In turn, the tenants and their families were given a grand feast on these festive days. Besides, they were often given money, paddy, coconuts and firewood. I remember the days when many of our tenants used to come with these offerings. Looking back, my modern education and exposure make me feel embarrassed about those traditions. But, on another note I bow before their warmth and feel much obliged to their younger generations even. It all makes me more humble. Never in my banking career spreading across three decades and three continents, from the level of a junior officer to that of a Director, had I been tempted to accept any costly gifts from anyone. I feel very proud of that.

As children, we enjoyed Vishu mainly because of three factors. Firstly, the burden of the examinations is over and we were ready to go the higher class on reopening of the school on the first of the following June. Secondly, we were going to buy all the crackers we enjoyed bursting on Vishu. Thirdly, the lure of the money also was there; we were to get our Vishukkaineettam –cash gifts in the form of coins- from the elders.

I and my elder brother, Vijay used to buy a lot of crackers and enjoyed this greatly. We always ensured cash-flow for this from our disciplined but kind mother during the bimonthly sale of coconuts from our gardens. We used to buy these in bulk direct from the Chettiars- the traditional cracker makers from Pallipuram, a nearby village. Though the bursting of crackers was indeed great fun, the initial thrill often oozed out and later it often turned out to be a big burden on us to continue. Our two sisters, Rema ands Maya used to make great fun of us on our predicaments.

Our dad always used to give the first Vishukkaineettam immediately after the Kani Kaanal- the first and early morning sighting of Lord Guruvayurappan’s photo with all golden accompaniments. Father always gave a gold coin- An Edward VII sovereign- along with rice and flowers as Vishukkaineettam. Of course, this gold coin was to be returned after sighting it. Later, we used to get a one rupee coin in lieu of the former. We also used to get Vishukkaineettam from our mother, grand uncles and other elders.

Those days, we had a young Karyasthan – a steward- by name Parameswara Panicker, who was a very enthusiastic young man with great energy. He was the man who taught us to ride bicycles. He was of great help in all household activities. Those days we had many big mango trees in our compound which he only could climb. (By the way, I was quite adept in climbing the trees.) His father was a renowned Mantravaadi- occult practitioner-of Pallipuram village. I remember to have seen him many times with his conspicuous nose like the beak of a bird, whenever he used to come to our house.

Vishu also was a time for banana chips, ripe mangoes, and guests. We used to have great fun when our cousins too joined the bandwagon. There were often new born puppies in the Sarppakkavu sheltered by a caring bitch. There were also many birds of different species which would have been the delight of an ornithologist. Our Sarppakkavus housed hundreds of bats which flew around the twilight times eager to get back to the branch of a tall tree for its rest. We also had many owls on these trees and I used to be mischievous in disturbing those unique birds using long poles. I now regret over the mischief and long for those tender times fully realizing that our life is a one way traffic and I cannot retrace my steps.


Jackfruits in the compound

Mynahs are aplenty
Another bird in flight
Mannathippullu about to sing

Bats known as Vavval; it is a mammal
A python sighted in Sarppakkavu in 2007

Last year, I had been home during Vishu and spent some value time re-living the old days. I shuttled between Palakkad and Cherthala and Unni, my son said it was the best holidays he ever had.

Sindhu, my wife with her mother Usha Rani -Palakkad , Vishu 2008-

Today, sitting before my laptop in the desert land, with traces of melancholy, I recall the old times and sing with the immortal poet, William Wordsworth,

“There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream, The earth, and every common sight, To me did seem Apparelled in celestial light, The glory and the freshness of a dream.It is not now as it hath been of yore;Turn wheresoe'er I may, By night or day,The things which I have seen I now can see no more.”

Dubai, Good Friday 2009.

PS: All photos were taken around the ancestral house at Cherthala during last April. The last photo of my wife and mother-in-law was taken at Palakkad on Vishu 2008.

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