Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Brass Lamp - A Story of Love and Trust

Trust me! I will care for him and look after him the way you wanted to but could not...
Today is the 14th of March 2012  and it is Vishu once again when memories of family and friends, near and far, come to mind.
The beginning
I met you long, long before we met for the first time in October 1963, late in the evening, in Nyarakkel House, Mayyanad. 

From the beginning I have felt a deep love for you. I have felt this love for many reasons. It was so very easy to love you because you were a far away fantasy; because you did not live with us; because you did not have anything to do with our daily lives; because you wrote such lovely personal letters to us which mentioned each one of us by name. And most of all you sent us a huge brass lamp that lit up our lives and continues to do so after so many years.

I do believe that you wanted your son to marry someone else. But, when he got married to my mother, you stood by all of us and never uttered an unkind word about my mother, instead you sent us so many letters over the years as we grew up and left our home. Letters which Mum read to us no matter where we were.

I did not witness the arrival of your lamp into our lives. When it arrived we were living in rented quarters, the two dingy rooms in Johore Bahru. The significance of that lamp dawned on me when one day Uncle Karunakaran visited us, and my mother showed him the lamp. That is my first memory of the lamp.

Each time it was taken out so reverently, to light up an ocassion we were told that it had come from you, our Achaamma (paternal grandmother) in India. The lamp would be washed and brassoed so carefully, until it shone like gold. Then the wicks would be put in place. Oil would be poured. The wicks would be lit and all of us would be filled with a feeling of intense piety that strengthened our strong bond with you.

If only the lamp could talk, then it would tell you all that it has witnessed, since it left your hands and journeyed over the seas to our home, a home that you never visited.

As a Hindu bride enters the home of her mother-in-law for the first time, she will be given a lighted lamp. Holding the lamp in her right hand, she will place her right foot first in the home of her husband.

Dad got married in Malaya without his family. My mother had her entire family with her and there were some relatives and friends. So you, our Achaamma sent the lamp to my mother. That lamp is in my Father's house in Jalan Abdul Samad Johore Bahru.

Every year during a festive ocassion, Mum brought out the lamp. Two ocassions that were significant were Vishu and Onam.  

On the eve of both Onam and Vishu, Father would drag out the furniture and put them in the garden. We would then wash the floor and scrub the pink tiled floor until it was sparkling clean. Some of us would go to the garden and clean the furniture. Once the floor had dried, the furniture would be put back in place and we would take our baths one by one in the only bathroom in the house.

When the last person had taken his bath, it would be almost dusk and time to light the lamp. One of our joys of that day was our freedom from studies. We could roam around in the house, feeling ever so light-hearted without having to sit with our books.

As we lit the lamp, Mum would tell us that Achaamma would be following the same rituals in her home in Mayyanad. She would have taken her bath and would be lighting a similar lamp in her house. Achaamma would be reciting the same prayers. Just like how all of us remembered you then, you too must have remembered us in your prayers when you stood in front of your own lamp in your house and placed your palms together close to your heart in prayer.

Onam was truly special in the years before we left home.  We spent the preceding weeks getting ready for the great day. Mum would start by ordering all the ingredients needed for making traditional delicacies. And as she did so, she would regale us with stories of her Onam days with her mother, brothers and her grandmother in Mayyanad in the 1930s. Her mother would go to Kolam to get the Onam clothes for all of them. Mum would invariably complain about her clothes and grandma would make another trip to get her clothes more to her liking. The colour yellow was significant but I do not know for what reason.

We children would be commissioned to help Mum in the kitchen, rolling and shaping little bits of dough before they were fried and sugared. Our excitement lasted for less than an hour, then it would become tedious and after that we stayed on with the job only because of Mum's cajoling and threatening words.

On the eve of Onam, Dad would get a special kind of leaf, vainaylla. The leaf would be shaped like a cone and the thick batter, sweetened with brown sugar would be placed in each cone and the cones would be secured with a toothpick and placed in a steamer. The cinnamon-like aroma emanating from the leaf would flavour the steamed small cone shaped cakes.

Everyone in the family would get at least two sets of new clothes, shoes and even undergarments for Onam. That generated a great deal of excitement and happiness. The new clothes would be ready about two weeks before Onam. One year, the fashion was net dresses and the lining was made of satin. The dresses were kept in the cupboard and everyday, we would open the cupboard to feel the dresses, willing Onam to come but it came so slowly and today I think, how fast the 54 years went since I felt the dress in the cupboard. We were not allowed to wear it until the dawn of Onam.

The preparation for Onam was a little different in my Ammaama's (maternal grandmother) house. Weeks before Onam, Grandma and the boys who stayed in her house, would whitewash the walls of the house. Then they would paper the walls of her bedroom. Every year, she had new wall paper in her room. She was not as clever as my mother at making cookies. She would however make some things that my mum did not make and therefore when we exchanged trays, there was something different.
Before dawn on Onam day mum would boil water in her kerosene stove for us to take our bath. She would come quietly and wake us up one by one as the water boiled. It used to be so cold but she would tell us that in India she had to rise before dawn everyday and get the really cold water from the well for her bath. The cold would be forgotten the moment we donned our new clothes. When everyone was ready, the lamp would be lit for morning prayers.

I do not remember what we used to have for breakfast but, there would be lots of delicious vegetarian food for lunch. And we would all sit on mats on the floor. Our parents would then place banana leaves in front of us and serve the food. Such joy Onam brought to us in those days of innocence. Today, Onam comes and goes silently.

Etraordinary memories of ordinary days

The Postman and letters from India

The highlight of most ordinary mornings in our house was the arrival of the postman. In those days hardly any bills came by post. (Today, no letter from a friend or family member comes by post.) If a letter arrived on a Saturday or a holiday, we would witness Mum rushing out of the kitchen, anxiously wiping her hands on her 'mundu' and calling out to us, "Is that the postman? Quickly go and look," as she made her way to the front door. It was almost as though she feared the postman would escape if we did not catch him at the gate.

One of us would reach the gate first and take the letter. "Is that a letter from India? Quickly bring it here," would be her next set of instructions to us.

Taking the letter from our hand, she would scan the front and back of the envelope to identify the sender. Then she would call out to us, although we were around her, "A letter from India has come! Come and listen." In her joyous excitement which was totally infectious, I believe she forgot our presence because a letter  from India always transported her back to Mayyanad and her people. 

We, her brood of six children, the oldest being 12 years older than the youngest, would sit around her, usually on the floor. We too gave the same respect to letters from India that our parents gave. 

If the letter arrived when we were at school, she would read it to us after we had eaten our lunch. In later years after we had all left home, she would ring us to tell us about the letters from India. But, the excitement generated in her youth had waned a lot in later years.

She always began by reading the salutations first.
Priyapetta ... the Malayalam equivalent of Dear...

Mum would read with numerous varied expressions flitting across her face. She would pause often in her reading, to make some comments before continuing.  Sometimes a long letter would be written on sheaves of paper while at other times it would be a shorter one written on an aerogramme.

Mum would often do a second reading and tell us what she would write in reply. Then she would slowly fold the letter, look at it for a long while before rising from her chair to go to her room and place the letter carefully in the drawer amongst all the letters from India.

The excitement generated by the postman showed us just how much she loved India. In later years I have often wondered if the postman, dressed in khaki, pedalling his bicycle ever knew how much she yearned for him to stop at our gate.

In the evening, Mum would tell our father about the new letter as she served him his tea. Sometimes he would read the letter himself with an insrutable face. Sometimes she would read it aloud to him and we would hear it for the third time. On days when there were no letters from India, she would take out a few old letters from her drawer and read them again.

Those letters brought all our Indian relatives into our home and our lives.

Perrappan goes to India

One day in 1962, our uncle, Dad's older brother whom we addressed as Perrappan, told us that he was going to India. There was much excitement in our house. Parents went shopping for gifts to send to everyone in the family. When he returned from India a few months later, he told my father that he should go to India and visit the family because everyone was getting older. We children caught snatches of adult conversation, which was a story in itself.

Snatches of conversation
Father was entitled to two months leave.
We would go in 1963.
He would take all of us.
We would sail in October and be back in December.
We would take leave from school.
My brother who was in Form 3 at that time would join us after his public examination.
He would fly to India and we would all sail back together.

Getting ready to go to India

Preparations for the trip began sometime in early March. We needed to get the necessary vaccinations. We needed to get our passports and since all of us except our parents had Indian passports we had to go to the Indian High Commission to get our passports.


The first things to be bought were the huge suitcases. I believe they bought more than 4 large suitcases.
The empty suitcases of different colours were placed in my brother's room. They needed to be filled. Once the suitcases were filled, they would be locked and we would be ready to sail. There was a lot of shopping to be done. Clothes had to be bought or stitched for us children. Gifts had to be purchased for every member of the family. Extra gifts had to be bought in case we missed someone.

The Inhouse Tailor
Then it was revealed that Karutha Kamalan could sew. He moved into our house for many weeks and everyday, there was the sound of my Mum's Singer sewing machine whirring away as material was transformed into skirts and blouses. More stylish and fashionable clothes were stitched by the Chinese tailor. Some clothes were bought from Woodlands in Singapore. Many of our relatives in Singapore came to visit us with gifts and wishes for the great journey to India.

Days passed both slowly and swiftly as the suitcases filled up. One contained clothes that were to be given away. One contained, biscuits and chocolates, sweets and cakes. One contained my Mum's and Dad's clothes. Two contained our clothes.  One contained what we would use on board the ship so that we would not be opening all the bags. A smaller bag was packed for my brother who would be joining us later. Mum was the person in charge of bags. Eagerly we would open the bags and watch as it filled up with all sorts of things for people in India.

The journey beginsFinally the day when we set sail dawned. I had been pestering my mother to buy me a camera but she did not. That is why we have no photographs of our visit in India. My uncle Prasad had a camera. He brought his cameral in the morning and took a number of pictures of us in our garden. My grandparents and some relatives came to the house. By mid-morning we left the house in two cars and drove to the harbour.

Uncle Bhasy was travelling with us. Uncle Soman's wife Patmavathy was sailing with us. Uncle Manuel, his wife Aunty Theresa and their two children Katy and Sano were also sailing with us. Aunty Theresa's father was the owner of the popular Kerala Restaurant in Jalan Ibrahim, facing the sea. So there was an interesting group of us going on that journey and all of us came together on the ship.

Uncle Rajan, Aunty Shantha and their children Jeeva, Ranjit and the youngest boy came to the harbour as well. My father's boss came to the harbour and in those days all people who came to send us off were allowed on board. That was the first time I learned that at work my Dad was called Krish.

We children played on the deck with the cousins. The adults were engaged in their own conversation when an announcement came telling all visitors to leave the ship. We stood on the deck and watched them as they walked down the ramp and left the ship. They looked quite small on the ground as they waved to us and we kept on waving and smiling. I was so very happy and so was everyone. It took a while for me realise that the ship was moving away from the shore and an expanse of water had come between the people waving from the ground and all of us standing on the deck of the SS Rajula, as it sailed to India.

Leaving Singapore behind
Mum kept on saying, "I can see our country again. I am longing to see Podichi, Sarasama, Rajamakka and Nyarakkal Amma, (my paternal grandmother)." We were all caught up in her joy and excitement. Dad who led us to our cabin did not display much emotion but we knew he too was waiting to reach Mayyanad.

Our cabin was quite big. There were bunk beds. The porters had earlier brought our bags to the room. We were informed that dinner would be served at seven in the dining hall. Katy's parents were in a cabin near ours. Uncle Bhasy was also quite near. I am not sure where Aunty Patmavathy slept. We were filled with excitement and were waiting impatiently to enjoy the ship. Mum was scared that Suresh might fall into the sea and I was assigned to take care of him. That was a pain.

All of us trooped into the dining hall and were given a table large enough to accommodate us. There was a posh colourful menu on the table. We had a choice of Western, South Indian or North Indian food. Mum chose Indian - a mixture of North and South. What struck me then was the smell. There was a smell on board the ship. It was neither pleasant nor unpleasant. But it was there and we were conscious of it for the first two days.

After dining in the dining hall that first evening, Mum and Dad decided that they would pay a cabin boy some money so that our meals would be served in the cabin. We were so disappointed but they would not change their minds. I was able to go to the dining hall ocassionally when Uncle Bhasy, who dressed for dinner every evening took me along. Mum disapproved because when I was not there, there was no one to watch over Harish and Suresh and she had her own ideas about what was proper and not proper behaviour for girls. But luck was on my side.

By the second day, Mum became sea-sick and was confined to her bed most of the time. The cabin boy told us to remain on the deck so that we would not suffer from sea-sickness. We were glad that Mum was stuck to the room and the bed for that gave us the freedom to discover so many parts of the ship and to make friends with the other travellers.

Two days later, the ship anchored in Penang. We left the ship in the morning and went to Georgetown. It was really a day of discovery for all of us. We went up Penang Hill. We went to many places that I cannot recall now. We had good Chinese food. We got lots of photographs taken by professional photographers and it was a tired bunch of people who boarded in the evening. Mum was very apprehensive and all her fears came true - she became sea-sick again and was confined to the bed and room yet again. The cabin boy told my Dad that we should only eat chappatis! So it was chapatis everyday.

We had to take a short walk from our cabin to go to the bathroom and toilet. Then we had to take a short flight of steps to reach the deck. There was a library and music room. There were deck chairs and there were also games that we could play on the deck. I remember the safety drills and we were told where the lifeboats were and life jackets too. I am not sure if many of us bothered to remember.

We were introduced to the doctor on board the ship. He was from Goa. We were introduced to some other men in their white uniforms. I remember the doctor asking me if I was a student at the Convent. When I replied positively he asked me if I knew of a Miss Helen Fernandez. When I again answered positively he gave a wide grin and told me to give her his regards. I was happy to have the chance to speak to Ms Fernandez who worked in the office of our school.

Most mornings I spent on the deck with Katy's mother or Uncle Bhasy. I would read or listen to music. Some of the men and women made friends with us. I do not remember other children. Katy and Sano were too young compared to my thirteen years. Harish was a very manageable and agreeable child. Sobha stayed close to my mother. Sheela and I spent time together on the deck, reading, playing or just walking and watching the sea.

The most amazing part of the trip was watching the sea, the changing colours of the sea. On some days it would be a beautiful royal blue, or a dark navy blue and sometimes the sea had tones of green. We watched fish flying into the air only to dive back into the water. There was always a breeze which would send my waist length hair into knots of untidy mess. Mum would ocassionally venture to the deck and send me back to the room to tidy my hair and tie it up. I had long straight hair that fell to my waist without so much as a wave. I was also proud of the beautiful clothes that my mother had made for me. Everyday I wore a different dress.

We went to the cabin for lunch. If luck was not in, Mum would make us lie down and sleep in the afternoon. Slowly one by one the others became sea-sick. I was all right but felt queasy at times. I was happy to be on deck alone with my books and Katy's mother.

The dance parties on the ship. The doctor and someone else told us that there would be a dance. The doctor invited Katy's mother to dance. My mother was horrified. "Doesn't he know that she is married?" she demanded. Katy's mother laughed it off and was her usual friendly, smily chatty self. Sheela and I disobeyed our mother and went up to the deck to watch the dance. It was fun. No one asked us for a dance! The days passed in an idyllic manner and all too soon we reached Nagapattanam.

We stood on deck and watched as people climbed out of the ship and entered smaller boats that would take them to the shore. That frightened me. Mum and Dad assured us that in Madras we could leave the ship the way we had boarded in Singapore. The next day the ship reached Madras. There was a lot of excitement. Dad had booked for someone to arrange for the porters to carry our bags. Mum had to make sure all the bags were packed and properly locked up.

We were on deck early and saw Madras come slowly to the ship to meet us and greet us. It was a wonderful feeling. We were too young to realise that my Dad had made it all happen. We were also too young to realise that a young child of nine or ten who had left his mother was coming home after many years, with a wife and six children to introduce to his parents.

Dad made us contain our excitement and wait on the deck until the frenzy stopped and most of the passengers had disembarked. Then we left the ship and had to go through customs and immigration and finally walk into Madras. There waiting to meet us was a very huge specimen of a man. He was a giant of a man, very light skinned and sported a huge moustache that covered almost half his face. He came towards us and hugged my Dad and spoke to him. I thought he was whispering but soon realised that he was a very soft-spoken person. He smiled at all of us. Mum was all smiles and she introduced us one by one and told us repeatedly, "He is your Kochachan". We smiled and nodded, not sure what to say.

My Dad was meeting his brother for the first time since he had left India as a young boy of nine or ten. Uncle was more talkative than my father and we could see the bond between them.

Uncle Sugunan booked us into a hotel. I remember the name of the hotel, Kashmir Hotel. It was a clean place and we had booked two rooms. My Dad, uncle and Harish used one room. The rest of us used the other room. Uncle Bhasy told us that he had booked his own room but he would travel with us by train from Madras to Quilon.

Everywhere we looked there were people. There were people on the roads, on the pavement and in the buildings. There were men and women in almost equal numbers. There were young and old people and children of all ages too. There were people walking, sitting and sleeping, all in public places. We had our lunch in the hotel. It was a banana leaf lunch. From our window in the room we had a very bad view. The back lanes were filled with people who were going through the banana leaves and eating the leftover food. It was revolting.

Uncle took us to the shops but Mum did not want to buy anything. I am not very sure if it was that evening or the following evening that we boarded the train that would take us into Kerala and to Quilon. Parents, Harish and Suresh were in one coach. Uncle Bhasy, Sheela, Sobha and I were in another coach. Soon our faces were covered with soot. It got into our eyes and our mouths. When we shut the windows the coach became very stuffy, so we left them open. At every station that it stopped, vendors would come selling fruit, snacks and drinks. We ordered our food in one station and it was served at another station. That journey took almost twenty four hours. We enjoyed the food, the journey and the sights in spite of the soot.

By the following evening the journey became quite tiresome and tiring as well. We were ready to leave the confines of the train. As we neared Quilon station, all of us gathered in one coach. Mum kept reading out the names of the stations. Finally she said, the next station is Kolam. I can never forget the look of sheer joy and ecstacy on her face as the train slowed down and pulled all of us into the station.

We kept kept our heads out of the window and watched as a dark skinned man came running along our window. Mother told us that he must be Vijayan, the son of my Dad's older brother. The train ground to a halt. Vijayan came to us with a very broad grin plastered on his face. Mum said, "It is Vijayan from Chempottu?" and he told her that was who he was.

Porters were called. Taxis were arranged and we were all taken to Vijayan's father's house. It was dark by the time we reached his house. There was no electricity in those days in many of the houses. Oil lamps were used to light up the homes.

Our cousins stood around us gaping. I am sure we gaped back in return. Mum made us smile to order and we dutifully obliged. Dad was disappointed that you were not there. We were told that you  had been waiting and gone back to your house when someone told you that we would be going to Nyarakel, your ancestral home. Uncle Sugunan and wife stayed with you in your house. Everyone thought we would stay there. But my Dad had agreed with his brother in Singapore that he would stay in his house because it was more convenient. I do believe that that decision caused more than a bit of pain to my uncle and also to you.

Mum and Dad gathered all of us and with the cousins and other adults who had gathered, we made our trip to Nyarakel. We had to walk in the dark and that was quite frightening. We could hardly see and the journey was a long one. It was a long one for us since we were not used to walking long distances. Finally we all trudged up to your house. At last we came face to face with you, the writer of the numerous letters that came without fail every month. I fell in love with you that night when you held me close to you and kissed the top of my head.

My Paternal Grandmother
She was slim, flat chested, had curly hair, was taller than me and spoke in a raspy kind of voice. She was so different from my maternal grandmother in almost every way. She addressed each one of us by name without waiting for my mother to tell her who was who. She hugged us close and asked us why we took so long to come. She hugged my father for a long time and cried. Then she asked him why he had taken so many years to bring all of us to India. Dad had a big smile on his face and he mumbled something and asked her why she was crying. His voice was also thick with emotion, an emotion we had not witnessed before.

to be continued.

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