Wednesday, August 22, 2007



Reading through the previous write-up, I got the impression that, though entirely sympathetic, it has turned out a somewhat clinical portrayal of Ponnappa and his life and times. I think I should add some local colour and mention our holidays in Alwaye. Also introduce some Notables from the mini- procession of humanity that we came into intimate contact with in those days. In short, add a slice of life by way of this addendum. Well, that is how blogs keep growing and my brother Kannan is adding a fair bit of his own, separately.

As kids, my brother Kannan, sister Shobhi and myself, Sudarshan the eldest, were exiled away for each school year in the hot and sultry plains of Tamil Nadu, mostly Madurai and Madras, wherever our dad was posted within that state. After our early exposure to Kerala, the Tamil landscape and language seemed harsh and impoverished, especially when contrasted with the sweeter and genteel sounding Malayalam. And we longed for our annual retreat-cum-sanctuary in the spa - like climate of leafy Alwaye in the TLC of our maternal grandparents. Although Tamilians, we had all grown up feeling we were people of Kerala, a feeling that has endured to this day, not unnatural considering that the state of Kerala has been home to our family for 500 years or more. And Alwaye combined all the advantages of a small town with its tendency, manifest even then,to coalesce rapidly with nearby Ernakulam and Cochin.

The Situation at Bank Road

A summer vacation in Alwaye had many delights to offer us, notably the warm, cosy, nurturing atmosphere at my grandparents' house which we regarded as our other, and favoured, home. The house was on Bank Road in Alwaye, a short, quiet, leafy and neat road in the heart of town. At one end of the road was Pankajam Cinema, owned by Pankajam Swami or Neelakantan Iyer, (aka Neelandan Swami) who was both a client and a friend of Ponnappa and lived across the road from us on Bank Road itself. Half-way down the road, less than 150 yards from Pankajam, was our house and the short road ran up an incline for another 150 yards and exited into a junction. The house had a 40 foot setback from the gate and there were jack and rubber trees in this front yard. The road was home to a number of banks, with bank headquarters on either side of our house. And, to retrieve the cricket balls that flew over the wall I made my first, tentative but drastic (in that entry often involved scaling the adjacent wall) forays into my chosen career of banking.

The inside of the house was deliciously cool and the first story was mostly given to Ponnappa's practice, its verandah and his outer office accommodating as many as 40 clients sometimes and still more inside his spacious office, lined with legal books and general reading of a varied kind. My uncle's bedroom was also upstairs, at the end of the verandah. Our own day-time domain was the corresponding downstairs verandah about the same 30 foot in length but wider, at 20 foot, by about 5 feet. Whenever the fancy took us, the radiogram would play endless repeats of old film songs like 'Kaayalarigatthu' or ' Maanennum vilikkilla' or, perhaps, 'Erikkarayin mele' or 'Laddu mitthai venuma', all of them signature tunes of my boyhood. And, moreover, there was the music broadcast to the street by the Pankajam Cinema , a homing signal or muezzin's call reminding the faithful to commune at the matinee, evening and night shows.

There were upperis various, cashew fresh toasted in shells, wheat halwa, tapioca pappadoms and other edibles and comestibles, all home-made, or delicious Priora mangoes in season. In short, everything to feed that schoolboy gluttony which Evelyn Waugh has described as the Master Passion of boyhood. We were always to be found with our mouths full or breathlessly playing cricket with rubber balls ( with a hard stone core inside) fashioned by us from the rubber trees in the compound . And, even when playing, our pockets would be stuffed with upperi and other delectable trifles to sustain our strength. Neighbourhood boys such as Rajamani and his brothers or our cousins visiting from Parur or Cochin made up a scratch team of at least 3 or 4 on each side. And in the mornings there was the veritable Rogues' Gallery of Ponnappa's clientele besides some notables like Julian, Dr Vallabhan and others. I always watched this mini parade in total fascination, taking stock of the varied classes, creeds and backgrounds they came from.

Outings & Excursions

There was always the bathing in the Aluva Puzha or Periyaar river to look forward to. But this was possible only about two or three times each summer, when an adult felt inclined to shepherd us there and back. And no more riverside excursions once Edabappaadhi or the end of May came up, signifying the onset of the Monsoons. It was then time for Ponnappa and his clerk Bhaskaran or Bhasi to batten down for the lashing rains to come, arranging masons to fix suspect spots in the roofing, dusting up the umbrellas and Olakkudas (palm leaf umbrellas worn like a hat and, thus, hands free) and so on. Anyway the Periaar would be in spate in the rains and was not considered safe for us. But, when it was possible, the outings to the river, splashing about in the cool, fresh waters, were very much looked forward to. And there would be all sorts of sights and sounds, advertising caravans for the movie houses, elephants bathing in the river, visits to the Krishna temple on the banks, on the way to the river and back.

And, notable amongst the local attractions, there was the Pankajam cinema to which the family had free and unrestricted access, a privelege that was seldom used in the rest of the year except by Ponnappa. He would, during the rest the rest of the year, make monthly visits for a stroll, a chat and a smoke with the proprietor if he was around and a 15-minute spell inside the movie hall. But Ponnappa too visited Pankajam more often when we were at Alwaye. And we, the grand children, were permitted to indulge within well defined limits i.e not oftener than weekly. Kannan, who contrived somehow to go almost daily, always preferred to sit in the Projection Room with the projectionist who he was friends with. But I preferred the dark sanctuary of the cinema hall proper where I usually found myself a seat on the upper level in the so-called box seats or the Dress Circle.

The Pankajam cinema hall was perpetually in a fug or miasma compounded of stale and live smoke from beedies and cigarettes, the furious munching of peanuts wrapped in newspaper cones, not to mention a certain all-pervasive BO emanating from the assembled multitude, the sort of conditions to gag you on entry. And you always saw the movie through a haze of tobacco smoke swirling up and visible in the beam of the Projector. But I found this atmosphere heady and agreeable, not only because I could smoke a restorative fag or two myself (fags purloined from Ponnappa's stock and stashed for just such an occasion) in the darkness. But and this is more to the point, I could do so away from the notice of Kannan in the Projection Room . For, had he been witness to the trespass, he might conceivably report the proceedings to my mom or, worse still, to Ponnappa.

Also, the general spirit and conduct within the cinema hall was jolly and mildly rowdy . The action was always from the floor and bench ticket seats below and one found their antics more interesting than the movie itself. The on-screen histrionics of a Sathyan or Thikkurisi left these sturdy denizens of the 40 P and 75 P seats cold. But they responded enthusiastically and vigorously with cat calls , hooting and whistles whenever the buxom Sheela revealed a bit of shapely leg or when the gentle Prem Nazir and the villain were engaged in fisticuffs. There was also much clapping and bench thumping on such occasions. The peanuts eaten, the newspaper cones made deadly and accurate projectiles shaped like an arrow and these flew thick and fast. And, besides the women's section below, a missile was as likely to hit you, up in the balcony, a smacking blow on the ear. For these honest fellows represented a microcosm of humanity itself. That is to say, some went for the low-hanging fruit, and I use the term advisedly, in the nearby Ladies' section. But there were yet others who aspired to nobler and higher things, this, in their cases , being the Balcony seats above. And what mattered most was a direct hit and, surely, a rare direct hit in the Balcony was far more satisfying than the sitting ducks in the ladies' seats. Agreeable though it was, this sort of banality began to pall after about 45 minutes and I would beat it homewards, only to look forward to a return visit in a few days.

There were also outings to Cochin and Parur, visiting aunts, uncles and cousins for the day. And, on the way back from Parur, we would halt at Ponnappa's 16 acre coconut farm for refreshments, usually several drinks of tender coconut water with the soft kernels to follow, accompanied by doses of jaggery or Naadan vellam or sarkara. The farm was under the care of Chatthan, Ponnappa's farm CEO cum factotum rolled into one, who lived onsite with his family. Chatthan and his family would crowd round us and our mother and an informal friendship, helped along by all those tender coconuts, was struck. My grandmother and mother considered the farm one of Ponnappa's follies or viddithams but it later produced a good income for my uncle. And, still later, when it was sold for a more than tidy sum and the proceeds divvied up between brother and sister, my mother did not complain.

Panki & Bhasi

I should begin with Bhaskaran or Bhasi, Ponnappa's longstanding Advocate's clerk who lived between Alwaye and Parur, in his village just a 20 minute bus ride away. He was on duty by 8.15 or so each morning, just as clients started filing in and would skive off by about 4 P.M on most days. Some days he would be around till about 5, rarely, if ever, later. He served Ponnappa like this all of the latter's time in Alwaye, over 20 years on the trot. He was a short, diminutive little figure in the obligatory mundu and white shirt or sometimes Jibba, his crinkly salt and pepper hair slicked down with copious libations of coconut oil. In fact, I always remember Bhasi for the combination whiff of coconut oil and beedi afterbreath that he carried with him wherever he went.

Now, an Advocate's Clerk, if he is any good , should be his boss's alter ego or conscience keeper and Bhasi, I know, was one of the best of his breed. Juniors may come and go, they usually flit by but a good clerk stays with his Advocate for life. Bhasi's domain was the principal outer office, which was the upstairs long verandah, and he marshalled the clients into order and shape from there. The case-sheeters among the clientele held him in considerable esteem as signified by their cash hand-outs to him which exceeded his monthly pay by a factor of 4 or 5 easily. In fact a good Advocate's clerk usually derives a more than tidy income in this way and his monthly pay, though adequate, is a mere stipend to him. And no good Advocate should grudge his Clerk's earnings on the side.

In fact Bhasi, more than most, deserved all he earned. For he was an adept in suggesting to Ponnappa, with a discreet, preliminary Jeevesian cough, that perhaps a perjuring witness was required to be procured in certain circumstances if the larger truth of the accused's genuine innocence was to be established. And he also always managed to find a plausible and credible one willing, for a small fee, to serve the ultimate cause of truth by providing an alibi in cases where the actual witness had proved un-cooperative or even turned hostile. Ponnappa, shrewdly, would have nothing personally to do with such machinations, so it was all done with mirrors, so to speak or a nod and a wink. .And Bhasi, who was not trained in law, could nevertheless remind Ponnappa of some case law or precedent from one of the previous cases out of his actual experience. Or h e could suggest a particularly mean court-room manouevre, such as a request for an adjournment or a technical objection, which would leave the Prosecution spluttering and sputtering and render them non combat . Such were the ways of our Bhasi, who played Master Tactician to Ponnappa's Grand Strategist, and thus was the true course of Justice sometimes served.

Ponnappa's irascible temper could sometimes be directed at Bhasi for some oversight or omission but he was always equal to the onslaught, responding with his tactics of submissive circumlocution and dissimulation to take the sting out of the attacks. He was one of the few who knew how to handle Ponnappa. In any case, their relationship was, by and large, one of mutual regard and dependance and Ponnappa , I know, performed many kindnesses to Bhasi and others like Chatthan. In fact, in his last days, he made a settlement of cash and land to Bhasi as a retirement provision and Chatthan was also similarly taken care of. It was a feudal sort of relationship, obligations existed on both sides and had to be, and were, scrupulously met. But that having been said, Ponnappa could sometimes drive Bhasi round the bend and the latter would respond with his disarming counter-manouvres and manipulation. It was a game that both sides enjoyed but there was also a friendship between the two men bedrock below the patron client equation. And many confidences were exchanged to my own knowledge. I like to think that in these ways, in fact in more ways than one, each got his money's worth out of the other.

Our own relationship with Bhasi was totally friendly and we looked up to him for Alwaye lore, street wisdom, news of the latest movies etc . Bhasi also taught us all the Mallu swear-words and also some bawdy songs . So he was a friend and confidant to us kids as well, always having time for us. I have never, ever, seen Bhasi flustered or agitated not even when Ponnappa was on the rampage. Sometimes, when he had to take me to Ernakulam to write an entrance exam or for a textbook to be purchased, he also let me smoke a surreptitious Beedi or two with him. But all that was on such rare outings only, never at home. For Beedies give off such a bloody awful post-smoke stench in the breath that both he and I dared not expose ourselves! But Kannan has his own account od Bhasi, the man, and their special relationship, so I must pass on.

Panki or Pankajakshi was a bird of a different feather, being my grandmother's night time maid and companion. My grandfather and grandmother by then had separate bedrooms, adjacent to each other. And, grandmother being asthmatic, it was thought wise to have some one to attend to her at night with supplies of hot water or medicines when needed. And the admirable Panki, of her own volition, stepped into the breach and performed this service for as long as grandmother lived. Her mother was the day maid at home, to sweep and mop up and do the dishes. Her name was Paru but we always called her Ammoommai or granny and that is how she was known to us, a lady of 65 or so with a shoulder cloth in place of a blouse and pierced ear lobes hanging loose, always all smiles. Her second daughter Ammini was happily married and living in Trivandrum with her husband and visiting occasionally.

But Panki's husband had gone AWOL a long time back and she had to fend for herself and her only son Gopalakrishnan who sometimes joined us for cricket. This Gopalakrishnan used to frequent the floor section of Pankajam cinema on most days and he, I strongly suspected, was theleader of the missile squadron which targeted the Balcony at the cinema . So, at cricket, I always made sure to hit him hard with the hard rubber ball and I like to think this had the desired effect, for the missiles didn't land so much at the Pankajam Balcony thereafter! Panki held a good job in a local factory and used to turn up by about 7P.M and stay until about 5 or 5.30 in the morning. At least once a week though she would go see a movie at Pankajam and turn up by 9.30 P.M and eat the dinner that grandmother had kept for her. Her duties were non-existent beyond gently massaging my grandmother's legs before bedtime, as grandmother never had an emergency at night and Panki could sleep undisturbed. She was provided dinner and her morning tea and grandmother and Ponnappa looked after her in many ways including regular monthly payments. The leg pressing was voluntary on Panki's part and her real recompense was by way of grandmother reading out to her from Malayalam feature and film magazines, the while the legs were being pressed and longer. And grandmother was handsomely repaid by Panki with the day's town gossip, the stories of the films she had seen and, especially, by her cheerful presence and companionship. In this way each gleaned much about the ways of the world from the other, in Panki's case the world of film stars by proxy and in grandmother's case the town lore, also by proxy!

Panki, of the time I am writing about, 1965 or so, was about 32 or 33, very old by my standards. But I suddenly found myself stealing glances at her svelte, lissom and dusky figure dressed in a mundu or lungi and a blouse on top, as was the custom in Kerala for the working classes. Little did I know it then but I was reaching my adolescence and my awareness of Panki's figure signposted that transition. But I knew it was not polite to look and would avert my gaze and disappear from the scene. When I passed by again, an hour or so later, I would find Panki lying trussed up in the cavernous dining room, next to grandmother's room, covered in a white sheet, which was her own mundu, from head to foot and sleeping the sleep of the blessed! I was reminded of P.G.Wodehouse's Uncle Fred Story in which his nephew imitates the 'sheeted dead'. Ponnappa, after looking up his Shakespeare concordance, told me the allusion came from Hamlet, one of his favourite plays :

The graves stood tenantless and the sheeted dead Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets:

By the time we got up, by 7 A.M, Panki would have been gone, to take her dip in the Periaar, then worship at the Krishna Kshetram and onwards for her breakfast. Panki remained in our service, replacing her old mother Ammoommai, till Chithammai's death in 1970.

Whither Alwaye?

The trouble was that we were all growing up and Ponnappa and Chitthammai or Meenakshi, my grandmother, getting older. I last went to Alwaye in 1969, the year of my graduation and Kannan and Shobhi for a year or two more. Grandmother died in 1970 during surgery in Madras for suspected cancer. She was only 57 then and Ponnappa was never the same man again. He went into a decline thereafter, gave up the Bank Road property and found a new one in another part of Alwaye. This property my uncle inherited and it is where his wife, aunt Rukmani, still lives. When he died in May 1972, I had already completed a Business degree as well and was into my first job. And there was to be no more Alwaye. True, my uncle was there but no Ponnappa or Chitthammai and it was not the same thing at all. And we would also miss all those warm and friendly relationships, the grand Acchayan, Julian, Dr Vallabhan and Moidukka, not to forget Panki, Bhasi and Ammoommai. Besides the world itself was changing and, we with it.

About 15 years back, I was reading a book on landscape history which had the following Latin quotation from Horace (with a helpful translation supplied) :

Ille terrarum mihi praeter omnes Angulus ridet (It is that corner of the world, above all others, which has a smile for me). And here is a nice picture I found on the Net :

I have found other corners with a smile since then but Alwaye was the first such.

I was at last back in Alwaye (now Aluva) in Nov 2006, some 37 years after my last holiday. I had exactly 10 minutes to drive up to Bank Road and do a quick recce. Pankajam Cinema is now gone but in its place stands the Pankajam Complex, new built and modern. Perhaps Pankajam Swami's family still own the place, I could not find out. Bank Road (now, perhaps more correctly, called Bank Street) has no more banks but it is still the quiet, neat, leafy street it always has been. At first glance everything looked familiar and when the car neared the steep incline my excitement and anticipation grew. But I could not identify Ponnappa's old house, it was gone, also gone were the familiar landmarks, the wicket gate to the house of Padmini and her mother, a Nair family bang opposite who were Chitthammai and mom's friends, and their house itself. A new structure stood where Pankajam Swami's house was, also just diagonally across the street.

And I could identify Ponnappa's house only by the plot size and the position of the good old Jack trees which still stood. There was a brand new house with little or no setback in place of the old structure and I did not want to go in and talk to the occupants. I had no time and, besides, it would have been pointless. I came away disappointed and drove on to Cochin where I had more work to do.

But I have always liked to think that, if there be an afterlife and a Superior Court of Justice in it, Ponnaapa promptly took his silk there and is fighting his clients' corner, with the incomparable Bhasi by his side ! In saying this, I hope I haven't dispatched Bhasi before his time. We know that his elder brother Shankaran, who was Clerk to my grand uncle and Ponnappa's immediate elder brother who practiced at Ernakulam, is no more. Bhasi, if alive, should be about 80 or 85 now.

I had a conversation with Vasumathi on returning home from Alwaye which went thus :

V: So you regretted going there?
Self : Yes.
V : And you wish you had let things be?
Self : Yes
V : But when you get the chance you are going back again?
Self : Yes.
V ; And you are, of course, going to inflict yourself on the occupants when you do?
Self : Of course, of course.

So, watch this space !

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