We had moved into our present house in 1964. It was the first one to be built on this side of the road, on which an occasional line bus droned along, on what was then a relatively large stretch of land extending right up to the river, where the mangroves grew in dark ,dense patches all along the waterfront. My father was very fond of hunting and as kids , my brother and I , would walk through the coconut palm dotted stretch , accompanying him on his trips.
My brother Niyaz is only slightly younger than me and we sort of competed and fought over most things. We had cloth bags hung over our shouldersto carry the birds that he would shoot down with his double barelled gun.They were mostly wild fowl and pigeons that nested amongst the mangroves. On days that his aim faltered he’d happy to point his gun at the white cranes which were more abundant thereabouts , in the clearings amongst the undergrowth, a little away from the river.
The landscape has changed drastically since then. The wide sweep of the river , where most of the young lads living in the vicinity had then learnt how to swim on their own, using dry coconuts with dried up kernels fastened on to coir ropes , tied on their backs to act as floats, is now just a tragic trickle , with many sawing mills littering the water with the wood shavings and the logs obstructing the flow and turning the river into stinking swarmy puddles.Back then, the surroundings smelt of rich verdancy , alive and elated , just as were our spirits as we romped through the grasses and creepers.
I remember that my father didn’t really prefer those cranes, may be because their flesh wasn’t as tender when cooked as that of the water fowls and pigeons.But he didn’t want to return home empty handed, a trait my elder brother duly carried forward. His passion had been angling and when the fishes adamantly refused to bite the bit, he would buy a few big ones from the vendor and pass them off as his own catch, which of course we all saw through. He persisted with the pretence nevertheless.
I think I really did partake of the thrill of observing the gunshots hit the target and the birds falling down with a slump. The task of locating them amongst the brambles and undergrowth was left to us and that provided us a lot of excitement. But I remember feeling huge twinges of remorse and sadness when later on we’d empty the bags on the kitchen floor and the birds would lie there with limp bodies and listless unmoving eyes. They would be warm still if you held them in your hands and I remember wishing fleetingly that they come back to life. The guilt lasted only for a few seconds till we were allowed to pluck the feathers before handing it over to our mother for further necessary action.
And then there would be the whole rigmarole of cleaning the guns with a thick viscous oil and yellow flannel cloth. The oil had a particular odour which would hang on to him for several hours…just like the “Loma” solution which came in small bottles that he would keep in a corner of the wooden cabinet which stalled the radio.He applied it daily on his hair which had grown prematurely grey and they always had a reddish tinge .His shirt collars and pillows always carried that smell. They were not unpleasnt smaells..only something that was associated with him
In times when girls of my community approaching their puberty were confined indoors and stopped from even going to the neighbourhood shop just a few steps away ( “akathaddakkal” , it was called in local parlance) my father had let me go to school and had let me continue my studies in college, even against the wishes of my mother who would’ve been happier if I had been married off like all other girls of my age. I’d hated going to marriages then. Not because I’m not gregarious by nature but because every older female in the gathering would make it her diligent business to remark on my unmarried status. They would quiz my mother about when I was going to be settled down. “Ini eppola? Mookhil pallil vannittaa mangalam kayichayakkaan pokunne? “, was the constant refrain.I wonder how they cooked that up. One had heard of wisdom teeth appearing only at a ripe age, but dentures in the nose?
In the school I was going to, we had to wear blue pinafore skirts and white blouses underneath as uniforms. The nuns ensured that they reached up to our knees, duly ripping out the hems of those that tended to reveal bits of our thighs. But an adolescent girl attired in anything other than an apparel that covered the entire length of the legs was looked upon with great disapproval by the muslim community. There were just about about five or six muslims in my class.
My father though, never insisted otherwise and I wore short skirts at home as well, even when I was sixteen. He was quite okay if I never covered my head with a veil as other girls did. Negligence in this regard was supposed to earn us delinquents, veils of flaming fire in the next world. He did make some lame unconvincing efforts once or twice to have me drape the end my pallu over my head when I had started going to college.( Yes..I had worn only saris to college!) But , as i mentioned, they were quite half hearted and so it happens that I’ve never covered my head.
And he had kept dogs in the house too which was another taboo, their moist noses being “najees” , contact with which impurity would render any God fearing muslim unfit to perform namaaz. That kept many relatives away. He wasn’t really pleasant to them even otherwise, which embarassed us no end. Thinking back though,it seems only natural that he didn’t much care for those who found many reasons to disapprove of him.
He had strange and strong affinities . His abuses had a generous sprinkling of anti-jew references , although he was far from being a typically religious muslim. His affection for Haji Mastan who had in those days reigned as the Bombay underworld don, was as intense as his dislike for Mrs. Indira Gandhi, being a staunch communist at heart .I don’t think the illegality of Mastan’s ways made any dent in his image of him as one who helped many an underpriviledged fellow- being in dire straits. He would narrate many stories about Mastan’s largesse, even fib that he’d met him, which was quite unlikely, even impossible , as he had never left Kannur after he got married, to our knowledge.
Did he gather those anecdotes from the newspapers? I have absolutely no idea.I don’t remember being interested in anything that went as “News” in my younger days. Enid Blyton’s countless books and later on Muttathu Varki’s “paingili” romances was fodder enough for my reading fire. Then of course there was the Malayala Manorama Weekly , which we scrambled to get our hands on , on Sundays. The cartoon strip “Bobban and Molly” and the page full of jokes in the column “Phalithabindukkal” were devoured with much more appetite than any political even that made news.
The Emergency , of course, was another affair, mostly because of the juiciness of the news related to the Sub Inspector of Police , Pulikkodan Narayanan’s “Roller” tactics on those he picked up from here and there during the Emergency and the disappearnce of Rajan too was more then just news. Earlier, the Naxalite phase eptomised by Ajitha dressed in trousers and shirt who roamed the forests of Tirunelli had given us its share of daily drama too.
My father, as expected, rained the choicest of abuses on Mrs. Gandhi. That must’ve been the time when I became a little interested in the political dramas unfolding around me. Till then, the speeches from the street corners, all rendered in the same oratorial style, all quoting earlier incidents that had happened in some particular year , all with the same modulations of voice as they sought the attention of their brethren in the countryside , were listened to as familiar noises that one would have missed had they stopped.
He had never gone to college. His spoken English was stilted and I was not just a little embarassed whenever he visited the school and insisted on conversing with the nuns only in English. I was a good student and they would look happy to be talking to a parent of one of their brighter products. As far as I was concerned, I wanted him to keep the visit as short as possible. Just a couple of years ago,on a visit to Achyuthan Vaidyar’s house( he owns a small ayurveda shop next to our house) , I was pleasantly surprised when he fished out an old autograph with my father’s testimony, recorded in flawless English with a hand that had a flourish that would be the envy of many who had attended an English medium school and done many many pages of cursive writing. The citation was about Achyuthan Vaidyar’s prowess as an Astrologer and the accuracy of his predictions
My father would often make some predictions himself, one being that there would come a day when I would feel grateful for being given an education that would help me stand on my own feet . I would never have to be “mautaaj” (I’m not really sure if that is how it is to be pronounced . I think it means “obligated” ) to any one’s “khairaat” , which I think means charity in urdu. “Write it down in your diary in “swarna lipi” (letters of gold) , he’d add and i would want to retort, which I never did actually, “So what’s the big deal? That’s what all parents do!”
Now i know..and my eyes turn moist with gratitude . Why this sudden surge of memories ? Because this morning’s papers had many columns dedicated to protests here and there in Kerala against consumption and sale of alchohol.
My father died at the age of fifty five, that’s a year younger than I am now, just nine days after I got married. My kids never got to see him. My friend Venkitesh, who had known him from his visits to our house during his college days , as my younger brother Arif’s fellow SFI comrade, calls him a failed Sultan. He died of liver cirrohsis.