Tuesday, December 21, 2010
Growing Up with a Friend- To My Children 8
I don’t remember having too many close friends in my village. We all knew each other, we played together and shared a lot of things amongst us. But we were not close as there were certain restrictions I had in moving around with them all the time. They came to my home to play with me. I hardly went to play with them where they played very tough games. Most of them were tough kids and this toughness was the result of the general economy of the village. I was lucky to have the parents who were educated and employed in the government sector. It gave us a sort of insularity from the hardships that the children of my same age faced in their lives.
Vakkom was a backward village with no significant industries or job opportunities. People belonged to different castes lived in harmony as meager existence was common to all the households. Anchuthengu Fort (Anjengo in British documents) was across the backwaters and it was the place where the British settled during the colonial times and they used the fort as an administrative center as well as a business center. Attingal was under the Travancore kingdom and Maharani was the ruler of Attingal. And there are several reasons to believe that Vakkom was one place where all the socio-economically backward class and castes were pushed to reside.
E.M.Sankaran Namboothirippad (the ideologue of Indian Communist Party Marxist, CPM and the first Communist Chief Minister) in his book titled ‘Kerlam, the Motherland of Malayalis’ observes that the etymology of the name ‘Vaikom’ lies in its geographical position as a land retrieved from the water. One could apply the same logic in the case of Vakkom also. Vakkom should have been under water ages ago and thanks to the receding of sea a land portion might have come up. If you walk a kilometer from the main junction of Vakkom, you reach Anchuthengu Kayal (Anjengo Backwater) and if you cross it by ferry, you reach the Arabian seashore. If you go by the observations of EMS, one could easily find out that the early settlers in this area belonged to the fishing community and as coconut trees were abundant, the people who subsisted on the produces from these trees also might have settled here. Then came the other people as the communities developed around the sea and backwater needed other products for survival. The other people must have been living at the fringes of the Travancore kingdom as well as the sub-kingdoms like Attingal and so on. They found Vakkom and the places around it less prejudiced in terms of class and caste. This observation also justifies the presence of so many Muslims in this area and also the near absence of the Nair community that preferred to live near the seats of power as the Nairs formed the king’s armies.
Production of coir was the basic industry that we had in Vakkom during my childhood. Illustrious painter Raja Ravi Varma had chosen the Anchuthengu region to start a coir factory as he wanted to invest his wealth into an industry. I grew up in the vicinity of a coir factory, which was located a few paces away from my home. This factory was owned by a man named Anandan, a pious stocky man with a smear of sandal paste always n his forehead. He always wore white dhoti and white shirt, and most of the time he spent with the workers. Though the workers and the people in general addressed him as, ‘Anandan Muthalali’, which meant ‘Anandan, the Richman or the Business Man’, he was just like any other person in the village. His factory did not produce any coir product instead it produced coir mats, which were exported to different parts of the world. Besides the coir mats, this factory also produced coir bundles, which were later used for making many other coir products.
Though this coir factory was the hub of people’s life in my village, there seemed to be a limitation for Anandan Muthalali to branch out or expand his industrial operations. He basically remained as the producer of raw materials for coir products throughout his life. His business was connected to the main coir business center of Kerala, Aleppy (Alappuzha district) and from Aleppy two trucks came every weekend and collected the coir mats and bundles and drove away. We knew that the trucks were going to come as the workers spread huge coir mats along the road to give them a finishing touch and then roll them up into huge stacks. Right in front of the coir factory there was a long building and all the rooms in this building was used for making the coir bundles, which were called ‘mannu’. A few people well versed in making these bundles out of single coir threads. These rooms were mostly dark and at time we could see men sitting on the floor and arranging the single threads on the floor and at other times we could see them standing and rolling these single stacks with their legs while they held the tying pieces of coir like a leash in their hands. The rooms were always damp and there used to be a sharp smell; a mixture of damp coir and sweat. This was an art form in itself and now I don’t think too many people know this art of making coir bundles.
Our mornings and evenings were marked by the music of the coir factory machines and the heaving sounds of the people who worked in it. Coir making was a very long process and my occasional outings with some friends to these places where coir was made helped me to learn the process from the very beginning. These outings used to be hidden programs. My father did not like me hanging out with the workers’ kids not because he disliked them but because he thought that they would take me to certain places where the kids from ‘good families’ were not supposed to go. These places were ponds, paddy fields, backwaters, coir making fields and so on. The more we were restricted to go to these places the more we were interested to haunt such places. I had some partners in this conspiracy and they took me to these places directly from the school especially when the last period was free.
Coir making was/in interesting affair and the process was quite long. They separated certain shallow areas of the backwater with bunds and these demarked waters were called ‘Vattoms’ (Circles). The vattoms were meant for decaying the coconut husks collected from all over the village. There were middlemen to collect coconut husks from different houses. They paid a small amount for these husks and in the village economy everything was bartered for things or money. Husks were also collected from those people who made oil out of coconuts. There were ‘kopra kalangal’ (the coconut drying fields) and in these fields they peeled coconuts and each part was sold to different agents. The husks collected thus were brought into the vattoms where some people immersed them in the water around a stick. You could imagine it as an inverted hay/husk stack. It went a few feet deep into the water and was left to decay for a few months.
The people in the industry knew when the husk was ready to be taken out as some kind of smell emanated from these vattoms. And the vattoms are handled by certain people and they took the husks out carefully from the stack without it getting collapsed into the water. These decayed husks were taken to the ‘pakkalangal’ (literally means the fields where mats are made). These pakkalangal are the places where women worked. A certain number of decayed husks were given to each woman worker and they sat on the floor along the fringes of the field and using a wooden hammer called ‘kottuvadi’ (tapping stick) they made fine fibers called ‘chakiri’ out it. The outer peel of the husk was thick and once it was dried it was sold as a sort of firewood. A thick powdery stuff came out of these husks and it was called ‘chakirichhoru’ (rice of the fiber). This chakirichhoru was used as fuel when it was in the dried form or as manure or as a bund making material. The fiber thus made was then sent in bundles to a mill where it was cleaned in some crude machines. This refined chakiri was brought back to the pakkalangal where another set of women made small little bundles out of these and made coir.
The actual process of making the single coir thread started when these women made small bundles out of refined chakiri. At the one end of the pakkalangal there would be a series of ‘raattukal’ (spinning wheels) and at the other end there were a series of ‘kada vandikal’ (Churning Wheels). While raattukal were static, the kada vandis were movable. To make around twenty or twenty five meters of a single thread, three women were needed. While one woman (mostly a young working girl from the family) turned the handle of rattu, two women at the either end of the raatu fixed their chakiri bundle and walked backwards and as they walked the thread was formed along. These separate threads made by two women walking backwards were supported by some structures made in between on their reverse path. Once they reached the other end of the paakkalam, they together fixed the ends of their thread to a common peg in the kada vandi. Then one of the women took over the charge of the kada vandi and started spinning it while the other woman fixed a long triangular wooden tool with grooves on either sides (it is called Acchu) between the threads and walked forward towards ratttu. The woman at the kanda vandi rotated the shaft in clock wise and the girl at the rattu rotated her handle in anti-clock wise direction. In this way, once the woman with the acchu reached the rattu, a single coir thread of twenty or twenty five meters was created. Once she reached the rattu end, she made a shrill noise called ‘kookku’ (a sort of whistling) so both the women at the wheels reversed the rotation to give the coir an ample amount of strength and suppleness. After the kookku, the woman at the kada vandi pulled it back to its original position while the other woman took the thread off from the peg of the rattu and folded it in equal length according to the length of her hands across her chest and this measurement was called ‘maaru’ (literally means breast) and hung the coir at one stick. Then they repeated the process again. Each movement was so coordinated and in harmony with the movement of the others that not single moment was wasted in the process. This efficiency in working was developed as they were paid as per the number of maarus they had made in a day.
I used to go and sit at the paakkalangal. I watched these women working. They all knew me as ‘Lakshmanan sir’s son’ and they had a sort of love towards me which was tinged with a pinch of respect. I knew all the young girls who beat the husks along the fringes of the pakkalams. They used to give me an opportunity to beat the husks. While doing it I realized how difficult it was to lift a heavy wooden hammer like that and beat the husk continuously and rhythmically so that the fibers with the correct temper and fineness were made. These girls were very thin and they used to roll of their skirts till their thigh ends and their legs were mostly hidden by the chakirichhoru. At times you could not make out the difference between the color of the chakirichhoru and the complexion of their thighs. I liked to watch the women moving backwards and making coir. You could spend any number of hours there watching them at work. The older people who were not so agile used to take over when the maarus of coir are made. Their job was to dry them along the edavazhis. They did it with a lot of care and attention and if any boys rode their cycles or cycle tyres over them, these old people showered them with abusive words. A part of such coir threads was sent to the factory to make the mats.
The loom in which the coir mats were made was called ‘Thari’. There were two tharis of two different sizes in the factory. The smaller one made mats of four feet width while the bigger made the mats of eight feet width. To make a coir mat, they needed to prepare the coir as warp and weft. This coir for the warp and weft was prepared as spools that fed into the main spool of the thari. Making these spools was done in two different processes. The first one was called ‘Vandi Kettuka’ (means tying to a vehicle) and the second one is called ‘Unda Chuttuka’ (making balls). In the former process they made long coir threads out of the maarus and spun them around a wooden spool. Crude machines with rotating appendages and shafts were used for this. There was a special technique called ‘pirichu kuthuka’ (twist and tie) in order to join two coir pieces without making a knot. The two threads of one coir piece were forcefully separated and it was twisted with the similar loose end of the other piece. It demanded some kind of expertise otherwise it developed bumps, which killed the smoothness of the mats.
Unda Chuttuka was all about making small nest like coir bundles to fit into the ‘odam’ which was a sort of bobbin that the workers threw between the two layers of warps. Once these things were loaded in the tharis, the workers climbed on the thari platform. They all wear loin clothes and I was afraid that the shafts they alternatively pushed down with left and the right legs would somehow injure them at their groins. But the shafts were made in perfect lengths that they never hurt anyone. When the odam was threw from one and to the other it made a hissing sound and to complement it the worker at the other end who received the odam made another sound. Then they pushed the shaft down and with the hand they pulled a long horizontal wire mesh, which fixed the warp and weft permanently and strongly. A mat took weeks to months to finish. Once it was finished, they with a lot of festivities took the mat out of the spools and brought to the road. There used to be a demand for colored mats and during those sessions, they prepared red and green colors in huge vessels. They boiled the color and dipped the maarus in it before they were sent for vandi kettu and unda kettu. When the trucks came, the same workers helped the truck people to load the huge mats and bungles into the trucks. While hauling and heaving, they made sounds like ‘Abesh…aaria…aabesh …aaria’. And for children like us it was a spectacle and we stood near the factory to see them loading the truck.
You may wonder how I know all these things in their finer details. I owe all these knowledge to my childhood friend Sunil Lal, the one who took me to all these places, where, thanks to the poor economic condition of his family he worked at very tender age itself. Sunil Lal not only conducted me through things but also taught me to do whatever he did. He was the smarted of kids in the block. He was one year senior to me but we studied together till the tenth standard. He had one elder brother and one younger sister and they all lived with their parents in a small room across the road. These three kids almost grew up with me and my sister. When we were growing up my aunts and other relatives had shifted to other places and my paternal grandmother was left alone in the old house where I used to chase the golden eggs. So Sunil Lal and his brother and sister came to my grandmother’s house to spend the night. Actually they were giving company to the old woman. In return, they were given food.
Sunil Lal was not interested in studies. He was always looking for opportunities to do something. But my mother made him to sit with us and study. We had not even heard of mixers or grinders at that time. So we made the batter for idlis and dosas all by ourselves in a device made up of granite. Wet rice and wet uradu dal were put it in a cavity and a granite pestle called ‘kuzhavi’ was used to grind it. Once adequate amount of water was added the batter came up slowly. It took almost two hours to make one kilogram of batter. So once in a week it was we, the children came together around the granite grinder and worked on making the batter. We took turns to do it and Sunil Lal was an expert in making the batter. Next morning we all were given equal number of idlis or dosas. There was no discrimination between children.
In our village there was only one cinema theatre and it was called Sree Narayana Talkies. Black and White movies of the seventies came there after almost three or four months of their actual release in the city centers. We desperately wanted to catch up with these movies and we were not allowed to go on our own to watch movies. But when we were in the fourth standard, we got this opportunity to go and watch movies in this theatre once in a while. There were two shows every day and on Saturdays and Sundays there were three shows. And only on holidays we could go for the movie. The matinee started at 3 in the afternoon and got over by six in the evening and we got back home by 6.30. Sunil Lal and I were the team that always went to watch these movies.
Finding money for the ticket was a big issue for us. My father was not that lenient in giving us pocket money. And mother had to take permission from father to send us for movies. But my father was a Gandhian in certain sense. We needed fifty paise per person to buy tickets. With the fifty paise we could buy a ticket for the front rows where we seated on benches without backrest. So my father advised us to generate our own money by doing some works. So Sunil Lal and I used to create some ‘jobs’ for us. We cleaned the plot, plucked the weeds, cleaned the cycles, bathed our dog, Kuttan, took old newspaper to the market and sold them and cleaned the attic. And once these works were finished, my mother gave us lunch and father gave us fifty paise each and we rushed to the Sree Narayana Talkies.
I was afraid of the fights in the movies whereas Sunil Lal took all interest in fights. Even if there was a huge crowd, he somehow got the tickets once the counter opened. He elbowed his way through the crowd and interestingly we were hardly nine years old then. Sunil Lal had this habit of tying his knickers with a piece of coir around his waist. And he would tie it tight before he got into the crowd. Once inside the hall he untied the coir around his waist. As we sat on the first row we saw everything in ‘upclose and personal’. And we never wondered why all the images were distorted beyond a point. We thought that whoever sat behind us were fools and we caught the images before they could see it. Just behind the bench rows, there were a few rows of folding chairs, which was called second class and just behind those rows there were a series of cane chairs and that section was called ‘First Class’ or ‘Reserved Class’. I sat in the reserved class only when I went to watch a movie with my mother and whenever mother took us to a movie, without any doubt it was a religious movie. My father never came to watch movies with us. Instead, he came to pick us up from the theatre as mother was there and got us back home if it was dark. He went to the movies alone and he was a fan of Jayabharati, a very sexy actress of that time.
It was Sunil Lal who took me to the coir making fields and taught me the techniques of its making. His mother worked as a coir maker and his sister occasionally went to beat fiber out of the husks. His father worked in the coir factory as a mat maker. We called him uncle. Sunil Lal also worked in the factory as a Vandi Kettu and Unda Chuttal expert. He was just ten years then. And to make some extra money he lifted the coir bundles from the storage places to the main road where the trucks came to collect it. It was a very hard life for him but he never showed that he was suffering. He was always jovial and during the school years he was almost like my protector and body guard. My mother used to send our lunch boxes in his hand. She used to pack three lunch boxes equally; one each for me, my sister and Sunil Lal. We sat together and ate our lunch. Only difference was that we used steel tiffin carriers and his was made of aluminum. I wonder why my mother could not by one more steel tiffin for him!
In the coir factory, whenever I could squeeze permission from home, I learned the techniques of twirling the machines to make coir spools and undas. Sunil Lal conducted me around to tell me techniques of making the mats. His father also explained at things. Once in a while I visited these coir making fields with Sunil Lal. He took me to ponds and plucked lotus flowers for me. He could make garlands out of the tender stems of the lotus. He taught me to catch fish using a fishing rod, which he made himself. Also we collected small fishes from the streams using a piece of cloth and put them in glass beakers and watched them moving inside. We did several experiments together. On Fridays, there used to be a change in the movie at the Sree Narayana Talkies. After the school hours we waited before the projection room of this theatre to collect the clipped films.
These films were used for making our own film theatre. We made a projection system out of some discarded cardboard boxes. For a lens, we carefully removed the filament holder from fused electric bulb. Sunil Lal was an expert in crushing the innards of a bulb without breaking it. Anything dangerous attracted him. We filled water in the bulb and hung it inside the box. And in front of the bulb we placed the films one after another and using a broken piece of mirror we reflected sunlight into this box. The light passing through the bulb enlarged the film into four feet size on the wall and we took a great pleasure by doing it. We dug caves, we built make shift houses, we cooked rice in small pots all sourced from different houses and we were almost inseparable entities till we reached the school final.
By the time we entered the high school Sunil Lal had started washing cars in the market junction. While he washed the cars, he learned driving on his own. When we all passed and he failed in the tenth standard, he came up with this news that he was going to get married. At that time, he was working in a provision store in the market. This girl was a senior student in our school and she used to come to this shop to buy things. Slowly they fell in love and decided to get married. Hence, before any of us could think about a girl, Sunil Lal was married. Then I saw his different phases. He became a village terror as he joined a group of young thugs to terrorize the rich. Most of them were my classmates and they treated me with love and respect as I could go to college and study further. Even when they were active in the gang, I used to hang out with them. I never accepted him as a thug, I always treated him as a friend. I had seen him fighting in the street with a sharp sword in his hand. When I saw him, the fight had just got over the opponents had run away. He was high on drinks and anger. The moment he saw me, he walked up to me and asked me to go home as there were all the chances of police coming and picking them up. Then he went to gulf countries. There he did bootlegging, was incarcerated and deported. Once he came back, he joined the head load workers union in the market junction.
Today Sunil Lal’s children are grown up people and his son is now working in some gulf country. Whenever I visit my village, I go to meet him in a provision store where he works as a helper. And whenever trucks come to the market, he works as a head load worker. When I go to meet him, he takes permission from the shop owner and comes with me to have tea and chat up. If I have a few days in my village, he comes to meet me every night before he goes home. We stand near the gate in the darkness and try to remember those good old days. And in those moments we become those boys, Johny and Suni who used to explore the world together.