Wednesday, May 25, 2011
Trivandrum: God’s Own City, Mine Too: To My Children 16
The city of Trivandrum has played a great role in my growth as a sensible and sensitive human being. After my father shifted our family back to the village in Vakkom, going to Trivandrum was a dream for me throughout the years. Most of my relatives were living there and once in a while my mother took us to their homes. The biggest attraction of Trivandrum ever was the Museum- Zoo complex. I craved to go to the Museum gardens and visit the zoo to see the animals. An elder sister of my mother was living near the museum and whenever we visited Trivandrum, she took us to the garden along with her children who were easy with the ways of the city. Today, when I look at the people who try to negotiate a moving escalator in a mall or places like that and I compare my toddlers’ easy ways of negotiating such places with these visitors’ awkwardness, I remember my childhood days. I was from a village and city of Trivandrum was like a magical land for me. I needed help to negotiate the place.
However, visiting Trivandrum, which was later re-christened as ‘Thiruvananthapuram’, was always fun. It was originally Thiruvananthapuram and the British colonial rule made it Trivandrum as they could not pronounce the complicated stream of vowels and consonants in the original name. Slowly it got stuck and those people who are English educated still call it Trivandrum and the people with a lot of nationalist, regionalist and indigenous sensibilities, and also those people go by the government diktats of name changing, call it Thiruvanathapuram. I don’t have any qualms in calling this beloved city by both the names. I don’t feel any particular aversion of the English name nor do I feel a strong attraction for the indigenous name. In fact, the name Thiruvananathapurmam could be explained in the following terms: Thiru- Sree (a word that qualifies the respectful status of the addressee. Also it connotes the linguistic mixture of Tamil and Malayalam), ‘Anantha’ means the great serpent on which Lord Vishnu lies in his Yogic sleep, and Puram means City. So Thiruvananthapuram means the City of Lord Mahavishnu (here the Anantha is equated with the Lord Vishnu himself).
As an interesting twist in the history of Kerala, or the erstwhile kingdom of Travancore, in order to curb the political rebellion of the local chieftains, King Marthanda Varma relegated his kingdom to Lord Vishnu and promised that he would rule the kingdom in the name of Lord Vishnu in 1750. Since then the Travancore kings are known as Padmanabha Daasanmaar (The Servants of Padmanabha, Lord Vishnu). This was very diplomatic move by the king to get the consent of the people, religious establishment and the political establishment. He could control the economy of the country by making the people to pay tax in the name of God and the king and the royal family was not just taking any money from the people, instead they were receiving it on behalf of God. It was very difficult to rebel against God within the given context of Hinduism in Thiruvanathapuram in those days. These historical facts have been vividly described and analyzed by E.M.Sankaran Namaboothirippadu, the first Communist Chief Minister of Kerala and the Communist ideologue in his landmark work titled, ‘Keralam: Malayalalikalude Mathrubhoomi’ (Keralam- The Motherland of Malayalis)
My mother used to take us to Trivandrum in a Kerala State Road Transport Corporation bus that came to our village at night around 10 O’ clock and rested near the backwaters. The driver and conductor slept either in the bus or in some friend’s place. Early morning at 6 O’ clock this bus again left for Thiruvananthapuram. This bus a Benz model with the famous Benz logo on its face belonged to the Attingal Depot, which was the main bus station in our part of the world. This Benz bus ran between Vakkom and Trivandrum Medical College. Actually, this bus was started by the government for helping the people to go to Trivandrum Medical College. It started off at 6 am and reached the Medical College by 8 am. People could do their medical check ups and sight seeing and so on and return by the same bus that left the Medical College at around 8 at night. It reached our village at 10 pm.
Unlike these days, the people in the service sector, for example like the driver, conductor, postman, electricity board worker and so on knew the purpose of their job and the purpose of their life. They were friendly to people and most of the villagers knew them by name. We, children called them uncles. In our childhood, 6 am was really early morning. Our preparations to go to Trivandrum would start at least a few days before the stipulated date. We would go to the market, buy some knick knacks for our cousins. My mother would collect things to share with her sisters. Invariably, my sister would buy a bottle of nail polish (we called it cutex that smelled like petrol and it was very cold when applied on the nails and often came in the revolutionary red color) and a roll of ribbons. We would wash our rubber sandals crystal clean and wonder at the layers of dirt coming off of our beloved co-travelers.
To go to the bus stop, we need to get up at 4 am, which was an unearthly time for the kids of any place. But the dream of going to an interesting city would make us alert and almost sleepless so we used to get up well before time and without much fuss we dressed up for the journey. Mother took us to the bus stop and waited for the Benz bus to make its appearance from the backwater side. It came royally, like Poseidon coming with his trident from the sea. It had a pair of brooding eyes in the form of its head lights. KSRTC buses were all red in color. If it is an ordinary bus (ordinary fare) a single yellow line would run around its body. If it is a fast passenger, the yellow line would expand at the middle of the body and drape it like a half sari. If it is an Express bus, the color would turn into a green while the yellow half sari remains the same. Later on the shape and size of the buses changed. The age rarity has given way to the age of abundance. Today buses don’t hold much interest in terms their shapes and design. Benz buses were a thing of beauty.
The interior of the buses were painted light green with seats upholstered with dark colored green material that had the famous KSRTC logo etched on them. There were no window shutters or shades, instead there used to be a pair of tarpaulin clothes hanging from either side along the length of the bus. These tarpaulin sheets could be raised like a curtain and fixed on a loop made with the same cloth. When it rained we unhooked these sheets and the bus looked like a moving caravan with full of brooding people. As our journeys used to be in the early mornings, I could not have missed the lights. All the lights were round in shape and all of them were painted half red so that the light inside the bus was always dim. Just behind the driver’s seat and along the curve of the roof there used to be the following slogans: “Don’t put your head and hands outside”, “Don’t Smoke” and “Two or Three Children Enough” (later on it became ‘We Two Our Two’). The bus started with a lot of sound like an old man wakes up from his bed with his chest full of cough. The conductor pulled at a rope that was connected to a bell on the left hand side of the driver. One bell signaled a stop and two bells signaled a start. Conductor had a wooden rack fitted with differently colored tickets with various denominations. I used to collect these tickets, especially after I started traveling frequently in buses. I had a few bundles of Government bus tickets and a private bus tickets. Those bundles were with me till I left for Baroda in 1992.
When we did not take the bus, the same domestic rituals were repeated to reach the nearest railway station in Kadakkavoor that was our neighboring village, almost a kilometer away from our home. We walked all the way to the railway station along the railway lines. In my childhood it was meter gauge and later it was converted into broad gauge. We had to cross two level crosses; the first one was called Toppikka Vilakam and the second one was called Randaam Gate (the second gate). From the gate keepers we could make out how late the train was. We called trains ‘Thee Vandi’ (Fire Cart) because they ran on fire and water. Each engine had a distinct face. They looked fiercely at the people and by puffing smoke and spangles of coal in the air they passed through the village, shaking up everything along the railway lines. These two gates opened towards either side of the road (and recently a friend of mine told me that the old style gates were called ‘women’ gates) and now they are replaced by another mechanized device that could be raised to the air (and this is called the male gate). We had to cross two signal posts and we called it ‘Kai’ (Hand). Through some devices that we could see along the railway tracts, the signal raised its hand when the train was about to come and when no trains were passing it stood in a horizontal position.
Kadakkavoor was a small station and people who preferred to travel cheap reached there early morning because only an ordinary train that shuttled between two cities (Kollam (Quilon) and Thiruvananthapuram) stopped at Kadakkavoor. Rest of the trains, the so called expressed trains ignored our own station and pompously went to Trivandrum. There was even a smaller station near Kadakkavoor called Akathumuri, which was later on leased out to a private operator as there were no passengers from that station. From Kadakkavoor we got into the box like compartments of the shuttle train, which used to be always a rusty brown in color and watched the passing landscapes full of rice fields, ponds, coir making fields and temples.
In Trivandrum, we all reached the Padmanabha Swami Temple first. It is where Lord Vishnu resides. This area where the temple was built in the later 15th and early 16th century is called East Fort. Most of the Brahmins who came to the Travancore kingdom as temple priests and King’s courtiers stayed in the vicinity of the temple. Right in front of the temple there is a huge pond which is called ‘Padma Theertha Kulam’ (Lotus Pond). Just opposite to it there is a long and spacious theatre kind of building and it was where the temple art forms were performed for the entertainment of the royal family members. On the outer wall of this building there is a wall clock called ‘Methan Mani’ (Muslim Clock). This clock had the face of a fierce looking demon and on either side of this face there were two goat like forms. When the hours were to be rung, the demon opened his mouth and the goats from either sides hit on the cheeks and the bell rang. It was a curiosity for the temple visitors and people used to wait for some hour so that they could see the Methan hit by the goats.
Along the streets vendors sold temple utensils, toys, flowers and some eatables. The whole area used to be very clean and it was not a major tourist attraction then. Now things have changed considerably, the temple too has become a tourist attraction. We went inside the temple. Men had to take the shirt off from their shoulders and nobody could wear pants or trousers. Women should wear saris. During those days jeans, pants or churidars were not in fashion so it was not a big issue to enter the temple. Today, men have to hire lungis and the women have to hire two piece clothes if they are wearing pants or churidars. Inside the temple one could see seven granite pillars and the priest would tell you that these pillars could create Saptasvara (the seven musical notes) if you tap on them delicately. The idol is of a reclining Vishnu and one could not see the idol completely as the idol is horizontally carved and is seen through three different doors. Only on special days the three doors are opened at the same time. Otherwise, depending on the time of pooja (ritualistic worshiping) one could catch a glimpse of the Lord’s head or belly or feet.
Just opposite East Fort (Kizhakke Kotta) where the city bus stand is located now, was a moderate field, which was called Putharikkandam Maithan (New Rice Field). This is used to be a paddy field where the farmers made rice for the exclusive use of the royal family. Later during the post independence era this field was converted into a ground where political meetings were held. We used to think about Putharikkandam maidanam as a very huge field. But today, when you look at it, it is a very moderate ground, cramped and congested. Recently, when the left parties came to power, they converted this field once again into a paddy field. Just behind this field is one of the biggest markets in Trivandrum, Chalai Kambolam. Chalai must be a derivate of Shalai (Godown or storage). You could get anything from this market. People from all over South Kerala came here to busy special things for their festivals and domestic rituals. As a kid I loved going with my mother. Even today, I don’t fail to make a visit to this market when I am in Trivandrum.
A few minutes walk would take you to Over Bridge and the MG Road passing over it. On your right you see the central railway station of Trivandrum, which is locally called ‘Thampaanoor’ (Thampan – Thampuran= God, Oor- ooru- City), City of God. From the over bridge you could get a good view of the railway station. And just opposite to it is the central bus stand. It was a pleasure to be in this place as you could see a lot of buses and a lot of trains at once. At that time we did not have too many distractions and anything that was new to the eyes of the village kids like us was a real distraction. We drank these new scenes like thirsty kids. Just next to the Bus stand there is a twin theatre complex; Sree Kumar and Sree Vishakh. The up class people in Trivandrum watched their movies in these movie halls as they were the only theatres in Trivandrum during those days that showed English and Hindi movies. I too had my first glimpses of Wild West movies and Hindi films in these theatres.
From the East Fort, if you take a bus or an auto rickshaw and go along the MG Road, you would reach a main junction called ‘Pulimoodu Junction or Ayudveda College Junction’, where naturally the Ayurveda College is situated. And a few paces further up you would reach the Old Secretariat building of Kerala. This building was done during the reign of Ayilyam Thirunal, the Maharaja of Travancore. It was completed in 1869. It has a mixture of Roman and Dutch architecture. The construction of the building was undertaken and supervised by the then Divan of the state T.Madhava Rao and his statue could be seen in the middle of the road, opposite to the old secretariat building. Hence this place is also called, ‘Statue’. The people who visit Trivandrum for the first time, often would have the chance of seeing the same secretariat building a couple of times if they are traveling by an autorickshaw. There is a joke prevalent in Trivandrum that they auto drivers make the people believe that there are more than one secretariat building. To extort money from the fresh visitors they take different routes around the secretariat showing them the building a few times before leaving them to their lodgings which must be a few paces away from where they in fact hired the rickshaw.
On your left you see the famous DC Books and the Sahitya Pravarthaka Sahakarana Sangham (the Writers Co-operative), two places I used to haunt as a young boy. And next to it there was this famous Marikkar Motors where I could see brand new ambassador cars and Enfield Bullet motor bikes. I had spent several hours looking at those fresh vehicles with lust and longing in my eyes. Along the same line one could see YWCA, the famous Coffee House (the old coffee house) and the Spencer’s Building. Everything has changed now. I am talking about the days in which I haunted this place. The landscape looks absolutely different today. Spencer’s Building was the only super market of that time and only the rich people could go in there as the ordinary mortals did not know what they would do with the stuff they sold in there. The coffee house used to be the haunt of most of the intellectuals and film makers and later students like us.
Next to the Spencer junction, on your left and right you could see the famous Maharajas College of Trivandrum, which is better known as the University College. The left part was the main building from where the major departments were functioned and on the right the Malayalam, Hindi and Sanskrit Departments functioned. Right through the middle of the college, MG Road passed as the main artery of the city, dividing the college campus into two different islands; almost in the linguistic lines. My future was to be shaped in these two islands. Just ahead of it there is the famous Victoria Jubilee Memorial Town Hall. This exquisite building was built in 1869 to celebrate the Golden Jubilee celebrations of the coronation of Queen Victoria. This used to be the hub of most of the theatre and literary activities of Trivandrum.
On the left side of the VJT hall, we have our University Library. Huge and vast, this library is one of the major land marks in my life as well as the life of so many people who studied in Trivandrum. Right across the road, you could see the MLA Quarters where the legislative assembly members lived when they came to Trivandrum during the assembly was in session. Right next to that in the circle, poet Kumaran Asan stands as a bronze statue and just behind him is the famous Kerala University Building. It shows all the might and weight of an institutional building. The future of many students in Kerala is decided here. And from inside the same campus a few elite departments also functioned during our times. A few paces down the lane, you would reach the famous AKG Centre, the Head Quarters of CPM in Kerala.
Coming back to the MG road, you take right to the VJT Hall and proceed you would reach the famous Connimara Market. It was really famous and still is. But I did not know its existence till I fell in love with a girl when I was doing my post-graduation and one day she took me to buy a packet of sanitary napkins to a shop in this market. It was in 1990. Right next to this market you see the famous religious combination of Trivandrum. The Ganapathi temple (Temple of Lord Ganesh), famous Palayam Mosque and the famous Payalam Christian Church are located in the same vicinity and right in the middle of the three structures there stands a memorial structure, which is called the ‘Rakta Saakshi Mandapam’ (Martyrs’ Tomb). I don’t say that Kerala is a society which shows the supreme example of religious tolerance. Ridden by religious fanaticism and caste barriers Kerala has developed a degenerated society by now. However, till date Trivandrum has not faced any problem regarding religious line though these three places of worship stand in the same place, even when the other parts of the city at times face religious vandalisms.
Opposite to this composite space of religious tolerance and co-habitation of different ideologies, one could see the well known Chadrasekharan Nair Stadium, which used to be the hub of football players and today most often this stadium is used by the television channels for erecting mega stages for their annual functions and other programs. Just a few paces ahead of this stadium you could see the new secretariat which was not a part of my life as it was not there during my college days. And next to it you see the Hanuman Temple where most of the young people in the city and the permanent dwellers in the city went (go) on Thursdays. Even before the politicization of Hindu, people used to go there and wear saffron tilak on their foreheads on their foreheads. During those days, it did not have direct connotations with the RSS affiliations or pro-Hindutva stance. And opposite to this Hanuman temple is the famous University Stadium where once synthetic tracks were laid for some national games. Once when it was selected as the venue of an one day cricket match, the teams were heaping runs as the balls were bouncing at the boundaries on the synthetic tracks and were showering the teams with runs. In the same area you could see the famous Mascot Hotel and the Post Master General office and the Science and Technology Museum.
Coming back to the Chandrasekharan Nair stadium, we travel along the MG road and see the Trivandrum Fine Arts College on our right. This was the college that shaped up my ideas about art though I was not a student there. I spent a lot of days there with the artists and art students. I could use the library of this college and I would go in those details later. Next to this building is the Public Library building where we literally lived our life. There used to be a canteen in the same campus and we sat on a granite block day in and day out, often talking or smoking if not just idling our time away. Next to the public library is the University Boys Hostel. Famous for the permanent dwellers there, this hostel had very dark rooms and very dark corridors. I rarely went there as all of my friends were day scholars and I met night scholars outside their hostel rooms. However, I even feel this hostel as a surrealist space with fluid shadows lurking behind the iron gates and it reminds me often a madhouse than a college hostel.
Next to the boys hostel you could see the Corporation Building of Trivandrum and the MG Roads end at the Rama Rao Lamp, a lamp erected in the name of Divan Rama Rao. Just behind is the LMS Church and after a cross road you reach the Zoo- Museum complex. Building during the mid-19th century by the Travancore Maharaja, this zoo is one of the oldest zoos in India. With its sprawling gardens and forest rich enclosures make it very attractive to the children. The museum building is Gothic in style with its minarets and natural air cooling systems and attracts a lot of people ever since its establishment in 1880. It was named after Lord Napier, the then Governor of the Madras Province. The same complex also houses Shri Chitra Art Gallery, the Roerich Collection, a reptile house and a modern museum for the works of K.C.S Panicker.
As a student I used to spend a lot of time in the museum complex as it could provide me a suitable hide out and calmness that I wished for that time. Many couples who were in love haunted this place and the Museum police were very strict on the anti-social activities and they included love and pecking also under the category of anti-social activities. So the situation was very bad for the loving couple, yet they stole some private moments right under the eyes of the Museum Police. I went there mostly to smoke weeds or to contemplate. There used to be a time that you feel like being alone and away from everything and everyone. Museum campus gave me the refuge I sought for at that time.
Next to the museum building was/is the Kanakakkunnu Palace. Located on a hill next to the museum campus, this was the summer palace of the Travancore royal family. The slopes and forest land around this palace made this very attractive to the loving couple and the joggers. One could see the places around Trivandrum from this hill. But drunken police in mufti moved around in this campus too looking for couple making it out under the trees and behind the bushes. But innocent people who just came to be free from the world and be in the company of the right kind of people also were caught and harassed by these policemen.
From Kanakakkunnu Palace, you could walk down to the Water Works and the Jawahar Balabhavan, both attracted me as a child, where I could see the workings of the water pumps and the whole water distribution systems through miniature working units. I could check out the interiors of a fighter plane erected at the Bala Bhavan building. Then the roads winds up to Kowdiar Palace, Gold Links, Vellayambalam, Sasthamangalam and to other village around the city, which did not have too much of a role to play in my life though some of these villages or suburbs were a part of the general script of my life that I spent in Trivandrum.
And it is in this city that I spent my five precious and intense years.