This photograph opens the flood gates of memories. The more I look at it the more it tells me how things have changed in life. How people and the surroundings have changed. I used to visit this library when I was thirteen years old. I had just given examinations for the eighth standard. In Kerala Summer vacation starts in March end and on 1st of June schools reopen. Invariably on that day it rains. Children get wet in the first rain. Next day newspapers publish pictures of reluctant children going to school for the first time prodded by their parents and seasoned happy boys and girls getting drenched in the rain.
Friends Association Library is situated in Kollampuzha, Attingal, the nearest town from my village, Vakkom. Between the Kollampuzha river and vast paddy fields, in a strip of land there stand the ruins of Attingal Palace, Srikrishna Temple and some other old edifices. In my childhood, a portion of the palace was converted into marriage hall. We, children used to go there for the marriages of relatives. When I see that palace once in a year when I visit my village, I remember marriage feasts and sleep afternoons. We wore fresh clothes for marriages. We returned to our respective homes with stained clothes and a lemon in hand. They gifted a lemon who attended the marriages. By the time we reached home the lemons were peeled half because they said the smell of lemon prevents vomiting. Most of the kids vomited after marriage feasts. The turmoil in bellies was caused by the smell of diesel. Most of the brides also vomited while going to their bridegrooms’ houses in white ambassador cars. They vomited for the same reason and the fear of an impending night of horror.
This building stands next to the then marriage hall and a temple. Shastra Sahitya Parishad (Science and Literature Commune) used to run vacation programs for orienting children into rational thinking. This was run by young men with Marxist leanings. I was sent to attend this orientation program that year. I was happy to go because I could travel by bus all alone. There they made us read, write and debate. Daily progress was supposed to be written down in a small note book and presented to the president of the Commune. They assessed the children’s progress in rational thinking and understanding literature. I remember bearded young men taking interest in grooming us. I pursued the program diligently. The classes were held in the library hall just above the grilled auditorium that you see in the photograph. After the classes, I played with other kids in the ground in front of the auditorium.
Looking back I find an interesting aspect of Kerala’s social fabric. The classes were conducted by young Marxists who generally did not believe in god or religion. The Friends’ Association Library was functioning within the premises of the famous Kollampuzha Temple. These same men participated in organizing temple festivals. There was no conflict. They did not teach us to hate religion or god. But they taught us to think rationally. Children from different religious background attended these classes. And they all played in the temple premises. Things have changed now. People look at each other and think about religion and caste. Facebook has prompted many youngsters proudly flaunt their caste groups as surnames. But the hope is not yet lost. I still hear news of children from Muslim families presenting Hindu devotional songs in temple festivals and Hindus participating in Muslim and Christian functions. A ray of hope is still there. But disturbing elements of caste and religion have already started tearing off the erstwhile egalitarian social fabric of Kerala. Technology and material progress have helped us to divide further into small islands of selfishness.