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Birth of crown theatre and change in fortunes

It was at this point of time that the management of another cinema theatre in town named The Crown came my uncles’ way and they took it for lease. The theatre showing only English movies was a great success and my uncles recouped most of their losses and in due course acquired the ownership of the theatre too. The Crown still stands as a monument to the sincere and hard work done by my uncles who had long since passed away. Both my uncles married very late and led happy lives in later years. While Radha Mama was handicapped by a deformed left arm, the result of an accident in his younger life, Ramurthy Mama was a live wire young man. He was a great salesman. Whenever a new release is announced he would translate into Malayalam the publicity materials received from the distributors, get them printed and distribute the handbills through out the town well in advance. Our clientele were mainly the local business men and students. They flocked to the theatre. Another target group was the local Englishmen, Government officials and business men mostly with the Commonwealth Textile Mills and Tiles factories, Pierce Leslie & Co. and a few others. He would write letters to them, typewritten, enclosing the posters and publicity materials received from the film’s distributors. When they come to the shows, an official in the theatre would get their signatures during the intermission in a special register. Monthly bills would be sent to them for the price of the tickets and for the refreshments supplied to them during the shows. This was a huge success.

When in mood I remember the many times Mama joined the young ones in the family (that includes me) in the games of football, gilli thandal, marbles etc. that we indulged in enthusiastically. He was a great lover of flowers and plants and had raised a beautiful garden in our compound. His daily chores start with an early bath and an elaborate puja in the beautifully decorated Pooja Room. He would meticulously collect different puja flowers from the gardens by himself. After the mangal arthi he would walk around the hall where a large number of framed pictures of various gods and goddesses were hung and spend a few minutes in front of each picture meditating. He would leave for the theatre after breakfast. His evening duty included watering all the plants in the garden drawing pitchers and pitchers of water from the well all by himself on his broad shoulders. The day’s job done he would leave for the theatre. He was a strict disciplinarian and to be honest we were more scared of him than Radha Mama. When we wanted to see a movie in our theatre it would be easier to get permission (which was a must) from Radha Mama rather than from Ramurthy Mama. I remember an incident when I in the company of my brother and a friend sneaked into the theatre to see a movie. The friend had suddenly become ‘rich’ and invited the two of us for a celebration one evening. We couldn’t resist the invitation and joined him for the party which included a visit to photograph studio for a group photo of the three of us, a visit to a hotel where we had our fill and lastly a visit to the cinema. It didn’t matter what the picture was showing and my friend bought tickets for the lowest class and at the intermission stage we walked out. We had to be careful not to get noticed as the staff at the theatre all know we were from the Manager’s family. And the Manager was my uncle Ramurthy Mama! We had to be back home before my father returned from office which used to be late. My friend offered a cycle rickshaw ride home but we refused as we had to take a short cut to home.

The next day there was a commotion in one of our tenant’s house. It appeared that a thief had stolen all the newspapers stacked near a window which was left open the previous evening. My friend who was working in that house as a servant did confess to us later on that he was the culprit and bought our silence saying he would expose us as accomplices if we spilled the beans with the photo as evidence.

My uncles who had to look after a large family married late only after their sisters were married. The eldest sister, Seethalakshmi, was widowed early and had three sons and lived with us. The youngest of her three boys was the intelligent one of the lot. Krishnaswamy was his name and we affectionately called him - Kunjan. He was a brilliant student and was the first one in the family to step in to the portals of a College. After the high school, he was admitted to the Govt.Brennen College in Tellicherry and stayed in a hostel. He was a role model for me in the school days and I used to take his help on many occasions to clear my doubts. We were very close to each other. While in the hostel he fell sick and had to discontinue his studies as he was suspected to have contracted tuberculosis. He was treated at home for some time but as his health continued to deteriorate, he was admitted to the T.B.Hospital in Tambaram in Madras. Even while in hospital he used to write to me long letters giving me a lot of advice and guidance. He passed away while in the hospital after suffering for a long time from the dreaded illness. My uncles’ second sister, Sundari, who was also living in Calicut had a troubled married life as her husband had remained jobless after quitting a good job and had to be supported by my uncles. They had three sons and three daughters all of whom did not have much of any formal education to speak of. The second of her three daughters named Janaki was affectionately called Kunjamma. She was very fond of Kunjan and looked after him during his illness without minding the infectious nature of the disease he was suffering from. True enough she also contracted the disease but lacking the means to go for better treatment died soon. The third and last sister, Sharada, was my mother who lived most of her life in Calicut since my father worked in the Calicut branch of the Imperial Bank of India except for the few years he was posted in the Ootacamund branch of the Bank

We my dad, mother and the children were however living separately in a rented house in a much more spacious house in Andi Valappu. A funny incident happened when we were living there. This house had a big hall with three exits –one to the verandah, then one to the bed room and another to the kitchen. We had two man-size looking mirrors (imported variety) which were hung on either side of the door to the bed room. The kitchen door was right opposite to the mirror and you could see your reflection in the mirror standing in the kitchen. After sunset the whole compound which had three independent houses other than hours was enveloped in pitch darkness. My father worked late in the Bank. He would normally get back home around 8.30 in the night on most of the days. On a particular night when this incident happened my mother was busy in the kitchen preparing dinner for my father and we kids were huddled around her as we were scared to go to any other room because it was so dark. The only kerosene lamp that was burning (no electric lights in every room those days) would be kept in the kitchen. Around the time father normally comes home I thought I heard a knock on the door and thinking that father had returned I rushed to open the front door for him running from kitchen to the verandah via the hall. As I stepped on the hall I saw a full sized figure of a man standing in the hall. Seeing the figure I assumed it was a ghost or something as there were no grown up men in the house other than father and he could not have come in as the front door was securely locked. I shrieked and collapsed. It may be noted that the ceiling of the hall was expertly done with strong wooden planks with an opening at the corner of one end with a sliding door to get in. It was used as an attic where items of household articles not in use were stored.

The children were kept under the impression that some one may be a ghost lived there. This fact added to my terror. It was explained to me later by mother that I had seen no ghost or apparition and that it was only my own reflection in the large size mirror in the hall. I was completely shaken and sweating.

In my younger days I was afflicted by a slight mental disorder called somnambulism -sleep walking. I used to walk in my sleep in the middle of the night and do things which have no rational explanation. Three incidents stand out in my memory. When I was around twelve years of age, one day while sleeping with my parents and brothers on the first floor of our house in Janaki Vilas (Calicut), in the middle of the night I started walking ever so silently towards the stairs which had about a dozen wooden steps built in a steep position. As I reached the top step I walked on and missed the next step and ended plumb at the bottom of the stairs. My mother woke up with a start and rushed down to help me. I woke up to find myself seriously injured without being aware of it, and had to be given medical attention. The second incident happened several years later when I was staying in my uncle's place in Bangalore. Again, in the middle of the night in deep sleep, I started out opening the doors and the gates of the house presumably starting out on some journey. Just then my uncle happened to come home after a late session of cards in a friend’s house and accosted me on my way out, and asked me as to where I was going. I coolly told him I was off to attend Gandhiji's prayer meeting. He touched me to wake me up and sent me back into the house. The third incident was when I was on a holiday at Madras a few years later. I was sleeping on the terrace of the house with several other menfolk to avoid the humid weather of the severe summer. I was up on my feet while still in deep slumber walking towards the edge of the terrace, and was about to take the next step off the roof to the ground 10 feet below. Luckily for me, my uncle, who was sleeping alongside woke up and stopped me from a certain fall which would probably have resulted in serious injuries to my limbs. What would have been a tragic tale in each of these incidences and many more similar ones, I was saved by providence. Today, when I am free from such an affliction, I can laugh the whole affair off.

Andi Valappu was not far away from Janaki Vilas. My mother with us children used to visit Janaki Vilas almost every afternoon to see grand ma who would surely have some nice eatables for us kids. Mother would spend most of the after noon with her mother gossiping and her sisters would join her most of the times. Between Janaki Vilas and Andi Valappu there was an ancient Bhagavathi temple managed and run by non Brahmins Raru and his son Velayudhan. They used to conduct the annual Puram which was known as Thara in which hundreds and thousands of devotees used to participate. The temple would be decorated and there would be kadana vedi, chenda kottal, thali poli and the weirdest part of it was many men led by Velayudhan himself running their bare backs with a thorny plant non stop resulting in profusely bleeding backs. There would be velichappadukal, men with sharp swords hitting their fore heads with them which in many instances opened up deep gashes. It was not all gore and blood. The Thalipoli was something beautiful. Later in the night young pretty girls with brass plates upon which lighted oil brass lamps were held would move in a procession lined up on either side of the road. These rituals were performed with such dignity and poise which was unlike such events today with cinema songs blaring from loudspeakers.

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