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My childhood – growing up years (part 2)

Even at a young age I had a fascination for reading (apart from my class books). In the evenings I regularly visited the public library near the Mananchira Maidan and spent more than an hour going through the various newspapers and journals. I also used to pick up a novel from the shelves and go through the story in four or five sittings. In order to ensure that the book that I have started reading is available the next evening also so that I could continue reading I used to put the book back on the shelf at a spot only I would know. Among so many books that I read one book by Sri S.K.Pottekat is still green in my memory. It was a novelette about a city bred young man going to his home village. One evening he was walking along the bund on either side of which there were vast paddy fields with fully grown paddy swaying in the gentle evening breeze. There was room for only one person to walk on the bund and a wrong step would land you in knee deep muddy water in the paddy field. There was no one in sight for miles along and our hero was walking back home happily. Suddenly he saw a very beautiful young woman of may be twenty or twentyone walking from the opposite side towards him. When she saw the man coming opposite she stood dumbfounded not knowing whether to return (for there was no room for two on the bund) or try to side step him or hope that he would step down into the paddy field to allow her to pass by. As she came closer and closer our hero also stood flabbergasted. Then all of a sudden a heavy gush of wind blew away the mundu covering the upper part of her body which she failed to hold tight in her confusion and which was the only cover on her as evidently she was returning from an evening bath in a tank nearby. The rest of the scene was left to our imagination

The book was aptly titled Aa vallaatha Nottam (That exasperated look!). I became a fan of Sri Pottekat and read all his works avidly. And imagine my surprise when subsequently I met him in flesh and blood sitting in the shop called P.K.Brothers, the book sellers, on Sweet Meat Street. I exchanged a few words with him and also took his autograph.Years later I learnt about his death at a very young age. I was also happy to see a large statue of his at the far end of Sweet Meat Street not very far from the Public Library building where I met him figuratively through one of his early books. Sri Pottekat was a Calicut resident who went on to become a literary giant.

The daily evening walk from home to the library was fun. Annie Hall Road where our home Janaki Vilas stood was also home to a famous son of Calicut and his residence was less than 100 yards from our home. He was Manjeri Rama Iyer, lawyer, social worker and founder of the Theosophical Society in Calicut. The name Annie Hall Road was in memory of Dr.Annie Besant the founder of the Theosophical movement in India. I have often watched the venerable old man walking on the Road clad in the skimpiest of clothes past our home picking up or pushing with his walking stick garbage on the road, a routine gesture of keeping the environment clean. His daughter Manjeri Kamalam was a well known social worker and M.L.A. Janaki Vilas was built on a higher elevation from the road level and we used to spend hours watching people and vehicles move on the road below. On the Road there was another landmark. A hospital named after its donor Sri Cherukandan Maistry was opened opposite Janaki Vilas by the then Health Minister Mrs.Rukmini Lakshmipathy of the Madras Government in the early 40’s and I clearly remember the day when I also joined the crowd attending the function. The Hospital still stands more than sixty years old. Sri Cherukandan Maistry who was a civil contractor was also the owner of the Crown Theatre which passed on to the hands of our uncle in later years. Annie Hall Road which was not more than half a kilometer in length had houses on either sides built at a higher plane and the stretch from our home to the main Kallai Road had huge walls on the left side which appeared so tall to us that we believed that there was another world on the other side of the wall. But on the right side there were houses and a couple of shops which looked less foreboding.

Once on the main Kallai Road which even in those days was a crowded street you come across horse driven jutkas, rickshaws pulled along by men and people all over. There were very few cars and no two wheelers of any type on the road except the ubiquitious cycles snaking through the crowd. I walk along the familiar road munching half anna worth of unshelled groundnuts sold on the road side. I pass familiar shops mingled with residential quarters jutting on to the road. There were two hotels on the right side, Rama Vilas (Brahmins’ Hotel) and Komala Vilas (Non-Brahmins’ Hotel). I make rare visits to Rama Vilas when mother gives me a few coins as pocket money for the umpteen chores I do for her. But Komala Vilas is strictly out of bounds. There is an interesting story I must relate here of how unwittingly I broke the taboo. I had two cousins slightly older who were in school but were a great team in all extra curricular activities. One day they approached me privately and asked me if I could raise a couple of annas for a sumptuous treat in a hotel. I was aghast as I knew one can at best have a dosai (half anna) and a coffee (half anna) for the amount they asked me. But I didn’t ask any questions and willingly gave them a two anna coin which was left over from my pocket money.

The three of us went over to the Komala Vilas (a prohibited area for me) surprise number one. Instead of occupying a table in the entrance hall they walked along to the special rooms located in the upstairs -surprise number two. Having comfortably seated in one of the exclusive special rooms my cousins Dasanna and Sethuanna ordered a variety of special items which indeed was a treat –surprise three. I was so scared that I had only one plate of appam with milk and sugar. In due course the bearer brought the bill which I looked from the corner of my eyes was for about three rupees-a princely sum in those days. My cousins coolly collected the bill which was to be paid at the counter down stairs and we departed. They asked me proceed ahead while they stopped at the counter to pay the bill which was for eight annas –surprise number four. On our way back home when I queried them they explained the modus operandi. While we were in the room upstairs, my cousins collected a few bills from the bill book that was lying on the bearer’s table when the bearer was away filling our order. They used one of the bills to scribble an amount that they could pay. This bill would be exchanged for the genuine bill that the bearer had given us on the way down stairs to the bill paying counter. Q.E.D. I am sure both of them (alas no more with us) would be chuckling somewhere in heaven

I continue my walk through Palayam Road, past the Bairagi Temple on to the Sweet Meat Street. Hereabout you can hear an old familiar figure shouting at the top of his voice the day’s important news national and international. He is the newspaper vendor selling the Mathrubhoomi the daily evening newspaper. The popular vegetarian hotel Anjaneya Vilas Brahmins Hotel was on this road. Father used to take us to this hotel for an occasional tiffin and he had a running account there. One Sunday afternoon we had a surprise guest at home and father wanted me to get a few masala dosais from the hotel. While I was getting ready to leave my younger brother pestered me to take him along. I refused. Imagine my surprise when on reaching the hotel I see him comfortably seated and waiting for me. He had outrun me to the hotel. I had to buy him his favourite sweet. I pass the Parsi Temple (Anjuman-E-Baug) on my right and the famous Hanuman temple where a Saturday visit was a must, on the left. The Radha Picture Palace stands majestically at the junction of S.M.Street and the Post Office Road drawing the evening crowds for the 6.30 show. Strategically located opposite the cinema theatre is Modern Hindu Hotel which draws the movie goers, business people and office goers returning home after work for a quick bite and a refreshing cup of coffee. The Mananchira Maidan and the Mananchira Tank & Park are the meeting place for those inclined to spend a leisurely evening. One can see small crowds gathered in vantage points around persuasive speakers selling everything from a needle to religion to politics. My walk stops at the Public Library located at a corner near Mananchira Maidan. Evening visits to the Library had become a ritual to me. As soon as I step onto the building and sign the visitors register I first finish the day’s newspapers both in English and Malayalam and move on to the periodical section where I read the latest magazines. Thereafter, time permitting I spend sometime browsing through a novel and if I could not finish reserve it for the next day. Thus I spend an hour or so in the Library and return home before sun down.

In those days the lanes and bye lanes were not lit well after dark and we normally make it home before it gets too dark. The lanes which we normally take as short cuts to reach home were dotted with lamp posts with only kerosene lamps encased in a glass container as electric street lights were a rarity in those days. A municipal worker carrying a tin of kerosene, a few wicks and a cleaning cloth and a ladder on his shoulders would stop at each of these posts to fill in kerosene in the lamps, change the wick if necessary and wipe clean the glass case of the lamp. He would lit the lamp by sun set every evening which would burn through out the night giving light to people to walk safely. I have often watched these men at work fascinated by the clockwork regularity with which they provide the lights to the common man.

Many people also use chootu a contraption made of dry coconut trees leaves bunched and tied to make it handy. This would be lit before one negotiated the lanes and bye lanes during the nights and it would light the road sufficiently to find our way in the dark lanes. These man made torches were disposable and very cheap. When we don’t have these torches we have to walk in pitch darkness which would be quite dangerous for we could step on some dangerous reptiles or collude with someone walking towards you. In order to avoid any such mishap we clap our hands incessantly to warn any unwary pedestrian who might be in our path.

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