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My early years in Calicut

When I was just four years old, my father was transferred to our hometown, Calicut. We bid adieu to Ootacamund and shifted to Calicut to begin what would be the second phase of my life. In course of time I was put into an elementary school known in those days as Kandankulam School, which was where I learnt the basics for two years. Soon I was shifted to the prestigious Zamorin’s School & College run by the Royal family of Zamorins of Calicut whose predecessors had welcomed many years earlier Vasco Da Gama, the Portuguese traveller and merchant whose first Port of Call in India was Calicut. In the early years of my schooling I was more than an average student and in fact was among the top four of the class, term after term, year after year. There was this grading system of the students in the class. Students were assessed by the marks obtained by them in each subject and everyday of the month added cumulatively. For this purpose each student has to maintain a book wherein the performance is assessed and marks given by the teacher, which is totalled at the end of the month and appropriate ranks given.

There was another novel way of assessing the intelligence of the students. There was a question and answer class at the end of each day. Any student can ask a question to another based on the lessons learnt on that particular day. If anyone fails to answer the question the student who asked the question can exchange his place with the other provided he gives the correct answer. Normally the students who sit in the first, second, third benches and so on will be the target of students who sit further down who will always try to unseat the ones sitting ahead of them so that they can occupy a higher seat. At the end of the session each student will call out numbers one, two, and three and so on and those will be their seats the next day. This way almost always the intelligent ones will occupy the top seats in the descending order and the less intelligent ones will be seated in the back benches. This helps keep the students on their toes in the classes to try unseating the top ranked ones who will try their utmost not to yield their seats in a healthy competition at the end of the day. To illustrate, if a student sitting at the 34th place asks a question normally to a student sitting up front, say the 5th place, and he fails to answer correctly and the questioner gives the correct answer they exchange places 34 to 5 thereby the 5th place is taken over by the 34th. If he can hold the 5th place till the end of the day his marks automatically improve. In this way a healthy competition is ensured and the students come well prepared. I was given the job of maintaining the marks obtained by each student on the exercises given on the day in a grade book everyday and assist the class teacher grade them at the end of the month by adding up the marks. As for my performance I moved up and down the first four ranks many times occupying the first rank but never went below the fourth rank. Although this novel system of assessing a student worked well in that class this was not generally in vogue in other classes. However I maintained my ranks in the term final exams almost always. . This trend continued year after year in the high school as well. I was the recipient of prizes in the form of books at every Annual School Day for a number of years for General Proficiency.

I remember an incident in the class one day when the class teacher after dictating an essay to the class while walking close to me stopped by me, picked up my note book and going back to his table held up the page for every one to see. He told the class that this was an example of how a well written note book should be both in neatness and hand writing. I swelled with pride when my teacher first and my class mates later congratulated me. I was also granted the Government Scholarship for three years when I was in high school.

I was showing signs of excellence in studies early on promising a great career in academics. My class teacher once called me to the Teachers Room during the lunch recess and after complimenting me on my progress in studies advised me to continue to do well and become a great scientist like Sir C.V.Raman or academician and philosopher statesman like Sir S.Radhakrishnan. This inspired me so much that I had already visualized myself as a great orator and leader. After almost a half of my life time my only regret now is that I did not live up to the level of his expectations due to various reasons, which we will read about in later pages. I was also showing signs of becoming a sportsman with a great desire for sporting activities. Because of my short stature (I was the second shortest boy in my class) I was not able to participate in many outdoor games although my school had a great football team, which threw up a number of outstanding players in later years. My school was also the alma mater of another famous son of India. One of the alumni of our school was Sri V.K.Krishna Menon who rose up to be a close associate of Sri Jawaharlal Nehru and served as India’s first High Commissioner to Great Britain and Leader of the Indian Delegation to the United Nations where he created history by making the longest speech on Kashmir. He was the Defence Minister in Jawaharlal Nehru’s Cabinet. I had the privilege of seeing him at close quarters when he visited his Alma Mater at the height of his fame.

During the happy days of my childhood in our Calicut home in the 1930s and 1940s I recall a few incidents which were both sad and happy. One such incident which started as a prank ended up in a minor tragedy. One evening I was alone with my grandmother in the sprawling compound which housed a few other families also who had all gone out to a movie. I was watching my grandmother take out a woolen black coat which my late grandfather used to wear on duty in the winter months and which has been preserved by my grandmother. I pestered her to let me try it on myself. Needless to say it covered me from head to foot. Looking myself in the mirror I got a great idea. I made about ten small paper cones resembling fingers and with a headgear tied around my head I put on the coat and the paper cones on my fingers. I presented a picture of a ghost. It was time for the neighbors and our family members to return home after a movie at around 9’o clock in the night. There was this lady, a tenant in one of the houses in our compound whose house was not locked and whose husband had also joined his wife to see the movie. I hid in one of the ante rooms in their house which had only one kerosene lantern lit for light. As soon as the lady entered the room I jumped out from the dark corner to confront her in my made up apparel of a ghost.

The look of terror in her face and the loud shriek from her were scenes I can never forget for the rest of my life. I ran out of the house for my life before her horrified husband rushed in on hearing her shriek and found her unconscious. The people in the neighborhood also rushed in while I made good my escape perspiring all over. Imagine. Had I been caught in my strange costume by the much shocked husband I would certainly been lynched.

Then there was the day when my aunt, Meenakshi Mami, Radha Mama’s wife, who was sick and was confined to her bed for a long time, her health deteriorating by the day from an incurable disease beckoned me (all of 8/9 years old then) to her side and asked me if I would get her a “masala dosai” her favourite dish from the hotel and gave me money also. I was one of her favourite nephews and probably the only one whom she could trust to get her wish! I cannot recall if I did get her the dosai but it was a sad thought that within the next few days she passed away. She was only 32. Her memory lingers.

I remember the time when two of my distant cousins played a trick on me. They were much older than me one of whom went on to become a Colonel in the Indian Army and also a Test player for India. Although he played just one Test he was perhaps the first cricketer from Kerala and the only one from our family to have donned the country’s colours. I met him many years later in Bangalore. Nothing much is known of what happened to the other cousin who left Calicut later to find work in Bombay. Now coming back to our story. As teenagers these two were very close to each other and very often I had seen them spending the evenings at the India Coffee House on the Sweet Meat Street playing the game of caroms with bets against other players. On my occasional visits to this eating place (I used to have one cup cake and a cup of coffee) I used to watch them play the game. One day it so happened that they ran short of the betting money and as I was conveniently standing close by they ‘borrowed’ four annas from me promising to return the same with interest as early as possible. I kept an account of the money lent and the interest accrued but there was no sign of the money being returned. When I accosted them for the return of my money they promised to do so with all the interest added a full account of which I had maintained in my note book. Days went on to weeks and then to months but I never got my money back –a mere four annas.

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