Remembrance of Christmases Past...On Carol Singing...

Yes, Carol singing. It was a huge project put together by the Boys in the locality, and the planning would start almost a month in advance. The decision making powers were in the hands of a Cartel of boys, which excluded ‘Koottunkans’. The Cartel decides who would be allowed to be part of the Carol group, who would play which instrument, and who would sing(!?).

The instruments consisted of three items. 1) A harmonium, which would be borrowed from an aspiring musician in the locality. 2) A ‘Thappu”, a kind of drum with one side open , and 3) A palm sized pair of “jjhalara” ( cymbals). The last two items are the precious possessions of a gentleman in the next village, and are used in various minor celebrations in the nearby temple. The three items are borrowed at the promise of a substantial sum of money as rent (sometimes as much as 3 rupees!). As Carol singing is a nightly affair, ‘Petromax’ lamps wouldl also be booked in advance.

The complex operation involves selection of songs, making copies, deciding who would sing (!?) which part of the song, what would be the schedule (when to start, where to start), where to meet on the D-day, etc. The gang assembles in an uninhabited empty house (usually “Mekkara” house) and reviews the progress every Sunday. Periodical meetings would be held and there would be many rehearsals of songs, which usually had the effect of arousing the unlucky neighbors exposed to the cacophony to such fury that there would be frequent altercations and threats of physical violence (probably these sleep-starved neighbors were the only ones who got a raw deal out of Christmas in Pallippuram in those years!).

A peculiar aspect of the planning is that, ‘Koottunkans’ who were probably the only group of boys who could provide better literature (songs) and contribute towards some less off-key singing would be completely left out of the whole process by the Cartel, since there is always some feud going on between the powers that be who are in charge and the ‘Koottunkans’ . But ‘Koottunkans’ would bide their time, confident that sooner or later emissaries from the Cartel, trying to hide their embarrassment, would come to invite ‘Koottunkans’ to join the group. This confidence stemmed from a peculiar factor which I would mention below.

Here I should reveal the mystery involved in this sudden change of mind of the Cartel. We have to go back to 1930s. Koottunkal Aleykutty Varghese had an uncle who was a teacher of English in a school (SMSJ High School) at Thycattussery . This uncle (who later left teaching and became a Malankara Catholic Priest) was reputed to be a model for sartorial elegance in Thycattussery , and was always dressed in the latest fashion. The top-of-the-shelf fashion for the fine men of teaching profession in Kerala in those days included a white crisp crackling Dhoti, a half sleeved ‘jubba’ (Kurta) and black shoes. This fashion statement was topped of by the most valuable and visible part of the ensemble: a black or brown European coat. A teacher (Munshi) cut a fine picture of sartorial perfection in those clothes. While taking photographs of outgoing students with their teachers, special care was taken to place these fashionable teachers in front and in the centre of the group so that a good impression about the school is created in the public mind. (I remember having seen such a photograph of this uncle at Thycattussery ).

Now as I said, the uncle in question left the teaching profession and became a priest. What became of the black coat? It was mothballed and lay for decades at the bottom of a pile of such discarded (or preserved?) old clothes. In comes a resourceful Koottunkan one fine day, rummaging among these curiosities and voila! pulls out the old coat smelling of generations of cockroach droppings. Bracing himself against the dank smell and dust, the Koottunkan who made the discovery shakes off the dead cockroaches and their by-products from the coat, and offers to remove the thing from the scene by taking it home! And, the coat finds its new residence, after years of neglect, in Koottunkal house at Pallippuram.

How does it all fit into our story of Christmas and Carol singing? You must remember, even in the sixties or seventies, you didn’t come across a European coat in a Central Travancore village in the deep interiors. The subject coat gained a reputation of sort in the village, and it was suggested by an inspired admirer of the coat that it could be a fine exterior clothing for a Christmas Papa (Santa Claus). So, come every Christmas, the coat is in great demand by Carol parties who wish to have an improvised Santa Claus riding with them.

The Santa Claus himself is normally a lucky boy among the Carol Cartel, who happened to be the fattest one. Choosing the fattest one also may involve some dispute, wherein many boys competing for the post would claim to be the fattest. I remember, in one particular year, the Cartel had none who could be considered as adequately fat, and had to recruit a total outsider to enact the role.

Now Koottunkans rest assured that sooner or later the Cartel will come calling, begging for the coat, and then the necessary pound of flesh could be extracted. Usually the pound of flesh is the privilege of participating in the Carol party, which is reluctantly, but inevitably, granted. Having got their way, the Koottunkans fling themselves into the Carol party with gusto.
To describe the adventures of the Carol party, as it winds its way through the dark lanes of the village, from house to house, wading through inumerable streams that criss-cross the landscape, sometimes delicately stepping across wooden beams (thadi palam) placed across wider streams, tip toeing through localities notorious for ‘biting’ stray dogs, and sometimes unexpectedly meeting drunkards in the darkness... will be another story in itself.

Remembrance of Christmases Past...

There is something special about Christmas, which is not necessarily linked to its religious nature. Of course, for Christians the primary importance of the season stems from its religious associations: the universally accepted occasion for the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. I said ‘season’ and not ‘day’ because in the eastern European countries like Russia, where the Churches like the Russian Orthodox Church do not follow the Gregorian calendar, the Christmas day falls on January 4th and not December 25th.

Christmas, as a festival, comes around at the right time of the year, when the temperatures are down and people are likely to be more genially disposed to others. We have worn tired of the present year with all its travails and cares, and now look forward to the New Year which is almost around the corner; it is the season for renewal and hope, when the air is bristling with positive vibes and expectations of better days.

In the West Christmas has long outgrown its strict religious significance and have become the year’s most visible celebration of human happiness, cutting across all segments of people. I do not think in other places too the picture is different. I remember, in Kerala too, Christmas used to bring that same feeling of well being and cheer, and the celebration was not limited to Christians.

My memories are of the 60’s and 70’s. Even in those gloomy decades of economic downswing, even in the impoverished interiors of the Central Travancore, Christmas used to bring a palpable cheer, joy to the people in the midst of their struggles and hardships: the world in general was a good place and held out hopes for a better tomorrow. Superficially, the decorations and the festivities would look tame compared to that of present days, because the resources were scarce. But the lone ‘Christmas star’ at the top of the tree in the courtyard looked as bright as, or even brighter than, the whole display of buildings/houses and trees festooned and lighted up with expensive electric light systems these days.

The ‘crib’ was a tame affair and much improvisation and almost no money went into its making. The statuettes of the holy family surrounded by the three kings, shepherds, the sheep, and other animals were ill-matched. Sometimes the Infant was of larger size than the Mother, and exotic animals like reindeers and penguins, and even a three-legged elephant (which was smaller than the sheep on which it leant for support!), were in the crowd. A chipped statuette of the angel Gabriel hung above the Infant on a piece of thread, rotating in the air at the slightest breeze. All of it made a fine picture and we were happy and contented. It was Christmas.
And the Carol singing! (Cont'd)

Peedika Chittappan's Humor...

The other day I happened to talk to Peediye Chittappan (PC), and was glad to be reassured that he is his old self, except that his eyesight does not permit him to read his Malayala Manorama from the masthead to the printer's signoff on the last page (‘printed and published’). But still the essentials (obituaries and the main News) are all covered with some help from Kunjamma. He seems to be enjoying the the newly built house, which according to him has good privacy and airy rooms.

The nonchalant humor and the contentedness with the general state of affairs are still there. I recall how some of us used to try to catch PC on a wrong foot, but was driven mad trying to make sense of his reaction, seemingly absurd observations tossed at the interlocutors with a deadpan expression. Only later we would realize PC was having fun at our expense.
And the humor: I can recall many examples, like the following ones.

1. Asked about how he feels about the new house, PC is cryptic in his answer. “Now my poor forehead can be at peace”. The allusion is to the low upper beams of the doorframe of the old house with which PC’s forehead had frequent, painful disputes while entering the house. One’s forehead dashing against the said doorframe is not a very pleasant experience, and this was a major grouse of Chittappan against the old structure.

2. Commenting on a reckless youngster who was beaten up by a group of people (according to PC the youth himself invited the trouble): “This chap invited all those people for a State Conference (“Samsthana sammelanam”) and offered his body as a venue. They readily agreed and had instead a national convention itself at the offered venue and left it in the present bad shape!”
I am not sure whether I am able to convey the vivid imagery in English translation (“aalkkaare vilichu varuthi ente muthukathu samsthana sammelanam koodikko ennu paranju. Avaru vittilla, Ellavarum koodi vannu oru desiya sammelam thanne nadathi ellam adichu nerappaakki ittittu poyi!”)

3. The boys and Chittappan used to spend the afternoons together, trying to provoke each other. Many stories would be told, many jokes would be shared, taunts would be made and returned, and there will be lot of sparring with words trying to catch each other on the wrong foot. On one occasion, the discussion was about improving fishing methods. The current, traditional techniques were found wanting in catching the clever ones among the fish. These clever ones laugh at the ‘hook and bait’ (“choonda”) thrown at them, and have developed skills to evade more sophisticated techniques and equipments like nets. One of us boys had an inspiration and suggested a technique which according to him could not fail.

It was very simple, but was unconventional and needed lot of mental strength (and a thick skin to go with). The gentleman who is out to outwit the fish should station himself near a ‘thodu’ (a shallow stream which has a good traffic of fish colonies traveling up and down, especially those small fearless and clever variety). Now the crucial part of the technique is this: the gentleman takes off all his clothes and leans close to the stream. The fish, when they look up would be stunned and ashamed to see a man in his birthday suit leaning over the stream and would close their eyes to shut off the appalling view! What remains is child's play! Just pick off the disoriented blind fish one by one from the stream.

PC thought for a few seconds about the scheme. “The idea is good”, he said in all seriousness, “It may work in ideal conditions, but..”

“..but what? It is a cinch. You just go there, stand close to the stream and take off your clothes, and return with a basketful of fish”, the originator of the idea was willing to defend it.

“I said it will work under ideal conditions. Now consider this. Firstly, you need a stream with clear, transparent water. How can the fish see you, naked or not, from under the muddy water? Show me a clear stream in these parts, I will go with your idea!”

“Oh, I hadn’t thought of that..”

“Secondly, here is the major reason why your foolish trick will fail”, PC hadn’t finished. “ Have you ever seen a fish which is coy about naked looks? Have you ever seen a fish in clothes? As far as I know no fish ever wore any clothes. You cannot give them any surprise that way; They will simply laugh at you…my boy!”


Meeting Bill Clinton..

My office in Manhattan is located at the intersection of Park Avenue and 58th Street, and from my cabin I get a good view of the life on the busy intersection. On that day I happened to be looking out from my cabin and I saw this tall silver-haired gentleman with two black-suited escorts slowly coming up the 58th street and going on to the Park Avenue. He crossed the Avenue, turned left and went into the Borders Bookshop on the Park Avenue, across the street. In a flash I realized this was Mr. William Clinton, ex-president of USA.

This was a chance I did not want to miss! It took no time for me to go down to the street and enter Borders, where Mr. Clinton was browsing through books. By the way his own latest auto- biography ('GIVING"), as well as the latest offering from Hillary, was on sale. Here was the ex-president of USA, rather casually moving around among the regular book buyers at Borders, browsing , buying books, and exchanging pleasantries with a few among the curious crowd! When he passed me I could ask him. 'How are you, sir?'.

He said, 'good.'

I wished I had my camera with me. But of course, I had my Cell, and I asked him whether I could take a photograph.

He said,'I am not supposed to stop here'.

Anyway as he did not object I went ahead and had two snaps with my cell camera. And, here are the snaps!

I understand there is extremely tight security for such political figures, but the Americans should be admired for doing it without disturbing the people around. Probably they do it through their surveillance gadgets and stuff like that. But the public is never made to suffer in the name of security. Contrast it with the scenario back home: how politicians consider the extent of chaos they create (traffic stoppages, road blockades etc.) the barometer of their political importance!

Sarpam thullal, gandharvan thullal and cheettukali

In one of the comments on a previous post, Tomy wanted to know more about the art forms still performed at Pallippuram. Sarpam thullal" and "Gandharvan Thullal" are still performed with lot of festivities in some family owned shrines at Pallippuram. "Pampumthara" is one such family. They own a Sarpa kavu (Serpent Shrine in a very small forest), where their ancestors are believed to be resting in peace. Their ancestors include an Arukola (a ferocious deity normally originates from the unnatural death of an ancestor) of Velichappadu Appooppan (an ancestor who was an Oracle).

When Sarpam thullal is performed, the naga yakshis (serpent fairies) possess the girls belonging to the female lineage of the family, who have been made sit in the thullal pandal. Once the mystic songs sung by the pulluvan reaches its culmination point, the performers start moving back and forth rapidly in an uncontrolled manner. The thullal at Pampumthara is a subject that requires long narrative. I will tell the stories and supernatural events at Pampumthara in future blogs.

Another art form, performed by male members of Koottumkal family, is cheettukali or irupathiyettu kali (a martial art with playing cards. Martial it turns, when one of the players cheats and others find it out). It is performed under the Kudampuli tree behind Koottumkal Tharavadu, mostly in the afternoons.

Peedika Chittappan

One person I wanted to blog about for a long time since the existence of this site is our beloved peedika chittappan. His actual name is Joseph Mathew Koottumkal (Ouseppachan), but we fontly call him peedika chittappan (chittappan means younger brother of one's father). The attribute Peedika (shop), is coined from his owning a grocery shop in his 20s. It was about 60 years ago!

We grew up hearing his heroics as an entrepreneur and how he had to close the shop due to defaulting customers. The shop was closed but the peedika attribute remained and we used it to distinguish him from other chittappans (there are five).

He is the second son of Late Mr. Koottumkal Mathew and Mrs. Aleykutty Mathew. He had completed his education upto BSLC (intermediate) level, and always maintained that he sacrificed his higher education for others in the family, because of grandpa's financial constraints.

With an impeccable memory, in the decades that followed, he recollected and delivered (and still does) endless poems of Kumaran Asaan, Vallathol and Ulloor combined with genealogical, religious and historical knowledge to anyone he happened to be with. Once the narration begins, you will soon be wondering how to put an end to the monologue, as you must have heard it at least 100 times before. For a moment, you think you succeeded by introducing a new subject, but then he would start on that new thread.

He always dispersed his contemporary and acquired knowledge with a definite personal and humorous touch. For example, many communists may not agree with his account of Punnapra-Vayalar communist uprising and his allusion on the wisdom of the comrades to face Sir CP's guns with wooden spears made from aricanut trunk.

There are a lot of memorable incidents one would like to talk about our beloved Peedika Chittappan. I would not conclude this blog now, rather I will expand this in the form of comments. Those who want to contribute to this thread please do the same.

The Mid-day Meal Programme of 1970s

The 12th anniversary special edition of Outlook news magazine features the story "Round, Square and Oval" about the mid-day meal programme for school children in Hyderabad. Madhavi Tata brings out the success of the programme in a manner that we all realize "what one wholesome meal a day can do to a child's life".

The story reminds me of the mid-day meal programme of my primary-school days in Kerala. Palluvelil bhagom L.P.S was a government school, where most children in the locality did their primary schooling. They comprised of children from poor and middle class families in the village. The school had classes up to 5th standard and had reasonably good buildings and premises. There was a public park nearby where a rickety seesaw and a slider were available for the kids to play. The main attraction of the park was a valve radio, which was housed in a small room. The room was so small that it hardly accommodated the valve radio, its stand and a switchboard. The park administrator (a villager who lived nearby) operated the radio in the evenings. The evening news in All India Radio (AIR) generated a lot of heated arguments among the listeners, which often led to small altercations as they had distinct political identities as Marxists or Congress men. I know, I am being out of line with the subject here. I just recalled the school and its premises.

The main attraction for most under-privileged children in the village to attend school was the mid-day meal programme. The meal comprised of Upma, prepared from American bulgar wheat. Though Keralites preferred rice to wheat, most children found the mid-day meal programme an inspiration and encouragement. An old lady, employed by the school, prepared the food in an old shed with thatched roof. The old lady was assisted by one of the school children for cleaning the utensils and supplying the firewood. His name was Ajayan, and he was my classmate. The lady never cared about cooking well. Often the food was undercooked or overcooked and complaints were common. Later, Ajayan took over the cooking part too from the lady, and he found this a previlege that no other kid enjoyed. No doubt, the lady enjoyed the company too.

It was lunch time and the children were all rushing out to the school veranda where the food was served. The children would sit in two lines, one facing the other. They would spread the banana or lotus leaves which they brought from home on which the teachers would serve the food. Those who forgot to carry a banana leaf, would tear a page from their text book and use it instead. The aroma from hot Upma mixed with the smell of banana leaves would fill up the area. A large number of crows and dogs would be waiting outside to feed on the remains. Many a times, a clever crow would snatch at a not-so-careful child's leaf. Children, teachers, dogs and crows - the lunch time was a tumultuous affair.

After lower primary, Ajayan and I both joined Thycattussery SMSJ School. The mid-day meal programme was not available at Upper Primary School level. During lunch-time, when the more affluent ones were having lunch, Ajayan and many others would wander about the school premises with an empty stomach gambling with cashew nuts and marbles. Very often these games resulted in quarrels amongst them and punishments by teachers. Many teachers considered these children a menace and wanted to get rid of.

Rosamma teacher (name changed), who had invented her own ways of disciplining the children (in fact every other teacher had), employed an innovative method to discipline Ajayan. One day she found Ajayan dozing in the back-row. She commanded him to get out and stand at the door. He did so. The next day, thinking the punishment was over, Ajayan occupied his seat. But, when she saw him sitting in the class, she was furious and shouted that she had not asked him to come in again. She then instructed him to stand outside the door everyday during her class until such time she told him to sit again. So everyday, when Rosamma teacher entered the class, Ajayan would go out and stand outside the door during the entire period. This went on for about three weeks and she never gave him permission to sit in her class. Eventually, he dropped out and no one ever saw him in the school again.

Most were not as unlucky as Ajayan. Many had completed graduation and post-graduation, out of them some work today in high positions. They benefited from that mid-day meal programme of the 70s, which gave them the initial boost, inspiration and motivation that were necessary at a time when poverty and inequality kept children away from school.

A funny story about the origin of Koottunkal family

Another story about the origin of the name "Koottunkal" is a bit funny. I had heard this story in my childhood as a teaser against Koottunkal Family members ("Koottunkans").

Once upon a time,there was a clever man (an ancestor of Koottunkal) lived near the western branch of Vembanadu lake. He was hard working and mainly depended on farming and fishing for a living. Every morning, he would go for fishing at the nearby Vembanadu lake, where fishes and clams were in abundance. He had developed an ingenious way of fishing. His fishing device consisted of a reed basket ("Kutta" in Malayalam) and some pebbles ("Kallu"). He would dip the "Kutta" (reed basket) tied to a rope, to the bottom of the lake and drop the "Kallu" (pebbles) into the "Kutta" intermittently. The noise from the droppings would invite a lot of fishes in search of food into the basket.

Whenever my ancestor dropped a stone to the immersed basket, the fishes that passed by would visit the basket to enquire it and stay there expectantly. Once the assemblage in the basket is found to be sufficient, he would lift the basket with the bounty of fishes in it. So, the name "Koottunkal" was derived from my ancestor's fishing tools - the "Kotta" and "Kallu" -> Kottem Kallum -> Koottunkal

Koottumkal Family Origin

In Kerala, most syrian christians claim that they are descendants of the Brahmins who were converted to Christianity by St. Thomas, the apostle, when he visited Kerala 2000 years ago. There is no believable evidence to this claim.In fact, there is no historical evidence that St. Thomas had visited Kerala or Brahmins existed in Kerala before 2000 years. The historical texts ( say Brahmins inhabited Kerala, much later than Christians.

Even today, almost all syrian christian families in Kerala take pride in their supposedly Brahmin roots. Koottunkal family is no different. Since there is no evidence to this ancestral lore, a more plausible theory is required.

One belief is that, three or four centuries ago one ancenster from "Kallarackal Kadavu" family of Pallippuram founded "Koottunkal" family at its current location. Where the family was founded, there was a large cocunut warehouse ("Thenga Koot") that belonged to a local landlord. The name "Koottunkal" was coined from the words "Koot" and "ankal" which jointly means "the place where the cocunut warehouse stands". I have personally seen such large cocunut warehouses in the vicinity till a few decades ago.

Please comment and contribute your knowledge to this topic.