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.
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)
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!”