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.

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