Before the Bend in the River

Madhavankutty Pillai has no specialisations whatsoever. He is among the last of the generalists. And also Open chief of bureau, Mumbai  
Tagged Under -
Page 1 of 1
Vignettes from the village of Parli in Palakkad, Kerala

Two bridges run parallel over the Kalpathy river, 12 kilometres from Palakkad town. One of them is about 50 years old and the other more than 150. On the new one, the buses of Kerala, which their drivers drive like motorcycles, careen as if on an expressway. On the old one, young unemployed men sit on the railing, throwing handmade lines to bait fish. This happens only in the monsoon and only in a monsoon like this one, when it has been raining relentlessly. For a long time I believed the older bridge was made by the East India Company during its campaign against Tipu Sultan and the engineer who constructed it was Parrulli, an Italian. That, I thought, was how Parli got its name. When I went there last month, a number of local residents repeated this history, except that Parrulli was now a Frenchman. On a rainy afternoon, I walked down the bridge and looked for the etching I knew was there with Parrulli’s name and designation. I found it in the middle of the bridge, in an alcove against a side wall. In faded letters behind a gathering veil of moss and lichen, I could read ‘Parrulli Bridge’. A second line below it was ‘1852’, and under that, ‘AB Robinson Esq Coll’. I deduced that if at all there was an engineer, his name was Robinson. Perhaps Parli’s name did not have exotic foreign beginnings. Then there was the date. In 1852, Tipu Sultan would have been dead 53 years. I was wrong there too. This was an ordinary bridge that came with British consolidation of the region and the development of trade. How is it then that I embellished a beginning in the nooks of memory? All geneses are unreal—part myth, part history, part want. And it is never clear what is what.

If I stand in the middle of both bridges and look at the river winding away, I can see it flow 100 metres into a bend. There it joins another river, the Gayathri. The confluence creates the Bharathapuzha, one of the most important rivers of Kerala. It starts in Parli. Our house is much before the bend, a short walk to the river that is still Kalpathy. When I was a child coming for my summer vacations here, we went to bathe in the mornings through a small path abutting the walls of a school and then down a flight of steps onto the river. There were sand patches on it even then, but most of the river was water, cold and morning fresh. There were small eddies and deep pockets into which children jumped from round rocks. Now, as I try to walk along that path, I cannot. As soon as I cross the last house, the weeds and woods take over. There is no way to reach the river from there. From the other shore, I can see a swamp with wild gardens where water should be. The river is dead, I think, eroded by the depredations of sand smugglers. But then I think, when has there ever been a single cause for anything? Did we stop frequenting the river before it went bad or after? When taps and running water and showers and western commodes and shampoos and soaps and so many other things came. The river stopped being a daily necessity. When man stopped walking that path, the weeds took over. This monsoon, it rained so much that the river looked full and satisfied. It was alive in its own fashion. Mauled but breathing.

My grandmother’s elder brother, CP Ramachandran, left his home as a teenager to join the Navy in the 1940s. There is a story of his ship losing its way, and when they found land again, he realised they had drifted into the Bharathapuzha. He was from Ottapalam, 22 kilometres from Parli, and so was my grandmother. That is where my roots lie. My roots also lie in Kozhikode, from where a branch of the family that lived in a house called Chittenipatt Puthenveetil migrated to Ottapalam because they were ostracised after one of the women, an ancestor of mine, rejected the advances of a landowner. That is a story and who knows how much of it is true? Ramachandran studied in Victoria College in Palakkad and would sometimes get a classmate home. That was my grandfather who married my grandmother and after many years bought land in Parli and built the house. Ramachandran left the Navy, went to Delhi under orders of Communist party higher-ups to work for their mouthpiece, got disenchanted with them, joined Shankar’s Weekly and later wrote on politics for The Hindustan Times. He accompanied Members of Parliament on morning walks to get material for his words. When my father was working for The Far Eastern Economic Review in Hong Kong, his British editor once showed him an editorial and said this is how you should write. It was written by Ramachandran. When he retired in the mid-80s, he had nowhere to go and came to live with his sister in Parli. Journalists and politicians in Kerala who knew and had heard of him came visiting in his initial days back home. He did nothing of any note in Parli, not even writing. He used to sleep in the main hall of the house. Once my grandparents came to Mumbai, he moved into their room. They were too decent to ask him out. He made urchins of the village do odd jobs, like getting him booze, until they started forging cheques in his name. He became cautious with money, which was probably dwindling. The number of visitors reduced to nothing and he didn’t seem to mind. Eventually his heart gave way and when he was being taken to hospital, he said in English, “It is all over.” And it was.

At home in Parli, I used to see a man named Manickan Nair drop by sometimes. He was one of those local busybodies who seem to be there without any evident purpose. My grandmother says that when she first saw him, it was as a cook for the birthday celebration of her second son. He had been part of the campaign to save the river along with my grandfather. I remember him because I was told he was a murderer. As a Naxalite, he had been in a band that had killed a landowner in a place called Kongad. I wanted to meet Manickan Nair now. He was 90 years old and took some time to open the door. He had been having lunch, cooked himself. He had joined a Christian sect and the house was owned by it. He lived alone. We were in a large hall with plastic chairs decked one on top of the other, used for meetings of the sect. The curtains were drawn and it was bleak. He offered me a plastic chair to sit on and told me how he had been a devout Hindu who became a Communist. After the party split into the CPM and CPI in the early 1960s, he was drawn to the Naxal movement. In 1968, he participated in an attack on a police station in Telissery that failed after the police started firing at them. Escaping, he walked alone through a forest, finally finding shelter in someone’s home. But local RSS members caught him there and turned him over to the police. He was tortured and spent a year in jail. On his release, he went to his brother’s place in Ahmedabad and then returned after a year to Parli and Naxalism. It was in 1970 that they decided to kill the landowner. Manickan Nair must have been 47 years old then. He was illiterate. When I asked him why they killed the man, he pointed to the page of a book he had and rattled off a litany of injustices. They went for their target at night, knocked on the door, told him why they had come and hacked his throat. Manickan Nair did not do the actual killing, only watched it. He was caught and released on parole after seven years in jail. He rejoined the Communist party as a local worker. He then switched from guru to guru and religion to religion as a follower of Sathya Sai Baba and Mata Amrithanandamayi and a Muslim inbetween. In 1993, he found Christ and solace. Two days after I visited him, he came home to see my grandmother. He had taken the bus because he couldn’t afford an auto. He said the conductors and drivers knew him and always gave him a seat. While we sat, he suddenly pointed to his feet, which were black with age, indicating a spot above the ankle that looked oily. “What is it? What is it?” he asked me.

I walk to two minutes from home and see a green tank towering above the houses that line the lane. It was erected by the Panchayat to supply running water. Except that it doesn’t. It is empty. Someone didn’t do the mathematics. It is not high enough and so there is not enough pressure for the water to reach the houses. The Parli Janakeeya Samiti, a group of residents who work to improve the village, blames it on that old story, a mix of corruption and incompetence. The last time I went to Parli, the Samiti was distributing compost bins for homes to turn garbage into fertiliser. There are two of them in my home too, lying forlorn. No one stays there now. My grandmother lived in that house throughout her life. Her sons and daughters left decades ago, returning only for sanctuary in times of trouble, a bad marriage, a husband’s business that went bankrupt. She saw the death of her mother, husband and two brothers in that home. She stayed on alone, split the house into two and let one part out on rent just to have people around. Two months ago, her heart condition worsened and she was finally plucked out at the age of 85 and stays with my aunt in Palakkad town. They go to stay in Parli on weekends or when relatives like me come visiting. Otherwise the house is empty. On its walls are portraits of all those who lived there. Four generations, counting my great grandmother. And in all those portraits, so many who are departed, their number slowly creeping up as if in a race to outnumber the living.

I go to see Manoj PG, the sports coach of Parli High School. My aunt accompanies me. When she was a student here, she once insisted on going to class in a salwar kameez she had had stitched. It was such a novelty that everyone laughed at her. It is a Malayalam-medium school. The middle-class, which means families like mine, do not send their children there anymore. Manoj joined as coach in 1995. His experience was in cricket and handball but he decided to focus on athletics. He was not an athlete. He had once run a 400-metres race and dropped out after 300 metres. His reasoning, however, was simple. To advance in team sports like cricket, one needs influence with sports bodies. Manoj had no connections. Athletics, however, was relatively immune from politics. “First is after all first,” he says, “No one can not send someone who came first in a district meet for the state level.” For seven years under his coaching, Parli school did not win a single medal at the state level. In 2002, one student came fourth and a heartbroken Manoj decided to give it one more shot before moving on. In 2003, a student won first place in the rural sports meet. Manoj’s exultation was momentary as he realised that no one considered it an achievement. In 2004, a student got a silver for Hammer Throw at the state meet. Overjoyed, he asked a reporter to put the boy’s photo in the newspaper. He was told that only those who won gold get that. The next year, the school won three golds, setting a state record with one. In the national schools meet, they won a gold and two bronzes. And they kept winning after that. Every year they get 35 to 40 state medals now. Since 2004, Parli High School has won over 100 national medals, 250 state medals and its students have been picked for international meets. How did this happen? Manoj attributes it to poverty. The students understood that sports was a way to a better life—admissions to engineering colleges and government jobs. They gave it everything they had. When they ran, they ran for a better life. Their underfed bodies had little strength for races like 100 metres, but they had resilience. At first, Manoj therefore made them do intense endurance workouts for long-distance event fitness. Athletics has 28 events and he knew that any student would be fit for at least one of them. If they couldn’t run or jump or throw, he made them walk, and they won a national gold in walking. Early morning, you see students running on the streets of Parli. No student who comes to his training camp is turned away. Manoj tells me about a student called Karthik who first attended the camp in class six or seven. He was thin and weak and Manoj was sure he had no chance as an athlete. He kept coming for camps. After his SSC, Karthik started to gain height. Manoj had him train for the triple jump, and then to everyone’s astonishment, he came third in the state in class 11. The next year, he came first in the state and second at the national level. The boy was 6 feet 4 inches tall by then. “He did a jump of 15.70 metres,” says Manoj, “The Olympics qualifying mark is 16.55. He just has to jump one more metre [to get an Olympics entry]. We brought him that close. The Air Force has given him a job. Now it is up to them to take him further.” While returning from the school, I look at the students. All the girls are dressed in brown salwar kameez. What was once absurd has become commonplace. What was taken for granted has been uprooted. Everything churns and changes. On the surface, the weeds look like they have won. Underneath, the river waits to fill itself. People go, return, age and die, and legends get woven in anonymity on school grounds.