Thursday, November 19, 2009

Nostalgia Beckons: Part 1

Nostalgia is an integral part of our culture in Kerala, which passes on from generation to generation and becomes a major cause of pain as well as joy in our lives. A few days back, Sanju and I saw Jayaraj’s Loudspeaker where Sashi Kumar and Mammooty go to Sashi Kumar’s tharavadu and visit his past – a life he had run away from to a distant place, away from the memories of the location. Just like him, don’t we have our own memories that we want to get back to?

Para is a small village in Palakkad, a name that has been derived from the Malayalam word ‘para’ which means rock. It is a small, laidback place with greater proximity to Pollachi and parts of Tamil Nadu than Kerala – which gave it a part Tam-part Mal feeling. To reach our house from the main road, we had to do a small 5-10 minutes ‘para’ trek and there majestically stood our house Krishna Vihar.

It seems we were once upon a time the landlords of the area and there was very little else there, which did not belong to us. And then, the familiar story of the EMS-initiated communist land reforms robbed us of most of the property till we had a very truncated area of our own. Truncated still meant more than 10 acres of forest land, agricultural land, a pond (kolam) and cattle and so much more which was sold off at regular intervals till finally, the entire place-lock, stock and barrel was sold off a year back (more about that in another post).

Like many well-educated Malayalees, my parents found their calling outside Kerala – in Hyderabad and for the past 35 years that has been our home but the heart still remains somewhere in God's Own Country . Every year, during the summer vacation months of April and May, we (parents and brother) found ourselves trooping all the way to Palakkad, in a long 30+ hour long journey. Now, thanks to the Sabari Express, you have a direct train connecting Hyderabad and Palakkad but then during these days, we had to take a train to Chennai and after a few hours, there would be a connecting train (I remember travelling by the West Coast Express distinctly).

After me and brother joined college, I don’t think that we ever travelled together – the memories of travelling together as a family and spending 24-30 hours together in the confines of a compartment with the rest of the Mallu diaspora (even if this is within India) was something to cherish. And for those who remember those were the days before IRCTC came into existence and railway ticket booking had to be done only at the counters. So, 90 days before, Achchan and I would stand in front of the Secunderabad booking office gate at about 6.30-7 AM, waiting for the gates to open and the moment it did, we would all rush in to grab the nearest booking counter (with so many Mallus outside Kerala, it is still a struggle to get tickets if not 90 days in advance, especially in summer).

The trip to Kerala meant lots of planning for all of us. Achchan would buy us a book each to read during our train journey and that would be usually books like The Hardy Boys or The Three Investigators (Nancy Drew always seemed so girlish!!!) and by the time we were in Palakkad, both of us would have completed one book each. The other main investment involved buying a game that all of us could play during the vacations – so you had board games like Ludo, Trade (a domestic version of Monopoly), Indoor Cricket (we played a cricket World Cup with each of us representing a couple of teams) and Scotland Yard (a fancy detective game whose ads we had seen in TV, don’t know if kids nowadays still play this).

There would be one major suitcase and many other small bags to be carried and also a food basket (we used to call it food kotta – a queer old red bag in which the food was kept that we used to carry in every visit). Amma would cook idli, lemon rice or chapatti and even carry curd and pack it for the travel and the only thing we bough outside would be sambharam or tea (It’s been a long time since I ever had home food in trains). The return journey was obviously melancholic and we always had additional luggage, including one sack full of coconuts and chips of all types.

After about 20 hours of travel, Kerala arrives in the form of greenery - so much in contrast to the rest of the journey. But I still remember, that the first scenes that I notice generally once the train enters Walayar are 2 notice boards - Welcome to Kerala and Toddy Bar. It did surprise me then but now, I have reconciled to the fact that alcohol is thicker than blood in Kerala and drinking and reminiscing is an integral part of our culture.

The Para house was meant to be a congregation of all cousins in summer and so there were about 4-5 of us staying for the entire period, with regular visitors through the period. Going to Malayalam movies meant usually the entire family watching a new Malayalam release, preferably a Mohan Lal one (in those days, when he still remained one of us, the middle class hero) in the town – usually Priya or Priyadarshini theatre. These theatres still remain and the highest ticket rate is 40 Rs, which makes it a visual fiscal delight, untouched by the speed of Internet booking and Credit Card terminals.

Mind you, I am still talking about the best theatre in Palakkad – our regular theatre visits were to the theatres near our house, Thara and Jagadambika (ticket prices ranging from 10-20 Rs with wooden chairs and thatched roofs). Curiously, Thara theatre screened mostly Tamil movies, with a sprinkling of Malayalam movies – only Mallu super hit movies could displace the Tamil influence there and we had no Raj Thackerays agitating against the cultural invasion of the Pandis (But then Palakkad has this anomaly – Malayalam movies do only half as successful as Tamil ones).

Being a Kerala expatriate had its advantages – people there back in the village looked at us in a certain awe (or maybe I felt it that way) and we were the foreigners who descended on the place once a year, speaking Malayalam in an unknown accent and masquerading as sons of the soil. But then every family had some body or the other in Gulf, so we were the wannabes, the local foreigners – the guys who fled the shores of Kerala but still lived in India.

I did have my own share of a cultural identity crisis – felt like a Mallu when in Hyderabad and when in Palakkad, I was a Keralite but what was I; someone who used to speak Malayalam with a flawed accent, used to think and speak in English but was more at ease watching Hindi films and listening to Hindi music (especially, the Rafi and Kishore types). This identity confusion has been there for a long time and though I am a member of every group, I am still an outsider in every group………..

Image: Courtesy -


  1. I can relate partly to ur exp as we too spent a few of our summer vacations in Kochi. Travelling 30 odd hrs from Mumbai.

  2. This one is too good!!! Gives insight of my friend.. This is good...

  3. that was nice - took me to pallavur and priyadarshini and ashoka bhavan and all those least i go every year or almost all years - palakkad remains one of those last places touched by the fast pace of development- mercifully.

  4. But not too sure how long we will be untouched by this development? Marrying into a family majorly rooted in Palakkad has now given me an opportunity to revisit those memories..Incidentally, Ashoka Bhavan is just next to my wife's tharavadu!!!

  5. This was such a lovely piece of writing. I am sure there are many expatriate mallus over there who would be nodding their head and saying,"Exactly..." while reading this. Thank you for reviving our memories again.