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01 March 2015

Kottayam Peregrinations...

One of my fondest childhood memories are the long walks that we, I and my brother, used to take with my dad.

My dad was a born walker. He loved walking, ramrod straight, with a quick gait belying his short stature. He must have been about 5'4", but his lean body (no doubt due to all this walking) gave the illusion of height. While walking his right index finger was always straight, as if pointing facts which other people did not know. Most of the time, the finger will be writing something in the air or drawing a circle in the air. In fact I have inherited this trait of his and now realize that this was the outcome of a mind fast at work.

He used to come back from office at about 5.00 PM. Almost immediately and almost everyday he will go to Kottayam, a town about 3-4 Kilometers from our home. Kottayam is a smallish town with two roads, K K Road and Bus Stand Road being the main thoroughfares. There is a Temple in the middle of the town typical of almost all the towns in Kerala. Since Appa was originally from Kottayam he used to have a lot of acquaintances in the town and rare are the days when we do not meet at least a couple of them.

One of the regular destination was the 'Chanda', the vegetable market. He will linger around each shop, scanning each vegetable and arguing with the vendors about their freshness. The ultimate objective was to bring down the price he paid for the vegetables. The vendors knew this too and they always over quote before reluctantly bringing down the prices as if acceding to my father's superior insight. 

My father realized it too. Still this little game played out in front of us whenever we accompanied my dad to the 'Chanda'. I hated the visits to the 'Chanda', I hated the dirt, the noise, the slush and the slime. But my father was in his elements in the 'Chanda'. 

Since appa was paying for the trip and the perks, we kids had to put up and shut up. Also we enjoyed the walk. 

Mother was not a part of thease daily walks. Most of the time he will go alone and sometimes he will take us, me and my brother, to walk with him. It was strenuous, walking with him. He loved long, quick walks and we kids, about 7-8 year olds, found it difficult to keep up. Once we get tired, my dad would reluctantly slow down, brief enough for us to regain some energy and off we will go again, like a rogue rocket or something.

While we didn't care for the walks, the perks that came with it were very persuasive. Every time we went out with him, he would take us to the restaurant. There were two main restaurants in Kottayam at that time.  Both of them still exist, though not at the same location. One of them was Indian Coffee House, a farmers co-operative and the other was Hotel Aryabhawan. For us going to the restaurant was the highlight of the evening. During those days, money was tight and hence going out to eat was out of the question.

As you can imagine we, me and my brother, treasured those walks mostly for the perks that came with it.

We used to have a fixed menu in those restaurants. At ICH, we will have cutlets or sandwiches followed by Rosemilk (Milk flavoured with Rose Flower Essence). It was ‘Nei Roast’  (Ghee Roast: South Indian Pancacke laced with Ghee. ‘Nambisan’ ghee was the most famous at that time) and coconut chutney in Aryabhawan. I used to eat Nei roast with sugar, a habit that I carry to this day.

We used to hold his hands, me and bro. We will walk on either side of dad, holding on to his index fingers. My brother was more of the silent type, while I was the babbler. I used to talk non-stop. At that time I was learning multiple languages, Malayalam and English, and was learning to read. I will read out name of each shop, written in both languages, and dad will patiently correct me if he was in the mood and if not, especially  if he was preoccupied, he would ignore me.

(For a long time I remember thinking that the word ‘Accuracy’ was pronounced ‘Ahkuraki’  I never remembering asking my dad about this word. Probably because there were no shops with this name on our trail.)

Once in a while dad will buy Lottery ticket from an invalid vendor. The ticket cost One Rupee and the first price was 100000 (On lakh) Rupees. While I suspect that winning that free money was his motive in buying the ticket, he will take the moral high ground. ‘20% of the price of the ticket will go to that invalid vendor’, he will tell us, solemnly like he is Mother Theresa or something, ‘that man is poor and invalid and still he doesn't want to beg. We should appreciate his efforts by buying the ticket from him. Winning is not important, helping him is important’, the last part of the statement told while looking up, hoping that the invisible audience up there is listening.

Father’s wish was fulfilled. While he was able to donate a lot of ‘20%’ to the invalid vendor, he did not win a single lottery.

You have to be careful what you wish for because you will get it.

While money was tight through the year, there were two times in a year that we splurged. One was at the beginning of the school year. The company where dad worked gave him allowances to buy dress and shoe. While we, me and my brother,  were studying in different schools in the initial years, latter we joined the same school, the school uniforms were the same, Khaki shorts and white shirt. Readymade shirts were not available during those days. You have to buy clothes and get the dresses stitched. We will go for the cheapest clothes that can meet the basic uniform requirements. Both shorts and shirt was made of cotton cloth which will shrink and crumble after a few days of use. Into the second or the third month, the short would have converted themselves into Boxers and Shirts, white coloured ones, will shrink to the size of Tights worn by ladies.

We kids carried on despite, since most of the kids in the school were wearing similar clothes.

In one year, dad discovered ‘Egyptian Cotton’. A cheap alternative to cotton which was very soft and comfortable to wear. I remember enjoying that dress and looking forward to wearing it every day. I was the cynosure of all eyes, wearing that soft cotton clothes. Parents of many of my friends had not discovered Egyptian Cotton that year.

Of course later on it became a rage.

Purchasing Shoe was another experience. In the initial days appa got ‘Shoe Allowance’ – cash to buy Safety Shoes for his factory use – for which he had to submit the original bills as an evidence of having spend it on buying the shoe and in the later years he got ‘Coupons’ that he could exchange in the Shoe Shop. With coupons, there was no need for submitting bills and the associated bureaucracy.  There were two shoe vendors in Kottayam during those days. One was Bata and the other was ‘Carona’. Dad used the allowance to buy shoes from Carona.

Buying footwear was an elaborate ritual for our family. The entire family – father, mother and the works-  would descend on Kottayam town, destination being Carona Shop in KK Road. Once at the shop, we will try out different shoes and chappals before zeroing in on the footwear for the entire family, shoes and hawai chappals for children, good chappals for mother and black shoes for my dad.

That was the only time of the year when we bought footwear. All of us were supposed to manage the rest of the year using the same pair of footwear.

Since children spend most of the time in the wild world outside, the chappals would get damaged quite quickly. We learned to repair the hawai chappals ourselves. Most of the time it is the flap (called 'Valli' in Malayalam) that gets damaged, not the sole. We will buy spare flaps and fix them to the original shoe. I became expert at this. I will take some coconut oil and apply it around the hole and push the flap inside. If the hand do not work, I will take some small polished stick to push the flap inside the hole. With some effort, the new flap would fit in the hawai chappals.

Of course, the simplest solution to the problem of chappals getting damaged by use was to not use them. During the normal days, you will see us kids wandering around without a footwear.  The shoes and chappals were only for special occasions like going to school or going to Kottayam.  Most of our time was spent barefoot. Countless are the times when the thorns of mimosa plant pierced our sole. Many a time, we were able to pull it out with our nails (yes, long nails was a fashion among us kids then). If the thorns have gone deeper in, we will wash the surrounding area and remove the skin of the sole with a sharp razor blade (carefully of course, we did not want another wound) till the skin was sufficiently removed and we could pluck out the thorns with our nails.

I digress...

Coming back to our trips to buy footwear, once the same is completed, all of us will go to Aryabhawan (since ICH also served non-vegetarian, mom refused to go there) and eat our favourite food.

The second time in the year we splurged was during Diwali. Father used to get Diwali Bonus and we all would trundle out, this time to cloth shops to by dresses. During those days there were only two shops in Kottayam. One was ‘Seematti’ and the other was ‘Parthas’.  Our first destination was always Seematti since Parthas was more expensive. Me and my brother will get colourful shirts, Tees and shorts , mom will get Sarees and dad will buy white dhoti and shirt of sober colour (dad hated flashy colours, he was not a ‘Colourful’ man).

And we will all troop out to Aryabhawan for dinner.

The time difference between footwear and dress invariably caused problems.  On Diwali day, we will wear colourful dresses and shabby footwear and walk around the village, go to temples and such. No one noticed this ludicrous difference since every kid was dressed incongruously.

For Diwali, we also used to buy fire crackers. We all will get up at about 5.00 AM, father will light a notional cracker, which will make a lot of noise and wake up the neighborhood. During those days there was a lot of harmony within the village and no one complained.

Vishu, Kerala New Year, always celebrated on 14th of April was another occasion where we burst crackers. On both these days,  we had to get up in the morning, have a bath and go to temple.

Going to temple was mandatory.

While dad made us walk a lot, we kids did not feel much tired. Well sometimes we did feel tired, but holding on to those short, fat fingers rejuvenated us and gave us energy to continue.

That was my dad. A small man who carried a large heart. A heart that could bestow unending stream of affection on all he encountered.

Our hearts are filled with loads of memories of our numerous interactions.

Now that he is no more, we should treasure those memories.

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