Monday, February 9, 2009

Memories of Munnar - Babu George Mathew

I was glad when my elder daughter conveyed to me her proposal to compile a booklet about my parents as part of a project. Not because they were extra ordinary people or big achievers. They were my parents and I admired them. Honest, simple and without much pretention, yet thoughtful and with there own personalities and style. They lived in an interesting period between the old agrarian society and the present complex turbulent society so I'm sure their grand children will be interested to read about them and maybe a few others as well.

We called them Achayan and Ammachi. C.V.Mathew and Eleyamma Mathew (nee Mathen) were their formal names and Mathias and Eleyamma (Malayalam version of Elizabeth) were their pet names. Let me give a very brief description of their physical appearance. Achayan was big made with a hairy body and a paunch which sort of suited him. He was 5` 10`` tall, weighed about 190-200 lbs. and had good presence. Ammachi on the other hand was delicately made, good looking and graceful, very fair by Indian standards and about 5` something in height. They must have been a very reassuring presence in my early childhood. That is how I always felt but I do not recollect any particular incident or dramatic moment when I became aware of them.

We are Syrian Christians, a Christian community specific to the State of Kerala, in the extreme southern part of the Indian peninsula. A strong tradition is that we are the descendants of the seven or so Nambudiri families converted by apostle St. Thomas in AD 52. This is not supported by historic facts. But presence of Christians in Kerala from the early centuries is a fact. Traditionally they were engaged in farming and trading activities. A major part of the balance Christian community in Kerala is made up of descendants of those who were converted by Portuguese and other European missionaries. The status of Christians vis-a-vis the caste system of Kerala (which itself did not follow the classic system of major parts of India) is too complicated a matter to be discussed here. Suffice it to say that the Syrian in the community name is indicative of upper caste status akin to that of Nairs.

Chirayil Varkey Mathew was the full name of Achayan. Chirayil* was the family name and Varkey( Kerala version of George) his father’s name. He was the fourth among the surviving 9 children of Varkey and the eldest in the second marriage much after the first wife died (There are 20 years of age difference between Achayan and his eldest brother). He was the first graduate in the family (even in the extended family). His entire college education was financed by his elder brother who was managing the cardamom estate of Mr. Murphy, a British person. Considering the low incomes of those days, this was a tremendous effort by his elder brother and Achayan remained grateful till the end of his life.

After graduation with Botany as his main subject, Achayan took a one year diploma in Geography from Madras University and with that applied to several schools for a job as high school teacher. The one he accepted was from Munnar High School, a school run by Kannan Devan Hills Produce Co. Ltd. KDHP was a British owned tea producing company with 36 large estates in the hilly region around Munnar. After joining the school, he also took his Diploma in Teaching (L.T.)

The school was meant for the children of the company employees. Almost all laborers of the company were Tamilians from some remote villages of the then Madras Presidency. Most of them had no education at all and were quite backward. The Majority of office and supervisory staff were from Tamil speaking southern districts Kanyakumari and Thirunelveli. The remaining staff were made up of Malayalam speaking people, including a significant number of Syrian Christians. The children of the company employees, government employees, traders and tradesmen were the students of the school. There was a Malayalam primary school in the same building. One of the Tamil primary schools was in the adjacent compound and others spread out in the estate area. The middle and high school together had six classes called Forms. The first one or two divisions were for Malayalam students and the rest for Tamils. When I was a student there, First Form used to have many divisions, extending from A to I or more. With a high rate of drop-outs in Tamil divisions, the class strength would come down to a maximum of two or three divisions at the Sixth Form level. Achayan taught Geography and English for the Malayalam divisions and also for a few Tamil classes.

The company paid higher salary compared to Govt. run schools and provided free quarters, free electric power(up to a certain level) and other benefits. As children we grew up in teachers’ quarters. the location of the quarters was good, there were lots of children to play and it was fun.

We were seven, starting with two daughters followed by 3 sons (me being the eldest son), then a daughter and after a gap the seventh child a son. We were a shade large family even by the standards of those days, with hardly a gap of two years between the children. The age difference between me and my youngest sister Shantha was only 6years. But I can recollect her early childhood days and that of Vinu younger to her. I remember nappies being dried around the fireplace (Munnar being a wet and cold place), the cradle, the lullabies sung by Ammachi, the extra servants hired, neighbours and friends visiting etc.

There was always a live-in servant to assist Ammachi, from 15 year olds to middle aged ones of either sex, mostly from Kottayam or near by areas. Their main duty was to do all the cleaning and washing. Most of them were not allowed to assist Ammachi in the actual cooking process as they usually did not come up to her exact standard of hygiene. So the household normally consisted of 10 members, including the servant. Childhood days were in a way about these many people trying to live as well as possible in the small area of the house (a front room part of which was enclosed as Achayan’s office room, two bed rooms, two storerooms, a bathroom, a large dining room-cum-pantry and a kitchen, which Ammachi always referred to as a poky place and grumbled about). Added to this were not too infrequent house guests and Sunday lunch guests. But looking back it was mostly great fun. I am not exaggerating nor am I being misled by nostalgia. For most of us children Munnar is still a cozy corner of heaven. That should make people wonder what little it takes to make up a heaven!

In the house Ammachi was in complete control until Achayan returned home, usually by dinner time, when our freedom was drastically curtailed. Then it would be dinner, may be a little more studies, family prayer, a bit of family chit chat and eventually sleep.

Ammachi got up around 6.30 in the morning. After that she would be busy with making tea and breakfast for what seemed like a crowd and then lunch which had to be sent to us at school through the servant or carrier for the mid-day break. She then took her break between lunch and tea when she would catch up with the newspaper, take a nap, bathe etc. The second work session started with making tea and snacks for us for when we returned from school at about 4.30 in the evening. It continued with the preparation of dinner, things for the ensuing day etc and ended with cleaning the wood burning stove, taking out the ashes and emptying it of wood pieces, charcoal etc ( which were recycled for cleaning the vessels) and prepping dry wood and twigs for kindling fire the next morning. More about Ammachi later.

Achayan was a very busy person. By the time I got up in the morning there would be students for tuition even in the very cold months (usually to them help out so he never received much fees for his effort) Tuition, newspaper reading and other misc activities would go on till it was time for him to shave. That was when he would come out of his study (called office room) to collect the hot water from the kitchen for his shave. By that time, a large iron spoon (VALURILY) was heated up over the iron stove top for warming up aurvedic medicinal oil for his bath. After his bath and breakfast (usually Puttu but occasionally Dosa both with egg, coffee etc) he would dress up and start for school which was about a mile away. He was a natty dresser and the service of the dhobi (washerman) were mainly used for his clothes. From school he would venture out for diverse activities – club, church activities, visiting friends etc. He usually returned only by dinner time. On week ends and other holidays the routine remained the same, except that instead of school he would be attending some other activity and on Sundays he would come home for lunch, often with the visiting priest or others from the church, before proceeding for Sunday school. Shaving was not skipped even for a day. He was so energetic, outgoing and active it was difficult for us to cope up with.

Some of the things that I write about Achayan or Ammachi are based on later realization or what I came to know from others. Also it is not possible to qualify all statements with a ‘I think’ or ‘As far as I know’ (Somerset Maugham?). Otherwise I am being as honest as possible.

He was sure of his facts. When he did not know or was not sure of, he would say so and that made him a reliable person to clear doubts with. He could clarify most of our questions when we were children whatever may be the subject, including mathematics. If he did not know, he would ask others or refer to books and confirm by the next day. But our intellectual contact remained very limited. Nor did we develop a habit of tete-a-tete or discussion with him. It was a pity. He knew so much about the environment in which he grew up and the various happenings during those interesting times in Munnar. We failed to gleam even a small portion of that wealth which included a lot of interesting anecdotes and folk songs.

He liked meeting people, talking to them, entertaining them and continued to be so till the very end. He had a vast circle of friends and acquaintances in Kottayam area where he grew up, in the High Ranges where he spent most of his working life and spread around other places. He was an enthusiastic letter writer. He would sit down with a bunch of inland letter forms and after some time there would be a stack of letters with addresses written in his neat, legible and stylish hand writing. The important thing was that he genuinely liked people as people. He would remember their personal details, details about their children/ parents, family connections etc even if the contact with them was on infrequent occasions. As regards his own extended family, with four divisions, he knew almost everybody spread out over six or seven generations. He never carried resentments against anybody for long. All I could make out was a lack of the usual warmth with a few people. He himself never expressed any such feeling and I never could really make out the reasons. He might have been slightly rude to us at times, but was never discourteous with others, even if it was a beggar pestering him. ‘With malice towards none and charity for all’ would be an apt description of his attitude.

Food was another thing he liked. I think he could eat anything and it would get digested successfully. So he could eat at any time of the day or night. He told me once that he drank about 25 glasses of tea in a day, that too from homes he visited around Munnar. In a sparsely populated place like Munnar, that must have been a tremendous feat. I have also seen him polishing off a can of pork in oil or a loaf of corned beef in between regular meals. But he did not over indulge. And he was a teetotaller and non-smoker.

He was a spendthrift. At least Ammachi thought so. With a large family and a school teacher’s pay, money was not plentiful. Part of it was owing to his generous nature. He was hard put to deny any request for help. Not that we knew much about it other than what came to know from others. It was a great wonder that we all managed to graduate and except for me and my youngest sister, to study further. And we managed comparatively above average standard of life – reasonably good dresses which were well maintained (I have never worn shirt or trousers with a button missing) and tasty well cooked food.

For all his big framed tough look, he was soft hearted. He had a very short fuse and we were sure to get walloped if we were to do something unwanted in his presence. We were well behaved when he was around and I would have been the only one who got into trouble on a few occasions. (You could almost see a beatific smile on Johny’s face and a vague halo above his head when Achayan was around). But he never punished us for old infringements, unless Ammachi were to complain which she never did anyway. Once Susykochamma was hospitalized after she fainted in the hostel bathroom. It must have taken at least two days for Achayan to get the news and reach Trivandrum more than 300 kms away from Munnar. The anxiety would have been too much because he burst out crying loudly as soon as he entered the hospital ward. He was always fair in his dealings. I do not recall him doing anything underhand or deliberately lying. He was in the least chauvinistic. As I said earlier he liked people and maybe because of that, he was good at settling disputes in the neighbourhood. Ammachi’s complaint was that Achayan used only a small portion of the talents God had blessed him with.

Ammachi was very different in nature. Where Achayan was gregarious, outgoing and activity oriented, Ammachi was intense, private and family oriented. But they were in agreement on religious matters and on being principled and honest. Later I (we) realized that there was a great degree of mutual respect about each other's capabilities, personal traits etc. This underlying respect and regard and their well developed sense of humour were the sustaining graces of their marriage.

Money or lack of money would rank first among the contentious matters between my parents. Second would be inviting guests and providing food for them. There were interminable arguments and accusations about these. Fortunately Achayan was away from home a lot and the time available for arguments was considerably limited. The eldest and youngest amongst us children were severely tried by this though we came to know about it only later. Others were not affected much.

Ammachi’s dress was that of a traditional Syrian Christian woman. ‘Chatta’ a loosely stitched blouse and ‘Mundu’ a 2 ½ yard long cloth reaching from waist to ankle, wound around and tucked at the waist in a particular way. While going outside or on formal occasions, ‘Kavani’ (sort of half sari) would also be worn. The dress was invariably white in colour except for ‘Kavani’ which was usually edged with golden border and at times ‘unbleached’ in colour. She looked handsome, graceful and dignified in that dress. Around 3.30 in the afternoon she would bathe and change dress.

We could talk with her and that was great. Tell her about what happened at school or at play or our current problems or anything else. She was always interested and ready to listen. Her response would depend on how busy she was or the seriousness of the problem. She would effectively set about finding a solution if a problem was presented, either advising us what to do or telling Achayan to do something or taking some other action. Of course our mistakes would be pointed out rather strongly but without a trace of martyrdom or superiority. We could share a joke or tell her about a blunder made.

Ammachi was for us several personalities rolled in to one; a friend with whom we could share a joke or two, a counsellor, a terror when she caught us out and started scolding, a wise person, a raconteur, a connoisseur and a good cook. No, she was not a super woman. Her world was strictly confined to her kitchen, her family, occasional contacts with neighbours and relatives, newspaper and a few magazines. But she had a universal outlook. That was why when we went away to college or to work outside the state or country, it was easier to talk to her about other people, their habits, customs etc. Caste or colour prejudices were never big things in our psyche because these things were not stressed upon when we were young. Her Christian beliefs were strong enough to make her respect all human beings as God's higher creations.
She was the youngest among 7 children (4 brothers and 3 sisters) of Mathen of Vadakkenadayil family. One brother died in his youth reputedly owing to complications developed from a soccer injury. Mathen, apart from traditional occupation of farming, was into trading in black pepper and was comparatively better off financially. That was also a reason why his children did well in education. Of the 3 surviving sons, one was a post graduate and others, graduates. His second daughter also graduated and all four of them were diploma holders in teaching. His eldest daughter completed 7th class in Malayalam medium (highest possible) and was a teacher in a primary school. Ammachi, after passing her school final examination, attended sort of middle class ‘finishing school’ for a year.

As a student Ammachi was a bit of a rebel. She had her own ideas about learning and was not at all enthusiastic about the methods used in the school she joined after primary education (a prestigious school started by an English lady, sister of a prominent missionary). For example, she could not understand why she should learn to draw in freehand the outline of Europe, mark out countries etc. Her studies suffered. She liked the third (boarding) school she attended from where she passed her school final. Her educational record was not bad but nothing much to enthuse about. Her eldest brother, who was by then managing the family affairs, was bit of a tightfist. So she opted for marriage rather than higher studies.

In those days, learning to cook well and manage the household was a must for a Syrian Christian girl as she would have to deal with her mother-in-law eventually. The practice was that after marriage the couple would stay with husband’s parents initially. Unlike fellow Hindus, the system of joint family was not practiced. So when younger brothers got married, it was time for the elder ones to set up houses and move out. Ancestral property was equally divided among sons (daughters were normally entitled for the dowry given at the time of marriage only). But the ancestral house itself was given to the youngest son who would stay on with the parents and look after them in their old age. As a fresh entrant the bride would have to bear the brunt of household work. So an ability to cook well was more important for survival than education. Syrian Christians were mostly farmers and there would be plenty of household work.

In Ammachi’s case it was different. She escaped such training probably because she was the youngest, her family was academically inclined and there were others to manage household work. After marriage also she could avoid such chores as she was away with her husband at the town he worked in and elderly women were easily available as cooks. I am told that this state of affairs continued till I was born when she realized that with Achayan’s management of finances, it would be necessary for her to be frugal and do hard work to enable her to bring up her children in the way she wanted which meant Christian ideals, clean kitchen, good food, neat dresses etc. She was not a ‘born cook’ but a very competent one. It was difficult for her to improvise or experiment and ask around. But as far as I could guess, when she learned something, usually from somebody she considered to be a good cook, she sort of analyzed the required inputs, did some adjustments to suit her taste and a blueprint would be ready. Thereafter she could make that without much variation. Her regular dishes such as fried mutton liver, beef fry, sambar, butter milk, fish curry, bitter gourd pieces cooked over a slow fire, stir fried beans, masala chick pea etc were all made with distinctive flavour and her snacks were excellent.

Easter, Onam and Christmas were the festivals celebrated by us at home. Easter used to be the most important festival for Syrian Christians. Religious significance was one reason. The other was that it came after a period of 50 days long Lent during which many abstained from non-vegetarian food and liquor (if an imbiber). So on Easter day they could indulge! But for us the Lent restrictions was limited to the Passion Week and the celebration was also limited to one or two extra non-veg dishes on Easter day.

Onam was a festival keenly awaited. It is a harvest festival and the most important festival of Kerala( without much religious overtones). The main event is a sumptuous and elaborate mid-day meal on the Thiruonam day. This used to be preceded by a few days of various games, folk songs and dances and making patterns ( POOKALAM) in the courtyard with freshly picked flowers of various colours. In our home it was confined to a special meal on Thiruonam day, probably because we were away from our ancestral town in a Tamilian dominated area with only very few Malayali Hindu families around.

On that day we would sit on mats spread on floor to eat a special vegetarian meal served on banana leaves in the traditional way. The meal included dishes like avial, pachady, banana chips, pappodams etc. The special item was, of course, the dessert Payasam(pudding), made with green gram, molasses and coconut extract, spiced with cardamom and dry ginger and garnished with raisins, cashew nuts and fried bits of coconut. It was a very nice and dignified festival. Gradually the State Government has taken over the celebrations and it has become crassly commercial and noisy. Participation by the citizens is mostly by way of consuming large quantities of IMFL(Indian made foreign liquor!).Many depend on restaurants for Onam feast and have to buy flowers if they do pookalam. Most of us in our family still manage to have something of a traditional feast on Onam day.

Christmas was of course the festival for us. Neighbours, mostly Christians, would also be celebrating with decorated houses, star lanterns and fire crackers. Ammachi’s preparations would start much in advance, almost a month ahead. She would make all the palaharams (titbits\ sweetmeats) in her ‘repertoire’, mostly traditional items. Halwa (a mixture of flour, molasses and coconut extract stirred and candied over fire for a long time), Orappam (sort of rice cake), Avalose Unda (roasted mix of rice flour and coconut gratings mixed with molasses and shaped into balls), Cheeda, Achappam, Kozhalappam (various combination of rice dough/ batter and flavouring, in different shapes, fried in oil and sugar coated) Mundirikoth (small balls of green gram and molasses batter fried) and Diamond cuts(egg and refined flour dough, rolled, cut in to diamond shape, fried and sugar coated) were the items. I do not recall her skipping any of these ever. Remember all these items had to be made from scratch like rice hand-pounded for flour and skin of green gram removed using a grinding wheel. Ammachi planned and gathered materials in advance and made them one by one for the occasion. She never learned to bake cakes. Good quality cakes were available and Achayan used to get a few as gifts as well.

As soon as I was big enough to drag home a suitable sized tree from the nearby hillside, we started putting up a Christmas tree every year. Perfectly shaped small coniferous trees (never came to know the name) were available in that hilly region. Three or four days before Christmas, we would bring home the tree, set it up and start decorations with christmas cards, balloons and bric-a-brac. It would give off a nice mild smell for the next eight days or so till it was thrown away. Another thing we did was making a star lantern with bamboo (eeta) sticks and china paper. Christmas tree, good food, cold climate, carol groups from our and other churches and fire crackers made Christmas celebration truly enjoyable. I hate artificial trees now available in Christmas season. After we left Munnar, I never succeeded in getting a good natural tree for Christmas.

Ammachi had an uncanny ability to spot the crux of the matter when anything was discussed with her. She could also put it across in a few words succinctly. Most of the time her assessment of persons was also correct. Being very sensitive to our mood changes, she could easily sense when we were facing any difficulty and take appropriate action at the right time. She always remembered who liked what and who did not. Jaju, my brother just younger to me, hated having rice gruel. This was invariably served for lunch on Good Friday and Ammachi managed to serve normal rice to him. I never knew this till he told me about it recently. But she never attempted to have the same type of relationship with her grand children. Nor did she have an easy relationship with her daughters-in-law (though she never interfered) I was really surprised when I realized this. Afterwards it occurred to me that probably she gave all of her to her children and expected them to take care of their children in turn.

She firmly believed in our goodness; that we would not tell lies or do something really wrong was almost a certainty for her. This did put pressure on us to live up to her expectations. I do not recollect her punishing us at any time, physically or otherwise. Her moral authority was strong and her scolding stronger, though hardly an inappropriate word was used.

So I come back to my earlier statement that they lent a reassuring presence in my life. Though I hardly ever took recourse to that haven, that feeling was great and enough to sustain me often. Unlike some of my siblings, I have not retained any grudges at all against them. I have tried to be honest in writing about them. I could have written more about their shortcomings. Like Ammachi’s intense concern about her children making her less than generous with others. She could have tried for a better relationship with her mother-in-law. Achayan could have managed his finances in a better way and not resorted to borrowing so frequently. He could have paid more attention to us etc etc. No, these do not affect the larger picture I have presented. If they had no shortcomings, they would not have been the same Achayan and Ammachi. What I have written about are the residual feelings, the impressions retained. I am really thankful for what they were and what they did give me.