My tharavadu, or the ancestral home on my mother’s side, was built roughly 100 years ago on the outskirts of Ramanattukara in Kerala. Staying there during holidays was like discovering the wonders in a time warp.
One day I had to go to Calicut, the nearest big town, an hour’s journey away. This was the seventies and my young life was still simple and uncluttered.
The path to the bus stop began with two flights of steep steps, a 10-minute balancing act through paddy fields brimming with coloured waters, and ended with a two-furlong walk along the highway. If the heat did not get one, the rains would, but no one minded these minor irritants.
The tea shop, or chaippidika, was an integral part of any village in Kerala. The chaippidika next to the bus stop was a meeting place like a library or social media platform. One person would be reading the Mathrubhumi Malayalam newspaper; four or five others, on wooden benches strewn around on the mud floor, would make comments before even listening to the whole story. Everyone who passed by added his two bits; strong perspectives swayed the listeners this way and the other. Politics and death got the most attention and was discussed to the bone till the sun stopped shedding any more light on them.
When I ordered tea Shankaran added water into the aluminium saucepan, caked with smoke outside and crusted with tea leaves inside, and plonked it on the kerosene stove. Tea leaves, added to the concoction of water and milk, made the tea thicker than usual; the leaves remain in the pan throughout the day. He then took a ‘kuppi class,’ or a clear glass tumbler, and poured the boiling tea from as high as the arms would stretch, brewing a froth that put to shame the head of any pint of beer!
The rain began to pound, so I stepped into the safe confines of the tea-stall. Water dripped through the cracks of the roof thatched with coconut palms leaves tempered by the elements. The mist from the rain added to the general ambience and collected as droplets on the glass cabinet which held the savouries.
The bus journey
The bus rushed in and stopped about 20 meters away from the designated stop. As usual. The rain shutters were pulled down. One had to run to get in through the back door.
The standard practice was to let women get in through the front door and men through the back. There was always a ‘kili,’ or cleaner, who doubled as an usher, manning each doorway. The driver, most of the time, waited for their whistle. One to stop and two to go! If the whistles were absent, the kili in the back shouted “stop” and “right” to go. It was relayed to the driver by the kili in front.
They would scamper up only after the bus took off. They would run by the side of the bus holding on to one of the window rails and swing into the bus shutting the door behind them. Where there were no seats they would travel all the way standing on the steps.
Inside the bus, I handed over exact change to the conductor who gave me a ticket. If there were any change to be returned, the conductor would say that he would give it at the end of the journey but was usually forgotten.
I sat towards the front of the bus keeping one eye on the driver. He wore a khaki shirt; a checkered ‘lungi’ was draped around his waist. His left hand caressed the shift gear while the right swung the wheel. Only when there was a hard turning, did the left hand move to help the right!
The speeds at which these buses barrelled through the narrow highways imitated a wrecking ball. Nothing stood upright in its wake. For the faint at heart, when these buses overtook other vehicles, it triggered minor heartaches or ulcers. But with practice one could even doze off.
When I woke up the bus had stopped. The sound of rain was absent. I raised the bellows-shaped shutter made of green vinyl weighted by a metal plate; I wiped the rain water underneath from dripping further.
Train of thoughts
Railway gates in the countryside closed much before the arrival of any train. The wait was longer when a freight or goods train was passing. The striped, white and red, heavy creaking metal gates needed lubricating and a lot of elbow grease to move it in and out of the way of traffic.
Rain waters had washed everything and gave nature a crispness. The thick green leaves glistened when they caught the sun peeping between dark clouds. Closer to earth small granite pieces cushioned the rails firmly embedded between wooden slats.
From the distance, a man wearing khaki shirt and shorts, walked towards us through the mists of rain and time. He had a rolled up combination of red and green flags tucked under his left armpit. He stepped away from the middle of the tracks to a wooden shed closer to the gate. Inside the shed were giant levers which needed more elbow grease. The man pulled a set of levers as tall as him. We could hear the tracks changing before it reached the beginning of the station’s long concrete platform.
Soon we heard the slow rumblings of a freight train.
“Takataka takadum, takataka takadum. Takataka takadum, takataka takadum…”
After an eternity it passed us and entered the second set of tracks in front of the station. There it would pause to let the passenger train coming from the opposite direction stop, pick up passengers, and leave with their baggage, thoughts, and stories.
I counted 38 covered bogies on the goods train. They were all either rusted or painted in that colour. Two cylindrical bogies, at the end of the train, had ‘Indian Oil’ in giant letters painted on the side along with the company logo. The guard’s bogie, which looked like a small open metal shack, completed the train. Although the interior was dark, I could make out enough space for a chair, a desk, and a bunk bed.
A man in white shirt, long white trousers, and a peaked cap waved a red flag. The green flag was rolled up and tucked under his right armpit. He kept waving the flag, went to the other side, and waved again. A couple of kids playing near the tracks waved back. I wondered what he did when in need of the washroom on those long journeys.
When I came back from Calicut all the people were still in the chaippidika. The touch-points at home for most villagers who have no active duty were breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Tea time was usually spent at the chaippidika.
A petromax, or hurricane lantern, hung from the rafters and was burning bright. Rain contined to pound on the thatched roof. I stepped in, bought a cigarette for ten paise, lit it, and ordered tea. The filterless Scissors cigarette came with bits of wood embedded in it and sometimes flared up in the face.
The cigarette got the treatment to within half an inch, leaving enough gap to hold it between the thumb and forefinger. I finished the tea. I had a couple of cold parippu vadas to wash away the smell of smoke from my breath!
Every bus stop dotted along the highway would have a tea stall, a barber salon, a grocery store, and a restaurant. All of them sported open doors and windows. The chaippidika had no walls; four wooden pillars held the conical roof drooping to the level of a man’s waist. Every time a vehicle passed by, the dust or splashes of rain got carried in. Sometimes it upset the flies window shopping on the glass cabinet holding savouries, some from the previous day.
Most of these establishments had a half wall where people sat with their legs dangling out onto the street, catching both the sun, the rain, and the news from a radio perched on a tall cupboard. The entrance of the chaippidika also sheltered cows and stray dogs sleeping exhausted from the elements or from doing nothing.
When it was time for dinner, I walked with the setting sun behind me casting long shadows and pointing me home. The scantily clad kids in my path jumped into the waters and gave me walking room. Two of them were holding a thorthu by the ends and trying to scoop up the fish they had trapped in one corner of the paddy field.
The tiled roof of the sprawling two-storeyed white-washed brick tharavadu, built half way on a hill, could be seen over the canopy of trees.
As I walked home, and as I write this much later in life, the tastes of chai and parippu vada are still mingled with my memories.
- The ‘chaippidika’ is still there.
- Kerala, the tiny coastal state in India has a lot of history. Kerala entered the international history books when the Arabs and the Portuguese landed here as part of the spice route. It made history when it became the first 100 percent literate state in India. I was also born here.
- Thorthu is a weaved bath towel.
- Parippu is lentils; vada is shaped like doughnuts but not sweet.
- Lungi is a wraparound held at the waist by a belt or simply tucked in.