Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Poona Tatha

It's been a week of Trivandrum nostalgia for me. My write up on my childhood buddy Mahan brought up in conversation another article of mine from I had written in 2009. My maternal grandfather was P.K.Narayan, a pioneer in the Pune tyre retreading business. A towering personality,a man known for his sharp intellect and a life long learner, he was fondly called Poona Tatha by all the grandchildren. Once again set in the place - Trivandrum, where I spent my glorious childhood. This article was first written in my blog when he passed away. That blog is now defunct. My cousin whose write ups have been published in a Chicken Soup series said it has been written in "chicken soup style". Adding it here now.smile emotico I am adding it to my current blog 

Poona Tatha

My mother used to say:"Hurry up, He's leaving!". A little girl of eight, I would almost be in tears, wondering why my mother used to insist on me joining my grandfather on what seemed to be endless walks at an ungodly hour. Trivandrum was a fair sized place and my grandfather, affectionately called "Poona Tatha" by all the grandchildren, felt right at home in the capital city of his native state Kerala.

The name "Poona Tatha" stemmed from his location of residence, the city of Pune. He had chosen Pune to start his business of car tire retreading and build his home. Over the years, Tatha (grandfather) moved from Pune to Hosur, near Bangalore and back to Pune; but the name stayed. It was easier for each group of grandchildren to have grandparents named after their respective cities or places of residence for easy distinguishing from paternal sets of

Poona Tatha used to walk fast, not really checking to see if I could keep up. His stride was brisk and steady. My little feet would almost end up in a mini jog-walk pattern with an initial warm up period of 10 minutes before I could get fully awake and maintain a steady pace. He would call me "Pushpu Kutty" and always speak to me in Malayalam. I was extremely fluent, having moved to Trivandrum at an early age of five. He would tease me about my Trivandrum slang and chide me for my use of " Edo and Podo"- the Malayalam equivalent of "Man! and Whatever!" Having made his way to the main street of NH 47, a busy bustling highway, he would turn right or left and then ask me, " So which way do we go?". I now realise that he had always predetermined the route of our one hour morning walks and that the question was purely rhetoric. Then of course, I used to be thrilled at the simple prospect of being able to map out the course of our daily little adventure.

My grandfather was not just a fast walker, he was also a distractible one. Carried away by his enthusiasm for story telling and his mini historic elocutions, he would precariously walk at the edge of the sidewalk- a dangerous proposition, anyone familiar with the KSRTC (state transport)bus drivers would agree. I would tightly grip his hand and tug him towards the safety of the sidewalk trying hard not to interrupt his flow of thought. We must have been a odd couple-a funny picture - a little girl trying to veer a strong man in a crisp white veshti (dhoti) wearing a pair of well worn leather shoes who was forging ahead at a soldier's pace conquering the next step with a long brown walking stick. The stick just helped him keep his pace and I now realise why mother insisted on send me with him-she worried about him being run over by a bus!

The story telling was the best part of the walk, besides the impromptu biology lesson on the variety of plants and flowers found in such abundance at roadside and the gardens of various home along the way.He would talk about the British rule, how Cashew got it's name and of Parlikkad, his native village and how he moved to Pune. Everyday he would start with a new topic but almost always end up asking me the same question, "Do you know how Cashew got its name?". I would smile knowingly, but always answer with a no, just to be able to hear the story all over again. For a man with no more than a middle school education, Poona Tatha was an extremely knowledgeable man. Respect for the land, sustainable living and organic farming were not just buzz words for him-they were an integral part of his way of life.He would almost always fix anything broken, his touch would rejuvenate any wilted plant and he could hold extensive conversations with my father, a banker regarding the stalled economy and innovative business ideas for reviving it.

On a hot afternoons during the sticky brutal summers of Kerala, one could find my Grandfather pacing likely a mildly annoyed tiger-up and down the length of the house, complaining about the incredible humidity with a classic "Shedaa!"(OH!) in a very exasperated voice.We would always be amused when he would lay down on top of the dining table, in just a dhoti, in the middle of the living room to catch a rare draft in a effort to stay cool. His daily routine consisted of an ayurvedic self massage with "thailam". He would strip down to the bare minimum and rub his entire body with a heady concoction of various herbs mixed with oil. My sister and I would make faces, pretend to gag and complain whenever we got a whiff of the oils through the partly open door. Later on during my college years, the same smell would bring about a wave of nostalgia!

I watched my grandparents enter their senior years, saw them fight like little children and care for each other in days of sickness. Tatha learnt how to administer insulin shots to my grandmother and monitor various vital signs through the course of her struggle with diabetes. The strong man I knew seemed to have aged quite dramatically after my grandmothers passing. The years passed on, I moved to United States for graduate school, worked on my career and entered matrimony. My occasional calls to him or my visits to him in India always started with his endearing call of "Pushpu kutty" and ended up in long conversations in Malayalam-never missing an opportunity to reminisce about our Trivandrum days.
Up until 2 years ago at the ripe age of 90, despite having a difficult time recalling my husband's name or where I lived in the US , Poona Tatha could accurately recite in sequence all the little junctions and landmarks we would pass by on our 60 minute jaunts in Trivandrum.The memory of him pausing for a brief 2 minutes outside the Medical college in Ulloor-waiting for me to catch up, his ecstatic "Besh"(Well done!) and a pat on my back will always remain in my heart!

Mahan- The Great One!

Of all things great, the greatest on my list of important things in life is childhood. I had quite an idyllic one too, growing up in Kerala. We lived in a single level bungalow in Trivandrum, the capital city. The bungalow was a simple unfussy house. It had three bedrooms and steps outside the back work-area that led to a terrace above the house. The backyard was filled with plantain trees. My mom had planted just one banana sapling. That grew and had offshoots. Those trees grew more off shoots and in the eight years that we lived there the backyard was nothing short of a mini plantain jungle. The rest of the house was surrounded by narrow garden spaces, filled with all kind of vegetables that my mother carefully tended to. The front yard had a variety of flowers including plumeria, jasmine and roses. 

My bungalow was one amongst many all nestled close to each other. These homes were all separated by 3 foot tall walls that made it easy for grown ups to lean over to talk to neighbours or call out to children who were out long playing.  It was a tree lined alley way, with lush green grass growing along either side. It was a quiet safe neighbourhood over all. The noisiest thing that went past was the behemoth ambassador car, that belonged to the Kuriakose family whose mansion sat at the end of the lane and essentially converted the street into a culdesac.

We rented our home from a gentleman whose entire family comprised of the people that inhabited the rest of the neighborhood. His dad owned the biggest bungalow behind our house which had the name "Penang House". He had spent a considerable amount of time in Penang and decided to name the home in fond memory of his time spent overseas. The rest of the bungalows were all built over time and belonged to his brothers, cousins, sons, and daughters the exact details of which l used to know quite perfectly well as a child but am unable to recollect anymore.

The Penang house was inhabited by a Malayalee family. There lived a little boy called Mahan( a colloquial modification of the malayalam word Mahaan: meaning "The Great One"). That was not his given name. But his uncle decided to call him Mahan endearingly, and it seems to have stuck on ever since.

I was six years old when we moved into that home. Mahan was younger to me by about 2 years. I still remember the day we moved in. He was sort of scruffy looking, having played in the dirt all day long. Playing in dirt, I was to learn later on, was one of his major past times. Entirely barefoot, and wearing just a pair of shorts, he confidently walked into our home and asked my mother, "Ningal evide puthiyathano?" ( Are you guys new here?). His next question was - "Can l play with her?" ( pointing to me).

That moment was the beginning of a play relationship that lasted for the next eight years. Everyday when l came back from school Mahan would be waiting for me at home. He probably had a shorter half day school, so would be done with lunch and free to play. I went to a more intensive full day school and returned only by 4 pm. Mahan was relatively unburdened on the academic front, perhaps by choice or parenting style. I, on the other hand, had a variety of after school classes including weekly music lessons. Two sets of teachers would come home to teach my sister and me Carnatic vocal music and violin. We always had a ready audience. Mahan would be sitting outside the grills on the ledge of the window sill waiting patiently for my lessons to be done so we could get on with more important things in life than varishais( scales)and varnams( songs). The music lessons were a drag at times and Mahan was our comedy relief, making monkey faces at us through the window grills unbeknownst to our teacher. We would giggle and our teacher would wonder what was funny about carnatic music.

My mother used to insist that l finish my homework before l could play. Again,I had a ready made champion encouraging me to be done with it as soon as possible. Mahan used to plead me to get through the drill work so we could go look for baby coconuts.

We used to play barefoot most of the time. The Penang House backyard was huge and scattered with coconut trees. It was connected to ours which had the mini plantain jungle. That made up our "hood" -our safe haven, place for exploration, discovery, and experimentation. Mahan was good at collecting odd bits and pieces - twigs, leaves, stones, and bottle caps. I used to be the flower collector, butterfly finder and baby coconut spotter. Those were enough those days to fill our time.

We had our share of fights. He threw sand on my head when we trying to find a snake's hole in the adjoining plot that was under construction. He also ran away with some of costumes midway during our "girls only" dance and drama performance hosted by my sister and Mahan's cousins. The older girls had tried to give him a part with no dialogues. But they deemed him to be too much of an imp to play any role to their satisfaction and excluded him. So he decided to get even.

Despite these occasional altercations he always found a way to win his play mate status back. On hindsight perhaps he didn't have to do much.  His trump card was that he was always around. Ever ready to dig a hole in the ground, to catch dragon flies, to spin tops and swing on a swing with me made of a real pestle swung from the coconut trees. My favorite memory of him was him rolling around our living room floor. He would enjoy the coolness of the floor, especially when we endured long power cuts and there were no fans. He would be sprawled on our floor, humming a tune, a tiny car in his hand, waging imaginary battles complete with sound effects of explosions that he would produce remarkably well. When he was done he would leave praising his granduncle (the owner of our house) for his choice of tile. 

My uncle had gifted us our first moon station Lego set and Mahan would spend hours building it bit by bit poring over the pictorial instructions. My mother would say to him,            "Mahan, Don't you have to study maths.. or finish your home work ?" and his prompt reply would be " It's ok, aunty. After all l am going to be a fighter pilot and fly a rocket ship!". 

With him, l learned to climb rose apple trees, the succulent sweet water filled fruit  of which were our perfect summer treat.  The Kuriakose house at the end of the culdesac had the tastiest rose apple fruit in the neighborhood. Mahan was our fruit picker especially to grab bunches that were higher than the comfort zone of the girl gang climbers. He was disappointed when we left for vacations and would beg my mother to bring us back sooner than our intended date. He never needed any kind of calendar syncing. The day we returned he would show up in the evening for sure to play. He had become part of the family. My grandfather who would visit us frequently would miss him if he didn't come on any particular day. He would ask," What happened? Inniki mahan varalaya? ( "Didn't mahan come today?")

We moved from that house when l turned 14. I lost touch with him.We never wrote each other. There was no email then. Our families never called each other. My parents informed me a few years ago that he had become a social worker and not a jet fighter after all. I have never looked for him online or tried to reconnect. I have often thought about him as my children now forge friendships in an urban play landscape governed by constraints of safety and play time availability. Perhaps l don't to look him up because what l had with him was precious and sacred. Seeing him all grownup might take away from my memories of a playmate who was always available. On rainy days and sunny ones. A play mate who was the perfect partner in crime for simple childhood fun. A person who made my childhood truly a memorable and great one.