Is life, in retrospect, a waste of time as the Bard of Avon says at least on one occasion? In his Sonnet 30, one of the most famous pieces on nostalgia in English literature, Shakespeare says:
When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought
And with old woe new wail my dear time’s waste.
The feeling that he conveys, or tries to conjure up, is perhaps universal. Many must have felt the same when thinking of the distant past, about the opportunities missed, about the wrong choices made, about not getting what one wanted, about the stupidity of ignoring the wise counsel of the elderly or the knowledgeable etc. It is the same feeling that is reflected in a way by Robert Frost in his acclaimed poem The Road Not Taken. What would a person do in a situation in which he had to make the ultimate choice that may alter his entire life thereafter? Frost brought this home excellently with the metaphor of two paths diverging in a yellowing forest. He had to choose between the two, and he chose one, and left the other for another day, ‘Yet knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back.’
From the way he describes his choice, with a tinge of sadness or regret, it would appear as if Frost had gone in for the wrong option.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
In spite of such a possibility, of bringing back to mind the wrong choices made or wrong decisions taken or wrong interests pursued at important turning points in life in the past, I still savor memories of what we generally call the Good Old Days. Good old days when, unlike the present, there was so much of goodness, simplicity, innocence and guilelessness, as also so much of greenery, around.
Life in those times, sixty or seventy years back, was a far cry from the life as we see or experience now. Much of the pleasures or comforts of daily life we now take for granted, both at home and outside, were totally absent, or even unheard of, then. Life was quite simple, in a way far simpler than that described by Thoreau in Walden. Walden, in a secluded wood away from civilization that Thoreau chose for a solitary life for two years, two months and two days, was in fact a deliberate choice to prove a point, but for the people of my childhood days seven decades ago it was the only available way of living. But in spite of all its shortcomings, inadequacies and inconveniences, what a pleasant life it was!
I was five when my father, a revenue officer, got transferred from Kottayam to Nedumangad in Thiruvananthapuram district. The rural ambience of that place in those times was truly picture postcard like. Narrow roads, small but elegant tiled houses or more common thatched houses and a few temples dedicated to Goddess ‘Amman’ made up the small town centre. Giving a touch of royalty to the locality was an old palace, Koikkal Palace, constructed in the pre-Travancore days to serve as the headquarters of a beleaguered Queen of Venad, Umayamma Rani.
People were simple, hard working, mostly in the paddy fields or farm lands, shops were few and far between and the daily necessities were met from evening roadside shanties or the main weekly ‘chantha.’ The roads were free of traffic most of the times as public conveyance was through an occasional bus. For the general public the main mode of conveyance was the bullock cart or the horse drawn jutka.
Very few people, like our immediate neighbor, had cars. Though cars of Hindustan make, such as Hindustan 10 were available, people who could afford cars, mainly affluent pepper merchants in the locality, went in for foreign makes like Austin of England, Plymouth, Dodge or DeSoto. Our neighbor, a leading pepper exporter, had a Studebaker.
My schooling began in the Government Lower Primary school, situated next to the Nedumangad Taluk office where my father worked. It was about a kilometer away from home and walking barefoot all the way was not at all taken as an arduous task. All students walked barefoot as footwear had not become common. In fact there was not a single footwear shop in the town. Unlike the present there was no uniform for the students, boys wearing shorts and shirts, and girls of skirts and tops, all of coarse cotton, popularly known as ‘cheetti.’
The head teacher of the school was a very popular figure, but known throughout by his nickname only – Vepralam. No one, including the students, appeared to know his real name. To all of us he was only ‘Vepralam sir.’ He was a genial person, though strict, always carrying a cane as a mark of authority, never wielding it. Perhaps as a counterpoint there were other teachers well competent to exercise this authority enthusiastically whenever needed. Once, when I was in the fifth class, one of my classmates, much elder to the rest of us, was caught copying in the examination. He had written answers to questions on bits of paper and pasted them all on the inner side of his mundu. He was caught red-handed by a teacher and the punishment was summary.
That was the first demonstration before me of crime and punishment: the crime of examination fraud and the summary punishment that followed: flogging with the cane, until the cane cracked at the whipping end. Had it been in the present days, the teacher would definitely have been hauled up by the police or bodies dealing with children’s rights.
The school those days did not have any urinal for the students, except for a rudimentary enclosure for the girls at the far end of the school ground. For the boys another end of the vast ground served as an open air urinal.
And the boys had a peculiar way of relieving themselves during class intervals. The far end of the ground had an exuberance of a plant called Thakara. Each student had a particular spot for urinating and he would do so everyday onto a particular Thakara plant. As though there was an unwritten agreement among the students, no one would trespass that area. Within a few weeks the leaves of the plant would turn yellow and then gradually the plant would die. The student then would select another Thakara for his pastime of slow plant killing.
Though the school had a good ground, all our games were played at an open space near our home. The popular game of the neighborhood boys was kuttiyum kolum, played with a long stick serving as a club for striking and a smaller piece serving as a volley. My two brothers had a passion for the game and most of the times I would find myself as an onlooker on the sidelines. It was fun to watch the striker sending the small piece too far and then measuring the distance with the striking stick with the shouts of onnukku, randukku, moonnukku,nalukku, aittikko, arengi, kilese (may be for close), repeating the seven steps several times.
We were staying on the ground floor of a large house belonging to a man named Kuttan Pillai who was known throughout Nedumangad by his nickname ‘German.’ The owner’s family occupied the first floor and his son, of my age, was my constant companion. The house owner earned the sobriquet because of his admiration for, and strong arguments in support of, Hitler during the World War. Though the war ended long back the name stuck.
An occasion of great excitement for the children those times was when bullock carts went by announcing the arrival of a new cinema at one of the two theatres in the town. There would be a big poster of the cinema on either side of the cart and megaphone announcement, later replaced by loudspeakers, giving important details of the film. As leaflets on the film and the storyline would be thrown from the cart, we would run after it to pick them up from the road. The leaflets would give the names and pictures of the actors and actresses and give a part of the story, ending with the usual refrain ‘Sesham vellithirayil (The rest on the silver screen).
I was in the fifth class when the first elections in the merged state of Travancore-Cochin took place in 1954. Unlike in the later elections, each candidate at that time had a separate box with his party symbol, such as ‘Kalappetti’ of the Congress party, having the symbol of two bullocks and a yoke. Though I do not recollect symbols of other parties, I do remember that of the Congress because of a popular song of the Communists: kalappetti chumannu kondu ponavare / oru minnittu ikkarymamonnu kelku, / Ivide aaru kollam vaanavare, ningal enthenthu nanma nattil cheythu?’ (Those who carry Kalappeti on your shoulders, please listen for a while, Though you have ruled for six years, what good did you do for the land? ) After the elections, a government headed by Pattom Thanu Pillai of the Praja Socialist Party, who headed a coalition of parties, came to power.
A narrative on those times would not be complete without a reference to the now extinct institution of the Hanuman Pandaram. Pandarams are an ascetic mendicant community in southern Tamil Nadu some of whose male members would make regular annual visits to houses in these parts to perform with their wooden Hanuman masks. For the children, the masked dance of the Pandaram was both fascinating and frightening. Frightening because mothers those times would tell children that if they showed naughtiness or disobedience the Hanuman Pandaram was sure to take them away.
Though several decades have passed after I last saw a Hanuman Pandaram, the monkey antics of the performer, the peculiar movement of the jaw of the colourful mask and the deep guttural voice of the Pandaram, as also other vignettes of my childhood days , still waft to my mind during my own sessions of sweet silent thought.