A Sacred Grove for Serpents

949742014452f212b2409357c1f5cd571 Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?

And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden:

But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.

And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die:

For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.

And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.

And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons.

And they heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day: and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God amongst the trees of the garden.

And the Lord God called unto Adam, and said unto him, Where art thou?

10 And he said, I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.

11 And he said, Who told thee that thou wast naked? Hast thou eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldest not eat?

12 And the man said, The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat.

13 And the Lord God said unto the woman, What is this that thou hast done? And the woman said, The serpent beguiled me, and I did eat.

14 And the Lord God said unto the serpent, Because thou hast done this, thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life:

15 And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.

In the Old Testament creation myth, the serpent is the villain: it is he who tempts Eve with the “Fruit of Knowledge of Good and Evil”, which God had expressly forbidden mankind from eating.  This results in man’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden (the so-called “Fall”), and the everlasting enmity between man and serpent.

This is true of the Levantine Religions which subscribe to this myth.  But for me, brought up in sylvan landscape of rural Kerala, the snake is an entity to be worshipped.  He is feared, true, but that is because of his power which is enormous when unleashed – a curse from him can affect seven generations, it is said – but he is also revered.  During my childhood, each big house had a corner of their compound set aside for the traditional Sarpakkavu, the sacred “Serpent Grove”.

My family was educated and “enlightened”, so they did not go for this pagan nonsense (they believed in the gods, of course) and I grew up with a healthy contempt for such animistic practices.  As “civilisation” spread and villages became towns and then cities, traditional Kerala homesteads made way for modern terraced villas and multi-storey apartment complexes: and the sacred groves were slowly encroached upon by western style lawns and rose gardens.

Ironically, as I slowly lost my faith in the gods as absolute entities, my creative interest in the spiritual facet of myth grew (helped by the discovery of Joseph Campbell in my early twenties) – and I began to pine for the lost serpent groves: seas of tranquil peace in the hustle and bustle of daily life, where huge centenarian trees stood guard; where the afternoon slept peacefully, and nature woke to lusty and dangerous life at twilight.

The Sacred Grove

The concept of the sacred grove is hardly confined to Kerala, India or the East – It is part of  most of the pagan universe in general.  Sir J. G. Frazer, in his landmark book The Golden Bough, discourses at length about the sacred grove of Diana at Lake Nemi, where the priest-king was ritually killed annually and reincarnated in his successor.  From Wikipedia:

The Golden Bough attempts to define the shared elements of religious belief and scientific thought, discussing fertility rites, human sacrifice, the dying god, the scapegoat and many other symbols and practices whose influence has extended into twentieth-century culture. Its thesis is that old religions were fertility cults that revolved around the worship and periodic sacrifice of a sacred king. Frazer proposed that mankind progresses from magic through religious belief to scientific thought.

golden_boughThis thesis was developed in relation to J. M. W. Turner’s painting of The Golden Bough, a sacred grove where a certain tree grew day and night. It was a transfigured landscape in a dream-like vision of the woodland lake of Nemi, “Diana’s Mirror”, where religious ceremonies and the “fulfillment of vows” of priests and kings were held.

The king was the incarnation of a dying and reviving god, a solar deity who underwent a mystic marriage to a goddess of the Earth. He died at the harvest and was reincarnated in the spring. Frazer claims that this legend of rebirth is central to almost all of the world’s mythologies.

Curiously enough, the temples of the Goddess in Kerala are called “kavu”s (groves), even when there are no trees present within the compound!  I have always felt that we must have “progressed” from real groves to today’s elaborate structures as patriarchy slowly replaced the pagan matriarchy and the Goddess was subjugated as the consort of God.  At some point of time, the Earth Mother was enslaved by the her consort, who was her son as well – and instead of being the offspring of Gaia, man became her master.  (We all know the impact of this paradigm shift on the environment, but that is another story.)

If the Goddess represents the dark and mysterious female principle, her companion in popularity in Kerala, the snake, represents the male principle.  No wonder he also resides in a grove, and is directly linked with fertility.  People sacrifice at famous snake temples throughout the state for getting offspring and for their continued welfare: in the famous temple at Mannarsala, a down-turned uruli (a flat vessel) is the offering, under which a snake comes to meditate until a child is born to the devout couple (the Freudian and Jungian connections are obvious here).

So, going back to the Biblical myth, I always wonder whether the serpent was a benign deity originally, who was recast into the role of the villain as the Abrahamic myth gained traction?  The fruit he offers Eve makes her aware of her sexuality, and she is henceforth cursed (or blessed?) by God to “bring forth children in sorrow”.  Maybe the Garden of Eden was initially the Grove of the Serpent, and the myth had an entirely different form…

Constructing a Sarpakkavu

Our ancestral home in Thrissur is a huge monstrosity with sprawling grounds.  A few years ago, my sister (who is an artist and a connoisseur of artistically eccentric ideas) decided to create a Sarpakkavu in one corner.  Initially, no one was in support. The traditional method of creating the grove being leaving the area totally unattended, allowing the bushes, trees and creepers to grow at will, soon one corner of our compound was choked with grass and bush.  It became a haven for stray dogs, snakes and everyone was aghast at the unsafe conditions: but my sister doggedly persisted.

Soon, nature took over.  As the big trees began to grow and spread their branches, the shade of the leafy canopy slowly killed off the wild grass, and the floor became more even.  The fallen leaves provided the necessary support for the ground to hold rainwater, and as the soil became more fertile, a miniature forest began to take shape.  Most importantly – snakes which were rampant in our grounds seem to have disappeared, apparently retiring to this piece of heaven created for them.

This is how it looks today.

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While I walked around the area yesterday, I felt positive energy flowing into me: both physically from the oxygen-laden atmosphere and spiritually from the calming presence of the gently swaying trees.  I once again marvelled at the wisdom of paganism, where man instinctively understood his place in the grand scheme of things – not as master, but as a humble cog in the machine.  As I stood absorbed by this tiny ecological paradise in a world largely gone to waste, an old mantra to the Earth Mother, which I learned at my mother’s knee, came up in my mind:

Samudra vasane Devi

Parvata sthana mandale

Vishnu patnim namasthubhyam

Paada sparsham kshmaswa me

(O Goddess, wearing the oceans as your dress and having the mountains for your breasts: Consort of Vishnu, I bow to thee; forgive the touch of my feet…)

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Movie Nostalgia

Going to the movies in the late sixties and early seventies was a vastly different experience from the sanitised one nowadays. Living in the suburbs (which was practically meant village in those days in India), our options were severely limited. My home town of Tripunithura in Kerala had exactly three theatres: none of them air-conditioned and only one provided with a balcony. You sat on cushioned chairs only if you had a balcony ticket. The first and second class had wooden or cane chairs (in one theatre, the second class was benches with backrest): after that there was the “bench” (without the backrest) then the infamous തറ (thara, “the floor”), where you squatted or sat cross-legged on the floor (even now, calling somebody തറ is derogatory in Kerala).

You paid the lordly sum of two rupees for a balcony ticket. First class was Rs. 1.50, second class one rupee, benches fifty paise and “thara”, 25 paise. As you moved down and down the hierarchy of classes, you moved nearer and nearer to the screen – with the consequence that the images got bigger and less clear (becoming virtual patterns of light for those at the very front), and you got a crick in the neck by the time the movie ended, as a consequence of staring upward.

The theatre would be usually filled with cigarette smoke. At the beginning of the show, the mandatory warning would be flashed on the screen: “Smoking inside the theatre is punishable under law.” This was the signal for all and sundry to light up. Soon, you could see the smoke swirling in the beam from the projector, creating interesting shapes (I used to amuse myself watching these if the movie was boring). The smell of the cigarettes would be mixed with the faint smell of ammonia from the urinals outside: even now, my recollection of old movies is invariably tied up with this smell.

The seats, especially the cane chairs, were breeding grounds for bed-bugs. They would start feasting on you the moment you sat down. Twisting, squirming and scratching your bottom was all part of the movie experience. After some time, you learned to take it in your stride, and the bugs never bothered you. (Once, I was even attacked by an army of really savage ants!)

The screen used to have lot of stains on it: it would be patched up in many places, and sometimes, there would even be holes. Thus, the drama played out on it would creatively enhanced by a sudden patch appearing on the leading lady’s nose, or the hero’s eyes disappearing into a hole.

But in spite of all these difficulties (which were never perceived as such in those days), movie-going was an adventure. In a world devoid of TV, computer and social media, it was the main source of entertainment for the community. It was a weekly ritual akin to a visit to the temple.

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In the days before TV, we got to know about movies through (1) newspaper advertisements (2) posters plastered on walls and (3) cinema notices. The last page of all our local dailies was reserved for films, where each Friday the new releases enticed us to the theatres. Much before that, posters would start appearing on the walls; smiling heroes, frowning villains and pouting vamps – with the tantalising caption “coming soon!” (This culture is still alive and kicking today.) But the most exciting was the cinema notice, distributed from cars fitted with loudspeakers, blaring announcements about the film in-between song bits. The notice would contain half the story, and leave it hanging at a crucial point with the statement “watch the remaining tense scenes on the silver screen”.

There would usually be three shows initially: the matinee at 3:00 P.M., the first show at 6:30 P.M. and the second show at 9.30 P.M. As kids, we were allowed to go alone only for the matinees. The first shows were for the family. The second shows were to be abhorred, only for bachelors as the theatres were likely to be populated by drunkards, women of loose morals and similar denizens of the night.

The shows were announced by music through the loudspeakers at the theatre, usually ninety minutes before the show – these would be switched off, and the music played only inside the movie hall, exactly half an hour before the start (this was the signal for stragglers to get to the theatre).

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“Goti Soda” (Image courtesy: Mumbaimag)

On opening days of popular films, there would be a mad rush for tickets: queues were at the best rudimentary, and the strong muscled in from anywhere and everywhere. (One of the theatres in Thripunithura was owned by a relative, and a family friend operated the ticket booth in the other, so I did not face much of a problem in obtaining entrance.) Even when the available tickets were sold out, the theatre owners often obliged by pushing in extra chairs in the vacant spaces, and I have even seen people standing and watching the movie once! Many a time, the show started late while these arrangements were in progress. People didn’t mind much, in those days.

There were some pre-show rituals – vendors would circulate selling roasted peanuts in conical newspaper packets, the iconic “goli soda” (the soda bottle stoppered with a glass marble) and the പാട്ടുപുസ്തകം (“pattupusthakam”, song book): a small booklet containing all the songs from the movie. (I had a big collection of these books. I used to learn the songs by heart and sing them – mostly off-key – in the bathroom). These vendors made their rounds again during the interval (the mandatory 10-minute break for all Indian movies).

Before the movie started, there would be ad films and then, the news reel. In the pre-TV era, this was our only exposure to news via the visual media. Sometimes, small documentaries created by the Films Division of the Indian Government would also be screened before the movie proper (some of these documentaries were excellent).

Then after all these preliminaries were done, the film proper would start – sometimes welcomed by claps from the audience.

 

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Our film-going experience was not without its hardships. Many a time, the power would fail, and the movie projector would be powered by a diesel generator. This would entail switching off all the fans in the theatre, making it swelteringly hot in the summer. The film sometimes got cut: then we had to wait till it was spliced together. Once, I remember the projector striking work in the middle and the show was cancelled – audience were given tickets to see it at a later date.

But we did not care about these. In a life largely devoid of luxuries as we know it today, these were all minor irritants in the magic ritual of “going to the movies”. Hardships were naturally to be endured when one awaited the favour of such a magnificent deity – the Goddess of the Silver Screen.

Nostalgia and the Malayali

It seems that as I grow old, nostalgia becomes more and more of a permanent companion, a sort of chronic condition which is not debilitating. It is the province of the Malayali: mostly forced to live as an expatriate, he pines for a time and a place unattainable. It may not be coincidental that the usually the term for homesickness is used for nostalgia too in Malayalam (“gruhaturatvam”). For the Malayali, separation across time and space from loved surroundings is the grim reality in life.

Many of the beloved songs of popular Malayalam cinema are about nostalgia and homesickness:

“Maamalakalkkappurathu Marathakappattuduthu

Malayalamennoru Naadundu…”

 

(Across the mountain ranges, wearing a dress of emerald green

Is the land called “Malayalam”…)

 

“Naalikerathinte Naattilenikkoru

Nazhiyidangazhi Mannundu…

Athil Narayanakkili Koodupolulloru

Naalukaalolappurayundu…”

 

(In the land of the coconut palm,

I have a handful of earth in my name…

On that, like a sparrow’s nest

There is a ramshackle thatched house…)

 

“Oru vattam koodiyen Ormakal meyunna

Thirumuttathethuvaan Moham…”

 

(Once again, I wish to go back to that

Sacred courtyard where memories graze…)

 

The last song, by our beloved poet Prof. O. N. V. Kurup, was the defining song of my generation. It came out in the Eighties. In simple terms, it talks about a pastoral childhood which was becoming a distant memory even then: what children used to do when VCD players, computers and play station were not available. Eating bitter gooseberries, drinking cool well-water immediately afterwards to convert that bitterness to sweetness, having a cooing match with the koel… but what really packed the punch was the last line:

“Verutheyee Mohangal Ennariyumbozhum

Veruthe Mohikkuvaan Moham…”

 

(Even though I know that all these wishes are futile,

I wish to wish, just for the sake of wishing…)

 

Thus the song defines two things – a pastoral life which is fast disappearing and a futile wish to go back to it, knowing fully well it is impossible. It is about thirty-four years since O. N. V penned that song, but the sentiment has not altered.

It must be noted that diaspora is hardly unique to the Malayali. The most famous one historically is that of the Jews (“By the rivers of Babylon…”): it has culminated ultimately in them obtaining a country of their own and creating another diaspora – that of the Palestinians – in the process. It seems that displacement and the longing to return is part of our humanity, and it shall remain. What makes the Keralite different from others is that his separation is voluntary.

Keralites are proud of their small state: unlike the majority of India, it is green and clean. Mother Nature has been kind to Kerala. The tourist brochures call it “God’s Own Country”, and even though this is boasting at its zenith, many tourists may agree. Even at the height of urbanisation – there is hardly a “village” worthy of the definition in Kerala any more – the state still manages to maintain its green image. I have posted below a random sample from my “vacation” photographs to illustrate the point (one gets to appreciate all the more, gazing on concrete and desert sand for eleven months of the year).




However, the state has very few avenues for making a living for its highly educated population: there are very few industries and very little infrastructure. For making a living, most Malayalis are forced to go out. The separation is thus not entirely a matter of choice. Also, the rapid pace of urbanisation – even though heartily embraced by the people – does not prevent them from remembering a past when everything was blissful.

This futile longing for a lost golden age and paradise – a sort of Atlantis of memory – defines much of Malayalam popular art, literature and culture. It is doubtful whether it ever existed: it may be as mythical as Thomas Hardy’s Wessex. But that is not relevant. In the realm of the spirit, mythical truth is more powerful than mundane reality.

Our most famous festival, Onam, is in the memory of a golden era when Kerala was ruled by the mythical king Mahabali (this could only be a later interpolation – because according to another myth, Kerala came out of the sea when Parasurama, an incarnation of Vishnu, threw his axe from Gokarna in the north to Kanyakumari in the south – and Bali predates Parasurama in mythical chronology). In the actual myth, Mahabali was an Asura king who has defeated all the Devas, and was tricked by Lord Vishnu in the guise of a dwarf Brahmin (“Vamana”) into giving up his kingdom. However, because Bali was just and devout, Vishnu set him up as the ruler of a region called Sutala.

In the Kerala version of the myth, Mahabali (or “Maveli”, as we Malayalis call him) was the ruler of Kerala. He was the quintessential perfect monarch: popular ballads sing about his reign when all people were equal, there were no deceit and trickery, and people never told lies. Vishnu as Vamana kicked this kind ruler down to the netherworld (“Patalam”) where he lives now: however, the god granted him one boon. Every year he could return to visit his people on Onam day. So to keep the monarch happy, the people of Kerala make a great show of prosperity with splendour and feasting (even if one is living in abject poverty), so that Maveli goes back satisfied that all is well.

Maveli is the original expatriate from Kerala, pining eternally for a homeland he can never come back to.

We celebrate Onam with great gusto wherever in the world we are. In the Middle East, this has become the festival of the Great Nostalgia: in effect, we all share part of King Maveli’s angst.

O.N.V was right – even if the longing is futile, we will still do it.

It is such a sweet pain.

Childhood Memories of Reading (Part IV)

My reading started with comic books.

There were not many available in those days in India. The most popular publishing houses were Gold Key, Indrajal Comics, Harvey Comics and the Classics Illustrated Junior series: and later on, Amar Chitra Katha. Gold Key published all the American favourites: Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Tom & Jerry, Woody Woodpecker, Bugs Bunny, Yogi Bear et al. Indrajal comics brought us Mandrake the Magician and the Phantom. Amar Chitra Katha was Anant Pai/ Mohandas team’s answer to Western comics, to teach Indian children their own heritage through a familiar medium, dealing mostly with Indian history, mythology and legends: even though the art and narration sucked in the beginning, it soon became much more professional.

The very first book I remember reading (and I still own it!) is a Donald Duck story where “Unca” Donald and his nephews Huey, Dewey and Louie go in search of the legendary pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, sent on the mission by Donald’s billionaire uncle Scrooge McDuck. Scrooge’s arch nemesis, the witch Magica De Spell is also after the booty which complicates matters.

From the first read onwards, I was a confirmed fan of the bad-tempered, cowardly, boastful Donald – on hindsight, I guess there’s something inherently endearing in his flawed personality which is not present in Mickey Mouse, who is a hero all through. I was never a great fan of Mickey – though I liked Goofy. Donald fails by pretending to be something he is not, while Goofy accepts his idiocy and always falls on his feet somehow.

But the one which takes the cake from the entire Disney pantheon is Uncle Scrooge, in my opinion: the miserly billionaire without a single saving grace, but one can’t help admire his financial acumen. The biggest disappointment of Scrooge McDuck’s life is his “idiot nephew” who refuses to change his wastrel nature. The most enjoyable stories are where Donald, Scrooge and Donald’s super-clever nephews all star – their contrasting personalities always guarantee great stories.

I loved all of Walt Disney’s creations – Donald, Mickey, Goofy, Scrooge, Pluto, Daisy, Minnie, Grandma Duck, Gladstone Gander, Gyro Gearloose, the Beagle Boys, Chip n’ Dale, Scamp… the list is nearly endless. I used to get them at the old Pai & Company bookstore at Broadway in Ernakulam, and the Higginbotham’s stalls at railway stations – the books were cheap, even by the standards of those days (each costing a rupee or less). I can still recall the smell and feel the glossy covers, with the “Gold Key” emblem (the publisher) in the corner – oh, the sweet smell of nostalgia!

Apart from Disney, Gold Key published many other famous cartoons. Tom & Jerry, Woody Woodpecker, the Warner Brothers cartoons like Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Tweety & Sylvester et al and the numerous cartoons by the prolific Hanna-Barbera team: Yogi Bear, Huckleberry Hound, The Flintstones, The Jetsons, Beep Beep the Roadrunner, Magilla Gorilla… I liked them all, even though not as much as the Disney favourites.




Of these, Tom & Jerry in book form were nowhere near as funny as the animated series. Woody was a pale reflection of Donald. I liked the Warner Brothers team better, especially Bugs and Elmer Fudd. Also, I remember Yogi fondly; and the Flintstones had an interesting premise, a Stone Age community living like a modern-day neighbourhood of America: with everything including the TV and the car built out of stones and with a dinosaur for a pet. The Road Runner stories had much more meat in comic book form than the animated shorts, with the birds given more personality – but Wile E. Coyote was still the villainous star.

The “Classics Illustrated Junior” published fairy tales. This was where I first encountered all the favourites from Grimm Brothers and Hans Andersen. Now I realise that many of the tales had been doctored to remove parts considered “unsuitable” for children (like the evil queen in Snow White being forced to dance to death in red-hot iron shoes); however, it opened up a whole new world to me, and must have triggered my lifelong interest in myth, legend and fairy stories.


Harvey Comics was totally different. Most of its stories centred around the denizens of Enchanted Forest: Casper the Friendly Ghost, Spooky, the “tuff” ghost who is not so friendly; Wendy, the good little witch and her three horrible aunts; the little devil Hot Stuff et al. Moving away from the woods, there were also the perennial favourites Richie Rich and Sad Sack, and Baby Huey the baby giant. Harvey’s stories were much wilder and full of magical elements than the Gold Key favourites, and surprisingly contained very few animal protagonists. The stories were also much longer.


From these, I “graduated” to the Phantom, Mandrake the Magician and Flash Gordon, published by India’s own publishing house, “Indrajal Comics”. The paper was of a lower quality (mostly newsprint) and the colours were duller than the foreign item, but these stories were really adult! For the first time, I knew what hero worship was as the Phantom bashed up the baddies and left the skull imprint on their jaws, and Mandrake “gestured hypnotically” and knives turned into bananas! (For a long time, I thought mass hypnotism was possible.) Also, these stories featured violence and death, and skirted playfully around sex –which was exciting for an adolescent. Diana Palmer and Princess Narda were my first crushes.


Last but not least, there were the Amar Chitra Katha books, which introduced me to Indian history. The mythology they published was rather well known to me – however, later on, I came to appreciate the minute details and unknown stories they unearthed from our culture. The language was very ponderous, though!


I still have many of these books – about 20+ bound volumes, very much treasured. And I still read them once in a while, on lazy afternoons… when the years slip away, and once again I am in that ageless garden of childhood.

[Image courtesy: www.mycomicshop.com and www.comicvine.com ]

Enid Blyton (Childhood Memories of Reading, Part III)

I still cannot remember exactly when I discovered Enid Blyton.  My recollections starts with those wonderful stories of pixies, brownies, goblins, gnomes, trolls and fairies; sometimes living in a world of their own, sometimes co-inhabiting an idyllic English countryside alongside nice and naughty boys and girls.

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Also, long before Toy Story, there were her toy stories where Teddy Bears and Golliwogs regularly came to life at night and had exciting adventures in the nursery.

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Noddy was a perennial favourite (though I did not read much of his stories).  Also, there was a character called a Golliwog in almost all the tales.  I could not understand what this strange being was supposed to be, but I was fascinated by him (this negative racial stereotype of an African has long since disappeared from children’s books and toy shelves, but I still miss him).

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The book I first remember in its entirety, however, is The Book of Brownies.  The old hard-bound copy I got from the Thrissur public library was almost falling apart: yet the yellowed pages had the magical musty smell of old books, and the old-fashioned illustrations inside were fascinating, of the brownies with their conical caps and long ears and noses.  It also helped that I had read this story in Malayalam as a serialised children’s novel in Mathrubhoomi Weekly – the brownies had been changed to children in that version.

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This is a full length novel of three brownies (Hop, Skip and Jump) who become unwitting accomplices of a witch’s plot to steal the Princess.  The King does not believe they are innocent, however; they are banished until they can locate and bring back their ‘goodness’ (since they exclaimed “Oh my goodness!” when the Princess was spirited away – and according to the King, they don’t have any, only badness!).  The brownies know that this is next to impossible, so they begin their journey with the idea of rescuing the Princess.  What follows is the story of their quest, told in episodic format.

And what a quest!  The parts I remember well are the magic cottage without a door; the land of very clever people where you have to speak only in rhyme; the witch (or ogress? – I don’t remember) who can be killed only by speaking a very long word without pause – and the ‘goodness’ bottles, representing the goodness in one.  How Hop, Skip and Jump win and lose, and win by losing, make up a fascinating children’s tale.  No wonder it is a classic.

Then I started buying books – the library was not enough to supplement my voracious appetite.  Most of the money I got for my birthday, for Vishu and Onam (I had started requesting people to give me Onappudava as cash by then, so I could buy books with it, rather than dresses!) went for books, most of them authored by Enid Blyton.  Those days, the cheap ‘Armada’ editions of most of her novels cost twenty to twenty-five pence each.  One penny was equivalent to twenty paise then, which meant a novel cost 4 – 5 rupees.  Since my stash usually amounted to twenty-five rupees, this meant 5 – 6 books at least.

The books had very bad binding, and most of the pages were falling out soon; but they were a treasured possession.  I still have them, and I have used the same covers as the copies I have in this article.  It was a great pleasure to see my son reading the same books, after a gap of nearly forty years!

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I think the first books I purchased were the “Secret” series, the “Adventure” series and the “Mystery” series.  Of these, the first two were more or less of the same mould – a group of children, two boys and two girls having fantastic adventures in outlandish places.  The “Mystery” series with the “Five Find-Outers and Buster the Dog” were somewhat different in the sense that they were traditional mysteries with a surprise at the end.  I had a special soft corner for this series because of lead protagonist, Fatty, was a fat uncouth youngster like me.  Many of those mysteries, in hindsight, were awfully easy to see through; however, they were mystifying enough for a pre-teen.

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These followed the so-called “Barney Mysteries” (I came to know the name only now), the gang of children slightly different by the addition of the delightfully infuriating orphan “Snubby” and the gypsy boy Barney and his monkey Miranda.  Then of course, came The Secret Seven and The Famous Five.

The composition of Blyton’s children’s gang is remarkably standardised: of the two boys, one will be slightly more of a “he-man” type than the other; one of the girls will be a wilting flower, a real “girly-girl” type, the other more bold (the extreme case being Georgina – “George” – in The Famous Five).  Sometimes, there will a gypsy child and last but not the least, a pet of some kind – most often a dog.  These pets stole the show, actually Jack’s parrot Kiki in the Valley series and Timmy the dog in Famous Five.

There were also the family stories, which I read later.  Looking back, I see these to be cloyingly sentimental, like a seventies movie and full of dated middle-class values – but I loved them.  Some of them, like The Six Bad Boys, The Family at Red Roofs and House-at-the-Corner still bring a lump to my throat in remembrance of the emotions they aroused in me at the time.

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Probably the last set of Blyton novels which I read before I outgrew her were the “Circus” series.  These were different from the other stories.  They were centred around the circus run by Mr. Galliano, and narrated the tale of Jimmy and Lotta and the circus animals.  Needless to say, now I understand that the lives of circus members are not so idyllic, especially the animals!

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Recently, Enid Blyton has come under a lot of fire for her racist statements and portrayals and for the supposedly “middle-class” values she perperates.  In England, a nation which celebrates their authors, I found her conspicuous by her absence (except for the odd “Noddy” statue here and there). Also, her second daughter has written a book which portrays her as not a very benevolent mother or a good wife – see the Wikipedia article (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enid_Blyton).  I also understand that her books are being removed from school libraries or “sanitised” to make them suitable for our politically correct society.  However, I read Blyton in the simple ages before such concerns were very important – and I am thankful that I could enjoy her books for what they were: thumping good tales for children.

Childhood Memories of Reading (Part II)

Well… those detective novels.

The first name that comes to my mind is Neelakantan Paramara, since I discovered Kottayam Pushpanath much later.  Paramara was a popular author even during my mother’s childhood: unlike other famous detective novels of the time, which as I said earlier were plagiarised from English novels, he wrote original novels.  His popular detective was Bhaskar, who used walk about the Ernakulam streets in a “bush coat” and “felt hat”, smoking a cigarette!  (Can you imagine this happening in the seventies?)  The immediate image that comes to my mind, when I visualise Detective Bhaskar, is this:

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Yes, good ol’ Prem Nazir in detective guise.

This “international uniform of the C.I.Ds” (quoting Sreenivasan from Pattana Pravesam) is derived from the hard-boiled private-eye movies of Hollywood: what is normal there becomes laughably comic while transplanted to Kerala soil.  However, I found nothing strange in this and for quite a long time, thought this was how detectives dressed.

Paramara’s novels had fantastic names (“Pathalagruhathile Dhoomakethu” – The Comet from the Nether Dwelling; “Manthrakkinattile Sundari” – The Beauty from the Enchanted Well; etc.) and even more fantastic premises (in one story, the criminal gang used corpses animated by batteries to kidnap girls!).  I remember there was always a secret gang, located in some inaccessible place (again, a staple of Malayalam movie thrillers), and the gang leader would be totally unsuspected till the end of the novel in true whodunit tradition.  Paramara also had an obsession with sex, which I can analyse with hindsight: there were always girls with “thighs like slabs of butter” in the gang hideaway, and the villains would always be “fondling the girls around the waist”… yes, yes, I know, there was much less censorship of what kids read in those days.

Kottayam Pushpanath, whom I discovered in middle school, was more ambitious and international in his approach.  He had two detectives, one national and one international: Detective Pushparaj and Marxin.  Pushparaj tussled with baddies in Kerala and the rest of India, while Marxin’s arena was mostly in the Carpathian mountains – and he used to meet Dracula quite frequently.  For the famous vampire came to life again and again in Pushpanath’s novels, till one had a doubt whether he was borrowing from Bram Stoker or vice versa!

(I still remember one of Pushpanath’s novels [Hotel Seiko] set in Cochin, where people who took rooms in the hotel just disappeared.  Ultimately it works out that the manager is feeding them a secret poison which makes them shrink into nothing!  The clue which sets the detective on the correct path is a brassiere, left by a young woman, with the hooks still fastened which proves that she disappeared while wearing it!  Talk about science fiction scenarios.)

I think all these detectives borrowed equal parts from the classic English sleuth and James Bond.

Childhood Memories of Reading (Part I)

I have been reading ever since I can remember – books were the main pleasure of my life.  In a childhood spent in the absence of TV, video and computers, books and the occasional movie were the “time pass” for a non-athletic boy severely lacking in physical intelligence and the social graces.  Thankfully, I had an educated and liberal family filled with readers.  Books were available without restriction.  The literary journal Mathrubhoomi, filled with articles, stories and poems by the great writers of Malayalam, arrived weekly on the doorstep.  It had a children’s section edited by “Kuttettan” (the poet Kunjunni), aimed at budding readers and writers, which was eagerly consumed by myself the moment I got the magazine in hand.  I also used to stare at the beautiful illustrations by the famous artist Nampoothiri, drawn for the serialised novels – now I realise that most of those novels were later award-winners (Khasakkinte Ithihaasam, Mayyazhippuzhayude Theerangalil, etc.)

But the real treat came during the summer vacations spent in my ancestral home at Thrissur.  This is a huge house (still very much existing!) filled with cavernous rooms exuding the musty and mysterious smell of old dwellings.  Apart from the vacation pleasures of the Vishu festival, the famous “Thrissur Pooram” and the attendant festivities, it meant to me two months uninterrupted reading, unspoilt by the need to mug up boring text books.  I would spend the major part of the day reading – in my bed; in the drawing room after dinner when the family was chatting, oblivious to them all; even up a tree!  It was absolute bliss.

There is an “Exhibition” in connection with the Pooram festival: several visits to this event was a must.  In those days, the Soviet Union was very much a live entity, and the exhibition invariably had a stall for “Prabhat Book House”, the authorised publishers of Soviet books in India.  This stall was virtually a treasure trove for me: one used to get beautiful illustrated books of Russian fairy tales, printed on glossy paper in beautiful colours, for throwaway prices.  This was my first introduction to the magical world of fairy stories – I still remember them, along with the taste of popcorn I used to buy from another stall alongside.

Another memory is of the “detective novels” (as we used to call mysteries, in Malayalam) I graduated to from the picture books.  There used to be an old unused building in our compound where a lot of this category of old books, leftovers from my grandmother’s, mother’s and aunts’ childhoods, were kept.  These were kept in a dark room, and there was the weekly ritual of going to collect books to read (an adult always accompanied me).  I still remember the thrill of anticipation as the room was opened and the musty smell of old books hit me – the feeling was almost religious, that of entering the sanctum sanctorum of a temple.  The novels were stacked on the floor.  Most of them were very old so that the pages tore at the slightest hint of rough use; there was also the scourge of old buildings – termites – so that many pages were eaten away, and piecing together the story was itself the job for a detective!  Still I loved these pulp novels, many of them plagiarised English mysteries (Sherlock Holmes changed to “Swarloka Hamsan” – you get the picture!) and some of them original though with highly improbable plot lines.  The authors were extremely popular writers of that era (Kottayam Pushpanath, Neelakantan Paramara etc.), to a populace that was still largely ignorant of Agatha Christie and Conan Doyle.

The library is also another fond memory.  The Public Library of Thrissur is housed in the Town Hall, an old building with vaulted ceilings and huge bay windows.  The walls are fitted with shelves, thickly lined with old books bound in paper and leather.  The afternoons spent there were heavenly – dreaming with a book open in my lap, looking at the dust motes dancing in the late afternoon sunlight slanting in through the windows.  I made my first acquaintance of Enid Blyton there, an acquaintance which was to stay with me right through to my early teens until I discovered Agatha Christie and the Hardy Boys.

(To be continued…)