Friday, June 21, 2013

Childhood Memories from Western Ghats of 1940s and 1950s

My Amma was very fortunate to grow up in the pristine Melenadu (Western Ghats) area of Karnataka, during the 1940s and 1950s. And whenever we had long chats after dinner, she would recollect her childhood. This blog will detail four such memories, organized in 4 putas (pages). I had written these a few years ago, and thought will share with my new online friends here.

Longish post, but written for those who want to enjoy reading about nature, and life in a small south Indian village during India's independence time. It's a good change from the routine politics and current affairs that we overload our brains with. The funny part here was that the folks in these stories had no idea that India gained  independence, even by September or October of 1947! Such was their remoteness and disconnect from what was happening in the rest of India.

PuTa 1: Rain Rain.. Please go away!

Our teenage girl had begun her high school stint. In those days post independence, sending girls to high school was a big No-No in villages of MalenADu (ma-le = hilly, nADu = land). After completing 4 years of primary school and another 4 years of middle school, she was probably the 4th girl in her entire village to go to high school...better, she was the first girl in her village to wear slippers.. truly from a rare trend setting family.

Her village was a typical male-nADu type, about 30 minutes walk from her school in Sringeri small town. Being a famous seat of Hindu religion associated with Adi Shankara, there was no death of religious/orthodox people in these hilly regions. Her district board high school was supposed to close at 4.30, but that day, rains started lashing out early. As the school got closed early, Seetha headed home holding her umbrella with girl friend Saroja. Two school boys walked in front as usual.

These kids were not strangers to rain as it used to rain 4 to 6 months in these regions of western ghats. But that day was really bad. The haLLa (small stream) joining Tunga river, had to be crossed to get to their village. The stream was overflowing with rapid surge and roaring sound. The only sAra (bridge) to cross the stream, that is 30 feet in depth had been flooded.

Just to show a tree bridge example.
Their only chance of getting home was to walk over a baggu-halasu (bent Jack fruit tree) branch, spanning 12 feet at the narrowest point of the stream. Subbaraya and Yashwant, the two boys walked over to the other side bravely. But our girls are afraid. They just couldn't see the roaring, red, stream below..forget bringing out courage to walk over it in lashing rain. How could we cross holding school bag made of gunny threads, an umbrella? How can we do the balancing act of walking over a slippery branch? Seeing their pathetic plight, Subbaraya climbed back up the branch, gave his folded umbrella's end and asked Seetha to walk straight towards him, without looking down. Shivering & with her heart in her mouth, she walked one step at a time, not looking down at apparent one-slip-death! Every step was torturous & life threatening. Finally she made it to the other end, soon followed by her girl friend.. Ufff.. a rainy day to remember for life! Every step brought her memories of her mom as that could have been the last step :(

Nine years before that, Indian independence was almost on cards. Our 5 year old girl was admitted to a British setup government primary school, on the backyard of Shiva PArvati temple near her village. Those were days when there was no kindergartens or play homes. They played at home.. literally! Her sister, 4 years elder to her dragged this reluctant kid to school. But our rANi (queen) promptly ran back to house within an hour to her mom's cozy lap. It happened a few days and finally they left hope for that year. One more year with dear mommy! :)

But the next school year, her luck wasn't that good. She was escorted to school by not just her elder sister, but sisters' classmates too. Some days even the village teacher used to take her to school with nice words. It was a torture for our girl to get away from her comfort zone at home. Her home was a big one, right on the banks of river Tunga. Her elder brothers had grown tarkAri (vegetable) right in the backyard for fresh produce every day. Lots of kinds of flowers & fruits to pluck from.. 4 big milk cows and a few calves with each having a typical village female names - BangAri, PuTkALi, MangaLagowri and Lakshmi. Her favorites were sampige/champak flower and halasu (jack) fruit trees. Her attige (sister in law) was very caring type. It's understandable that she had difficulty to go to 'boring' school from such a wonderful homely setting.. but she had to go. She had no clue about independence or a drastic change in country's political setup during her 6th year.. for that matter, most people including her teacher were quite ignorant on what's happening in rest of this vast, big country. They didn't even know about the gory bloodshed on India's newly created borders with millions losing lives. This was even before the first radio came to their village. Someone told the teacher after a few months since independence that, they had to stop flying Union Jack. Instead she remembers they started flying Mysore MahArAja's greenish flag in school with anthem praising the MahArAja. Mahatma Gandhi might have been renowned world over, but in these obscure villages near Sringeri, he wasn't very popular. They heard more about Gandhi's stay in TB (Traveller's bunglow) in Sringeri a few years back, where there was an offer of Rupees 5, a big amount in those days, to anyone who eats lunch with holayas (dalits/untouchables). Being in an orthodox setup, villagers were not thrilled hearing this as their village boys went to collect five free rupees because of Gandhi's stay! Other than that, they hardly knew anything about 'company sarkAra' (British government) or Gandhi's massive independence struggle :( Talk about real remoteness.

During her 4th standard, she was taught a famous poem giving hero status to raitas (farmers). It was written by rAstrakavi (national poet) Kuvempu. On her way to school each day, she walked along the banks of Tunga river. On the banks, hard working farmers used to grow paddy crops. She loved that splendid poem which was made into a movie song decades afterwards... uLuva yOgiya nODalli (see that cultivating sage)..

Even today, she remembers those best days of her life with views of farmers, green paddy fields, people crossing Tunga river on small boats and basically the magnificent scenary of western ghats

puTa 2: Darshan (Sighting) of huli rAya (majestic Tiger)

Our heroine must have been 9 or 10 year old... but the memories of this page are etched in her memory forever. She only wishes today's kids growing up in concrete jungles had such a 'wild' childhood  :)

It all started one day with an invitation to travel to TeethahaLLi for a shrAdha (death ceremony) of her father's relative. Of course, being the middle of 20th century still, much before the hustle bustle of city life in later years, most of the family members could take off a few days and get to the family event. A bus ride from Sringeri to TeerthahaLLi and then the rituals of a death ceremony, in a traditional malenADu way got over.

But they had one other item to their itinerary before heading home. As you can guess, it does get interesting here.

There was another village MuttaLLi (muttu = pearl; haLLi = village), about 6 miles away, but through very thick *real* MalenADu jungles. These are real tropical forests with tall thick trees of many kind - rose wood, teak wood, jackfruit trees, honne, saala and many other giant types. There were a few precious Sri Gandha (sandal wood) trees also, both black and white varieties. Tremendous variety of flowers. Nightqueen (rAtri rANi) kind of evergreen shrub flowers, sent out their immensely strong scents throughout the path. Since they could only leave the originating village after eating lunch in the afternoon, they decided to leave just after dark. It's a good 6 to 7 hours of walk through the forest and they had experience. They had to travel that evening/night since the next function was early morning at the destination.

So there enters our familiar village setup of those thick tropical forests... the beloved ettina gADi (bullock cart). Two magnificent, well fed, blackish brown, tall & muscular ettus (bullocks) were fed huraLi (beans) through the afternoon.

The group had Seetha and her two sisters, mother and a couple of other womenfolk riding within the kamAnu (arch) of the gADi. They had a small cover in the front as well as back. A male driver holding the strings. A group of male passengers walking in the front with their panjus (primitive open lanterns) in their right hand, with left hand holding a container of oil to pour regularly. Another group of males are going to follow the gADi from the back side, holding torch lights of those days with big sticks in their hand.

So started the 'memorable' journey at sunset. The only problem other than the exhuberance & jubilation of piercing through a thick *real* forest is the *real* wild life! Yes, they had many kinds of hAvus (snakes) to begin with. Leaving aside others down the chain, their biggest dreading was of course the king of these jungles.. huli rAya (king Tiger). Our girl had heard stories of people sighting tigers, but you can just imagine the goosebumps & elevated adrenaline levels of a 9 or 10 year old when she knows that she will have a *real* chance of seeing one that night.. that too in wild as they knew nothing about zoos in those days.

A couple of miles elapsed. There are how-haas being shouted in rhythm by walking menfolk.. our girls & their elders inside the arch of the gADi are singing stuff, talking or just listening to the silence of the forest being pierced by the gejje (ankle chain) of the majestic bullocks.

Suddenly the driver senses that something is wrong..Can't describe the nervous panic of our girl just seeing the uneasy driver. His ettus (bullocks) are behaving strangely. One is panicking left & right while the other is reluctant to move further. Suddenly the ride becomes very bumpy. Someone walking in the back figures out due to experience. Hey.. the bullocks must have smelled tiger!! Oh.. boy. that's not easy to control. These are massive 500 KG+ bullocks and if they run helter shelter in panic, one can only imagine what would happen to our heroine & her co-passengers. They tell the driver to calm the beasts down.. and he does it very well with some help from others. He calls out their names, feeds them some food, massages them, talks to them and it does seem to help a bit. But still they are very panicky. Just then, the front group starts to shout loud & with all sorts of tongue noises...dbllllll dblllllll dbllllll.. Start waving their panjus (lanterns) in a pattern. The prior group starts beating the sticks loudly on the ground creating more *music*.

The reality is that no one knows where the tiger is.. if at all there is a tiger around. Where would you find out in such a thick forest where just a bullock cart path is the widest highway available?

Someone did use their brain in such a situation. They asked the back group to start looking around with their battery powered torches. Then comes the predicted loud shout.. look left.. allidE.. allidE.. (THERE IT IS) !! Needless to say, everyone but the driver looked at that direction, while the driver is busy shielding his massive beasts from the sight.

Our queen looked with heart in her mouth, tightly holding her sisters & amma, from the backside of the arch of the vehicle... Giving her a glimpse of his majestic walking style, was the *real* huli rAya.. our king of the jungle. He was out of their sight within seconds, much faster than anyone's goosebumps subsided! They say tigers can't see bright light as it's too torturous for them.. so he might have just walked away cursing the men from spoiling his tasty 'burger' meal catch attempt ;)

No one remembers anything beyond that in clarity. They did reach MuttaLLi by early morning, ready to tell the whole village about their adventure.. after all there are not many nights where you walk through a thick tropical jungle & have a sighting of huli rAya. The amazing part is that even after nearly 6 decades, the story still gets circulated as though it was yesterday night... we city bred 'unfortunate' ones will have to just listen. Me wonders.. what are the odds today for any one of the 6.5 billion humans to sight one of 5000 to 7000 tigers remaining on this planet.. that too in wild.. that too crossing your path in the middle of night? :(

Who knows? Maybe 2 to 3 generations down in 21st century, these tiger sightings may just be a folkfare.. permanently limited to stories :( She hopes not and me too! 

puTa 3: The untold story of the Shankaracharya

Over 5 and half decades later, in Hyderabad, one of her childhood friend's younger sister comes to meet all the way from Warangal. She also brings her husband, brother and sister in law. Four of them speak KannaDa, with the lone professor husband of that Warangal lady trying to just be in listening/absorbing mode. So I joined them late in the night, trying to involve that gentleman with a mix of Hindi & English, so that he can join the conversation. A few minutes into the discussion of the 1000 pillar temple of Warangal, suddenly I hear something that I don't recall hearing before. Slowly the setting shifts to 1950s Sringeri and over the next 30 to 45 minutes details come out, amidst snacks & fruits that my wife started to bring frequently. Obviously with my theoretical interest in stuff like Shankaracharyas, yOga & praANayAma, I got hooked. My mother has special appreciation to that brother from Hyderabad & sister from Warangal combo as both have accomplished a lot today. But she knows that things weren't that good decades back when their father had lost his father early. She vaguely recalls her mother telling her about occasionally feeding that shy boy and how things started unfolding for better later in his family.

It was 1954.. MahAlaya amAvAsya day near Navaratri time. A very auspicious day for a town where the chief attraction is Goddess ShArada/Saraswati. Navaratri, or 9 days of celebration is the time where thousands turn up in religious & cultural fervor. But this time things were destined to be different. She must have been knocking on doors of her teenage. Early morning, the girl comes out as usual rubbing her eyes, looking for dear mommy. She does sense quickly that things are not normal. There is no trademark home made filter coffee aroma. Both her parents as well as scores of others are outside the home, busy speculating & talking and some even crying. Over the next few minutes, she finds out that the world around these small villages have collapsed.. at least figuratively speaking. Their beloved Shankaracharya Chandrashekara Bharati swamy is no more. All she hears is jala samAdhi (intentional departure via water) at the brahmi muhurtha (4.30 AM).

It takes a little more time for the whole story to sink into her young brain. It must have been tough for a girl to understand death itself, but this was a special case of a very popular holy man, that too in an unusual way. Seems like the swamy in his 60s was losing interest with loukika (material/physical) world for a few years now. Those close to him, with her own father included, knew this not-so-secret stuff. Obviously those around the Swamy were carefully watching him. That day, just like any other day, he went with his assistant Mahabala BhaTTa to Tunga river for bath. Water levels & force was still very good even after peak rainy season. But this particular dip for the Guru was different as he didn't come up at all. It is said that he left his breath in a prANayAma method inside the water. Sensing that something is not right, Mahabala panicked. To make things worse, he wasn't a swimmer. Still, somehow he dove inside and held his guru's leg.. but couldn't pull the body out for obvious reasons. Tunga's water has it's own rules. Predictably both him and his guru were moved by slow floods. He is catching for breath, screaming 'kApADi.. kApADi' (help.. help), but not leaving his guru's leg. By that time, the water is pulling them near a local RSS shakha (branch). One of the early morning exercising RSS local chief, KEshavAchAri jumps into the water. Catching hold of MahAbala he shouts.. leave the soude (wooden log). To his shock, Mahabala is blabbering, not soude, but gurugaLu (his holyness). After a bit of struggle the RSS folks bring both bodies to the shore. Mahabala was barely breathing after having gulped lots of water, while the guru's prANa pakshi (vital breath) had flied out. Somehow after KEshavAchAri makes guru's disciple speak a bit, he learns what happened and rushes to the maTha (temple office). Bad news always wins the race against any good news. Right? It doesn't take much time for the news to make rounds.

Over the next couple of hours, predictable things happen. The body of his holiness is brought in. MahAbala survives. The full story unfolds and he does get a lot of praising for trying so much. The next ShankarAchArya Shri Abhinava Vidya TIrtha was already crowned a few years back, but now gets a rough start to his tenure. Holding his immense grief, he handled the situation well, personally praising MahAbala BhaTTa's brave efforts. Sringeri's main chowki (square) held that body of the elder ShankarAchArya for public darshan (viewing). All temples got closed. Hundreds and then thousands started coming by the time golden palanquin was taking out the procession. Nothing surprising about the weather there as rain started pouring.

By afternoon, the guru's remains were put to samAdhi/full rest with vEda ghosha (chanting).

By the time I absorbed what happened by asking small questions this elderly group, I had already eaten a couple of plates of bajji (fried potato snack), sweets, fruit pieces and was surely going to miss my dinner. But neither my mother nor me would forget that eventful early morning's story, just before navarAtri, long long time back! I was like.. why would an 'all knowing' spiritual leader do this? (I don't have soft corners for suicide)

Maybe he knew the purpose of his life and he reached that point... but still.. could he? I still can't get it, but that doesn't change the sadder expression on the faces of these elderly group, late in the night in a distant Hyderabad. slowly I accompany everyone to the lift door and it took a lot more time to call it a night as my mind was doing it's circus trying to piece the spiritual aspects of what I just heard! The more amazing thing for me was how these elderly folks still felt sad 55 years later, just like how they would have felt at that time.. genuine sad expression! 

puTa 4: MalenADina mane (A MalnAD house)

I always have this fascination towards village houses, particularly the ones next to rivers, amidst thick jungles, having plenty of trees/flowers in the back yard, where a big family lived 'happily ever after'.. ok.. just 'happily' for the time being. So I asked my Amma.. How big was your house, where did you sleep? what did you eat?

She started recalling & even drawing on the paper to explain me. For someone like me who grew up in mostly 200 to 300 sq. ft homes in crowded corners of BengaLUru, with shared toilets with multiple houses, these massive houses, yards, trees, river etc. sound like fairy tales! So here goes one.. a real tale, but in a slight hurry.

The house she grew up was a typical Kai henchu (hand made small village tiles, horse shoe shaped) old house. Something close to the one above, minus coconut/palm trees. Once you enter from the street, there are 4 steps after the small wooden gate. There was of course a kaDakaTTu (primitive compound) around the gate. Once you climb the small steps, you hit a jagali (front altar). For those familiar with village life, people laze around this altar during evenings.

From then you get the main door with rangOli (drawn every day) in front on the ground and tOraNa (decoration made off mango leaves) on top. Once you get past the main door, you will see a big chowki/inner square, nearly 25' by 30'. This could easily seat about 60 people for functions. This chowki is surrounding the central angaLa (aangan/inner court yard) with tuLasi (basil) plant in a movable container. This was the age of conducting marriage & other functions inside the home itself. This angaLa has seen plenty of marriages, naming ceremonies and other festivities. Her elder sister was destined to be married right there too. Two bedrooms in that angaLa's corner, but the chowki was basically an area left for resting, functions, socializing and even sleeping during hot days or for guests. Her father used to sleep in the corner bedroom while her elder brother (used to call aNNayya and her sister-in-law used to take up the second bedroom. Note that the top of angaLa was open, so they even had drainage for rains. One other corner had uyyale (swing) and a huge khaNaja (barn) to store 1 year's worth of paddy (rice with skin intact). yeah one year's worth!

Now from angaLa, if you climb up 3 steps back to chowki, you get to naDumane (main hall) and other rooms from the central door. This whole area is the next extension of the house. On the left, you see a big hall (naDumane). Hall was also used by girls as bedroom during night, when they used to sleep next to each others. On the right side of the passage, you get a huge main kitchen. This had enough seating for 15 people to eat together, on the floor of course, in lines. They had 2 huge stoves, village style, with burning logs at the bottom. A corner had a ENi (ladder) to climb up for storage material. They even used that for drying cloths & storing cattle's food. In these villages, they didn't have a separate pUja room. They constructed a small devara mane (pUja room) inside the main Kitchen, fully complete with a small door. The tradition was that.. close the pUja room door and then eat food. Her mom used to serve all the family members before she started her food. Unbelievable dedication for her family! No one touched the food till the head of the household started & said 'kutkolrO' (start). No chance of criticizing the taste, no 'smart' talk. Just eat & walk out.:(

Back to the central corridor, on the left side, next to main hall, there was a small kitchen. Being a traditional orthodox family, they had to cook in the small kitchen when cooking without maDi (after bath, wearing clean semi-wet cloths). So when the kids used to go to school in the morning, their tiffin (breakfast) was cooked in the small kitchen. Consumption of breakfast was usually in naDumane. There was also a space in the small kitchen for throwing bALe ele (plantain leaves) that they used to eat food upon.

Then back to main corridor.. proceed 3 steps down to the next extension of the house. This is another big angaLa (second yard) for utilities. Washing cloths, vessels etc., that too mostly during rainy season. For rest of the year, they used to open the backdoor to go to hoLe (river stream) for washing & cleaning.

Walk out of the back angaLa, they had a huge bathroom on the left side. It had a hanDe (primitive water boiler) with big space below for putting wooden logs to burn. Beside the bathroom, they had a big koTTige (cow shed) where all their favorite cows & calves were stationed. kALi, sOmi, puTTakALi, Lakshmi, Gowri, Seetha, bangAri were some names of the cows & calves. The best part she remembers is that the entire village used to let their cattle to go out for grazing at 8 in the morning. No human actually accompanied them. Before sunset, they were actually home, with full stomach, standing right in front of their koTTige door (external door). Remember, they knew what time tigers start roaming in their grazing area, so they were home around 5, not to take a chance. Once let in, they used to stand in their respective gooTa (space) asking to be tied with rope! Of course, they tied the calves separately so that there is enough milk in the morning for the family. The cattle also had a kallu bAni (stone water tank) in front of the house. Every morning, Seetha & sisters filled 16 bindige (round container) water.. This was free drinking hole for any cow in the village with occasional refills during hot days.

Amazing animal discipline each & every day! Except one night.. when one particular gabba (pregnant) cow didn't return. Seetha's mom was worried & asked some villager to go look for the cow. To their relief, he did return with both the cow & it's newborn, which was struggling to walk! It was reward time not to mention for both the household & the villager.

Continuing from the koTTige at the back, climb down 3 steps after hittala bAgilu (back door), you get a walk way. kanakAmbari/crossandra, mallige/jasmine flowers on the right, various soppus/greens on the left, various vegetables like badane kAyi/brinjal, mUlangi/raddish, meNasina kAyi/chillies, haravE soppu/some kind of green for daily cooking. Then the main water hole for the house, bAvi/well was present. This was a shared well for their house and the neighbours. This was one well in the entire village, where water never ceased to exist, even in the middle of summer. Sweet water at around 14 ALa (14 human lengths), to be drawn using rope & rATi (wheel at the top). Seetha, sisters & brothers used to draw water throughout the day and their mom once in a while during afternoon. Talk about home-made exercise which helped them grow taller!  Not only for household folks & cattle, the same water was used for plants too, except rainy season.
Walk amidst gulAbi/rose, Walk past the well, you have a big sampige/champak flower tree. Our heroine used to climb till halfway, but her sister used to climb all the way to the top. Of course, sister also helped our girl to climb down after teasing a bit. Next to it was mandAra flower plants. This was meant for God's worship. Next to it a halasu/jack fruit tree. In fact, one more jack fruit tree before the well too. One was Seetha's & her akka/elder sister took over the other. The best part is that they fed water every single day to grow these jack fruit trees, but in their entire lives, they didn't get to eat a single fruit from these trees! Nature's laws are sometimes strange :( Even today, villagers eat plenty of those tasty jack fruits, which is how things should be in my opinion as we all eat something based off someone else's hard work earlier.

Left to the path, sIbekAyi/guava tree, enough to feed the home with tasty fruits year round. Next to them were spaTika flowers. Then came nEraLe /jambhul fruit tree, chakkota (similar to grapefruit/mUsambi, but much bigger) tree which was a unique feature of the village. Walk past them, finally you get series of curved step way to go to hoLe/river stream. This was the best memory spot as they used to get there for bathing, washing and even playing! During rainy season, they were avoiding the steps due to river overflow.

During heavy rains, the sisters stood near the back door & grazed at the overflowing river.. Panicking, our girls used to ask mommy.. Amma, what happens if the river comes into the backyard? Mom was calm as ever.. Gangamma would go away, if you pray with proper devotion.. no wonder the girls prayed & soon gangamma would recede! 18 years in this house and every single year was a sweet memory, which today's urban born generation would have a very tough time imagining..

Maybe more in the future, if I am in a mood to listen and blog her other stories....