I remember, I remember,
The house where I was born,
The little window where the sun
Came peeping in and morn;
- Thomas Hood
For long, I have been thinking of writing about my childhood days. Somehow, I have been postponing the same. Suddenly I have developed a feeling that it is now or never. So let me make a beginning here.
I am sure that my childhood was somewhat unique in that the culture and day-to-day life in Malnad was altogether different in those days. It is true that we had very poor resources to maintain our day-to-day life. But definitely we had an eventful and even adventurous life.
I have a problem here. I am neither a poet nor a novelist who can describe each event with his own imaginations. My poetic imaginations and capabilities are very much limited. So I may not be able to add colour to any of the scenarios or events by exaggerating the same. But I can do one thing. That is to write the things as they were! I think the God was quite generous to me in giving me this ability to write. To quote the famous Bengali novelist Sharatchandra, "all those who have two legs may be able to walk; but definitely all those who have two hands cannot write!" That is God's gift to me. So let me do justice for the same. I begin by invoking the blessings of the great Sringeri Sharadamba!
I should mention here that my birth itself was not ordinary! It was my maternal uncle who made my birth memorable. This maternal uncle (my mother's cousin) was the sole male member in my mother's large family. He was a handsome young man who had just been married. He was loved by one and all in our family. He visited my house on the day of my birth and told my parents to name me after him! It was quite an unusual request. But considering the seriousness with which this request came, my parents obliged. Believe it or not! Hardly within a few days of my naming ceremony, my maternal uncle passed away on account of a strange sickness leaving behind his young wife as a widow. To this day this matter remains a mystery in my family. Did my uncle have a premonition of his death and wanted me to continue his legacy? This question remains unanswered.
In those days, no hospitals or nurses were involved in the delivery of a child. There used to be this Soolagithi called Puttu. She would visit the house just at the fag end of the pregnancy period of the mother concerned and fix the date of expected delivery well in advance. This visit also served the purpose of morale boosting for the pregnant lady and the family. She would visit the house again at the appropriate time to conduct the delivery. There was not even a single case of loss of child or the mother. Puttu maintained this unbroken record till she stopped this activity on account of her old age. As far as I remember, it always used to be a free delivery! I mean, she never charged a single paisa for her services. People used to some how manage to make her accept some cloth, rice or arecanut to show their affection and gratitude to her. I was also one of the privileged free deliveries of Puttu! As was the tradition in our family, my father personally planted an arecanut tree in our garden to celebrate the birth of me. I am proud to say that this plant is yielding arecanut till today, appears quite strong and is not exhibiting any old age syndromes so far!
I am really not in a position to remember the exact period in my life when my mind started recording the events happening around me. My father was the person with whom I was very close in my childhood days. I used to sleep with him in the same bed and he used to give some "Bayi Patha’ (oral recitation lessons) to me daily. I was made to learn the names of all days in the week, all thithies in a fortnight, all months in the Hindu calendar, all the Samvatsaras, all the Stars (Nakshatras), Ashta Dikpalakas, etc. Before going to sleep I was also made to recite the shloka beginning with "Ramaskandam, Hanumantham, Vynatheyam ...etc." In the morning I was to invariably get up on my right side only. Before commencing our meals in the noon we were to recite the mantra "Annapoorne, Sadapoorne, Shankare Pranavallabhe, etc.” After finishing taking of bath we were to pronounce "Govinda, Govinda" to announce the completion of bathing. My father was very much particular in these matters and permitted no deviations in this routine. In his absence, my eldest brother would ensure the same from me.
My father was my hero in those days. There appeared to be no end to his heroics. The word fear was unknown to him. He was an expert in climbing tall trees. Even during the heavy rains he could climb the tall arecanut trees and spray the chemical mixture to protect the crop. He would jump from one tree to another tree using an instrument called 'dhoti' to pull the trees. He was not afraid of snakes and could kill them with ease. They were regular visitors to our Malnad houses in those days. Of course, he was not supposed to kill serpents as they were supposed to belong to the family of Adisesha. We all knew how to distinguish them from ordinary snakes and black Cobras. They would exhibit their hood prominently and we could find the imprint of Vishnupada on their hood clearly. We were expected to prostrate before them and request them not to harm us and to leave the place peacefully. If any family members saw a dead serpent, the head of the family was supposed to conduct all the rituals of death (SarpaSamskaram). For this, one was supposed to visit Subramanya in South Kanara District. My father had to undertake this on two or three occasions.
We were all afraid of the ghosts in our childhood. We were particularly afraid of this female ghost called Kolli Devva. It was supposed to move around our village in the night carrying some burning sticks in its hands. There was only one way of finding out whether it was a real ghost or otherwise. Its feet used to be invariably turned backwards. We were told that my father was successful in teaching a lesson to this Devva by identifying it correctly at the right time. One particular night my father was returning from Koppa town. It was a dark new moon day. But my father had absolutely no problem in walking in absolute darkness as he had no fear and his eyes were very sharp through the night. This Kolli Devva appeared from nowhere and sought the help of my father in the guise of an old woman. But my father could identify it within no time by seeing the directions of its feet. Any other person would have frozen in absolute fear. But not my father! He snatched the fire sticks from this ghost and threw them on its face! The ghost simply ran away! We heard this story umpteen times from different sources and felt proud of our father every time.
There was another ghost, which had this strange habit of appearing below a Jackfruit tree near our house every night. It would go on howling wildly during a particular time of the night. We children would wake up and start shivering in our beds with fear. My father could not take this nonsense for long. He thought it was high time to teach this ghost a lesson. He decided to give this ghost a taste of its own medicine! One particular night, he went below this jackfruit tree well before this ghost could reach there as he had marked its timings. Believe it or not! He went on howling imitating the voice of the ghost! We were told that the original Devva when it appeared for its usual rounds, found another Devva already in place! Naturally it took to its heels! It never came back revisiting the place. You can imagine how much proud we children used to be about our heroic father.
I vividly remember the only occasion when I came almost face to face with one particular ghost. My eldest brother and myself were on a visit to the house of our mother's maternal uncle. It happened to be another new moon day. Before we went to bed in the night, we were told that there was this ghost on a mango tree near the house. It would come for its usual rounds during the midnight and call out our names loudly. We were supposed to just ignore the call and not to respond to its calls. Hearing this, I started shivering even before we went to the bed. There was another problem. We had to sleep in the Veranda, which had no doors to protect us when the ghost came visiting. As expected, the ghost did come on its rounds as we could make out by its footsteps. Believe it or not, it started calling me by my name! I held on to my brother firmly and started the 'Ramanama Japam' which was a sure recipe for such situations! The ghost had to return empty handed!
Another instrument of fear for us children in those days was the risk of 'Gumma' calling on us! Whenever we gave trouble to our elders, they would warn us that they would call this Gumma! This was a normal threat given to us if we refused to eat or did not stop weeping. We were quite aware of this Gumma as a reality as its howling was heard many a times during the nights. What was worst, we were aware that even the Lord Krishna was afraid of this Gumma! Our elder sisters used to sing this cradlesong composed by the great Purandhara Dasa in which
Krishna fervently begs his mother not to invite this
Gumma! He assures her that he would not be naughty and eat his food regularly
if only his mother does not call this Gumma! You could very well appreciate our
apprehensions on this Gumma as we were after all humans! When I grew up I came
to know that this Gumma was, after all, the harmless bird owl, which had its
vision only at night!
-- (To be continued)--