Sometimes, going with the flow lets life take you down paths undiscovered and throws up delightful, joyful surprises that brings back the child in you all over again.
Travelling to my mother’s home back in a small coastal village in Kerala in the last week of December, I was grumpy and complained incessantly to my sisters; I did not want to get stuck in a house in the middle of nowhere when I actually wanted to poke around stores in shiny malls in my city, that had put up temptations galore during festive time. Which person in their right mind deliberately signs up to being in a place where you have to strategically position yourself under the coconut tree in the farthest corner of the farm, just so you can get the signal to make a phone call?
I am days away from launching a new book and I need to be connected, I hollered but the women in my family are strong and they refused to budge. Time for bonding, my elder sister, who teaches dozens of post grad students in London every year, said in her sternest voice. When big sister talks, you learn to shut up and listen. And I did.
And so, there I was one evening last week, all covered up and my feet up on the chair so that various magnificent but menacing insects that swarmed around in the courtyard of amma’s century old house did not crawl up my leg.. We sat on ancient basket chairs from my grandpa’s time and when the power went off, as it often happens in Eramangalam, we caught our breath in unison at the sight of a million stars twinkling away, peeping through the canopy of mango trees and coconut groves in which the house nestles.
My mother sighed wistfully and talked about her childhood years spent in the rambling old house, with half a dozen cousins and three spinster aunts for company. “I wish I could spend the rest of my life here.” “Don’t be funny. What will you do here all alone?” I asked, and her face fell. “Exactly what you do when you go off and live in strange places, looking for quiet to write your books,” she countered. “I don’t know why you have to pay through your nose when you have this house to write in silence and also destress yourself…”
The topic of writing brought us to another of her favourite subjects: her fascination with iconic Kerala poet and author Madhavikutty, who wrote in English under the name of Kamala Das. The Nalapat family into which Madhavikutty was born lived in their sprawling estate a few kilometres from amma’s house and many of the characters from her books were real people who walked in and out of our own family home. Amma never ceases to marvel at how brilliantly Madhavikutty captured them and her memories of growing up in their ancestral home, in her books.
And thus it was that the next evening amma, I and my very excited elder sister trundled off to visit the Kamala (Surayya) Das memorial . The campus has come up on part of the land where the young girl once wrote hauntingly beautiful poetry and fiction under the influence of her poetess mother, Nalapat Balamani Amma and her grand uncle, Nalapat Narayana Menon, both towering figured in the state’s literary world. Those who read Kamala Das know about her much loved story, ‘Neermathalam Pootha Kalam’ and it was an almost surreal experience as we walked under the tree that evening, admiring the radiant blossoms that inspired her and wandering around the age old serpent grove that stands, even today, in a corner of the estate ,a mute witness to the passage of time and the many ups and downs that the talented, if controversial, daughter of the house experienced during her lifetime.
Almost all of the members of the family have moved from the area but the memorial itself stands on a land donated to the Kerala Sahitya Akademi by her and a staunch follower, K.B. Sukumaran, who bought almost all of the family’s property a few years ago. The Akademi is slowly giving shape to the memorial of the poet author who shared a tumultuous relationship with the land and its people. Malayalis loved the sensitivity with which she wrote and the elegance and fragility of her prose but many of them hated that a woman dared to write openly about her sexuality , her relationships and her thoughts on women and their oppression in the family structure.
Walking into a sun-lit room that housed her possessions that evening, I was like a child who walked into a candy shop. I ran my hands over the pale pink silk of her bed that takes centre stage in the sprawling room, I touched her wooden work table on which she no doubt rested her elbow and wrote furiously as her thoughts poured out passionately. I ran my fingers over the now silent keys of the computer that she used to write in her later years, I marvelled at the collection of photographs of her with other authors and legends that now adorn the white painted walls and I was awed by the collection of her many awards that stand sentinel over the room.
When you go with the flow, life throws up some wonderful surprises. Walking into the campus of the memorial we were taken aback by the number of literary figures, including veteran Malayalam short story writer Vaisakhan who is the current President of the Kerala Sahithya Akademi, who had arrived there before us. During the course of an interesting conversation with the affable writer, my sister and I marvelled at life’s twists and turns when we realised that like our father, he too was a committed railwayman who worked as a station master in southern railways. It requires an ordinary man with extraordinary vision to do what he is doing at the Sahitya Akademi. Over the course of the next few years Vaishakhan plans to take literature to the masses and to the people whose stories remain largely unwritten or unspoken: women, people from the underdeveloped parts of Kerala including Malapuram district, the tribals and its fisher folk.
“Literature cannot afford to be high brow and elitist if we want new stories and talent to emerge,” he said. We could not agree more. Vaishakhan and a host of other literary and cultural dignitaries were there that day as part of a function to welcome school students from across the state to visit the Kamala Surayya Memorial and familiarize themselves with the genius of her oeuvre. We returned home that evening, our senses satiated and overwhelmed with everything we had seen, heard and experienced.
The next evening we headed out to the beach fringing our village, a beach that is like no other because it still belongs to the people who live there-the fishermen. No ugly shacks, no nearly naked people sunning themselves, no jet skiing, no speed boats and no throngs of people taking selfies. It was just the handful of us, a few fishermen mending their nets, the gentle music of the waves and the brilliant orange of the sun making its way down on the horizon. And just when I thought it could not get more perfect if I wished it to be, there, just a few metres from the shore, appeared a duo of dolphins, dancing merrily, popping in and out of the waves, as we watched in amazement.
There is something to be said about serendipity. There is a reason why I made it to Kerala last week, despite my best attempts to avoid it. If not for serendipity, I would not have got those priceless moments under that starlit sky, listening to old Yesudas songs. But for providence, I would not have got the chance to listen to amma’s stories of her own childhood in the village, nor would I have met the age-old retainers who served the family loyally and continue to turn up every time my mom visits her home. But for luck, I would never have visited Kamala Das’ home and heard from the folks who knew her, what a woman of worth she was.
But more than anything else, but for serendipity, I would not have discovered that the little house fringed by coconut groves is where my heart belongs. Someday, I hope to go back there and write the stories of that land and its people.
You can reach her on firstname.lastname@example.org or her twitter handle@sudhamenon2006
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