It was a dog-dripping-sweat summer’s day in Southern Kerala, when ravens took refuge under drooping jacaranda, and donkeys lay spread-eagled on muddy wayside pools.
We were speeding along the narrow coastal road, the black Fiat rattling ominously with every bump. On one side was the aquamarine glare of the Arabian sea and on the other, the dense green foliage of the coastal palms. Hot air rushed at my face through the open window, steering beads of sweat down my nape. I felt cramped and sticky, my head was groggy from jet lag, and every bone begged to be horizontal. Yet I couldn’t stop my heart from rising like a hot air balloon and bringing a smile to my lips. I was going home!
Like for most immigrants, home, for me, was usually a memory. I went back every year to reclaim and relive those memories when I visited Vaikom House. It had been a long journey- JFK, London, Madras, then by a small local plane to Kerala airport where Ranga had picked us up for the two-hour drive to Vaikom House.
Ranga had been a curly haired, bright eyed lad of eighteen when he drove us to nursery school. Now in his sixties, he still maintained and drove the two ancient Fiats in Vaikom House. Ranga veered sharply to avoid some peasant boys who had darted on the road. Cursing softly, he slowed down as a herd of elephants surrounded the car to cross the road. I turned around in delight, but the girls and my husband were fast asleep. One of the elephants thumped the road with dung as she crossed. My smile widened. Welcome to Kerala!
Kerala state extended like a finger, along the South Indian coast. It was a land of long beaches and waving coconut palms, of lush tropical trees that fairly burst with nature’s bounty- ripe mangoes all year round, jack fruit, tapioca, cashews, rubber, cardamom, and of course, the ubiquitous coconuts.
Our village, Vaikom, was a little inland. It didn’t have the kisses and caresses of the Arabian sea to soothe and calm its people. Instead, the turbulent Noorni river flowed through it. Four religions- the Christians, converted by St. Thomas, the Muslim migrants from the North, the Hindus and the Jews- had coexisted in sporadic harmony, and over the years, produced a handsome, distinctive race of people.
Keralite women had long, dark hair, and the golden skin that they inherited from the Portuguese spice traders who had sought Kerala’s shores. They had the voluptuous figures that were captured in so many Indian sculptures. Their flashing eyes, flaring skirts, tight blouses that exposed bare midriffs, and swaying, sensual walk, would all have seemed openly erotic were it not so casually displayed.
The men were hirsute and stocky, with eyes that were permanently hooded from the potent Kallu liquor that they imbibed in large quantities. Like their Portuguese forefathers, they took pride in their masculinity. Their sense of humor, however, was all Indian- self effacing, somewhat tongue-in-cheek. They would argue for hours about communism, and ever so often, like the coming of a monsoon cyclone, they would take up their knives to settle a quarrel.
The volatile tempers and simmering passions of Vaikom village were good business for my grandfather- a criminal lawyer, a superb one at that. The entire village called him Swami, which meant God. My grandmother was referred to in a less grandiose fashion as Akka, which meant elder sister. Legend had it that men in drunken brawls would yell that they had Swami on their side before sinking a knife into another man’s throat.
My grandparents were an odd couple. Swami was a tall, imposing man, with dark skin, penetrating eyes, and a sharp nose. Like most brahmin men of his generation, the front half of his head was shaved, and his long hair knotted at his nape. He was a strict, stern disciplinarian who followed a rigorous routine all his life. Swami rarely smiled, and spoke only when it was necessary.
Akka, on the other hand, was short, round, and garrulous. She had the cheerful fatalism of someone who had given up trying to control her world. She was always busy, fussing over people, feeding them, taking in strays, hovering over projects that never seemed to get done, and holding multiple conversations, all at the same time. Her sisters-in-law clicked their tongues disapprovingly and said that Akka ran Vaikom House like it was a railway station.
They were waiting for us when we got home. I greeted my aunts and uncles, hugged my brothers and sisters-in-law as we climbed up the wide, shallow steps that lead to the open verandah. Akka and Swami were standing at the threshold, holding the arati, as they always did when we returned.
“Come, come! We are all waiting for you,” Akka smiled as she circled the lamp around us in a traditional welcome.
They had aged, even since last year! Akka had lost weight, Swami’s tall frame was bent. They looked frail and delicate, like they got tired easily. Like old people! Would I see them next year? I pursed my lips rebelliously and sighed. Nothing would happen to them. No point thinking about it.
“How was the journey?” Swami asked my husband with the courtesy that he reserved for the sons-in-law of the family.
As the others went in, I paused on the threshold and gazed around slowly. The swing, the unruly garden, the hole in the verandah wall, everything was just the same. The huge hall was still bare, its red tiled floor burnished by hundreds of bare feet walking over it. In one corner were the stacked bamboo chairs, brought out for visitors. I took a deep breath, reveling in the smell of magnolias and mango. It was so good to be home!
They had a feast waiting for us- puffy rice muffins, called idlis with coconut chutney, crepe-like dosas with spicy sambar, two kinds of sweets, three kinds of curries, yogurt, pickles and popadam. Banana leaves lined the floor of the hall, as we sat down in batches- the children and men first, then the women, and finally, the servants.
After lunch, we went upstairs to unpack the gifts. I had brought Yardley powders, boxes of candy, stainless steel cookware, Revlon lipsticks, Oxford dress shirts, and an assortment of toys, pencil boxes, hair clips and imitation jewelry for the children.
My great, great grandfather bought Vaikom House from a British army colonel in 1857. A handsome, two-storied bungalow, it has housed my family ever since. Ours was a joint family back then, and Vaikom House was perfect for it. There were numerous eaves, nook and crannies, that a child- lost in the anonymity of a large family- could take refuge in, or make into a special place.
The house wasn’t built for privacy. There were four small cubicles around the hall. Swami used one cubicle as his office. The remaining three cubicles were used by the elder three sons and their wives as “private” rooms. My parents, being the youngest, only got a curtained cubicle in one corner of the hall.
Upstairs was another large room where the children slept, with Ayah somewhere in the middle. Akka and Swami had a bedroom upstairs and slept in it when it wasn’t being used for deliveries, or to accommodate guests.
With over a dozen children, and a dozen adults in the house, something was always happening. Children fell sick and recovered; couples fought and reconciled; babies were born, usually in the middle of the night, upstairs in Akka’s bedroom with the help of a local midwife. Cousins got engaged or married, and all the ceremonies were conducted in the house. Relatives visited for a few days, or stayed for a few months. People from far and near came to seek Swami’s legal advice and Akka’s reassurance.
Then, there was the staff: an ayah to look after the children, two servants to clean the house, a cook, a gardener, a driver, and two law clerks who ran errands in between taking down case-notes.
Being children, Ayah was our main contact with the rest of the household. She was a thin, wrinkled woman of nebulous age, and a permanent frown of concentration as she tried to keep track of her errant charges.
Every morning, the white-washed walls of the House were bathed in the orange and yellow hues of a tropical dawn. A crack in the sloping, red-tiled roof caused a shaft of sunshine to shine right on Akka’s eyes, prompting her to wake up. Generations in my family have argued over whether the crack on the bedroom roof was natural, or the work of my great grandfather, who wanted his coffee at the crack of dawn.
Ayah would wake us up at 5.30. Muttering sleepily, we would troop downstairs, where Swami would be waiting for us. We would follow him to the Noorni river that linked every backyard in the village. As Swami stood at the edge of the river, and washed himself dignifiedly with small buckets of water, the fourteen of us would get neck-deep, clothes and all, into the fiercely cold river.
Swami would finish his morning ablutions and look up. This was our cue. Together, we would sing the Sanskrit hymns and chants that he had taught us. Swami believed that every brahmin child ought to know the Sanskrit verses that were codified in the Vedas. It was his opinion that singing in neck-deep water, at dawn, would strengthen our voices. We detested that opinion with a passion, but were powerless to do anything about it. As the sun’s rays warmed our heads, our voices would lose the hoarseness of sleep and sulkiness. Half an hour later, we would finish the chants in beautiful harmony.
Nodding slightly, Swami would return to the house. We would wait quietly, till his footsteps died away. Then, all our pent up energy and resentment would explode as we wrestled and paddled the fast-flowing river.
All too soon, Ayah would come to tell us that it was time for school. With ancient instinct and innate negotiating skills, she would cajole and threaten fourteen boisterous, temperamental children out of the river and ready for school.
At breakfast, the young ones would whine that they didn’t want to go to school. The older kids would argue over who was the fastest swimmer. Akka would fuss over Swami in between admonishing us half-heartedly to keep our voices down. Every now and then, Swami would look up from his silver plate. Immediately, there would be silence. Till the first voice started whispering.
The annual shraadam usually happened halfway through our vacation. It was an elaborate day-long ceremony, when the entire clan gathered to pay obeisance to our ancestors. On shraadam day, we woke up at dawn and took a hurried dip in the river. The staff had been given a day off. The women gathered in the kitchen to prepare the feast that would feed the twelve brahmin priests, two cows, our entire family and all the crows in the neighborhood. Crows were supposed to carry the souls of our forefathers, so the more crows we fed, the better it was for our lineage.
There were strict rules: dairy couldn’t mix with grains, everything had to be fresh and prepared according to a menu and recipes that had been decided on generations ago. The young ones rushed between the store room and the stove, carrying grains, shredded coconut, vegetables, water, and spices; my cousins and I did the prep work, and our mothers helped Akka preside over the stove. The men meanwhile, got the brick fire-pit ready in the hall. Inside were stacks of dung, twigs and wood shavings.
At 7.30, the twelve brahmin priests arrived. The lit the fire and began chanting in stentorian voices, bringing back images of the numerous shraadams, marriages, birth ceremonies and engagements that had been conducted in years past. As Akka said, if the walls of Vaikom House had mouths, they would chant in Sanskrit. Swami, whose knowledge of Sanskrit verse was as good as any priest joined them with gusto. The rest of the men sat in a circle and did what they were told.
Four hours later, the priests summoned us from the kitchen. By then, the cooking was done. All of us squeezed into a circle around the dancing fire. As the smoke rose, the priests invoked eight generations of our ancestors by name.
“Carry this ghee, O Agni, Lord of Fire, to the ancestors of this family! Bless the procreation of this lineage! Shower them with health, wealth and happiness!” the priests chanted as we stepped forward, one by one, and poured the sacred ghee into the fire.
I went shopping the next day. Everytime I returned to the States, I took back bits of Kerala with me. I was never satisfied. This time, I had already bought a peacock fan that would be perfect for the mantelpiece, even though it would crowd the Buddhas, brass elephants and lacquer candlesticks that were already there.
Finally, hot and hungry, I returned to the House and collapsed on the swing. The swing was a wooden plank, the size of a bed. It was suspended on four long chains from the ceiling and was the only piece of furniture in the spacious verandah. The swing was a good way to cool off on a hot afternoon. It was also a good way to indulge in nostalgia.
The swing was where Swami dictated his case-notes after breakfast. Akka took her afternoon nap there, servants gossiped, clients waited to see Swami, husbands and wives exchanged confidences. But in the evening, the swing belonged to the children.
About a dozen of us would clamber on the swing and play an endless game of Train. The swing would become a magic train that visited exotic locations like Paris, Sudan, Korea and nearby Madras, all in one evening. My elder brother, Kannan, by virtue of his knowledge of geography, always got to be the ticket collector.
“Paris, next stop!” he would call in a official voice. “And Madagascar after that. Have you got your tickets?”
The driver’s job was up for grabs, and there was always a furious fight for it. Since Swami played cards at the Club in the evening, we could get as loud as we wanted.
Two acres of property surrounded the house. And since Akka’s idea of a garden was to let whatever grew grow, the garden had become a veritable forest. Fragrant jasmine creepers twined around jack fruit trees, pinegrass grew under papaya. Neem trees sprouted in the oddest places and since they were considered to be the abode of ghosts, we were strictly warned to keep away from them. Crows cawed constantly, monkeys chattered and gossiped as they swung from tree to tree, parrots called nasty names and flew away hurriedly, and at night, the mournful croak of the tree frog put us to sleep.
Ayah told us stories every night. Sometimes it was from ancient Indian epics, about virtuous kings and dutiful queens; sometimes it was from the Pancha Tantra, stories that always ended with a riddle. If we were really good, Ayah would tell us ghost stories.
Vaikom House was filled with ghosts. As a child, I was always tripping over them. I remember the sultry summer afternoon when I retreated into the cool folds of the great banyan tree in one corner of the property. The afternoon breeze, the gentle swaying of the tree, all lulled me into somnolence.
Suddenly, there was a loud, horrified scream. I opened my eyes to find Ayah standing below, gesticulating wildly for me to come down. As soon as my feet touched the ground, Ayah dragged me into the house and into the bathroom. Holding my slithering body in a vice-like grip, she began pouring bucket after bucket of water over me.
“Wretched girl!” she hissed. “Who asked you to go into the banyan tree? Don’t you know that Taylor Sahib’s ghost resides there? Your mother is going to kill me when she finds out about this.” Ayah doused me with water compulsively, as if that would exorcise the ghost out of my body.
“He was an evil man, that Taylor Sahib! He committed suicide, as a sort of revenge, after he sold your great, great grandfather this bungalow. Hung himself on the banyan tree. And you, wretched girl, have gone and stirred up his ghost! What am I going to do with you?”
Ayah twisted my ear, and poured another bucket of water. My mind was teeming with questions. Why had Taylor sahib hung himself? Why had he wanted revenge against my great, great, grandfather? Why did he sell his house if he wanted revenge? But the buckets of cold water numbed my senses and discouraged questions.
The whole household watched me for a week after that, to see if Taylor sahib’s ghost had entered my head. Ayah, especially, followed me everywhere, looking for signs of aberrant behavior. I wasn’t allowed to nap in the afternoon, in case the ghost further penetrated my head. Finally, they decided that I was untainted and let down the vigil.
The banyan tree became magical to me after that. With a child’s flexible imagination, I attributed many things to the tree. Every type of ghost and gremlin resided in it. Some were good ghosts that brought pots of gold and hid them under the banyan tree. Others were satanic, and had to be fought and vanquished. The branches became my weapons, the tree my fort. I would scurry up the branches, swing down the long secondary roots that hung on all sides, and camoflouage myself within the green fronds. I was princess, pauper, spy and warrior, all at once.
The most prominent ghost in Vaikom House was a woman. Ayah called her Mohini. She was supposed to take the guise of a beautiful young woman, lure young men behind a tree, and slap them into stone figures.
“When you come back home at night, and hear tinkling anklets behind you, DON’T look back,” Ayah would warn in a hushed voice. “That’s Mohini, just waiting for you to turn. She will rush at you, slap you dead and suck your blood.”
“Don’t worry!” Ayah would reassure our rounded eyes. “She can’t do anything unless you look back. And she will do everything to make you look back- laugh so melodiously that you will think it is music, waft a fragrance so wonderful, you will want to turn and find out where it is coming from. But Don’t Look Back! Or you will become stone.”
On full moon nights, we would gaze out of the attic window, wrapped securely in blankets. Our eyes would roam the speckled landscape, straining to catch a glimpse of Mohini’s flowing white sari, listening for the sound of her silver anklets. The coconut palms would rustle in the breeze, the shadows of the full moon would ripple through the darkness. Mohini was definitely taking a walk that night!
This article originally appeared in April 1995.
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