Childhood’s rapture colors our memories. Childhood in Kandassankadavu had an intrinsically shaded ambience as far as I was concerned.
To my young eyes, Kandassankadavu was an idyllic setting for my fertile imagination. Who would not be intrigued by the name Kandassankadavu which resonated with drum beats? Located on the banks of the Canoli Canal (Connelly Canal), ten miles west of Thrissur, it was essentially rural with its coconut groves interspersed with rice paddies, ponds and tiny irrigation canals. The canals were traversed on so called bridges of single coconut trunks or double bamboos. One learned gymnastics on balance beams on those. I learned not to look down at all. My heart came to know a few wayward moments. Railings were not often an option.
Often we went barefoot. The white sand trickling between the toes was quite a sensory experience. The land stretched out, with boundaries unmarked. It was thrilling to pick poochapazham or cat eye berry (syzygium zeylanicum) from the bushes around the ponds. and eat them on the spot. These never forgettable white berries had a titillating aroma and enticing taste and texture. My cousins on my father’s side deserve all the credits for introducing me to these berries.
Often, we had to cross the rice paddies. The paddies were geometrically segmented by narrow pathways. Mostly they were only a foot wide. On sunny days, the trek through the paddies was pleasant with a gentle breeze cooling the walker. But during the Monsoon rains, the pathways became sodden and slippery. The white clay that retained standing water in the paddies was quite unmanageable when wet. I remember the treacherous walks when it was very easy to lose one’s footing and take an ignominious and often dangerous fall.
The best white sand I ever saw was in the yard around the local Moothedan temple. I did not want to defile the sand that mimicked granulated sugar and went around the property even though there was no fence or wall restricting our entry. The temple itself was not architecturally phenomenal. It was a white squat building with a square foundation. The corners of the building had black projections for lamps to be lit on festival days.
We had so many games that did not need equipments from the stores. The coconut trees were our bases for our ‘It’ game. After choosing ‘ It’, the rest of the players stood by each coconut tree as base. When the game started, the players tried to switch their trees and to pass from one tree to the other. The ‘It’ tried to steal a tree base before the passing player reached it. The player left out without a tree became the next ‘It’. The play continued till we became tired.
Another game that was popular was ‘Pulli Kuththi’. Having a compound of more than one acre, was very useful especially when it was well endowed with white sand and leaves, trees and shades. ‘Pulli’ is a tiny mount of sand. The players were divided into two teams and the compound was divided into two sections. The game starts and members of each team try to make as many ‘Pulli’ as possible. The trick was to find nondetectable locations or camouflage for each player’s creations. One learned to hide what one made under objects or leaves without upsetting normalcy. After some time, one team decides to end the game by running towards the other team crying, ” Pulli is on fire”. The opposition or the second team stops everything and faces the first team. The first team tries to erase all the ‘Pulli’ they can find. Finally, they give up and and the second team counts all the ‘Pulli’ not found out and erased. Sometimes they may be under some ordinary object like a piece of wood or a dry leaf. What they counted became their score. Now the second team goes to the first team and erases what it finds and undetected ones are counted as the first team’s score. The team with the higher score wins. Some tend to cheat by adding new ones although game activities were officially stopped. Others will try to peek surreptitiously. Sometimes fights ensued. Some players were quite ingenious in finding suitable hiding places and coming up with clever strategies.
During Summer vacations, children spent the holidays with their mother’s families. Houses were filled to the brim with cousins and aunts. These were exciting times. I could not go anywhere else because my mother’s and father’s families were in Kandassankadavu. This did not stop us. We also went to our mother’s house and spent days there without going home. I still have fond memories of my cousins and aunts and great aunts.
My mother’s house was old. It had an inner quadrangular courtyard. There was a veranda surrounding it with rooms built from it in two stories. In the summer, we did not sleep inside the rooms. All of us took mats and pillows and slept in the verandah. Age was not a barrier. Old and young chose this option because it was cooler outside. Considering the number of people involved, it was a better choice. This was when generations overlapped. The memories of great aunts and aunts carried experiences beyond our miniscule number of years put together. The 1924 or Kollam Era 1099 flood in Kerala was a particularly memorable event and we heard about it many times. The water level had filled the courtyard and reached the verandah. People dipped a long coconut leaf into the water to see whether there was a drop in the water level. The outlying properties were flooded and the tenants could not stay in their small one story houses in the low land. Each family was given one of the rooms in my mother’s house. In those days, the landlords took care of their own people.
The Summer vacations were also a time for explorations. After meals, the cousins would decide to go exploring, the older ones leading and the younger ones tagging along. In the 50’s, the outside world has not yet intruded into our world and the innocence of childhood still surrounded us. The compound was close to the market place or ‘ chantha’. One of my experiences there I could have done without. I witnessed the slaughter of a pig! From then on, pork had lost its appeal to me. It took me decades to get over the revulsion.
One of my experiences had a unique appeal to me. During one of our explorations, we came across an unusual sight. The soil around the coconut trees are sometimes opened and organic manures like cow dung and ashes were applied. But at one time, we saw something different. We saw something beautifully black and shining at the opened area around trunks. There was something pristine about these smooth black lumps. We simply watched without too much understanding. Then, one among us was brave enough to examine the ‘gook’. I have no clear memory of who it was. That person went and stepped on it with his bare feet. The slimy stuff coated his or her feet and they appeared to be wearing black patent leather shoes! He or she was elated and exclaimed, “I am wearing shoes!”. True to the saying, “monkey see, monkey do”, many of us went down and dipped our feet into the black stuff which happens to be the silt from the river bed. We all walked to the house wearing the ‘shoes’. The grownups did not see the exciting adventure of ‘shoes’. To their horror, they saw a bunch of children tracking mud to the house. The cousins in their teens were punished. The younger ones escaped punishment because they were led astray! I was very happy that I escaped punishment.
We played as children. We tried to believe that we were authentically playing house. At my mother’s house, we were given servants to build a one-room house thatched and walled by woven coconut leaves. We even had meals cooked in this house. We opted to eat our lunch there instead of in the main house. As usual, we did not lift a finger to prepare the meal. One of the girls who worked in the house was ‘lent’ to us! I am ashamed to say that, in those days, it never occured to me that our game of playing house was a sham.
In those days, Kandassankadavu was active in separating fibers from coconut husks and coir manufacturing. The water in Canoli Canal was acidic and was suitable for rotting away the soft parts in the coconut husks. Large bundles of coconut husks were submerged in the water for adequate length of time and then taken out to be beaten to separate the soft cellulose leaving the fiber clean. Many families survived the poverty of the Monsoon season because beating coconut husks is a job available in those dark months. The beaten away soft cellulose accumulated after decades. One of our explorations took us to these work areas by the river. As we were walking the terrain that looked like coffee ground, I found myself sinking up to my knees in the discarded cellulose which had darkened with age. It took some effort to extract myself from the waste.
Kerala without elephants is unthinkable. It is a common sight to see an elephant walking through main roads accompanied by its trainers or ‘papaan’s. Nowadays they are transported in trucks for long distance trips to avoid walking on blistering pavements. But in my younger days, elephants in the road was a common sight. Since there were no snack stalls provided for elephants, the trainers stopped at homes with large compounds. Our house was apparently a designated stop because our compound was of substantial size and there were coconut trees granting cool shades. We provided the elephants with coconuts and coconut and palm leaves. It was an occasion for a bathroom break too. That is when I learned how fastidious and finicky they were. The trainer placed the whole coconut at the elephant’s foot. The elephant stepped gently on the unhusked coconut. It cracked open immediately and the trainer scooped out the white meat without any lingering sand and placed it in the cavernous mouth. The leaves were pulled out from ths heavy and thin stems with the trunk and slapped on the lifted leg to shake off any dirt or dust. Their water intake was quite remarkable. No one paid for the snacks. But enjoyment we received was priceless.
All these are golden memories. The remains of my mother’s house is a rubble. Nobody can find ‘poochapazham’ any more. Rice paddies and ponds are filled and have become the foundations of houses. The irrigation streams have become roads. The comfortable temperature of Kandassankadavu is gone because the standing waters that cooled the area have become nonexistent. All the aunts and great aunts are gone along with many cousins.
The Canoli Canal has a bridge spanning from Kandassankadavu to Vadanapilly. Even today, the views of the Canal from the bridge to both sides are breathtaking. The coconut trees are leaning into Canal casting shadows and filtering light. The water sparkles and then enter shadows. The water extends till eyes cannot see any further.
Childhood never returns. But we can always cherish that will never be repeated in our lives.