Monday, October 5, 2009

Adieu to a tharavad (ancestral home)

Last week on TV I watched the Malayalam movie Raappakal directed by Kamal, and starring Sharada and Mammootty. A good one. The theme is something that is happening quite frequently in Kerala these days – ancestral homes (tharavads) being sold. The buyers convert them into resorts or residential complexes.

Most of the heirs are happy about it. But some are sad, sentimental. In the movie, they include Sharada, the lady of the house, and Mammootty, who has no rights over the property but had spent his entire life there as a servant.

A few months back I had received a souvenir brought out by an ancient and prominent Syrian Christian family on the eve of their tharavad being sold. That was something unusual. This family got together, had a celebration, and bid adieu to their ancestral home in style. I thought the idea of a memento was excellent.

The articles in the souvenir are all by women who were born into the family. That is just as well because they are the ones who carry childhood memories of the place, who automatically understand the culture of the family, for whom the building is always ‘home’, even decades after they are married off.

The Foreword to the Souvenir says, ‘They are written by Appachen and Velliammachi’s (grandfather and grandmother) grand-daughters, a group of sensitive and vulnerable women who have been lovingly protected and cherished in their childhood, and are deeply attached to their roots.’

Again, ‘Beautiful old tharavads are coming down all over Kerala. Old, sprawling rural homes need the manpower of large joint families and family retainers to maintain the house and parambu (land), tend to the poultry and livestock and the produce of the parambu – such as coconut, jackfruit, tamarind, banana, kappa (tapioca), and so much more – fix the roof tiles and clean the wells each season, and keep the kitchen going around the clock, not just with daily meals for the family and help, but also other interesting food processing. This included extraction of coconut oil in large urulis, hand pounding of rice flour and coffee, seasonal palaharams (savouries) and pickles, the list could go on for ever.’

I am picking out random pieces from the different articles in the souvenir. It is likely to present a haphazard picture, but hopefully one that is still vivid.

Quoting from other contributions to the souvenir: ‘I remember Ammachi (mother) calling the doves from the dovecote in the garden to feed them. I also remember going with Velliammachi, along with my sisters and cousins, to bathe in the stream near the house. We would all get into the shallow end of the water, and Velliammachi’s woman attendant would pour water over her and hand her the soap, while we splashed and swam around and enjoyed ourselves.’

On the walk down to the stream, ‘The air was pungent with the cloying aroma of ripe jackfruit. The constant buzz of cicadas grew louder and in the distance we heard the trumpeting of an estate elephant. The trees thinned out and then, jumping over a stone stile, we were at the road by the creek. The water ran cold and swift, but was shallow enough for wading and collecting fish in our little glass jars.’

From another article, ‘On the way back one day, she [Velliammachi] told me to hold her glasses. I put them on and they were so strong that I started feeling giddy, so I quickly took them off.’

‘There was a big band of servants… Velliammachi had a lot of fruit trees, which we would climb. She had a garden with a variety of roses. The Edward Rose was her favourite – a beautiful pink flower with a lovely fragrance. There was a tree called Powrah mulla. It had small, sweet smelling flowers with orange tubular stems. ‘

Other indelible pieces include a four-year-old pulling Velliammachi out of her bed to go mulberry plucking, playing with the elephants, Lakshmikutty and Dharmaraj, on the muttam (courtyard) and stealing bits and pieces of mango thera (mat) from where the delicacy was put out to dry.

The evening prayers involved long spiritual rigor. The preparations would start early at the chapel in the house. Collecting and arranging flowers, lighting the lamps and candles, spreading out mats were chores to be handled by the girls. At the appointed time, everyone would gather at the prayer room – ‘all the aunts and uncles and cousins who were either staying there or visiting, gathered for prayers.’

These articles have turned out to be about the matriarch of the house. Hardly anything is mentioned about her husband who was an important leader in his community. The reason is that he died before most of the writers were born.

To conclude, let me return to the Foreword: ‘As time goes by, patterns of living change. … The old patriarchs are gone, the arrahs (granaries) are empty, and young nuclear families need less space and more modern conveniences.

‘And so we say goodbye to our old family home and move on, handing the banner over to the next generation to remember our traditions and keep the family spirit alive.’


Sunita said...

That was beautiful! Bitter-sweet, maybe, but still beautiful. I liked the idea of a memento. It was almost like listening to the ladies talk personally.
I remember the times when my grandmother and your mother used to have long gossip sessions. It was always so interesting because a lot of skeletons would come tumbling out, especially when they thought that we children were fast asleep! I wish we could've recorded some of those conversations for posterity.

perumalythoma said...

Sad, that people are willing to part with their ancestry.
But at least, this eisode has a certain dignity to it.
Unlike the acrimony with which my ancestral home went.
Someone's running a resort there, I hear.
Maybe I should book ourselves in and show my wife that (not all) my childhood tales are cooked up.
Show her the ara that my cousins locked me up in; that left me with claustrophobia and a love for cabinetry.
Show her the Chinese vats which give pickles a flavour that Kitchens of India cannot copy.
Show her how you jump from the roof of a kachchi-pera; and scratch yourself all night, I must add.
Show her the little chapel which had an altar with Latin inscriptions which I had memorized then and later figured had much bad Latin (and worse Greek).
The mulberry around the padippura which would be festooned with cigarette butts chucked by my youngest uncle.
Hmm..., suddenly modern homes appear so bereft.

Nebu said...

I always believed that even when the women are married off for most of them their first and true allegiance is to their parents and their ancestral home and they cherish their childhood memories invariably spent there. The matrilineal system counted only women who were born into the family.

YOSEE said...

A "send off party" for a beloved ancestral home is a unique and lovely idea !
Not just the Tharavads of Kerala, but Chettinad Mansions, Rajasthani Havelis and other traditional dwellings across the country are all facing the same plight. Either pulled down or converted into heritage hotels.
The old constructions demand very expensive repairs and maintainance and only inheritors who are wealthy can cope with that. Added to this is the fact that many of the younger generation emigrate overseas and need no roof here.

Whether in human civilization or in personal histories, closing of past chapters is unavoidable and natural.Only Memories and Nostalgia are evergreen.

Abraham Tharakan said...

Thank you Sunita.

Abraham Tharakan said...

Thanks, perumalythoma. That is a beautiful piece of writing. So vivid, so touching.

Abraham Tharakan said...

Good observation, Nebu.

Abraham Tharakan said...

YOSEE you are right. This is happening all over the country, and is inevitable. As you said, only memories and nostalgia remain. And they are so valuable.