Saturday, January 31, 2009

Memories: The boatmen of Olavipe Lake

The first time my wife Annie travelled by a vallom [Launch of a vallom (country boat)] was shortly after our wedding in 1961. She is from Kanjirapally on the foothills of Kerala’s High Range but had spent most of her life at Yercaud on the Shevroy Hills in Tamil Nadu.

There was no road to Olavipe those days. To reach home we had to either take a motor boat from Cochin or Vaikom to Poochakkal and vallom from there (Some memories of WW II, Cochin and the 1940s.). But the preferred route was to reach Kuthiathode on NH 47 and take a vallom to Olavipe.

The first 150 meters or so is a canal. Then the expanse of the lake. Our landing is bang opposite to the canal, to the east. It had no landmark visible from the other side. The crossing was easy during daytime. All that the boatman had to do was to set the course straight from the canal.

On moonlit nights the trip across was sheer pleasure. The water would be usually placid. The shimmer of moonlight on the lake surface was simply fascinating.

But on dark nights it was different. And Annie, resigned to the adventure, asked me how the boatman could see where we were going. There was no easy answer to that. Only the large cargo crafts and tiny fishing boats had lamps to mark their location. The passenger vessels went ahead blindly, so to speak. Sometimes the boatman would shout ‘vallom’ to warn traffic from the opposite direction.

During summer when the salinity in the lake was high, there was a friendly factor. Because of the high density of florescent plankton, any disturbance would make the water sparkle at night. One could easily identify moving objects. There was a bonus as well. From the vallom one could watch fishes swim around spreading glitter in their wake. Such a beautiful sight it was.

Steering to our pier in the shroud of darkness was a problem. There would no bearings to set the course. The route being straight across did not help because the tide factor had to be reckoned with.

The boat would stray from the desired path unless appropriate corrections were made to nullify the impact of the flow. There were several boatmen who could do that perfectly in the darkness. I suppose they had some intuition that comes with experience.

Once the road was opened in the early 1970s, the lake crossing became a thing of the past. After that some of the boatmen used to come home for customary presents during festivals or when they wanted some help. Slowly that too stopped. Some of them would have passed on. The others, I suppose, drifted off in search of other means of livelihood.

I do not recall hearing of a boat accident in the Olavipe Lake. That speaks for the skill of the boatmen.

P.S. When we reached home that night Ammachi (Oru Desathinte Amma.) was very angry with me for taking Annie across the lake on that dark night. I had not realized how frightened my wife was on her first vallom ride!


The silhouette in the photo by Karthiki (copyright reserved) is Shankunni, our senior valan (fishermen caste). Click to enlarge image.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Two Chennai photos

A tiny temple

Door of a prayer room

Photos by me. Copyright reserved.
Click to enlarge.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

An Award for me!

I had a very pleasant surprise last week. Sunita Mohan of The Urban Gardener selected me for the Friendship Award. I feel proud indeed to be among the eight bloggers Sunita was authorized to grant the recognition.

Sunita’s is one of the finest garden blogs internationally. It has received a few awards as well. What is remarkable is that she achieved this distinction within a short time.

Incidentally, Sunita is the granddaughter of Dr. Jacob Taliat FRCS, former Surgeon General of Travancore-Cochin State. Please see The greatness of human nature – a true story

The citation reads:

Abraham Tharakan's posts, always a great read, were a great introduction for me when I just got to know about the intriguing, addicting world of blogs. There is such a vibrant blend of everything from local history to culture, nature-watching, traditional recipes, personality sketches, architecture and very perceptive news analysis that it's almost magnetic. I just had to keep checking in every day to see if he had posted something new. But more than anything, his e-mails with a lot of practical advice about blogging techniques and even collections of articles about the subject, keeps me engrossed.”

Thank you Sunita. I really do not know whether the compliment is deserved, but it gives a wonderful feeling nevertheless. What has sustained my blogging is the great support I have received from readers all over the world. I thank them as well.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Different matters

The ‘mumbling’ Sikh

In a comment on my post Mumbai disaster: a need for centralized and coordinated crisis management, ‘Anonymous’ (what else!) refers to Dr. Manmohan Singh as the ‘mumbling Sikh’. What ‘Anonymous’ apparently does not realize is that when this dignified man ‘mumbles’ the world leaders listen. That is the kind of stature the gentleman has.

It is indeed good news that Dr. Manmohan Singh’s bypass surgery was successful. The nation prays for his quick recovery.

Strange bedfellows

According to media reports posters are appearing on the walls in Kottayam, Kerala, exhorting the CBI to stop victimizing the three accused in the Abhaya case and Pinarai Vijayan, the Kerala State General Secretary of the CPI(M)! The latter has been implicated in the Lavelin corruption case.

‘Pakal Manya Samithi’ (Daytime-gentlemen group) claims the responsibility for the notices. Obviously it is a dig at the left leader, reportedly by rival group within his party.

In the meanwhile the State Home Minister has stated that the case would be fought politically.

Moral policing

Shocking news is that five young women who were quietly having lunch at a pub in Mangalore, Karnataka, were badly beaten up by a self appointed group of moral police. Two of the injured girls are in hospital.

Their crime? They were allegedly offending Indian culture! From the TV footage showing the girls being attacked and rolling on the pavement to escape the assult, they appeared to be decently dressed. The attire was jeans and T-shirt. No skirts to roll up the legs. There is no known law in the country barring ladies from having food (or drinks for that matter) in a licensed pub.

It is reported that the Karnataka police have arrested 10 people in connection with the incident. I hope the culprits are given some lessons in morals and Indian culture.

For senior citizens, those nearing retirement, and their close relatives

I regularly receive AARP Webletter in my inbox. It contains many details covering a host of subjects from healthy food to funds management to travel that are useful to senior citizens. Joining as a member of this organization has many benefits. The Webletter is for free. Visit

Republic Day

India is a great country. Let us resolve to keep her that way.

Happy Republic Day.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Kerala photos: Plants, flowers


Ixora coccinea (Rubiaceae



Ivy gourd (Kovakka)

Photos from Olavipe by me.
Copyright reserved.
Click to enlarge.
Also see:

Kerala Photos: Sun shines on Olavipe

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Manapad: Conversion of the Paravas

This 19c litho from Creative Commons, done by some unknown Western artist, is titled conversion of the Paravas by St. Francis Xavier in 1542. I am not sure if the Paravas wore costumes like the one depicted here. In the background the soldier and the girl look like a scene from the Rome of the old. Perhaps the artist did not have first hand knowledge of the local scenario.

The Paravas are a proud and ancient community in the southern most part of India. Also known as Bharathar or Bharathakula Kshathriyar, they are believed to be the descendants of the Pandya kings. The Paravas were prominent even during the Sangam era. They were involved in pearl trade and maritime activities.

After the Muslims captured their homeland in the 14c, the Paravas were almost pushed into slavery. They resisted the attempts to convert them forcibly into Islam.

The Portuguese entered the scene during the first half of the 16c and offered the Paravas protection if they became Christians. This led to the biggest mass conversion (about 30,000 people) to Christianity in India. The Portuguese had the Bible translated into Tamil and distributed among the new converts. This is considered to be the first instance of the Holy book being made available in an Indian language.

St. Francis Xavier worked among the Paravas for a few years during the early 1540s, staying at Manapad near Tiruchandur in Tamil Nadu. The photos below (copyright reserved) by KO Isaac (Photography: The Photographic Society of Madras, capturing images for 150 years ) shows the cave where the missionary lived during his sojourn there and the churches in Manapad. Click on the photos to enlarge.

Maddy gives more details of the conversion of the Paravas at the following links:

Monday, January 19, 2009

Pan chewing: Green leaves and crimson lips

Manusmriti states that one of the duties of a wife is to provide pan to her spouse after every meal. The intention was basically to freshen the mouth and to help digestion. But women also used pan mixed with aphrodisiacs to seduce the men they were interested in. The ladies themselves chomped pan to enhance the redness of their lips and make them attractive to the men. No lipstick was required.

Ashtangahrudaya gives the recipe for pan – betel leaf, slaked lime, areca nut (betel nut), camphor, copra, cloves, cardamom and nutmeg. Good for health? The doctors may not agree.

Research has proved a link between pan chewing and oral cancer. The culprit here could be tobacco. That was introduced into the pan by the Portuguese in the 16c. They obviously had a commercial interest in that as well.

The regular Kerala murukkan (pan) is different from what is prescribed in the Ashtangahrudaya. It does not include the spices, camphor and copra, and has only betel leaf, slaked lime, areca nut and tobacco.

Preparing the pan is kind of a ritual, like cleaning, filling and lighting a pipe. A procedure that I have noticed is something like this. Some people wipe the betel leaf on their hair. This is supposed to remove any poison that might be on it. The death of my grandmother due to a heart attack soon after chewing pan in 1938, was attributed by the local people to vettila pampu’ (betel leaf snake). It was a maid who prepared the pan and she would not have dared to wipe the leaf on her hair.

What about bald men? I suppose they take the risk of vettila pampu.

Some people carefully remove the embossed portion of the veins on the leaf. Then lime is applied to the underneath part of leaf usually with the middle finger of the right hand, holding the leaf in the left. The other ingredients are placed over the coating of lime, rolled into a quid and placed in the mouth.

From that point, till the first collection of red juices in the mouth is spat out the person keeps silent. This gives him time to think during an important discussion. I have noticed people using this technique effectively.

Pan chewing cuts across barriers of religion, caste and gender. In India this practice has been a symbol of love, friendship and hospitality for millenniums. In some temples it is given as prasada. Murukkan is also normally a part of Dakshina (offering to peers) in Kerala.

This habit is on the decrease now.

Photos: 1. A tray of ingredients for pan. 2. Areca palm and its parts. 3. Text and picture of pan in the Mogul era. All from Creative Commons. Last one of lime container from Olavipe by me (copyright reserved). Click on photos to enlarge.

Also see:

Pan leaves

Sadhya - a sumptuous Kerala meal

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Malayalam Cinema: Going, going, gone?

What is Malayali about Malayalam cinema except the language? Hardly anything. Almost gone are the days of stories with soul in them, themes that deal with people of the land, their lives, the situations they face, their dialogues and music. In the process, Malayalam cinema has lost its identity.

What we have today is a concoction of fighting where the hero vanquishing a group of baddies with incredible ease, bomb blasts, AK 47 firing away, taking law into own hands, spiting the police, theatrical dialogues, dances that are choreographed almost identically. I am told that the thugs who fly off the hero’s fist are paid by the number of turns they take in the air before biting dust.

Is this the formula that the audience wants? Not if the figures are to be believed. Out of the sixty odd Malayalam movies released in 2008, only about five were commercially successful. There were movies which ran for only three days. Why do the producers persist with the beaten (!) path?

It seems that an emerging trend is for some of the actors to come up with story lines where they are depicted as larger than life heroes. The thread is then developed into a script. Who now cares whether the producer loses money or not. There will be always another one who is ready to sell his ancestral house or beg or borrow to produce a movie.

Where is the scope for good stories, enchanting music and soul stirring lyrics in this scenario? In the rush for knocking together a movie, creativity and histrionic talents have no place. Pulling the trigger does not require great acting capabilities. And, there are enough English action movies to borrow from.

Songs are sometimes finalized in a few minutes. The director explains the situation to the music director and the lyricist. An instant tune is hummed and the poet fills in the words. Presto, the song is ready. There is no chance for the music director and the song writer to apply heart and soul. It is almost like a factory production line.

Amazingly, in the crumbling Malayalam celluloid world, two figures stand tall – Mammootty and Mohanlal. There is still no one to challenge them. Among the heroine, in my opinion, the pride of place goes to Meera Jasmine and Gopika.

Do you agree with me on the current state of Malayalam cinema?

Also see

Malayalam cinema: Random thoughts

Friday, January 16, 2009

Photos: Flowers, berries

I took these photos last month in Kerala
Click on them to enlarge.
Copyright reserved.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Sr. Abhaya case: Justice Vs. Justice?

There seems to be an impression that conflict exists between the orders passed by Justice R. Basant and Justice K. Hema in the Sr. Abhaya case. Justice Hema has clarified that her judgment granting bail to the three accused in the case can be interpreted only by her or the Supreme Court.

Skylark, in an emotionally charged comment on my post Sr. Abhaya case: Sex and the CBI, a detective story gone awry? has provided a link to Justice Hema’s order. While some of my views on it are expressed here, you can form your own opinion by reading it at I have not seen Justice Basant’s orders.

The CBI’s present contention is that Sr. Abhaya found the nun and two priests who were arrested, in a compromising position. Fearing exposure the first accused strangulated her and the accused nun hit her on the head with a heavy axe. The three accused then threw Sr. Abhaya into a well in the compound while she was still conscious. All these happened 16 years ago.

At the outset of her judgment J. Hema has dealt with the well accepted guidelines for passing orders on bail applications. To decide whether there is a prima facie case she has relied on the case diary even though the CBI objected to it. She found that the arguments of the CBI were not really based on the entries in that document. There were also wild accusations by CBI against officers who conducted the enquiry earlier and about the convent and the church using undue influence to diffuse the case.

A moot point here, which could be of interest to legal experts, is whether the CBI overplayed its hand by bringing in too many grounds to fight the bail plea. That compelled the judge to look into all of them. Better tactics for the CBI could have been to rely on a few solid arguments instead of straying all over.

In the process, two major myths relating to the case have been blown. There was a claim that VV Augustine, the first police officer to investigate the incident manipulated the evidence to present a case of suicide. Well, it was this man who recently committed suicide leaving a note that CBI was responsible for his death, was the one who brought in the ‘homicide’ angle.

The argument that the convent and the Church were using influence to prejudice the case has also been exposed as baseless. It was on a petition by the convent to the Kerala Chief Minister claiming that Abhaya was a murdered that the case was passed on to the CBI. On the basis of the complaint by the convent, CBI took up the case in 1993 and registered an FIR.

Justice Hema, among other things points out CBI’s inability to define the place where the assault on Sr. Abhaya was supposed to have taken place, the absence of blood in the area, and the medical evidence against the possibility of a heavy axe having been used.

Is the CBI on the right track? Or will the real culprits go free if the case is handled in the present manner?

Incidentally, I have started getting hate mail on my earlier post on the subject

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Photos: November rains in Chennai

I took the three photos reproduced below during the near-cyclonic weather in Chennai last November, and promptly forgot about them.

The first two pictures show waterlogged street and different hues of green. Rather good ones, I feel. But last one is significant. It caught, not too clearly though, two men in blue raincoats working on the local transformer.

The power had failed at about 3’o clock in the afternoon and we had reconciled to the possibility of spending a blacked out night. No one expected a repair job to be done in the heavy rain and strong winds.

Then we noticed the two maintenance men of the Power Board, determined that supply must be restored come hell or high water. They completed their job in about two hours, packed up their tools and left quietly. Nobody knew their names, nobody thanked them. The unsung heroes probably moved to another area which needed their attention.

One rarely sees such commitment these days. I should have called up the Electricity Office and conveyed my appreciation, but sadly, never got around to it.

Though belatedly, let me salute these dedicated men.

Also see

Madras Matters