PIETY AT KASIAPURAM
Immediately after appa’s wedding, the little family comprising the young newly married couple and their child, that is I, settled in a house in Madurai. But the connection with the birthplace and its attraction for me was there for a very long time. Though we visited Kasiapuram only during the vacations, the visits had a great impact on me. Virtually there used to be a great magnetic pull towards it, at least till I reached my twenties. The nights before the travel by train to my native place were always sleepless. I would try to gather as many things as possible for the friends there at the village. Glass marbles that I took from Madurai were attractions to friends in the village. In the same way the things I gathered from the village were great attractions to friends back in Madurai. The latter used to wonder at the kal kundu, handmade stone marble that I would get in exchange of glass marbles. If I tried to smuggle to village such novelties from Madurai, father would bring Wren & Martin grammar book without my knowledge to give me special coaching during the vacation. Such sessions would make me feel that appa was tyrant and spoilsport of my vacation.
Probably till I reached my teens, days in Kasiapuram had more religious activities. The family-run school was also used as the local church of the village. By the time I got shifted to Madurai the two aunts who were taking care of me when I was in the village had left Kasiapuram. The elder one became a nun and the younger one got married and left. In their place were now two other aunts, father’s youngest sisters, were ruling the roost! Of these two, the elder one was very close and affectionate towards me and she too became a nun later. Her name is Rose. Rose aunty, a very pious one, used to carry out all the church activities. During the vacations not only our families, but two other families would land up at Kasiapuram. Total number of cousins from these families would be fairly large and we were considered by the locals as special since we had come from big towns. All these cousins would gather every evening at the school-cum-church for prayers along with the local children. In the months of May, Rose aunty would arrange special prayers for St. Mary, since we, Catholics, devote the month of May to Mary.
On every evening in May, all the kids from the Christian families would gather in the church and from there we would march out and would visit a Christian family. There we would have a little prayer and a few devotional songs. Rose auntie’s voice used to be very sweet. She would lead the ‘chorus’ – a real chorus since we, the kids, would sing in our own ragam and timing! The best part of this would be the march. There was no electricity in the village on those days. So we would carry a hurricane light and one candle. Treading through the dark lanes of the village to reach our spot would be very hard even to imagine for those who were born and brought up after electricity became common. The candle bearer would lead the group. Invariably some would falter in dark and would fall down. All other kids would enjoy at the fall of one of themselves. Such skirmishes and mischief would never distract our Rose aunty; she would be in her own world of singing and praying. Murukku and black watery coffee made with jaggery supplied at the end of each such prayer meeting at different houses were the routine things given to the prayer group. Still I remember the taste of those two and how much we enjoyed them.
One another interesting and different thing in Kasiapuram was the weekly market or chandai. In those days every big village would have some weekday as the chandai day. Varieties of merchandise, starting from grains, seed grains, agricultural utilities and such vital materials for the populace to novelties like glass bangles would be brought on that day. Usually such chandais would be in some common place earmarked for that. Visiting the chandai at late evenings with aunts or appamma is still fresh in my memory. This chandai was just a few houses away from ours and one could hear the noise from this chandai. I don’t know why I imagined then that the noise from the chandai sounded to me like that of an ocean. Probably a matter of perspectives!
Now for the bad thing. It was my first experimentation with smoking. There may be genetically something in me, which made me always attracted to the ‘aroma’ of smoke – whether it is from a beedi or a cigarette. Till this minute I have that weakness inbuilt in me. Though it is now more than one and half decade that I stopped smoking still the love for it continues. It is right when it is said that a smoker is always a smoker. During one of our summer visits to Kasiapuram a big jing-bang got together and ventured an outing with the sole aim of stealing some nice moments of smoking. We would have been around 6 in number. First day it was in the tamarind-thoppu. One by name Johnson not only initiated but also volunteered to supply the much-needed beedis and a matchbox. In our village beedi-making is a big profession for many, young and old, male and female. So every home had people who were in this trade. But it was considered below our dignity in our families and so none in our households was involved in this. So it had to be somebody who would be ready to sneak a bundle of beedi for us. And it was Johnson.
We all went into the interior of the thoppu, which was next to our school. Sitting around the trunk of a big tree and trying to hide ourselves from any passerby and at the same time trying to light our beedis in that windy condition – all these made our adventure more exhilarating. If we saw something moving we would all douse our beedis and run away in search of newer and safer places. Mostly we were running around than smoking. So when the session was over we felt that we did not enjoy it at all. So I and two of my cousins – one younger and another elder to me – decided that we should try the costlier thing, the cigarettes. First we planned to pool our resources. Once that was done the next thing was selecting a safe hideout. We did select a very dangerous spot. It was the well where we were trying to learn swimming that summer. It was quite away from our village and it was on the way to the next bigger village on the main road, Alangulam. We had to have a purchasing spot other than our village shops since news of the purchase in any shop in our village would immediately reach our respective families. So we had a meticulous planning. We chose a shop. We decided that the buyer would be youngest among the three of us. He was not a town-guy like me and the other cousin. So he could always escape with the excuse that the cigarettes were for some other relative of him. At least that is what I told him and made him buy the cigarettes. It was a full pack of Berkley cigarettes. Of course with a matchbox. We straightaway went to the chosen well and the water was a few feet deep from the top and so we climbed down and chose a cozy corner of the well. We settled comfortably and started to get on with our job in hand. Only then we found that it was not that easy for amateurs like us to light the cigarette and have nice puffs. Each step was very hard. Lighting the cigarette against the winds, we never imagined, would need so much skill. Then keeping the cigarette tip dry was absolutely impossible. Even before we lit the cigarette the tip would be fully drenched with our saliva and had to be pinched off. Getting a few puffs was a race against time, as the tips were soaked with our saliva sooner than we puffed!
Anyway, we were in our own world coaching, encouraging and chiding each other. We forgot the world above us, I mean, the world outside the well. We were simply ‘frogs in a well’. Then we had two of our cousins, very seniors to us, descending on us from nowhere. We were caught red-hot-cigarette handed. They scolded and more than that blackmailed us saying that they would report the matter to our families. And that was like sentencing us to the ropes. We pleaded. Then they proposed a deal. We were asked to write on the cardboard of the cigarette box itself a promise that we would never smoke thereafter at all in our whole lives. And then the cousins tore that into very small tiny pieces and threw them into the well and told us that we could smoke only if we join all the bits of papers; else we should never smoke. We made the solemn promises. It appears that of the three of us, my two cousins kept that promise but I continued to smoke throughout my school days whenever there was a chance. I liked it so much. During the end of my degree course I became a habitual smoker and continued that thing for 26 long years, till 6th January,1990.
The late teens had one more attraction in this village life. It was the amman-kodai, the annual festival celebrated for ten days. Though our village was small it had a big temple disproportionate to the local population. But during this festival people from all over the State, especially those who migrated to Chennai would turn up in large numbers. Festive mood would be in every individual and in every nook and corner of the village. Dance programmes would go long into the night. Don’t imagine that there would be grand stage for these dances. It would be all in open spaces in and around the temple. In those days dance in such festivals meant only the folk dance, karagam. We would take vantage points so that we would be able to have an eye on the girls for whom we had a crush or vice versa. Truly the girls would be very romantic during that festival time. Stolen glances and secret signs would fly across the dancing floor. But once the festival was over, they would turn blind eye to us. We had to wait for the next year for the romantic period.
Thus it was church-related joyful days till I was ten, then it was visits to chandai and our hunting that made our village visits joyful, and lastly in the late teens and early college days it was this annual festival that brought cheers to the vacation in our village. But all these faded and I was becoming more and more a town boy because in the early years at least twice we visited the village, a short visit during Christmas and a longer one during summer. As years passed, we stopped going for the Christmas. Visits during summer also got slowly reduced