Sunday, April 2, 2006

As assignments went, it was a fairly routine one. I was doing the area, map-makers termed South Malabar, comprising Palakkad, Guruvayoor, Trichur and thereabouts, for a travel book. The idea at HQ was to send people to cover areas they belonged to.

It turned out to be more than a routine trip, though. At Palakkad, I was at the home of a Palghat Brahmin who was giving me valuable info on the life lived in the agraharams. When he mentioned that the Shiva temple, one of the hallmarks of a TamBram village, usually had an aal tree out front, I ventured to say that I had found the particular tree with its wide concrete base at the front of the Shiva temple in the Ramanthapuram agraharam an especially splendid specimen. This huge tree had caught my attention earlier and I had spent almost an hour relaxing on its cement base, walking around the temple, taking photographs of the huge verdant canopy of its branches from all angles.

Gopalkrishnan seemed amused at something. “You took a close look at the tree?” he queried. I confirmed that I did. “You couldn’t have,” he retorted with a smile. “Otherwise, you would have noticed a small plaque affixed to the cement base that proclaimed that it was your maternal grandfather who had planted that very tree so many years ago.”

Pachyderms et al

Some days later, I was at Asia’s largest elephant sanctuary, the Punathoor Kota sanctuary, just a few kilometers off Guruvayoor. There were 69 pachyderms taking R&R (rest and recreation) there, being fed huge rice balls, being bathed in the big tank, having their toe nails clipped, just chilling.

It was a fascinating sight, and I was also appreciative of the kotha itself, an old manor house in the centre of the sanctuary, now lying in a sad state of neglect. To one side was a small Bhagvathy shrine; the priest at the shrine and I got talking. He told me the history of the Kota and that’s when I came to find out that almost a century ago, the house and its surrounds had belonged to the Paruvakat clan who had sold it to a Brahmin. I didn’t tell him I was a descendant of the same clan; later, my mother informed me that no trip to Guruvayoor was complete for them without a visit to their family shrine, the Bhagvathy temple at Punathoor Kota.

The next time the ties-that-bind cropped up, was a day later. I had gone to Chavakad beach, a desolate strip of sand with a savage sea pounding away at concrete surfbreakers. Water on one side, lush forest on the other, with a modest lighthouse in the centre, Chavakad was a lovely spot. I told my aunt so, later that night, in Guruvayoor, at our family home. That’s when she related the lovely story of the origin of our clan… at Chavakad, near the beach!

Seems a local nobleman came upon a pair of twins seemingly abandoned near the water and took the babies home to adopt them as his own. Only to find an old crone who’d turned up at his doorstep, claiming the babies were her own. With some difficulty he persuaded the old woman to give the twins into his care, promising to look after them like gold. The crone, who was Bhagavathy in disguise, of course, told him archly, “Well, so you must or you’ll have me to contend with.” My ancestor from times past built a small shrine for Bhagavathy so she could always oversee her beloved twins, and I guess they all lived happily ever after.

Trichur was the culmination. I was at dinner with a couple who were friends of my in-laws. My in-laws do not belong to this belt. My elderly host told me of an old venerable house on the road to Guruvayoor which still held a nameplate that announced Paruvakat House’. Another Paruvakat House! I went in search but darkness fell and I was unable to locate it; I have filed it away for the future.

One lead to the next

My great grand-uncle had been Diwan in Trichur many eons ago. A set of houses he had built for his family still retained their splendour, all huge white pillars, sweeping steps and wooden shuttered windows. What I was in search of was a road named after him. No map seemed to show Diwan Narayana Menon road and the people I asked all were of no help. I ended up chasing a red herring in the form of Diwanji Road. After a while, I threw in the towel and glanced at the list the travel book people had given me, ready to move onto my next destination. It was the Lalit Kala Akademi… on D N Menon Road!

While at the Town Hall, I was struck by an idea and went into the spacious library to see if the Gazetteer had something on Diwan Narayana Menon. The librarian seemed rather thrilled that someone from the family had come scouting details and details he snowed me with, much to my delight. As I got up to leave thanking him, he stayed me. “There’s someone who knew the Diwan’s family, your family, very well,” he said. “Shall I arrange for you to go meet the old gentleman?”

And so it came to pass that I was soon traversing the back lanes of Trichur town, winding this way and that, finally fetching up at the house of a local journalist. It was the journalist’s very old father who knew the Paruvakat family. Only, the man was senile, so not much could be got from him, despite various attempts by his younger sister. When the name Paruvakat finally seemed to hit home, he brightened, turned to me, addressed me as Ammu and started reminiscing. The Ammu he was talking of, was the Diwan’s younger sister, my great-grandmother.

Never has any assignment filled me with more warmth and a sense of deep satisfaction than this one.

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