The river, in reality, a canal dug up to connect the Meenachil River to the boat jetty at Kacherikadavu, flows near my ancestral house in Karapuzha, where Jacob, my youngest brother, lives. We got together recently when we reminisced about the place and its past.
The original piece of land was about 2 acres, in two levels, with the house occupying the higher level on the South-eastern side and the western side ending by the river. Part of the land belonged to my father’s elder brother, who built his house there in the 1950s after retiring from Cochin. There was a fish pond, with a trap door connecting it to the river, with an assured harvest of fish every time the trap door was closed.
After my father passed away, my two brothers and I became the landowners on the Southwestern side by the river. Never thinking that I would come back to Kottayam after settling down in Ahmedabad in the 1970s, I sold my piece of land in 1984. So did my two brothers.
Our great-grandfather built the house in its original form in 1886. The core structure consisted of A Thalam (sit-out), Arappura (store), Nilavara (dungeon) and Thattumpuram(loft). The solid wood walls had a dark sheen from polishing. However, succeeding generations had left their mark by making additions to the original structure with the result that the house became a sprawling proliferation of rooms, passages and extensions. In addition, there was a Sarpakavu (serpent grove) in the compound, which became derelict with time.
In the beginning, the entrance was from the east. A Padipura, a gatehouse with a roof, faced the Union Club’s narrow lane to the Karapuzha bridge. Then, when my grandfather added a living room to the Southside, the entrance was shifted to the South, facing the road from Thirunakkara to the West. Next, my father expanded the living room, added a couple of rooms in the front and converted the passage connecting the thalam and the kitchen into a long dining room. More recently, Jacob changed the entrance back to the East with a porch and car sheds in a later modification. He also added a complete and independent house with many bedrooms and bathrooms to the backside of the original house. The whole complex has now three entrances and twelve rooms.
As the eldest child, I had the run of the house. One great pleasure was rummaging through the collection of old books and magazines. Some of them belonged to my grandfather, a lawyer and a great lover of reading. My mother told me that he would collect pieces of old newspapers from shopping packages, smoothen them and read. Some books even went back to my great grandfather. Textbooks on astronomy and mathematics were from my father’s college days in Calcutta. There were books in Latin and English. I remember trying to read Latin. It would sound very grand, though I did not understand the meaning. Though I could read only haltingly, Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe and the Black Company were favourites from the English collection.
I have many memories from my childhood and teenage years associated with this house. My brothers find a place in many of these. On the western side, our civil engineering efforts were a persistent memory, intact with graphic details. Small springs would start draining water from the higher level into the fish pond during the rainy season. We would build elaborate waterways with waterfalls guiding the water flow and erect paper fans attached to sticks along the canal. In the wind from the paddy fields from the West, these fans would be spinning furiously.
In the 1950s, before constructing the Thanneermukkam bund in the Vembanad backwaters, the water would get very salty during summers. The people who live near us by the ‘Kayal (backwaters) would face the problem of how to find drinking water. Their solution was to fill their canoes with pots and reach the landing in our compound. As a result, our well was a perennial source of sweet water. For us, the process of the people drawing up water and loading the canoes with the pots and their skilful manoeuvring of the canoes gave great excitement. Our hero was one of the water seekers who would land with a canoe and fill it with water up to the rim. Then, he would row away crouching on the board in the canoe.
The annual boat race was another time for celebration. The local characters would persuade my father to sponsor a boat to race in the festival. There would be daily practices, refreshments for the rowing team, and the expenses associated with taking part in the tournament in the Meenachil river. The children would sometimes be allowed on the boat in the practice runs. These rides occasionally ended in the scuttling of the rowboat, which deposited all of us in the river.
In the 1950s, local politics conspired to divide our land by a road through the compound. The fighter he was, my father opposed it tooth and nail by appealing to various authorities. He suggested widening the existing lane on the eastern side could be widened to accommodate the proposed road. Finally, the district collector came to establish the facts on the ground. She could not speak Malayalam fluently. With his fluent English, my father was able to win over the collector. The road’s local votaries in the middle were quite handicapped in this. The final decision favoured my father.
I left Kottayam practically for good in 1964, when I joined the Aligarh Muslim University for research, a Ph. D degree and finally a faculty position in 1969. After taking my wife to Aligarh later that year and shifting to Ahmedabad in 1972, there would be annual and later less frequent trips to Kottayam. On these occasional visits to Kottayam with my family, I would be surprised by the changes in Karapuzha.
In a rare visit with my elder son Joseph and his family, I took my grandson to take a look at the river. Draped in dirty green moss, it flowed under the old bridge on the narrow road going to Veloor. A mile down is the jetty where it submerges in the salty backwaters. Standing by the bank, holding my grandson’s hand, I remembered when I was his age and used to stand here and stare at the dark green depth right under the bridge with dread. The paddy fields on the West are gone, though, on the bank, there were hutments, one nudging the next. Smoke from the cooking fires seeps through the roof like grey snakes dancing in the afternoon breeze.
A few boats tied, rise and fall with the waves. I imagined that they were nodding as the river tells them stories of its rebellious youth swollen with the torrent of the monsoon rains razing the side banks and drowning the paddies. Instead, I noted with grief that the river had become a stagnant pool of detritus, decay, waiting for death and turned away, adding another loss.