Thursday, August 2, 2012

October 2011: field work trip

I stayed with a wealthy clock merchant's family for a few days, not very far from Allapuzha. It was hidden away from the main roads and tourist tracks, and it was my first time as guest in a Nair household. I heard a very interesting story which he told me several times as a Malayali's response to the world he lives in. He told me this story  because he knew I was a sociologist of religion, and assertive to the questions that Comparitive Religion raises for us. In the '90s of the last century, he had a dream. The Devi, known in Kerala as Bhagyavati, appeared to him. She told him that he should go to Chenganoor, and he should pay for the feast there at the temple. He went there and spoke to various people including government officers. It turned out that the temple feast was a relic from the time of the colonial resident Lord Munro. Munro's wife had non-stop menstrual flow after he had scoffed at the local belief that Chenganoor was where Parvati's yoni had fallen. After a few days, Munro had turned up at the temple, frightened and regretful and offered a donation for public feasting. It was this particular feast, the responsibility for which my Nair host had been asked by the Goddess to take over. He saw this as the break from colonialism and it's institutions, and the sponsorship of temple feasts as now a prerogative of citizens and merchants. He himself lived an immensely frugal life, as befits a man who saw reading the Bhagavatam for seven hours a day as his vocation. He liked his fast car, and his expensive watch, but other than that his simplicity could be likened to that of a mendicant seer.
This meeting point between tradition and modernity is the most interesting vantage point for us as Sociologists. In an earlier visit in 2009, Molly, my cousin's wife took me to Paramala on her little scooter. Paramala Tirumeni is one of the most saintly of the Orthodox priests. We ride for 40 kms to and fro. She is a nervous rider, taking me to the church as a promise to prayer she had made, and my frequent requests to her, whenever I visited Pennikara a neighbouring village. Every time she sees a truck she stops the scooter and pedals with her feet. "Yeshue! Yeshue! I can hear her praying desperately. She is terrified of the traffic, and keeps referring to me as the load. It's the first time she is driving on the main road with a load.

We pass the most beautiful country road. Chenganoor is Gulf country diaspora inhabited - fields are few and the tiled bungalows of the rich are many. The flowers are of the most brilliant hues, reds, oranges, purples. I have never seen flowers of such colors, ordinary flowers like hibiscus and 4 o'clock flowers which have grown to larger than life proportions. An old man who looks like Peter the Apostle walks gravely along the road: he looks like he is a pilgrim. Molly says he was a cripple on all four who can now walk. How does she know? I do not ask. Parimalla Tirumeni, sweetest of bishops to the Syrians, is known to do miracles for those who believe in them. The Syrians are called Syrian because they follow the  liturgy which came to them by the visits of bishops and priests from the Middle East.
We reach the church. I look for old buildings. There are none. I am aghast. Where's the old church? This is the Church. Molly likes its largeness, its blazoning quality. It is huge. It is white. It is MAMMOTH. Inside the stained glass is of modern art. A fish. In blues and greens. It has three sets of altars. Its airy, sunny, empty, open. A few dozen people are sitting on the benches, or talking to priests, or praying. After a while I too began to enjoy and accept the modern-ness of it. There is an ancient lamp in the middle of the hall which is like an amphitheatre, its ceiling impossibly high. And a ceremonially garbed priest is baptising a baby at one of the altars.

We step outside into the bright sunshine. There is a memorial to the man who had donated land to the seminary in the early 20th century. And then Molly shows me what I had come all the way to see. It is the tiny house in which Parimala Tirumeni had lived. It is so tiny. It's now a chapel. Its the size of a 12 feet by 10 feet room, and though it is a tiled room, it has the sense of austerity and bareness - the ideal of a simple soul.

Molly waits outside for me, increasingly impatient. She is a farmer's wife, in reality, a lady farmer. All she has on her mind is something else that needs to be done. I absorb Parimala's holy gentleness, it's there in the room. I hear him in my mind saying, "We have to adapt to changing times." (I hear voices and luckily no one has thought of sending me to a shrink.) I come out, and we go back to the church to re-enter the room where the cot he slept on (again very small cot, but bishoply in its cast of wood.) People are praying fervently against its glass case.

When we leave, Molly runs into a cousin. He is the local pharmacist. He teases her for not visiting them. She is his mother's brother's daughter. So we do go there.... Molly turns off into a country road, and then we stop at a country house. Nobody opens the door. We have to wait ten minutes till the sound of bathing and splashing water abates. Atlast the door opens. It's her cousin's wife. She is freshly bathed,  and in the ubiquitous nightie which is another legacy from colonialism (the 'gown' as it is popularly called) with her hair tied in a cloth. She welcomes us and takes us immediately to the living room, where an old lady sits absorbed in her prayer books. There is something warm and clever and sturdy about her, but she is shivering, as she is freshly bathed too. Her scanty black and pepper hair fans her shoulders on a damp cotton cloth. She is wearing the traditional white shirt and fantailed white sarong of the Syrians. She is delighted to see us. She leaps up to greet us. I heard that she was ill, paralysed - but no, this woman is full of a bountiful spirit for she walks for two kilometres every day to the church.

"How many children do you have?"
"Three, and my eldest is 25"
"And fifty two years old! You don't look it. A comfortable life keeps away wrinkles!"
We eat delicious pulum cake with our tea. The Syrian Christians keep plum cake for their visitors all year around.
Then we drive 25 kilometres back home, through bright sunny cheerful villages, rain drops gleaming on irridiscent flower petals, birds singing, butterflies pelting through the sky like flower petals. Chenganoor is busy crammed with vehicles. An out- of- work fisherman, (for all the rivers are being sand mined and dying,) sells carnations, roses, jasmines at a traffic crossing.


  1. Hi enjoyed reading this as you had spoke to me of it!
    the purist is me is surprised by the sarong, no offence meant, you obviously have your reasons for keeping it.

  2. Thank you!
    The sarong is called mundu, and the jacket is called chatta. It's very rarely seen now, since the nylon sari has taken over, but in obscure villages you can see it worn by old matriarchs.