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  • My father was my first reservoir of stories. Every night a new one, about jungles and dogs, elephants and tailors. Aesop was his favorite guide. When I wouldn't sleep, his stories would be about me and my brother, he'd describe great journeys the two of us would be on together, through fantastic lands, our pet dogs as characters always with us. I could never get enough of them. And when he used to be away from home, on a posting in the mountains (he was in the Army), this would be what I missed of him the most.

    Our storytelling has always been out of breath, and we dive into details before the listener has the time to be prepared. Let me take you for a dive then, with my father, through his own written words, we will have to dive in head first, it would take too long for a lesson in details. We can't wait to share the stories. If you don't understand particular words, just keep reading on, you'll get their meaning in the end, you need to hear those words, you see, english simplifies the flavor of the experience too much.

    We're watching him as a 4 year old boy now, it's a story about his first sacred space, the place he learnt to write the alphabet in a little town in central Kerala, in the far south of India.
    I will try helping you through all the words in parenthesis.
    I leave you to him.
    .
    .

    Year of the Lord 1953: The start of Formal Education

    I learned to read and write at the kalari run by our very revered Asatti at her home. Asatti was always dressed in a spotless white mundu (long waist cloth) and chatta with a kawani (towel on her shoulder). This was the traditional dress of elderly ladies during the time – the same dress that Ammachi, your grandmother, used to wear, and a pair of huge kunukku (huge gold ear rings worn by older women at the time) on her ears. She lived with her brother and family. Not sure if she was married, was a spinster, had lost her husband, or had children – I never enquired. The kalari basically consisted of a shed next to their house – mud plastered floor, one foot high mud plastered side walls to enable cool breeze to flow in from all sides, it had no windows or doors, just a thatched roof supported on tree trunks cut from the compound – one entrance/exit.

    Asatti armed with a small cane used to sit at the entrance on a small wooden stool chewing paan (betel leaf and tobacco). Her chellam (a little box) containing the ingredients for paan and a brass spittoon were the only furniture in the kalari. We students used to sit cross-legged along the side walls on the floor, on small mats we brought from home. Each student had a small pile of fine sand in front for writing the alphabets. When not sitting in the kalari, one could run around and explore the compound giving a wide berth to their dogs – free access to Asatti’s house including kitchen for a sip of water – open urinal – stand any where in the compound and let go – for more serious big-job use the family toilet.

    For my initiation to letters, Asatti had come home on the auspicious Vidyarambham day (A day considered astrologically correct for the start of an education) – she was given an offering of paan leaves, arecanut and some money – she made me sit on her lap – some rice was spread evenly on a thali (a copper plate) – she held my right hand index finger and wrote the first letter of Malayalam alphabet in the rice.

    The next day onwards Achachan, my father, used to walk an extra 500 yards to drop me off at the kalari on his way to his shop. I used to be hanging on to the little finger of Achachan as we walked to the kalari. My dress consisted of a pair of shorts with cross straps to prevent it from falling off – no socks, no shoes, no chappals, no shirts – not in fashion as it was not required in those days !!! One of the helpers from home used to fetch me back from the kalari in the afternoon. After a few days when Achachan was sure that I knew the way, he would leave me a short distance from the kalari – I used to reassure him that I would manage fine – but in fact I used to be very scared walking alone on the narrow path with overhanging trees and vegetation that led to the kalari - fearful that a booooju (a ghost man who kidnaps little children, my father always built him into our bed time stories) or a bear would jump out to catch me – being all of 4 years and a few months. I was pretty brave though.

    Studies at the kalari: The reference material was palm leaves, the writing tool - the index finger of the right hand, the writing medium – fine sand. A heap of sand was always kept at the far corner of the kalari. Each day the moment I entered the kalari, I'd picked up my mat and lay it at my designated seat, then I'd collect a small quantity of sand from the corner and spread it evenly in front of myself – and I'd be ready for the day’s class.

    On day 01 you bring a fresh palm leaf – using a pointed iron rod called narayam, Asatti writes the first five alphabets of Malayalam. You take the palm leaf and go to your seat – keep the palm leaf in front of you – and write the first letter in the sand simultaneously shouting out loud the letter you are writing. Asatti comes around to help you, steady the fingers and closely monitors the progress. As soon as Asatti is convinced that you have learned the first five letters, she adds more letters to your palm leaf – and over a period of time you have a heavy bundle of palm leaves to be carried to the kalari and back home. Each day on getting back home from kalari the first question from my elder brothers / sisters was “Ethra eettam kitti?”, meaning.. 'How many upgrades have you gained?'. Each time Asatti added the next set of 5 letters to my palm leaf, it indicated that I had acquired one more upgrade. One could get three to four upgrades each day. To highlight the writing on the palm leaves, we used to rub the inky sap of crushed leaves on them – as taught by my elder brothers / sisters.

    Asatti’s cane: One fine day I dozed off while sitting on the mat and writing in the sand. I woke up when the cane landed on my thigh just above the knee, and with Asatti menacingly in front of me. I cried the rest of the day at the kalari. Asatti gave me some home made sweets before I went home that day.

    My brother, Josekuttychachan, did not like the idea of going to the kalari every day - there were days when one of the helpers at home used to seat him in a basket and carry the basket on his head all the way to the kalari where Asatti would suitably receive him. My brother, Kunjappachachan, would hide in the bushes at home instead of spending time at the kalari.

    1976: The day I got married.
    Asatti was invited home on 28 Jun 1976. Just before setting out for the church for the wedding, she was given an offering of paan leaves, arecanut and some money, just like on the day I first met her.
    She was my first teacher.
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