By Sneha Sudha Komath
Dark clouds had been gathering overhead for the past couple of days. My mother stood in our backyard watching them grow. No doubt a massive storm was gathering. She had already sensed the change in the wind. The retreating monsoon was riding on something much stronger this time. My father returned home early from the office that day. A cyclone alert had been sounded, and it was gradually transmuting into what would be a super cyclone. A patient, determined look crossed my mother’s face, even as lightning flashed in her eyes. A catastrophe awaits, she had been forewarned. My mother was ready.
The rains, the winds, and the accompanying spectacle of lightning and thunder would normally fascinate my mother. She had been the typical monsoon child. The renowned Malabar monsoons had announced her birth with great fanfare and fireworks. The rain gods themselves had danced on the sloping rooftops of their house on the day that she was born. They had blessed her wedding too and graced the birth of each of her three children. She had never quite understood those English poems about the warm sun that she had learnt by heart in her primary school at the convent. The sun was something to hide from. As a child, she had employed the omnipresent Malayali umbrella mainly against the sun. The rain was meant to be drenched in. Even her children and grandchildren knew that.
She had never missed the first day of the monsoons for as long as she could remember, no matter where she lived. Married at the age of twenty, she had travelled to many parts of the country with her husband. After all, those were the heady days of nation building. And a competent electrical engineer had many choices. The adventure of the Indian railways beckoned, and soon they were being shunted from one station to the next every few years. My mother, with her razor sharp intellect, a ready wit, an unique collection of stories, and a captivating smile breezed through it all. The news of a transfer was always announced at the dinner table as a brand new adventure and we looked forward to these new beginnings with great excitement. At eighty, my mother’s spirit for travel and her sense of adventure remained strong.
Yet, somewhere in the deep recesses of that adventurous heart stood her childhood home, behind a curtain of rain. Her matrilineal tharavad home, which had belonged to the joint family over many generations, her mother, her grandmother and upto seven generations further behind, she knew her lineage. A lineage that had almost ended twice in its known history, once within her own lifetime.
Every child in the tharavad knew how far back into infinite time the tharavad’s line stretched and how its brave women and men strode confidently, yet carefully, through the world, always honouring their pacts with the forces of nature around them. Their home and the land was meant to be shared with other creatures: with the feral cats that had free rein of the house and were choosy about the kinds of fish they were fed; with the pack of foxes that visited the kitchen yard for fish bones at dinner time, and sometimes stole their melons too; with the giant spiders that formed beautiful webs across the mouths of the wells and prevented insects from reaching the water; with the ferocious jungle cat that came chasing after small mammals or alate termite at twilight, whose high-pitched cry would send even the adults scurrying indoors; with the birds whose share of mangoes was always left unpicked on the trees; with the bats and the palm civets that went in and out of the attic, where they caught rats hiding amongst the stored coconuts. They knew that life was forever a careful balance. Nobody ever indulged in indiscriminate hunting or clearing of the forests, and in return, the forests had left them alone. No attempts were made to alter the course of the river flowing in the narrow valley below, and the river too had respected this, always staying within her limits. Every year, during the monsoon rains, she brought flood waters to their rice fields and kissed their doorstep before departing. But never ever had she crossed the threshold to join them indoors.
The main tharavad house had been expanded, renovated, even rebuilt, as the family grew and prospered. Additional houses came up as the family branched out. Every tree used for the houses was carefully chosen and respectfully obtained. Appropriate prayers had been conducted, seeking the blessings of their residing spirits, requesting permission for the noble cause. They had honoured their word to these spirits and built a temple on their lands to Paradevata, the forest God, installing him as their family deity and depending on him to keep them from harm.
Once when my grandmother’s great grand uncle began renovating the temple, he was told that it required the wood from a very old tree, deep in the forests on their land. Finding it impossible to fell, the young woodcutters sought assistance. A senior and experienced woodcutter, Kelan, was sent to measure and chop the tree. Kelan reluctantly obeyed, knowing the inherent dangers of felling such an old and sacred tree. Legend had it that a powerful and temperamental being resided in it. Kelan prayed to the deity within the tree, requesting her to step aside and to not to take out her ire upon him; he was, after all, only following instructions. The operation went smoothly and he had adeptly felled the tree by sunset. The chopped logs piled up as the awe-struck young woodcutters watched and Kelan indulged in just a moment of self-glory. Very soon he was on his knees begging for mercy, as he threw up mouthfuls of blood. Not long thereafter, he died.
The great grand uncle was horrified at the news. Kelan had gone to get the tree on his instructions. The deity would not stop with just Kelan. He knew that the tharavad’s survival was at stake. Within days, he had an elaborate ritual conducted to appease the Goddess and to invite her to dwell within their tharavad temple instead. He promised that the family would respect and honour her and keep her propitiated at all times. Thankfully, Bhagavathy relented and the family was blessed with many girl children in later years to carry their line forward.
A shrine adjoining Paradevata’s was built and Bhagavathy occupied her place in the family’s pantheon of Gods. To reinforce their commitment and devotion to them, the family held daily prayers for Paradevata and Bhagavathy, included them in many rituals and during important events of the year and held grand theyyam festivals, or thira, annually. For the theyyam, special performers trained throughout the year. The art of dance, make-up, costume fabrication, getting possessed and soothsaying was passed on within these families from father to son. For three consecutive nights every year, the Gods spoke through them. Signaling their close connection with the family, the theyyam would seek the permission of the eldest woman of the tharavad to begin the festival and she, in turn, would be the first to be blessed once he became possessed by the spirits. Through the next three nights, the theyyams danced within the temple premises, under the starlit skies and in the light of the choottus, long torchlights made of dried coconut palm leaves, their place in the ritual and social hierarchy completely forgotten. Their frenzied steps kept pace with the beat of the chenda, the drum whose sound was meant to echo the thunder, until together they reached a crescendo and the theyyam became possessed of the spirits that he was invoking. Paradevata and Bhagavathy, and later Kuttichathan and Gulikan, spoke through them, first addressing the broader issues related to the tharavad and then responding to the questions of anyone who sought their help. The theyyams were not the only vehicles for the Gods. There were also the velichappadu, or oracles through whom the Gods sent warnings of impending calamities or a looming epidemic. It was with the help of these warnings and timely injunctions that the tharavad had negotiated the uncertain terrain of life.
Over time, Bhagavathy began to gain ascendancy in ritual matters. Perhaps she was particularly partial to the women of the tharavad, or perhaps it was the other way around. Young girls who had safely navigated the first couple of years of life would be publicly introduced to her at the thira. Elaborate ceremonies and animal or bird sacrifices were held for her. Members of the family, particularly the women, owned her, bargained with her, even held her accountable for the promises that she had made and not kept. Did I not do this as you required last year, then why did I experience such a nasty fall, they would ask. Did my hand not stay the large tree that would have fallen on your house, the Goddess would respond through the theyyam, what should have landed on you as a mountain of bricks was commuted to a small fall instead. Pleased and satisfied, they would turn to her with greater trust and increased devotion year after year.
The extended dry spell and the delayed monsoon were her doing, and they rushed to mollify her. A death by drowning was her exhibition of displeasure and no one ventured into the pond until she had been appeased. Her arrival at the southern door of the house was a sign that an aunt would die soon. And, indeed, within the next month she had collapsed and died due to an undiagnosed ovarian cancer. Bhagavathy had warned my mother in her dreams, the night before she was stricken by a very bad case of chickenpox, and had also promised to see her through. Each correct diagnosis was placed at her doorstep with gratitude, all else, the result of a wrong interpretation of the message, and accepted with humility. Thus, Bhagavathy, became a part of everything in their lives, providing strength to go on in hard times, and forbearance to deal with situations well beyond their control. Soon, the velichappadu too began to convey her messages exclusively.
Once, they had planned to visit other family members in Vadakara. All preparations were made for the long journey by boat. The journey was to start before daybreak. Lanterns were lit and ready, the accompanying attendants had all been summoned. The boats and the oarsmen were ready. They had already loaded up the boat with food for the group and the many sweets that were to be carried as gifts. My mother, her siblings and her cousins were hopping about the house in great excitement. Just as they began to step out, they heard the velichappadu’s shriek at the bottom of the hill. Instantly the family swung into action, opening the gates of the temple and lighting up the lamps. By the time the lamps were all lit, the velichappadu had already raced up to the gates. He dunked himself in the waters of the adjoining pond and picked up Bhagavathy’s sword that was always kept ready for him. Smiting himself repeatedly on the head with the sword, he warned, a calamity awaits, a calamity awaits! His red, slightly glazed eyes gleamed with an unnatural glow as he shook uncontrollably and collapsed. The Goddess had spoken. Without a word, the elders of the family returned indoors. The journey was cancelled. A thunderstorm rose up at daybreak and destroyed all the boats in its path.
The super cyclone had gained strength. The winds were reaching gale force now and the large peepal tree in the backyard was beginning to sway dangerously. The rain had picked up too. My mother stepped back into the house and shut the door behind her. It is here, she announced calmly, as our father tucked us in, reminding us gently that we were just on another unusual adventure. We had already finished an early dinner and pulled on a second pair of clothes over the ones we already had on. We had stored water to last us a week. A stack of candles and some matchboxes were already carefully wrapped up in a polyethylene packet and tied firmly to my mother’s sari. A torch and additional batteries for it had been purchased, wrapped similarly and tucked into my father’s pockets. A kerosene stove had been packaged and stored under a sturdy ledge in the kitchen, held in place by a heavy stone. A few well-sealed packets of rusks and biscuits and a couple of loaves of bread went in there too along with the modest ration of grain and pulses we had. There was little else left to secure; most of our luggage was still in transit. The two folding wire cots in the house were placed close together in the safest part of the house and piled up with all the additional clothes and beddings that we possessed.
The wind roared outside, tearing at the trees, the houses, the electric poles in its fury. It howled through the gaps in closed windows, until it managed to fling them open at first and then wrench them off their hinges. The window panes became dangerous missiles, swirling uncontrollably through the rooms. Petrified disoriented birds were helplessly blown indoors, along with the branches on which they sheltered. Rain water poured in through the gaping window frames. Cars and auto rickshaws parked outside crashed into the walls of houses. Power had been shut down and the battery-operated radio began to emit loud static noises. Weak sirens rang in the distant darkness, wailing helplessly. The British-era house that we occupied withstood the battering for much longer than expected. When finally the tiled roof collapsed on us that night, we remained safe in our little haven under the cots.
After the storm had passed, we found that our front and rear paths were blocked by massive trees it had uprooted. Our parents hoisted us children over the branches of the tree lying against our entrance and carried us to a vacant flat in the building across from our house. The city itself was completely devastated. A conservative estimate put the death toll at 10,000. Tens of thousands of people were missing and relief measures had to be organized on a military footing. It took a week for just water and electricity connections to be restored in our part of the city. Food packets were dropped aerially for weeks in the areas that remained cut-off due to the flood waters. Shock gave way to trauma. People began to assess their losses and find mechanisms to cope.
We too picked up the simple threads of our lives and carried on. A nilavilakku was placed at Bhagavathy’s feet during the thira next year, the large ceremonial lamp a token of our gratitude for guidance through the dark times.
Sneha Sudha Komath is a scientist and professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She has also written on gender issues in science. Birding and fiction are her hobbies.