My earliest memory of my mother’s hometown is of waiting.
Braving the heat of the noon, my brother, sister and I would wait impatiently at the gate for our grandfather to bring us the “pal-payasam” that gave the town its fame – straight from the cauldron, right after it was offered at the temple, before tourists clamored for their share. The payasam was a rich chocolate brown in those days, not rose tinted as it is now, perhaps because of the slow cooking wood fire and the unpasteurized milk from the grass-fed cows that roamed freely. We would squabble for extra helpings, making grandfather laugh… he knew that it was too heady for us to drink in large quantities. And sure enough, soon after a heavy lunch, and the payasam, we would all sink into exhausted sleep. Nothing much happened in the afternoons anyway, except the elderly folk chewing betel nut.
Unlike most of our friends, we did not have cousins, and our street of ambalavasi houses that bordered the temple seemed to me like one extended old age home. The able young had fled to the cities in search of higher education and better jobs, leaving behind fiercely independent aged parents, and a few stragglers who were interchangeably rebels or artists in their heyday. So we really did not have a choice but to make the temple our playground. We went there multiple times a day… in the morning to bathe in the temple pond with our uncle, then after breakfast to listen to “padhakam” – the witty retelling of Mahabharatha by the acclaimed Achuta Das, in the evening with parents, and at night once again to watch Kathakalis or fireworks or dance-dramas that were part of the festivities.
There was a gazebo (Kalathattu) in the center of the temple courtyard, which was always cool and breezy through some quirk of location. We would sit there with our storybooks, while people asked us the inevitable questions that pass for pleasantries “When did you come? When are you going?” The Kalathattu was also where the satirical Chakyar Koothu could be seen in the early morning, when we went back home, bleary eyed after staying up all night to see Duryodhana Vadham Kathakali. For some reason, we never got to see Ottam Thullal, though a stately memorial proclaimed Kunjan Nambiar as native to the town. On the southern side of the temple was a lengthy hall called “nadakashala” where free lunch – a sadya – was served to the public every day. This would often culminate in a bawdy food throwing tradition that I could never understand or condone. (For the record, I dislike pie throwing too.). Velakali, the other spectacle synonymous with the place was, I believe put on only once in 12 years. The slow, ritualistic warrior dance was kind of boring to us kids, until they went to the temple pond and performed what was called “Kulathil Vela“. Our uncle, who played the Ganjira, ( a supporting musical instrument) would at times take us to Nadaswaram kutcheris by Thakazhy Sivan – we never knew he was something of a celebrity.
The tarred road that flanked the house on the other side ran to Thakazhy and Karumady. One some afternoons, the gentle temple elephant, Ramachandran, would pass by and come home for his share of bananas and coconut palm fronds. He knew he was family. We were forbidden to cross the road because of the “fast passenger” buses that recklessly sped on to their destinations. But on the days we felt adventurous, we skulked out to the pier from where canoes and motor boats that plied the backwaters began their journey. If we were lucky, some kindly boat captain would let us hold the wheel and pretend that we were at the helm. The boat trip through Kuttanad was a practical alternative to locals, till the bridge to Changanassery was built. The railway line came later, transforming the backwaters to the tourist attraction that it is today.
My mother is inordinately proud of her hometown and its cultural heritage. I am at times amused and at others annoyed by what I see as her lack of acceptance of new places, including Trivandrum, where she lived her entire adult life. But today is Mother’s Day, and I can’t think of a better way to wish her and thank her than write about her best favorite memory – Ambalapuzha.