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Stories

   A Riverine Healing         

By P.G.Thomas.             

                              

It all came back to Pappan in spurts; the rasp of his own laboured breathing, the sound of the runners’ bare feet slapping the wet mud pathway, and the choking sensation of fear welling up within him.  The flaming torches had streamed acrid smoke and sparks, and had lit their way through their flight that night.  They threw distorted shadows of the runners along the dense foliage rimming the pathway.  It had been in the late 1940s, and Pappan and his communist comrades had fled the sure retribution for their uprising in Kerala. 

Pappan wished he could suppress the memories of the shrieks of the landlord he had hamstrung that night.  It had all gone terribly wrong, and they had fled the scene as the wails of the women of the landlord’s household reverberated into the night. The wails had stubbornly clung to him throughout his life, and had lost none of their horror. 

 Pappan looked up from his reverie to the visitors who sat outside his home on a wooden bench.  They had come from the local communist party office to invite this old legend of a comrade to participate in the golden jubilee celebrations of the communist uprising.  Pappan’s reluctance had baffled his visitors.

The group leader persisted, “Comrade Pappan, we so need your presence at the golden jubilee celebrations.  You were the foundation on which this movement was built in this area.”

Pappan demurred, “All that was a very long time back.  I have not been involved for some time now.”

“Many will be disappointed by your absence.”

Pappan grunted an understanding of the matter; but said nothing more.  From the wooden stool he sat on, he glanced at his daughter who squatted on the riverside.  With a soot-blackened clay pot next to her, she was gutting and cleaning fish for the next meal.  The unwanted parts of the fish that she tossed into the flowing river were snapped up by schools of river fish.  Cawing crows circled overhead and attempted to pick up the floating offal with their beaks, only to be outdone by the fish eagles gliding in to precisely grapple it up with their talons from the river’s surface.  This frenzied feeding was a daily ritual, and the wheeling birds and their aerobatics never failed to hold Pappan’s attention.  He wished a man’s sins could as easily be discarded as his daughter did the fish offal.  His grandson played around his mother, a cat skulked nearby in the tall grass as his daughter cleaned the fish.  She looked over her shoulders at her father, with eyes that understood his dilemma. 

Over seventy years ago; in the very same hut, his mother had delivered him on a reed mat spread across the mud floor.  His inheritance had been grinding poverty and caste discrimination.  He was flung into a life of wildness and petty theft that finally drove him from home at the age of twelve.  Thereafter, he had begged, pilfered and done menial work with a bunch of similar youngsters on the streets of the nearby town.  The communist movement had found in these urchins the ideal storm troopers.  When he turned twenty, Pappan had returned to his native hamlet; his earlier rebelliousness and acrimony now nicely shaped and directed to achieving the goals of the communist party.  Pappan had come home to transform his own little world!

He had visited his parent’s hut on returning.  His father’s unease with his grown son was evident.  His mother smothered her mouth with her work gnarled hands, and her tears flowed freely down her wrinkled cheeks.  Pappan murmured, ‘Amma,’ and then squeezed into her hands some grubby notes and coins.  Nothing more was said, and Pappan after a long look at the Meenachil river flowing near the hut, had walked away.

And then subtly things began to change in the sleepy hamlet.  Polite but incessant demands for higher wages came to the ears of the landlords.  The customary deference to their betters suddenly seemed to be given with reluctance. And then it had all come boiling out at the time of the rice harvest, carefully crafted by the communist party to stun the landlords. 

A dry wind had been blowing and it had turned the rice fields a golden brown. The paddy had bent over, heavy with ripe rice ears, and there was expectancy in the air.  It was the morning of the harvest.  Mathai, the landlord, had walked the short distance to his fields along with his supervisors.  They were greeted by the sight of their workers lolling on the grassy banks of the field.  None rose in respect, nor showed any inclination to begin harvest work.  A supervisor whispered into the ear of the landlord, “There seems to be a problem!”

The demands for increased wages and a larger share of the harvested rice were made by the workers.  Mathai wasn’t sure what upset him more; the unreasonableness of the demands or the sheer effrontery of the stipulations being made at the nick of harvest time.  But he bit down on his irritation and merely said, “There are time-honoured ways of dealing with such matters.  This approach is unacceptable.”  He was met by a deadening silence from the workers.  He turned back towards his home, and the workers quietly disbursed.  No harvesting was done that day.

Two days later, Pappan was disturbed at his morning ablutions on the banks of the river with the hushed words; “Mathai has brought in outsiders and begun harvesting his rice.” Pappan and his comrades had walked into Mathai’s rice fields and its welcoming committee.  They were outnumbered and they retreated.  That night someone broke the dykes along Mathai’s fields; and the river poured in to submerge the yet to be harvested portion of the paddy.  The class war was out in the open.  Threats and posturing soon degenerated into brawls.  The communist cadres disrupted work where they could, and strike breakers began resisting and meting out punishment clandestinely.   The countryside waited with bated breath, disoriented by this strange movement that had upended long established customs.

An expedition to Mathai’s to scare and demoralise him had gone horribly wrong.  The converging of flaming torches in the night had roused the landlord’s household.  But to Pappan’s discomfiture, he met not a cowed downed Mathai, but one brimming with righteous indignation and contempt for Pappan.  Something snapped inside Pappan; and in moment he had swung his curved razor sharp sickle to hamstring the landlord.  Screams rend the air and blood squirted.  The other comrades froze, stunned by Pappan’s impulsive action.  Someone grabbed Pappan’s bloody hands, “Enough, enough! Let’s go.” And they left Mathai writhing on the ground and his household wailing into the night.

They ran, they hid and they scrambled from safe haven to safe haven until they reached the forest.  Weeks went by.  The local magistrate had issued a warrant for Pappan’s arrest.  Helped by informers, they were arrested quietly by the police as they slept in their forest dwelling.  Pappan disappeared into the labyrinth of the Central Prison; a place staffed with policemen drawn invariably from the upper castes and landowning classes.  They needed little instruction on how to deal with communist prisoners. 

Years went by, and the communists won the elections and came to power in Kerala; and with that a policy change in dealing with political prisoners would see them released from prison.  Following this, a bedraggled, sick and broken Pappan had walked into his hamlet.  He quietly made his way to his now dead parents’ dilapidated hut by the river.  He was soon joined by a woman and a girl child.  No one knew where the two had met.  They repaired the hut and Pappan began the long journey to mend his body and mind, both broken by methods of torture carefully nurtured and finessed over generations by the police fraternity. 

His wife took jobs where she could find them.  The seasons changed. The rains came and the flooded river spread its rich loam over their small patch of land.  The bananas and vegetables planted by his wife sprouted and began to grow, and Pappan began to mend too.

His wife’s people once visited and the idea to buy a boat was broached, and some money given for it.  It would give Pappan a living; for there was always work for a boat and boatman on the Meenachil River.  Somehow the idea trickled out to the other villagers, and their community spirit was tickled.  It began to be mentioned at the tea shops, at the bathing ghats on the riverbank and even under the Peepul tree in the temple compound.

“Did you hear that a canoe is to be built for Pappan?”

“Haha!  And turn a revolutionary into a boatman?”

Someone slapped his thigh and cackled, “Aiyo!! What a fate for an old communist!”

“Come on. Give a man a chance to live.” And so went the prattle in the village.  But the idea of the boat took off.  An old, discarded tin, with a cloth stretched over the top and a slit for coins in it began to do the rounds. The tin started to fill.  Someone in a fit of impertinence carried it to Mathai the landlord’s house; to buy a boat for the man who had hamstrung him years back.  They came back abashed by Mathai’s generosity.  It had been the largest donation yet received.

A slipshod committee that argued much, and agreed on little was formed, and the tin with its rattle and clinking was finally carried to Pappan’s house to his embarrassment and to the delight of his wife.  Opinions were gathered on how to proceed. 

“We need to find a mature Anjillee tree (Wild Jack) to make the canoe from,” quipped someone.  A haphazard and desultory search began.  Such a tree was soon found.  The owner was paid and the tree felled.  An elephant was hired to carry the tree trunk to Pappan’s house.  And this communal project soon became the most exciting happening in the village in years.

A slightly rowdy crowd, along with the elephant carrying the tree trunk wound its way across the countryside.  Someone brought a battered drum and the whole began to take on the look of a procession.  Women and children gathered along the way and giggled at the funny procession, and as it passed the village toddy shop, part of the procession melted away for a drink.  But they were soon replaced by some from within the toddy shop; tipsy and more suited to the occasion.

By late afternoon they reached Pappan’s house.  The mahout shouted and prodded the elephant into dropping the Anjillee tree trunk at an appropriate place to be worked on.  Pappan’s wife with folded hands thanked the jubilant crowd, and gave the elephant a parting gift of ripe bananas. 

The axe thudded, the wood chips flew and loafers congregated at the site to offer unsolicited advice to the canoe builders.  The yellow Anjillee log was hollowed out, and it began to take on the shape of a sleek canoe, and hope began to course through the veins of Pappan and his family.  The summer months dried out the canoe wood, and it was finished with layers of stinking fish oil to waterproof it.

And on an auspicious day, when the river flowed low, a crowd gathered to witness the launch of the canoe.  A collective holding of breaths accompanied the canoe, as it slid through the mud into the river.  Built with no modern measuring instruments, but only on the principles of Thatchu Sastra, the traditional craft of carpentry, the canoe wobbled into the water and then paused; to float perfectly, with no tilt whatsoever.  A cheer went up, and even Pappan’s normally stony lips quivered into a smile.  Someone slung a marigold garland on the bow of the canoe, and Pappan’s transformation from a revolutionary to a Meenachil river boatman was sanctified. 

Pappan often left with the rising sun glinting off the river surface.  He paddled swiftly to pick up his boat load.  It varied from pilgrims during temple festivals, to bags of rice, hay or mounds of freshly harvested coconut at other times.  He rarely argued about the fare; but his quiet demeanour somehow ensured a fair settlement of his dues.

He grew familiar with the changing seasons and moods of the river.  His boatman’s skills were often tested by a rapidly flowing flooded Meenachil river, where the swirling waters inundated its mud banks or its silt built up banks anew.  The colour of the foliage along the banks changed from lush green during the monsoons, to duller shades of green and yellow during the simmering summer months.  He watched the migrating birds visit and disappear; to come calling again as nature’s invisible wand directed them.  He too grew sinewy and grizzled, but a sense of purpose and belonging imbued his life.

Work done, he would paddle home in the late hours, through the buzz of night insects and the occasional splash of a fish breaking the river surface.  His riverine path was lit by moonlight or starlight, until he reached his bit of the river front. The last bit would be guided in by a lit lantern unfailingly left at the landing by his wife or at other times, by the soft singing of evening prayers by his wife and child in their hut.  

Pappan remembered, but his visitors stirred impatiently at Pappan’s inscrutable silence.  His grandchild sensing the tension in the air sidled up to Pappan and climbed into his lap.  The oldest of the visitors rose and walked deliberately to Pappan’s daughter by the river.  He earnestly appealed to her to persuade her father to come to the 50th celebration of the communist uprising.  She remained silent for a moment, and then turning to him said: “Has he not done enough for the movement?  Please let him be.  He’s old and carries a heavy burden.”

The visitor reasoned, “Yes, things were done during the uprising.  But it was for a cause, and comrade Pappan need not feel so burdened about those things.”

She sighed and said, “Would that not be for the man carrying the burden to decide?”

The crestfallen communist visitors slowly trooped out.  They paused at the gate and looked back at Pappan.  He had not stirred.  He sat there quietly with his grandchild in his lap, gazing into the dusk that slowly enveloped the river.

Courtesy: Creative Commons

P.G.Thomas, hailing from Kerala, India; has been intrigued by the changing phases of his land, its people and their way of life.  He draws on a lifetime of actual experience to write about it.   

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Categories
Poetry

Products of War

By Mini Babu

PRODUCTS OF WAR

We walked to 
the other land,
holding unseen baggages,
lost in one country,
to the unwarm
edges of the other.

We held the
soil of memories,
inadequate to nourish
till 
homeland 
turns to
a distant tear.

Many of us
were born on the move.
Our women gave birth,
picked themselves up,
nurtured the children
in their arms
and walked on.
There was no leisure
for pain and labour.

What place will  
those born
during the move
claim as their 
homeland?

We are the products of war.
You find us everywhere.

Mini Babu is working as Associate Professor of English with the Dept. of Collegiate Education,Govt. of Kerala. Her poems have been featured in anthologies, journals and magazines. Her collections of poems are Kaleidoscope (2020), Shorelines (2021) and Memory Cells (2022).

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Categories
Poetry

Yellow Dahlias

By Anjali V Raj

Photo Courtesy: Anjali V Raj
YELLOW DAHLIAS

The dauntless rain is pouring outside
Like a clingy outstaying guest, reluctant to leave
Ignoring all the complaints, curses and abhorrence.
I can feel the decaying wetness in the weather
And it’s beginning to dig deep into my veins
I can feel the lethargy and disgust spreading
Looking through my window into the gloomy exterior
I spot something yellow within the shameless greedy weeds
Yes, I see bright yellow dahlias fighting for space
Reminded me of a florist’s words “only Dahlias grow in heavy rains”
I never planted them, but the Dahlias found their way somehow
Challenging the torrential rain with a radiant smile
I wish to be a yellow Dahlia, at least once in my lifetime.

Anjali V Raj is a natural science researcher from Kerala, India. She has recently published a few of her works on online platforms like Down to Earth, Café Dissensus Everyday, Borderless Journal and Times of India Reader’s Blog. Most of her poems are published on her WordPress blog (Outburst of Thoughts).

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Categories
Poetry

Murrel

By Syam Sudhakar

Murrel fish and its spawn. Courtesy: Creative Commons
Murrel

A monsoon afternoon.
I was coming back home
shouldering hunger and my bag.

Beside the road
the sun glimmered 
in the open drain 
and there bloomed a dream
in a flash of lightning. 
Unfazed by the rain or sun
with head high
a slick arrow, alone 
in its trajectory
darted with its tail
against the current.

Never had I seen
such frenzied motions
to claim a mate.
No shooting star could 
outshine its charm.
No warship could boast 
such feral grace.
Swift and agile,
gills throbbing with lust,
a finger of the night
dropped into the heart of noon,
the rhythm of water, an ecstasy.

I never encountered
anyone like him, ever again.

But after the rains,
in the field I saw
with a constellation of 
a thousand spawns
a radiant she-murrel.

Syam Sudhakar is an award- winning and widely  published young academician and bilingual poet from Kerala, writing both in native Malayalam and English. His poems are rich in native imagery and a sound pattern.

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Categories
Nostalgia Slices from Life

A Tale of Two Houses

By P Ravi Shankar

I was extremely upset and howling my head off. My mother struggled to keep me quiet. My parents had just got down at the bus stop and it was raining. It was a short walk to Laksmi Nivas. My mother was dragging me along and I was trying my best to turn around and run back to my paternal grandmother. The bus journey to the village had been miserable. The bus had ploughed through heavy rains and waterlogged roads. There were occasional claps of thunder and the tarpaulin sheets covering the bus windows offered scant protection against the rain. The bus was crowded and leaking. Puddles were forming on the floor.

My maternal grandfather’s house was a two-story mansion located in Thiruvazhiad (turn-away-goat could be a literal English translation) village, Palakkad district, Kerala. He had built it in the 1960s and had named it after my grandmother. The house was a combination of living space and granary. There were long passages which were used to store the rice harvest. Wood was prominently used in the construction. The house sat in a huge plot of land. There was a front yard and a huge backyard. The house was large, but the number of rooms were limited. There were only three bedrooms on the ground floor, and they were all dark and scary. There was a traditional dining room and a wood burning kitchen. A well and a huge bathroom completed the amenities.

There were three bedrooms on the top floor and a small attic above that. The rooms on the top floor were small with wooden windows and had excellent views across the backyard to the hills beyond. The rooms opened on to a common corridor in front. This offered excellent views of the road to Nemmara, the main town in that part. Traffic was sparse and our attention was captured by the buses to Palakkad town which ran at hourly intervals during the hot, lazy afternoons and at half-hourly intervals during the morning and evening. The village was situated in a cul de sac, away from the main hustle and bustle.

During the seventies, my grandmother had three to four helpers working in the house. Traditional stones were used to grind dough for idlis and dosas and we had a smaller stone to grind masalas or spices. There was a huge mortar and pestle used to pound grain. Physical labour and strength were important. I do not remember my grandfather (mother’s father) much as he had passed away when I was very young. My grandmother was a religious lady who used to read the Hindu religious epics daily. Later (late seventies and eighties) she was mostly confined to bed and suffered from Parkinson’s disease.

I enjoyed climbing the wooden staircase to the first floor with its curved wooden banister. I believed the darkness of the house and the rooms scared me and contributed to my aversion. As I grew older I grew more adapted to this house. The house was dark but stayed cool during the hot summers. The red tiles on the roof were charming. The windows had no glass panes and once closed they let in very little light. The long corridors encircled the rooms on the ground floor letting in very little light into the inner rooms. The furniture was mostly wooden, locally made, solid and heavy. My grandma’s room had a massive valve radio. Evenings were spent listening to the news and other programs on the radio. Old houses had dark storerooms which both fascinated and scared me.

My father’s house was located inside East Yakkara near to Palakkad town and the holy Manapullikavu temple was nearby. It is believed Brahmins performed yagnas (prayers) on the holy riverbed and the place was named yaga-kara (do yagnas) and eventually came to be known as Yakkara. In the seventies, this was a peaceful place with traditional houses. The narrow winding lanes and the paddy fields lend a rustic charm to the place. My father’s mother had purchased a house after they moved back to India from Malaysia where my grandfather had worked as an estate manager. My grandfather had died when my father was young. The house was renovated and, to my childish eyes, was charming. There were windows with coloured glass panes in the drawing room. The floor was coated with a red oxide powder which had to be reapplied regularly. Pink bougainvillea grew over the welcome arch and the bright yellow front door welcomed visitors.   

The best part of the house were the two rooms in the wing adjoining the kitchen. The house had doors and windows which could be opened only half. This I felt was an ingenious arrangement. Both my mother’s and father’s houses had doorsteps which were massive, and I used to trip on these often. I was not used to them. There was a dark room that did not open to the outside. My cousin would study there. Wood was still the cooking material, took time to catch fire and burn. It was like an astringent to the eyes. I still remember the hot summer afternoons. We had lunch in the hot dining room and by the time we finished I would be soaked in sweat. The rice was hot, the fish curry spicy, the fish fry crispy, and the pickles incendiary. The roof had a few glass tiles to let in the light and I watched fascinated the path of the light beams being made visible by the kitchen smoke.

The rains were my favourite time of the year. In those days it used to pour in Kerala. The rains continued throughout the day, and I enjoyed creating and sending out flotillas of paper boats in the rapidly flowing streams of rainwater. The weather was cool, and the smell of the Earth (petrichor) was mesmerising. I also remember the smell of fresh paint as the windows and doors often would have a fresh coat of paint just before our visits. Now with the national highway (NH47) passing behind the house, the area has changed totally. So many new houses have sprouted. And there are two large apartment complexes.

These two houses had character and solidity. I regret not having the opportunity to interact with my grandfathers (the patriarchs). The houses reflected in many ways the matriarchs living in them. With their illness, being bed ridden and their eventual passing, an era came to an end. These houses no longer hold the same level of fascination they once exerted on my young mind!

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Dr. P Ravi Shankar is a faculty member at the IMU Centre for Education (ICE), International Medical University, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He enjoys traveling and is a creative writer and photographer.

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Categories
Stories

Dawn in Calicut

By Krishna Sruthi Srivalsan

The call for fajr from the local mosque
Pierces the stillness of early morning,
The sruthi box in the puja room stirs awake.

It is dawn in Calicut. The house is quiet, except for the muffled sound of water from the washroom, where my aunt does her ablutions before prayer. She shuffles her way into the puja room and hurriedly shuts the door, careful not to let even a slice of light escape the room and disturb the rest of us. For the next hour, she will be in deep meditation.

Across my bed, I see Amaama. Wisps of white hair framing her toothless mouth, she seems peaceful. Sleep didn’t come to me easy the previous night. A long journey back home and the sudden shock of seeing my grandma succumb to inevitable illness, leaving both her mind and body fragile, have rattled me. I watch her, drifting away in the land of nod.

As the sun peeks out reluctantly from the rain clouds, she wakes up. She looks at me, a question mark on her face. “Do you remember me, Amaama?” I ask. She nods, but when I ask her to tell me my name, she mumbles. I realise that I have become unrecognisable to her. Even after watching her struggle with her memory for the past two years, this upsets me.

My aunt makes idlies for breakfast. I offer to feed Amaama idlies and sugar. It is the food of infants, but it seems like she is a helpless child all over again. After an hour, she quips in a plaintive tone, “I haven’t eaten anything.” We make her a cup of Horlicks and she smacks her lips appreciatively while sipping on the sweetness of the malt.

I spend the day sitting near her bed, reading, in an effort to forget the maze of memories that cloud my mind. I also feel vaguely guilty, though I can’t really tell why. Should I have called her more often when I was away? Should I have been more affectionate to her when she could remember? Could I have been a better grandchild? The regrets pile on, one after the other, and then I understand that the root cause of my guilt is the startling realisation that I never got to know Amaama as a person. All my life, she has been Amaama. What was she like as a child? What was she like as a young woman? What made her happy? Did she have any regrets? I will be in Calicut for the next two weeks and I determine to make use of that time to understand more. I speak to my aunts, pore through old photographs, try talking to Amaama herself.

                                               *

A little girl in pigtails and pinafore
Finds the greatest joy
In knitting needles and yarn.

My grandmother, Saraswathi Menon, was born in 1932. Her ancestral house is in a village called Kalapatti, in the district of Palakkad, in the foothills of the Western Ghats of southern India. Sarasu, as she is known to her family, was the fifth of seven children. Her father was an inspector in the public works department of the Indian Railways. The family moved between Tuticorin and Sucheendram, two towns on the tip of the Bay of Bengal, and Sarasu grew up in relative affluence. The first brush with hardship must have come at the age of eight, when she lost her mother, who at that time was hardly thirty-three.

Sarasu’s paternal aunt helped raise her, and she moved back to her hometown in Kerala with her younger siblings. As a teenager, she developed a lifelong interest in embroidery and knitting, spending all her time with her knitting needles and balls of yarn. She did not pursue studies after her high school matriculation exams; she did not pass the English examination and did not want to place a burden on the family’s dwindling finances by making another effort.

A memory of Amaama urging me to study flashes across my mind. At that point, she had self-deprecatingly joked that she had no buddhi and that’s why she didn’t study further. I think back and often marvel at how Amaama still aced the many challenges that life presented her, despite this lack of formal higher education. To think of the person she could have become with the right opportunities…

Barely out of her teens, Sarasu returned to Tamil Nadu, as a newly married bride. This time, she found herself in Trichy. I look at Amaama sitting in her bed, propped up by pillows, listening to a version of the Ramayana rendered by Kavalam Sreekumar. I try to jog her memory, and surprisingly, she offers a story of her Trichy days. Her eyes well up as she mentions hopping onto rickety buses that took her to the Rockfort temple and the Sriranganathan temple on an island in river Cauvery. She smiles as she remembers an old lady who taught her how to make murukku and other delectable goodies that she treated her daughters to after a long day at school. She remembers getting married to my Thatha, and accompanying him to the various towns that his job as a sales engineer demanded.

I try to ask more questions, but Sarasu’s spark has disappeared now, and Amaama cannot remember anything else. She can remember events that occurred more than thirty years ago, but she cannot remember what she ate this morning — how treacherous is this mind!

As Kavalam Sreekumar sings in the background, my aunt quietly tells me of Sarasu’s first born child — it was not my aunt, as I had always thought. Sarasu’s first born was a boy; they named him Ravi but they lost him to smallpox at the age of two. This news startles me again — how had Amaama coped with the loss of her only son all those years ago? He would have been the brother my mother never had. How little do we really know of those close to us!

Life blessed Amaama and Thatha with four other children, all of them girls. My aunt talks about the ridicule and pity heaped on her parents, Amaama in particular – “Four girls! No sons! How will you raise four girls?” They raised them with love, making numerous sacrifices, instilling in them courage, confidence, compassion, and a sense of fierce dignity, a determinedness to be independent. It is a testament to Amaama’s sacrifices that all her daughters, and by extension, us — my cousins and I — have reached so far.

                                                        *

Coffee stains on the table
A jumbled-up algebra problem
Anger turns into a ghost of regret.

The day has come to an end. I have learnt new things about Amaama’s life, and I can now see a glimpse of Sarasu, behind the shadow of Amaama. My mother lights the lamp and takes it to the entrance of the house, chanting “Deepam, Deepam!” It is auspicious to keep a lit lamp at the door front at twilight. The air is alive with the buzz of mosquitoes. Amaama is awake. I venture to sing an old bhajan which she used to love. She smiles, she seems to recognise the song, but she still cannot recognise me. Memories spring up from the cobwebs of my mind.

It is supposed to be a holiday for Amaama. Two months in Dubai with her youngest daughter, my mother. I am in grade 10, at the peak of schoolgirl rebellion. A few weeks before the all-important board examinations begin, we have study leave. With my parents away at work, I find myself alone with Amaama.

One morning, I am working on algebra, timing myself to see how quickly I could finish a sum. I hear a cup of coffee being knocked over in the kitchen, but I pretend not to hear. Amaama calls out for me, but I ignore her. When she calls me a third time, I can no longer ignore her, so I stomp into the kitchen, sulking. Not saying a word, I mop up the coffee stains, and slam the microwave to warm another cup of coffee from the flask.

Amaama has not spoken a word about my unreasonable behaviour. I know I have reacted badly, behaving like a spoilt child, but a false sense of pride keeps me from apologising. I hand her a second cup of coffee and try to study for the rest of the day. It is a completely useless day; my anger has now turned to regret and guilt.

When my parents return from work, I observe Amaama speak with them. Will she snitch on me, complain about the brat they raised? She remains quiet, does not say a word about me; instead, she asks them about their day and tells them about gifts she wants to take back from Dubai. I feel uncomfortable. I would have felt better if she had reprimanded me instead.

That night, I toss and turn in bed. Amaama and I share a room, and I hear her sob quietly into her pillow. Guilt engulfs me. I reach out to hug her and I begin to cry too. Amaama turns over and asks what is upsetting me. Exams, I mumble, not wanting to apologise. She hugs me tight and says “What is there to worry? You’re such a midukki kutty. God is always with you!” I sob into the softness of her sari and she says, “I was wondering why my midukki kutty doesn’t like me anymore!” I reply in my garbled Malayalam that I would always love her, but I still did not apologise.

Forgiveness has always been Amaama’s best friend.

                                                        *

Barefoot pilgrims walk to Pandharpur
Saffron flags fluttering in the wind
“Vitthal! Vitthal!” The palkhi bearers chant.

It is pilgrimage season in Maharashtra. Visiting my aunts in Mumbai after ages, we arrange for a trip to Shirdi. A road trip will take us at least six hours. Amaama cannot sit in a car for that long. We decide that the Shirdi trip can wait, but Amaama insists that we do not cancel on account of her. “I’ll stay alone. Will keep myself busy with TV and my books. And anyway, Padma will come for a few hours in the afternoon, so I won’t be lonely”, she says. I wonder what sort of conversation our Marathi speaking helper will have with Amaama whose vocabulary in Hindi (leave alone Marathi) does not extend beyond Kaise Ho! I tell my parents and aunts to go ahead, and I offer to stay with Amaama. “Nothing doing, you have to go see the Baba at Shirdi!” Amaama insists. I slowly understand where my mother gets her stubbornness from.

We set out at dawn the next day and reach Shirdi a little ahead of noon. We spend the next few hours in the temple town, offering our prayers, and soaking in the meditative stillness of the masjid where Baba lived — it is a salve to a weary heart. Before dusk sets, we leave Shirdi. We whizz past fields of sugarcane and cotton, growing in abundance, on the rich black soil of these lands, stopping for a quick cup of tea at Igatpuri. There is a thick shroud of mist, and my mind keeps wandering back to Amaama. What could she be doing, all alone in that flat?

We reach home an hour before midnight. The Matunga neighbourhood is quiet. Amaama is in her chair by the puja room, reading Narayaneeyam. “Did you get scared, Amaama?”, I ask. She shrugs away the question and asks me back, “What is there to get scared of when I have God by my side?” Faith has always been Amaama’s best friend.

*

The Nilambur river quietly chugs along
Through hills and fields and forests
And merges into nothingness at Beypore.
                                                    

It has now been three years since Amaama finally succumbed. Watching her struggle through ill health, losing control of her mind and memory, has been an excruciating journey for all of us. Ironically, death seemed to free her, release her from the terrible pain she endured for a few years. When I miss her a little too much, I turn to my phone which had faithfully captured a Boomerang video of her making a dosa when she was in better health. It reminds me of better days in the past when she would make bite sized unniappams, as dainty as the dimples on a toddler’s fist. Sometimes the grief of losing her is too much to bear. I think of a story I read as a child — something about a magic pot which kept cooking porridge for a hungry family. The family gobbled up the porridge, but the pot simply would not stop. It kept cooking porridge, till the porridge overflowed and flooded the entire city! Sometimes, my grief is like that. But then, I look at the photo of Amaama by my bookshelf. A sparkle in her eyes, and a half smile on her lips, she looks the picture of equanimity.

Many dawns have now passed by in that house in Calicut. Sometimes, during the monsoon season, I gaze at the grove of coconut trees outside. The wind rustles the coconut palms and the foliage sways, like dervishes drunk on divine nectar. Sometimes, a bubble of calm quietens an intense battle in my head. Sometimes, instead of holding onto an angry thought, I just let go, like the Nilambur river. In those times, I feel as if Amaama is watching me, from somewhere, where she is reunited with her beloved Krishna, where she can forever listen to the lilting melody from his flute, where she can watch him play by the Yamuna river. In those times, I feel as if her prayers and love have formed a protective shield, an invisible amulet protecting me from all perils. Love has always been Amaama’s best friend.

Glossary

Fajr – The first of five Islamic prayers, also known as the dawn prayer

Sruthi box – An instrument used in Indian classical singing to help tune the voice

Puja room – A shrine room for worship, religious rituals, prayers, and meditation in a Hindu household

Amaama – Malayalam word for grandmother

Idlies – Steamed rice dumplings, traditionally eaten as a breakfast dish in south India

Buddhi – Malayalam word for intelligence

Murukku – Savoury crunchy snack made from rice flour and lentils

Thatha – Tamil word for grandfather

Deeepam, deepam – The word “deepam” means lamp in Malayalam. In Kerala, at dusk, women carry lit lamps to the entrance of the house, chanting “deepam, deepam” in order to invite light and auspiciousness into their homes.

Midukki kutty – Malayalam term for smart girl

Vitthal – Form of the Hindu god Vishnu or Krishna, as he is known in the state of Maharashtra

Palkhi – Marathi word for palanquin. In this context, the verse refers to a yearly pilgrimage where devotees carry the sandals or padukas of the saint Dnyaneshwar from his shrine at Aalandi to the famous Vitthal temple at Pandharpur. The barefoot pilgrims carry the padukas in a wooden palkhi and the journey takes around 21 days by foot.

Shirdi – A town in Maharashtra, which is the home of Shirdi Sai Baba, a revered fakir or saint

Kaise ho! – Hindi phrase for “How are you?”

Narayaneeyam – An epic poem, comprising of 1,035 verses, narrating the life of Lord Krishna. The poem was composed in the 16th century by Melpathur Narayana Bhattathiri, a renowned Sanskrit poet hailing from Kerala.

Unniappam – Sweet dumplings made with rice, banana, jaggery and coconut


Krishna Sruthi Srivalsan is a chartered accountant by profession and is passionate about  books, writing, travel, and celebrating diversities, not in any particular order. She firmly believes that human beings should not strive to “fit in” when they are designed to “stand out”. She reads on a variety of subjects and genres and hopes to publish a novel someday.

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Categories
Essay

Here, There, Nowhere, Everywhere

Did life change or did I change from the events of the last year,’ ponders New Zealander Keith Lyons who was in the southern state of Kerala when the first cases of Covid-19 were detected in India last January.

Everything shifted last year. Priorities. Energies. Focus. 

Well, actually, there wasn’t much focus for me last year. For much of 2020, I felt unfocused, scattered, reactive. I was not achieving peak performance or being proactive going forward, if we were to use business language. I doubt if I was being the best version of myself either. I definitely needed to ‘pivot’, whatever that meant. 

What was initially a short holiday ‘back home’ to catch up with family and friends turned into something without a clear ending, as it dawned on me maybe I wouldn’t be travelling again for years perhaps, why, even ever. 

Usually, by May, I would be like the snowbird and migrate to warmer climes. I would head to my base in Bali’s Ubud, and then later in the year to southwest China and Myanmar, the three locations in Asia where I have caches of cotton shirts, swimming goggles, cycle shorts, hot water kettles, tea strainers and rice cookers. 

By November, I would surely be back in the country termed ‘the land of mystery, mysticism, mythology, miracles, multiculturalism and mightiness’ — India. 

When I left Kerala’s Varkala Beach near Thiruvananthapuram in February last year, after my last dip in the warm breaking waves, I always thought I would be back for chai at one of the cliff top cafes overlooking the gleaming ocean, the lunchtime Rs.90(US$1.25) thali at True Thomas and falling asleep to the whirl of the fan and the shushing of the Arabian Sea. 

But it didn’t happen last Indian winter, and I doubt if it will happen this year or even next. The seasons turn, the tides come and go, the waves roll onto the main Papanasham beach and the less-visited Black Sand beach. True Thomas is ‘temporarily closed’ according to Google. In fact, the Kerala beach destination was already impacted by Covid-19 in March 2020, when an Italian tourist visiting for a fortnight tested positive for the virus. The English boss of Coffee Temple Cafe had got in trouble with authorities for his blackboard offering of ‘Anti-Coronavirus juice’ (150 Rs) made from ginger, lemon, gooseberry. 

I wonder how the Tibetan and Nepalese who work in eateries during the season, November to May, are surviving. 

Mid-2020 I found myself unable to continue my digital semi-nomadic existence of following mild weather and hopping on AirAsia flights I’d booked up to a year earlier. Instead, because of travel restrictions during the pandemic, and my own wish to stay safe, I was lock-downed in my hometown in New Zealand, cohabiting with my parents in the house I’d lived in since aged eight years old.

A friend on Facebook sent me a message saying she couldn’t wait to walk down the aisle, with a photo of an aeroplane aisle. Another sent an image showing the perfect Covid-19 sport which requires masks, gloves and 2m distance: fencing. 

In the post from China, I received a couple of full-face snorkelling masks. In between the time of ordering and the arrival of the goods, on YouTube, there was a video on how to convert to meet the N95 respirator standards, or how to modify for use as an emergency interface with a ventilator. Researchers even had a paper in Nature about using Decathalon snorkelling masks. I wouldn’t believe much else on Youtube. What a shame that many do. 

From Bali last year, there were claims that it was one of the safest places in the world as the recovery rate was high, and mortality rate low, compared to other places. This was attributed to a mix of sunshine, high temperatures, and a better (superior) immune system. 

Sound familiar, my friends in India? Later someone posted a graph showing exponential growth, with the caption ‘Bali, what happened?’ 

New Zealand, as it turns out, has been largely protected from the ravages of Covid-19, thanks to closing the borders, a short lockdown, and citizens acting together as a ‘Team of 5 Million’.

This time last year I went on lots of walks, I gazed at cloud formations, and watched sunsets. I cut down scraggly trees, sorted through books, and gave away many of my parent’s possessions as part of downsizing. Of the bounty of childhood books I distributed, one was the beguiling ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’ by Edward Lear, penned 150 years ago, which my father would read to us when we were young:

The Owl and the Pussy-cat went to sea
In a beautiful pea-green boat,
They took some honey, and plenty of money,
Wrapped up in a five-pound note …

I even sold the family silver. 

My parents didn’t get Covid, and just last week, got the first of two Pfizer pricks in the upper arm (so far, only 10% of the population in New Zealand have received their first shot). 

What changed dramatically was their circumstances. An operation in hospital for my 85-year-old father to reverse a previous insertion of a stoma didn’t work out as expected, and in late June last year the one night back home after his surgery proved to be his last night in the house they bought in 1976. He left in the back of an ambulance. He is now in hospital-level care in a rest home, and his wife, my mother, lives nearby in a retirement village. 

Before his surgery, they considered selling the house and moving to the retirement village together, but undetected earthquake damage from 2010-2011 was discovered by the real estate agent, and I had to initiate a claim to have the damage repaired. 

Being back home, many things were familiar, some things had changed, a few things were strange. I had become the parent of my parents. My days revolved around sorting out their problems. Instead of my independent existence and free lifestyle, I found myself taking on family responsibilities. Yet I was glad that in a time of need, I had been there to do the things they couldn’t do easily. 

The year 2020 was unprecedented (and UnPresidented), with so many unknowns, so many surprises. Sharing a birth date with a friend from journalism school, we went for dinner with her family. Little did I anticipate it was the last time I saw her husband, a blood doctor, who died suddenly during a video consult with a patient. 

My side hustle — a small travel agency working with ethnic minorities in southwest China — got its first inquiries in June last year. Several guides urged me to keep it open, as it was their main source of income. Before that, I hadn’t received any inquiries for the first part of 2020.

Several of the publications I usually write for have gone into hibernation, and some projects are on hold indefinitely. Before a job interview last week, I had to reflect on what I have been doing with my life. Or at least, the last 15 years. 

But what do I do these days? I swim most days, some days join a friend at the gym who wants to improve his heart. I drink one cup of coffee a day, recently, made from green coffee beans I’ve roasted in a popcorn machine. At least once I week I go out to have an Indian meal. This week it was a Kerala thali of a dozen delicious parts. Last week my friends ordered a family dosa, which had to be carried to the table by two waiters. 

My parent’s house is now my house, and each day I attend to its restoration and renovation, learning new skills of skim-coating, tiling, and concreting. Each month I get an email reminder that most of my AirAsia BIG Loyalty points are expiring soon.

Spending time with those I love is more important for me these days. We speak more frankly about what really matters. I’ve even started attending Death Cafe events, where anyone can share about their fear of death. 

Through it all, I feel like I am becoming a better friend to myself. I am my own guru. I am my own Jedi Master — it was just that I didn’t realise it before. I’ve learned to better cope with the challenges of life. As Jedi Master Yoda once said: “Named must be your fear before banish it you can”.

All I have to do is breathe. Breathe in. Exhale. Repeat. 

Last year, just a week after traditionally the coldest day of the year (one month after the shortest day), I saw my first golden daffodils, the yellow trumpets signalling that the winter had been mild, and that the warmer days of spring were not far away. 

Today on my way to the swimming pool, weeks before the solstice, I spied a row of daffodils in a neighbour’s garden and had to smile. I don’t know what the future holds, and I acknowledge that things will not return to normal like before. Yet I walk on, carrying in my heart hope, not so much as wishful thinking or expecting a positive outcome, but knowing that whatever the rest of 2021 and beyond throw up, no matter how disruptive, that the only way out is through it. 

Keith Lyons (keithlyons.net) is an award-winning writer, author and creative writing mentor, with a background in psychology and social sciences. Keith was featured as one of the top 10 travel journalists in Roy Stevenson’s ‘Rock Star Travel Writers’ (2018). He has undertaken writer residencies in Antarctica and on an isolated Australian island, and in 2020 plans to finally work out how to add posts to his site Wandering in the World (http://wanderingintheworld.com).

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Categories
Poetry

Amour

By Nithya Mariam John

Amour

Search for vacant spaces in your beloved’s eyes.

No, you won’t find those easily.
Like the young ones under a hen’s wings,
she hides her emptiness beneath her eyelids,
which never forgets how you kissed the eyebrows, once upon a time.

If you look deeply into the wells of her resonating laughter,
you can draw waters of bare desires and deferred passions.
You are never blamed for the act, neither is she guilty of it --
 being blank, is not sinful.
It lies like an open wound, gaping at the skies,
eclipsed by the penetrating sun.

Kiss the hollowness gently,
but never try to step in.

Please watch the barrenness from afar,
do not barge inside, nor scar her privacy,
with your sharp tongue.
For if you do,
she may let you in,
but you will always be the unwelcomed thief, 
who’d robbed her of the last inch of the planet,
which she had painfully reserved for herself.

Dr. Nithya Mariam John is a teacher, poet , editor,  translator and critic with three published collections of poetry and an anthology. Her works have appeared in Kendra Sahitya Akademi’s Journal of Indian Literature, Malayalam Literature Survey, Muse India, Indian Ruminations and Samyukta Poetry. She podcast eight episodes titled ‘Torn Pages of a Diary’ during the pandemic year 2020. She blogs at Mizhi (nmjs.in). email : nithyamariam@gmail.com 

PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL. 

Categories
Musings

Notes from Kerala: Running during COVID

By Shevlin Sebastian 

Every day, at 6 p.m., I set out from my home in Kochi for a run. In these coronavirus times, I have marked out a route that runs parallel to the main road. For a few days, the cops, in khaki uniform, were stopping cars and two-wheelers but they left the individuals alone. 

I have started running after a decade. During those years, I was swimming. But the pool, where I swim, is closed. The lifeguard has gone home. The club is shuttered. There is a lone watchman in a blue uniform standing at the gate and saying, “Nobody is here.” 

In my mid-fifties, it takes time for my body to move. The legs are stiff, and movements in the arms are negligible. But around 300 meters into my run, a miracle happens. My body shakes off the lethargy, my legs start moving rhythmically, and soon I am gliding across the road. A younger version has taken over. Or maybe, my muscle memory has asserted itself. 

It is a beautiful route. There are large trees with overhanging branches on either side.

Most houses have lawns in front where red and white roses bloom. In some homes, there are vegetable patches at the back. In the concrete jungle of Mumbai, you may have to pay crores of rupees to enjoy this. But in Kochi, these are the houses of middle-class people. How lucky we are!  

Over the rasping of my breath through my open mouth, I can hear birdsong. No longer are auto and car horns and the groaning exhaust of ill-maintained lorries the dominant sound. When I run, I no longer have to look at the road, as no vehicles are coming from the opposite direction, just a stray white dog who looks at me with mournful eyes as if asking, “Where have all the people gone?” 

But they are there, inside their houses, and outside too. 

I see a woman picking up a large blue bedsheet from a clothesline on the terrace of her house. I see a thirty-something woman, in a white nightgown, standing at the door, holding a sleeping baby, with a white headscarf, in her arms, and looking curiously at me. On another terrace, a woman is watering her plants, placed on the parapet, a row of red pots, using a green hose. “Nice colour contrast,” I think. 

On this hot, April summer day, with more than 95 per cent humidity, perspiration starts to drip down my forehead. My breath is rushing out, like water from a burst pipe, through my open mouth. Incredibly, at this moment, I think of my mother. 

Last night, when I went to meet her, she said she was thinking of her father. She said the entire family had gone to the St. Alphonsa Pilgrim Centre at Bharananganam (75 km from Kochi). “My father was about to fall into a deep pit, which was hidden under a canopy of weeds,” she said. “But at the very last moment, he bent and saw it. He said that St. Alphonsa had saved him.” 

It is a big family — many brothers and sisters. A few are scattered all over the world. Three have passed away. Her parents are both dead. Their house has become a private college. Where my grandfather used to sit in a low armchair, a short, squat man, with silver hair and a bald brown patch at the top of his head, in a large hall, where the tick-tock of a large black clock on the wall could be heard clearly, now college students come and listen, with drooping eyes, to the drone of a teacher, who looks bored and sounds listless. He’s been teaching the same syllabus for decades. 

As my mother spoke, I realized that she is an orphan. She can never meet her parents anymore except in her imagination. And in a matter of years, I will be an orphan too, as my father is now 93 and my mother is 83. What would life be like without parents? A friend, who lost his parents, told me that you think of them more when they have passed away rather than when they are alive. 

I run faster and expectedly I can feel a pain in my lungs, as my body tells me to slow down. And so I do. 

I am depressed. I have lost my job in the print media, and my 38-year career seems to have come to an end. What do I do now? Owing to the virus, the economy is at a standstill. And so am I. 

I have a daughter and a son in college. Early marriage, but late parenthood. Two miscarriages roiled my wife’s equanimity. But finally, after nine years of marriage, and several treatments at various fertility centres, God nodded and the babies came. But now, how do I pay my bills, their bills, our bills? Thankfully, my wife has a good job as a counsellor in a college. So, we won’t starve. 

Unfortunately, we have a bitter-sweet marriage. The pattern is one week of sweetness followed by three weeks of sourness. This routine has continued for a long time. “You are too self-absorbed,” she said. “I can’t handle it.” 

We have been married for 27 years.   

I partly agree with her. All writers go inside themselves all the time. You lose touch with the outside. You lose awareness of people and their emotional needs. Which woman likes that?

Since I have slowed down, my breath, through my wide-open mouth, has begun to go in and out easier. One day, there will be the last breath. Which day, month and year will it be? At what time? How old will I be? Who will be around me? Will I be in a hospital room all alone? Will my children be far away? In another country? Will they have any affection left for me? 

And will my wife be still around? Will she be staring at me, by my bedside, as I get ready to leave the planet; will it be a bittersweet moment for her? Sad that I am dying but happy for some crumbs of freedom after I am buried — free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty I am free at last. 

And nobody will point fingers at her, which might have happened if we had divorced. These accusations could have been shouted at her by relatives or our children. But this is the smoothest way to freedom. The bugger died. Not my fault. 

I feel my legs starting to move smoothly again. I think this is a second wind. If I want, I can stop. But I know I can continue if I keep going in this steady manner. Now my body has become like a machine. Of course, it is an ageing machine. 

It was my friend Sanjay who introduced me to running. I was a frail boy with black-framed spectacles, who liked to read books all the time. A nerd. He lived two buildings away on a street beside a large park in Calcutta. I don’t know how we first met, but we were in our teens. He was 6’ and I was 5’ 5”. And he had a passion for tennis. He played it every day at a club inside the park. And to keep fit, he would go for runs on the perimeter of the park. He urged me to come with him. 

“I have never run before,” I said. There is always a first time, he said. So I asked my parents to buy me a pair of white keds, and they gladly did so. They did not like me staying cooped up inside the house all the time. A shy boy with no friends. 

But when I started running, it was a revelation. I had a smooth style. Always, from the very beginning, I felt that I was gliding over the ground. “Man, you are good,” said Suresh, who showed thumbs up to me. There was a reason for his appreciation. He ran in a heavy lumbering way. Of course, he was 85 kgs and this weight proved a hindrance. It came as no surprise that through the decades, he never liked running. 

But I am sure he likes his present-day life a lot. He is a tennis coach at a millionaires’ club in Florida. Through shrewd real-estate deals and stock investments, Suresh has made a pot of money. He lives in a gated community that has a clear lake, an amber-blue swimming pool, a well-equipped gym and a gleaming black Mercedes Benz in his garage. But he has stayed in touch. Calls me once a month. Has retained his Indian accent and simplicity. When in the mood, both of us speak in Bengali, as a nostalgic tribute to our Calcutta roots. A Rajput and a Malayali speaking in Bengali. That’s the beauty of a syncretic India, now under furious attack by fundamentalists who are unwilling to accept that the people they demonise have a soul just like them. 

I am running steadily now. Three elderly men, in white and multi-coloured lungis, stand around, keeping the social distancing norms (Kerala has the highest literacy rates in India, so they know the rules) and chat about the hot weather. I go past. They pause to look at me. May make comments about me after I have gone some distance away. It does not worry me at all. But what I am worried about is the state of my knees.   

A decade ago, fearful that my knees would take a hit since I was always running on tarred roads, I shifted to swimming. And this turned out to be even better than running. Gliding through the water, every muscle getting a workover, especially the lower back, always a point of weakness for sedentary workers, the sense of rejuvenation I felt when I stepped out of the pool after a 45-minute session. There was nothing to match it. My brain became soaked in dopamine.   

And the moment my head hit the pillow, I was out, like a knockout blow to the chin by a professional boxer. 

But now, in the times of the virus, I have to rely on the good old legs but the dopamine that seeps out is a trickle, like the flow of water in a river during the middle of a drought. Still, something is better than nothing. Be happy.  

In the end, I stop running and take out my handkerchief and wipe my face and neck. And keep wiping it as the sweat continues to flow. I walk and walk, till I finally reach my home….an oasis as well as a battlefront.   

Shevlin Sebastian is a journalist based in Kochi. He has published around 4500 articles over 30 years, most of them feature stories. He has worked in Sportsworld magazine, (ABP Group), The Week magazine (of the Malayala Manorama Group), the Hindustan Times in Mumbai and the New Indian Express in Kochi and in DC Books, Kottayam.