M T Vasudevan Nair has written extensively and in detail about his native village of Kudallur in Palakkad district. His readers are familiar with each and every place and characters in his stories, most of them based on real people who lived in the village, on the banks of Bharathapuzha, during MT’s childhood days.
“We came this way, which is some distance off our route, as it leads to my own village. It is where the mad Chathanassery Parangodan lived. Along the way, the thalappoli pala (a type of Indian Devil tree or Alstonia scholaris) tree can be seen. Mechilparambu, where a pretty girl accompanied me during a drizzle, is just across. Beyond it is Thannikkunnu. Below it is where I spent my childhood. It was a place teeming with Kannanthali flowers…” MT wrote.
But now, the Kannanthali flowers (Exacum tetrgonum) as well as thalappoli pala has vanished. The Nila, which MT has referred to as a mighty river, now virtually resembles a desert. Still, a sense of awe descends on a visitor to Kudallur as it is the birthplace of a writer of MT’s stature. The village, which is dear to MT, has narrow paths, houses with dark rooms, hillocks and the banks of the river where stories lay hidden. MT had taken up the challenge and drawn out the stories.
A walk through the village makes visitors remember the boy who lived in a dilapidated house adjacent to the paddy field. He sat near the stairs, reading again and again what he had written and dreaming about what he wished to write about next.
Any reader visiting MT’s village would be eager to visit the hillock of Thannikkunnu and the ancestral house of the author below it. During MT’s childhood, in front of the house was a paddy field and beyond it the road. Next to it flowed the river. But now all the paddy fields have been filled. The new natural gas pipeline has been laid across this area.
Visitors, who are familiar with MT’s stories, will be surprised to see the Thannikkunnu in the present state. The hill, where kannanthali flowers bloomed and were picked up by youngsters before dawn, is now almost barren. There are a few drooping trees and dry leaves on the ground. The breeze hardly blows. On the slopes of the hill, some isolated houses can be seen. During summer, it is blazing hot and the place is almost abandoned.
But one can hear footsteps. Maybe it is Sethu or Sumitra with her herd of goats or Unni Namboothiri or Madhavammamma or the gambler Konthunni Nair or Appunni or Parukkutty or Seythalikkutty or Muthachi.
Characters - real as well as fictional - appear as if in a dream. They include Meenakshiyedathi, the mad Velayudhan, Kunjathol, Kuttammavan, who related mythological stories, Padmanabhettan and several others.
The vacant house below the hill is ‘Madath Thekkeppatt’, MT’s ancestral house. The name is written on a gate, which has been detached and kept on the compound. It is a two-storeyed tiled structure painted brown. It was built by MT’s elder brother about 30 years ago. The old house were MT lived was a ‘nalukettu’. The present house, built at the same spot, also exudes warmth and has its own charm. The spot where the Goddess Machil Bhagavathy had been installed was retained while the new house was built.
Several trees offer green cover to the compound. It was where MT’s childhood was spent. Steps descended from the compound to the paddy field. MT had written that the river could be seen beyond the field and the road. Once, when the Nila flooded, its waters had almost reached the steps of the house. However, nobody can imagine such a situation now. A look at the house reminds visitors of Sethu, who returned to the place after several years. He had looked into the house where narrow rays of light streamed in through gaps in the window. He felt that the time was remaining still in the rooms. The scent of antiquity prevailed in the interiors.
Madathu Thekkepattu once had 64 inmates and buzzed with activity. It was thatched with hay and had a barn with a tiled roof. It later fell into decay. The members of the family left the house one by one and the entire place became quiet. The souls of the grandmothers, mothers, uncles and aunts mentioned in MT’s stories probably still remain in the house. In this house, once lived a mother who loved to cook and serve for a large number of guests. But she struggled to find means to feed her own children. A prosperous past when the barn was full haunted her. Her son had eagerly looked forward to bursting fire crackers worth Rs 2 during Vishu, but was disappointed.
Real people in MT’s stories
On both sides of MT’s ancestral house, modern residences have come up now. Many of them are owned by MT’s relatives. Behind the houses is the Thannikunnu hill. But a visitor is curious to trace Illapparambu and the several ponds mentioned in his stories. Vadakkeveedu, the house where mad Velayudhan was chained, is another attraction for MT’s readers. But does it still remain?
MT’s nephew M T Raveendran guides visitors and relates several episodes from local history which is intertwined with many of the legendary writer’s stories. “The Vadakkeveedu has more significance than being the house where Velayudhan of ‘Iruttinte Athmavu’ lived. The character Konthunni Nair in ‘Naalukettu’, who lived in Vadakkeveedu, was in real life one of our uncles. He had four daughters, but Appunni was MT’s creation. The death of Konthunni Nair by poisoning after he was cheated in a partnership business and the character Seythalikkutty are real. The old 'illam' (house) was on the southern side, but it was later demolished and a new house built. The Vadakkeveedu was also brought down,” he says.
“Madhavammamma, the character in ‘Kalam’, was created based on our own uncle Kuttammamma. There are several other real people who have been turned into characters by MT in his stories. However, obviously, not everything can be revealed as many of them belong to our own family,” he adds.
MT has written about the stunning view from the top of Thannikkunnu. The spot where the Nila and the river Thuthapuzha merge and where boats land could be seen. The train passing across the Karunoor Bridge was also in the view. However, now the Nila seen from the top of Thannikkunnu is a trickle amid a wide expanse of dry sand. Narimalankunnu that MT has mentioned in his stories is now a hill with all its greenery dried up. Earth-moving machines have now flattened large parts of the hill and quarries are destroying the remaining tree cover, eating away its soul. Raveendran says MT rarely visits his native place nowadays, probably because he does not want to see the decay that the river and the village have fallen into.
Malamalkavu and its blue lotus
The peepal (sacred fig) trees in front of Malamalkavu temple offer some relief from the hot sun. Time stands still on the granite steps leading to the pond in front of the temple. MT studied at the Malamalkavu LP School. Manavedan, the manager of the temple, relates the story connected to the pond. “This is the pond where the blue lotus blooms. Its real name is ‘Chengazhineer’ flower and is actually pink in colour. The ‘blue’ lotus is MT’s imagination. He also created the myth that if one prayed for a wish to come true and kept an offering of money in front of the shrine, a blue lotus bloom in the pond the next day,” says Manavedan.
The main deity of the temple is Lord Ayyappa. The flower is used for the rituals at Shaivaite temples. It will bloom the next day after money is kept at the shrine with prayers, says Manavedan. On some days, up to eight flowers have bloomed. However, devotees do not offer of money to the temple to make the lotus bloom. On some occasions, money has been kept in front of the shrine to get the flower needed for conducting rituals and every time, the blue lotus has flowered. “Now, the flower is grown at a deep corner of the pond which has been protected with grills,” says Manavedan.
He also recalls the shooting of two films based on MT’s story. “The first ‘Neelathamara’ - blue lotus - was picturised here. But when the producers of the remake film sought permission to shoot inside the temple premises, we refused. They filmed some scenes from the exterior,” says the manager.
Malamalkavu temple premises are deserted when the temple is closed. A vintage feel prevails all around, adding to the attraction of the temple. No tiles or cement has been laid on the circumambulation paths in an attempt to give a modern look to the temple.
The ponds of Kumaranelloor
Any admirer of MT’s works reaching Kumaranelloor would be seeking the cool air surrounding the ponds. Many of the ponds have now vanished, but some still survive and remain filled with water even during the height of summer. The ponds at Ametikkara and Eranjikkal have survived the onslaught of time. MT, as a teenager, used to reach here regularly for a dip.
The road that goes up from the town leads to the Kumaranelloor high school, where MT studied. A reader cannot but remember Vasundhara while visiting the place. MT has written about her jewellery as well as the mandaram flower (Bauhinia acuminata) that adorned her long hair. She used to give a contemptuous look to the boys and walk away with the girls proudly like a queen.
MT has recalled an 18-year-old Vasudevan Namboothiri joining the school and also about the enrollment of his sweet heart Yashodhara at the same school. They used to reach and leave the school together. In the music class also, they were together in singing.
It is believed that the best pond in Kumaranelloor area was built by Panancheri Vasudevan Namboothiri. This love affair MT witnessed during his teenage days was recreated as a story in which Yashodhara became Vasundhara.
The temple pond at Ametikkara has survived the travails of time. One wonders whether it still does hide several other tales of love under its moss-covered surface.
Numerous stories were picked by MT from a small village like Kudallur. Spots like Vazhavilambalam, Koothambalam at Aariyampadam and the Kodikkunnathu Bhagavathy temple, where the shrine of Paradevatha existed are all part of MT’s tales. The Guruthiparambu mentioned in MT’s ‘Sthalapuranam’ is also connected to Bhagavathy, the Goddess.
MT derived inspiration from the local folk tales, history, myths, legends, the river, the earth, paddy fields, people as well as flowers of this agrarian village. A reader wonders what all stories are yet to be revealed; which all elements that could provide inspiration still remain…
A dying Nila
The Guruthiparambu is on the route to Velliyankallu along the banks of the Nila. It is now protected with a compound wall. Parukkutty and Konthunni Nair of ‘Naalukettu’ come to one’s mind. Parukkutty used to pass this way trying not to look at Konthunni Nair, who sat on a resting stone. The Guruthiparambu, which was a witness to their courtship, is still there. Though the resting stone has disappeared, the peepal tree that provided shade remains at the same spot.
Near the Guruthiparambu lies the barren Nila. It presents a heart-wrenching sight with undergrowth even in the middle of the once-mighty river. All its sand has been mined away. MT has written about the beauty of the river bathed in moonlight during summer. He had taken up the cause of the dying river and pleaded for measures to save it. Realising that all his efforts were in vain, MT had later said that he would never take up the issue again. But the writer did finally come out with a work on the Nila – an elegy.
Now, Keralites have no right to describe the Nila in superlatives. At Koolakkdavu, where boatmen used to ferry people across the river for centuries, the river has narrowed down and is barely visible. The country boat is virtually abandoned and lies upturned, covered with a plastic sheet. Until some three years ago, an elderly boatman named Majeed was engaged in his task at the place and had been doing so for the previous three decades.
No rallies or processions were taken out demanding steps to save the Nila. When all the sand had been carted away, sand mining was banned. But even now the remaining sand is being carried away, according to the local people. The sight of little children taking the sand in sacks too is not an uncommon sight, they say.
Local belief has it that divine beings like gandharvas and apasaras roamed over the river during moonlit nights. But, at present, the undergrowth on the dry river bed is the haunt of bootleggers and card players. Pits formed by sand mining have exposed the soil beneath, creating pockmarks on the landscape. Some efforts are being made to rejuvenate the river but a visit confirms the worst fears regarding the Nila. MT had built Aswathy, a house near the banks of the Nila, wishing to get the feel of the river from close quarters. But now, there is no trace of water in the river in front of the house.
The local people at Koottakkadavu express disappointment as well as helplessness. “The river’s plight started 10 to 15 years ago. Lorries from Tamil Nadu lined up to carry away sand. Protests against sand mining bore no results due to the influence of political and industrial lobbies. The governments that came to power subsequently claimed to have spent crores of rupees to give a rebirth to the river. But we wonder where all the money has gone,” they say.
It is not the magic of MT’s stories that lingers in one’s mind while returning from Kudallur, but a deep remorse. Anger rises and hopes evaporate. As MT wrote, the river lies barren, like a bleeding lifeless body, dreaming of an unlikely flood that would bring it back to life.