Saturday, January 10, 2009

Shared Traditions, Shared Fortunes: Exploring the Cultural History of Kozhikode

EARLIER THIS week came two of my best friends, John Samuel of Action Aid from Bangkok and Bobby Kunhu, a human rights lawyer from Pune. Bobby has his roots in Kozhikode as he is the great grandson of our best-known freedom fighter E Moidu Maulavi though he has been born and brought up in Tamil Nadu. John has been a globe-trotter ever since he left his village in south Kerala and he is one of the most effective leaders of the global civil society movement.

This visit has been pending for almost one year and ever since John expressed his desire to spend a day or two in Kozhikode, I was thinking about what should I show him and where should I take him. It was not an easy thing to decide, because John being as familiar as a fish in water in the first world charms in Washignton DC and the exotic pleasures in Malawi's villages or Bangladesh's marooned mangroves, what could I single out in this most familiar city of ours where a normal visitor cannot find anything particularly exciting?

Then I remembered about our history; our long, variegated and rich history that transcends many centuries, numerous historical phases of our global human heritage, where it freely mixed and interacted, giving rise to an exotic, original culture which seamlessly accommodates various streams within, which nowadays people describe as a syncretic culture. In a world of ethnic cleansing, a world of racial hatred and mono-cultural prejudices, I realized that we do have something unique here, something wonderfully original, something about which we should be proud of.

Thinking about it I could see that everyday as I traversed this city's length and breadth, concerned about nothing more sublime than my own bread and butter, I was moving through exquisite realms of history, through rich streams of cultural and civilizational give and take, an unending process of aadan-pradaan to which I never spared a moment all these years...! (That again reminds me of the story of the donkey who used to carry most exquisite flowers on its back to the temple every day, but he had no nose for its rich smells...)

It was like rediscovering my own identity. In my school days history was my favourite subject and I marvelled at the great past of Rome, of Constantinople, of Delhi and so many other cities I had not had a chance to visit. I have read Orhan Pamuk's wonderful book on his city, Istanbul, and often dreamed about its picturesque streets and buildings, ruminating about the beautiful and expansive Bospherous, all the time forgetting about my own city's thousand years of history that is written in its temple walls, five hundred years of heroic struggles against alien invaders etched on its sea-front battlements and charred remains, its unique dalliances with the ebb and flow of human civilization that is marked in its every inch...

I made an attempt to fill my guests with this unceasing cascade of history that permeates every part of this city as I took them on a quick trip from north to south, from Panthalayini or Fandarini in Arabian records which is a small port north of Koyilandy, some 30 km away from Kozhikode, to Beypore, on the southern tip.

Panthalayini, a natural port, was famous in the ancient world and Arabs used to anchor here over a thousand years ago. Historians say it was here Vasco da Gama actually landed though his ship was later taken to Kappad or Kappakkadavu, a little to the south. Panthalayini keeps its historical memories fresh with place-names that remind you of the trade that flourished here, the streets where Arabs and even Chinese set up camps. Even today there is a place called Cheenatheru, or China street, in this place, say local people.

Travelling southward, one comes across the temples of Puthur and Varakkal, both Devi temples, mentioned in Portuguese records as Gama was taken to both these places of worship by his local guides and he obviously thought they were churches of Mary the Immaculate, and did not hesitate to offer his prayers there.

Then you suddenly enter the world of colonial English who came to Malabar in 1792. With Arthur Wellesley and his English East India Company taking over the region, it is a new age of colonial rule with the Portuguese, French and others either sidelined or pushed to the peripheries like French Mahe some 60 km north, or even Goa, further up in the Konkan coast.

West Hill and East Hill still retain a colonial ambience, with a number of British buildings that include the two early 19th century tiled and slanted-roof structures atop the eastern hill, that today serve as the Pazhassi Rajah Museum and the Ravi Varma Art Gallery. The main building used to be the camp office of the Malabar Collector in colonial days and it was here Conoully, who dug the Conoully Canal that links the city from south to north, was done to death by Mappila rebels. The 19th century was a period of long and bloody confrontation between the British rulers and the Mappila rebels in south Malabar, and the Mappilas were officially termed a criminal community, their movements were strictly controlled, the ubiquitous Mappila knives were banned, and the Moplah Outrages Act was brought in to punish them and the Malabar Special Police, the notorious MSP, was set up to crush them.

On the way to East Hill stands the old Bank House, now known as Express House, after Indian Express took over the colonial villa that used to be the residence of the manager of the British- owned Chartered Bank, the only imperial bank in the city for long. Even after most of the old British buildings were pulled down in the city, this beautiful two-story building that has large rooms and open windows and verandas on all four sides remained in a 70-cent plot with scores of mayflower plants giving it shade, and an atmosphere of explosive colour of red in the summer seasons. It had two massive rooms in the ground floor and two huge bed rooms surrounded by a long veranda on all sides at the upper floor, with spacious bathing tubs done in exquisite tiles. (It was in 1990 that Indian Express took it over and since I was the representative of the newspaper in the city at that time, it was my residence for over a year. From the loose tiles I saw there, I conclude that it was built in late 19th century or early 20th century by A P Chirukandan, a famous contractor, as the mark APC is seen on the rear side of floor tiles. The building today has changed beyond recognition, all its trees cut down and the entire compound converted into a printing press since 1992.)

(This is the first part of a series on history of Kozhikode. The second part will appear next week.)


Unknown said...

G P Ramachandran writes:

great writing.

Unknown said...

John Samuel writes:

Thanks NPC. It has been a great learning experience to spend time with you, Bobby and other friends in Kozhikode. In fact, one learns more through such lively discussions and visits than from any books. Though it was a rather short trip, I have learned a lot - and the car drive from Travancore to Malabar helped me to get a glimpses of Kerala today(more on this later).

The eclectic legacy of Kozhikode and Malabar needs to be told. It was a great experience to be at the Miscal Mosque, constructed in the early 14th century - following the Thatchusastram. Walking through the "Mithai" theruvu, listening to the old stories of writers, journalists and activists was almost like celebrating the cultural history and anthropology of the streets in Kozhikode.

In fact, after learning a lot from our dear friend Chekkutty, I requested him to write those reflections and historical sensibilities that he shared with us. I really look forward to see a book from him on His Kozhikode.


Unknown said...

Bobby Kunhu writes:

For me, it was a mixture of nostalgia and fun. I have often either underplayed or overplayed my connection with Kozhikode - a city, I still call Calicut. Thanks Chekkuty Saab, I am mailing this from Ahmedabad and I think that your project on shared religious traditions of Calicut becomes important - given how depressing Ahmedabad is and an obliteration of history.

I am sure your series will be the beginning of a serious cultural engagement.

Unknown said...

K Govindan Kutty writes:

kozhikode makes me feel young, still. i fell in love there, forty years ago.

i worked there in the verandah of a building, overlooking the beach,
which was once a french priest's property. under the canopy of the tamarind tree behind it,
thikkodiyan and kakkad and kodungalloor and akkitham and vinayan and u a khader and occasionally pc(uroob)often found time for literary and non-literary banter with us.

fugitive wrong-doers used to run into its premises where the british cops could not catch them. there were two tiny wheels on the ceiling of the verandah.
sleepy servants would pull the rope tucked through those wheels through night and day, and the priest and his guests in the large adjacent room would have a good time. for some reason, those tiny wheels on the ceiling of all india radio's newsroom used to disturb me. the old building now remains
only my rusted memory, a new one having taken its place in kozhikode.

bank house or express house about which you have written was what i bought in auction for indian express when all i knew about auction was its spelling. the income tax department gave it to express in auction when another arm of the government was trying to strangulate the paper. it was that deal that made me pay bribe for the first time in my life,
and i hope it was the last time. the building was under litigation
and i gave 25 bucks to a court clerk in the hope that he would help us to have the case posted early.

it was to see that building i took ramnath goenka to kozhikode. we could not enter the premises. rng or rnjee, as we called him,
did not need to enter. he merely wanted to have a look at his new acquisition.

i have read about an oil tycoon who had an ejaculation every time oil sprouted out of a new well of his. every new acquisition, every new edition of the paper, was an act of consummation for rng. so was the kozhikode edition which came into being only after he was gone. that road trip to kozhikode to see his new property, bank house then, was his his last long road trip. after that his faculties dwindled.

bank house or express house is a building which i never entered
but means a lot to me.

Unknown said...

Bina Thomas writes:

This itself is history and how it should be written! Your mails are a delight; the way you pen it, the choice of words, a touch of humour, the layout -like a poem....


Unknown said...

K Satchidanandan writes:

Again a poem of mine, Kozhikkotte Rathrikal celebrates Calicut and Kakkad. Difficult to translate, sorry. It was written when Kakkkad succumbed to cancer.

Unknown said...

K Govindan Kutty writes:

i do not see your kozhikkotte raathrikal attached. i am not sure i have malayalam fonts either.
let me see if i can reach your poem somewhere. i have enjoyed the one on vailoppilli.

i knew kakkad well. he was resent more in our newsroom than his own adjacent room where worked as producer of rural programmes.
there is no count of the beedis i have taken from him. there is no count either of the subjects he discussed with us.

did you know kakkad had some training in kalarippayattu?
he could play thayambaka well. he used to demonstrate it to us
on the desk of our newsroom.

thikkodiyan and i and my wife saw him in the hospital during his last days. thikkodiyan said he would join if i were there.
it was difficult to go alone.

i remember his coming to thiruvananthapuram soon after
they suspected he had cancer. he was not a whit rattled when i met him in vishnunarayanan namboodiri's house.

i remember watching him recite on tv his saphalamee yaatra,where he talks about the lenghtening shadows and the vanishing son
and the pain in the throat being seemingly relieved...i was about to
ring him then and there and ask if he was letting his sound and style
be rather maudlin..i did not, for some unknown reason.

his poem i liked most was the one set in the three-step gayatri.
was it sooryagayatri? i remember the glow on his face when i said so
and then ensued a short statement on tradition and modernity.

let me see where i can get your kakkad-kozhikode poem.

Unknown said...

N P Chekkutty writes:

KGKs note on AIR and Ramnathji's visit to Kozhikode brings back quite a lot of memories. In fact I suppose there is a rich folklore in Indian Express which kept the place quite lively and reverberating. It was this tradition that kept it going despite the poor pay and worse working conditions there.

Of course AIR was another place which adds colour to the city's cultural life. The stories about the days when Uroob, Thikkodiyan, Kakkad and all others were there are still remembered with a sense of nostalgia and I hope some day someone would try to collect all of them to put together in the form of a book. It would be a wonderful tribute to the city's great past which has made it what it is today.

Unknown said...

K Govindan Kutty writes:


did you take your friends to padinjare kovilakam?
mankavu kovilakam had well-off people and indigent people.
it had good residential units and honeycomb like dwelling places.
a visit there would have been a sojourn through history. my friend and colleague, whose initials were spelt in a very english way,
p c c raja for padinjare covilakathu cheriya kunhunni raja,
felt free to take me his small, rather dingy, part of the building
to give me a frugal lunch every time he found me famished. he had a malikhan, a quarter of a rupee every year.

he would have made it to the zamorin's position if he had
been around long enough. raja died when he was at last doing well
as a consultant to starnews, and his son who had a bit of a stammer as a kid became a flourishing lawyer.

in chalapuram, close to old indian express bureau, i had a friend whose father, a zamorin's son, enjoyed retailing his stories to me
on weary evenings, he reclining in his canvas chair, i sitting on the
cool black-top floor. contrary to my reputation, he found me a good listener.

i could not figure out where i was living in mankavu when i visited it last. poet sreedharanunni had to come to my rescue when i was lost in the search for the ramshackle house i had rented from railway ticket examiner kunhalikkoya...

i have long wondered who francis was for whom francis road had been named. that goes for cherooty and robinson.

is cherooty road still cherooty road? in our what i call
onomastic revivalism, we renamed robinson road as k p kesava menon road.

i have nothing against old places getting new names but it will be useful to know who those old veterans were who had for a while appropriated the identity of those roads.

is not s m street, sweet meat street, mithaayi theruvu, the prototype of the theruvu in sk's oru theruvinte katha? s m street has a high degree of endurance,
at least as a name. so does valiyangadi. right now
valiyangadi's odour rushes into my nostrils. is there any way to recapture the scent of calicut for those who have not felt it...?

Unknown said...

It was a very great feeling to read about Mr. A.P. Chirukandan, who is my great-grand father. He has built quite a few landmark buildings in Kozhikode and in South India during his time. Thank you.

Finu said...

I am vey happy to tell that the great freedom fighter Moidumoulavi was my great grand grandfather.I am the daughter of Mr.Jahangeer and grand daughter of Mr.Kunjumalakkar and great grand daughter of E Abdu Master [E Moidumoulavi's younger brother]

Finu said...

very good information