A grand niece of mine threw me a challenge the other day: identify which of her great uncles figured in a large group photograph from 1940 that she had unearthed in a junk clearance operation at her grandmother’s (my late sister’s) place. I was the natural choice because I was her only grand uncle, out of seven, still alive. I took the challenge in earnest and thought it would be easy for me to identify the “culprit”.
The picture had 60 or more men in a “gallery” of six rows, one row of “seated” and five of “standing”. No names. One look told me it was from Zamorin’s College, Calicut (now Kozhikode), which then had a high school and a two-year Intermediate course. A brother of mine (PA for our purpose) had, at 18, started off as a Malayalam teacher at the high school in 1938. But to spot him from among so many faces was not going to be easy. As I looked for him, my boyhood memories of him began to bestir themselves.
During 1941-43, PA taught at Ganapati High School, Calicut, where our oldest brother worked as an English and history teacher. They had moved me there, too, from my village school. I was in the third form.
Calicut was the first town in my life. Everything in Calicut looked strange. I was in awe.
One Saturday afternoon, within a month of my arrival at Calicut, PA asked me if I would like to go on a rickshaw ride with him. He, just 21 then, had a lecture engagement at the YMCA (Young Men’s Christian Association), a little over two kilometres from our small house. Not yet 13, I had little interest in the lecture but was all for the ride, my first in a rickshaw pulled by a man!
I took in the scenes and smells of the town as we rode through. At the YMCA gathering my brother held forth on the then trends in Malayalam literature, all of which went over my head.
On our way back, much to my regret, PA dismissed the rickshaw halfway through Sweetmeat Street. “Let’s have coffee,” he said and turned into a short, narrow lane. Strung across the lane was a banner carrying the name India Coffee House. Strong coffee smell pervaded the air. Soon we were at a nice little building that looked more like a house than a restaurant.
As we entered, a white-liveried, green-and-white turbaned, imposing waiter with waistband and sash, greeted us and showed us to a small round table with two chairs. That was the first restaurant where I sat on a chair at a round table, not the usual rickety stool and crude table. There it was that I had my first sight of a ceiling fan. I couldn’t take my eyes off it — at least not until the cup cakes came.
I was nervous. PA was perfectly at home. He picked up a cup cake, peeled back part of the cup and signalled to me, ‘like this’. I was clumsy, the cake was my first ever!
Ah, there he is, PA — first left on the fourth row standing! Smile, please!