Sunday, November 16, 2008

Son of late M. J. Andrews

This morning I sat in front of a piece of white paper, preparing an affidavit; George Andrews, son of M. J. Andrews. My friend pointed out to me that I had made a serious error.  He corrected, George Andrews, son of ‘late’ M. J. Andrews’. The last time there was no ‘late’ preceding my father’s name. He had died 24 months ago, and even the affidavit ruthlessly corrected itself to pronounce his death.

Even as my father was building up his young life, he was known to most people in the town for his friendly ways and a decently run dry fish auction business, which fetched him sufficient resources to own the house and property that we lived in, and a few other small fortunes. He didn’t inherit his business from his father, as was the case with most other fish auctioneers.

Just into a similarly successful business, my grandfather died in his youthful enterprise, at the tender age of 30, while my father, a six month old infant whimpered unawares, on his wailing mother’s shoulders. My grandfather neither inherited nor could leave behind sufficient means to see through the difficult years that would soon follow, for his young wife and three little kids.

Returning from a party, my grandfather puked up blood stained food. Even the English medications brought from the city of Kochi couldn’t loosen the tightened noose of fate that befell on the young family. His life and youthful dreams came to a sudden halt, eight days later. A gramophone he had dearly owned mournfully played the funeral chant. People grieved for his death, and mumbled pitiful words, filled with anxiety about the survivors’ grim future. Ironically, the sympathisers soon threw them out of their mind, when they actually needed them.

My grandmother, who gathered great resilience and guts, would later say, “I had lived in the homely comfort of blowing the cinders in the earthen hearth, and boiling rice and curry for my husband and children. I discovered the initial helping words and hands were growing less consistent and the emptied provision baskets soon forced me out of the kitchen.”

She braved her way to the western paddy fields, and traded in rice and eked out a meagre income and fed her children. During the World War when rice trade was banned, she transported rice sacks hidden under the blanket of foul smelling dry fish and warded off approaching policemen. When suspecting cops moved in to pull out fish bundles, she would volunteer and show them safer areas. A widow in her 20s, my grandmother, defied unfriendly orthodoxies of a pre-independent rural India. My father toddled and rose to his feet without the surveillance of a father and scraped through a difficult childhood.

In the initial years, he relentlessly fought his way through the hostilities of men and deficiencies of material resources. Starting low as a retailer, walked his way steadily forward, and soon began auctioning fish like his father. Those who favoured his rise connected his enthusiasm to the unfulfilled dreams of his father.

The heavy stench of salted dry fish swelled around the market place and boat-fulls and truckloads of fish in coconut palm bundles arrived. My father, with great gusto, stood in the middle and auctioned. There were still the older folk who listened to his thundering voice and murmured, “His father can now smile in his grave”. They were minor traders from the hills who bought fish from him, out of concern for his father.

Ice factories were not established and so fresh fish went stale, and dry fish climbed the high ranges and distant plains and people bought them in plenty to go with rice and cassava.

From various parts of the coastal plains, a labyrinth of canals that branched out like the centre nervous system of the vast paddy fields, widened to a large rectangular pool called ‘chanthakkulam’ in Athirampuzha. It docked about forty to fifty large carrier-boats and canoes in motion. And around this lively water-body and beyond, the market in Athirampuzha teemed with men in motion, buying, selling, transporting or merely jostling in the crowd.