I remember an amusing incident. One of the Namboodiris became entangled in a lawsuit involving a promissory note and landed in jail. The police treated him with great respect since he was a Brahmin. They escorted him to our illam for lunch every day.
He would first have an oil bath, then go the temple and chant the Gayatri mantra a hundred and eight times and perform elaborate worship. Ultimately, he would be very late for lunch. Father would wait patiently for him at the illam and eat with him no matter how late he was. Father himself would serve him, then sprinkle water around his own banana leaf and sit down for lunch as well.
“So you’re going to eat, Karuvadu?” The Namboodiri would ask Father at this point. Karuvadu was the name of our illam.
“Now who will sprinkle water around my leaf after lunch?”
“You could always use your left hand to do so.”
“I’ve never done that.” And he had just come from jail!
“Well, you can start today,” my father would retort.
This became an oft-told story among the Namboodiris. If someone had to do something he had never done before, he’d be told, “Well, you can start today.”
We knew another character named Dishi Raman – Dishi was the name of his illam. He was known as a mattideshakkaran, which is what people who belonged to Mezhathur or Thrithala were called. It was a derogatory term. VT Bhattathiripad, the well-known Namboodiri reformer, was called one as well.
Mattideshakkarans were believed to be ugly. Even the names of their illams were deliberately mispronounced. Dishi, for instance, would be transformed for a joke into Patheelu or something like that.
To catch sight of Dishi Raman was considered an evil omen. If someone cut his hand or fell down, people would say, “Dishi Raman must be on his way here.” And the poor man would arrive! He was tall and very old, with sunken cheeks and a long, dark face. He carried several bundles and a stick. He wore a shirt and something that looked like an old coat over it. He would hold both edges of his dhoti tightly as he walked. He was a magician of sorts and rumoured to know black magic. Altogether, he looked a bit like the red-bearded villain in Kathakali.
He usually came our way to conduct a lawsuit. Kullan Subramanya Iyer (known as “Kullan” because he was short) was his lawyer. People said most of the lawsuits were to do with fraudulent money transactions. Dishi Raman always came directly to Karuvadu. He would spend most of his
time in the dining hall of the temple. He’d have a long bath and then perform worship.
It was said he always did things the wrong way round and that he performed the thevaram, the ritual of worship performed for household deities, as if it were black magic. No one dared watch him, we children were afraid to even go that way. Dishi was a dashasandhi, a harbinger of evil fortune. Did he ever clean his teeth or wash his clothes? I do not remember seeing him do so. Not that I’m implying there’s any harm in that.
An evil omen of some kind was always associated with Dishi’s arrival. An odour of asafoetida clung to him; he had a store of it in his bag. Besides this, he carried onions, red chillies and other spices he would need with a meal. He would set out all of these before he ate. Cooked food would be sent from our illam – rice, gravies and vegetables – and either Father or one of us would serve him. He always arrived late for lunch after his visits to the lawyer. If Father had eaten by the time he arrived, he would chide him: “So you’ve already had lunch, Karuvadu?” Father seldom gave him occasion for this accusation.
He visited us often, sometimes staying for a week at a time. He spoke only to Father during this period. He always behaved authoritatively, but Father never said anything to displease him, it was his way to tolerate everything Dishi did. Father actually made up a verse, the gist of which was: “I am the hero who has never said an impolite word to Dishi Raman.” A great title indeed!
Visitors to our illam who had not come in connection with lawsuits were usually bound for Guruvayoor. They would first have a bath, then lunch. After a short nap, they would eat dinner and continue their journey. A huge boat would be waiting near Kutti Vaidyar’s bridge over the canal. They would get into it and go to sleep. The boat left at ten o’clock at night and reached Chavakkad early morning. They would walk from there to Guruvayoor. I have often travelled by this route. Most of the time, the boatmen did not have to row at all. Holding on to the oars tied to both sides of the boat, they would walk along the canal.
There was no direct bus to Guruvayoor. There was a boat service for some time but it folded up because the sandbank gave way. Only the Canoli Canal endured.
Excerpted with permission from Sketches: The Memoir of an Artist, KM Vasudevan Namboodiri, translated from the Malayalam by Gita Krishnankutty.