Malayalam cinema’s superstar Mammooty is plainly rocking in his recently released movie Uncle My Dad’s Friend as he belts out a jolly drinking song.
“Entha johnsa kallille?” Mammootty burbles in his rich Malayalam baritone as his back-up team laugh and bounce along with him. The English version of the song from Girish Damodar’s movie echoes the title “What-ho Johnson, no toddy?”
It’s a song very familiar to the Edathil family members of Tellicherry, where it was known as The Old Koduvalli Bridge song for the simple reason that EK Madhavan, a son of the well -known Edathil family, composed the song on his guitar during the late 1940s. It celebrated the riotous evenings where Madhavan and friends met at on the banks of the Koduvalli River marking the northern border of Tellicherry, now known as Thallassery. It was an important town in North Malabar famous as an entrepot for pepper and spices in the colonial era. Tellicherry pepper is still being marketed in the United States of America and the spice racks of the European Union under that name.
To say that several members of the extended Edathil family are feeling a little peppery about the manner in which The Old Koduvalli Bridge Song has been appropriated would be putting it mildly. For one thing, the original Edathil clan was a large one. It was dominated by the paterfamilias known as Dewan Bahadur EK Krishnan and famous, amongst other things, for having encouraged cricket as a sport at Tellicherry (we will stick by its old name for convenience).
A banyan tree that he planted still stands by the side of the Town Cricket Club. Since he raised a large family of 19 offspring from two consecutive wives, the sons, tall and strapping lads, were particularly well known for their sporting abilities.
It’s probably a little out of context to mention that thanks to Lord Arthur Wellesley, later the Duke of Wellington, being in charge of the garrison of British soldiers at Tellicherry in the 18th century, the first game of cricket is said to have been played on Tellicherry soil. It may also explain why a large measure of the town’s population came to be named Johnson, Richard and so forth due to a friendly engagement between the soldiers and the local ladies.
Be that as it may, the Edathil boys were said to wield a mean bat and meet with their friends later on by the side of the Koduvalli Bridge.
Madhavan Uncle, as we called him, was my mother’s paternal uncle. He was an ardent naturalist in his time. He spent the major part of his life on the islands dotting the littoral of South India, the Laccadives in particular, and retired as the Joint Director of Fisheries in Tamil Nadu. We knew him as an original version of Sinbad the Sailor and a hippie before his time, for he always came with a guitar and a straw hat teaching us how to eat the spicy “bullets” that are mentioned in the Koduvalli bridge song while sipping, if not the toddy, that it celebrates, at least a bit of warm rum.
“I am very upset that Mammootty has taken our song without even asking us,” said 89-year-old Uma Ramachandran , whose father used to be the eldest brother of Madhavan. “He should at least have mentioned Uncle Madhavan. I am willing to take a flag and march up to Mammootty. I agree that he sings it rather well.”
She then directs me to another YouTube recording that a small segment of the original clan has put together in the Washington neighborhood, where they live. The main singer who goes by the name of Akhila Chandran has recorded the song under the title of Koduvalli Blues, sitting comfortably surrounded by her family. In this version, which is rendered first in Malayalam and then in English, you may learn if you so wish what the meaning of “bullets” might be. These refer to a North Kerala delicacy named ari khadka or spiced rice powder stuffed mussels deep fried to look like bullets.
In the original song, Madhavan Uncle warns his friends to wrap up the bottles of contraband toddy in an old kit-bag so that nobody can see because, of course, the consumption of liquor was prohibited at least for the natives. Toddy was the home-brewed spirit from the palm tree. Varadan Master, who is named in the song, was the Physical Director of the local Brennen College. Besides being a brother to Madhavan, he was a stern disciplinarian, so we can’t say whether by naming him, Uncle Madhavan was showing his mischievous side.
The Jhonsa, or Johnson Master, was the head of a typewriting and shorthand institute at Tellicherry. We can’t identify the others “Richard and his motley crowd” nor “Unny Master”.
My mother had once explained that the last train passed across the railway bridge at Koduvalli by six in the evening. This was what made it an ideal meeting place for the young bloods. The local called it “kadal palam”, or the bridge by the sea, because of the spectacular sunsets that could be seen from there across to the Arabian Sea. The old bridge collapsed after a particularly bad storm a couple of years ago. For those who are not familiar with the area, the name Koduvalli, or Koduvally, also refers to the town of Koduvally known as the Golden City because of its numerous shops selling gold, close to Kozhikode further south.
The Old Koduvalli Bridge Song has yet another version that links it firmly to Tellicherry. When the Thalassery Tourism department needed to promote the town, they commissioned a group of young women to sing what was known as The Thalassery Song. With a background of swaying palms trees and country boats sailing into the sunset, it used to sound like a dirge resembling the cries of local virgins tied to the Koduvalli Bridge and left to drown with the rising of the time. I haven’t heard it in recent years. Maybe the singing virgins did drown with the passing of time, if not the tide.
Under these circumstances, maybe we should take heart that “Uncle” Mammootty has brought Uncle Madhavan back to life with his jolly drinking song.