Prof. Panmana Ramachandran Nair recalls his student life in Karunagappally replete with luminous friendships and teachers who were immersed head to foot in literature.

Karunagappally English High School was the only school in the area for boys and girls. There was no other high school around. C.S. Subrahmanian Potty was the first headmaster. His successor and Nedumudi native V.A. Narayana Pillai sir was the headmaster when I joined. I had passed my Shastri exam in second class. All my teachers had hailed my performance as excellent. Narayana Pillai sir said, ‘We have permission to admit Shastri passed students in fourth form. But they usually fail in the first year since they are poor at Mathematics and English. The safe bet is to join in third form. What do you say?’

Father said, ‘Let it be third form in that case.’

I thus joined third form. There is fee remittance and public exam in the third form. In the exam I got first class and scholarship for the next three years. Later I heard Narayana Pillai sir telling other teachers, ‘I am the one who caused Ramachandran Nair to lose a year.’ There were students who failed the Shastri exam who studied with me in third form. I vividly remember three teachers from those days. Thandassery Varghese sir who taught Mathematics was a good teacher. What stays in memory are his proverbs and philosophy. One of those goes that, ‘When you die, not even a broken needle will accompany you.’ Then he would make us all repeat the proverb.

Since the English teacher Daniel sir came from Kollaka, part of our commute was done together. He could inculcate the literary appreciation in the lessons and also teach grammar equally well. The grammar lessons that he reinforced in me helped me throughout my high school classes. Malayalam teacher Kothamangalathu Parameswaran Pillai sir came from Thevalakkara, a village to the east of Panmana. After my friends and I entered the road, sir would be with us for the entire distance, his khaddar juba drenched in sweat. He was a scholar who told us about many literary matters in general apart from teaching the lessons well. The daily trips to the Taluk headquarters and the links to the wider world delighted someone like me who had been confined for ten years to a primary school and Sanskrit school in entirely rural settings. Many of my friends came walking from the easternmost part of Thevalakkara. Very few M.S.S. buses plied only through the Kollam – Alapuzha main road those days. Children hardly came by bus. Walking seven or eight kilometers was never a bother for anyone. There was no high school anywhere in Karunagappally. Even those who lived in the north of Karunagappally went south through the main road and studied in Chavara government high school.

Kannetipalam on the way was a wooden bridge to the north and located under the present day bridge. There are small canals on either side of the road. If a friend’s carelessness caused one’s lunch box to fall on the road and the lunch to spill, one would wash the box at the nearest canal and walk away as if nothing happened…and of course go hungry at noon. Near the school on the eastern side stood a thatched cinema hall called Vidhyadhiraja Talkies. We were allowed to watch a movie there on the final day of the main exam. Our family friend and lawyer Gopala Pillai’s son Rajan was my classmate. I could sleep over at his place and return in the morning.

The Poetry in Mathematics

We had optional system in high school. It started the previous year. Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics constituted the First Group. Second Group meant Physics, Chemistry and Biology. Third Group had Arts subjects. Within that was the Fourth Group option wherein Political Science was replaced by optional Malayalam.  My relative Shastri sir took classes for optional Malayalam students. Shastri sir wrote very good poems under the pen name of Kottackakam K.P. Shastrikal. He had published two collections. He used to perform Kathaprasangam as a young man in Moovatupuzha. K.K. Vadhyar who later became a famous Kaathikan had personally told me that Shastri sir had given him many instructions on Kathaprasangam. Many of the letters that sir later sent me were in Sanskrit. He passed away three years back.

Our Malayalam teacher in the fourth was Mahopadhyaya Neelakanta Pillai sir. He used to teach at a tutorial college in Kayamkulam for a while. At that time the renowned poet Changampuzha Krishna Pillai also taught there. Changampuzha is said to have played many a prank. Here’s a sample. ‘Sir and Changampuzha went for a walk. They came across a girl in unrefined dress carrying rice and provisions that she had bought in a small basket. Changampuzha stopped her, examined the contents of the basket and told her to go. But as she began to do so, he deliberately gave a gentle prod to the basket. The bewildered girl shrieked as the provisions lay scattered all over the road. Changampuzha stood watching her shrieks for some time. Then he took her along to the provision store. He bought her more items than there was in the basket earlier. He also dropped a few coins into her basket and silently walked away. Sir accompanied him. He never spoke to sir about what happened there.’ Upon this we asked sir, ‘Why did Changampuzha do that?’ Sir’s reply was ‘Who knows! He is sometimes like that. He never replies to questions.’

Valia Thampan sir (Kochunni Thirumulpad. C.S. Subrahmanian Potti’s daughter’s husband) taught Chemistry for all three years. He always stuck to the point. Kochu Thampan sir (Ramavarma Thampan. C.S’s son) taught Mathematics and Physics. In the Mathematics text book written by G. Shankara Pillai sir who was the high school headmaster and D.E.O, even geometry theory was made interesting in the form of rhyming verses.

Kochu Thampan sir made Physics and Mathematics extremely interesting. He considered all the children as his friends. Soon after school he would play football with the children in the adjacent ground. Headmaster Narayana Pillai sir taught English. His class was a grand affair, whether he took prose or poetry. He spoke gently. He could teach Malayalam poetry also in an enjoyable manner. He was a good poet, but wrote very little. The litterateur Sreevardhanath N. Krishna Pillai sir who wrote the biography of Neelakanta Theerthapadar taught English for two years. He was a scholar of literature and grammar. The students would keep quiet from fear. The class was hardly interesting. When three or four people failed to answer a question he posed in class, he would remark, ‘Scratch your heads with coconut shells when bathing in the morning. That will clear your intelligence.’ Parikkal Raghavan Pillai sir from Koyivila taught History. Vaikom native Rama Pillai sir taught Hindi from third form onwards. He offered tuition to a few students. In fact it helped me clear some exams of Dakshina Bharatha Hindi Prachar Sabha. Gomathi teacher who taught Hindi in the final year was a capable lady. She would make us speak in Hindi.

My close friend was Kunjikkuttan alias Ravi Varma, the nephew of Valia Thampan sir. Together we started a manuscript magazine called ‘Vidhyarthi’. When we came to know of another magazine by the same name, we stopped it and started ‘Kairali’. We brought out many issues. We even sought poems from Narayana Pillai sir. On his invitation we went to his home and copied two poems from his notebook to be included in two issues.

Ravi Varma and I used to exchange letters written in verse. A four day leave period meant writing twenty to forty poems in letter form. We might hand these over in person in the next meeting. On many occasions during the long summer holidays we had written and posted fifty to hundred poems. Valiya Thampan sir and Kochu Thampan sir lived in ‘Saarkkara Kovilakam’ built by C.S a little to the west from Taluk office on the right side. That was where Ravi Varma lived too. Kochu Thampan sir’s wife Omana chechi was a great hostess. She never sent me back without giving anything. Kochu Thampan sir is the one who took my photograph for the first time in my life. He photographed me, Ravi Varma and another friend called Ramanatha Iyer after making us stand among the trees on the northern side of Saarkkara Kovilakam. He used to develop the film in a ‘dark room’ set up in a room there.

Students’ Congress

There were two student organizations at that time – Students’ Congress with a socialist leaning and Students’ Union with a communist leaning. I was in the Students’ Congress. Our leaders were N. Sreekantan Nair and K. Balakrishnan. V. Ahmedkutty and Puthuveettil Gopalakrishna Pillai were the big shots in school. On holidays Gopalakrishna Pillai would come from his home in Thevalakkara to my home. We would set out together for various activities. Ahmedkutty joined English high school after passing the Malayalam ninth standard called ‘higher’. He possessed superb articulation skills and exuberance. An incident during the fund collection for the annual meeting of Student Congress shines in memory. Four of us were collecting funds in Chavara.  We went to the home of Sankaran Thampi’s niece Sankaramangalath Chellamma Pillai. I had seen Kumbalath Sanku Pillai talking respectfully to this amma in Panmana Ashram. It was Onam season. We were treated to ariyunda (rice balls), aval (rice flakes), banana and tea. Amma kept talking affectionately to us. After some time Ahmedkutty said, ‘We are very delighted to come and meet you amma! The reason is that Kumbalath also gives us handsome contributions. However he would keep us waiting’. Then amma gave a considerable contribution and sent us off. Ahmedkutty is advocate at Kerala High Court. He lives with his family in Idakkulangara in Karunagappally. When young, our poems had appeared together in the same page of the weekend edition of ‘Prabhatham’. Gopalakrishna Pillai retired as a top officer in the Police Department.

Kalakkad’s Challenge

Year 1948. Our school campus. Time 9.30 am. A student is making a feisty speech standing atop a platform at the foot of the sprawling giant tree there: ‘I challenge Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru…’ He had a wiry frame and thorny hair that refused to stay in place even though it was combed in the morning. The sleeves of the tight juba made of thin white cloth had been kept folded. The carelessly wrapped dhoti reached up to the middle of the ankle. The right arm with the pointed forefinger reached out towards the sky every now and then. The piercing glance roamed towards the gathered crowd. This scene was repeated on many days before class started. It was no exhortation to strike. Most were protest speeches. The speech ended with the sounding of the bell. Everyone proceeded with utmost discipline to the classrooms.

The above described speaking picture is what comes to mind first when I think of my long time friend Ayyappan Pillai (A.P. Kalakkad). Ayyappan was the main activist of the Students’ Union.  The Students’ Congress and Students’ Union did not nurse any animosity towards each other like today. All the teachers were fond of Ayyappan. He was well-mannered and his speech sparkled. Ayyappan liked Narayana Pillai sir and K.P. Shastri sir very much. They liked him too. Shastri sir narrated an incident much later: One day Narayana Pillai sir who was in the veranda summoned Ayyappan who was going back to class from a protest speech to his side. He asked with a smile, ‘Ayyappan Pillai, why do you challenge only Nehru every day? Once in a while why can’t you challenge Sardar Patel or Maulana Azad too?’ Scratching the back of his head, Ayyappan quickly retorted, ‘Ayyo! How can that be? Isn’t he our Prime Minister?’ ‘Hmm. You may go!’ he said, again with a smile.

Ayyappan Pillai left service as a first grade Panchayat Officer. His last work ‘Porkkali’ is a beautiful novel based on the Sooranad incident. Some comrades had agreed to its publication subject to alterations toward its final portion. From a letter that he wrote me during that period: ‘My novel just will not be without that portion; neither will I have a conscience. I do not intend to alter that part.’

He wrote to me that he himself intended to print and circulate ‘Porkkali’, however much it cost him. He also sought my opinion as to which publishing house to entrust it with. I was a Director Board member of the Sahitya Pravarthaka Sahakarana Sangam then. I informed Kalakkad that I would do all that is needed for the Sangam to take up its circulation. He agreed. I painstakingly read the proof, got it printed in fine quality paper and gave for circulation to the Sangam. In the final stages as ill-health prevented him from sitting and writing, a ‘stand’ was built as aid. I have seen him standing and writing using it.

Kalakkad’s body was fully immobilized in the final years. Severe diseases had ganged up and were eating into his body that was already worn down from torture. The psyche alone stayed healthy and strong. He once wrote to me: ‘Panmana, haven’t I singlehandedly braved these many diseases and surmounted the milestone of sixtieth birthday? And haven’t I been able to write so much? Haven’t I earned thousands of enthusiasts who carefully read my works and admire me deeply? That’s enough for me.’

C. Achutha Menon

I have to narrate an incident here. The former Chief Minister C. Achutha  Menon was my neighbor when he was party Secretary. Our families are also close. It was barely a few days since he relocated from Trissur to Thiruvananthapuram and started staying with his elder daughter Sati near the Medical College. I went to see him one day. He placed the book he was reading upside down on the teapoy and asked me to be seated. The book was ‘Agnihotram’. I asked him how it was, my gaze fixed on it. ‘Just a bit more is pending. It is very good. The writer has phenomenal observation. Do you know him?’

‘Yes I do. He is from my place and is a close friend.’

‘Aagh! Namboothiri?’

‘No. Nair. A.P. stands for Ayyappan Pillai.’

He said with a smile, ‘Good. I thought Kalakkad is the name of his illam. There are illams in your parts, right…in central Travancore?’

‘Very rarely’ I said.

‘But how precisely and beautifully he has portrayed the atmosphere and details of the Namboothiri illam! I have never seen a non-Namboothiri doing it so well. Brilliant!’

I was extremely delighted to hear Achutha Menon describing Kalakkad as ‘brilliant’. I went to his home at the first opportunity to inform him this matter. We sat talking for around three hours. I described Achutha Menon’s opinion in detail. I cannot describe the elation that my friend felt then. Soon our discussion turned to many matters relating to Achutha Menon. It was to be our last meeting.

There are only two novelists in Malayalam who can be termed ‘communist novelists’ – Cherukad and Kalakkad. Kalakkad was in awe of his predecessor Cherukad. The themes of Kalakkad’s major novels are more complex in their conceptualization than those of Cherukad’s novels. I feel that Kalakkad the novelist has excelled Cherukad through the writing of ‘Porkkali’, an exquisite sculpture of gripping historical events. Cherukad was hale and healthy throughout his life. He got all the deserved honours from literary leaders during his lifetime itself. Kalakkad was not fortunate on that count. He was not satisfied either. He had scant interest in material gains or rewards. ‘Samkranti’ had won an award. I am not hinting at any of that. It caused him sorrow that nobody took up a study of the works that resulted from severe mental and physical hard work, with the recognition that they deserved. (Not that there was no praise). Is it a minor sorrow?

Kutikkattil Narayana Pillai

Kutikkattil Narayana Pillai from Karunagappally was my coworker and elder brotherly friend in the student movement. He was three or four years my senior. Three things come to mind when I remember him – resounding laughter, shining big eyes and pointy tipped, thick moustache. Be it in the old bus stand of Karunagappally or Chinnakkada in Kollam or in front of the Secretariat in Thiruvananthapuram, if Kutikkadan stood for two minutes with friends, the whole locality would know. More than the resounding voice it was the unusual laughter that would grab anyone’s attention. And what met the eyes of those who looked in that direction attracted by the thunder of sound and laughter? It was the sight of a tall, thin man who turned left and right even as he stood on the ground, thoroughly caressing even the tip of his moustache and reigning as the centre of attraction of friends. Those who have noticed Kutikkadan once would not forget him wherever they met him.

We had worked together in the state committee of the Students’ Congress. That was when I was able to understand his extraordinary organizational skill. Kutikkadan was amazingly resourceful in convincing people about the policy and action program of the movement and also extracting a considerable donation from someone who was a total stranger until a while back.

I learnt that Kutikkadan was a good literary connoisseur even during student days. Sometime later he did something in the presence of a few friends in front of the Karunagappally Taluk office that completely astounded me. It is like this. A poem of mine titled ‘Samskarathinte Nalangal’ appeared in the annual issue of Thiruvananthapuram Intermediate College. K. Balakrishnan who read and enjoyed the poem re-published it in the June 1952 edition of Kaumudi weekly. I give this information to set the context of the incident. When Kutikkadan saw me in front of the office, he benignly blamed me for not writing enough poetry. Then he told the onlookers: ‘I will recite a Malayalam poem. You must tell me who wrote it.’ After this introduction he recited the said poem in full! It had no fewer than forty lines. Mind you, it had been a quarter century since it appeared in the weekly and I had not published it in a book till date. I who had written the poem could not recite ten lines of it at a stretch. Even now I get goose bumps when I think of my dear friend’s performance. Kutikkadan is no more.

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