In the early 80’s, a few young men in Puthupally, mostly daily wagers, got together to form a club that would transform the social scene of that little hamlet. A sleepy village until then, the bus-stop right next to my home was the only place where public interaction took place to some degree. During my vacations here as an eight year old, I would roam around in the vicinity and watch these insignificant interactions play out, supposedly powering the cog that is central to a rustic geography.
It wasn’t that a club was something unknown in the villages of Kerala. A bit confusing considering the standard meaning of the word, they came to denote a grouping of men from a particular village, sometimes even limited to those who lived in the vicinity of a road junction. Their primary objective ran along the lines of the unity of the proletariat – these were daily-wagers who wanted to be socially responsible – and were heavily influenced by Communist ideals that found easy subscription amongst the non-affluent classes.
These groupings had a specific name, followed by the generic ‘Sports & Arts Club’, and were usually housed in a one room office on the road-side, mostly thatched. Elsewhere in the district, more opulent clubs were housed in permanent structures, built with bricks and concrete roofs. The generic term ‘Sports & Arts Club’ had very little to do with either Arts or Sports, and were mostly emulative of the real clubs in name only. Our area wasn’t exactly known for its economic progress, and we had this very humble version of a club. These young men added an appropriate Malayalam word “Adhwani” as a prefix to the nomenclature, meaning ‘hard-working’, to convey a grassroots origin.
The club opened every evening around tea-time, the youngsters filing in to have a dose of the day’s newspapers after a glass of tea at the local tea-shop. There were some books too, donated by good Samaritans, which could be borrowed. The books were mostly in Malayalam, though the collection had the odd English book here and there. I did borrow some of them, couple of books at a time since I read real fast, the rule of one-book-at-a-time being conveniently bent by the club secretary who happened to be a distant cousin. However, a lot of commie party literature also found its way in because these youngsters were all dyed-in-red party men.
Somehow, the iconic poster of Che Guevara presented to me then by my cousin, the face collage in red and black with a beret sporting a solitary star, instilled in me a sense of importance though I had no idea what it was based on. Later, I would realise it was the same for most of us, growing in such circumstances. We never really understood the red ideals per se for the longest time in our lives, but it appealed to us all the same because we felt that we belonged. And there is no greater elation than belonging to something, however incomprehensible it might be, especially in our younger years.
I wonder if this pattern of enchantment in the young has changed one bit even today.
The club would involve itself in the social occasions of the area – weddings, funerals, festivals, local governance drives, medical camps and elections. These young men were full of drive, ready to volunteer at the drop of a hat. The community looked up to them; they simply made the harsh life a bit easier to live, its challenges less domineering, the rut of life scuffed down by the sense of togetherness in a community. And it all went beyond caste, creed and religion in a quiet hamlet by the backwaters.
Things would come to a head once a year during Onam, when the club would celebrate its anniversary – four days of rollicking fun while the entire land celebrated its harvest festival. The schools would be closed for a ten day vacation and Onam was definitely something to look forward to. As in anything inexplicably good, the fun was in the anticipation. You could feel the air around you bristle with it; a positive energy, the mind clear of everyday questions that vex, a veneer of infectious cheer. The monsoon would have let up a bit, the earth raw with wetness, the coconut palms glistening, and their trunks oily black with all that rain-water that had seeped down weeks back. Onam is a month of mossy green; the lushness of plenty.
The club announced its intentions well ahead in advance. About a month before Onam, the club’s committee members would visit each house in the locality on a subscription plus donation drive. They would usually come either early in the morning before the men left for work or after sunset when everybody was home. It was not just 3 or 4 people but a big group of a dozen or two people – a bit perplexing for someone who saw a horde of people approach the house with permanent smiles affixed. As soon as they reached the house, the group would go silent as my father came out to meet them in the sit-out. My distant cousin would, of course, hide behind the other members, a calculated move to let know that he had no hand in the group coming home at exactly the time my father was home.
They would first handover a ‘notice’ – a brightly coloured, cheap paper on which the entire programme of the club’s anniversary, all of the four days, had been screen-printed. Once a stray remark about how expensive it was to host a Ganamela or Kathaprasangam lately was registered, the group would ask for a generous donation to make sure the anniversary was an unforgettable one.
Once D-Day arrived, the first thing you heard when you got up (for that matter, you were woken up!) was the blaring loudspeakers set up by the club members on the coconut trees around. It was then a hit parade of Malayalam film songs – never to stop until the fourth day by when you would be a sorry case of total hearing loss. Don’t forget the announcements by the club members that punctuated these songs. People who had never seen a microphone before, got excited and a fracas was commonplace when a few turned on by their enthusiasm went for the mic at the same time. This was all normal but as the day progressed, the energetic youngsters after a tipple or two would begin to get creative on the mic.
If you were to ask about my memories of Onam in the early 80’s, this film song, Poovili Poovili Ponnonamaayi, would sum it all up. It is my time machine to the good ol’ days.