I remember ...
Pooyam Tirunal Gouri Parvathi Bayi reminisces about her uncle Sri Chitra Tirunal Balarama Varma, the ruler of erstwhile Travancore. His birth centenary is being celebrated with a variety of cultural and social programmes
It is very hard to write about somebody you love very much, especially when that person is no longer physically with you. If I started a story about my uncle, I would do it in the traditional fairy tale mode: “Once upon a time, there was a King”. This King, who was the pivot of our lives, lived in a modest palace that was more a big white house on a hill rather than a turreted castle. He dressed in simple clothes with not a scrap of gold on his person.
His habits were simple too. Not for him silken sheets and golden plates. The traditional banana leaves, ‘plavila’ spoons and a thorthu tied round his waist as he sat on the floor on a mat for his meals, kanji rather than payasam, this is the actuality of what people imagine to be ‘royal banquets’. No mother could have wished for a more caring son and no family could have wished for a kinder ‘head’. For us ‘children’, he wove magic spells with wonderful stories that spanned a wide range of themes. Mythology, current affairs, history, civics, even medical knowledge and advice, cleverly disguised as a story entertained us every afternoon.
When I had measles as a little girl, I was taken care of by my uncle and my father because my mother had two little ones, my brother still a baby to look after. The gentle coaxing of the hated ‘podiarikanji’ into a resistant mouth and holding a hot little hand until I fell asleep when the fever was high. Proudly sporting a very imperfectly knitted green muffler that I had painstakingly crafted for his birthday, the hand-drawn and lettered cards he made for our birthdays…, a thousand memories come tumbling into my mind.
While other people took naps, uncle had his ‘children’s hour’. A secret stash of toffees awaited not only us but also visiting children who sometimes crawled under the half doors that led to his office from the visitors’ waiting room.
Summer vacations in the hills was our favourite time of the year. Our house in Peerumedu was relaxed and informal. We had wonderful picnics in the woods with grandmother [the late Sethu Parvathi Bayi] actually cooking on an improvised fireplace. Uncle hunted for twigs and broken branches with us to provide the firewood for her cooking. One week we would spend at Edapalayam, staying at our forest retreat which is now the Lake Palace Hotel. Suddenly one morning, the compound would be flooded by tribal people who lived in the forests in total harmony with nature and their four-footed neighbours. They came silently on foot and on rafts bearing gifts of wild honey, tubers and medicinal herbs. Return gifts of clothes awaited them and they melted back into the jungle, their going as quiet as their coming.
Sometimes, as a very special treat, the forest guards would guide us all on a walk to a tree house, a kilometre away from the Lake Palace. When the mists came rolling in, we all played indoor games in the flickering light of the generator. We had no computers, no mobile phones, no fast food outlets, not even television but we were happy.
Ours needs were few and simple and what we had, or rather what we were given, we were taught to appreciate and be thankful for. Good manners were insisted upon. We stood up automatically when an older person came into the room, we had to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and, most importantly, we had to be ready on time if we were going anywhere. Not ready on time meant getting left behind. Needless to add, this did not happen often. I remember my uncle standing up when his old nursemaid Narayani Amma came to visit, after she had retired. She would scold him for being too thin and he would accept her strictures meekly, as if he was still in her charge!
Uncle shared a love for good chocolates with all the generations of children who were privileged to be cherished by him. He remembered that when he was a child, ‘foreign food’ was frowned upon and he and his cousins would hide in the garden to consume this European delicacy! He had a great sense of humour and never hesitated to poke fun at himself.
Both the elders in our family, grandmother and uncle, had a very progressive outlook and encouraged us to think independently. When I went to college for the first time, they were as excited as I was and were eager to share my experiences and impressions. I loved to dance and when I was given a part in the College Day programme, the teachers were doubtful if ‘palace permission’ would be forthcoming. Not only was permission readily granted but I had to come home in my stage outfit for them to ‘admire’. Many so-called well-wishers objected to ‘the princess being let loose on a public stage’. A gently raised eyebrow from my uncle was all it took to silence these protesters.
So many memories crowd my thoughts at this time of my uncle’s centenary which falls on November 12. He did not care for big celebrations and statues and posters. It was only to please his family and not to deny his mother’s wish that made him remain silent when the medical centre to mark his 60th birthday was named after him. His only comment when the name became a fait accompli was to request that a research wing be added to the medical institute. As he turned more and more towards Lord Padmanabha, he became truly detached from the turmoil of daily life. He faced life with smiling equanimity and truly wished everyone well. ‘Loka samastha sukhino bhavanthu’, he repeated at bedtime. Let this wish he had for all creation, this benediction he left for posterity come true one day. After all these years we feel orphaned by his passing but blessed by his love and I am proud to be his niece.
As part of the centenary celebrations, a Vishnu Sahasranamajapam has been organised at the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple on November 12 (Monday) from 4 p.m. onwards. All devotees are welcome to participate. This, I feel, is the actual 100th birth anniversary day of uncle.
I also hope to organise, during the course of the year, medical aid for 100 children below the age of 10, coming from all parts of Kerala and former Travancore, including Kanyakumari district.