Friday, 5 January 2007

Day Three, 14th December 2006, Ernakalum.

On the previous evening, the Raja had told me with evident concern that tomorrow there would be a general strike, or “bandh” across Kerala. This would curtail our activities for the coming day.

However we would be visiting our mutual friend Prema who lived nearby for breakfast.

So it was with a certain amount of trepidation that we went down to the hotel lobby.

Would there be any staff?

Would the M.G. Road be full of demonstrator’s?

Would the police be drawn up outside in their riot gear?

In fact the staff could not have been nicer if they had tried, the street outside was a gloriously peaceful and pleasant place to be on this bright morning. The strike was so complete and so universal, that there was not a truck or car to be seen.

How much more pleasant than in the normal Maelstrom of daily traffic.

Having only corresponded with Prema by email previously, it was with great anticipation that we awaited her arrival at our hotel. Within minutes of our meeting with this engaging, elegant and lively lady, with her infectious laugh, we were walking into her lovely garden compound.

For in amongst the urban sprawl that is today’s Ernakalum, she has been able to preserve a small haven of peace and calm.

Working in the Middle East, quarter of a century ago, I had made my living building gardens for Sheikh’s. The plants we had grown were by necessity often from India.

Here in Prema’s garden were many old friends of mine. For here was Canna, and there was Neem and Bananas along with many other trees and plants, which are of course impossible to grow in my native land, but which I recognised from the Gulf.

Dominating all was the biggest Mango tree that I have ever seen. Indeed, so big was it that I did could not really at first believe that it could be a Mango tree, because it had never entered my brain, that they could ever reached such a height.

Looking to my English eyes for all the world like the huge Walnut tree that was my Grandfather’s pride and joy at the top of his orchard.

Entering her house we were soon introduced to her family. Within moments Jayan and I had discovered each other’s deep and shared knowledge and interest in old maps and history.

We were away, and I could have happily spoken to him all day long. For it was extremely interesting to run so many of my hypothesis and ideas past him. For whilst it is possible to study a land and its culture from abroad through the medium of letters and documents, it is obviously far too easy for me to have to jumped to completely the wrong conclusions.

Had I understood this event correctly?

How did this work?

What does this mean?

Soon we were joining the family at quite the best Indian breakfast we were to encounter during the entirety of our stay. The families evident concern for our comfort and well being, and that we should enjoy their food, only determined my son and I the more to do the food justice. Richard, who is often particular, as most teenagers are, about his food, and who was gallantly eating with his hands, and despite being left handed, with his right hand was doing remarkably well, for somebody previously only used to a knife and fork.

Rice pancakes, and a myriad of sauces, spicy and otherwise, followed by some small and quite delicious bananas, a world away from the tough skinned coarse and pasty Bananas we buy in England. These juicy and really tasty Bananas were really great.

My Hungarian mother in law is a great cook, and prides herself on the thinnest of her pancakes, which have become a great favourite with my children, who have been know to polish off plate loads at a sitting. What fun to find that similar pancakes, all be it being made with rice flour, are just such established family favourites five thousand miles away.

We were struck by the similarities between our own families, for despite the more overt differences of race, country and colour, it was quite obvious that deep down our families, English, Hungarian and Nair, each possess the same shared deeply held core beliefs and moral code which transcends race or religion.

Had this discovery also been Thomas Baber’s experience?

I believe strongly that it had been.

Straight off the boat at Calicut and thrust in 1797 straight out and up the country into the Palghat [1] region, and aged only twenty, the same age as my own son currently, he must have been totally without friends, and quite possibly on his own, a single Englishman, sent to run a revenue district.

He must have felt just as homesick and rejected as I had by England when I make my journey to the Middle East in search of work.

With a fierce insurgency breaking out, as the Pyche Raja in 1797 broke with the East India Company [EIC], the existing senior EIC staff in the Malabar must have been stretched nearly to breaking point.

How much time can they have had left to support or mentor Thomas Baber in his first weeks and months?

Virtually none, for they were far too busy fighting for their own survival.

These officials had however put Thomas into the most isolated, and least active of the Malabar districts. For unlike the taluks [2] to the north around Tellicherry, which were predominantly Hindu, Palghat had a predominantly Muslim population, and was controlled by Moppilla’s and the descendants of former Arab traders and colonists, and their local Muslim converts.

Unwittingly they had put Thomas into the ideal training ground where he would become rapidly immersed in Malabar culture and ways of operating, whilst at the same time isolating him from his fellow Griffin’s [3].

Operating along the lines of the Roman’s, and following the model they all knew from their schooldays, the senior EIC officials had all been educated in the Roman Classics. They understood and applied the principle of “divide and rule” to their provinces.

Thomas Baber’s Kolkar’s in this strongly Muslim district were Hindu Nairs.

I believe that one of these Nairs was almost certainly Kulpilly Caranakera Menoen, who was at this time about two years older than Thomas.

Both were deep in dangerous territory, and both shared similar core beliefs. Both men were driven by a shared ambition to improve things for the community they lived in.

I believe that it was this friendship forged in the Palghat Taluk, and one that would endure for nearly 40 years, that caused Thomas Baber to risk quite literally everything on more than one occasion for causes that he saw to be essential to the public welfare of a community that he had came to love and admire.

For in the same way, that Prema’s family and mine immediately found in each others the same shared core beliefs, interests and value, I am sure Tom, had found these same values in Kulpilly Caranakera Menoen.

Prema had gone on straight away to start to teach my son and I how to understand and get by in local ways, so I feel sure had Kulpilly Caranakera Menoen set to work to instruct Thomas Baber.

Kulpilly Caranakera Menoen, I believe, went on to mould and form Thomas Baber’s thinking. Menoen, by doing so was working in the traditional role of the Nair community in Malabar society, as protectors of the community, but in also acting as a check on the arbitrary rule of wayward rulers.

[1] Palghat

[2] Taluks, districts

[3] Griffin’s, EIC slang for new arrival’s.

Copyright Nick Balmer, 5th January 2007.

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