Sunday, June 29, 2008

Those were the days

(A series on childhood memories)

Veteran journalist Leela Menon says the best part of her life was her childhood

By Shevlin Sebastian

“One day, there was no milk in the house,” says veteran journalist Leela Menon. So, her mother, Janaki Amma, told her to go to her aunt’s house to get some milk. When Leela was returning through the paddy fields, she stumbled and half the milk spilled out. Fearing a scolding from Janaki Amma, Leela filled the container with water from the paddy field. “When I gave it to her, my mother said, ‘Why is the colour of the milk like this?’”

“I replied, ‘Nowadays, the cows are giving milk like this.’”

“She said, ‘Who told you this?’”

“‘Aunty,’ I replied.”

Janaki Amma went outside, pulled out a branch from the coffee tree and gave her a thrashing. “Don’t tell lies,” she said.

Leela smiles as she remembers the incident which took place so many decades ago. Her apartment at Kadavanthra is elegantly furnished: large paintings on a wall, brass mementoes against another wall, and a stunning black and white photograph of her in her younger days. In the balcony, there are several potted plants.

Here is another memory: One night, in her village of Vengola (7 kms from Perumbavoor), a group of people were returning from the temple. While the elders were walking behind, holding up burning coconut fronds, Leela and the other children ran on ahead. Suddenly, a large, yellow snake bit her on the leg. “I immediately started crying and shouted, ‘A snake has bitten me.’”

Leela was rushed home. At that time the nearest hospital was six kilometres away. “My neighbour and classmate, Kunhikrishnan, was sent to call for the visha vaidiyan (snake doctor),” she says.

As soon as the doctor saw the boy, he immediately guessed the type of snake and told Kunhikrishnan it was not as poisonous as the cobra. Apart from anti-venom medicine, the doctor gave instructions that Leela should not eat or sleep.

“The poison tends to move around in the body if you go to sleep,” says Leela. Hence, it was a sleepless night for Leela, but the next day she was okay.

However, Leela’s father, Neelakantan Kartha, was not okay. When she was two, he was struck by paralysis and remained bed-ridden for the rest of his life. Thereafter, the house revolved around Janaki Amma, who looked after the three children -- one boy and two girls -- and the six-acre property.

“My mother was a lovely person,” says Leela. “In the nights, she would hug me and go to sleep. Whenever there was lightning, she would hold me tight. She lavished attention on me, because I was the youngest.”

Leela also revelled in the attention and company of numerous cousins and friends who lived nearby. “We would wander around, plucking mangoes,” she says. “We used to run around and play on the swings which were set up on the trees.”

Thanks to the presence of several cows and goats, Leela developed a love for animals. “Some of the goats were my pets,” she says. “I used to call them Ramani, Sudha and, Bindu. When Bindu died, I cried a lot.”

Death was never far away in the life of the villagers. One day in 1939, she had gone to play at her aunt’s place when word was sent that her father was dying. “So my aunt brought me back,” she says. “The house was full of people.”

Leela, who was six at that time, could not understand what had happened. “In the afternoon, I saw wooden logs in the compound,” she says. Much later, at dusk, when all the people had left, Leela saw her mother standing at the door of the kitchen and staring at the dying embers of the funeral pyre.

“There was a look of utter desolation on her face,” says Leela. “I went and hugged her. She cried for a long time.” Her mother was only 36 years old when her father died at 52.

Seeing tragedy at such close quarters gave Leela the inner strength to surmount several physical and mental setbacks in her own life, including the death of her husband, Major M. Bhaskara Menon in 1996.

Today, as the first woman journalist in Kerala, she is a trail blazer. So, did she have this writing ambition when she was young?

“One day, a cousin, Sreedharan Chettan asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up and I replied that I just wanted a job, but I had no idea of the profession,” she says. When he asked how much salary Leela wanted, she replied, “Rs 120.” At that time it was the highest salary.

Amazingly, when Leela got her first job as a clerk at the Hyderabad General Post Office in 1949, her salary was Rs 120.

What you wish, that you get.

Copyright: The New Indian Express, Kochi

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