Sunday, July 20, 2008

Destiny's child

(A series on childhood memories)

A son of a washerman, Justice V.K. Mohanan says that, despite the financial hardships, he had a happy childhood

By Shevlin Sebastian

One day, lawyer Ghulam Muhammed gave a speech at a primary school in Muvattupuzha, where V.K. Mohanan was a student. Ghulam said, “One morning, when I was going for a walk, I saw a policeman arrest a man.”

Curious, the lawyer made enquiries and was told that the man had been caught for doing a circus act without a valid license. “But what had actually happened was that the man had been walking past a hotel,” said Ghulam. “A customer ate a banana and threw the skin onto the road. The man slipped on it and ended up doing a circus act without a valid license.”

At this point in the retelling of the speech, Justice Mohanan, of the Kerala high court, breaks out into prolonged laughter. “This was the type of funny anecdote that Ghulam was famous for,” he says.

Mohanan laughs easily, but he has had a tough life. The son of a washerman (dhobi), one of his enduring memories was of awakening every morning and seeing his father, already at work, pressing clothes with a heavy iron. His mother would assist him and both would go to the nearby Muvattupuzha river to wash the clothes.

Mohanan would help them every evening after school by delivering clothes. He would also collect the money. At that time, it was about 25 paise to wash and iron a piece of cloth.

However, whenever he went on his rounds, he sensed, from the people’s reaction, that this job was of a lower status than others. “When I grew older, I understood that their attitude towards me reflected the hierarchical structure of society,” he says.

Mohanan was also keenly aware that the family was in financial difficulties. He would be given a pair of shorts and told that he would have to wear it for the rest of the year. “After a few months, it would tear, but I would carry on wearing it,” says Mohanan.

During Independence Day celebrations, the teacher would ask the students to make flags and bring it to school. “Even though I knew there was no money in the house to buy the coloured paper, I would still ask my father,” he says. “Somehow, he would always find some money to give me.”

But his childhood was not a grim one. There was a large field near his house, where he would play football with his friends. “But the ball was different from the ones being used now,” he says. “It was called a nipple football.”

This was a bladder, with the tube jutting out, like a nipple. “With an air pump, we would fill it up, tie the end, and then insert it into a leather covering,” says Mohanan.

During the rainy season, the river would overflow the bank and the field would become flooded. “We used to take the boat from the nearby houses and go fishing,” he says. “Sometimes, we would lose our balance, and tumble from the boat. At other times, we would go swimming. It was a happy time.”

Apart from these activities, he would see a lot of films at the Lakshmi theatre. He earned the money for the 25 paise ticket by doing errands for his neighbours. “MGR was my favourite hero,” says Mohanan, “I saw the MGR film, Kudiyirundha Kovil, 14 times because there were a lot of stunts and he was playing a double role.”

To his parents, Mohanan was a hero, along with his elder brother Vijayan, simply, by being alive. “My mother gave birth to ten children, and eight died,” he says. “Some died in the womb, some died at child birth, while others died in early childhood. So, my brother and I were precious to my parents. They showered a lot of love on us.”

His neighbour, Leela Cherian, was also very affectionate. When his parents would go out for work, it was Leela who looked after Mohanan. She played a decisive role in his life when she insisted to his parents that he must go to school. “At that time, my parents did not understand the importance of education,” says Mohanan. “I am eternally grateful to her.”

He showed his appreciation by inviting Leela as a special guest for his swearing-in as a high court judge. If Mohanan has any regrets it is that his parents, both of whom died a decade ago, could not see his elevation to the post of judge.

“I am now in a comfortable position in life, but I can never forget the hardships of my childhood,” says Mohanan, who is married to Geetha, a government servant, and has a 16-year-old daughter, Chandni.

(Copyright: The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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