Sunday, September 28, 2008

Old is gold

(A series on childhood memories)

K.M. Mathew is 101 years old, but he avidly remembers the 1924 floods that devastated Travancore-Cochin, and the numerous snakes he killed

By Shevlin Sebastian

In the family farm of K.M. Mathew, at Udayamperoor, there was a worker named Krishnan. He used to look after a lot of hens. One day a cobra entered the coop and gobbled up 15 eggs. When Krishnan dropped a load of wood on the ground near the coop, he saw the cobra. He ran away screaming for Mathew.

“At that time, I was well known in the village for killing snakes,” says Mathew, 101. “I had no fear.” Because the cobra had eaten so much, it was unable to move. In desperation, it started vomiting out the eggs.

However, when Mathew arrived, armed with a stick, the cobra was still immobile. With one blow, he killed the snake. “I always hit a few centimetres below the back of the head,” he says. “Death is instantaneous.”

Mathew was the son of a wealthy farmer. The fourth of seven children he studied in a school at Mulanthuruthy.

“In 1916, there were no text books or slates,” he says. “The teacher would write something on the blackboard and we would memorise it. But, at the end of the day, when I reached home, I would have forgotten most of the things that had been taught.”

To reach the school, Mathew had to cross a river on a boat. On the way, his friends and neighbours would play a lot of pranks. One day, his friend, Paul, hit the edge of the boat and fell into the river. He was hauled back and seemed all right. But there was a wound on his chest, which lay untreated, and a few days later, he contracted typhoid, and died suddenly. “I have never forgotten him,” says Mathew.

When he was in Class 7, Mathew’s education was abruptly stopped, as his father needed help on the farm. So, every morning, after a breakfast of kanji and pickle, Mathew would set out for work.

Since he was the landowner’s son, his job was one of supervision. At that time, there were a large number of workers from the Pelayan caste. “In those times, we could buy these people,” says Mathew. But their fortunes changed for the better when the SNDP school was established at Udayamperoor in 1951.

“The Pelayans were able to get educated,” says Mathew. And thus began their long journey out of poverty. He remembers a Pelayan called Iyer, who worked for the family, and lived to be 100. Iyer’s grandson, Paramu, became a captain of a ship, while Paramu’s son married a girl from the Cochin royal family, and lives in America.

Sometimes, Mathew had to stay awake at night. That was when the water wheels (chakrams) were used. This was a contraption, which had several planks attached to a wheel. “Two men would press on the plank, like as if they are moving a pedal,” says Mathew. The plank would lift water from the pond and let it flow into the paddy fields. “In the absence of motor pumps, this was the way we watered the paddy fields,” he says. Most of the time, the workers fortified themselves with liquor, before working right through the night.

There were also occasions when Mathew played the role of a watchman. At night, men would roam around, plucking coconuts and mangoes from trees. Mathew and his cousins would lie in wait in the dark. As soon as a thief stole a coconut, they would nab him. “In those days, we did not take the thief to the police station,” he says. “We would slap him, and make him take an oath that he will not steal again. Usually, the thief stayed away from our property.”

Of course, there were hilarious moments, too. Sometimes, Mathew’s uncle would also accompany the young lads. Unfortunately, he suffered from a perennial throat ailment. In the silence of the night, he would clear his throat. “The moment the thieves heard that, they knew my uncle was around and would run away,” says a smiling Mathew.

It was an uneventful life, except when Nature exhibited its fury. Mathew remembers the 1924 floods, which devastated Travancore-Cochin, like as if it had happened yesterday. “It rained for nine days non-stop,” says Mathew. “Hundreds of people died, mostly in the high ranges, apart from thousands of cattle and other animals.”

In their property, except for the house, which was at an elevated level, the rest of the area was under water. “At that time, there were no dams to control the flow of the water,” he says. But there was one advantage: the silt left behind was good manure for the crops.

Mathew, who is the father of five children, and has 47 great grandchildren, is now living with his son, Dr. M.M. Francis, at Edapally. He stays with all his children a few months at a time. Asked whether the earlier eras were better, he says, simply, “Every era is nice.”

(Copyright: The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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