Sunday, October 26, 2008

Up close and personal

(A series on childhood memories)

A ruler broken by a friend and listening to Pankaj Mallick when he was only three years old were the unforgettable events in singer K.J. Yesudas’ childhood

By Shevlin Sebastian

“One day my father gave me a ruler,” says singer K.J. Yesudas, 68. “I had never seen such a beautiful one before.” Yesudas was studying in Class I at the St. John De Brito school at Fort Kochi.

His classmate, Peters (name changed) looked at the ruler and exclaimed, “Ha, it is very good!” And then with one smooth movement Peters picked it up and snapped it into two. “It broke my heart,” he says. “And a rage erupted in me.”

He went and hid near the entrance. As soon as Peters came into view Yesudas stepped out and gave a powerful blow to his face. “His nose started bleeding,” says Yesudas. “And I ran away.”

And Yesudas never went back to the Brito school. Instead he got admission in the Santa Cruz school where his father, Augustine Joseph, was once a student.

But Yesudas was a poor student. “I never looked at the text-books,” he says. “When I would read about Tipu Sultan killing this person or that, I would think to myself, What do I gain by learning about what this man did or did not do?’. Inside me, there was only music.”

Yesudas still remembers the first song he had heard in his life, at the age of three. He had an aunt, a Navy officer’s wife, who owned a gramophone record.

“One day she played a song by Pankaj Mallick called ‘Chale Pavan Ki Chaal,’” he says, and hums the tune. “I was enraptured” (for those who are curious, this song, from the 1941 film ‘Doctor’ can be heard on You Tube).

One day when Yesudas was ten years old he fell ill and was lying in bed. He cleared his throat and spat through the window. To his horror his father was passing by and the phlegm fell on his shoulder.

“My father wiped it away but seeing the tears in my eyes he came running in, hugged me and said, ‘Son it is nothing. Why are you so upset?’” says Yesudas. “That was how affectionate he was.”

His father, an accomplished singer and actor with the P.J. Cherian drama troupe, would hardly be at home because of his professional commitments. But when a show was over and if he were close by he would rush home.

On the way he would buy grapes or oranges. “Sometimes he would come at 3 or 4 a.m. and would awaken us children and give the fruits,” says Yesudas. “We would be in deep sleep but he would put us on his lap and feed us. I still cannot forget the sweet taste of those fruits because it was given to us by a loving father.”

The legendary singer hero-worshipped his father. “On the stage he looked so handsome,” he says. “Do you remember Raj Kapoor in his prime? My father was very fair and there was a look of the Kashmiri about him. We are four brothers, but none of us have his looks except, maybe, my sister, Jayamma.”

Yesudas says a woman admirer of his father came many years later to the house and told his mother, “I still remember how handsome Augustine was. None of your children are like him.” His mother, Elizabath, did not respond at all.

Yesudas was also very close to his mother. “One day she was making chips and I was standing next to her and eating it hot off the stove,” he says. As expected, like any mother, she warned him not to eat too much because he would get a stomach ache. But like any naughty boy he ignored her warnings.

“In the end my stomach bulged out and I could not breathe properly,” says Yesudas. “Soon I had an intense stomach pain.”

His mother came up with an instant solution: she took a slice of soap and slid it into that ‘delicate space’. Immediately, Yesudas rushed to the toilet. “All the stock came out and I felt some relief,” he says, with a big laugh.

He needed his mother for other reasons. At their house in Mattacherry there were no attached bathrooms. Instead, it was at some distance from the house. On most nights he would get up to have a piss. There was a coconut tree near the entrance and on the trunk there hung a bulb.

“I would stand on the other side of the tree and do my business,” he says. “But with one hand I held my mother’s hand because I was so scared of the dark.”

It was a decidedly lower middle-class family which slipped into poverty when Augustine was afflicted by Parkinson’s Disease in 1960 and could no longer work.

One day, as things became more and more difficult, his younger brother, Justin, said, “Amma, there are a lot of women who are going to pluck chemeen. Why don’t you go and earn some money so that we can eat?”

For food it was rice and dal all the time. “Now I am sitting in this big palace (he gestures at the large air-conditioned lobby of the Le Meridien) but I always remind myself that I must not forget the early days of my struggle,” he says. “And I have not forgotten. Once you come through you become fearless. You are ready to face anything in life.”

(Copyright: The New Indian Express, Kochi)


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