Name?

Date of birth?

Residential address?

The high-priced, full-service agent scratched my responses laboriously onto a dirty-cream-coloured application form that, when complete, would get me documentation I needed urgently.

Permanent address?

My silence made him look up. “Permanent address?” he asked again.

***

I was three days old when my mom and dad took me home from the maternity wing of Calicut Medical College. I was 30 days old when my parents left me in the care of my grandparents and went back to Madras, to resume the professional lives I had inadvertently interrupted.

“Home” was Meledath, the 200-year-old naalukettu that housed the Kelanallur Panicker clan, a joint family that at the time comprised 21 adults, about a dozen or so of their dependents and one child—me, the first grandchild.

I grew up in that enormous house, bookended on one side by a temple dedicated to Shiva and on the other side by a kalari, the traditional gymnasium where the martial art form kalaripayattu was taught under the aegis of Bhagavathy, the warlike avatar of the goddess Shakti. I was weaned on the milk of goat and buffalo, and on tobacco—this last thanks to Ammalu, a family retainer who, tasked with caring for me, quietened my high spirits with regular doses of water in which tobacco leaves had been soaked.

I wandered the extensive grounds with my miniature axe and shovel, courtesy my grandfather who believed that male children needed to learn basic agrarian skills. I mimicked the moves of the oiled, ripped, loincloth-clad students practicing their warlike moves in the kalari, and I learned to swim in the temple tank with the help of two dried coconuts tied together to form an impromptu flotation device.

There was no electricity, no gas. Food was cooked on wood fires. The ceremonial nilavilakku, lit at sunset, provided illumination. The family gathered around that light burning bright on the front porch. Granddad and Grandmom told stories. From the Ithihyamala—literally “garland of myths”, Kottarathil Sankunni’s collection of Kerala’s foundational myths and legends. From the Panchatantra, the Kathasaritasagara, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata. Born raconteurs, they made these stories come to life as the flames flickered and misshapen shadows danced on the walls.

Every morning, I went to the Little Flower School in a rickshaw pulled by Maaku, the family’s man for all reasons, and I learnt the alphabet and how to arrange the letters into words, and those words into sentences.

AUTHOR

Prem Panicker

Prem Panicker is now into his 30th year as a professional journalist. After working his way through a daily newspaper, a city tabloid and a weekly magazine, he became one of the core team of journalists who founded India’s first standalone internet news portals, Rediff on The Net (later Rediff.com). He has also worked as editor of the New York-based India Abroad and as managing editor of Yahoo India. He currently freelances as writer, editor and social media consultant, besides teaching narrative journalism.

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