Caught in its grip

KR MEERA | Updated on January 24, 2018

Land of myth. The Thirunakkara Mahadevar Temple lies in the heart of Kottayam   -  The Hindu Archives

Bound by water and hills. The Meenachil river flows through the city

Kottayam — as rich in myth and history as in bakeries and parlours — has made me its own

When I started researching the city of Kolkata for my novel Hang Woman ( Aaraachaar in Malayalam), I realised that a city or town becomes magnificent not through spectacular monuments but through the beehive of history and the antechambers of nostalgia.

Kottayam, where I live, is a town nestling between the Western Ghats on the east and the Vembanad Lake and paddy fields on the west. It derives its name from ‘kotta’ and ‘akam’, meaning the inside of a fort. The footprints of the past dot the place — the temple of Thali, which was the seat of Thekkumkoor Raja, the Old Seminary where English education was introduced to south India in 1813, the Baker School, which was the first girls’ school in all of Kerala and the CMS College, the first college in south India. This history reminds me of the aristocracy and orthodoxy embedded here, while also revealing a need for change.

It disheartens me that there is little authentic study accessible to common readers on the planning of the ‘Missionary’ Kottayam, the cuisine and architecture of princely Kottayam, the invasion of Marthanda Varma etc. So the writer in me can only gaze in wonder at the splendid and sober thatched bungalows on the banks of River Meenachil and imagine the different lives and struggles of the people who inhabited them.

I call Kottayam my hometown not because its river Meenachil or the serene Kumarakam are known internationally, but because this is the only place on earth which will never relinquish its grip on me. By some witchcraft, it roots me and retains me year upon year. I found my true vocation of journalism in this small but aristocratic town, met my husband here, gave birth to my daughter here. The name was etched in my heart from the age of five, when I heard stories from the Aithihyamaala (The Garland of Myths) — compiled by Kottarathil Sankunni, a native of the city.

I made my first trip here 33 years ago, when as an 11-year-old I foolishly searched for Kottayam Thampuran’s Palace and Kumaradhara — the waterfalls that could transform even mules into Sanskrit poets. At that time, Kottayam was a land of myths, of gods, goddesses, yakshis and gandharvas and of legendary Communist party leader P Krishna Pillai. I had come with my mother from my village Sasthamcotta in Kollam district for the All-Kerala elocution contest. I sat in the bus and looked angrily at this small town running past my window. Even though beautiful thatched houses stood with neat gardens, I didn’t like the place because it cheated my imaginary Macondo. That visit left me disillusioned and bitter. When I returned 20 years later as a journalist, I wished to run away at the earliest opportunity. But life is unpredictable. I completed 20 years here on July 2, 2013.

I started to feel proud of this town, which chose me to be its own, never imprisoning me but sheltering me. Kottayam is hailed as the land of lakes, letters and latex, but it is also the land of bars, bakeries, boutiques and beauty parlours. You cannot find a city with more beauty parlours in all of Kerala! Churches, colleges, restaurants are abundant. We close our shops early but keep our bars open late into the night. I still rush to Ann’s bakery to buy marble and plumcake before I visit friends outside Kerala, while my daughter is addicted to the pastries of Square One Talent.

The Christian women of Kottayam stand out for their sober and elegant outfits, and their husbands are known for their business acumen. The gap between the rich and poor is wide, of course, but a certain sophistication of manners is demonstrated by even the poorest. The residents here are generally well-educated and civilised and can be extremely traditional.

I have travelled extensively, but I now know that no other place will feel like home. When I travel to Kochi, I think of Kottayam’s clean air and peace, when I shop in Bangalore or Chennai, I miss the showrooms of Gowri and Seematti. Rumour has it that even Arundhati Roy prefers to get her blouses stitched at Swapna Garments. All my favourite spots of eating and shopping in Kottayam are owned and run by women. Beena Kannan owns Seematti; Annamma Kottukapally owns the bakery chain Ann’s, she has completed 30 years in the male-dominated confectionary business of Kerala. Square One is run by a group of housewives; Gowri is run by Thara Nair; Swapna Garments by two sisters Rajamma and Omana. So, Kottayam is a land of successful women. Like Mary Roy, known for waging battle for Syrian Christian women to lay claim to their ancestral property; like the late Annamma Mathew, who was the pioneer of culinary literature in Malayalam; like Beena Kannan, who is the only woman in Kerala to run a textile business as gigantic as Seematti. Is it because of living amidst them that I write the stories I have written?

Kottayam to me is a village in its nature, a town in its appearance, a city in content, and a metro in quality. It inspires me and leaves me edified. What more could I want?

(In this monthly series authors chronicle the cities they call home.)

(Meera is an award-winning Malayalam author. Her book Hang Woman releases this June)

Published on May 16, 2014

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