‘Mahal Sneham’ – A Seat At The Table

This is the third year in a row when I have attempted to do a written tribute to my dad on his birthday. This year would be his 102nd. February 13, 2018.

There is a song in our hymnbook, Kristhiya Keerthanangal, that starts with the lyrics, ‘Mahal Sneham, Mahal Sneham’

Several of our hymn book songs are from over one hundred years ago, a big chunk of them attributed to Sadhu Kochukunju Upadeshi, (who wrote ‘dukha-thinte pana-pathram’ in 1915). Imagine that. Talk about being immortalized. Well, as he should be.

However, there are also melodies that don’t have an author mentioned, or none known. ‘Mahal Sneham’ is one of those songs. And I do have a story to tell about it.

You may challenge me on this. But here is how I recollect it.

We were at the Chepad parish from 1957-1960.

During this time frame, occurred a visiting stay at our home by a particular upadeshi. Sadly, and uncannily, a key element I can’t recall precisely about this account is this upadeshi’s name. It was some sort of a ‘Biblical’ name like Pathrose or Markose. Markose, I’m leaning towards more.

Even with this name confusion, I can recollect Upadeshi’s unmistakable physique. Dark-skinned, a bit short and stout, wearing a white cotton juba-and-mundu ensemble, with a very low-cost towel (thorth) on his shoulder. I remember this part vividly and with my heart.

You see, Markose upadeshi was from the ‘Paraya’ class. This, too, I’m certain of. Why? we’ll get to the ‘why’ a bit later.

This forgotten evangelist wrote the favoured song, ‘Mahal Sneham, Mahal Sneham’. And he, for sure, doesn’t own the copyright to it.

A man with barely an elementary school education and nothing further, expertly knew the Bible, especially the New Testament and its message, backwards and forwards, and this song is somewhat of a summation of Paul’s Letter To The Romans.

Markose upadeshi was an itinerant preacher, (‘upa-‘deshi’, is ‘someone who is not of the local’), and my innovative dad in his ever-Gospel-spreading mode, and bursting with energy, discovered his bio-data from somewhere and invited him to the parish and to stay with us.

A big convention ensued thereafter on the church premises, that drew huge numbers of people from across the spectrum and from long distances, eager to hear first-hand upadeshi’s testimony of conversion.

From Hindu to Christian. From the Paraya caste to MarThoma.

From working with his hands making dried leaf mats in the green lush of South Asia of the late 1950’s, to preaching the message of a First Century Carpenter from the arid wilderness of the Middle East.

The Sabha for its part, I believe, possibly has no record of what I’m recanting, but believe me (I’m not quoting anyone famous here!), this account is accurate.

And there is a story within this story. Two Tales Of A God’s Messenger.

As most of us would acknowledge, there was a caste system solidly in place in India of old. There were rules of conduct for each class that, in the process, separated them.

There were the four castes that ‘counted’, with placement in a particular order, and were reported in history books and Sacred Texts.

Below that, were the ‘untouchables’ and the unrecorded. (The word ‘untouchable’ should be stricken from the English dictionary of idioms. I hated writing it just now.)

(Mohandas Gandhi in his infinite Godliness called them Hari-jans (God’s people).)

The Paraya (‘Pariah’, or ‘outcast’) class was part of this last sect.

Even though this was an edict of the Hindu religion, Travancore Christians practiced it with serious gusto. Those belonging to these castes didn’t eat with us, use our utensils, enter our houses, didn’t address us.

Most Definitely, they were not given A Seat At The Table.

Except: My dad did. Markose upadeshi stayed with us for a few days, slept in one of our spare beds, and most movingly, had a chair at the dining table next to my dad.

In more ways than I can say, my dad was ahead of his time and place. For better or for worse.

In 2018, one might ask, ‘what’s the big deal’?

I’ll tell you what the deal was. And that is the story within.

As much as folks wanted to hear upadeshi speak, many, many were grumbling about this arrangement. Out of earshot of my parents, they would make sneering remarks about this man, and berate my parents (‘how dare they commit such an outlandish act’, ‘thalaku vattano’?’), obviously unaware a little girl was listening.

To this day I remember one parishioner ‘joking’, ‘kochama-ku eneem payku prashnam kanathillalo.’ See the Paraya class was ‘designated’ to make mats out of dried grass. So, ‘my mother wouldn’t have to buy these mats anymore. Upadeshi can make it for us’, is what was being implied. Never mind the man perhaps hadn’t done it in, like, may be ever.

You see, my concern as a child who understood, was not for the poor upadeshi, or for the unfairness of the social strata.

It was for my parents. These persons who were their benefactors turning on them this way. It stung.

My dad had the softest spot for evangelists, (and for household help, a separate story for another day).

He had an uncompromising habit of tithing exactly 10% and not a paisa less.

There was an empty Horlicks bottle, (which in and of itself was a ubiquitous item in many households, the liquid version of which my sister and I were made to drink every single day), on top of my dad’s book shelf, in which this money was kept. This was set aside for these preachers and others like them, and would not be used for another purpose under any circumstance. Markose upadeshi received the bottle’s entire contents upon his visit.

I must admit, missing further from this account is, what set in motion upadeshi‘s conversion in the first place, or when this song crept into our song book. Somewhere in the 80’s or later. It most certainly was not there in the 60’s. My mother, who possessed a photostatic memory, would’ve known if I had asked her before lapses set in.

Thank you Markose upadeshi for this song, on behalf of all those who have ever been moved by its meaning and melody, for the past sixty years, and counting.

Every time our pianist Christy’s foot goes to the pedal on the church piano with notes of the opening lines from this song, or when Achen spontaneously breaks into it, at the start of the communion round, my heart flutters with thoughts of,

a prairie village in a distant place, in a time long ago and long gone, in Alappuzha district along the coastal plains of the Arabian,

and a ‘touchable’ man who was Touched by God, and another one who assisted in the man’s journey.

That and when I see a Horlicks bottle anywhere.

Happy birthday, Papaji.

 

 A great Love that secures you A Seat At The Table.

Mercy

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The Back Story – 03.04.16

Our little guy is now a week old.

And in our Seattle household, ‘All Quiet On The Western Front’, has morphed into just the name of an old movie.

Meanwhile, I got to musing more:

According to the Kerala Syrian Christian inheritance practices, (again to repeat myself with that word by making it sound like we’re some kind of chosen people!), Thampi, being the youngest of 2 sons of Achayan (his dad), had inherited the family house.

So if our nuclear family had been making India our home for the last half century, Mekhala being the youngest of 3 girls with no brothers, would have inherited our Pallipad house. To make it more cumbersome, prior to their marriage, David would’ve had to agree to this set-up, because this would mean he would give up the same rights from his family.

And Will being the only son of Mekhala, youngest or not, would be poised to inherit it subsequently.

So how fitting is it that Will is named after the original owners of the house, P. (Panackal) A. (Abraham) Eapen: Achayan, Will’s great grandfather, and also Achayan’s grandfather. Achayan’s name, in conformance with the custom, was naturally from his grandfather Abraham Eapen.

So Will and his great, great, great, grandfathers. That’s three ‘greats’. They Make up the substance of this story. life has turned full circle.

God answers prayers. If not always, at some point. If not now, some day when you’re not looking.

And what I would give to see Achayan’s face right now.

Achayan was an only child of his parents.

When we ended up with 6 daughters between his only 2 sons, Achayan used to say half-jokingly, that all the desperate prayers of valli-amachy (his mother) pleading with God to grant her at least one girl, were finally answered in the form of 6 girls years later, but with no boys in the mix.

I have no clue why Amachy didn’t beg for another boy, you know, as in ‘an heir and a spare’ as they say in the British Kingdom, but she wanted a daughter.

The family lore is that Amachy, who was from Thalavadi Amprayil family, once went to the Edathua ‘perunal’, which was right next door, and did a ‘nercha’, but kept it an ‘open secret’, because ‘good’ MarThomas were not permitted to participate in ‘nercha’. I think she pledged a few chicks to the palli or something.

Achayan had 2 daughters who ended up with 4 sons between them, but they didn’t ‘count’(!), as you all well know why.

I’m not certain how many of our progeny are cognizant of the fact that we come from such a methodically configured culture.

And there would be rancor if anyone tried to break the mold. And mostly no one did.

Say what you will about the apparent male chauvinism involved in all this – I’d rather call it patriarchy – but what it did also, was to create an order, at a time when we needed to keep it all together.

The second, third, and beyond, generations would undoubtedly benefit from being conscious of our past, no matter how far removed they are from it.

Past can always inform the future. For better or for worse.

So now ‘Back To The Future’:

When we had Mekhala, after having 2 girls, and Thampi’s brother having had 2 girls (then another one later), everyone including my parents were anticipating the ‘answers to all their prayers’ in the form of a boy, as an inheritor of the family name, the house, and the so-called wealth. Achayan used to call our Pallipad house Mekhala’s.

What transpired next: so Mekhala was born 11 days past her due date. When no easy phone service from the US was available back home, the whole universe – which meant the family and a whole lot of neighbors – were anxiously awaiting the news to hear if the ‘heir apparent’ had arrived.

And on February 20th, the whole village awoke to see the telegram guy bicycling towards the Kochupurackal house, and within moments, as cousin Kunjachayan’s daughter Susy was seen running away from the house in tears, and our beloved Kuttan asking helplessly ‘thampi thampuranu pinnem oru pennano?’, word spread like wildfire that ‘poor’ hapless Kochupurackal Babychayan had another girl grandbaby. Milling around the house courtyard, they sympathized as best as they could, with Achayan and Amachy. “vidhiya, babychaya, kochame – entho cheyyana”.

Valli-amachy gave away too many chicks. 🙂

By the way, all 3 of our daughters have heard this story more times they can count, so don’t feel bad about breaking this to them gently. I was also one of the souls who shed tears that February day.

Years later, would I change a thing about that girl baby or any part of experience? The answer is: emphatically no, no way on earth.

And little did anyone imagine their prayers will be answered in the form of one Will Stephen Fentin.

Call it a willful Will or God’s will.

I felt really compelled to share this as a post-script to my posting from last week.

While doing so, I was also imagining David, Mekhala, Laila, Nora and Will, living in our Pallipad house – which no longer exists, not even one brick of it.

Regardless, it was fun picturing them living next door to Pandarathil Thankachayan (a relative), Percattu Kunjumon, Krishnan, Venu, et al.

The best was visualizing Kunjipennu drawing water from the well, and Thomachen, the vegetable vendor haggling over the price of one-day-too-old achinga.

And imagine, these things didn’t happen in Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro, the ancient sites of the Indus Valley Civilization, it was just some 30 plus years ago, and it happened in that watery dip called Kerala’s Upper Kuttanad.

From Travancore to Seattle. From deep Southern India to the Northwestern United States. I found it hard to wrap my head around it.

Anyway, thank you for indulging me, and allowing me to reminisce. I had fun. I’m sure some of you stopped reading long ago, like at the half-way mark. 🙂

————-

And further with the movies theme, as sweet Will was taking his sweet time last week, contemplating when to come out head first to say hello! to the world, he granted ample time for Ammi to teach his big sister (all of 6 years old) how to make yogurt at home, who was fascinated it could even be done, and also to see ‘Trumbo’ and ‘The Martian’. Go see it.

Very fondly,

mercy