Bread and kozhi curry

Print edition : June 18, 2004

ERAMBALA KRISHNAN NAYANAR - in his 47-year-old life Narender Kumar had not heard the name even once. But on the morning of May 21, Nayanar's name and a host of images associated with him practically arrested the attention of this coiffeur, hailing from Bijnor in western Uttar Pradesh, in the most unusual manner.

At the Kannur Guest House in the late 1980s, Nayanar at the breakfast table before leaving for an election campaign.-S. GOPAKUMAR

As is his wont, Kumar was surfing television channels at his modest haircutting salon in west Delhi before beginning the day's work. That is when he saw those visuals aired by a couple of Malayalam channels - hundreds of thousands of people braving torrential rains to have a glimpse of the mortal remains of an aged man. "Who is this, whose death has evoked such massive grief in lakhs of men and women, young and old?" was the question that passed through Kumar's mind as he sat watching the visuals.

It was with this question that he stopped me - one of his few south Indian acquaintances - near his salon. What I told Kumar initially was the bare, journalistic information about Nayanar. That he was a freedom fighter who fought many heroic battles against British colonialism, that he was one of the foremost leaders of the strong communist movement in Kerala, that he had three terms as Chief Minister of the State and that he and his movement had done immense service to the people.

Kumar was hearing about Nayanar for the first time in his life, but he did not take much time to dismiss my matter of fact, almost bland, reporting about the leader. "Saab, what you have said about this man can be said about many other politicians too. I have also seen some, in Uttar Pradesh and in Delhi, and many of them had fought for the country's Independence, led their parties and did service to the people. But I do not think any one of them would have got a farewell like this." Kumar was certain that I had missed out on a vital qualitative dimension of the special bonding between Nayanar and his admirers and followers.

Of course, I had missed out. For, no journalistic description can really capture the emotional essence of the relationship that existed - and continues to exist - between Nayanar and the people of Kerala. Over the last 22 years, I have had intermittent interactions with Nayanar and have seen some manifestations of this unique relationship. And, trying to analyse them, I realise that it is almost impossible to define the chemistry between Nayanar and the masses.

At one level, the relationship was not even about politics; it was about basic human characteristics like affection and love. At another, it was about a very political factor called accessibility to the people, a quality increasingly becoming absent among `contemporary' politicians.

THE memory of one afternoon in the small village of Madikai in the north Kerala district of Kasaragod remains with me as one of the most amazing expressions of affection that this politician evoked among the people. It was 19 years ago, in 1985, during the campaign for a by-election in Uduma, an Assembly constituency in the district.

Madikai had about 300 houses and an adult population of around 1,200 people at that time. The panchayat was a known Communist Party of India (Marxist) stronghold and Nayanar had stayed `underground' in the village during the freedom struggle and in the early days of India's Independence as the undivided Communist Party of India pursued the "Calcutta thesis" calling for an armed struggle against the Indian state.

In 1985, I was the district correspondent of Deshabhimani, a Malayalam daily, and often used to accompany Nayanar in his by-election campaign tours. On that day there was a public meeting at Madikai and it was around lunchtime that the meeting concluded. Since Nayanar had a long personal association with the village and its people, the local party unit had prepared one of the leader's favourite dishes - bread and kozhi (chicken) curry.

The lunch was organised at a house close to the venue of the meeting and Nayanar and those who accompanied him ate a sumptuous meal. Lunch over, Nayanar and I started our return journey to the nearby town of Kanhangad. Our car hardly moved about 100 metres when we saw an elderly woman standing in the middle of the road.

Obviously, she was determined to stop the car. "Is that not Kausalya, one of our comrades?", Nayanar recognised the woman instantly. The car was stopped and Nayanar got out to meet the party worker. But Kausalya had come to invite her leader for lunch. She had also prepared bread and kozhi curry. She would have none of Nayanar's protestations against a second lunch and the two of us were forced to have a `small bite' in the house of this comrade too.

Once again, we said good bye and the car started moving. About 100 metres away stood another woman in her fifties, again on the middle of the road. Nayanar recognised this comrade too and stopped the car to meet her, only to be barraged by a volley of complaints. How could Nayanar eat in other houses when she and her family had prepared bread and kozhi curry and were waiting for him all this while? Nayanar tried to explain that he had two lunches already and had no "space" for one more, but the CPI(M) activist did not want to hear all that.

At one stage in the conversation, an agreement was reached that the food would be packed and eaten later. By that time, more local party workers surrounded the car and they gave an astonishing piece of news. Close to a hundred households in the village had prepared bread and kozhi curry in the hope that the leader would chose their house to have lunch.

Clearly, the expression of love of the people of Madikai for their leader had created a small `crisis' in the village. Finally, it was decided that the kozhi curry and bread from all the houses would be packed and taken to Kanhangad for workers at the central election office.

A huge vessel, generally used to cook wedding lunches, was called for and all the kozhi curry was poured into it. It found its way into the trunk of the car. The backseat of the car presented a bizarre picture at the end of `operation food packing' - Nayanar on one side of the seat and a huge pile of bread on the other. The effort, of course, was not wasted. Workers at the central election office had a great evening meal that day.

Later, inquiries revealed that the local party unit had made it clear well in advance as to where Nayanar would have his lunch that day. Still, each household hoped privately that Nayanar would finally come to that house. Such a hope was founded essentially on the way Nayanar carried himself as a politician and as a human being.

I have travelled with Nayanar throughout the length and breadth of Kerala and have noticed with wonder how he remembers the names of people and places, including those of remote and obscure streets.

When he talked to people it was not only about ideological issues, but also about little things such as the education of children and marriages in the family. And his language was never coloured by "politicalese"; it was the robust language of the rural man.

I would think it was such characteristics of the man that resulted in a farewell that moved Narender Kumar to sit up and take notice of a south Indian leader he had never heard about earlier. Watching Kumar as he learns to pronounce the name of a leader he discovered rather late in life I get a telephone call from Ravi, a beedi worker from my home town of Kannur. Ravi asked a simple but pained question: "How long will people like me have to wait to get another leader on whose shoulder I could put my arms and talk about personal problems and clear my political doubts?"

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