The setting is just right. An old Baker building tucked into the middle of the city, a long front yard leading to it. Long enough to forget it’s Kowdiar, one of the busiest parts of Thiruvananthapuram.
Inside, professor Achuthsankar Nair is opening his long book, a novel called Tharippu. He waits to read it out to a small audience who are busying themselves with the goodies he’s brought – kumbulappam, a kind of steamed jackfruit dumpling, and coconut pieces dipped in jaggery, served in leaves.
We are at a meeting called by the Heritage Walk Trivandrum, because Tharippu was not just another novel — it had aspects of heritage to it.
The book is set in the early 19th century. The professor reads parts of it and narrates it like a tale told to young children, much like the teacher in his book – John Roberts – at the first English school in Thiruvanthapuram. The school is real — it is the SMV School that was built in the 1830s.
Achuthsankar researched and brought many real life aspects of 19th century Travancore to his novel. He took out names from the old attendance book that he got, and added one of his own – Ananthan, the son of an ironsmith and his protagonist.
The name Ananthan itself is very close to Thiruvananthapuram – a place named after Lord Anantha. Little Ananthan grows up in Vanchiyoor, loving his land, much like his author.
Achuthsankar describes the streets, the ponds, and several names from the Travancore of 1837, including the people of Kerala and the British men who visited.
He weaves his story through several real-life incidents – like the king’s visit to the school and his gift of a gold ring to a student. In the book it is of course Ananthan, the fictional boy, that gets it, but the incident is real. He also writes of women left behind by British men with false hopes and promises.
In the middle of it all, Ananthan grows up as a ‘kollan’ (ironsmith) and also goes to school and gets interested in the science of electromagnetism. Achuthsankar, a professor at the Department of Computational Biology & Bioinformatics, switches to science just as easily as he dives into the history of Travancore.
Ananthan’s grandmother, however, dreams of sending him to ‘Sheema’ – what they called England back then. And Ananthan is trying to develop a machine, that could take him to England. He discovers the joys of electromagnetism and tries to reverse the principle. The only distraction comes in the form of Chempakam, his cousin – the ‘murapennu’ that, in those times, was the destined bride-to-be.
Achuthsankar’s story ends with the ship that could take him to England. Will he or won’t he make it is in the last few lines, by which time his audience would feel so close to this young genius and his rebellious ways. The author reads it out and quietly closes the book.