Reading the novel from the point of view of Kurambi gives a sense of the fascination the townsfolk had for the colonising French.

A book cover showing writer M Mukundan's face drawn on a light background
Features Literature Tuesday, October 20, 2020 - 16:38
Written by  Cris

As Kurambi looked at little Dasan resting on her lap, making her repeat the grandma tales she told him, she wondered how long it would last, this love for old stories. For a few moments, you wish it stayed that way like a picture – Kurambi with her little box of snuff, sitting outside the house, exchanging pleasantries with the passing neighbours, Mayyazhi waking up behind her as the night lamps faded. M Mukundan has written this scene for his 1974 classic novel Mayyazhipuzhayude Theerangalil or On the Banks of Rive Mahe, giving glimpses of the childhood of his young protagonist Dasan, who’d grow up in the '40s and fight for the freedom of Mahe. It is, however, really interesting to see it all from the place Kurambi did, a woman who was eternally, silently, sobbingly in love with a Frenchman, and couldn’t imagine her Mayyazhi without the white folks.

Mahe, a small town tucked between Kozhikode and Kannur in the north of Kerala, has always been a favourite destination of travellers. Mukundan, a writer from Mahe, records in his book fictionalised accounts of real life incidents that shaped the history of the town. There was a revolution by rebellious young leaders fighting for freedom from the French who occupied the shores of Mahe even after the rest of India gained independence. It took Mahe seven more years to be free, in 1954. And then it became a part of the union territory of Puducherry, not Kerala. Mukundan's Mayyazhi tells you the stories of people who had a love-hate relationship with their colonisers - the old who loved them and the young who hated them.

M Mukundan

There is a picture of Kurambi’s Frenchman riding a horse cart into the night that she never lets you forget. Leslie Saive (slang for foreign man) left the evening parties of Moopan Saive and dropped by Kurambi’s, calling out her name twice, asking for snuff. She had the same answer every evening – why not Saive. When he kept his hat aside and sniffed the powder, she spoke of her wish that he should buy a car like Moopan Saive. Together, they sniffed the bewitching powder and spoke of everyone they knew – their families, the little children, his wife back home, her dead husband. It was a friendship that didn’t need an explanation. One that thrived years before independence, easily, between man and woman, white and brown, and no one asked any questions.

Acceptance of all people, quirks and lives

It is the acceptance of these friendships, of people and their unusual livelihoods and quirks, that makes you wonder about the Mahe of early days. 

Kurambi’s close friend was Kunjichirutha, her next door neighbour and well-wisher, who worked as a sex worker. Kurambi called her into the house for tea when she walked home after a night at Daveed Saive’s. Chirutha would come in and ask after the family, give a little something to the little boy Dasan who was soon starting school. Kurambi’s grandson Dasan couldn’t wait to go to school watching the neighbour girl go with her sanchi of books.

Dasan’s father had not been the same. Damu had the responsibility of looking after a family fall on his young shoulders when the father – whom Kurambi lovingly calls my theeyan (depicting the ‘thiyyar’ caste) – is bitten by a snake and goes to a black magician for cure (which, ahem, doesn’t work). Damu drops out after class 5 and gradually gets the job of a document writer.

Mahe river / Courtesy - Karishma VP

There is no clear expression of Kurambi’s love for Damu. She is happy when he gets a job, a wife, two children. But you don’t see her musing about him the way she does about Leslie Saive in the long nights she wouldn’t sleep, counting the horse carts that leave Moopan Saive’s night parties. Years after Leslie died, she still heard the hooves of his horse stop before her house, his footsteps climb up, his voice call out her name twice. In this way, Kurambi does not let the reader forget his presence. But she never uses the word love for him. It would have been a redundant word, when every day she sat up sobbing, hearing the dead man night after night.

Kurambi loved the French woman he married, too. The beautiful Missy who went out with Leslie to the town and the riverside, who became best friends with her. Kurambi loved everything associated with Leslie. Both his sons, the elder one who left his home young and the younger one with a darker fate. Gustav, who was friends with Damu, becomes disturbed when the parents make marriage plans for him. He marries against his wishes and comes back wife-less after a honeymoon, shuts himself up at the attic and never leaves it for the next four decades. People called him Shundan Saive – impotent foreigner.

But Mahe’s unquestioning acceptance of every man and woman, including Shundan Saive, continued through the years, until Dasan grew up and wanted different things.

Fascination for the French

For Kurambi, all had been going well till then. Damu writer had a loving wife, Kausu. The children were growing up fine – Dasan, doing extremely well at his studies, winning the whole town’s admiration and going to Pondicherry for higher studies. His younger sister Girija is however stopped from going to school once she reaches puberty. That’s the custom, girls don’t go out once they grow up, Kurambi tells her granddaughter, who doesn’t rebel. 

Mukundan has left her little explored, what goes on in her mind when she has to stop studies, when she has to be happy staying inside the home, helping out at the kitchen. Dasan’s rebellious mind is also focused on the freedom of Mahe, not the other freedoms defined by customs, such as the education of girls. He had longed to go to school before he knew his alphabet, did he not wonder how his sister felt about it?

Old picture of Mukundan with his sister/ Courtesy - Haritham Books

Until Dasan finished his studies, they had all put their hope on him. Not just the family but half the town. They gazed at him when he came back home, Moopan Saive sent a man to tell him he could choose between a government job or further studies at France. Kurambi – by then Kurambi Amma as aging women are called – could not contain her joy. He – Dasan – would get to go to France, the dreamland she had built a high place for, in that mind of hers. She had been hoping to see him wear suits like Leslie Saive and come in horse carts for the longest time. At last now, she hoped he would. He promised he would one day. But Kurambi didn’t know the dream of the family would be shattered in a moment. Letting them have their share of joy for one more day, Dasan breaks it to the family next morning. He wouldn’t take the job or go to France. He was going to fight the French and make them leave Mahe.

Kurambi could not understand. Damu sat down, broken. Kausu and Girija cried. If it was anyone else, Kurambi would have given them a piece of her mind but this was her own flesh and blood, the boy who grew up hearing the legends of Mahe from her. She had told him about the businessman who kept gifting jewellery for a woman he desired and who took his gifts but never let him into her house. The man died and turned into a snake to finally enter her chamber and sleep with her, killing both of them that night. Kurambi told him about the distant hill on the river where lives had roamed before they got born as people in Mahe. About the goddess who cursed a whole family of men to be born with a limb. So many, many stories.

Rise to rebellion

And now, he wanted the French to leave this town? Why, she wondered. White people are good people, she told anyone who listened. They should never leave this place, she wished silently.

She had personally taken Dasan to Missy’s home when he was going to join school. She had given him her famous cake. They were friends of the family, as far as Kurambi could see. She spoke of them as her own. When Gustav was reluctant to get married, it was Kurambi who said he will come around when Damu, his friend, got married. In later years when Missy became unwell and Gustav remained shut in his attic, it was Kurambi who called out to him to come down the stairs to see his mother.

St Theresa's shrine in Mahe / Credit - Karishma VP

But the grownup Dasan now wanted all of them off the shores of Mahe. He joined with young friends of his, other rebels  – new Communists and Gandhi followers. They were mentored by Kunjanandan Master, Dasan’s old teacher at school. One day, someone wrote outside the walls of Moopan Saive’s house, asking the French to leave. The revolution rose slowly. The numbers grew. A first revolution took place and the rebels thought they had nearly won, when the ships of the Frenchmen were offloaded and they chased them off Mahe. Everyone had run then, including the townsfolk that loved the French, like Kurambi, the toddy shop owner Unni Nair, and the man who lit the night lamps of Mahe, Kunjakkan. When the French announced that they’d only punish the rebels, the others returned home, slowly, fearfully but steadily.

Dasan still had to stay away from Mahe. Kurambi missed him. He had a girlfriend visiting him there, Kunjanandan’s niece, Chandri.

Kurambi has by then become an old woman, we’d think older with her contemporaries having died long ago. But she was still healthy, still harbouring thoughts of an old Mahe, of Leslie and of her grandson she yearned to see in a suit. Damu, her son, who was arrested because of Dasan's doings and spent two years in jail, did not want the family to mention him anymore. He shouted the others down. Kausu cried secretly and became bedridden before Kurambi. Girija was going to be married to the local goon Achu who had looked after the family when the first revolution broke out and everyone had to flee.


Damu agreed for the marriage when Achu found a decent job for himself and left his old rotten ways behind. Girija cried without a break and asked her mother to tell her father to kill her. Only Kurambi seemed happy about the developments. Achu who had first walked into the house as a goon and scared the family with his ways, became her companion in later years. He inhaled snuff with her and they gossiped about the people of Mahe. All Kurambi wanted was a ‘pandal’ for the wedding which for some reason Damu wouldn’t have. She had by then become indifferent to the tears of the women in the house, perhaps having drifted away completely into the world she imagined in the nights. A world only she knew of.

She said nothing but whimpered at a corner when Dasan, risking everything, reached home to beg his father to not let that goon marry his dear sister. Damu shoved him outside the house and let the French arrest him, put him behind bars for years.

Occasionally shedding tears for him, Kurambi now reveled in some last dreams in life – as climbing a horse cart with Achu and sleeping on a real bed for the first time in her life at Achu’s new home. 

The most disappointing part of the novel comes in the way Girija’s character is written after her marriage with Achu. The girl who went crying into his chamber – rather lifted from under a tree she sat crying and forcefully taken to the bed – woke up laughing merrily. His forcefulness on her had won over the girl when nothing else had in the past many days. You wonder what Kurambi did or thought when all of this happened. That’s when you imagine perhaps she is no longer listening to the happenings of this world.

Until the second revolution happens, and this time the French do get defeated. It would take seven more years for Mahe’s freedom to come, after the rest of India became independent in 1947. That day in 1954, when toddy shop owner Unni Nair passed her the news, Kurambi Amma could not bear it. She was bedridden by then. Unni Nair, Kunjakkan and others tried to leave in the ships with the French to their land. They didn’t want a Mahe without the white man. Kurambi asked Achu if they could go too. The wizened Achu said, but this is our home. So she waited for the French to come back one day. Perhaps still listening to the hooves of Leslie’s late night jaunts.

The story is as much about the fascination for the French, of the many natives who didn’t know the meaning of freedom, as it is about the revolution that shaped Mahe’s history. To the naïve townsfolk, the French had been their friends, unlike the distant British in the rest of India. They had shared goodies and festivities and stories together. Mukundan was not romanticising the colonisation of French through Kurambi. He was merely characterising a generation that once lived in that soil with peculiar dreams. And Kurambi, with all her innocence, holds onto those memories like the tin of snuff tucked into her hands till her last breath faded away. And then it fell to the ground.

Also read: Displaced by boundaries, united by culture: Meet the Malayalis of Mahe and Kanyakumari