A Village, Cast In Red.
About ten kilometres away from the heart of the commercial capital of the red-ruled state of Kerala, is a quaint village - Chittoor - bordering many other nearby suburban regions. An almost straight road from the heart of the bustling city, running parallel to the NH 66, brings you to the first signs of a vibrant village corner - ‘Shaappu Padi Junction’. Shaappu is the colloquial name for one of Kerala’s most familiar and recognised, and loved and hated symbols - Toddy (kallu shaappu) shop. As a child, walking past the shaappu frightened me; today it reminds me of some of the popular dishes on a restaurant menu - shaappu curry.
Shaappu Padi Junction is the main area of South Chittoor. Traditionally known for the famed Chittoor temple, the village also boasts its ferry that takes people across one of the tributaries of the Periyar river. Very near is another rural neighbourhood - Cheranalloor - a fertile and pristine village known for one among the 108 Durga temples. Straight ahead takes you to the newly built ‘Container Road’ that connects Kalammasseri with the Vallarpadom Container Terminal. This road snakes it way around pristine waters of the Periyar’s numerous tributaries and is a fantastic leisure drive route. But before you hit this scenic route, a large city cannot escape the eye - Aster Medicity.
Back to the ‘toddy shop jn’. Being the central intersection to four directions, the small village town is busy. There is an ‘auto-rickshaw stand’, with vehicles ever ready to take passengers across the mini-metropolis. A bank, a few bakeries, a cool bar (that Lime-Sarbath!) , a Union Bank branch, NBFCs, hardware shops, a launderer and not but least, a ‘union bunker’.
Early in the morning while all other shops are closed, there’s one that is open right from 6am - Annam Homely Foods run by Joy chettan. He opens at 530am and people pop in and out of his tiny, tin-sheet and concrete-floor shed for tea, hot idlys, appams, vadas and much more.
People from every gate and by-lanes on each of the roads that lead to the junction come out and assemble at the bus stop awaiting to be taken to different places. Greetings of the morning in hushed tones, murmurs about breakfast, exams and office gossip, and quick checks on Ukraine’s status, fill the air.
One of the early morning sights to watch, is the two road side stands that sell lottery tickets for the day. Those on the way to work, order their cups of tea and breakfast at Joy Chettan’s shop and head out to the stand to check for the day’s ‘bumper’ tickets. The junction boasts two independent stands, and a little further away is a dedicated shop for lottery tickets, flanked by a beauty parlour on one side, and a provisions store on the other.
During the day, hundreds of vehicles rush towards different directions - everyone is in a hurry. Horns are blared in some cases… but two wheelers needn’t, as silencers are modified and even a dead cow will move away!
Several hundreds of homes of all sizes and shapes line the road. Some with homely and tree-full courtyards, others with interlock tile-paved ones; some in white and grey, others in green and yellow. A number of men and women head in different directions, some on the phone and others just deep in thought.
The Chittoor temple attracts footfalls, and so does the St. Jude’s Chapel, both on the Chittoor Ferry road - the most interesting part of town.
There’s a shop for all needs - ranging from hardware and paint, to country-building equipment; small tea shops and restaurants, to bakeries; tiny stores and kirana shops, to larger mini-bazars; fashion shops, footwear shops and small and larger medical stores; a couple of butchers (one from where popular Malayalam Christian devotionals are heard while pounding the meat with that sharp knife), and even a pet shop that advertises its ‘guppies’.
The ferry at the edge of land teems with people on foot and on bikes, awaiting their turn on the near-ceaseless trips operated by a country-jangar. After each trip leaves, people and vehicles trickle in, in ones and twos to slowly form a crowd big enough to fill the boat. Very soon, the Kochi Water Metro will begin services, connecting this part of town to the mini-metropolis.
An interestingly dominant characteristic of this area makes itself very apparent in different ways. At the ‘Shaappu Padi Junction’, the workers’ union bunker is typical of any place in Kerala, and has an unmistakable odour of communist revolution. The Marxist Party State Congress to be held in the City in a few days time has its sound and fury overtake all visible elements in the area.
Party flags flutter in the cool river breeze on every available pole. Party Posters honouring the martyrdom of every communist soul have a designated space. A little girl actively participating at a Party meet occupies pride of place at a corner. Evenings these days present a scene of dozens of two-wheelers in a procession of sorts blaring out communist tunes with almost coordinated wares and proudly displayed party flags - all in the direction of the temple grounds.
The unavoidable sign of this being an entirely Communist-friendly region - The ‘Deshabhimani’ party newspaper. There are simply no other newspaper mastheads to be seen here - even in the nearby scrap shop. It presents itself on every possible table space - restaurant, bakery, store or medical shop. It is used as a sustainable means to pack food, vegetables and groceries. It is seen in the hands of anyone who takes to reading the newspaper in the morning - young, old, men or women. It is like the ‘national media’ or medium of South Chittoor. Certain home courtyards even sport the ‘temporarily closed down’ Party’s local booth offices used during elections!
At Annam Homely Foods, the street corner humble tea shop that serves idlys, appams, freshly made and soft parotta or meals along with chicken, beef or vegetables, there are a few copies available for anyone to read. Those who come in for tea have a look at it. The auto-rickshaw drivers use their free time to read through and jovially discuss local, regional, national and, global issues.
An old man trying to sell coconuts from his farm takes it, doesn’t take his eye off it (the day’s editorial) even as he crosses the road, nearly getting run over by a bike. But in South Chittoor, you don’t run into anyone with the Deshabhimani in hand, or else!
As if the overpowering party newspaper is not sufficient, ‘Red @ Kochi’ a news supplement published by the Kerala’s CPI(M)’s State Conference also makes its way into the hands of South Chittoor’s people. I ask Joy chettan if I can take it to read… he readily agrees, but not without a “bring it back… I haven’t finished reading it” request. Four sheets of tabloid size explains every minute Communist principle, revives memories of old revolutions, announces the ‘drama’tisation of Ningalenne Communistakki (You Made Me a Communist) for the upcoming State Conference, and even features the band that is preparing behind the scenes, to sing to Kochi, the party’s favourite songs.
Despite being a committed anti-communist, for me, the breeze here is cool; the gentle waves of the river make enough sound to calm the mind; tea is as good as it is in Chennai, Churchgate or far away in Chester; food, as tasty as anywhere else in Kerala. This is a loveable little locale; I am at ease here.
This is where Red is not just painted - Red is Cast in every inch of land! As red as the setting sun colours up the evening skies, and as red as the little cross atop the church that lights up in the evening.
Post Script: Even as I write this, I am aware of the many millions displaced and under threat in Ukraine, and hundreds of fellow Indians are stranded, awaiting safe passage to their homeland. Despite all the gentleness of communism I feel here in Chittoor, the idea of a resurgent Soviet Union threatening to dominate the landscape, is something I am fearful of.