The eldest brother married a woman of his own caste. He was a grim-looking ritualist whose popularity was sometimes dismissed as the pull of personality. It was said that when he performed a pooja, women came out to watch him. But this was a blinkered Brahmin, wedded to the rule-book both in life and vocation. His bearing was natural, not affected. His popularity was endured, not relished. He slaved impassively through life, bent upon straightening the straitened status of the illam. His wife existed like a shadow of his entombed desires. No one knew what she felt about anything, least of all he. But she was eminently qualified to be his wife. The Bhagavad Gita says: do your duty and don't bother your head too much about the fruits thereof. Their marriage bore no fruit. Nevertheless both husband and wife continued to do their duty.
Besides the brief bequeathed to successive family heads of Kunnupuram-- to raise up the family's financial and social position-- Narayanan's eldest brother had also to contend with another duty: replenishing the assets of the family regularly sloughed off by the two irresponsible brothers immediately younger to him. Numbers Two and Three were travellers; and if there ever was a surface equivalent, a land version, of the sailor with goodies in every port, then it was the travelling namboodiri.
The travelling namboodiri had relationships in several noble houses. These were called sammandhams-- "relationships". He was a dabbler who flitted from flower to flower. But don't imagine life remained a bed of flowers. He could be summoned to a rich Kshatriya or Nair family where the women gave him the once-over, in terms of looks, colour, family background, qualities of body and mind, and then selected him and asked him to stay on. These were the eating-sleeping-making love namboodiris who had to necessarily leave their self-respect at home and pretend to a dignity they didn't feel they deserved. If they felt they could do without the comforts they found in these households, they left. And perhaps returned at later times. Thus "their" women too were free to dabble if they were so inclined. In a matriarchal system where women were supreme-- and brothers and uncles took precedence over husbands-- it was perhaps easier to have a husband who wasn't always getting in the way.
The second and third brothers were happy-go-lucky. Happy to go around getting lucky. The sort who lusted after the prospect of a grand meal. The sort who surveyed a woman from head to toe and breast to breast on first sight, and gauged their bodies and their desires simultaneously. They believed in laughter and easy living, and were grateful to life for not imposing too much on them. They gambled and watched Kathakali performances and attended marriages and engaged in idle debates that could lead anywhere as long they were kept occupied.
They were connoisseurs who believed in chasing the last frontiers of satiation. They were, naturally, different from their elder brother. Quite the opposite, in fact. They loved fruits; duties were dismal. They were dilettantes; nothing enduring or focussed about their relationships. They loved their elder brother-- especially his willingness to let them live as they pleased. At last count, Number Two had five women and Number Three seven. No such count was undertaken for the number of children they sired-- who can count the stars on a fertile sky?
But not everyone was lucky to be happy. In his turn, a namboodiri who married within his caste could prove to be extremely insensitive-- like a gardener crushing underfoot the blooms of his own garden. Namboodiris are patriarchal, perhaps the sole exception among Hindus in Kerala. The young wife wasn't allowed out of the house. Strangers couldn't lay eyes upon her. She was rarely educated as much as the male. Sometimes she had to endure competition, one or two or even three companion-wives! Widows were shorn of ornaments and virtually declared a non-entity. The husband could do no wrong. But if she herself "strayed", she was subjected to an internal court of inquiry comprising learned Brahmins, led by one trained in the art of such interrogations --and she could be slighted and banished.
It was, as in most cases, one set of rules for the male, and another for the female.
The novel discusses the two dominant classes of erstwhile Kerala, the namboodiri Brahmins and the aristocratic Kshatriyas. The following excerpt offers a glimpse into the lives of two such families.
Matriarchy in Kilikkara was not simply a trick of nominal protocol as it was in many families. Where woman held the title, and man the bridle.
It was common in such families for brothers and uncles to take over administration and thus the key to the treasury. They indulged their whims and high-spirited fantasies at the expense of the joint family, leaving the women satisfied with an impression of superiority. The brothers and uncles often succumbed to an expected proclivity towards protecting their own families-- wife and children rather than sisters and nieces-- perhaps a prescient propulsion towards the nuclear family that would burst upon them decades later.
Funds of the joint family being siphoned off by brothers and uncles to their wives' families was a rather common occurrence. (Most perpetrators felt no guilt. Women who did realize what was happening brought up the subject but preferred not to make too much of it, since they were yet to perfect a mechanism where a woman could really rule without avuncular-fraternal help.)
Siphoning was a natural emanation from a bit of night-magic-- thalayana manthram or the pillow-spell. Where wily-wife-whispers before, during or after nocturnal satisfactions-- depending on whether the husband had to be caught during urge, surge or purge-- deflected loyalties and wealth to such an extent that entire families have been known to sink into easy decay. Which proved to be a raw deal for the joint family's women since they were neither provided for by their husbands nor by their own family.
Past the flush of youth and the crush of middle-age, having but briefly tasted the gratification of senility, Kochu Kelu stood on the pinnacle of his life at seventy-eight. He surveyed the undulating expanse of time all about him with startling clarity. Future, past and present were equally sharp. Within his soft pampered body he now found a strong will, a clear vision and rare understanding of people and events. He took a long and grave look at Subhadra's Narayanan and said: "That story is over and done with. Never mention it as long as I'm alive and the patriarch of Kilikkara Palace."
The large smooth timeless thampuran had left everyone else behind in his journey to graceful greydom. Age hadn't dimmed his insight nor custom paled his infinite patience. He took the world on his own terms, and that included the sun and the moon and the tyranny of time. When he spoke to Narayanan no one realised he was putting his final seal on history, on events more than half a century old, events that owed their finely sculpted completeness to none other than KK himself! For he was a man who straddled generations, who lit a fuse at one end of time and saw it explode at the other.
His day was typical of his life. He was independent and isolated, autocratic and understanding. Kochu Kelu opened his eyes to the world at half-past nine. He had a half-hour's silent communion with the gods and his inner self, still in bed. His bedroom was large, airy and high-ceilinged. One could spend most of one's life in such a bedroom. And KK did. His faithful manservant, Paramu, turned up with a basin, warm water, a neem-stick, toothbrush, paste, tongue-cleaner, soap, face cream, talcum powder, large fluffy towel, mirror and a transistor radio. The transistor was switched on, pre-tuned to a station providing Carnatic music. The mirror was propped up to let him see himself.
Sitting in bed, KK indulged his teeth and mouth first. Both neem-stick and toothbrush were needed to maintain his healthy white (and still original) teeth. His face was washed with soap between every operation. His whaley pink tongue flopped out, and the tongue-cleaner was employed mercilessly. After a last scrubbing of his face, he rubbed cream on it, taking his time, using fingertips and little swabs of cotton, dab-dab-dabbing in time to timeless music. Paramu removed his sleep-crumpled white shirt and dhothi, leaving him in a loin-cloth that turned invisible within all that flesh. Paramu helped him to sprinkle powder all over himself, under arms, within joints, on vast smooth back. KK crinkled his eyes as he watched the procedure in the mirror.
The procedure lasted an hour. As a finale, he pulled off his loin-cloth like a tired cabaret artiste and threw it at Paramu. He was then dressed in fresh starched clothes.
And now read about a typical day in the life of a well-adjusted, well-living arstocrat. A tiny excerpt from a long, slow day.
The woman took the glass from him and left. If all was well, she prepared herself, sent word to her husband and returned. If that wasn't possible-- if the husband was reluctant or she had her period or there was a sick child to be looked after-- she sent a substitute. Spending the night with Kochu Kelu thampuran was remunerative. On certain days it was enough that the maid stayed, and what didn't happen gave him a far more serene pleasure. KK was happy to remain a bachelor. He didn't miss marriage, and with his crowded hours, he had absolutely no time for it.
In his Youth (which stretched longer than the lifetimes of some of his companions), he'd clung to his bed and habits with practised ardour. Bolstered by bolsters, pillowed by pillows, blanketed by blankets and bedded by whoever heeded his summons. He endured the day with dreams of the night. He sat in other rooms with the bedroom in his blood. His whole life was a steep breathless ascent in reverse, like a river regaining its source or a child wanting the womb.