|S.K.Pottekkatt courtesy Wikipedia|
The colonial writers of the 19th and early 20th century like Logan and Evans-Innes have left detailed descriptions of the province of Malabar during their time. But, as administrators dealing with issues of land revenue and conflicts, they have not provided much in terms of a description of Calicut town. It was left to the adorable writer, S.K.Pottekkatt to give us a sketch of the vibrant life of the town in his Oru Theruvinte Katha (The Story of a Street). A grateful city has honoured him by putting up a giant bust of the author on the northern end of the Sweetmeat Street (Miththayi Theruvu) whose chronicle he had recorded in all its starkness.
We give below a description of the author’s childhood memories of Calicut during the 1920s. This is extracted from an article he wrote for the daily Mathrubhumi published in 1978:
Calicut of today (1978) is not very different externally from the town in my childhood memories (1920). In fact, if Vasco da Gama were to land here again, he would have no difficulty in finding his way to the Zamorin’s Palace.
Varakkal (West Hill) those days housed the barracks of the European soldiers. Local teams and European teams would often play football and hockey matches at the Mananchira playground.
The ‘Mission Shop’ (Commonwealth Trust) was also known as the German Shop. It had been seized by the British during the First World War and run as the Commonwealth Trust. The southern and north-eastern side of Mananchira – which was the heart of Calicut – was in possession of the Germans.
To the east of Mananchira (where an educational office and text book store stand today ) was a hospital. Attached to it was the Medical College (School?) I would be scared to look at the skeletons which used to be hung in the open from a jackfruit tree in the compound. One wondered why they had to display the scary skeletons, meant for the anatomy lessons of medical students, in the open rather than store safely in a room.
Muthalakkulam was then also the centre of activities for the washer men of the town. East of this ground was a large garden of jasmine. To its south, opposite the Women and Child Hospital, there was a coffee plantation. An abattoir stood to the south of the W&C Hospital.
The road to the east of the vegetable market in Palayam led one to a marshy land where buffaloes were kept in sheds. There was extensive sugarcane cultivation to the north of the Sreekantheswara Temple, where the present Mavoor Road is laid.
A ‘red light area’ functioned to the south of the present Polytechnic, catering to the European soldiers of West Hill barracks. Another centre for prostitution was near the third Railway gate. In fact, prostitution was known locally as ‘third gate’. Palayathe Kuttippennu was a notorious prostitute of those days and many were the salacious stories circulating about her.
The Calicut of old was much more colourful. Even now we find a few Arab traders landing here in country boats and pattemmaris. But in the olden times Arabs would come by the hundreds – coal black giants in long gowns and tight caps. It was fun to watch them move around the streets in groups, eating from the bunch of plantains which one of them would be holding. They would usually descend during the summer.
Kabuliwallahs also would come in groups and would camp in the outskirts of the town in tented colonies. They used to hawk things like knives, scissors and stone garlands on the streets of Calicut. Their women, who wore colourful skirts and shirts with a yellow bandana tied on their foreheads, were stout but unalloyed beauties. But they could also be violent at times. I still remember how one such female caught hold of a handsome 16 year old boy in my neighbourhood and molested him till he fainted!
How Calicut has changed! The two oil price hikes of 1973 and 1979 had led to sudden prosperity in the Middle East and many residents of Calicut got employed there. Their remittances led to so much investment in the city, transforming the sleepy town of Pottekkatt’s to a bustling metropolis. Unfortunately, all this activity has also led to the destruction of many heritage structures in the city. If he were to return to Calicut today, Pottekkatt himself would not be able to find his way to his house, Chandrakantham in Puthiyara!!