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Monday, August 16, 2010

Calicut - about a Hundred Years Ago

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!!


  1. How true!. I myself find that all sleepy towns and the countryside have transformed into bustling centers.

  2. Dear CKR,
    The Pottekat narration of Calicut is interesting and graphic . I would like to add something from my memory, humbly to that .
    I remember Chinese traders with silk and other fabrics loaded on their bicycles hawking to affluent households with their broken English.
    “Kabulkar” move around with their goods of dry fruits and colourful semiprecious stones.
    The white administrators and the estate crowd moving in their cars and doing their shopping in “Spencers” [ the present The Bank Of India ] and meeting in “English club” [The Calicut club ,next to the Beach Hotel]. The Hussain Shaib store in SM street was the native’s “Spencer”.
    The cricket Matches and the football tournaments in Mananchira The imported car show rooms of CC brothers in the buildings opposite Ashoka Hospital, The entire Beach road crowded with “European” companies . Both sea piers active with shipments to and from here and mighty logs waiting to be shipped to far off land. Dhows anchored just off the coast and steam ships faraway.
    The Vellayil railway station was just an old discarded railway compartment , one end was the ticket counter and the other was the waiting room all in level with railway line, no platform. Till 50’s it was there like this.!!
    Not far from the railway station was the once famous “soap factory” [Kerala Soaps] .
    The time has changed some; some has vanished forever never to come back.
    With best wishes -premnath

  3. Politicians will usually lack the class (read aesthetic sense) to realise the value of heritage structures and the manner in which they uplift the feel of a place, to actually take measures to protect them.

    I have not been to Calicut, but it seems like a wonderful place to explore even if the 'Gulf Money' has changed it.

  4. thanks for reminding us of made me pick up the book again and I re-read the kunhipathu story once again..the color and vibrancy in his books are unparalleled. her longing for Abu is so beautifully penned...but the calicut of the 70's was also equally interesting.. Anybody who has seen sumiko & the such will agree..

  5. Where can I get an English version of Pottekat's entire article on 'Calicut of today (1978)'?

  6. Thank you, PNS. While we should be happy at the prosperity, we feel sorry for the loss of our monuments and other heritage structures.

  7. Premnath - Your contribution (as always) is rich in details and updates the picture till the late 40s.Thank you for the valuable contribution to the blog. Keep writing!

  8. Yes, Anil. It is a sad fact that preservation of heritage has no constituency, particularly among the political class who, unlike statesmen, are worried only about funding the next election. That is where the builder lobby comes in!

  9. Thanks, Maddy, for the interesting comment. It is rare to find a writer like SKP who won national fame for describing life in a small town. He travelled through all the cointinents and wrote about his experiences there. But he is in his elements when describing the SM Street in Calicut!

  10. Devasahayam - We dont think the article which was published in Malayalam in 1978, has an authoritative translation. We have tried to bring out the spirit of the article, without attempting a literal translation.

  11. it is very intresting to read sri.pottakad,s wrinting about calicut. why dont u include the information of the places which have been mensioned in his novel, oru desanthinte katha. thanks.

  12. history of calicut and malabar is like a love affair with nature,an elusive,tantalising mistress

  13. My knowledge of Calicut is based on my mom's narration as she spent her childhood in West hill. She used to say about Asoka hospital as her family was close to them. She also studied in Providence college. It's from her childhood stories that I knew something about Calicut as I have never been there on long term to explore except for a small brief visit. My mom's has passed away in 2001, if she is alive she would be seventy nine or eighty now. How I wish that I can go & see all the places & peoppeop she has told me on countless times. Now I gather that they are planning to demolish Asoka hospital which my mom's has many fond child hood memories. Sad to know that how time is changing people & landscapes for ever!


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