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The second Saturday of March 1997 was a rendezvous with history for the 96-year-old Zamorin of Calicut, Kunjaniyan Raja. It was the day the government would grant him the only official recognition the Zamorin gets today—swear him in as member of the Guruvayur Devasom Board. Normally the Zamorin goes to Guruvayur as soon as he takes over but this time, in a clear case of the mountain coming to Mohammad, the government had decided to send one of its secretaries to swear him in, as the Zamorin was in no position to venture out. True to style, it took the government more than a year to fix the date and send its secretary to the Zamorin’s house.
I reached the Zamorin’s house in Azchavattom much before the scheduled time of noon and was elated and surprised at the festive atmosphere in the house, in contrast to the gloom I perceived two days earlier. A shamiana had come up, there were children running around the place and most of the guests were dressed in wonderfully starched Kerala formal wear, zari-lined mundus with a mild ochre-tinged colour of newness, sandalwood paste on foreheads and white shirts with rolled up sleeves. Most of them were elders of the three branches of the Zamorin’s family. There was a sense of anticipation about the place on that March Saturday. The Zamorin was getting a final chance to rendezvous with his past.
The shamiana was lined with five rows of chairs. Krishnakumar and Govindavarma Raja were running around, lighting the lamp, getting together the clan and ordering others to run errands like checking the arrival time of the government secretary. The nilavilaku (multi-tiered lamps) and para (grain-filled wooden casket used for ceremonial occasions, signifying prosperity) were kept in front of the sofa where the Zamorin and the government officials were to be seated. On the right of the sofa were placed chairs for the elders of the family.
There was not much time left for the swearing-in. I saw two men take off their shirts and go to the front room of the house where they were handed over the sword and shield. They then took their position behind the sofa where the Zamorin was to sit. The shield was rather tattered and bruised and would have felt the rapier thrusts of many invaders. The sword did not look threatening, though it could have plunged into a hundred spleens as the Zamorin and his soldiers took arms against a sea of invaders, and occasionally, fought alongside them.
The front room of the house was packed with relatives who were making the most of this rare coming together of the clan that once ruled Calicut and the neighbouring fiefs. Through the window I caught a glimpse of the Zamorin who was no longer the helpless old man I saw two days back. He was dressed in traditional finery. On his right leg was the anklet called the Viransinghala, first given to the Zamorin’s ancestors by Cheraman Perumal as a reward for his services. Krishna Ayyar, in the Zamorins of Calicut, mentions that one of the Zamorins presented the chain worn on the left leg to his son, the Kutiravattattu Nayar, for conquering Natuvattam from Tarun Swarupam.
The new clothes, the starched shirt, the zari-lined shawl, all sat well on the shrunken frame of the Zamorin, whose dazed look was a desperate yearning to find out what was happening to his life and why death was delaying its call. Would death come with a flutter of its wide, eternally beating wings and snuff out the laboured breathing or would it sneak in through a gasping mouth and tweak the last pulse out of his heart? Or was it all over? Or were the tides of history once again giving him and his title a makeover? Have the gnomes of the past come knocking once again?
Such questions would have troubled everyone present there.
One by one the family members, some of whom would become Zamorins themselves, went to him and shouted into his ears their names in an effort to shock him out of his amnesia at least for a while. Only mumblings and grunts escaped from the mouth of Kunjaniyan Raja as he awaited rather unwillingly, dressed, made-up and tutored for the last take of his long life.
‘I am KC Raja from Mankavu. . .Raja. . .Raja from Mankavu, did you hear?’
‘I am from Kottakal. . .Kottakal, did you hear?’
Members of the clan, many of whom might not even have seen him, had come together to pay obeisance.
The Zamorin never heard. Nor could he see. But his presence there was overwhelming.
I met one among the younger lot, who would, fortune and age permitting, one day wear the Viransingala around his ankles and carry on a tradition of royalty and valour. PCC Raja was the Employment Officer in Calicut. He too had come to witness the swearing-in ceremony. He was far down in the hierarchy. He told me, with a smile, that the next Zamorin from the Mankavu branch, PC Kunhettan Raja, was ninety-two years old. They all live long, sustained by a sense of history and that abiding hope that one day the crown or rather the historic title will be bestowed on them.
Actually it is no big deal. To die young would mean missing out being a smudged footnote to history. But they can tag their name to a time when battles raged in the sea and maritime trade was the means to power. The pension or the malikhan and a part of the money that go into the temples reach the Zamorin. So all of them try to get government jobs and live in dignity.
Slumped on the chair, the Zamorin was in no shape to sit up, let alone be sworn-in as member of the Guruvayoor Devasom. The anxiety was visible on the face of his son Krishnakumar. The swearing-in ceremony was going to be a washout.
…It was nearing time. The Zamorin was lifted on a moulded plastic chair as if it were a palanquin and carried outside to the shamiana to await the arrival of the government secretary, and to infuse vibrations into the static of the 96-year-old man’s consciousness.
There was a buzz and the white ambassador car belonging to the government of Kerala came in. The collector, young suave Joshi, emerged first followed by the secretary of transport. A couple of young girls with their flowing hair bedecked with flowers led them to the sofa where the Zamorin was slumped. The secretary, as could be expected, produced a cardboard file which he proceeded to open, like he had been doing all his life—tugging at the thread, throwing open the green file flap and with as much of exuberance as a bureaucrat could summon, he pulled out a sheet of paper.
Clearly not used to swearing-in ceremonies, he took the trouble to explain why he had to come to Calicut, what his role was, and casting a glance at the hero of the day, requested the Zamorin, Kunjaniyan Raja, to repeat after him.
A can-he-do-it hush passed through the pandal.
Much to the astonishment of the fifty or so people and pressmen gathered there, the Zamorin started speaking haltingly, but clearly, every Malayalam word. A last-gasp effort to finally clinch his place in history. ‘I swear in the name of God to discharge my duties…’ The Zamorin had delivered.
There was no one as pleased as the secretary himself for having pulled it off. The Zamorin, his last task over, slumped on his sofa.
Krishnakumar, equally relieved, tried to wake him once again for another last act.