THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: It was on a summer day two years ago, a day when it rained without warning, that Rathikumar revolted openly for the first time. An old man who had come to the Ayurveda Panchakarma Hospital at Poojappura here had taken refuge in the ‘kalmandapam’ opposite the hospital. He soon fell asleep on the stone floor of the ‘mandapam’. Rathikumar was just outside the perimeter wall of the ‘mandapam’ ground, waiting in his autorickshaw for someone to hail a ride.
“I saw a man walk up to the sleeping old man and prod him with his feet, asking him to get up and leave,” he said. Rathikumar, who was 65 then, rushed towards the ‘mandapam’ asking why the old man should move out. “I was told the premises were out of bounds for the public,” Rathikumar said. He already knew that Poojappura Pourasamithi, an organisation made up of local leaders of all political hues, was gradually taking over the ‘mandapam’ and its grounds. A secular place was subtly given a religious colour. A Saraswathi temple had come right next to the ‘mandapam’ in 2013, and, as if that was not enough, a portion of the ‘mandapam’ was also secured using makeshift barriers for conducting pujas.
The Motor Vehicles Department was asked to stop the practice of making drivers take the ‘H’ test in the grounds. What’s more, the ‘kalmandapam’ was renamed ‘Saraswathi Mandapam’. For someone like Rathikumar who had lived near the ‘mandapam’ all his life, attempts to alienate the public from the ‘mandapam’ were infuriating. The disrespectful manner in which the old man was asked to clear out was the breaking point. “Ever since I have tried to be a nuisance to mayors, standing committee chairmen and Corporation officials,” he said. He has submitted innumerable RTI applications seeking to know the status of the ‘mandapam’, all to no avail.
Rathikumar, a former Hindustan Latex employee who now drives an autorickshaw for a living, is a short lean man with whiskers disproportionately large for his thin face that if drawn as a cartoon he would resemble the comic book hero Asterix. For him, the ‘kalmandapam’ was as old as civilisation. “It was there even before the time of my great-great-grandfather, perhaps even long before his time,” he said. He remembers how bullock carts laden with tapioca, yam, chilly, and jaggery rolled in from the hilly regions of Kattakada, Parassala and Malayinkeezhu and halted at Poojappura. There were ‘kalthottis’ or long stone bowls filled with water for the animals, and stone pipes for the men and women. (A portion of a ‘kalthotti’ can now be found in the park at the Poojappura round.)
There was also a long line of ‘chumaduthangis’, stone structures on to which men and women transferred the load they carried on their head and shoulders. (A lone ‘chumaduthangi’, with exquisite carvings on top, can still be spotted near the Panchakarama Hospital, if one bothers to looks behind the large flex boards of politicians placed there.) After a gruelling day of travel, the men and women rested under the stone roof of the ‘kalmandapam’. “Now they are invoking the gods to keep people out,” Rathikumar said.