A Basketball Path to Ayyappan
Updated: May 3, 2019
Prologue: The recent events surrounding Shabarimala and Ayyappan, its deity brings to mind this story.
Peethambara Menon was a devotee of Ayyappan. By the time he was in his early 40s, he had achieved the distinction of making the pilgrimage to Shabarimala 18 times; breaking a coconut on each of the 18 steps of the temple. Each of these visits was preceded by the requisite period of austerity or vratham during which he ate vegetarian food, drank no alcohol, grew his beard, and was celibate. On one of his trips, his aunt, then aged about 60, accompanied him, as did many women of that age.
Peethambara Menon and his wife were having a hard time starting a family. Five years into their marriage, they were still childless. On one of his pilgrimages, Peethambara Menon made a promise to Ayyappan that if he and his wife had a boy, he would bring him to Shabarimala before his 16th birthday. It isn’t clear how the promise would have played out if they had had a girl. In any event, they had a baby boy within the year.
In honor of the promise Peethambara Menon had made to Ayyappan at Shabarimala, the boy was named Ayyappan. As was the custom in Nair families, the naming ceremony was held when the baby was 28 days old at its grandparent’s residence. The grandparents had a farm worker in their employee also named Ayyappan. This gave members of the baby’s family some discomfort naming their pride and joy after a common laborer. As it turned out, they needn’t have worried: the elder Ayyappan was bit of a war-hero having served in Egypt and other parts of North Africa during WWII, indeed he may well have been at El Alamein.
Ayyappan played basketball in his school days and college days. In his first year of Pre-Degree he fractured his wrist on the Maharaja’s College basketball court one day, and then contracted typhoid later in the year, and to make matters worse, had a relapse. As a result, there was no way Ayyappan could make the pilgrimage to Shabarimala: Neither mountain nor Ayyappan was going to be moving that year. Peethambara Menon consulted other Ayyappan devotees and determined that doing a prayaschitham that year and embarking on the pilgrimage the following year at Makara Villaku in January would propitiate the Gods. Ayyappan would then be 17, not 16, but clearly, there were extenuating circumstances involved.
Ayyappan did better on the basketball court after his illness, captained the Ernakulam district team, and was selected as a member of the Kerala State Youth (under-18) team. As luck would have it, the Indian National Basketball Championship Tournament was slated for January at the newly commissioned Netaji indoor stadium in Calcutta. This was a state-of-the art facility for the 70s: Wooden floors, fiber-glass backboards, showers, enormous viewing stands; the whole works. But, Shabarimala loomed large and he would have to forfeit his only chance to play on the national stage. There would be no second chance because he was heading off to engineering college. In all likelihood, this would be an IIT, or BITS Pilani, or REC Trichy in Tamil Nadu, where the rigor of academics would leave no room for Basketball practice at the national level.
Peethambara Menon and his wife were not having any of this nonsense about Basketball interfering with Shabarimala. A delegation from the Ernakulam YMCA turned up at their home asking for a parental dispensation. No dice. Shabarimala it was going to be. At this juncture, there entered into the mise en scene, Papa and Mummy. Papa and Mummy, a.k.a. Mr Jacob and Mrs Jacob, the purveyor of most excellent beef fry, were the Menons’ next door neighbors and best friends. Most evenings, the Menons and the Jacobs would gather on the verandah of one of their lovely bungalows overlooking the Vembanad lake and have a few drinks before dinner. It was a lovely time of the evening and the prospect from either verandah was utterly beautiful.
The topic of basketball and Shabarimala figured in some of these sessions. In any event, in what looks like a minor miracle in retrospect, Ayyappan was allowed to play basketball. (This he did with some distinction as a starting five for several games before Kerala was eliminated by Rajasthan, which went on to win the National title that year beating out perennial favorites Maharashtra.) The trip to Shabarimala, which conventionally involves a 30+ km hike from Erumely, was abbreviated to a trek from Pampa, which is only a distance of about 5 km. But he did break a coconut on the first step and fulfill, in part, a promise his father had made. This was his first and only trip to the temple.
Ayyappan’s connection with Shabarimala was quite tenuous. In fact, shortly after his birth, his mother, preferring a more fashionable name for her first born, started calling him Chandramohan, after a Telugu movie actor she liked. Chandramohan turned out to be too fancy for daily wear and was soon shortened to Chandran and Chandu, and over time, influenced by the likes of Chandu Borde, the famous Indian cricket player, it morphed into Chandu.
My wife and I decided to start a family when we were close to 35 when it became clear that the completion of our Ph.D.s at the University of Washington was not going to be in jeopardy. However, we weren’t having any luck. I did not importune the Gods, but we did consult the doctors at the University. After a preliminary exam, they advised me to wear boxers and stop taking long hot showers. Sure enough, this did the trick. I happened to tell my mother all this, and she replied “Yes, Acha and I had also had some difficulty conceiving you. In fact, he took a course of injections. And after the first course of injections, we had you.” My firstborn’s middle name is Unni, my father’s nickname; no promises were involved in his conception.