Call to Kottayam

Call to Kottayam

When floods and rain ravaged Kerala, I called my friends who lived there to ensure that they were safe. But one person I wasn’t able to get through to was Matthew Kutty Kalathil — the chief engineer on South Pearl, the first ship I sailed on 35 years ago.

I joined the ship in Philadelphia and word soon spread that the second engineer’s wife was on board. They were all curious to see “second’s” wife. Because till then, all queries directed at my husband (then newlywed) were responded to in monosyllables. “Is your wife dark and short?” — Yes. “Does she speak with an aiaiyo accent?” — Yes. As soon as the C/E met me, he commented, “She’s not like that at all!” leaving me wondering what he meant.

Being the only lady on board, I was treated like royalty and my opinion seemed to matter on many topics, ranging from handling relationships (still a novice then) to cooking (barely knew how to make tea!) and the importance of education for women etc.

The C/E took it upon himself to teach me Bridge in the day room. It took time and a lot of patience on his part, but gradually I learnt the game. At parties on the ship, I used to always cut the cake and if requested, sing a song totally off-tune! During the six months that I was on board, I came to know all about the officers’ families, their children and their future plans.

The C/E was an extrovert and would talk continuously telling us about the hardships his family underwent during their growing up years in Kottayam; and that now they were all doing well. By the time we got off the ship, we had enough information to fill a book about him and his family — all the travails and tribulations.  

Years later, we’d gone for a wedding to Guruvayur. After the wedding, we drove to Kottayam to meet the C/E and the family we’d heard so much about. His house, set in a two-acre plot was huge and he enjoyed taking us around. At night, the only sound was the swaying of the coconut trees. Matthew Kutty sure had reasons to feel proud, I thought as I recalled him telling us about his humble beginnings. We went with him to church on a Sunday and he introduced us to all his relatives and friends. Later, he told me that they all thought I belonged to Kerala — coming from Matthew Kutty that was a huge compliment!

The mind has a way of taking you back and forth in time. I pulled out an old phone book and found his number, but it had only five digits. I tried some permutation and combination and prefixed two digits and voila a lady responded. I hesitantly asked if it was Matthew’s wife, and she replied that she was his daughter-in-law and gave me his mobile number.

When I called, he asked, “Who is this?” After that, he spoke non-stop and it was as if I was back on the South Pearl and the waves were lashing against the ship. All’s well with him.