My earliest memories were of Bangalore where I was staying with my family (My mother Mrs.Suvarna Mampilly and my two brothers – Ajay & Vijay) in a house in a army locality called the GUN TROOPS OFFICERS COLONY, AGRAM. This colony was used for housing the families of officers who were serving in parts of India where they couldn’t take their families. We were in this colony because my father then Major E.A.Mampilly was stationed in the Northern Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir. Our colony was in close proximity to all the ancillary facilities supporting the defence forces such as hospitals, administrative and logistical services and schools. I was in my Lower Kindergarten (LKG) in a school inside the close-by Army base which housed what was known as the ASC Centre (Army Service Corps – a logistical arm of the Indian Army).
I now break from the story so as to introduce the main actors of my narrative:
My father was from a family of doctors and landowners. His grandfather Dr.Ephraim Mampilly had started a dispensary in Kochi in the early 1900s called the Mampilly Dispensary. And his father Late Lt.Col. Dr. A.E.Mampilly was a dentist in the Royal Indian Army (later Indian Army). My Dad probably got inspired by his dad to join the army, and this in turn probably inspired two of his brothers to join the army as well. In the end, there were quite a few Mampillys in the Indian Army from the 1930s till the mid 2000s! Two things I especially liked about Dad was that he loved eating and travelling and throughout our travels, he made sure that we tasted a majority of the cuisine and saw a majority of the landmarks of our great country. He enjoyed his job and always had a great sense of humour!
Mom was from a wealthy business family in Kerala. Her father Mr.K.L.Ouseph (a native language variation of ‘Joseph’) was one of the owners of a company KPL Oil Mills which manufactured coconut oil. Her family background meant that she was hardworking & industrious and most of all she was a very good cook! Her cooking would earn her many fans everywhere she went. She generally ran a tight ship with the help of either the ‘batman’ (a soldier provided by the army to assist an officer’s household) or with a servant. One of her most interesting assets was that she always seemed to have some uncle or cousin or acquaintance from her family somewhere in India who would invariably help us in some sort or the other. Her only limitations were her health problems – Asthma and varicose veins.
While I was dropped and picked up from school by my mother, my brothers went by an Army Bus to the Army Public School which was a little farther away. Though my father was far away, we were in safe hands because my paternal grandfather Late Lt.Col.A.E.Mampilly (Retd) was settled in Bangalore after retiring from the Indian Army in the 60’s. He and my grandmother Mrs.Ammini Antony made it a point to occasionally come over for a visit and similarly we went to their house in Koramangla (then a developing suburb) which was roughly 10-15 kilometres away, during festival days or other important occasions. Like all grandparents, they were a treasure trove of information & instructions and they did their best to control their unruly bunch of 3 grandsons.
Grandfather — “Appapan” as we called him in our native tongue Malayalam, was especially particular in channelising our excess energies towards physical pursuits like gardening, cleaning his car or walking his 3 dogs (three Apsos named Gypsy, Tiggy & Lassie). For our exertions we were rewarded with compliments, titbits from his army life or biscuits & other snacks which were otherwise kept out-of-bounds for us. My special interest were the small toys (an assortment of cars & planes) which were kept in the glass case in the sitting room, which previously belonged to my father and my uncles. Try as I might, these toys were only to be seen and rarely touched, let alone played with. My father’s younger brothers Mr.M.A.John & Dr.George Mampilly would occasionally be found at my grandparents house and they tried to polish & mentor us as best as they could!
Grandmother — “Ammama”, was as strict a taskmaster as our grandfather but she mellowed towards us when we helped her out (or were forced to by our grandfather!) with her odd chores. She was particularly fond of her dogs and we kids were anyways fond of dogs, so the dogs helped us to bond with grandmother. And there was no better time to bond with her than during her ‘dog walks’. She always managed to have some knick knacks hidden away in her kitchen in small tins, and these she would dutifully produce during the evening teatime for us to gorge on. Grandmom was very good in English and put together with her impeccable manners, she had the kind of regal air about her which would automatically make people respect her.
My mother had a couple of her cousins who were studying or working in Bangalore. And she being much elder to them, she often donned the role of their unofficial guardian. There were 3 of her cousins that I was particularly fond of – Ephraim uncle, Alice Aunty and Sabu uncle. These three would often flock to our home because of mom’s masterful cooking of the traditional Kerala dishes and they would in turn ‘help out with the boys’ by keeping us busy & entertained. This was really helpful to mom because they would usually come during the weekends when we were off from school and at our naughtiest best fighting with the house help ‘Ashokan’ — who was a small boy like us, or fooling around with our dog ‘Goofy’. We used to go out on a couple of outings with Ephraim Uncle and Alice aunty to places like Cubbon park, Commercial Street & Brigade road, Bannerghatta National park and odd & sundry places around Bangalore.
Ephraim uncle was in Bangalore for his studies, but he was more of an explorer & he was a true Godfather to us little ones and all his other siblings & cousins. He had my Dad’s Lambretta scooter at his disposal and though occasionally he would transport mom & us on household chores, the rest of the time he would terrorise Bangalore with it while painting the town red! He always had a bundle of jokes & stories to entertain us with and he was the one who introduced us kids to Western Pop & Rock, blaring it out on Mom’s old Phillips tape-recorder. Though of short stature, he made his presence felt with a trademark swagger and baritone voice & loud guffaws! Ephraim uncle’s good English & his jokes kept him in my Dad’s good books and that’s probably why Dad would often let him get away with murder (just kidding) and his Lambretta scooter! With Dad behind him, Ephraim uncle often felt that the whole might of the Indian Army was behind him!!
Alice aunty was was working in Bangalore as she waited to join her husband who was a doctor in the United States. She would accompany mom on various shopping trips and though our aunt, she was more of an elder sister to us boys. She used to bring me sweets, fuss over me and help break up fights between us brothers. With her good looks and fine sense of dressing, she could rival any of the Bollywood actresses of that time! I used to look forward to her visits during the week ends, eagerly looking out of the sitting room window of our house hoping to get the first glimpse of her coming. Sabu uncle – Ephraim uncle’s younger brother, was also studying in Bangalore and he would often accompany Alice aunty & Ephraim uncle during their visits home. Together, these three could turn our house into a mini-Kerala with their jokes & banter and make any boring weekend look like a vacation!
Now, back to the narrative…
During one school vacation it was decided that we would visit our Dad at his location in Jammu & Kashmir and though a huge challenge for my mom, it turned out to be one life-changing experience for us kids! For this monumental excursion we first reached New Delhi — the capital of India, by train where we were met by Dad. Our accomodation was arranged with our uncle M.A.Joseph ‘Joe’ who being an army officer himself, was then stationed in New Delhi. Joe uncle stayed in a palatial army house of old British architecture where every now & then you could hear the calls of peacocks who inhabited the nearby gardens. In the first leg, we covered all the important landmarks in Delhi — India Gate, Red Fort, Qutab Minar, Jantar Mantar, and Raj Ghat (the memorial of Mahatma Gandhi). I particularly liked the National Rail Museum with it’s collection of Antique Trains.
Then we made a short trip to Agra (a city in the state of Uttar Pradesh — couple of hours train journey from Delhi) to visit the Taj Mahal, which was truly unlike anything that any of us had seen up until then. It was like walking inside a piece of Art! Even though it was thronging with people, inside the Taj people maintained a measured silence and there was the smell of incense sticks everywhere. And on the way back Dad even bought a miniature model of the Taj Mahal as a souvenir. I was initially fond of it as I thought it was a toy, but gradually my brothers convinced me that it was a souvenir and was to be treated as such. It was in itself a work of art, being shaped out of a miniature piece of marble just like it’s full size cousin. All the journeying was tiring but I was happy that I was with Dad, since we were meeting him after a long time.