Photo: Shoba Narayan
Photo: Shoba Narayan

The pleasures of Palakkad

From the thrill of a lottery ticket to the wonder of herbal kashayams

I am standing outside “Kutty Lottery" in Palakkad, Kerala, deciding whether to buy a ticket with the bumper prize of Rs2 crore or Rs4 crore. The man behind the counter assesses me encouragingly, as if trying to decide if I am a piddling first-timer, risk-taking regular or dare-it-all high-roller. He is bare-torsoed with a full chest of black curly hair that matches the bush on his head. He wears his blue lungi folded at the hip in half-mast. Pink lottery tickets flutter in the sultry breeze: plump and ripe for the picking. They are spread out like a solitaire deck on the wooden table—each line denoting a different Judgement Day.

“This line will be counted today. This line, tomorrow. And this line, the day after," says the man presumably named Kutty.

It is 4pm. If I choose the right ticket, that very day, I might be the winner of the bumper prize of Rs65 lakh. The thought is intoxicating and almost makes me faint. Or maybe it is just the heat and the red rice that fills my belly. I ruffle through the tickets.

“Is there any lucky number?" I ask the man.

He smiles, revealing pink gums, and rolls his eyes upwards. “God is your lucky number," he says and scratches his bare chest.

Kutty Lottery is only one in a long line of shops that line Malampuzha dam road in Palakkad. I am staying at Kapilavasthu hotel across the street. I came out after lunch to buy a pill for my dad and ended up with Kutty. Down the road, there is Bindu lottery, Sreedevi lottery and Apoopan, who doesn’t have a name on his stall, but is called that by regulars. Apoopan means old man. The guy behind the counter must be his grandson. I picked Kutty to buy my ticket because the omens were right.

I come from a long line of gamblers. My uncle, that is, my father’s sister’s husband would walk to Kottayam town everyday to stop at India Coffee House for coffee and roasted cashews. Thus fortified, he would go to the lottery shops across the street. Often, I accompanied him.

Everyone thinks that buying lottery tickets is about luck and chance. Ask the hardcore ones and they will tell you that this is not so. My athimber was a lewd pill of a man, but he understood lottery and luck. Even though he won the jackpot only once—about Rs5,000, which in the 80s was a ton of money—he made small amounts of money throughout—enough, he claimed to pay for all the tickets he bought.

“The trick is to pay attention and see which ticket is calling to you," my uncle would say as we both stared intently at the lottery tickets. I would try to predict which ones he would pick. Often I was right. But that was because I knew his “tell," the unconscious sign that gamblers, poker players and magicians have that foretells their actions. In my uncle’s case, it was simple: he would move his chewing tobacco from the left side of his mouth to the right when he eyes landed on the “lucky ticket."

Every old culture tries to game luck, which is another way of saying that they try to control chance. Roman augurs used to look at the flight of birds to figure out patterns. Shamans looked at patterns in the fire. Today’s priests can see the image of a Ganesha in the fires of havans. I know this because they WhatsApp photographs to me with a red circle drawn around what looks like a blob but which they refer to as the infant Krishna or Ganesha or whatever Hindu god is being propitiated. The Chinese would toss coins and bamboo sticks to lead them to a particular page of the I Ching or the Book of Changes. Gambling thus is about predicting the future which is another way of saying that people who are good at it pay attention to patterns. 

Every type of gambler was present at Kutty. Over the course of one hour, I got to know them all. One clutched a baby Jesus as he closed his eyes prayerfully and picked out a pink ticket. Another drawled, “Ente Guruvayoorappaneeee (Oh my dear Guruvayoorappa)," as he picked his. The third faced Mecca and raised his eyes prayerfully to the sky. His white kurta was knotted at both wrists: a lucky charm, I knew, from past experience. My uncle only wore a knotted lungi when we went lottery hunting.

Kerala is one of very few Indian states with a state-sponsored lottery system. According to the Directorate of Kerala State Lotteries website, Kerala added this “feather to its cap" in 1967 when the “right idea" came from then finance minister, P.K. Kunju Sahib. Since then, Kerala has been disbursing lottery winnings to what seems to be the entire male population of the state, half of whom are thronging behind me for the results. 

“Which number?" yells a man in the back.

Bare-torsoed Kutty adjusts his lungi and saunters over to the STD calling booth next door. He leans over a computer and refreshes the results. “WA 823464 (THRISSUR), WB 669242 (ALAPPUZHA), WC 135243 (WAYANAD)," he calls in a sing-song voice, ennumerating the numerals in Malayalam. “WG 890499 (KOTTAYAM), WE 324589 (PALAKKAD)....." 

The minute he says Palakkad, a sizzle of electricity goes through the crowd. We all check our numbers—by now I have chosen a ticket that blowing in the wind in a rather seductive way. It called to me in other words. None of us has the lucky number. There is a collective sigh.

Tomorrow will be a better day. With that I walk towards the Arya Vaidya Shala next door to buy my ten-herb purgative that will release all my toxins and all the fried banana chips that I have been consuming in large quantities. Women in pristine white saris are sauntering towards the Devi (Bhagavathy) temple. Water drips off their freshly washed, long curly hair. They smell of talcum powder mixed with coconut oil. Inside the temple, a group of bare-torsoed men are playing the chenda drums. The beat is hypnotic and precise. My father mutters the beat: Jillum padapada jillum padapada jillum jillum….

The sound of these drums is spectacular, mesmerizing and completely free. Had these guys been playing in a city, they would have given the Manganiyars a run for their money. The only problem is that they are playing for an elephant that stands in the centre. Or rather, the god atop an elephant who stands in the centre. This cannot be transported to the NCPA in Mumbai. Or any other stage.

Photo: Shoba Narayan
Photo: Shoba Narayan

The pleasures of Palakkad are its banana chips, chenda drums, lottery tickets and its herbal kashayams. As for the Palakkad Pass, it is a myth. It exists in geography text books but no one in “proper Palakkad" has even encountered the Palakkad Paatha as it is called in these parts.

Shoba Narayan consumes virgin coconut oil mixed with her aviyal when she misses Palakkad.

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