Chandralekha poster, courtesy Pinterest account of Bollywood posters from old

A couple of months ago my wife and I embarked on a reconnaissance trip of the Thirunelveli District for our forthcoming heritage tour. We are of course quite familiar with the place having been there several times over, but then going for a recce is always a different experience. And so we hired a cab and roamed hither and tither. Somewhere in our wanderings we landed up at Kooniyur.

I got off the vehicle to take a good look at the village. Apart from appearing reasonably prosperous it did not have much to offer. But it brought back a flood of memories. Of family anecdotes repeated several times over, each time with a few embellishments and eventually morphing into a legend of sorts. This particular tale featured Kooniyur Athimber as the hero or let me put it differently, the central character. The long-suffering heroine was his wife, Seetha, my dad’s aunt (his father’s sister) and the vamp, most unexpectedly, was TR Rajakumari – she of Chandralekha, Manohara, Gul-e-Bagavli and other movies fame.

The story goes like this – old Kooniyur Athimber was a pretty domesticated bird, who lived a life of leisure. And by all accounts was lovey-dovey with wife. But there came a time in 1948 when he set out each morning from home, ostensibly on ‘work’. His wife did not suspect anything initially but later got to know, no doubt from village gossip, that he was going each day to the cinema theatre, buying a ticket and sitting through a screening of Gemini’s Chandralekha. He had it appeared, lost his heart to TR Rajakumari. The number of times he saw the film has varied in individual recounting – it ranges between 48 and 108.

There came a time when he began muttering her name in his sleep and worse, took to wearing a newspaper photo of the actress in his locket. All this was too much for grandaunt who rushed foot in hand to consult with her brother, my grandfather, that crusty railway engineer and Sanskrit scholar who must have cursed quite freely and blamed it all on the idle mind. But the women were more practical and someone, most likely my imperious grandmother, declared that Rajakumari had cast a spell on Kooniyur Athimber and only an exorcist/tantrik/magician could rescue him from it.

Such a man was evidently procured and he set to work on Kooniyur Athimber. I can even now recall my grandmother stating what happened next – “Sure enough, he vomitted some black substances, and was cured.”

To this my uncle Ramamurthy, always the humorist in the family, said that those must have been the previous day’s food and was promptly rewarded with a glare from my grandmother. Anyway, Kooniyur Athimber and TR Rajakumari parted ways thereafter.

The story does not end there. Years later, my dad’s elder sisters, Seetha and Rajam supplied the final bit amidst hoots of laughter – the magician before leaving taught grandaunt an AkarShaNa mantra to entice and keep her husband happy in domestic bliss. If she stopped reciting it he warned, TR Rajakumari would be back. And grand aunt recited it every day of her life, till she turned 85 and he (Kooniyur Athimber and not the magician) 90. My aunts asked her if TR Rajakumari would care to come back so late in life. But the old lady was not wanting to take any risks.

This morning, while the Sastrigal intoned the mantras for the Mahalaya Shraddham, I thought of several family members long past – dad, uncle Ramamurthy, aunts Seetha, Rajam and Lalitha, my paternal and maternal grandfathers, my paternal grandmother (the other one is doing fine at 95) and then the mind wandered off to Kooniyur Athimber. I wondered if I should include TR Rajakumari in my prayers. May she rest in peace.

Join me on my next heritage walk at Choolai on September 29, 2019, Sunday at 6.00 am. To register, click here