the most popular of Edasseri Poems

...This poem is included in the anthology titled Karutha Chettichikal

the pootham

a few sketches on
a poem by edasseri
by artist namboodiri
donning the attire
to go to school
unni on way to
pootham (the poltergeist)
the frightened pootham
nangeli giving
solace to pootham
on parting

Edasseri Govindan Nair

Edasseri, in his masterpiece “Poothappattu”, has woven a magical myth around a poltergeist- like being. The apparent theme of the poem is the great transformation of this wicked and cruel poltergeist into a “Pootham” (The Sacred) whose annual visit is believed to bring wellness and prosperity to village households. However, the poetry has fascinated generations of readers and lent itself to interpretations at different levels deriving multitudes of meanings- sociological, psychological and even anthropological.  

‘Pootham’, in real world, is a folklore idolatry character enacted by a village performing artist who traditionally visits the village homes after the summer harvesting. Once inside the courtyard, he dances to the rhythm of drum beats accompanied by the wailing tune of short-pipe (a shorter version of bagpipe).  Usually men dress up in women’s attire to act as the “Pootham”. The grotesque figure will be adorned from head to toe with classic brass ornaments which make an eerie cluttering sound as it moves on. The “Pootham” wears a garland of flowers around the neck, loosely covering the bosom. Its body also bears a typical piece of ornament in the crescent shape of moon.  Pootham’s blond hair covers its entire backside and flows down to its knee level. The white cloth that the “Pootham” wraps around its body is decorated with red tassels and is tied to the waist with waistband fitted with umpteen numbers of small bells. This dark figure wears a colourful coronet on head.  

Villagers devotedly await the arrival of the “Pootham” in their courtyard and children, even though a little scared, wait in anticipation with mixed feelings.    

In the prelude to the poem, the poet gives an account of the mystical experiences which contributed to the image of a poltergeist in his childhood consciousness. Here is a near translation of what he wrote:

In my childhood, I was closer to the fairies than my neighbours. Stories of the ‘Biggie’ who is wrapped in a red woollen blanket and residing in the prayer room, incessantly and sternly watching me as I obstinately cry for petty things; the friendly ghost draped in pure white cloth who wanders around the court yard when the jasmine blooms in the moonlit summer night; the goddess “Bhuvaneswari”  whom my elder brother in half intoxicated status worships in the night by chanting ‘mantras’ with the accompaniment of ringing of holy bells; descriptions by another brother who reaches home after mid-night in a frightened and half conscious state  about his encounter with the female poltergeist who smells of  jasmine flowers and his narration on how he narrowly escaped her charm; the narrations of my elder sister, an accomplished story teller, about the mischievous spirit behind the miraculous speck of lights, known as  “witch- light” seen through the open window of my house in the night; and above all the presence of different types of ‘Poothams’ who visit every courtyard in our village during summer, affirming the existence of those supernatural ghosts and spirits. Frankly speaking, the closeness and friendship that I have with these, I don’t have with anyone else in this world. The concept of the female ‘poltergeist’ in this poem is the result of the coexistence of all these twisted and whirled images in my mind as a child. And the style of the poem resembles the technique of narration unique to my elder sister.”  

The poem starts as if the sister narrates;   

“The oil lamp is lit for evening prayer; prayers are chanted; the arithmetic tables are also recited sleepily. It is still not time for supper. Don’t sleep. I shall tell you the story of Pootham.

Pootham lives in a cave underneath the rocks on the other side of the hill. During day time, she peeks through the small pigeonhole window in the cave with her large, round and fiery eyes! She drinks the milk from the udder of the cows when the shepherd boys are having their siesta. When it is dusk, she will cast her magical spell on innocent people who are returning home after working late in the evening. Once under her spell, the poor people in a haze get so confused that they even forget the way home and keep on walking. When they realize that they are under the spell, they need to keep some betel-leaf with arecanut by the wayside. The haze vanishes immediately and the entire path becomes clear.  When they are gone, Pootham comes stealthily to accept the offering. She chews the betel leaves with nuts and spit out the red spit all over the "Thechi" shrubs, colouring the Thechi flowers (lxora Coccinea - Jungle Geranium or flame of the woods) into deep red hue..........and that is why the flowers are red in colour!   

Pootham  sometimes uses magical powers to disguise herself as a pretty woman and stand below the ‘Pala’ tree (Alstonia scholaris – a tree that blooms in the night with fragrant white flowers) smiling and untangling her hair to lure intoxicated youngsters who are looking for late night fun. She lures these youngsters and puts them on top of the palm tree, which, to the hapless souls, appears as a seven- story mansion. At the top of the palm tree, when the youngsters are fast asleep, Pootham sucks their blood and throws out their bones and hair on the other side of the rocks. One can see the bones lying scattered there all around! In olden days people used to abhor this Pootham for her mischievous and at times cruel ways.  

Children: “Then why are we giving new cloth and grains to this wretched ‘poltergeist’?”

Sister, the story teller: “Oh! It will be a sin not to give food and cloth to the poor Pootham. She did such bad things long ago. Now she doesn’t hurt anyone.  She is always sad.  You know why....?”

It is the story of a mother named ‘Nangeli’, who lived in a bungalow by the riverside.  After long years' of ritualistic prayers and hopeful waiting, ‘Nangeli’ gave birth to a boy child.  She fed him with cereal and milk and adorned him with gold ornaments. She gave him dolls to play with. While showing the moon and singing songs of cats and crows, Nangeli fed her darling child with rice mixed with pure curd. She was reluctant to keep him on the ground lest there may be ants; she didn’t want to keep him on her head either, for fear of lice.  She sang lullabies to him, lying on a golden cot with a bed-spread of silk.  She patted him softly on his bonny thighs to put him to sleep and sometimes she herself fell into a light slumber.                  

‘Unni’ (as the child is called) turned seven; it was time for him to go to school. He was in great enthusiasm as he was going to school for the first time.  ‘Nangeli’ dressed him up with a pulliyilakkara mundu (a plain piece of cloth with a narrow border, distinctive to Kerala culture), and his long hair was tied on top with a strand of creepers. 

‘Unni’ started to school and ‘Nangeli’ watched him from the patio of her house as he moved to the alley in the corner of the paddy field till he disappeared from sight near the banyan tree. Holding the Ezhuthani (a sharp iron scribe used for writing on scrolls or palm leaves) and a well treated cut-to-size palm leaf to write, ‘unni’ walked past the temple, on to the rocky hillocks, where he saw  cows and calves grazing, goats and kids frolicking, bees buzzing around the blooming flowers and finally reached near the hideout of the Pootham. Astonishingly, at that very moment the Pootham opened her pigeonhole window to see ‘Unni’ walking down. To Pootham, he looked adorable as a water-lily drifting down the current; as a crescent moon making its gradual appearance; as a shining golden pot; as a special type of yellow banana!  She was no doubt fascinated by the irresistible appearance of ‘Unni’, so much so that watching the boy; she got goose pimples all over and felt a sensation in her bosom. The Pootham wanted to possess him.      

Since she wanted to attract his attention, she disguised herself as a pretty girl and stood under a tree which was in full bloom.  However, she cannot touch him as he was carrying a scribe made of iron, a metal which repulses evil spirits. So when ‘Unni’ came nearer, she asked him to throw away the iron-scribe and join her for some fun and laughter.  At first he didn't relent, since the teacher at school would scold him if he did not bring the scribe along.  She however lured him with the promise of various gifts of nature like jasmine bud to write on the soft mango leaves and happy moments with her in the cool shadows of trees while making garlands of flowers. The temptation was so strong, ‘Unni’ threw away the iron scribe and lo and behold! The Pootham instantly took hold of him and slowly walked away  

The day was almost over. Darkness fell. ‘Nangeli’ waiting in her house for her son’s return was anxious and worried and started crying. She was helpless but cannot wait any longer. It was getting darker. So she set out in search of ‘Unni’. She went all along the river side in search of him. She walked over the recently tilled fields, ignoring the pain it inflicted on her legs. There was no one in the vicinity. She even ventured in to the forest and the mounts, all through the time crying and calling her son.  Little birds residing in small burrows came out hearing her wail and asked,”What, What?” 

The Pootham making garlands and enjoying her time with ‘Unni’ heard the wailings of the mother. At first she did not mind. She was sure that her super powers could anytime win a fight against the hapless mother. But she was not comfortable either. Somehow or the other, she needed to stop the mother.

She tried to frighten ‘Nangeli’. But the mother was not frightened. Pootham took different forms as a twister, as a forest fire, as a tiger, and as a leopard to frighten away ‘Nangeli’, but the mother was adamant. She wanted her child back. Since Pootham was not able to frighten the mother, she resorted to another trick. She removed the top of the nearby rock with the ease of plucking a Kaithappoo- a creamy flower with enchanting fragrance- and took out innumerable wealth in the form of gold and diamonds and offered them to the mother as price for her son.   

‘Nangeli’ did not even look at that gold and diamonds. Instead she scooped her eyes out of the sockets and offered them to Pootham saying that her son was more precious to her than her own eyes.  

Now that ‘Nangeli’ has become blind Pootham decided to play smart. She took a piece of “Thechi" shrub, chanted Mantras (utterances to invoke her evil powers) and created another boy who looked exactly like ‘Unni’ and offered him to the mother to take along.  The mother hugged him with relief and kissed the boy's forehead, but promptly realized that she was cheated. Nangeli shivered in anger and she shouted that Pootham was a fraud. Since Pootham committed the unpardonable sin of cheating the womb that gave birth to the child, ‘Nangeli’ the mother raised her hand to utter a curse on Pootham. Power of mother’s curse is so immense that even the mightiest cannot bear it.  On the verge of a curse that was going to befall on her, Pootham got frightened and pleaded guilty. Weeping sorrowfully in front of the mother, she pleaded for mercy.  Without waiting any longer, she released ‘Unni’ and also restored the mother’s eyesight. She was defeated by the mother! Pootham told Nangeli; “your eye sight is restored and you can see your son now. Please do not curse me as I will not be able to stand it.”  Nangeli saw her adorable son in all smiles.   

So the mother got her child. But it was heart rending for Pootham, because she loved ‘Unni’ so much. Before leaving, she embraced ‘Unni’ and covered him with kisses. She could not control her feelings and stood there crying and gasping open-mouthed. Seeing her agony, ‘Nangeli’ felt pity on her, smiled and pacified her and asked her to come down to her house every year after the harvest is over and the Granary is full of grains to delight ‘Unni’, to bless them all, to add happiness to their homes.  Pootham agreed and vanished immediately.   

In that hurry and confusion, the poor Pootham forgot to ask ‘Nangeli’ as to where she lived. ‘Nangeli’ did'nt volunteer the information, either for fear of losing her son again or due to sheer forgetfulness. Who knows for sure! 

Anyway, every year when the summer harvest is over and the granaries are full; the ‘poltergeist’ turned Pootham visits each house in the village looking for ‘Unni’ and dances to the tune of drums to make him happy. But she fails to find out ‘Unni’, because ‘Nangeli’ had not told her where they lived. The people in the courtyard tease Pootham and make her dance by asking her whether she wants ‘Unni’ or not.  Once she realises that ‘Unni’ is not in that house, she runs to the next house in a jiffy in anticipation of seeing him there. It is a sad and eternal sojourn for the Pootham that has been continuing for ages.  You would realise that while the drum, beats to the rhythm of her heart beat, the sad tune from the short-pipe resembles her sigh of grief!