I hail from a very remote part of Kerala. In the southern state, when you meet someone for the first time, the conversation starts with asking your name. This would be followed by queries about your place of origin. In my younger days, when I ventured out of my native place, I would be faced with the same situation. When asked where I hail from, I would reply that I was from Pathanapuram. This would lead to the very uncomfortable next question: Same Kaatupathanapuram (Jungle Pathanapuram)?
Years have passed, but people continue to greet locals with the same question, much to their embarrassment. Wild elephants can still be spotted, if one travels just five or six kilometres away from the town; that is how close, the town is to the jungle. There had been numerous instances of wild animals straying out of their habitats. In my childhood, we were often reminded of how dangerous it was, to be living there.
The old police station, now in the heart of the town, was in fact built over a huge pit dug to trap elephants in the pre- independence era.
The area was predominantly a Nair stronghold. According to researchers, the demographic composition started changing early in the 20th century, with the arrival of Muslim labourers from south Tamil Nadu for road construction and other work.
The people of Pathanapuram spoke a mix of Trivandrum and Kottayam Malayalam, that seemingly sounded very rough and unpleasant, with its peculiar slang. The migrants spoke a mix of Tamil and Malayalam, but were not literate in either. The arrival of Christians later, from Kottayam and Chengannur, mostly Syrian Christians, gave the area its heterogeneous identity.
Much of the credit for transforming the lives of the people of the area goes to one man. He toiled hard to bring about a sea change in the lives of the people of Pathanapuram. He helped the community mature into a cultured, civilised one that lived in harmony.
When Oxford-educated Deacon Thomas came to Kaatupathanapuram from Mavelikarra, his primary objective was not only to impart education, but to teach people to live in harmony with nature. He began by setting up a primary school to improve the literacy of the locals. Generations have benefitted from the school. The cleric became a role model for the local populace. Apart from making them self-confident and ready to take on the rigours of life, they learnt from him the importance of values like honesty, integrity, love, respect, faith, generosity and kind-heartedness.
He also set up a church in the town square and later a monastery. He sent junior priests to the best educational institutes in India and abroad for higher studies.
Thomas’ school was open to one and all. A sad sight, however is the huge wall, erected by the current management, around the institution. His philosophy was not to convert, but work for the upliftment of those in need. More importantly, his basic objective was to spread love among people and not missionary work.
His memorial day, which falls on 3 December, is also the 44th year of his commemoration. This tribute is in remembrance of a selfless man who touched and transformed the lives of innumerable people, including me.