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Maid in a trance…First Trans – Atlantic flight of the team

From day one of their travel plans Achan’s dream and destination was Montreal. The purpose of their trip - discussions, training and decision makings of the design for the first arch dam in Asia – the Idukki dam

However, come to think of it, was the destination really Montreal or was their destination “Home”! If so why did Achan have to see the other dams? 

Like Brunelleschi, the Florentine architect, who found a solution in Rome for the transept of the Cathedral of Florence or more recently as Le Corbusier, the architect of Chandigarh, whose journeys to Italy inspired the architecture of the workers’ houses in France and other places, my father’s and his team’s journey could possibly have inspired many a small detail later in their lives. 

   So for Achan the journey itself was a dream which enlarged into the reality of a journey of finding himself. Amma’s presence throughout was a flavourful energizer for him - seeing the world through her eyes, her heartbeats and impulsive comments, her hidden smiles and her confidence in him in spite of some moments of life-threatening fears.  

 Not only did he research and acquire knowledge on dams (in the days prior to the advent of Google mind you!) which helped him later take good decisions outside the confines of virtual reality but he also he lived each moment to the full. 

Like John Steinbeck, who had put in black and white his autumnal road trip with his dog Charley in his 1960 travelogue Travels with Charley, Achan, a decade later, mounted pictures of his globe-trotting along with Amma, first in black and white photos and upscaled later to even three dimensional slides enjoyed by a plethora of visitors. Justifiably the travelogue being video script descriptions of his 10000-mile journey in a clockwise loop around USA, the USA of the late sixties is the centre character.  Many similarities seem to pop up with Steinbeck’s journey and Achan’s trip. Both in the mind-blowing 60‘s when every laid-down belief was turned on its head and both the travellers, no longer young but accompanied by a close companion. 

From the European Continent, where the vestiges of the Republic of Rose Island still floated in the Adriatic Sea and the embers of the student’s protest still burnt in Paris, across the waters of the Atlantic Ocean to NASA’s experimental space explorations in an attempt to land on the Fantasyland which was the Moon, amid the drumming of the Beatles soul stirring music and the flower children, man endeavoured to find meaning in this chaotic world during the late sixties. 

This was also the time when Walt Disney was in the act of augmenting the leisure activities in his own Fantasyland and soon Achan and Amma by their visit to Disneyland would be witnessing the unbelievable growth and new mindsets for recreation of which they were the unaware and inadvertent flag bearers.


All through the journey and beyond Achan was in love,……. in love with his journey of life, …..…in love with his love and in love with dams, he shared it for us through his systematic documentation in three albums and colourful slides, his  longtime investment in mutual benefits…  

    As children, we were used to going to the Idukki dam site at odd hours, even at night, accompanying Achan as he drove back to work. The big arch dam and its humungous reservoir today was, at the start of the project, only a little stream, a tributary of the small river that had already been diverted. We often found ourselves searching around in the crystal-clear waters for small round rocks and playing with the cool water that laughed and bubbled its way around the rocks and pebbles. There, we often met the Canadian engineers who would sometimes help us pick our way from one rock to another through the riverbed and lead us to the exact location of Achan’s inspection or whatever he was busy with.


Chandrika reminiscing …….. Once during a dinner served at our house in Trivandrum, a residence proud of its 5 ft tall people, seemed to be overflowing with the guests.  Seeing their height I was predictably aghast - all of them minimum 6 ft 8”. During the day I had been busy arranging a ceramic fish flower vase placed at a height of about 7 to 8 feet with a sprig of wax apples - – 

 - the rose ones, which grew in plenty on a delightfully appealing small tree in front of our house. I had spent half an hour standing on a high rickety stool arranging them in the vase . 

  One of the guests found the wax apples quite interesting and so he bent down to pluck one with my permission! I was stumped at the ease with which he picked one which was at a comfortable height for him, without disturbing the leaves or the vase. It was in sheer contrast to the height of each member of our family, named the five feet family precisely because of our height…. except Kala who seemed to have somehow broken the barriers …by an inch or two.

An incident that portrayed Achan’s jovial character, continued Chandrika, through impromptu remarks was during our visit to the house of Mr. Rock Paulin. I think he was the geoscience engineer who would have been checking the firmness of the rock for the dam base by drilling and taking out long pieces of rock in the form of bars. His name and his profession somehow suited each other very well or was it Achans’ way of introducing his toddler son to us which is my memory prompt?  As the toddler came in while on our visit to his place Achan with a broad smile on his face introduced the young kid to us saying…..“Look …here comes a chip of the old Rock !” 

  Achan, who was also a great travel companion, never lost a chance to pull a practical joke. It happened once on a trip to Kakki, a forest area where the Sabarigiri project was being undertaken. During vacations he often took us to his project site, always in the middle of the forest, and for us  a vacation,  any day better than biding time at home in Trivandrum. The project had two dams and he was working at the Kakki dam site. Achan who lived alone in his quarters always kept his doors open and invited our cousins and friends. On this occasion two cousins of my age reminisced Chandrika, both Botany students, accompanied us to Kakki. On the way to the dam site in a jeep Achan started pointing out plants and flowers using botanical nomenclature very clearly and with confidence. It went on something like this: “there can you see Cinnamon japonica? The one next to it is turmeric longa. Of course you must be knowing cardamom and there you see the species tinyleafacea  and citrus oblonga….” He also pointed out clover indica and red familacea familiarsis. All of us stared with unbelievable surprise at the civil engineer reeling out botanical names! It was only when he said tinyleafacea, I looked at him with a doubt written large on my face and he winked! All the plant names were his inventions on the spot!

He would also make puzzles with the names of the places written on the mile-stones or boards on our way. Like the first two words meaning this etc..that was a beautiful game to play  and this interspersed with  the poems he recited while driving, long trips were something we all looked forward to!

 Mr. Rock Paulin was an amazing artist who had created brilliant pictures by engraving on the pieces of soft wood available from the woods in the forest. He would first engrave sprigs or flowers and then pour hot white lead into the engravings and make pictures.  He had mentioned holding exhibitions in Canada. I wonder whether they exist now after half a century.  


The visit to his place was exotic too but also a moment of deep discomfiture for Chandrika. She had been learning French for about four years when she got the opportunity to meet the Rock Paulins, a couple from Quebec who speak French at home. Achan glowing with understandable pride announced that she was learning French. Delighted both of them broke into French conversation “…………oh my God.. they are speaking Greek !!” she thought! She wanted to sink into the floor. “…... not even one word of their conversation was within my ken…What was I doing all those years ?” she pondered. Learning irregular adjectives and irregular verb conjugations by heart had not given her the courage to say “Bonjour!” The French words seemed to her to come from another planet …. Not even from her school French text - Bertenshaw!  Achan’s utter incomprehension was so very evident!

Continues Chandrika. “...However this slow coach that I am never gave it a second thought, when soon after this I related to Achan, always a keen listener to our day’s activities, our valedictory function - the day we would be done with French lessons after a decade of learning French. A German, proficient also in French and whom all of us knew as the Head of the Department of German - one D. Siegrist….Chief Guest for the function,  talked a few phrases in French. We mistook his spoken French for German.  Achan did not seem to find any humour in my narrative but luckily controlled himself from showing me the door!! I had never been very keen to learn more French after all these catastrophes! Still as the river of life meanders through a lot of bends, things so turned out that today I hold a PhD in French ! I think Achan himself would have led me to get enough mastery over the language which I had messed up… and to complete my research.. but it took sometime for him to realize it though..” says Chandrika.

I wonder whether these two instances crossed his mind when he was in Montreal… I am sure, he would have laughed at it. Chandrika’s utter incomprehension... and harking back to it, is still embarrassing !

Achan recorded his arrival in Canada by clicking Amma all cosseted in a huge coat, and in front of the Hotel where they were to stay. The Crescent.

The flight from London to Montreal seemed to have been an event in itself. It reminded me later of the first ever trans-Atlantic crossing of Charles Lindberg’s flight challenge with flight time 33 hours, 30 minutes, 29.8 seconds and his 55 hours sleepless Herculean journey though it was in the direction from west to east –from Long Island New York to Paris ! Thanks to him my parents could fly across Atlantic Ocean, even so, in the opposite direction from London to Montreal.

Local time: 10:22pm. Total flight time: 33 hours, 30 minutes, 29.8 seconds. Charles Lindbergh had not slept in 55 hours. Flight route of Charles Lindberg on 21 st May 1927.

By now Amma  and Achan had been  flying over lands and clouds and bits of  water.. but nothing like over the Ocean. If the flights had a screen showing the flight route and the scene below as we have now, it would have been a grand treat for a person like Achan trying to locate all the places and landmarks below and the height at which they were flying: but once over the ocean there might have been nothing to see;   

However the first great trans-Atlantic flight of their lives was also quite eventful. We surmise that they would have taken the Douglas-DC8 - Swiss air jet flight as in those days Air Canada did not possess jets (as informed by Achan’s cousin Gopalakrishnan, or MSGK Warrier, Retd. Director, National Airport’s Authority of India). The Canadian Company had bought their first jet in the 60’s. They would have landed in Montréal - Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport which at the time of their visit was known Montreal Dorval international airport. 

Surprisingly during their first trans-ocean flight, the God Almighty seemed to have decided to treat them to a grand spectacle of fireworks through the thunderstorms He created! To cut a grand tale of trepidation short, Amma once more discovered the presence of her Lord Almighty to whom she offered her early morning fresh flowers accompanied by high-throated prayers in the form of classical Carnatic music!

The flight was rough and there were air pockets: according to Amma’s description, she had recited all her prayers twice over and called the echelon of all the Hindu Gods in trying to get over her fear when the plane got buffeted by the strong winds or dived headlong into air pockets. It was a rough flight and even now I remember Amma’s face contorting with fear at the very thought.  

My parents’ first trans-Atlantic flight was so very eventful that they would have stepped on to the Canadian soil in a trance…. 


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