KOCHI: When Kattumanghat Lazar George woke up in the morning of July 4 at his home in Chennai, he saw an image in his mind. It was of a slim boy with black hair who had an easy smile. That was Philip Oommen, his classmate at Union Christian College, Aluva, many decades ago. The image dissolved and he saw another one, This time, Philip was wearing a black headgear and a pink cassock. He had white hair and beard and twinkling eyes.
George smiles and says, “Philip Oommen is now better known as Philipose Mar Chrysostom.” He is the emeritus Metropolitan of the Malankara Mar Thoma Syrian Church and received the Padma Shri Award in 2018. At the age of 103, he is one of the legendary icons of the community. George says, “I wish I could meet him but, alas, we are both too frail to travel to see each other.”
George was in a nostalgic mood because it was his 103rd birthday too. He was wrapped in a white shawl and wore a dhoti. His daughter Anly and grandson Anish flew in from Kochi to spend the day with him. A chocolate cake with the words ‘Happy Birthday Daddy’ in white icing was placed in front of him in the dining room. There were three candles. He blew them out with a smile while Anly helped him cut the cake.
Meeting the one
One person was missing. This was George’s wife Lily, who died on January 15 this year, at the age of 92. They had been married for 74 years. Asked how he met Lily, George says, “At the time in Kerala (1945), the only way to meet a girl was through the arranged marriage route. My family received a proposal from the girl’s family.”And when George saw Lily for the first time, he was taken aback by her beauty. “I also noticed that she wore a saree that had a design of black dots,” he says. “I thought by wearing black she was subtly indicating to me that she wasn’t happy with the proposal. But she told me later that she liked the colour. We had a wonderful marriage with the normal ups-and-downs. I miss her everyday.”
George misses other people, too. Although he was the fifth of seven children -- one sister and six brothers -- all his siblings have passed away.But their loss has been compensated by his own family. He has four children, seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. “My children are settled in different parts of south India while the grandchildren are in different parts of the world,” he says.
George himself spent his life in India, mostly in Mumbai and Chennai. But he grew up in Mulanthuruthy, the son of a gazetted officer in the state engineering department, and studied in the Government High School until Class X. “School was a very happy time,” he says. “In those days, teachers were treated as gods.” But sometimes they had to step down from their pedestals. Once when George didn’t study his lessons, the teacher twisted his ear so hard that it started to bleed. “He had to write an apology letter to my parents,” says George.
He graduated with a BSc from Maharaja’s College, Ernakulam. Thereafter, he became a teacher at the Arakkunnam school in Mulanthuruthy. After a few years, to improve his prospects, he decided to leave. “I remember all the students crying when I announced that I was moving to Mumbai,” says George.
In Mumbai, George got a job at the Supply Department of the Government of India. They were recruiting heavily because of the Second World War. “I didn’t even have to take a test,” he says. “They seemed to have an ‘All trespassers will be recruited’ mindset.”
George received a monthly salary of Rs 50. “It felt like so much money, I had no idea how to spend it so I ended up saving a lot,” he says. “It was at this job that I saw money being exchanged for a contract to supply hammocks. This was my first sight of bribery.”
Later, he moved back to Kerala and joined pharmaceutical company Cipla as a medical representative. His salary jumped tenfold to Rs 500. “At the time, medical reps had the highest-paid jobs,” he says. Later, he joined Bengal Chemicals. And in Chennai, he bought land in Nungambakkam and constructed a house.
The past and present
Asked to compare India of the past to that of today, George says, “The country felt more peaceful earlier. I could trust the food I bought from the market knowing that it wasn’t artificially processed. People were very cooperative. Everything wasn’t a competition. Over the years, I’ve noticed how spaces in homes, roads, playgrounds and car parks have become a big topic of discussion. It wasn’t even a consideration at that time, because there was a lot of land available for us children to play and for people to construct homes.” But there are some things that he likes about the India of today.
“I am envious of the ease of travel to foreign countries and exposure to other cultures,” he says. “Whenever I meet young people, I always ask them where have they travelled. If I had this opportunity, I would have seen every country in the world. But nevertheless, no regrets, God has given me a very good life.”