In my childhood, I was witness to two Aboobackers running the high mast of trade in iconic S M Street. My earliest Kooyikkodan memories are redolent of traversing umpteen times the distance between the shops of M M Aboobacker Saheb in the south and C P Aboobacker Saheb in the north.

To the west of CP’s establishment were the choultries, teeming with footballers from distant lands flexing their muscles in anticipation of forthcoming matches. Some of the show-boaters could be seen engaged in chit-chat with CP. Adjacent to the choultries were the museum and local library buildings, where I was to loiter later. Across CP’s shop the gaze would settle on the doors and windows of Huzur Kutcheri broadcasting the power and pelf of British hegemony. It could have been on a day when  Manachira maithanam was cordoned off by woven coconut fronds enclosing a bamboo gallery to host the promised football feast that I might have had my first solitary saunter in S M Street precincts.

legacyOne day my grand uncle told me that we would lunch in Lucky hotel. Alighting at the railway station we were making our way to the hotel when he led me into the stationery shop at the beginning of S M Street. That shop run by MM was an Aladdin’s cave of exotic biscuits and chocolates and other goodies. In front of an imposing refrigerator were luxurious sofas for honoured guests to recline. We were treated to a lavish helping of almond sherbet, complete with straw.

Then a miracle occurred. S K Pottekkat enters accompanied with his newly-wed. I was an avid reader of his African travelogue then being serialised in Mathrubhumi weekly. Seeing a writer in flesh and blood was a novel experience. The name of his wife sprang to my mind from a news item on the recent wedding – Jayavalli.

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Shoppers throng S M Street swarming around stray traffic

I was wonder-struck by the affectionate manner of MM’s receiving and hugging SK, exchanging notes and guffawing in gay abandon. My uncle was innocent of the identity of the literary stalwart. So abandoning me to the security of the street he went back to work in Valiyangadi.

That allowed me to feast on the sight of SK and wife enjoying to the utmost the solicitous hospitality of MM towards the couple. Those lighter moments of the warm cordiality among three human beings are etched into my memory unblemished by the passage of time. In time, I was fortunate to belong to SK’s inner circle, which enabled me to witness the familiarity that SK cultivated with the magnanimous merchants of the street.

It was in the shop of the other Aboobacker at the northern end that ardent grooms desirous of pandering to the demands of whimsical brides would flock to buy cashew-nuts and other sweet meats by the cartload during Bakrid and Ramzan. Such frenzied shopping would also be on in the brightly-lit stores of Hussain Saheb, Krishna Maharaj halwa and Malabar bakery well into the wee hours. 

In a swift rush of memories it dawns on me that S M Street was a cultural melting pot too. If SK was the street’s first literary offering to me, another early aquaintance was Baby of Kerala Book Depot, friend to all bibliophiles, who was inextricably intertwined with the cultural tapestry of the city. He would go on to become a renowned helmer, directing popular hits like Lisa.

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U A Khader - Photo J Philip

Another favourite evening gossip haunt of the artistically inclined was National studio where Unniettan, as he was affectionately called, held court. A veritable galaxy of musicians of vintage, including P M Kasim and Mappila songs doyen and conversationalist non-pareil, Ustad S M Koya would be there. On Kassimkka fell the onus of showering hospitality on visitors. Kozhikode Abdul Khader, Raghavan Master and Pazhayannur Parasuraman of All India Radio would rendezvous here to share titbits with Unniettan, who would transact his prosperous business in photography and selling mirrors in the blessed presence of these artistes. 

Walking down the westward alley adjacent to National studio would lead to Ahuan Arts run by Vasu Pradeep brimming with his creative labours. There would congregate the constellation of dramatists, stage hands and theatre artistes of Kozhikode. The roster reads like a who’s who of the theatre – Kunhandi, Kunkaava, Kuthiravattom Pappu, Nellikkode Bhaskaran, P N M Alikoya, A M Koya and Kavi master, among others.

That too was not the only place where legends were to be found. Walking past the Parsi Anjuman bagh would lead to Pitamber studio. Another flock of theatre artistes would assemble there, including Balan K Nair, Nellikode Bhaskaran and R K Nair. Master photographer Punalur Rajan from Medical College and football commentator and script writer T Damodaran too would drop by in the evenings. Kunhaava, perpetually ready to accompany Pitambarettan to clubs or to the nearby Wheat House would be found in a chair reserved exclusively for him. On occasion, M T Vasudevan Nair would wend his way from Mathrubhumi in the evenings.

Further up facing the entrance to Radha theatre and across White Shop was Saiyvu’s newstand peddling even international publications. Rifling through pages and tucking those chosen under an armpit would be K A Kodungallor, another of the AIR tribe, around who would collect a band of literary figures, new talents and acolytes. Kakkad, Akkitham, Uroob, Thikkodian and M V Devan and Krishna Warrier, both of Mathrubhumi would grace that amorphous crowd extending into the path to Modern Hindu hotel. Later, N P Mohammed, film critic Kozhikkodan of the telephones department and P A Mohammed Koya of Chandrika would join this august assemblage of literary titans. In a massive reverberation of memory bolts of lightning throw into relief these larger than life characters, whose lusture might be lost on this generation.

Hard by, in Rani Bookstall, Kuttikrishnan Marar would be encamped. Kadavanad and Uroob too would be there. Those who leave from here would ask of the Kodungallor-Kakkad band “Joining fellas?” That inclusive query would invariably be Uroob’s. And in the wake of that stream of colossi, like Kodungallor, Kakkad and Akkitham would be a tide of disciples, including this writer.

The confluence of this river coursing past Radha theatre would be at Aryabhavan. There gathered around circular tables, feasting on savouries and snacks, we would while away those frolicsome evenings. And when the time would come to pay the bill all imploring eyes would look at the forever obliging Thikkodiyan, wreathed in smiles as ever.

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Installing street-light as part of beautification of the iconic shopping area 

Here, others too populate my memories. Opposite to the parking space in Aryabhavan was the tailor shop of couturier Purushothaman. And who would be stepping out of that stylish shop – none other than a man who would later become an acclaimed director – Hariharan. Other future celebrities too would frequent Purushu’s place.

Neena studio proprietor Neena Balettan was not just a renowned photograher and stage artist, but was also the bosom pal of Basheer. He was also the envious personification of male beauty.

From Aryabhavan, the tea-time crowd would emerge into the bright lights of S M Street, splinter and converge again near the local library. Although some would call it a day, the remaining would troop to that cathedral of socio-cultural happenings in the city – Town Hall. Those who wanted to attend the proceedings there would do so; the rest would laze in front of Josphettan’s box shop adjoining Crown theatre, discussing the merit or otherwise of movies running in cinemas. The day would be done with bidding good night to Josephettan.

For writers and other artists these evening strolls through S M Street were not merely an occasion to meet and interact in a public space; but it also let their creative juices flow through intimately shared camaraderie and cordiality. The easy commerce of the street through the jalebis, mysore pak and diwali sweets of Krishna Maharaj, or Malabar bakery cake or the various tasty items on offer in other eateries all exuded the aroma of convivial human realtionships.

As in the past, now also it continues to be the happening place for pedestrians, to soak in the atmosphere and make impulse purchases much to the delight of the merchants. Even those with private conveyances abandon the cosiness of their vehicles to savour shopping as a walking experience.

I feel a stirring of desire to stroll along the renovated S M Street, without having to bother about limb-threatening traffic, as in the days of old when I was a boy setting forth on my journey of life. I will then, though with hobbling steps, once again taste the sweets of my long lost summers…