PVK Achan, the present Paliath Valiyachan, or the senior-most member of the Paliam family, takes a walk down memory lane, to the Kochi of the early 20th Century.
We were a huge joint family at Paliam, Chendamangalam. I’m talking of 1918 when there were 30-35 families staying together in separate suites or rooms. Every family was given a maid and male servant. There was a common kitchen with five cooks, a dining hall that could seat 60-70 people at a time. The elders were served at their rooms.
Boys were allowed to stay with the family only till they were about 12 years of age. After this they had to move to a boys’ hostel. At the naalkettu, only women and children were allowed to stay. The boys’ hostel was a sort of bachelors’ quarters and great fun. We had a separate kitchen and used to come to the main building, share the food of the common kitchen, only during festivals and birthdays.
Every boy attaining 12 years had to go through a year of penance or bhajanam as it was called. We were not allowed to have a haircut, have an early bath in the pond and had to visit all the temples around. After that you become entitled to a personal monthly allowance of Rs. 10. My father used to put that amount in the bank.
Looking back, I appreciate how well the family affairs were managed by Valiychan, the senior-most male head of the family. He was in absolute control, had an office with about 30-40 staff members. Paliam was in its glory those days.
After completing my school at the Paliam High School, Chendamangalam, I joined Maharaja’s College, Ernakulam, for my intermediate. I used to take the steamboat from Chendamangalam. It took around three hours and we paid three annas for the ride. Close to the boat jetty in Ernakulam, on a three acre plot, Paliam had a building, where we could even stay. I still remember that every second day of the month, without fail, I used to get my monthly allowance of Rs. 35.
Those days there were only seven engineering colleges in the whole of India and today’s Pakistan. I saw an advertisement in a Malayalam newspaper and applied for a seat in the Guindy Engineering College, Madras. Two seats here were reserved for the Cochin State. The Secretary of Education then was BVK Menon who knew me as a child. He saw my application and sent a special messenger informing me that I was selected.
In Guindy majority of the students stayed in the hostel as there were hardly any buses. The nearest bus point was Saidapet from where one had to walk a long distance to the college. I had no problem adapting to hostel life. I made new friends. There was a Malabar Mess, one of the three in the college. Life was so easy; things were so cheap. I used to get Rs. 50 as allowance and average monthly expenses came to just Rs. 35. Many of my classmates used to take loans from me.
I was the first engineer from my family and one of the first to go out of the fold and eke a living. Those days it was below one’s dignity to work, especially for those from the Paliam family. But there was no opposition as such.
For six months after my engineering I worked as Assistant Lecturer at my alma mater for a monthly salary of Rs. 55. This was during World War II. I then joined the Hindustan Construction Company at their Bombay Headquarters. They had a lot of civil work in India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, employing over two lakh people. I gained valuable experience which came good in my later years.
In 1943 I joined the South Indian Railway Company as assistant engineer at Trichy. This company along with two others was amalgamated after Independence to become Southern Railway. The most important phase in my career was joining BHEL. In fact, I was the first employee of the Trichy unit. Plans were afoot to construct a unit there. I was sent there on deputation in 1961 as Chief Engineer, Construction.
The biggest challenge was when K. B. Mathur, chairman, BHEL, ‘ordered’ me to prepare a project report and estimate for the Trichy unit exactly on the same lines of the Bhopal one that was constructed six years back. I was to complete my work with the same figures despite costs going up. I managed to complete the work. For the inauguration in 1965, in the presence of Vice-President Dr. Zakir Hussain, the chairman, known to be a tough taskmaster and one who never showered praise on individuals, said that my work was much beyond his expectation.
I continued in BHEL as executive director till 1977 and even after my retirement served as Advisor for all BHEL units. In my home state, while in the Railways, I worked for a short while and then served as Director, Steel Industrial Kerala Limited.
As Trustee of the Paliam Trust, I’m really glad and satisfied with the renovation of buildings belonging to our family and the museum project. The government has already spent around six crore rupees, we have signed MOUs that protect the family’s interests. The civil work has been done very well. There has been a delay in the completion of the project but that’s okay. Perhaps the government might have their own problems.
PVK Achan was born in 1918. He is the senior-most member of the famous Paliam family. An engineer from Guindy Engineering College, he was Assistant Engineer, Southern Railways, Executive Director, BHEL and after retirement Advisor for all the BHEL units. Achan has served as Director, Steel Industrial Kerala Limited, Director, Hindustan Steel Construction Company, Kolkata, Member of the Advisory Committee of Public Sector Undertakings of the Ministry of Finance, Govt. Of India, Member of the Advisory Committee of the Regional Engineering College, Kozhikode and as President of the Indian Institution of Quality Assurance.