Kesavan was part of workforce that dug up vestiges of ancient port of Muziris

Kesavan, 43, a Dalit worker at the Pattanam archaeological excavation site, 27 km from here, died over a week ago.

A death so ordinary, it went almost unnoticed. Only people in the Pooyapilly neighbourhood and the Pattanam excavation team joined the family in its bereavement.

Kesavan suffered a heart attack around midnight on April 6 and died while being taken to hospital, about 4 km from home. “He complained of acute chest pain and collapsed. We had to carry him up to the road and wait for someone to get an auto-rickshaw. Later, at the government hospital at North Paravoor, he was declared brought dead,” says Valsan, Kesavan's brother and the oldest of the six siblings.

Pooyapilly, with its 80 families including 60 Dalit households, is marshy and devoid of proper connectivity. Buses ply on the PWD road near the now-defunct Cherai ferry, but the narrow stretch of Sahodaran Ayyappan road linking it with Pooyapilly is not blacktopped, making travel by night taxing.

For five years, Kesavan had been part of the Pattanam excavation team's workforce of about 30 unskilled labourers, mostly women, that helped the archaeologists methodically dig up vestiges of the 2,000-year-old ancient port of Muziris.

“Like most others in the workforce, he was a person with dignity,” recalls P.J. Cherian, Director of the Kerala Council for Historical Research (KCHR) and Pattanam Excavations.

“In fact, he was the second senior-most among workers and the most sought-after by trench supervisors. He was disciplined, gentle and a quick learner.”

The vivid image of an affable Kesavan holding the unique gold axe he unearthed from trench number 16 last year is still fresh in Mr. Cherian's memory. He also recalls an agile Kesavan swiftly clambering a pole to tether a tarpaulin to cover trench no. 32, where a ‘ring well' dating back to the period between 100 BC and 100 AD partially emerged. “That was on April 4, two days before he left us.”

For co-workers Sindhu and Joby, who joined the labour force two years ago, Kesavan was a mentor and role model. “Over the years, he had learnt to classify artefacts and handle them with tenderness,” says Ravi, the senior-most worker.

Kesavan was the breadwinner of a family of five. His aged mother Kathu is bedridden and appears oblivious of the tragedy. Neighbours say it is some time since she has snapped his links with reality. Saraswathi, his wife, is a picture of misery. Kesavan's children, Ashitha, 12, and Ashith, 6, are too young to fathom the gravity of what happened. Arathara Veedu, where they stay, is Kesavan's ancestral home. “He hadn't subscribed to life insurance or social security schemes, which adds to the family's woes,” says a relative.

Kesavan had tried his hand at several professions before joining the Pattanam workforce. “He had done sand-mining and fishing to make a living, which would have been lucrative. But he was content with the current job,” says a neighbour.

The Pattanam team was away in Colombo when Kesavan died. On return, they drove straight to his house to pay homage and decided to pool a day's salary to support the family. Under a Green Archaeology initiative under which cycles were distributed to the Pattanam excavation workforce, Kesavan was right on top in eligibility, but the first set was given to women workers. “Though he was eager to have one, he accepted the decision gracefully,” Mr. Cherian says regretfully.

The Pattanam team has launched a campaign to raise funds for assisting Kesavan's family. Sunanda Nair of the KCHR (kchrtvm@gmail.com) has been tasked with coordinating the effort. There is also a proposal to institute an award carrying a golden-axe-etched plaque for the best field worker in honour of the deceased hero.