How Kerala's first bus service began

 

JOSEPH Augusti Kayalackakom was 16 years old, just a lad, in the early 1900s, when he moved into his uncle Augusti Mathai Kayalackakom’s house in Palai, after his father’s death.

Those days, 16 was considered old enough to start working, and Joseph, together with his brother Thomas, began helping in their uncle’s garment business. On one of his journeys to collect fabric for the business, Joseph while talking to someone was inspired to start a bus service. There were no buses in Kerala those days. The rare times people saw vehicles it was cars belonging to the royal family or the British. Joseph, like others, had to travel on boats and walk long distances on his many trips.

Thrilled, he came to his uncle and shared the idea. His uncle, Augusti Mathai, was not too pleased about having to spend the 1,000 sovereigns he had as savings on this venture. That was money kept aside to buy 3,000 acres of land. A rebellious Joseph then went on a hunger strike, and his aunt, Augusti’s wife Claramma Mathai, was touched. She got Augusti to relent.

That’s how the first route bus began running in Kerala in 1910. The same Kayalackakom family is also behind one of the biggest banks of the last century, the Palai Central Bank, another inspiration of Joseph Augusti's.

Both the bus and the bank no longer exist. But they tell stories of a generation for whom it was all so new.

“All travel and trade had happened on the waters – traders from Portugal travelled by sea to reach the Kodungallur port. There were no roads at the time, and the people of Palai had hardly seen a car or an engine. The only vehicle then was the bullock cart for the well-to-do. So when Velliachan (Joseph Augusti) brought the bus from the Madras firm Simpson & Company, people were surprised to see it,” says Jacob Xavier Kayalackakom, grandson of Augusti Mathai.

He has a black and white photograph of Joseph Augusti standing with the bus and its first driver. “The driver had to be trained and he had more power than a pilot in the eyes of the people of Palai. When the bus began running, some people would come and touch it, others would run fearing it. Yet some others would take fun trips from Palai to Kanjirappally and then walk back,” says Jacob.

The bus service – called Meenachil Motor Association – ran between Palai and Kottayam in the early days, bringing major relief to people who mostly had to walk for anything and everything. After some time, the bus was made to run between Thiruvananthapuram and Kollam, since that’s where more passengers flocked. Soon, a second bus began running between Thiruvananthapuram, Kottayam and Palai, but it didn’t last long. Unfortunately, neither did the original bus.  

“By 1915-16, after the First World War broke out, there was a shortage of spare parts and the business went into loss. They had to shut it down, without making any profit whatsoever and losing the 1,000 sovereigns that grandfather had kept aside to buy land. But it all turned out fine later. For, the same Joseph Augusti later brought to grandfather the idea of starting a bank, and that was a big success,” Jacob says.

Joseph had by then begun a textile business in Vallakadavu, Thiruvananthapuram. Again during his trips collecting clothes, he heard someone talking about banks. This time Augusti Mathai was more accepting of Joseph’s idea. Together with some friends, the Palai Central Bank (PCB) was founded in 1924. It was incorporated as a public limited company in 1927 in the then state of Travancore, according to the documents of the Reserve Bank of India.

The growth was very fast. The bank had opened its doors to everyone, many of whom had been depending on local moneylenders and their exorbitant interest rates at the time. The PCB gave loans to farmers at lower interest rates. Within years, branches were opened – there were 35 across India, according to Jacob. This included the major cities of Delhi, Calcutta, Poona and Madras. In Kerala, there were branches everywhere, but back then they were distributed among the three major kingdoms of Travancore, Kochi and Malabar.

“However, everyone was not happy with the bank’s growth. There was a lot of political interference that led to the liquidation of the bank in 1960. After Augusti Mathai’s time – he died in 1940 – it was mainly headed by Joseph Augusti,” Jacob adds.

He doesn’t wish to go into the details of its closure too much, but there was a case by the Reserve Bank of India. The family believes that the then Finance Minister of India, Morarji Desai, was fed with wrong ideas about the bank by people with vested interests.

“The family got wind of the upcoming trouble but none of them took their money and ran. They made sure all the depositors were paid back so that those who put in one rupee got one rupee 30 paise in return. However this was done in instalments,” Jacob says.

After the bank’s liquidation, the Kayalackakom family never ventured into another business. They are happy with their farming, Jacob says. He still lives in the location where once Augusti Mathai and Claramma lived with six or seven other families together in the joint family system that was common in those days.

“The old house even had a birthing room where at one time five women were believed to have given birth together, with the help of a midwife!” says the proud descendant.

The house was demolished in 1985 when it became too impractical to live there and the families had all begun living separately.

“Back in the day, Velyamachi (Claramma) used to give meals to whoever came asking for it in the kanjipura (where food is served). People would even tell her what they’d like to have and she’d keep it ready for the next time they came. We still continue that practice of giving. Not to people who come home but by giving to orphanages. As for the family, we grow everything we need for the kitchen in our farms,” says Jacob. - The News Minute