Monday, March 24, 2014

THATHA , PAATI AND ATHAI

Why is the bond with grand kids more endearing than that with one's own kids? The answer is simple - it is pure, undiluted pleasure! There is no tension or worry about their upbringing - that is left to the parents! And as grandparents have more free time on their hands, they have a higher patience quotient and more fun!

I can boast of being a desirable companion to my grand kids. I myself have had a great bonding with my grandparents – both paternal as well as maternal. While spending quality time with my grand kids I found myself narrating to them about my childhood experiences with my grandparents. It was like reliving those days: the nostalgia provided the right momentum to get me started with this long-postponed-record of my experiences. Here are some leaves from my association with my paternal grandparents.


I have great reverence, admiration and love for my Thatha and Paati. They had control over the family but it was of a benign nature. The family set-up was democratic in nature - allowing a good degree of freedom for everyone. Like typical middle class persons, Thatha and Paati gave importance to education. They upheld values and morals and inculcated the same to the family not by preaching but by practice. They were extraordinary persons - much ahead of their times. I won't call them rebels but they were definitely practical in outlook with a cool level-headed nature and mature logic. One cannot call them conservative and religious; they were modern and advocated a scientific approach.  They could definitely be bracketed with Gen X or even Gen Y! So modern was their outlook! A few lines from Thatha’s will is enough to give you proof – 

“After a long and mature consideration extending over a number of years and wide reading, I long ago came to the conclusion that the human personality - call it a soul or any other name - ceases with death. Since the belief in the existence of the soul and a future life is the basis of all religions and since I have ceased to believe in either I cannot be called a 'religious' person. That explains why I have no interest in temple-going and performance of ceremonies.

It is however not to be imagined that I am what is called an atheist. I believe in the existence of an all-powerful 'Supreme Being' guiding and controlling the universe. I however hold that it is a futile exercise to fathom the attributes of such a Supreme Being. It is an inscrutable, unknowable Force which cannot be described. It is also ridiculous to imagine that it can be propitiated by prayers and offerings into granting us favors such as long life, wealth etc. etc.

Such being my religious belief, I have no interest in the performance of shradhas and funeral ceremonies. But man is a social animal and has a place in society and as certain social conventions have to be observed, I have formed some views on the funeral ceremonies to be performed on my death.

They are:
A. Cremation is to be performed with due honours just to show respect to the deceased.
B. No daily 'tharpanam' is to be performed on any day following the cremation..................
The abdikam and subsequent annual sradham need not be performed at all. The date of my passing away may be remembered by feeding about a dozen people of all castes on that day......"

I have had the good fortune to be close to my grandparents and Athai (aunt – father’s sister) as I got to live with them for almost a year when I was a four-year-old and again later for another four years when my father was posted in faraway (those were the days) Andamans. Perhaps I had spent the impressionable period of my life (at the age of 13-17) with them and have been greatly influenced by them apart from my parents.


FIRST IMPRESSIONS

Before I go to my first impressions, let me tell you that when I was born, everyone in my paternal family were thrilled because they got to enjoy a baby after about fifteen years. I was the first grandchild at my maternal grandparents'. Looking back, it must have been pretty funny when my paternal folks gave 'valuable' tips about baby-problems. I was a scrawny baby, with problems of digestion and Thatha, Paati and Athai would endeavor to instill discipline in the baby regarding feed times etc. My mother has told me that she would feel like tearing her hair while I kept bawling and the others tried to drown it with their louder distractions as it wasn't feed-time yet! Well all this was done with the best of intentions and in care, concern and love. So you see it is no surprise that I did imbibe their fetish for punctuality!
                            
                           
                        
I am proud to say that I do have photos with each of my idols carrying me as a baby. But it is really sad that we have hardly any pictures clicked in the 60's! And no pictures with them in the 70's - really shameful! And one more thing - it was Paati who came up with my name - which is to an extent quite an uncommon one even today. Otherwise as per our tradition, I am named after her - Bhagirati.

My grandfather (Thatha) M.D.Narayana Iyer (popularly known as MD among intimate ones), was born around 1886 in Manjappara near Palghat. I still remember six-footer Thatha - always erect and majestic, endowed with sharp features. He could impress anyone with his good English (despite his slight stammer). But the convent-educated I would try to correct his ‘harrrsh’ pronunciation of words which had an ‘r’ in the middle of them – he’d just laugh it off and take it with a pinch of salt! He had a good sense of humour! At home, he'd be dressed in crisp white ‘veshti’ and home-stitched 'banian' (vest stitched by his daughter Ankichi, my Athai). For outings, he would put on a white cotton shirt and an angavastram and walk majestically with walking stick adding to his regal bearing – yes even before he was seventy! 
He must have retired at the age of 55 / 58 - much before I was born. My cousin Indi (who is a good 8 years older) who had first met Thatha as a five-year-old, had felt grandpa just knew to sit at home and order everyone around. He had retired as the Chief Engineer of the erstwhile Cochin State. But the point I want to stress is that I have never seen Thatha in pants nor have I seen him go to office. But I have seen photos in which he is in a coat and headgear. With his handsome features and aquiline nose, he resembled great South Indian stalwarts like Sir C.V.Raman / Rajaji / Sir Visvesharayya!



Paati was on the shorter side, and plumper. Fair, chubby-faced, she was a beauty even at sixty plus! She would have a large round magenta-colored kumkuma pottu (bindi) on her forehead. She always wore simple pattu podavai (9-yards silk sari) and ravikkai (blouse which would be knotted up in front, I mean without buttons / hooks).

MY FIRST STINT

When my brother was a toddler, my parents decided to leave me for the first time with my grandparents who were willing to take the responsibility. They were in Ernakulam then. I was 4 and thoroughly enjoyed their attention, affection, concern and care. They pampered me but never spoilt me – they knew where to draw the line.  I remember crawling up on to Thatha’s lap and twitching and twirling the little round fleshy bump on his neck - calling it his 'button' and he would keep gazing at me indulgently. 

During that first stint with them, I had more interaction with my Paati. She was the one who would accompany a screaming me in the rickshaw to Nursery school with a little tiffin thookku (my very own lunchbox with my name 'Vrinda' inscribed in Malayalam) which contained 'nendrapazha nurukku' (steamed Kerala plantain). 

Lunch at home would be made enticing - with two tiny pappadams accompanying the paruppu-chaadham, followed by curd rice and vegetable. Nap time would find me cozily cuddling in Paati's soft 'pazham podavai' - old silk sari. I was a reluctant napper – like all kids: if I napped like a good girl, I would get a reward - I would hang around her and trail behind her for it - she would coolly open her cupboard in the store room (called 'meal-safe') and take out a small yellow aluminium box, take out a little key and open the tiny lock as I'd wait patiently. She would open it, take out the bar of Cadbury's chocolate and carefully break one piece and hand it over to me (sometimes a tablespoon of cashews / raisins). Before I could finish and ask for more, she would have locked the box and put it away and closed the cupboard! Such was the discipline. Before I went to bed, I had to drink a glass of milk. How many times I have ended throwing up and Paati asking me what was the matter. I'd say, "aadai" (cream) and she'd say there was no trace of cream in it but I'd keep insisting there was! You see they loved cream and I have been very fussy about it right from childhood - a little bit of cream was enough to make me throw up! So I still strain my milk every time I use it - even to this day.

I also remember telling my Athai that I wanted to buy a 'kunjalam' (a decorative accessory to be braided with three fluffy balls at the end) for my hair as my friend X had it too. She asked me, "How many do you want, one or two?" I blurted out "One!" "Are you sure?" Silly of me not to correct myself and say "Two". I got a kunjalam and went to school (Nursery) with my braid in it. What did I find? X in two braids with kunjalams. Dare I ask Athai for more - no way! I should say that at the age of four I learnt my first lesson - to think right and not let go of opportunities.

I was to participate at a recitation competition on Children's Day - way back in 1956 (I remember the year because my brother was born in 1955 and less than a year later my parents left me with my grandparents) at the Townhall I think. The kids were to be taken there from school and brought back to school late in the evening. My Thatha promised to bring me back from my school. I was worried whether he would be allowed in my school. I double-checked with him, "Thatha, do you know ABC?" He nodded."And 123?" "I think so. Why do you ask?" I told him to learn them properly otherwise the security would not let him inside the school. He gave me an 'I'll-do-that' nod. Wasn't I shocked to see him in conversation with the Headmaster himself! How he had managed that was an unsolved mystery to me for long! All in all I had a gala time - and didn't miss my parents and baby brother for some six months; by then my parents started missing me and I was also happy to be back with them.

THE SECOND STINT

My next stint with my grandparents - as I said earlier was when I entered my teens. My father was posted as Chief Engineer in Andaman & Nicobar Islands (1965-69). There was no High School there those days, so I was sent to my grandparents and aunt in Trichur to pursue my studies (class IX - XII). It was during this period that I got to know more about our family tree and more importantly about their admirable traits of character which raised my esteem for them.

PAATI’S FAMILY TALES

I owe it to Paati for enlightening me about the many members of our family, ancestors included. At bedtime, she would start narrating her childhood days and I would fall asleep listening to her interesting narration. That was the nightly lullaby for me. It was months by the time I learnt the names and family details of each of her 8 siblings! Then there were stories of Thatha's childhood, Athai's, Periappa's and my father's tales all spiced up with a dash of imperceptible masala to make them alluring - I tell you she was a master story teller. Thanks to her, I got a vivid pen-portrait of my ancestors as well as the diligence, hard work, honesty, uprightness, love, concern, practical approach and invaluable guidance of Thatha and Paati that protected the family from the heat and tempests of life.

I shudder to think how the family tree would have looked like if my grandfather had not had his aunt and uncle's patronage. My Thatha had three mothers - yes, his biological mother Chinnu (I don't know her real name), her elder sister Chheedhai (Seeta) and widowed younger sister Chuppu (Subbalakshmi). Seeta and her husband Kalyanakrishnan did not have children and wanted to adopt grandpa legally but couldn't as he was the eldest son of his parents. So they legally adopted his younger brother Rasu. Grandpa was a brilliant student throughout. But because of his parents' economic condition, he also mastered the Vedas and mantras - to pave the way to become a sastrigal (vaadhyaar). (And to think of such a person writing the will mentioned earlier! The lessons of life had changed his outlook.)  But Thatha's uncle who identified his potential offered to take responsibility for his higher education. Thanks to him, grandpa studied B.A (Mathematics) and then went for Engineering at Guindy, Madras. He was destined to rise to the post of Chief Engineer of the erstwhile Cochin state - not a priest, which is why one thing led to another!

Thatha had two elder sisters, both married to advocates and well-settled - the elder one in Trichur and the younger in Calicut. He was very fond of his younger brother Ramakrishnan (Rasu). Grandma would regale me with funny stories about how Chuppu would pamper Thatha when he was a kid. He started schooling late according to our standards - I think he was put in Class 1 only when he was 8 plus as the school was far away. Chuppu would carry him all the way to school and carry him back too. She continued to lovingly nurture him even as a grown-up. She even offered to stay with him and cook for him when he was a student at Guindy. Thatha sweet-talked his way out and managed to extricate himself from the sweet nuisance! And of course there was his mother to guide him and not let him go overboard! One mother is a boon! What can we say about his luck at having three of them? 'Ek se bhale teen!'

Well Thatha bagged a Munsif's daughter C.M.Bhagirati Ammal as his bride. Paati would proudly claim she was a 'Munsif's daughter' and had had a great childhood. She had no complaints about her married life too - she never mentioned any problems with her three mothers-in-law! (Likewise she was a gem of a mother-in-law too.) The couple were blessed with a son 'Manikutty' (Kalyanakrishnan - named after Thatha's uncle) followed by a daughter Ankichi (Padmavathi) two years later. Then eight years later my father Dharmu (Dharmarajan - named after Thatha's father) was born. They had a great life, prosperous, peaceful, happy and contented. Paati has told me that Thatha's salary would include around 13 sovereigns along with the cash. Paati was a good manager and started getting ready the ornaments required for their darling daughter's wedding. My father would tell us about their car, their driver Chathu Nair, their cooks..... a sort of royal life. But they spent wisely and prudently and believed in savings. So it is of little surprise that Thatha managed to invest in three houses (out of honest earnings, mind you – those were the days …) – and gifted them to each of his three children when he was into his 70's! Thatha - Paati had trust in their well-brought-up children and didn't wait to bequeath their property to them after their lifetime like most people. When you ponder over it, you will agree with me that there is meaning in this – it is when the sons and daughters are in their 40's and 50's that life is a struggle and any addition to the family coffers will be utilized well – kids’ education or marriage. When it is bequeathed to them through a will, they must have reached a stage when they don’t have any special need for the property and it is just added to the already existing sizable investments.

LIFE - A ROLLER COASTER

When Ankichi was 10, her marriage was fixed - the groom was her paternal cousin - Thatha's elder sister's son. A lawyer like his eminent father, the young man Anantanarayanan (Ambi) was establishing his practice pretty well. It was a grand wedding (that is an understatement) - a four-day-extravaganza! If my memory doesn't fail me I think Ankichi athai was taken around on an elephant in a procession. Ankichi was allowed to finish her Matriculation - the families were modern enough to give importance to education - of girls I mean!

Meanwhile the brilliant Manikutty kept topping every examination and was the toast of the town. Like any typical middle class family, the primary focus was education. Thatha had great ambitions for his darling first-born - a person of his caliber should not settle down for anything less than the coveted ICS! So he did not mind spending a fortune sending Manikutty to England. I remember my father telling me that the brothers were extremely fond of each other. He had felt as if his heart would break to be separated from his brother. Before Manikutty left for England, my father had given him such an extra-tight hug that Manikutty struggled to free himself saying, "Idhu enna kambalikattaakkum!" (What a bear hug!).

But tragedy struck just before Manikutty left - Ankichi gave birth to a still-born son plunging the family in grief. The family - especially Ankichi was in bad shape and needed time to recover, physically, mentally and emotionally. So it was decided Manikutty would not say 'bye' to her before leaving for London; when she realized he was gone, she was pretty upset - the siblings were very close as it was a close-knit family.

Manikutty performed gloriously as expected in his written exams for ICS. But having got drawn into the company of Communists in Cambridge, his answers in the interview were colored in his lately-acquired beliefs and therefore unacceptable in democratic England - Manikutty FAILED ICS! As if that was not enough, he also fell in love with Parvathi (daughter of the Subbarayans, a family known for national integration within the family due to inter-caste marriages). This dealt a terrible blow to Thatha and Paati who had been trying to sift and select from the numerous admirable, worthy alliances vying for Manikutty the eligible bachelor. In spite of the double disappointment in Manikutty, both of them maintained a stoic dignity and calmness and gave the green signal for the inter-caste marriage in as early as 1940's. Thatha's practical approach made him a bit apprehensive whether the economic divide between the two families would pose any problem - the Subbarayans were zamindars and our family middle class. But the lovers stood their ground and all ended well. Thatha and Paati also maintained a cordial and loving relationship with Manikutty and Parvathi through and through. Hats off to them for their modern outlook even in those days! I feel like giving more credit to Paati - she was not educated (she had completed 1st form - class V) and could have well acted as a spoke in the wheel and raised hell at home! She complemented Thatha beautifully - truly the couple were way ahead of their times! I have to admit that it was my father who couldn't forgive his brother for having disappointed their parents!

Once again it was time for rejoicing and hope when Ankichi became pregnant again. But another blow was lurking round the bend....

Paati had just mentioned the tragedy in her own inimitable style, keeping the pathos in the background. I came to know the intricate details because I chanced to get hold of an old notebook when I was going through Thatha's book shelf - I found pages of description in his own handwriting and curiosity got the better of this teenager's etiquette. I went through the entire thing with mixed emotions - of grief for the entire family, admiration for their stoic nature and pride for their will power and determination to fight it out! 

When Ankichi athai was midway through her pregnancy, my grandparents had brought her home. Their son-in-law was due to arrive shortly for a few days. Actually Ambi who was suffering from stomachache for some days, had consulted his doctor-friend who treated him. But the situation went out-of-control with laxatives and took a turn for the worse. He was immediately rushed from Calicut to Madras for treatment at the hands of the eminent Dr. Lakshmanasami Mudaliar. Sensing the seriousness of the situation, Thatha and Paati along with Ankichi also left for Chennai by train.  The threesome rushed to hospital, spoke to Ambi, and sensed all was not too well. The two ladies were sent to rest... Actually it was a case of appendicitis turning complicated and fatal. Thatha had recorded minute details like Ambi complaining about disturbance from a leaking tap .... 

Within days Ambi was gone! The family was devastated. Thatha's belief in astrology and religion was shattered. He could not digest it - he had consulted astrologers and matched horoscopes before fixing the wedding. They had okayed the match - one of them had mentioned that Ankichi was destined to occupy a high post - the family laughed it off saying she might be selected for some Panchayat post as she was a Matriculate.....  Now at the height of emotional turmoil, he tore the horoscopes of all family members - my Paati was the one who rescued my father's horoscope for future use for matrimonial alliance - she was sensible even at the height of crisis and was an anchor for the ship caught in the tempest!

Thatha and Paati's loving care and nurture saw Ankichi through the turbulent months of confinement and she delivered a bonny baby girl - a silver lining in the cloud. It seems my father was excited like a child and went about the street informing friends and acquaintances about the arrival of the baby.

There was this talk in the family circles that Ankichi should don the typical attire of a widow with her head shaved as per the prevalent norms. I just can't imagine her like that! A widow’s life those days was confined to the four walls of the house – we have also heard stories of heartless treatment meted out to them. How could Thatha and Paati even imagine such a state for their loving daughter? They had the guts to stand up to their decision of continuing Ankichi’s education in spite of protests from family and outsiders. Thanks to their unstinting support and unflinching determination, we had the good fortune of seeing Ankichi Athai blossom into a powerful personality attired in cool, crisp white cotton sari, commanding respect among colleagues and students, first as Professor at Maharaja's College, Ernakulam and later as the Principal of Women's Polytechnic, Kannimangalam, Trichur. Yes, it was Thatha and Paati who sent her to college while they took charge of little Vasanta. Ankichi was a brilliant student too (in the family circles, the talk was that in MD's house, even the 'kannukutty' - calf - would be highly intelligent!). She was a gold medallist too for M.Sc (Physics). Then she started her teaching career and steadily progressed. This was probably what that astrologer had predicted about her destiny which nobody understood then.

Dharmu (my father) was no great shakes at studies as a school boy (this tale I heard from him). Thatha was worried about his performance in Mathematics and he wanted his friend to advise the boy. When the friend asked Dharmu whether he shouldn't get 100% in maths, he retaliated that he was happy with 35%. I can imagine Thatha's disappointment but he never pressurized him. When Dharmu was in Class 9, there was a transformation in him - he attributes it to the change of 'grahas' in his horoscope - he was a staunch believer, you see! 

He started upholding the family tradition and topping in all examinations. Thatha wanted him to do Engineering from Benaras Hindu University but Dharmu didn't want to be so far away from the family. He chose to do B.Sc (Hons) and bagged the gold medal. After that he agreed to join Guindy Engineering College, Madras and once again emerged a Gold medallist. I personally feel that it is the conducive environment created in the family and the gentle prodding in academics that led to the academic achievements in the family – thanks again to my grandparents! Thatha was ready to send his younger son also abroad for studies. But Dharmu was different. He was not very ambitious - more of a home-bird. In fact initially he worked for a while in Kerala, closer home - going home at least once a month. Thatha and Paati managed to get a good alliance for their youngest son - Janaki, the eldest daughter of an upcoming Engineer at Cochin Port Trust (who later rose to become the Chief Engineer). My mother has told me stories of how she entered the family as a sixteen year old. She was bowled over by the 'chakka & manga' (jackfruits and mangoes) and vegetables and the jasmine and roses in the back yard of their sprawling house in Thrissur. And Paati was more than a loving mother to her. Soon Dharmu chose to write the UPSC examination, got selected for CPWD and was posted in faraway Delhi!

ENTER THE GRANDKIDS

Meanwhile Thatha and Paati's prime focus was Vasanta. Vasanta grew up as her grandparents' adored daughter (she called Ankichi by her name) and did not even know that they were not actually her Appa and Amma, it was a relative who let the cat out of the bag to the child. Not that it made any difference to any of them - they were beyond all these petty considerations! They brought her up while Ankichi focused on her career - this is common in the present day scenario - but remember this was two generations ago.

Meanwhile Manikutty and Parvathi had a daughter Indira and they were in Bombay when there was a swoop on Communists and both of them went underground, leaving 4 year old Indira with their friends. After a couple of months, the friends contacted Thatha and Paati and requested them to take custody of the little girl. Thatha had the common sense to take 10 year old Vasanta along so that the little girl would find her a good companion and not get nervous in the company of a stranger.Oh the stories of Indi-Vasanta would have me in splits as Paati narrated them. Truly the duo indulged in Tom n' Jerry antics. Similar to Manikutty-Ankichi childhood tiffs.

A few years later, yours truly was born - once again the family was overjoyed with the baby in the family. Three and a half years later my brother Ramesh was born - the first (and only) grandson. And another four years later, my sister Hema was born. Thatha - Paati would send us tins of snacks as well as ornaments / clothes for each of us for Diwali wherever we were - Delhi, Bangalore or Calcutta. We kids would also look forward to visiting them too – for chakka varatti, cashew nuts, 'maanderai' (mango jelly) - trust Paati to give us generous helpings! My brother was notoriously mischievous, so Thatha would meticulously put everything on a high mantelpiece beyond the toddler's reach. He was admittedly 'scared of him and his antics'! Talking about my little sister, I remember this incident - she was so enamored of the coral chain Paati was wearing (because of it's bright orange color possibly) that she wanted it for herself - then and there! The five-year old bawled and brought the house down - Paati was generous enough to gift it to her! 


Grandparents managed to find a great match for Vasanta when she had finished first year of M.Sc and the marriage was conducted on a grand scale. But Vasanta was to complete her post graduation before she joined her husband - Thatha-Paati had learnt life's lesson after Ankichi's fate and wanted every girl in the family to be well educated. 

During the last six months of Vasanta's course, my grandparents temporarily moved to a small rented house in Trivandrum to be with her who had some health issues at the hostel. I also tagged along. They would always provide the right atmosphere at home conducive to studies – needless to add that Vasanta was a gold medallist too! Years later it was the same in my case too - and I came out with flying colors in SSLC and Pre-degree examinations from Trichur. 

It was my grandparents who conducted on a grand scale, the 'poonal' (thread ceremony) of their only grandson, my brother Ramesh in 1967. As my parents were then in Andamans, all the arrangements were made by Thatha, Paati and Athai.

A TYPICAL DAY

Thatha and Paati were punctual to a T in their daily routine and neither of them compromised. Early morning Athai would make tall glasses of coffee for all the three of them; it was milk for me. After bath, Thatha alone would have porridge. There was the cook to prepare food. Both Athai and I would eat piping hot food at 8.30a.m. before rushing off.  Paati would sit next to us and mash rice in a vessel to make curd rice for my lunch box - this I would have at school with 'mezhukkuvaratti' / 'vadu manga'. I would hesitantly hint to Paati that my friends brought 'nendrapazham' / idlis for lunch. She'd just not hear of anything - according to her nothing like the cooling curd rice for the afternoon. I'd continue to request her to reduce the quantity till one day she became angry and told me to make my own curd rice. Oh wasn't I relieved and overjoyed momentarily! But I regretted it later – poor thing, did I hurt her and her concern? 

Whatever Thatha did, he did with utmost sincerity – be it a daily chore like brushing his two teeth or having a meal or a serious activity like reading scriptures. He would spend an hour and a half studying (not just reading) one of the epics in Sanskrit – say Ramayanam and take months to finish it. Then he would start with Mahabharatam / Shakuntalam / Meghasandesham. He had the motivation, energy, concentration and patience even at 80 plus to do a detailed study. He was a voracious reader; he was into the classics of English literature too.

Paati would have her lunch at 10, Thatha at 11. She would set everything on the dining table and he would serve himself as Paati would be enjoying her siesta. There were times when he would walk down slowly to the accompaniment of the 'tut tut' sound of his walking stick - from the dining table to Paati's couch, bend down and ask her, "Pappadam illayo? Innakku kaalanaakkum..." (Is there no pappadam? Today we are having 'kaalan' for lunch). He was particular that there should be pappadam on the day when ‘kaalan’ was in the menu. Paati would raise her head and say, "Oh I must have forgotten. It is ..." He would say, "Naan eduthukkaren" (I will help myself...). If I were at home, I would get to watch this cute scene! Thatha was in his eighties and Paati around 68 – often there would be banter on whether they "eat to live or live to eat"! Thatha would get his share of snacks powdered as he had only two front upper teeth for ages (which he would meticulously brush morning and night). 

Tiffin time was at 2 p.m. Since I would be back from school at 4, I wouldn't be able to enjoy hot dosas / idlis. I didn't mind that of course. But I wouldn't touch maida dosa / wheat flour dosa as it would be rubbery when cold. And 'upma' was a ‘no no’ for me! So on those days I'd get two whole 'nendrapazham chuuttadu' / Modern bread - I'd toast 4 slices, lavishly apply home-made butter with a sprinkle of salt and ...yummy..... Ah those were the days!

On Sundays Athai would make some special item like puri-masala / masala dosa etc. And I'd be asked to set aside a second helping for 5 p.m. Athai was a good cook – you should look at her awesomely twisted ‘kai murukku’! She was adept in engaging toddlers in interesting conversations. She was a Jill of all trades. She played the veena very well; she was endowed with a great voice and very well-versed in Carnatic music. She kept her interest alive and would spend time even in the midst of her busy schedule to listen to the AIR music program and learn some news keertanams. The whole family had a flair for Carnatic music (they hailed from a family of musicians) – I don’t think Paati could sing but all of them could even identify ragas and enjoyed ‘kucheri’s. When I started learning music when I was there, Athai would keep reminding me to sing in an open-throated voice and every time I’d sing I’d be self-conscious and even developed an inferiority complex. I couldn't and wouldn't match up to her any day; so I’d rather be contented with my own genre of music, I thought and stuck to film music. I took up the first excuse after a year to bid goodbye to Carnatic music lessons – I was in tenth standard and had to focus on studies! Talking about Athai’s versatility, she learnt to drive the car at fifty plus after having had a chauffeur for years. She was driving pretty well and with confidence when she had a minor accident and then it was goodbye to the steering wheel!

Dinner time was 8 p.m. - not a moment here or there. If Paati called him over at 7.58, he'd point to the clock and tell her that there were two minutes to go and get up only as the clock started chiming. His dinner was 'kanji' and a banana while Paati's was one tall glass of milk and two bananas. Only Athai and I would sit down to enjoy the relaxed meal of the day. Half an hour of sitting around and we'd retire to bed at 9. 

The threesome would spend the evenings in the front yard and indulge in small talk and analysis of current topics. One of his favorite nephews Pappa was a regular visitor. All the four had booming voices and each would seem to try to drown the others. Another reason for the loud volume was probably the fact that Thatha was a bit hard of hearing. I would feel that passersby must be pausing for a moment at the gate to convince themselves that it was not a fight but just an innocent discussion. If I had to focus on my studies I’d seek out the remotest corner and plug my ears with my fingers! At times I'd join them intermittently yet briefly. Whenever there was news about the demise of a relative / friend, one would comment, “Bhagyavaan! Poi cherndaan” (lucky fellow, he’s gone). I could never understand then why they called the fellow lucky – now I do! As we get old, we start thinking about ‘a peaceful death’! Paati was well-informed as she would read Malayalam paper in detail and even glance through the English daily. She would also offer her comments on the current political scene too! And her English was pretty decent too - considering the fact that she hadn't gone beyond Class V. I remember when I started studying Sanskrit for the first time; I was looking up Bhandarkar's book and learning. Guess what? Paati came and started reeling off - "gam-gach" - to go ... (see I can't even go beyond one now and there was my 65 plus Paati narrating the entire page - in sequence - mind you what she had learnt at 9!) What a memory! 

At times we'd have some relatives / friends joining them. Occasionally Thatha did boast about his well-placed children. But the old man can be pardoned for his rightful pride about his children.  It would be fun to listen to Thatha telling his few evening visitors about his children. He'd begin with, "My eldest son is an MP ..." and Paati would give me a naughty wink and smilingly murmur in an aside, "My daughter is the Principal  ... and my youngest son is the Chief Engineer in Andamans  ...” Due to Thatha’s weakened powers of hearing, he would miss Paati's naughtiness. But there were times when he would hear what was not meant to be heard and there would be a nice drama - a war of words! 

A MIXED BAG

It needs no saying that Thatha was an academician and also took personal interest in the children’s studies. He would spend an hour and a half every morning studying (not just reading) one of the epics in Sanskrit – Ramayanam and take months to finish it. Then he would start with Mahabharatam and then with Kalidasa.  Dickens, Shaw and Mark Twain were his favorites; also adventure stories as well as Shakespeare’s plays, Jane Austin’s romantic novels. A voracious reader himself, it was he who introduced me to the English classics. Beginning with R.L.Stevenson, he'd regularly gift me and my brother (my sister was too young then) with Dictionaries & Dickens. 

We would also have debates and discussions on Mr. Pickwick / Elizabeth / Emma. He'd also inquire about the books I had read during vacations after I had left Trichur. 

He was also the one who taught me the basics of tennis and cricket and both of us would enjoy listening to running commentaries of the matches on the radio. I also turned a big fan of Ramanathan Krishnan and Premjit Lal and Sunny and Vish.

Thatha was good at Mathematics and he was always there for me when I needed help. No good student would go for tuition in those days. I would try a problem for 10-15 minutes and then decide it was not worth spending more time on it - when I had a mathematical genius at hand - ever ready to help! The trickster that I was, I would hand him over the problem at night. He would promise to look into it the next morning. I’m sure he was not that gullible but perhaps he didn't mind being taken for a ride by his dear granddaughter; also he couldn't resist the call of his favorite subject. When I'd return from school the next day, Thatha would hand me the solution - most of the time. On rare occasions he would need a couple of days to solve! I couldn't trick my Athai with such impunity! I was scared of her; also she was busy - I would go on piling my doubts in Physics and venture to ask her one day before the examination. She'd explain a couple of concepts but would become impatient with me for waiting till the last minute. I'd dread getting teased / scolded by her and bury the remaining doubts!

Thatha was good in English too - a voracious reader, he'd gift us classics and encourage us to read them in our vacations. He'd give me valuable tips on composition work too. I appeared for Xth and XIIth board examinations when I was with them. I am sure they would have prayed for me. I would return home around 1.30 p.m. after my examination only to find Thatha sitting on his bed, gazing through the window at the gate for my arrival. The moment I'd enter, he'd look up at me and ask, "How was it?" and I'd go something like, "It was good but I'll lose half mark in Grammar." Why?" his impatience would reverberate in his voice. I'd reply, "I thought the question was about ..." Before I could even finish, he'd say, "Never say I thought so. Never say I didn't think so. Always think right. Okay?" Pearls of wisdom which I held onto and passed on to others! Overhearing a part of our conversation, Paati would pipe out, "Well, what happened?" As I'd try to explain to her, "Paati, I think I'll lose half mark ...”, she would blurt out, “Pass aavaya?" (Will you pass?). I'd look at her in disbelief  but the crinkle of laughter in her tone and eyes would reveal she was just teasing me! Need I say that I came out with flying colors? I won't and I shouldn't because that's what I have learnt from them - they would never praise / boast about a family member to others; they believed in listening to the praise showered by others!

There were so many little things which I admired about my grandparents. One thing that impressed me was the way Thatha put the salary of each of the employees in a neat envelope and handed it to each on the 1st of every month – a decent gesture which I’m sure thrilled the servants too. When I was with them, I was allowed one movie a month – preferably matinee show on Sunday with family friends. But the problem was some months would see no good movie releasing and some months would be crazy with a couple of hit movies hitting the theatres. When I complained to Thatha, he understood my point and he started pocket money of Rs.5 for me - for doing odd jobs for him - including keeping my study table clean. I had to use that for movies. I was happy too! See he was not rigid but was logical enough to see my point - an example of democracy at home.

My Paati had her set of rules too but she was such a darling that I’d jump them and let her keep cribbing helplessly. She would not want me to go out for a movie in the sun on Sunday – after an oil bath. She would insist that I take the umbrella with me – I’d not say no – I knew better than that. But I’d pretend to have conveniently forgotten! And pocket her scolding on my return! Tell me which teenager would like to be seen with a clumsy umbrella in the company of friends, that too at the movie theatre?

Paati was generosity personified. She considered the servants a part of the family and always gave them large helpings of food items – her claim was that they did a lot of physical work and would be hungrier than us! How many of us have this mentality? My grandparents had acres of agricultural land and had enjoyed everything in plenty – chakka (jackfruits), manga (mangoes), bananas, grains … I was and still am a big fan of jackfruit! Also I would be away from Thrissur in May- June on holiday with my parents. So I would try to enjoy as much jackfruit as I could and mind you, I was a greedy teenager. Paati in all her usual generosity would leave huge chunks for the servants and I would keep reminding her that I would eat the next day and the day after … and she would insist there was plenty ……

Thatha could be a kid when he had to tackle a kid – and he could go to any extent! I can't help laughing when I think of my fad for tooth powder. I used to eat - yes EAT spoonfuls of tooth powder a couple of times a day when no one was watching. First it was 'Nanjangode' and later 'Gopal' tooth powder. Thatha didn't suspect foul play when he had to include 4 packets of tooth powder in the grocery list every month. More than half of it would find its way to my stomach. He would never have known about it but for my brother Ramesh. He was visiting, both of us had a tiff and he spilled the beans to Thatha. He must have been flabbergasted but he took it coolly; he never raised his voice at me. He simply started taking the trouble of rationing out a teaspoon of tooth powder every morning and night, hiding the bottle of tooth powder in the strangest of places, changing the secret spot constantly - all within the four walls of his small bedroom! Undaunted, I would secretly try to fish it out. In fact it became a challenge for both of us - winning this tug-of-war! I think he never knew I had discovered the secret spot but chose to change it all the same - just in case, you see! I have to admit that I was defeated with respect to one particular spot – I just couldn't find it - it was three days and I was desperate without spoons of tooth powder which had become an addiction! It was again my brother – this time to my rescue - he strolled into Thatha's room imperceptibly as he was engaged in the process of taking out the tooth powder for the day and whispered into my waiting ears. I would never ever have imagined that he would hide the bottle inside the huge, wide-mouthed, unused flask sitting on top of his wooden cupboard! 

THE INSEPARABLE TRIO

Both my grandparents were in decent health but I think the later generations were more active at their age - my father used to drive at 75 while Thatha needed a walking stick to move around! Somehow he had always used the walking stick for his walk – even in his 60's – I don’t think he really needed it then: perhaps that was the in thing those days! Paati had arthritis and knee problem. But that didn't prevent her from managing the home with the cook and servants while Athai attended to her profession. Thatha and Paati were there for Athai through and through: I've been a big admirer of this inseparable trio! 

The least anyone would expect would be that they took charge of Vasanta, educated her and performed her marriage. But what is admirable is that they never left Athai at any point during their lifetime. They stayed with her contrary to the norms and never moved in with either of their sons which to an extent is considered the norm - even today. I told you they were rebels – for a good cause and much ahead of their times. They cared too hoots about what others would say! They would visit the sons of course for a month or two and were very fond of their families but their base was always with Ankichi. 

Soon after Athai retired at 55, they moved to Ernakulam. She was afflicted by rheumatoid arthritis and was in bad shape, needing assistance even for her daily routine. It was tough, to say the least but nothing was impossible for them. The threesome did try to manage for some time. That was when I got married. Unfortunately none of them could make it to Madras for the occasion - that was a great disappointment for all of us as I was really special to them; it was an irony that Athai who would attend every relative's wedding was unable to attend her favourite niece's (actually I was almost a daughter to her) wedding. Of course we visited them to take their blessings soon after the wedding; unfortunately there were no videos to show them, just black & white photos!

Within six months they chose to shift base to an independent house in Madras as Vasanta was there and Dharmu was based in not-so-far-off-Pondicherry. Thatha passed away a few months later. (My elder son was born the next year - his star was the same as Thatha's!) Meanwhile Athai's new house in Madras was ready, thanks to Vasanta's drive and the two old ladies moved in there. It was difficult to say who took care of who - perhaps each took care of the other and managed with the servants with Vasanta dropping by every day to see to their needs. This continued even when my parents settled in Madras. I was lucky that they were able to spend some time with my sons too whenever we visited Madras. Athai's condition was deteriorating and Paati’s knees were getting weaker with every passing day. You can't but applaud the sheer will power and determination of the aged mother- daughter duo to stick together through thick and thin, come what may! How many of us can boast of such super strength of character? Paati passed away in 1982 five months after my sister's  son was born. It was then that Athai who was in her late sixties moved in with Vasanta as there was no choice.

ATHAI’S LATER YEARS

Athai continued to uphold her sense of humour till her end. Rheumatoid arthritis took its toll on her mobility as well as her fingers. Whenever we’d visit her during our annual Madras visit, she’d have a punch line to keep us in splits. The most poignant self-comment which managed to bring smiles and tears in us was, “Don’t I look like Indira Gandhi now? It’s my new hairstyle.” She had to get her salt-n-pepper hair short so that she’d not need an assistant to braid it. Sometimes I’d wonder why life had to be so cruel to her - losing her husband in her twenties, then drowning herself in academics, finding solace and satisfaction in her profession and finally when it was time to stretch her legs and throw up her hands in a relaxed mode, arthritis striking a cruel blow immobilizing her and restricting her to the wheel chair. After fourteen years of physical suffering, she had more in store – she was bedridden and even with the best of care couldn't escape bedsores and snatches of poor memory during the last few months of her life. But those who know her well will only remember her laughter and good cheer, her sincere dedication, hard work, love, concern, her strictness and uprightness. When she passed away in 1988, I could not but wonder why God had to be so cruel to her – in her prime as well as old age. Agreed she had a satisfying professional career and a glorious sense of achievement but that was due to her untiring efforts and her parents’ support and guidance.

Even now when I think of my grandparents, I cannot but go down memory lane and relive those years of gay abandon / growing-up process as I basked in the warmth of their care and affection. Truly my head bows in reverence and love for those noble souls!

3 comments:

  1. A very nice & poignant piece .... it has in it a potpourri of emotions and sentiments ... i enjoyed it a lot.

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  2. Thanks Brinda. From your heart. I enjoyed it.
    Raja

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