Saturday, November 15, 2008

MY GRANDMOTHER

Like every child in each family we also had two grandmothers, Paati and Karamanai Ammai. Paati was our father’s mother. We never got to know her well, for she stayed alone in her own house, after her husband’s death. Paata passed away when their eldest son, my father, was only 22 years old. Even when Paati visited us, she never stayed for a whole day, always in a hurry to return to her place. When we visited her also she had no time for the kids. I came to know later on that she was like this with all her grandchildren, had no patience or time for them. She passed away soon after I got married.

Karamanai Ammai


My other grandmother was the one who helped my mother in bringing us up. Her name was Parvathi. She lived in Karamanai, a suburb of Trivandrum, on the banks of the river Karamanai. It was then a Brahmin settlement, comprising nearly ten streets, lined with row-houses, all double-storied, with common courtyards and separate backyards. We called her simply Karamanai Ammai. (Karamanai Mother).

Karamanai Ammai slept with us, woke up with us, laughed and cried with us, nursed and tended us in our sickness, told us stories, scolded us for our misconduct, praised us to the skies even for our small successes and good conduct. She endeared herself to us to such an extent we always wanted her to be with us, fought with each other to sleep by her side at night. She taught us what life was, to use discretion, to talk less and work more. She disciplined us to be self-sufficient, to run all our errands inside the house, and not depending on others to do things for us.

Her favourite proverb was, ‘Uthadu theyamal ullangal theyanam.’ Which means, ‘Instead of wearing out your mouth, use your feet’. This is engraved so deeply in my mind, even today as far as possible, I try to do things for myself. Her favourite curse for her grandchildren was , “Nasamattu poka”, which literally means “Be free of all that is bad and unwanted.”

It was she along with the midwife who helped us deliver our babies. It was her strict rule and order that during the labour, we should never make a groan or grunt which may be heard by the others waiting outside the room. We sisters instilled this rule in our daughters also at the time of their confinement, and if Karamanai Ammai was alive today, she would be proud of her great granddaughters. My sisters and I always went to our parents’ place to have our babies. In those days one did not go to the hospital to deliver babies. The midwife used to come home to check us periodically and help us with the childbirth. After that it was Karamanai Ammai, who took charge of the new mother and the baby for the next four weeks. She would herself prepare the lehiyam (special medicine) which was a must for the next 90 days.

When we were little girls along with her storytelling, she taught us a little about sex also. I remember one or two of those stories. A poor couple was cutting grass in the fields, when they heard an announcement that the Maharaja was coming that way. Immediately the woman undid the mundu (piece of cloth worn like a skirt) she was wearing around the waist, and covered her breasts with it. When asked why she did that, her answer was that what she was born with was nothing to cover, but what she had developed after growing up, should be hidden from other eyes.

Karamanai Ammai was born in the 1870s. She got married before she was eight years old, as was the custom in those days. What really intrigued me was that she started running her house for her husband when she was barely 11 years old, just a child and not a woman yet. My grandfather was a school teacher, and he was sent to a distant town (from Karamanai, part of Trivandrum) to teach. So Karamanai Ammai was sent with him to cook for him and generally take care of him. Nowadays one cannot even imagine such an idea. Even at the tender age, she was able to stop the landlady, a widow in whose house they lived, from pilfering her kitchen provisions. She used to insert a stick from the broom in the container in a particular way. If the container was tampered with, the stick would be out of place, which helped her to tackle the old lady.

Once they settled down in Karamanai, she became very friendly and popular with everyone in her neighbour hood. She was ever ready to help and advise everyone who approached her. She was listened to with respect and love, and was generally known as Parvathi Chithammai.
Though my grandfather’s pay as a school teacher was very low, she used to help people both in kind and cash. She even managed to save enough money to leave a substantial amount for her four children when she died in 1959.

My grandfather, Karamanai Appa, passed away when I was four years old. Still, I remember him - a pious, god-fearing man, loving and caring to his grandchildren, he always had a stock of crystallized sugar and dried grapes to give us whenever we visited him.

She had four children, three daughters and a son, and my mother was the eldest. Our uncle (mama) and his wife were childless. Though my aunt conceived many times, no child survived. In those times women who were childless were looked upon with disdain, and excluded from auspicious occasions. Karamanai Ammai was entirely different. She never let her daughter-in-law down. My mami was the one to lead in all auspicious occasions, whether it was a wedding in the family or kaapu, the seventh day ceremony, of the new born baby. There was so much affection and understanding between them.

My mother, seated centre, with mami on her left. The other ladies are my sisters, and the children my nephews and nieces.

A neighbour of Karamanai Ammai had two daughters of marriageable age, ten and eight. They had fixed the marriage of the older child. Karamanai Ammai suggested that they get the younger one married on the same muhurtham , to cut down expenses. She herself chose the girl’s mama (maternal uncle) as the bridegroom, and she allowed her friend to borrow her daughter-in-law’s wedding sarees, ornaments and a few silver pieces for the occasion. Our mami also raised no objection. Everyone in the locality applauded the generosity of my grandmother.

My grandmother was very shrewd, at the same time very diplomatic and solving her own and others’ family problems. I used to feel that given the chance and proper education, she would have been a good match for any of today’s well-educated, highly placed women in any capacity. The pity is that such women were born a hundred years before time, and lost their chance to become celebrities.

My father had great respect for her wisdom and shrewdness. He consulted her in many family maters, including his sisters’ marriages and settling them down. With her limited resources, she helped my parents also, helping them to settle down in Trivandrum.

Here is a story which shows how much my grandmother was respected by young and old. My mother, a native of Karamanai, never got over her love for a bath in the river. Living in the city, she just could not find the time to go to the river everyday. But once a week, mainly on Saturdays, after my father left to go to the court, she used to take me and my sisters to Karamanai to give us a good oil bath at the river. One day, after bathing in the river we went to our grandmother’s place for lunch. Suddenly while eating my mother remembered that she had folded a Rs.100 note in her saree pallu when she left home. And that it must have fallen in the water when she was undraping the saree to take a bath. When my grandmother heard this, she stopped eating at once, and went to the river bank, where there were a few late bathers and children playing. On enquiring, she found that a poor boy had found a Rs. 10 note floating in the water and had taken it home. It took some time to locate the boy. On being asked about the money, he did not admit at first to finding it. But the very sight of my grandmother made him come out with the truth. He had taken the money to the local (and only) grocer, got half a rupee’s worth of one day’s requirement (like rice and other condiments) for cooking, and had given the change to his mother. My grandmother heard him out, and took him along to the grocer, and challenged him. The grocer came out with the truth, and said that the boy had mistaken Rs. 100 note for a Rs. 10 note. He also admitted that he had already stocked his shop with groceries he had bought with the money. He requested my grandmother not to go to the police, and that by next morning he would come home and pay her the full amount. Such was the respect she commanded.

In those days Rs. 100 went a long way. One could buy enough groceries to last a year. Or six to ten silk sarees, or about 25 cotton sarees. And more than eight sovereigns of gold. (A sovereign is 8 gms of gold, and costs about Rs. 10, 000 today).

The pictures above were taken by my younger brother Moorthy, an avid and enthusiastic photographer.

Monday, October 13, 2008

MY GURU

Anantharama Iyer was his name. He entered into our lives - mine and my two older sisters as our tuition master, when we were 8, 10, 12 respectively. Our father came to know about our poor performance in the term exam of the school year. So this person became our tuition master.

He was formidable to look at. Dressed in a 'panchakacham veshti' and an 'angavastram' to cover his bare torso, he had a 'kudumi' (the way the purohits of today have their hair styled and most Brahmins of those bygone days). He had three fingers of 'vibhoothi' (sacred ash) pattern on his forehead, with a sandal paste 'pottu' in the centre - and always a two days growth of beard on his face. He was tall and hefty, with broad shoulders and a broader waist. Just looking at him gave us the shivers.

He was a teacher in the Model School for Boys, teaching Mathematics and Sanskrit. He was good in these two subjects. He soon found out that though we had nothing to do with Sanskrit, that we had no interest in Maths also. He changed all that very soon.

Every evening by the time we came back from school, we found him waiting for us. There would not be enough time for us to change our clothes, or take our coffee and tiffin. Coming home before us, we found out in due course that he would have had his share of coffee and tiffin at our place, for he came here straight from school to teach us. By the time we three sat in front of him with our home work, almost everyday he would start napping, snoring loudly. This noise used to wake him up with a start. Then he would remember where he was and what he was supposed to do. So by turn, he would look into our notebooks, find the mistakes we had made, explain the problem, and make us do the work again, while he went back to sleep. If ever he found out that we were making the same mistake again, well, our thighs would be turning red and blue in colour, because of his hard pinching. It was terrible.

Once our tuition time was over it gave us utmost pain and at the same time pleasure in comparing the marks on our thighs and finding out whose was worse. We never had the guts to complain about this to our parents, for we knew that we wouldn’t get any open sympathy from our mother.

This master of ours had endeared himself to our parents by conversing with them about their favourite topics. My mother’s weakness for pooja, her commitment to certain ideas and beliefs prompted him to suggest to her to conduct 'Bhagavathi Sevai' every month. He added that if this pooja was conducted every month on my father’s star, it would benefit him professionally and personally. My mother who always had my father’s welfare at heart agreed to this. So from that month onwards the 'Bhagavathi Sevai' was conducted for the next so many years with the tuition master turned into the vadhyar (priest) to conduct the pooja. And my mother had the satisfied feeling that the Devi’s blessings were showered on us.

I had nothing against this, but being the youngest , he roped me in to help me with drawing of the design for the base of the padmam, with different coloured powders all made at home, and very organic. It was a very intricate pattern. So every month for many years to follow, I was the one to assist him in this. And he in turn would bless me with a prosperous life with a good husband.

With my father, this master of mine had another trump. Knowing that my father was suffering from back pain, he suggested ‘sooriya namaskaram’. He became my father’s physical instructor and initiated him into it. By 6 am everyday he would be at our place for that purpose, and see that my father did the 'sooriya namaskaram' properly. Well, this did help my father to get rid of his back pain, and at the same time helped the tuition master to get into my father’s good books.

With all his family commitments, he did not ignore his daily tasks as a tuition master. He made us learn the multiplication tables up to 16 by heart. He made us do sums mentally and give him the answer swiftly. So this helped us a lot. He had a way in handling all subjects. I some of the lessons he taught me which made life easier for me in school. When my turn came to help my children with the home work, I automatically followed his method, minus the pinching – not fully minus, a little tap here and a minute pinch there, helped both the teacher and the student.

My tuition master was a great Ayyappan devotee. I imbibed this kind of Ayyappan devotion from him. He used to go to Sabarimala every year for more than 25 years, walking all the way from his home in Trivandrum, all the way to Sabarimalai, a long, long way. And walked back, after offering prayers. It used to take more than a month for this. And the forests were infested with wild elephants and tigers. Every year after his return form Sabari malai he had so many thrilling and frightening stories to tell us. All this only increased my devotion to Swami Ayyappan.

The last time I saw the Master was about 40 years ago. Yet I remember him very well. And today I write this with tears in my eyes and pranams in my mind. He was a great man in his own way. Long live his ilk.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

NAVARATHRI . . . .

ALSO KNOWN AS BOMMAI KOLU. . . .

Maiji's Kolu in 1978

. . . .is enjoyed by women and girls all over South India. Now is the time of the year to celebrate the bommai kolu (dolls arrangement). I went to see the bommais (dolls) on sale near Sri Kapali Temple, and was happy to see so many of them.


Click on the picture for an enlarged view

My first recollection of this nine-day festival is that a kolu would appear overnight in our pooja room like magic. Arranged on nine steps covered with a white cloth, the images of all the gods and goddesses, along with the family’s collection of curios, arranged artistically under a canopy of white cloth, edged with red and green frilled border, and decorated with rainbow coloured paper garlands, it would seem to us children like a magic show.

In a single night after we children were sent to bed, my mother with the help of my elder brother and sisters would have the show ready. For the rest of the 355 days these dolls and everything else were stored in my mother’s tallboys in my mother’s store room. During Navarathri in the evenings, my sister and I, dressed in our best pavadai uduppu (long skirt and blouse) were sent to neigbouring houses to invite the womenfolk there to visit our kolu and accept manjal kumkumam (auspicious objects). In the homes where they had also arranged kolu, we would be welcomed, seated on a pattupai,(silken mat) asked to sing a song, and finally treated to the sundal and any sweet prepared as neivedhiyam (sacred offering to the gods), along with vetrilai pakku (betel leaves and nuts), coconuts, and blouse pieces as gifts. We used to feel like VIP s, when we returned home with our loot. All the while my mother too would be doing the same to visitors at our homes who would have come to invite us. Those ten days were really fun for me and I enjoyed them thoroughly.

When I got married and set up my own home in Delhi, I was astonished to find that kolu was non-existent in the north. Very few families belonging to the south, about four or five had kolu. When my eldest daughter was one year old, I started the kolu with a handful of bommais, typical Delhi made ones – I thus introduced the festival of kolu to my neighbours. These dolls were sold in readiness for Diwali festival pooja, performed to welcome prosperity.

My first kolu was a very small one with just two steps, two feet long and one foot wide. I enjoyed this, and my husband also encouraged me no end. From that kolu, in a period of twenty years, my kolu grew in size and shape, decorated with all the frills my mother had, and also admired by one and all. I am not boasting, but my kolus were well appreciated, and I enjoyed readying them.

Come September, I would start planning for kolu. Apart from the seven steps, I enjoyed having some side shows on the floor, all prepared and made at home with the help of my children. One year it would be a small town with a temple with four towers in the centre, small shops selling things one sees in the towns, around the temple walls; small lanes with bullock carts. Sometimes it would be a hill temple with fields around, and the rich crop nodding their heads, (the crops were grown using fenugreek seeds) and a park with children playing.

One year in Pondicherry I made a model of the whole length of Rajpath of New Delhi, from the Secretariat to Indian Gate, with the lawns, the fountains, and all the buildings including the Parliament House. Everything was hand made with cardboard. Another year it was the seafront of Pondicherry with the sea and the waves, and the buildings on the seashore. Another year I made the map of India, marked the main cities with important buildings, and people dressed in the costumes of the regions.

After coming back to Delhi, I created theme-based sideshows like the Fairy Tales and Nursery Rhymes.

A week before kolu started I would be ready with my plans and start to prepare the hills, the fields and parks with loose earth carried in from outside by the bucketful. The mud was moulded by hand into various objects like walls, shops, huts, with windows and doors. Ice cream cups painted red were used as pots for plants and shrubs. My father-in-law took pleasure in teasing me that the whole room was now a dump. At the same time he would be the first to admire all the handiwork I had done. And gradually we had collected a large number of bommais, all big and small from Trichy, Chingleput and Pondicherry, including the famous Bunrutti bommais.

Yesterday at the shops I found that everything I made then was available readymade – including plots of grass!

My centerpiece was a Lakshmi, about a foot tall, sitting on a lotus flower, six inches high and size of a dinner plate. Two elephants, big, white ones stood on either side of the Goddess with a garland each held in its trunk.

My last kolu was in 1978 in Delhi. Somehow with elders no more, and the older children leaving home, and us moving to a smaller house dampened my enthusiasm. My only regret now is I never thought of taking any photos of the kolu in Pondicherry – they were worth it. My consolation is that my last Kolu in 1979 was photographed and published in the Indian Express newspaper of New Delhi. The kolu had fewer dolls that year, only those that had escaped an attack by white ants, caused by a leaking pipe in the storeroom. I managed to salvage many by repainting and touching them up.

At the kolu in Trichy, with newly bought bommais, I had also made a park with a pond in which fish and swans were swimming and a stork waiting on the edge, as though ready to catch a fish. My first guest was the Collector’s wife. We were meeting for the first time, and both were nervous to start the conversation. Finally she asked me “Do you have a cook?” The question was put in Tamil with only the word cook in English. Before I could say No. my four year old, Viji, came out saying, “Yes, we have one, standing on one leg!” and pointed to the stork. Poor girl – she thought our visitor was asking for a stork. In Tamil the word for stork is ‘kokku’ which sounds like ‘cook’. Anyway that broke the ice and conversation flowed easily.

Now all my dolls are decorating the kolus of my friends and relatives, to whom I gave them away. Only two dolls, a Lakshmi and a Saraswathi, more than 50 years old, remain at Raji’s place – a reminder of the days gone by.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

THE ROCKING HORSE AND OTHER TOYS

In today’s children’s world the only toy - is it a toy? – I don’t see is the rocking horse. There are different types of toys for the kids to play with starting with the rattles, and as the child grows up, the toys also change. There are so many of them -, which makes me happy for the lucky children of today.

Raja on his rocking horse

When we were children I don’t remember having any toys to play with. All we had were a few marappachis,(see picture) wooden dolls, and some wooden chattippanai (pots and pans). We, that is, my sisters and friends were happy with these toys. The chattippanai would be divided into equal parts amongst everyone. We would select a niche in the garden to set up house, cook and keep house. The boys used to join us as men folk who go to office, and the younger ones would act as babies. Gradually this kind of playacting came to an end when girls also started going to school.

There were also the other sorts of games, like playing Kattam which was like the Ludo of today. The squares were drawn on the floor with a charcoal piece, or a chalk if available, and for coins, small shells were used. Another game we used to play with our mother and grandmother was the pallankuzhi, a wooden block of 10” and 6” with six shallow pits on the long side and one on the short side with two bigger shallow pits in the centre.
Pallankuzhi with chozhi


This game was played with shells or manjadi distributing 6 to each pit, and changing them from pit to pit. The game had its own rules of picking up the manjadi and dropping it one by one on the pits. The manjadi is a seed red in colour, and shaped like a miniature flying saucer, a very minute one. Today one can find the manjadi, along with kunthumani,(see picture) another seed, red and black, only in a goldsmith’s shop, where it is used to weigh the gold for the last possible minimum weight.

Some years back, Raja took me to Penang for a holiday. We stayed in a hotel by the seaside. It was a beautiful holiday centre and we had a lovely time. While we were having lunch one day, one of the waiters seeing that we are from India, and spoke Tamil, asked me to explain something for him. He took me to the showcase in the lounge, pointed out the pallankuzhi exhibited there and requested me to explain what it was. When he heard my explanation, he was wonderstruck to learn that it was a plaything like a board game.

The boys had their own games like playing marbles. I doubt if today’s children, know what marbles are like. They don’t know the pleasure of confiscating the opponent’s marbles, or the pain when the opponent hits the knuckles with the marble that comes flying from his taut fingers held like an arrow. Another game the boys used to enjoy was the gulli danda - hitting a small wooden object with a bigger wooden stick and finding out who could hit the gulli the farthest.

Gradually all these toys were back benched when board games started appearing in the children’s world. Then came the tricycle, small motor cars and the rocking horse. The rocking horse had a very short life compared to the others. Every child enjoyed rocking on the horse. It was a great toy in the 50s and continued to be popular till the 70s.After that I haven’t seen any.

My own children and the older grandchildren had owned and loved rocking on this wonderful toy. The rocking horse kept the child out of mischief when the mother was busy, and it was so light that it could be carried from room to room or wherever the children wanted. My daughter tells me that her son in London had been looking for a rocking horse in London. They could find it only in one shop, where it was priced at 100 pounds, whereas the one we got for Raja while in Pondicherry cost only Rs. 12 in 1958. It was only Rs. 7 in the late 40s when Raji and Bala were gifted one from an uncle.
Bala and Raji

I have been to the USA frequently from 1975 onwards, but I have never seen a rocking horse with any child, or in any shop and I used to wonder why! Now I wonder if the reason could be this. There was a Hollywood film released in the fifties , based on a short story by D. H. Lawrence, called ‘The Rocking Horse Winner’. I do not remember the story in detail, but the gist of the story was that the boy while rocking on his horse had the gift of forecasting the winning horse in each race at a certain racecourse. The news spread all over the place like forest fire, and the people who were fond of betting and looking forward to making money thronged to his place to listen to his forecast. And they were also willing to pay a lot of money to his parents for this favour. Though I don’t remember how the picture ended, it was said that the young boy who acted in the picture got addicted to rocking on his horse without sleep or food. This went on till he dropped dead one day.

Another toy I remember in those days was the Hula Hoop It was a circular plastic ring with a diameter of 36”. All one had to do was slip the hoop over one’s head, and bring it to one’s hip and keep it there by gyrating one’s hips. I knew children including my own who used to do it for hours at a time, while walking, climbing up and down steps. Our friend’s daughter Latha was a marvel with this hoop. She could keep it circling on her while moving and twisting it all the time.

When television came, they got used to playing TV games, and watching children’s programmes. Television being a novelty, it became the centre of attraction for the child.

Any toy can last only for a certain amount of time, for children get fed up very soon, and look for new ones. Toys play a very great part in increasing children’s mental power to grasp and understand things.

Pictures of kunthumani(courtesy Devendra Pore ), marappachi, manjadi and pallanguzhi sourced from the internet

Sunday, August 24, 2008

BACK TO PONDICHERRY

Babuji with Chief Commissioner L. R. S. Singh


This was how we came to Pondicherry, and a different kind of life.

When we arrived in the city the French culture was very much in evidence. It was soon after the de facto period. The de jure period was five years later, by which time Pondicherry came fully under the Indian Government. The transition was very slow, but steady, bringing the Indian influence by introducing Indian art and culture and tradition, and finally the election to the newly created Pondicherry Legislative assembly. And the politicians taking the reins in their hands. The first elected members were French oriented and gladly welcomed by the public. M. Goubert was elected the Chief Minister.
Babuji with M. Goubert (wearing cap) at a meeting.

He was a very favourite person, and was very friendly and understanding. Till the election the government was run by the Chief Commissioner, and the heads of the three departments – General Administration, Development and Finance. And once the politicians took over the government, the Chief Commissioner was chief only in name.

We were there during this transition period and were able to enjoy many music and dance performances. Concerts by great musicians like Madurai Mani Iyer, Alathur Brothers, Ariyakkudi Ramanujam Iyengar, Madurai Somasundaram and flute maestro T. R. Mahalingam, and dancers like Lalitha, Padmini, Ragini and Kamala Lakshman were too great for words. Above all we were lucky to watch the abhinayam of the great doyen of Bharata Natyam, Bala Saraswathi sitting on the stage. It was great and unbelievable that one can bring to life the pranks of Sri Krishna by just movements of the hands, eyes and facial expressions. It was an unforgettable experience.
With Babuji in the audience at a dance perfomance. Viji (in frock) is in front.

Recently a few months back, my son took me to a Bharata natyam performance by this great artiste’s grandson Aniruddh, at the India International Centre. I t was a very good show, which we enjoyed very much. I was also able to catch glimpses of the great Bala in the grandson. Maybe I am the only person in the family who has witnessed both the grandmother and the grandson on stage.

The music concerts were held on very informal platforms, with both the musicians and the audience, sitting on the floor on a school verandah, or a big classroom. It was more like the chamber music of today, with no mike or loudspeakers, and the audience numbering only forty or fifty in a very friendly atmosphere. I remember a couple of incidents.

Once Mali was playing an alapana in the raagam Thodi, in a very detailed manner. Suddenly a procession led by a nagaswaram playing very much out of tune passed by on the road. Mali stopped what he was playing, and started accompanying the off-key notes of the nagaswaram until the procession moved out of hearing. He then coolly continued with the Thodi raagam.

Another time, a member of our group had to attend a function in Annamalai University, Chidambaram, when there was a concert by the Alathur Brothers in Pondicherry. The senior brother noticed the absence of Mr. S. in our midst and asked about him. He was told he had gone to Chidambaram on work. While the concert was going on, Mr. S. came in and took his seat with us. Seeing him, the musicians’ next song was ‘Chidambaram Pogamal iruppeno?’
We all enjoyed this song as well as the humour that went along with it.


Mr. and Mrs. Datta

In the de facto - de jure period, Pondicherry had seen three Chief Commissioners. After Mr. Kripalani came Mr. L. R. S. Singh, another ICS officer, who was little less stuffy. His beautiful daughter, whenever she was in town, was very friendly with us. A few years later we attended her wedding in New Delhi. After L. R. S. Singh came Mr. Datta, who was really down to earth, and very friendly and sociable, and easy to move with. Mrs. Datta was a very fine person, and we had some good times together.

Once the election was over and the politicians took over the government of the state, Babuji started feeling that he would be called back to Delhi any day. He did not want Raji’s and Bala’s studies to be interrupted. So it was decided to send Raji to Trivandrum to my parents’ place to do her P. U. C., and Bala to stay with his uncles in Delhi for his high school studies. Though we were prepared to leave Pondicherry any time, it took nearly 18 to 20 months to get the signal from Delhi.

In the meantime there was an addition to the family, a most welcome one, our own bundle of happiness, our little baby Gowri. A very lucky one with not only her parents to shower love and affection on her, but also loving brothers and sisters, who simply adored her.

Our plan was to go to Trivandrum to my parents’ place to spend the four months leave period that was due to Pondicherry, and then proceed to Delhi. Babuji was to join duty at Delhi in February. So we left Pondicherry by road via Mysore, Bangalore and Ooty for a little sightseeing for four or five days, and proceeded to Trichur. In Trichur we had a surprise. A telegram to Babuji from the Home Ministry asking him to join duty in a fortnight.

So the Chinese aggression of 1962 was having an impact on our lives too. Babuji before his sojourn to the South was working in the Home Ministry, dealing with foreigners and internment camps. So when the Chinese attack came, he was ordered to come back at the earliest, as he was needed in the Home Ministry.

After settling us down in Trivandrum, Babuji left for Delhi, and stayed with Bala separately for about six to eight weeks. We joined them once Babuji was allotted a quarters in West Kidwai Nagar. There we continued to live for about 16 to 17 years, till Babuji retired.

The quarters at West Kidwai Nagar was single storied at that time. The upstairs flats were built a year or two later.

Our stay in Pondicherry was the best part of our lives. We were exposed to different types of people, language, tradition and customs – different lifestyles, to put it shortly. And we became richer by this exposure. Our horizon, wider, our outlook brighter and our level of tolerance and powers of appreciation of various facts of lifestyle on the increase. I feel that the Pondicherry life opened up new vistas in the children’s minds also.

All said and done, this was the golden period of our life. - Babuji's 'ezharai sani' period.

Minister Venkatasubba Reddiar bidding us farewell.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

BABUJI'S EZHARAI SANI – Part III

LIFE IN MADRAS 1956 to 1957

Viji, Raji and Bala, enjoying ice cream at the Egmore
station while waiting to receive visitors


Our next destination was Madras, today’s Chennai. After staying with a bachelor friend of Babuji, (S. Venkitaramanan, whom the children called Ramanan Mama) for four to six weeks, we moved into a brand new house in Sri Ram Nagar, off Mowbray’s Road, today’s TTK Saalai.

In those days in Delhi, it was a regular practice among friends to share one’s residence with those in need. We as a newly married couple stayed with friends for four to six weeks before we moved into our own government allotted quarters. And we in turn had shared our home with bachelors and newly married couples, and even couples with one or two children. We all lived as one family, sharing all household work and expenses. So I had no objection or awkwardness in staying with this friend. I felt sorry for him actually, for we were a family of eight members, three generations, plus one cook. He left the whole house at our disposal, but for one room upstairs, for his own use.

Madras in those days, that is, in the 1950s was a very laid back city, very quiet and peaceful. The roads were deserted most of the time. There were not even one-hundredths of the cars that fill the roads today. Even Mount Road, that is Anna Saalai of today, was peaceful to drive through. Motorcycles, scooters and auto rickshaws were unheard of. Babuji and I used to enjoy our drive from Gemini Circle (where today’s Anna flyover is) to the Beach Road, through Edward Elliotts Road, that is today’s Radhakrishna Saalai, a long stretch, without any hassle. Marina beach was very different from what it is today. It was a long stretch of sand up to the waves with no barricades or car parks or any man -made structures to ruin its natural beauty. There were a few sellers of eatables scattered over the place, and we really relaxed going there.

Another landmark which is no more is the Moore Market, the mother of all shopping malls of today, which was next to the Central Station. I remember my father getting me a celluloid doll when I was eight years old, and toys for my two younger brothers, when he went to Madras for a meeting, and visited Moore Market. My mother confiscated all these to display them only for the Navarathri kolu. I never played with that doll, and this is possibly the reason that whatever toys I got for my children were given to them to play with.

There were very few shops in our locality. Mowbrays Road was dotted with single bungalows in the middle of large compounds. The house we moved into was also single-storied with a big compound both at the front and at the back. The house belonged to well-known film star Ranjan. His brother Balu was the one who helped us to settle down in this house. Balu and Sujatha, a nice couple, were the only friends we made during these six months.

The few shops in our locality closed by 8 pm. One evening I found I had run out of salt. And to buy that packet of salt Babuji drove me all the way to Pondy Bazaar. Here too, we found only a single provision shop open, where we found our salt. What a difference to today’s life.

You won’t believe me if I told you that government offices in those days started working only at 11 am and ended by 4 pm. So office goers were able to eat their lunch leisurely and then leave for work.

Babuji was very much involved in the general election held that year. He was the returning officer in Kanchipuram. It was a very proud moment for him when he announced the victory of Mr. Annadurai. On the day of the election, after the voting was over, each ballot box was sealed and locked and kept in a room which was locked and sealed in the presence of all party members, to be opened only on the counting day, again in the presence of these members. Suddenly it was noticed that the fan in the room was still on. Someone had forgotten to switch it off. Babuji was in a quandary – an old fan going on for 24 hours for nearly a week could cause a short circuit because of coil-burning. Reopening the room was out of the question. Babuji hit upon the idea of switching off the main in the building, even though it meant that the other parts of the building had to do without electricity.

Even if it was only for six months, Bala joined St. Bede’s. He was not yet nine years old, but he used to travel by public bus; the roads were so safe. Viji was put in a nearby school within walking distance. But no school was willing to admit Raji in Class 7 just for 6 months. All said and done, both Raji and Bala lost one year of their studies – but no regrets.

A few words about Annaji and Ammaji, Babuji’s parents. Annaji was 63 years old and Ammaji was 56 years old. They were then considered as ‘old people’. They both took all the changes that happened in these two years in their stride without any complaint. Not only that, they were a great help in taking care of the children also. Ammaji took upon herself to bring up Raja from the very early days, and Raja also wanted only Ammaji for most things. And the bond between them was really strange. Every Friday Annaji and Ammaji attended the prayer meetings which were held in the Gandhi Mandapam without fail. Some days Rajaji used to attend the meetings, and on certain days M. S. Subbulakshmi used to sing bhajans. And they enjoyed this outing very much.

Another advantage of being in Madras was we came in contact with many of Babuji’s relatives from both sides. The main attraction for Babuji in Madras were Kuttiyappa and Kuttiammai, his aunt and uncle, who lived in Royapuram, and with whom he had spent part of his growing years.

We both welcomed visiting relatives with open arms. Ours was an open house, and there was food ready for anyone who needed it any time of the day – much appreciated by all.

When Babuji’s tenure in the south was to come to an end in June 1957, he applied to the centre for a posting in the south for a few more years, in consideration to his aged parents. The Centre obliged to this by sending Babuji to Pondicherry on deputation.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

THE SEMMANGUDI WE KNEW


Everyone knows great people. Those great people don’t know all who know them. But there are a few of these great persons who remember everyone who is introduced to them and make it a point to remember their names and other details.

Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, whose centenary falls this week, was one such person. Everyone interested in Carnatic music knows him well, his reputation as a great singer and a lifetime devoted to music and music alone.

My father and Bhagavathar were well known to each other ever since Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer became the asthaana vidwan of Travancore state, and the Principal of Swathi Thirunal Music Academy. Our home in Trivandrum was next to the Academy. In fact, this Music Academy was being conducted in the house which my father bought in 1941. Since then the Academy shifted to the present building.


Babuji was introduced to the Bhagavathar by my father during our wedding. Babuji, a great fan of the Bhagavathar, was really thrilled by this. Babuji use to walk six to eight miles to and fro to listen to the kutcheris of great musicians in his younger days. Babuji was influenced by two friends who were truly interested in music, and it was with these friends that he used to go for these concerts. In those days, most of these concerts were held at functions like weddings. The name of the Bhagavathar was the criterion by which the grandness of the wedding was assessed. Musicians like Semangudi, Madurai Mani Iyer and G. N. Balasubramaniam were the favourite ones.

In 1948, Babuji was coming to Madras from Delhi by the Grand Trunk Express. In Nagpur station, at the middle of the night, a few people entered the compartment Babuji was in. Once they settled down Babuji recognized them as Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer and his accompanying artistes. When Babuji introduced himself after saluting the Bhagavathar, the Bhagavathar said, “Oh yes, I remember you. You are Judge saar’s kadaikutty Mapillai (youngest son-in-law). And till the train reached Madras, Babuji was treated like Bhagavathar’s own son-in-law; not being allowed to spend any money on food, but sharing with him all that they had brought. Babuji was really touched by this gesture.

Whenever Bhagavathar came to Delhi, we never missed any of his concerts. And we used to meet him backstage, where he treated us as one of his family. It was at on e of these meetings the Bhagavathar told us that he had met my father only the previous week in Trivandrum, and as usual when they met, my father was profusely apologetic for not wearing his ‘poonal’. My father never believed in God, leave alone all the rituals that followed. But his greatness was he allowed my mother to have her own way in all the religious rites and rituals and took part in them whenever he was called upon to do so. The poonal would adorn his person at such times. And also on amavasai day to perform the ‘tharpanam’ and on those days he had to do the ‘sraddham’ for his ancestors.

After retirement, one of my father’s daily routines was to walk up to the gate at about 4 pm – the time the Music Academy closed for the day, to meet the Bhagavathar and exchange titbits of gossip. The Bhagavathar used to tease my father, who was 20 years his senior (my father’s 120th anniversary fell on July 16) by saying “Hey Brahmin, why don’t you wear your ‘poonal’?” At home, my father was always bare-chested, as was the custom in those days. On days he remembered, my father would call my younger brother to bring the poonal to the gate saying, “Here comes the Bhagavathar, and if he sees me without it, he will take my life out.”

Bhagavathar had great respect for my father’s judgement in music. People used to come to my father with youngsters good at singing and playing instruments, with requests to get in a word of recommendation to the Bhagavathar. My father always used to help them, and one or two of these, recommended by my father and accepted by the Bhagavathar became world famous artistes in their later life.

The only thing that my father objected to was the Bhagavathar’s habit of claiming one rupee for each autograph he signed. He was collecting for some charitable purpose or committee, I don’t remember which. When my daughter Raji got that autograph after paying that rupee, she had a tough time facing my father and giving an explanation.
Click on picture to enlarge

The last time we met the Bhagavathar was at Malai Mandir in New Delhi in early 1980. when he saw me he asked me about my welfare, and surprised me by saying, “Come on, child, tell me, Do you recognize me, you know my name?” as if I was a child of six or seven, whereas at that time I was above 50. He was really happy when I did namaskaram to him. He spoke to me about my father, his ideas and ideals. I was really touched by his affection, not only for my father, but also for his children.

Semmangudi photograph: Courtesy Internet

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

BABUJI'S EZHARAI SANI – Part II



We were in Chingleput for only six months - June to November 1956. Here Babuji’s designation was RDO (Regional Development Officer). This was a very coveted and much envied posting. Babuji was very busy and mostly on tour here. He had Kanchipuram, Thirukazhukunram, Mahabalipuram and Madurantakam under his jurisdiction. He was away from home almost three or four days every week. He also had to act as District Magistrate. He enjoyed his work so much, when the six months were over, we felt we had been there for only six weeks.

The bungalow we lived in was away from the town, and on a small hillock, surrounded by hills on three sides. It was very peaceful and quiet. Like all bungalows built by the British in the colonial days, this too was very big with five or six rooms in a row – huge and airy rooms, and with very high ceilings, and tall doors, the top halves of which were shuttered, and the bolts were almost four feet long. The verandah in the front was very big and wide, and extended from one end of the house to the other, and leading to every room. The kitchen, storeroom and work areas were at the back.

The teagarden bungalows of West Bengal, (which I was to see later whenever I visited my daughter near Siliguri) and the Traveller's Bungalow in the districts were all built in this style.

In this bungalow there was only drawback – there was no loo in the bathroom. It was away from the main house, but not open or exposed to weather – or pigs. Babuji wanted to rectify this defect before we left the place. He managed to get the Central Government permission to have the bathrooms provided with this facility too, so that future occupants could have this convenience. There was no running water either. A water tank used to come and fill the storage tanks with water daily. This was more than enough for our needs. And there was a retinue of servants to take care of all the carrying and distribution of water.

Babuji’s sense of humour made him very popular here, too. Once in court in his role as a magistrate, he was listening to the argument of the petitioner’s lawyer. He claimed that the guilty party had raided his client’s orchard. His statement was that the defendant had stolen tamarind, coconuts and mangoes. ‘Puli kili adicchu, manga thenga thirudi’ was how he put it. Babuji in response said, “I understand ‘puli adikkarathu and manga thengai adikkarathu’ but how can he adikki a kili?” This generated laughter in the courtroom with the advocates’ remark “Your Honour is very humorous.”

Another event I remember. Babuji had this habit of playing with his glass paperweight while listening to the proceedings in court. Once the paperweight slipped form his hand and fell on his foot. The advocates showed much concern, and one of them asked, “Is your Honour hurt?” Prompt came the reply from Babuji, “My foot”.

It was during this time, the Chinese Prime minister Chou En Lai visited India. One could hear the slogan “Hindi-Cheeni bhai bhai” all over India. The Chinese Premier’s itinerary included a visit to Mahabalipuram also. Babuji was asked to make the necessary arrangements for the visit and also to treat the Chinese Premier to some tender coconut water. That put Babuji in a dilemma – how to offer the tender coconut water to the VIP. Pour in a glass ? No that would take away the natural charm and ruin the taste. One can’t just ask the head of another country, a VIP guest, just to tilt back his head and pour the contents down his throat. Even if so, his face and upper garments would also get a taste of the ‘ilaneer’. This was not possible. All of a sudden Babuji hit upon the idea of inserting a straw into the coconut. This was well applauded and commented upon, for this was a new idea then. The Chinese Premier’s visit went off well and Babuji was really happy.

In those days, Mahabalipuram could be reached only through Chingleput and Thirukazhukunram from Madras. It was really a beautiful place, with no crowds, and not at all commercialized. Not many people around, so peaceful and untouched by what one calls civilisation. We were able to spend very quiet and peaceful evenings, sitting on the beach and watching the ever moving sea. Tourist attractions had not started yet, but for VIPs. Two years ago, when the whole family was there for a night’s stay for a get-together, I could see the difference – five star hotels, swimming pools and lots and lots of shops. I felt the beauty of this place was really mutilated.
In the picture, Babuji with the baby, Raja, and below, Bala, the gatekeeper

In Thirukazhukundram, at the temple on top of a hill, two eagles made regular flights to this temple to partake of the morsel of rice that was given by the priest of the temple. They flew down from the north and after eating the rice used to fly south. The legend is that that these two eagles were cursed souls, who had to visit Kasi and Rameswaram every day for 10,000 years to be redeemed from their curse and resume their original form. From Rameswaram they would fly to Kasi for the morning pooja, after a bath in the Ganges and flew to Rameswaram for the evening pooja. They were treated to their food at Thirukazhukundram everyday, and they would regularly turn up at the same time. We have watched the birds on several occasions. Now I hear the birds are no longer seen for the last ten years. Maybe the period of the curse came to an end by the 20th century.

Kanchipuram was a very small township then, mostly occupied by temples and their priests, the weaver of silk saris, and nothing much more. We were able to pray in the temples in peace, because there were no crowds. Once on a tour to Kanchipuram, Babuji was introduced to the musician M. D. Ramanathan. They were standing by the roadside, when Babuji expressed his desire to listen to MD’s singing. Without a second thought the musician sat upon the verandah of a nearby house and sang two songs. Babuji never forgot the spontaneity of the young singer, who later became very famous.

It was while we were here that Babuji came to know Miss George. Anna Rajam George was the first woman IAS officer. She was a very strict officer who followed the rules to the very last letter. Officially Babuji had trouble with her - whatever Babuji wanted to be done, she would object to by pointing to the rules and regulations. Babuji had to meet her in the Saidapet office at least once a month and he used to dread these visits. But believe it or not, back in Delhi Babuji and Miss George became the best of friends – she also became a part of the family, for we both got along very well, too.

Maiji and Miss George at Viji's wedding in 1974, New Delhi
In 1975, she married R.N. Malhotra, her long time friend from their training days, then moved out of our orbit. I met her only once after Babuji passed away, when I was staying with Viji in Bombay. Miss G, as we called her, and her husband were working in Bombay then He was the Governor of the Reserve Bank of India, and Miss G as the Chairman, Port Trust of India. They came to pay their condolences, and spent some time with me.

Babuji’s presence of mind and quick action saved my life when I was stung by a black scorpion one night. Babuji immediately removed his ‘poonal’(sacred thread), not from his shoulder, but from its normal resting place – a nail on the bedroom wall. He tied the 'poonal' tightly around the big toe where I had been stung, and drove me straight to the doctor. I was given anti-venom injection, and asked to drink plenty of water. The saying goes that the black scorpion’s venom is much more powerful than a black cobra’s. Next morning, the doctor was really surprised to see me alive. On being told that I had taken gallons and gallons of water during the night, he said that was what had saved my life. The scorpion’s venom dehydrates the victim to death.

The children Raji , Bala and Viji had a wonderful time attending Tamil medium school. A horse-driven carriage was arranged to take them to school and back. The kids enjoyed these rides more than the school lessons. In their spare time they used to roam all over the hills, and collected seeds like kunthumani (black-eyed red seeds)- very attractive to look at and manjadi – red seeds.

Our stay in this place though very short is very well etched in my memory. We had a lot of guests here, mostly Babuji’s relatives from both his parents’ side, and me meeting them for the first time. A few of our friends from Delhi also dropped by en route to Delhi after their holiday at home down south. All said it was an enjoyable six months we had. After six months of this wonderful life Babuji was posted in Saidapet Collectorate and we moved over to Madras.

The picture below and those of the children above were all taken by my brother Moorthy who visited us.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

BABUJI’S "EZHARAI SANI" - 1955 to 1962

Astrology says that in every person’s life there is an ‘ezharai sani dasai’ (a period of seven and a half years, controlled by Lord Saneeswarar, and it could be good or bad).

Where Babuji was concerned, it was good. Babuji’s ezharai sani period took us all out of Delhi. (This picture was taken just before we left Delhi in 1955.) He was sent to the districts in the south to get administrative training. We were in the south for exactly seven and a half years. Babuji enjoyed this seven and a half years, getting new experience, working in different capacities.



Our first stop was in Trichy for a ten month period. Babuji was directly under the collector as Assistant Collector. He also was the District Magistrate, had to attend court sessions, listen to witnesses and advocates’ arguments, taking notes and passing judgments. For this he had to learn to read and write Tamil, since most of the court proceedings were in Tamil. Being a Keralite, Babuji had learnt Malayalam in school, like me and most Kerala Brahmins. We learnt to read Tamil with the help of magazines like Ananda Vikatan. Babuji started learning to read and write Tamil, which he did in a short time, with the help of his clerk Arumugam.

Within a week of our arrival in Trichy, Babuji bought our first car, a Landmaster, free India’s first automobile product, and the older brother to the Ambassador of today. The car Babuji bought was powder blue in colour. We all fell in love with it at first sight, and were very proud of it. Babuji learnt driving very quickly, with Kuppuswamy, our new driver as teacher. Kuppuswamy was with us for the next two years, till we came to Pondicherry.

Babuji decided to go to Srirangam on a Sunday – our first trip in the car. His plan was to leave home by 4.30 pm. When his clerk, peon and driver, why even our maidservant all heard of this plan, they were very much troubled and informed Babuji that on Sunday the ‘rahu kaalam’ being 4.30 pm to 6 pm, we should leave at least by 4 pm instead of 4.30 pm. “To start anything in the rahu kaalam will not end well,” was their general opinion. Babuji being one who never believed in these things pooh-poohed the idea. And we left home exactly at 4.30 pm.

As we reached the bridge connecting Trichy to Srirangam a huge truck or lorry, I don’t exactly remember what, was all of a sudden in front of us, coming at full speed. Kuppuswamy’s presence of mind saved the day, and also all our lives. He steered the car to the left in a fraction of a second, and moved the car away from the lorry’s front wheels. The car hit the bridge wall, and the sudden impact did damage the car, but not much. There was a dent, and the paint was scraped off on the left side of the car. Thank God we were saved in time.

This made such an impact on Babuji, he started having belief in rahu kaalam and respected the sentiments of other people. The car behaved very well for the next two years that it was with us. We even made a trip to Ernakulam to attend Kuttiappa’s son Raja’s wedding – three generations packed in the car - Babuji’s parents, we both and the four children. Raja the youngest, who was born in January was just ten weeks old then. And it was here that I meant Ranjini, Babuji's cousin's wife, for the first time. A boat trip was arranged for the bridegroom’s party and everybody jumped at the idea and welcomed it. I stayed back with Raja, because I did not want to take him in the boat. Along came Ranjini with her three month old baby, and with no inhibitions, asked me to baby-sit her baby also and left. And I really liked her from that moment.

Babuji had a lot of touring to do, mostly to Pudukottai, at least once a month. There he used to stay in the Traveller’s Bungalow, which had a fresh air, open loo in the fields at the back. He confided to me after his first trip that he was really frightened to use those open air loos, with the pigs (full grown huge ones) waiting to pounce on what he had left behind, once he got up.

The house in Trichy was a furnished one, arranged for us by Mr. Viswanathan Nair, the DIG then. He and his family became good friends of ours. The children also got along very well. And we even visited his native house when we went to Ernakulam. Mr. Viswanathan Nair helped us to settle down in this new place, which was very welcome. The house was in the middle of a very big compound – it was a very nice change for us from the first floor flats we had lived in Lodhi Road and Pandara Road of New Delhi. Everything was new for us, particularly for the children. This house was in Khaja Malai, away from the hustle bustle of the city.

Before leaving Delhi we distributed our furniture to two or three of our friends, and they promised to take good care of them till our return. We travelled to the south with the bare essentials like our clothes, bedding and kitchen pots and pans.

In Trichy we made good friends apart from Viswanathan Nair – P. T. Raman Nair and the Warriers. The Warriers were a happy pleasant couple, who loved our children dearly. Their only son Raja was studying, and in the hostel at that time. This friendship continued after we returned to Delhi also. And some seven or eight years ago, Raji, Muthu and I met her at her son’s place. I found Mrs. Warrier a very much broken lady, since she had lost her husband. Theirs was a love marriage, and they were in love with each other till the last.

We also had the experience of bathing in the River Kaveri. It was on the occasion of Chippachi (Babuji’s brother Viswanathan) and Chithi’s seemantham, conducted at our place in May 1956. There were more than 20 people at home for more than a week or so. That was no problem, for the house was really big. But a problem occurred one fine morning when we found there was no electricity, and our overhead tank empty. Our daily help was willing to draw water from the well for the two dozen people to take their bath, which was too much strain. So we all made three or four trips to bathe in the Kaveri. We all enjoyed it , and it was more like a picnic.

After ten months, we left for Chingleput. Babuji’s sense of humour and the way he treated his officers and subordinates equally with respect and friendship made him very popular. There were many tear-filled eyes when we left Trichy.

Monday, May 19, 2008

SRI AUROBINDO ASHRAM AND THE MOTHER

The Mother

While we were in Pondicherry, Aurobindo Ashram was a force to reckon with, with the Mother running it with a soft fur-gloved iron hand. The ashram was founded by Sri Aurobindo in 1926. The Mother whose name was Mira Alfassa, was the main disciple of Sri Aurobindo, and after his time she took over the reins, and ran the Ashram on well oiled rails.

From a mere handful of Ashramites at that time, the number rose to more than 2,000 under the Mother’s care. All Ashramites had to do their share of work in the various departments. The Mother took care of their food, clothing, shelter and medical care.

The Ashram buildings were on the Eastern side of Pondicherry, nearly half of the ‘white city’ was occupied by the various institutions like their schools, factories, shops and stores. The Mother was highly respected and regarded as a divine personality, not only by the Ashramites, but also by many outsiders. People used to come to Pondicherry just to have a darshan of the Mother. But, personally, I felt no inclination to meet her.

The Mother used to give darshan to the public every morning and every evening. In the morning it was only for about 5 to 10 minutes, standing at the balcony of her residence. A large crowd on the road would be waiting below the balcony patiently for her darshan. Babuji used to stand a little away form the crowd every morning while taking his morning walk. He used to tell me seeing the Mother in the mornings made his day’s work easy and fulfilled. He never met her personally. The balcony where the Mother used to give darshan.

Even then the Mother knew all about Babuji and the way he handled many of the issues that came between the Government and the Ashram. If there were any difficult situations the Mother used to tell Mr. Pinto (Ashram’s spokesman) to consult Babuji and do accordingly. If Babuji was not seen by the Mother at his usual place in the mornings for three or four days (that is, whenever he went to Delhi on official visits) the Mother used to ask Mr. Pinto, with so much concern, “What happened to Mr. Ramakrishnan? I haven’t seen him for two days!”

Among our various guests and visitors who came to Pondicherry, only one couple wanted to see the Mother. As Babuji was busy and had no time to spare in the days the couple was with us, it fell to me to take them to see the Mother. In the evenings every day, the Mother used to receive those who came to see her, with a nod and a smile, standing in the garden of her apartment. I took the couple to the place and we had to join the long line of people in front us waiting to see her. When I came face-to-face with the Mother, the way she looked at me was full of love, affection and kindness. It was too much for me to bear. I had to bend down to touch her feet, like those in front of me did. Her look was so powerful I felt all my inhibitions slipping away and I felt blessed.

When the time came for us to leave Pondicherry, Babuji and I were in two minds whether to meet the Mother and get her blessings, and take leave of her personally. As if the Mother could read our minds, the very next morning, the Mother sent us her blessings along with a copy of 'The Gita' by Sri Aurobindo, an autographed photo of the Mother herself and a bottle of perfume. It was too much, and we were completely floored. The Gita and the photo are still with Viji. Viji and Raja joined the Mother’s School in Delhi to continue their studies, after we came back to Delhi.

Sri Aurobindo and the Mother had believed that the evolution of mankind is not complete, until he reaches through yoga and a conscious aspiration a higher state of mind called Supra natural. To prove that and to bring human unity in diversity, the Mother planned to build Auroville, the city of Dawn, and laid the foundation for it 1968. The Mother did not live long enough to see it completed. She passed away in 1973. Her mortal remains were laid to rest under a canopy of trees in the compound of the building where she had lived for many years, beside the Samadhi of Sri Aurobindo.

Photos: Courtesy Internet

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Mme. IN PONDICHERRY


In spite of my heavy responsibilities at home taking care of my husband’s and children’s needs, and also those of Babuji’s parents, who were living with us, I really enjoyed my life in Pondicherry. I too played an active part, though small, in many events there. I was asked to judge baby shows, flower shows and beauty contests. Once I was asked to open a tailoring class, which I agreed to gladly; only I did not know that I had to make a speech, and that too in Tamil. I agree, yes, that my mother tongue is Tamil, but it is the Tamil spoken at home with many Malayalam words, and a very Malayalam accent. Since most Pondicherrians could not understand English at that period, I had to speak in my Manipravalam Tamil. I am sure it was not appreciated greatly, because I was never asked to make a speech again! Thank God.

The last time I was at Gowri’s place I was asked to make a speech at the school where Gowri was doing an honorary job helping senior children with their English. It was no problem for me as I had to speak in English

Annual Sports meets were held in the Cluny Convent, in the Medical College, and in the Police Department. They were really big events to which all the top brass was invited. JIPMER was just coming up at that time. The foundation stone had been laid. The Medical College at that time was not a big one, and it was run in two or there buildings.
Babuji receives the prize at a Police Sports meet from Tara Cherian, then Mayor of Madras
In all these sports events there was one item for the guests as in all sports meets of schools and colleges today. We were all expected to take part and we did. Invariably in all these meets, Babuji and I used to win, Babuji in the men’s events, and me in the women’s events. And if it was a common event, it was Maiji who won. It happened almost in every meet all the time.

As usual there was a Medical College sports meet in late 1961. We both were there among the spectators. At the end of all the main events, the guest event was announced. The Master of Ceremonies was calling out all the ladies by name, asking them to come forward. He was saying, “Where is Mrs. Ramakrishna, the lucky winner of all events? Come on, please.” So I slowly got up from my seat and took a step. Dr. Mrs, Abraham, the gynaecologist, who was sitting a couple of seats away from me shouted, “No, Mrs. Ramakrishna, you are not to run in your condition, so please sit down.” There was a sudden hush in our area of the spectators, and all heads turned towards me. That was how the imminent arrival of Gowri (our youngest) was announced to the Pondy public.

Talking of doctors, reminds me of one occasion when I was suffering from severe stomach pain. Dr. Souccu’s name was recommended, and Babuji requested him to come home.
I was really apprehensive thinking he would be French, and not be able to understand English. He came home, and when he learnt we were from Kerala he started talking to us in Malayalam. He explained that he also was from Kerala and that his name was Sukumaran, and that he was named Souccu by the French. Anyway we were really intrigued by his treatment. He told me he would give me a powder for ‘naalu kaasu’ (less than 25 paise today), and when I became all right, he would give me a costly tonic. Believe it or not, I was cured by the ‘naalu kaasu’ powder. The 'naalu kaasu' powder, he told us later, was actually charcoal powder!

We liked him so much and respected his judgement, and treatment whenever needed. Here I must mention that he was completely bowled over by Raja, just three years old then. Raja was suffering from some pains in and around the neck, and he himself explained to the Doctor all his symptoms. The Doctor quietly brushed me aside, and listened to Raja.

The day I first went shopping I was advised by my peers that I just could not walk into any shop. But I had to sit in the car and ask for things I needed, and they would be brought to me in the car for approval and selection. I did not like that kind of shopping. In spite of all the advice I just walked into the shops and bought what I needed. How could anyone sit in the car and buy shoes for the children – that was what rattled me. So I made a change in the way officers’ wives shopped. Wives of officers who came after us to Pondicherry (all officers were sent on deputation from Delhi) also followed my example. We also went vegetable shopping.

I also tried my hand at social work, but I did not take a fancy to it. The kind of social work we did was to go to one of the cheris, bathe the children, sweep the street and so on. I felt that I would rather remain at home, bathe my children and keep my house clean.

We made some good friends there - the Krishnaswamys,(seen with Maiji here) the Subramaniams, the Mamaks and the Singhs. The Krishnaswamys and the Subramaniams were very special – we referred to the Krishnaswamys as Uncle and Aunty, and they in turn called us Niece and Nephew. Their only son practically grew up in our place. After Pondicherry, whenever they came to Delhi, they always spent time with us. When Aunty passed away in 1981, Uncle personally called us and gave us the sad news. As I was recovering from a surgery at that time, Uncle came to our place to share his grief with us. That was how strong our friendship was. He was one of our Pondy friends who also attended Gowri’s wedding in 1986.

The Subramniams, MS to us, was another special couple. We spent many evenings together, playing chess. After leaving Pondicherry, we went and spent some days with them in Bangalore. They were in New Delhi for a few years after that, and we used to meet them often, which strengthened our friendship. Even today if I were to lift the receiver I can carry on a conversation with either of them, as if I had parted from them only last week.

The way Ajayab Singh and I met was very funny. It was one mid morning when he walked into our drawing room and asked me where his table was and what was his working time was. I could not make head or tail of what he was saying. So he introduced himself as the new Statistics Officer who had come to join duty. I had to make him understand that this was not an office, but a residence. He looked very sheepish as he left! This meeting left a kind of bond between us – a secret shared by just the two of us. I saw them last in 1998.

I haven’t seen many of these friends for a long time, and don’t know where many of them are, but I cherish their memories.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

SCHOOL DAYS AND ACHIEVEMENTS

The best part of our life in Pondicherry was the children Raji, Bala and Viji’s chance to attend the best school – the convent, St. Joseph de Cluny High School. The school had different sections, English medium and French medium. Our children attended the English medium, where French was taught as second language. Mother Peter, as we started calling her, once we came to know each other well, was the Principal of the English school.

The Rev. Mother Peter Claver, to give her full name, was a very distinguished person, very friendly, and with a smile and good word for every one. She in return was loved and respected by all the students, and by all the parents. She had the capacity to make every child of the school to do their best to the extent possible. She goaded the not so good ones to do well (in studies), the good ones to do better, the better ones to do their best, and the best ones to excel themselves. And the students did not let her down.


Viji and Raja at breakfast before school










Raji, who was a very good student, excelled herself and did both Mother Peter and us her parents proud by passing the school leaving Matriculation with first class marks. She was ranked first in Pondicherry, and second in the whole of Madras State, as Tamilnadu was then known. Were we proud of her! The school presented her with a gold medal. Raji is not the only one in the family to have got a gold medal. Babuji was also a gold medallist - for topping in English, when he passed his B. A. The next gold medallist in the family is Gowri, when she topped in her M. A. (English Litt) some 20 years after Raji. Raji became eligible for a Govt. Merit cum Means scholarship, when she joined Lady Shri Ram College in Delhi to do Eng. Litt. But her father’s earnings exceeded Rs.1,000, and she was denied that scholarship.

Mother Peter was very, very fond of Raji, and Raji always insists, even today, that she was Mother Peter’s pet. She even visited Raji in Madras, when she settled down there after marriage. They stayed in touch with each other till Mother Peter died. Mother Peter saw to it that Raji took part in all the activities in school like sports (she was House- Captain, even) and variety programmes. Not only Raji, Bala, Viji and Raja, once he joined the school, took part in all these activities which helped them to be more self-possessed and confident about themselves.

Raja, once he joined school became Mother Peter’s ‘sweetheart’. She became very fond of Raja, who was very adorable, even though I say it myself. While at school, Raja once got injured when a cyclist hit him and knocked him down, as he was crossing the street. Mother Peter herself escorted Raja home, after giving him first aid.

Raja is at the extreme right, near the little girl, in this playtime picture

When Raja joined school his education was free. The rule was that every fourth child of a family was not charged fees, if all four children were studying in the school at the same time. Next year Bala (fourth from the bottom in this line-up at Cluny) had to move to another school, Petit Seminaire for his middle school, as boys were not allowed in High School - the school was co-ed only till Std. VII. In Petit Seminaire also Bala took part in many school activities, and won prizes too. Here you see Bala as a gypsy in the fancy dress competition at the Petit Seminaire.
After passing Std. VIII, he joined Madrasi School in New Delhi to do High School, before joining IIT.

Viji started attending Bharata Natyam classes privately and even performed on stage when Tara Cherian, then Governor of Madras, visited Pondicherry. Viji was the pet of Uncle and Aunty, our dear friends Krishnaswamy and Indira. At that time their son was not yet born, and Viji was thoroughly spoilt by them.

All told the children too, in their own way had a very good and enjoyable time in Pondicherry.

Babuji started feeling he had spent enough time in the south, and that it was time to be back in Delhi. So as not to disrupt the children’s education, Raji was sent to Trivandrum to my parents’ place to do P-U. C, a one year course. Bala was sent to be with Chippachi to do his High School. And I was not at all happy – Raji just 15, and Bala just 13.

Raji came back after doing her P-U. C. do you know what she did? Mother Peter was in need of someone to take the place of a teacher who was on leave. Raji took up the challenge and taught Maths to students of classes 5, 6 and 7 – and she was only 16 then – and Viji was one of her students

Gowri’s second daughter Swati also followed Raji’s footsteps after passing out of school last year. She helped in a friend’s school by teaching Biology for three months, where the students were just a couple of years younger than she was. She was so good , that the students begged her not to leave when she had to go to Delhi LSR College for further studies.

Once at a party, M. Bertho of the French government told me that he had seen my husband gallivanting with a young lovely girl, many a time, and that I should be more careful and more strict with him. You should have seen his expression when I told him that the young girl he referred to was none other than our eldest daughter! He could not believe it saying “You both do not look old enough to have such a grown up daughter.”

What a compliment.

Raji with the medal, and (right) at one of the programmes. (She is in the centre, left row ).