Sunday, August 24, 2008


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


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.