Monday, December 7, 2009


I was very much taken by surprise when we entered our compartment (AC first class) at half past eight in the evening at Kathgodam railway station for our trip back to Delhi. My four grandchildren, my son and myself were on a holiday to Almora. The grandchildren had left for Delhi earlier. We were the last to leave the camp. I was naturally tired after a four to five days stay in the resort, walking up and down to the lounge, the dining room and a few steps this way and that way. A four to five hour drive in the mountain road in a taxi and a much needed Masala dosai in the Udipi hotel close to the railway station was all that was needed for one to look forward to the welcoming bed we had reserved on the Delhi bound train.

Our compartment was a four berther. Two of them were occupied by a couple who had already retired for the night. Our beds were there ready for us to lie down and go to sleep which I did immediately. Well this is the last word in luxury one could avail of in the railways of India today. We had travelled to Kathgodam from old Delhi by the same train. This train was supposed to start at but it was delayed by two hours. Walking through a densely crowded platform and waiting there for such a long time made us all immune - to note and appreciate - the ready-made bed and other facilities. While waiting for the train to arrive at the platform, it was my five year old great grand daughter who set us an example by her good behaviour.

So what is new one may ask. This is how all AC first-class passengers are treated every day every route in the Indian Railways Well, I beg to differ We (again my son and myself) had a different and difficult experience two years back when we boarded the night train from Delhi to Chennai.

We had booked our berths early enough asking for two lower berths which we got confirmed too. As we entered our coach we were surprised to see that the two lower berths given to us were occupied by two persons who just refused to listen to what my son had to say, who just remained adamant and refused to vacate the seats. The TT was called who asked these two men to vacate the seats they had wrongly occupied - unnecessary hassle, trouble and waste of our time and energy. We had to wait for some time till fresh sheets and blankets were produced by an (even more exasperated than we were) attendant for us to settle for the night.

Then, on another journey with my son, from Madras Egmore to Thanjavur, my son had to give up his lower berth to a person who had just undergone by-pass surgery. He had been discharged from hospital that very day and was travelling back home all alone. The funny side was this patient was very eager to show me his surgery scar. I thanked him saying I was not interested.

Travelling for me was very different some sixty years back when India was under the British regime. Of course there were the three classes then - first, second and third (today there is no third class). But there were no air-conditioned coaches The upper-classes even in those days were not affordable for the common man. There were no reservations. And the seating arrangements in the third class were horrible ---- just four long wooden benches not very wide , two on both sides of the compartment, two in the middle with their backs touching each other.

In 1946 I had travelled in one of those third class compartment s with my six month-old baby, from Madras (Chennai) to Delhi sitting throughout night and day for more than fifty six hours. With me was my sister with her three month- old baby. We had as our escorts my sister’s mother-in-law and two brothers-in-law. The compartment was tightly packed with all sorts of women , men, children, with their various steel trunks, hold-alls -- a must for all railway journeys in those days -- and tiffin-carriers big enough to contain food to last for three days Not to forget the suraais for water which were very prompt in tilting and spilling their contents at the least provocation.

Once a person got up from the seat to go the loo that seat was sure to be occupied by one of the standing passengers. This meant the first person would have to stand till another person got up. Well, it was a bad experience for us, our first and last of that miserable kind. In those days there were no upper berths. There used to be racks where the boxes and bags were placed.

When India came under self- rule, travelling by trains also improved gradually. By 1960-1965 there were many compartments with upper- berths, I remember the journey I took with my children back in 1962 from Madras to New Delhi by the GT Express. We were travelling first-class and we were given a compartment with two lower berths and two upper ones There was a wash-basin in between the two lower berths and an attached bathroom. We had a very comfortable journey -- very relaxed.

Air-conditioned chair-cars were also tried and tested to suit the need of increased number of passengers to Delhi and Bombay (Mumbai now). More and more people started travelling as tourists too. AC chair-cars were first introduced in the Delhi- Madras line. My parents, my eldest sister, and myself with my two younger children travelled from Madras to Delhi to attend my niece’s wedding in Delhi. It was in-mid-summer. We felt the AC coaches were really a boon. We were too quick to judge. On our return journey once we reached Agra the air-conditioner failed and with no fresh air inside the coach we all had a difficult time, particularly my father who was well beyond seventy. Thank God, the mistake was soon corrected and we reached Madras without any more mishaps.

AC chair cars were a huge success in the Bombay-Delhi line. for It was only a 24-hour journey and it was running for quite some years Once the two- tier and three- tier A.C sleepers were introduced the chair cars became redundant.

In the 1940s and 1950s there was only the Grand-Trunk Express to and fro from Madras and Delhi. In the 1940s this train used to run only three days a week. Now the number of trains on each and every line has increased to meet the demands of the ever increasing travelers. Any train you board on any route, one finds not even a single empty seat. Rich or poor people are always on the move always on the go. The waiting list is sometimes longer than the trains. The trains are very long now. Most of the platforms are not long enough for these trains

I wonder what the future holds for the Indians travelling by trains.

Talking about trains brings to mind a joke my husband told me on my first train trip with him. Even if you’ve heard it before, please bear with me and laugh.

Once the Prince of Wales was travelling by train and in his compartment were two society ladies. As the journey wore on, they did their best to outdo each other in their attempts to impress His Highness, who was not at all amused. When the train passed through a tunnel, the Prince put the back of his hand to his mouth and made a kissing sound. Then he got off at the next station, saying, “To which of you delightful ladies do I owe that unexpected pleasure!” It left two very sore ladies in the compartment.

Friday, October 23, 2009


In today's Statesman ( October 20) I came across a news item, "Great Escape". The story is how a toddler -- not even two years old -- is safe and well even though he fell down from an open window of his third storey apartment. He landed on some concrete and rocks.He escaped with a cut in his abdomen, a bruised lung and a bump on his head. This happened in California.

It reminds me of another news item that came in one of last week's newspapers. A pregnant woman travelling by train had a miraculous escape. She visited the toilet and while there delivered her baby.The baby fell through the hole on to the tracks. The woman came from the toilet and jumped out of the running train without a second thought.

Other travellers in the compartment seeing her jumping pulled the chain and stopped the train.When the railway officials with some of the passengers walked back some distance they found the woman sitting with the baby in her arms on the side of the tracks. Amazingly both were not hurt and are doing well.

These two incidents remind me of the old saying that there is a time and place for everything and everyone. It also goes the moment a child is born it is written on his forehead (FATE) the time of his death. So may be these three above mentioned have long life. Otherwise things would have been different.

The other day Raja showed me a video clip on his laptop which pictured an incident that happened somewhere in Australia. It showed how a baby in a pram had a miraculous escape after being hit by an oncoming train in a station.

The baby's mother waiting on the platform had lost her grip on the pram which rolled on to the track. The moving train had pushed the pram away from the track where the woman found her baby safe inside pram itself. So it looks like this baby also has good fate.

But not everyone is this lucky. The famous guitarist Eric Clapton lost his three year old son in 1991 when he fell from an open window of a high rise building. Imagine a baby coming to such a tragic end in the saftey of his own home.

So it all depends on one's luck or shall I say Fate.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009


My Vidyarambam Day was one day later than the original date this year. On that day after breakfast Raja went out with his usual "etho varen" and I on my part did not ask any questions.

He came back after about two hours and handed me a package telling me it was for me and for me alone.

It was a flat packet about the size of a table diary.Was I surprised when I opened the packet and took out what was inside:Yes it was a laptop/netbook, all my own.

Raja told me that now I have a laptop of my own I should not depend on others to type my mail.

So I have started typing, it is a very slow process and I am learning to type with two fingers.

Now within a period of two weeks Raja has also taught me how to use the internet: open pages, how to compose a mail and how to send it too.

I feel very good and a little proud of myself.

I feel great when I open my mail and send back replies. Me an eighty plus woman sitting at my laptop and typing this note.

I now understand the true meaning of the Malayalam proverb "Venamengil chakkai verillum kaikyum". (If you will, even a Jackfruit will sprout from the roots.) And I am here proving it to myself.

I am giving enough time to my children and others who read my blog to prepare themselves to tolerate my spelling mistakes and typing errors.

I have taken more than two hours to type and revise these few lines

Well, I am only a novice so it is ok. Please wish me success Thanks.

I always used to tell my children that it is never too late to learn anything new.

Now Raja has given me a chance to practice what I have been preaching.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009


Continued from previous post

The feast (lunch) after the muhurtham used to be a grand one with everyone fed with various kinds of vegetable dishes, sweets and pradhaman (sometimes two) till everyone was fully satiated.

Artist Maya's representation of 'nalangu'

Afternoon was the time for relaxation and play - this came in the form of nalangu, where everyone teased one another with songs, all the while the bride and the groom sitting on a 'pattu payi’ a mat woven with a special soft reed, facing each other rolling a coconut to one another. For the nalangu, the bride had to invite the groom with a song and a namaskaram to play with her. Otherwise the bridegroom’s male relations would not allow him to budge. Once they were seated on the mat, they applied sandal paste on each other’ arms and feet, combed each other’s hair, applied pottu and showed the mirror to each other to admire their handiwork. The singing session went on until everyone got tired, and then arathi was performed

For the next three afternoons also there used to be nalungu with new songs composed on the spot. I remember lines from a couple of songs - like the son-in-law brushing his teeth with coffee, and the daughter using lime and rice flour to make up her face.

In the evening usually there used to be music concerts or harikatha kalapshekam, or dance performances known as 'sadir' , by well known dancers from Kumbakonam or Thanjavur. Most well-known musicians of those days used to sing at the marriage concerts and that is how they became famous.

In the evening another homam was conducted by the newly wed couple with the help of the priest. During this homam, they were led outside by the priest and shown the star Arundati, who is said to be the ideal wife in devotion and steadfastness. And were advised to lead a happy and compatible life like the couple up there.

After this homam, known as ‘pravesam homam’ and dinner, the first day of the wedding came to an end. For the next three days the morning homam called ‘auhvasanam,’ ‘nalungu’ and the evening homam were conducted regularly.

On the fourth evening, another feast was prepared for the bridegroom’s people with individual oil lamps placed in front of each place. During this meal also there was much rejoicing and teasing, sometimes to the extent of wasting food. But everyone used to be happy and satisfied. After this dinner the newly wedded couple were taken around the locality in a procession by foot, accompanied by the nagaswaram
This was called ‘patina pravesam’

While walking through the main streets of the neighbourhood, relatives welcomed them with arathi and offered them banana pieces soaked in milk. Gradually changes came here also. The couple was carried in open flower-decked palanquins, instead of walking. My eldest sister and her husband, when they got married in 1926 , were the first and only couple in our family to have the palanquin ride. My mother told me that my sister being so petite and lovely (she was 12 then) was herself like a palanquin doll. The palanquin used to have extremely pretty celluloid dolls at each corner.

When my elder sister Sarada got married in 1937, the ‘patina pravesam’ was conducted in a well-decorated open motor car. The other day when I asked her if she remembered the ‘pattina pravesam’ at her wedding, she told me that all she remembered was nodding off every five minutes or so , and her husband waking her up requesting her not to sleep.

My sister Sarada with her husband in the 1950s

My sister-in-law Vijayam, sister Rama, me and
my eldest sister Krishnambal in the 1950s

My third sister Rama remembers that her ‘pattina pravesam’ in the car was interrupted by rain and had to be given up. This practice of ‘pattina pravesam’ was given up before my wedding in 1945, which was incidentally a one-day wedding. Four day weddings were out by then.

On the fifth morning the last homam was conducted by the couple - this was the ‘sesha’ homam. After this homam, every single uncle and aunt was treated to return gifts, that is they would be given the amount they had presented to the bride and groom, plus one panam, that is one-seventh of a rupee.

Finally came the aseervadams and namaskaram, followed by arathi. After a simple meal, unlike the previous five days, the bridegroom’s party readied themselves for the return journey. They were supplied with fruits along with food to last them for the next two days, known as ‘kattu chatham’, prepared in such a manner that it would remain fresh for the period of the journey. Along with this, other provisions like rice, vegetables, coffee powder were also packed for the journey.

The bride was left behind, she would join her husband after a year or two, when she attained maturity. Another function called ‘griha pravesam’, would be held at the bridegroom’s place for this.

The bride, a mere child of eight or nine, went back to her wooden doll and playthings till then.


Friday, July 24, 2009


Continued from previous post .. . . .
The bride waiting at the pandal welcomes the bridegroom with a garland, and he in his turn, garlands the bride.

Exchanging garlands at daughter Raji's
brother-in-law Chandran's wedding, 1976

In those days, since both the bride and the groom were children, the maternal uncles came forward to lift them on their shoulders. Sitting on the shoulders, the bride and the groom exchanged garland three times. This way everybody present could see them well and proper exchanging garlands. The uncles had more fun ducking and withdrawing to make it difficult for them to garland each other.

After getting down from the uncle’s shoulders, they were asked to hold hands and led to a flower decorated oonjal (swing). Here the priest got a chance to show off his musical prowess by singing the first oonjal song, and making way for the ladies to continue the singing.

Oonjal at Viji's wedding,1974

After each song, the nadaswaram player played the song faithfully on his instrument. This usually used to go on for half an hour or so. After this the couple was fed with banana pieces soaked in milk by the elderly Sumangali women. This was followed by the 'pachapdi sutthal' to ward off all evil eyes. The rice balls used for this are made with cooked rice mixed with turmeric powder and lime, giving it a red colour.

The most important part of the wedding is the ‘kanniga danam’ – giving away the bride. The bride’s father sat on a small bale of hay, with his daughter on his lap. She held betel leaves, a coconut and betel nuts in her cupped palms. The priests from both sides recited the lineage of the bride and the groom for three generations – the great grandfather, grandfather and father, along with the gothram thrice. This is a very touching moment, with the nadaswaram falling silent as well as the people. This was the moment when the bride entered the bridegroom’s gothram. The bride was then given away by her parents to the groom to be under his care, to the chanting of mantras.

Next came the presenting of the 'koorai pudavai', the traditional nine yard saree, the main wedding saree to the bride by the groom.

Giving the koorai pudavai at
Raji's brother-in-law Sivasu's wedding, 1972

While she went in to change into her new saree with the help of the groom's sister and other ladies, the bridegroom was seated on the same bale of hay (today the chair has taken its place), and the bride’s father washed his feet with the water being poured by her mother.

Babuji and I wash the groom's feet
at daughter Gowri's wedding, 1986

This was how the guest was received traditionally into the house by the host. The bride entered wearing the new saree with her sister-in-law, looking beautiful and looking forward to a happy life She was seated again on her father’s lap, who now sat on the bale of hay. While the priests chanted mantrams, the bridegroom placed a small yoke on her head, symbolizing that they would have to work together for the success of the marriage. And after this the bridegroom tied the mangalasutra, or thirumangalyam threaded on yellow thread, round her neck. The first two knots were tied by him and the third knot by his sister.

The nadaswaram then went into what is called 'getti melam', playing rapid notes at a high pitch, and the thavil playing loudly to a vigorous beat, while flowers were showered onto the new couple. Sugar and candy sugar were distributed to everyone to celebrate. Members of the bridegroom’s family were given thamboolam with coconut.

Now the bridegroom held the bride’s right hand with his right hand, took the marriage vows, praying to Agni, God of fire, and other gods to bless them with long life and prosperity.

Sapthapathi at daughter Viji's wedding, 1974

The bridegroom now held the right big toe of the bride and thus walked seven steps all the while chanting the mantram which said she had become his friend and companion, and would remain together for life. This is known as the 'sapthapathi', the actual point at which they are truly wedded.

Offering pori at daughter Raji's wedding , 1967

Next, the couple sat in front of the holy fire, while the priest chanted mantras which the groom repeated. The bride’s brother helped him to offer ‘pori’ (puffed rice) to the homam, signifying that the brother would take care of the bride, if the need arose.

‘Odhi idal’, is an important occasion giving gifts to the wedding couple by the various aunts and uncles on both sides. The priests invoking the blessings of the gods, handed over the gifts to the bride or the groom, naming the giver and the amount, for usually the gifts were in cash. Coins of Rupee one and two denominations were gifted, because they were minted in pure silver. Nobody wanted their names to be left out. Even today this system is carried out in families who follow tradition completely.

After that it was time for ‘aseervadam’, blessings, with the chanting of the mantrams, all elders showered yellow rice on the couple, praying for their long life together.

Two ladies now took arathi to signify that the muhurtham was over. The bride and groom went around performing namaskaram (obeisance seeking blessings) to all senior relatives individually, one by one, unlike today , when it is usual a sabha namaskaram, a single one for all.

More to come. . .

Friday, July 10, 2009


Continued from previous post

The wedding day started with the nadaswaram music, waking up everyone, not only the wedding families, but everyone in the whole locality.

The wedding day, an important day in everyone’s life, meant for my mother, an eight year old girl, getting up very early in the morning, long before dawn. She was woken up and taken to the river, along with her friends, all eight or nine year old ones for a ceremonial bath. A few elderly women relatives who accompanied the young girls carried with them all that was needed to dress up the bride at the river bank itself. She was given a new chittadai ( a long piece of cloth like a short sari to wrap round the body with one end over the shoulder), decked with ornaments, had her hair plaited and decorated with gold decoration and fresh flowers. The bride, along with her friends also dressed in their finery, were taken to the temple.

After offering prayers, they walked back home led by the nadaswaram players. On the way back she was made to stop in front of every house, where she was welcomed with aarathi by the elderly housewives and given thamboolam. On reaching home, they were treated to a breakfast of pongal, (preparation of rice and pasi paruppu (Moong dal) tempered with salt, pepper, curry leaves and ginger. This was known as 'Thozhi Pongal'.

I remember enjoying this at my sister Sarada’s wedding. We were then living in Trivandrum city, away from the river. So we just bathed at home, went to the nearby temple and offered prayers, and walked back home. On the way we were stopped at a few houses, and my sister was welcomed with aarathi and thamboolam. Slowly this ritual became obsolete.

Vritham at daughter Raji's wedding (1967)

The bridegroom on his part had to perform the vritham on the wedding morning – the process of changing from a bachelor to a householder (grihasthan). In those days the bridegroom’s party included their own family priest. This priest would conduct the vritham, which was performed in the same house where the bridegroom’s party was staying.

'Kaappu kattal' for Jaya at the wedding
of Raji's brother-in-law

At the same time the ‘kappu kattal’ ceremony for the bride was done at the pandal, by her parents. After doing a pooja to Lord Vigneswara and other gods, praying for the long life of the bride and the groom, the father, helped by the mother, ties the ‘kaappu’, a yellow sacred thread blessed by the pooja, round the right wrist of the bride.

'Paligai' ritual at grandson Sriram's wedding (2002)

At both these functions aritual called the ‘paligai thelikarathu’ was also performed. Soaked whole grains – nava danyam – were placed in small palm sized earthen pots. During the vritham and the kaappu kattal, one of the rites was five sumangalis (from both set of families) were asked to drops of water with milk and honey added using the darba grass in all the five pots. This rite was done on all four days of the wedding. On the fifth day, sprouts shot up from the grains – these were taken in procession by the same five ladies to the river and allowed to float away. Later on in cities, where there are no rivers close by, the sprouts were thrown into the wells.

'Kasi Yathirai' at son Bala's wedding (1977)

The vratham over, and the boy ready for grihasthrasmam, waited to get married. Seeing no chance of an early marriage, he decided to become a sanyasi and set forth on a journey by foot to Kasi, armed with an umbrella, a palm leaf fan, a walking stick and a copy of the Upanishads( all supplied by the bride’s parents). A pair of footwear was added to this later. The bride’s father stopped him on the way and promised him his daughter in marriage. The kasi yathirai was abandoned, and old relatives of the bridegroom took possession of the fan, umbrella and walking stick. He was brought back to the pandal where the bride was waiting.

This ceremony is still conducted at weddings.

More to come. .

Thursday, July 2, 2009


Continued from last post

At the recent wedding of my grand nephew Ramesh
- the couple in the decorated car

Writing about Mappillai Azhaippu and Nichiya thartham reminds me of two or three incidents that happened at our family weddings.

My sister Sarada got married in 1936. I was just nine years old, but I still remember the commotion raised by one incident on the day of the nichiyathartham. Though I did not understand the reason at that time, later on I got to know the details.
Sarada and me in the early 1950s in Delhi

A young child, not even two years old, had gone missing. His father was my mother’s cousin. I still remember the baby, such a beautiful healthy boy. Whenever we visited them or they came over, we used to play with the baby never letting him down from our arms. The baby could not be found anywhere and the whole locality joined with the police to look for the boy. But all in vain. There were whispered rumours that an old lady with a baby was found in Palayam area. Another rumour mentioned that there was a baby crying in a lonely area – all false and misleading.

Despite this, the wedding went on as planned, while the search was going on. In the evening during the Mapillai azhaippu procession, a woman was spotted with a baby in her lap at a shop’s doorway. Upon close observation, it became evident that the baby was the missing child. The woman refused to part with the baby, saying that since the baby’s ears were not pierced she was trying to pierce them. And what she was using was a dressmaker’s pin. It took a lot of cajoling and pressure from my brother and his friends to remove the baby safely from her. The parents’ relief knew no bounds, and all were thankful to God that no harm had come to the baby.

The woman who took the baby turned out to be another cousin of my mother and the baby’s father. She was generally known as Prandhu (Mad) Ponnamma. She used to undergo bouts of madness during certain days, a week or ten days at a time (possibly to do with the phases of the moon).Otherwise she was a perfectly normal woman, with a family of her own. She had also come to the wedding, and had probably in a moment of madness taken the baby away.

Whenever someone did or said something silly, the general teasing in our family was that surely there was some relationship to Prandhu Ponnamma.

In 1941 when Babuji’s father’s cousin got married, Babuji and other youngsters in the family decided to tease the bride and have some fun, for they felt the bride was too hoity toity. During the mappillai azhaippu procession, the bride was also in the car along with the bridegroom – a custom followed in many families. The bride was getting annoyed for she found a young woman sitting in the front seat, talking non-stop to the bridegroom, sometimes even getting familiar like touching his hand or slapping his wrist, which added to her irritation. (In those days, I must mention, boys and girls did not mix freely and kept their distance from one another). In a flash of temper, she had the car stopped, got down and started walking back. The bridegroom and the young girl also got down from the car, laughing and enjoying the bride’s show of temper, followed her and caught up with her. They tried to pacify her - but it took a while, and a lot of patience, for them to make the bride understand that the young girl was one of his male cousins, dressed as a girl in jest, just to tease her. After that she got back into the car with the groom, and the procession started again. And that cousin was none other than Babuji.

Me,(left) Babuji (centre) and Viswam (right, partially seen)
behind the couple at Viswanthan's wedding.

With this incident in mind, I played a similar trick when Babuji’s brother Viswanathan got married in 1952. Babuji’s parents, especially Ammaji , was very thrilled at the idea, and gave me her full support. So on the eve of the wedding I put my plan into action. One of Babuji’s cousins Viswam , a young twelve or thirteen year old boy, was very handsome and slim. I took him into my confidence and told him about my plan. He readily agreed and promised me that he would do his best. With the help of a few women and a lot of pins, hair pins, false hair pieces and falsies, and make up, there emerged a beautiful willowy girl, dressed in a red printed georgette sari, with a matching blouse. His natural shyness added to the charm. Our idea was to introduce ‘Vishi’ to the bride and her people during the nichyathartham ceremony.

Accordingly, ‘Vishi’ entered the pandal during the ceremony and went straight to the groom and sat down next to him. Everyone was taken by her beauty and her audacity. Women started whispering, and Ammaji joined in. She, put the whole blame on me for her son getting friendly with such girls, for Viswanathan was then staying with us in New Delhi, where he was working. We made everyone believe that ‘Vishi’ who was introduced as an employee of AIR, had become friendly with Viswanathan during lunch hours, for their offices were close by. The bride’s face was a study of suppressed anger. After a while Viswam got bored with the game, and he went straight to the bride’s father and took leave of him with folded hands, addressing him as ‘Mama’. The ‘Mama’ also, fully taken in, requested her to stay for dinner and take the thamboolam.

Once we were back from the pandal, we all had a good laugh, and congratulated Viswam on his performance.

Even after so many years, when I started writing this, I cannot forget the appreciation and admiration I got from everyone, including my mother and Moorthy who also attended the wedding.

More in my next. . .