Stress, according to me, is probably the most overused/overrated word in today’s world. From School going children to CEOs, everyone talks about being stressed with all the comforts and luxuries modern life has provided them with. My grandma like many of her generation, probably never heard of ‘Stress.’ What we call ‘stress’ must have a been a walk in the park on a bed of roses for her. Just consider the following facts: She was born at the turn of 19th Century 1899 or 1900. She received her elementary schooling from Kerala (Travancore State) and migrated to Tamil Nadu (Madras Presidency in those days) and got married when she was just eight years old. She could read/write Malayalam and not Tamil where she lived most of her life. My Grandpa who was a school teacher, stood as guarantor for a loan to his friend and when his friend defaulted, most of his salary went to repaying the loan. With eight mouths to feed and most of the family income gone, she took to selling breakfast food in a street corner. Tragedy struck again; my aunt was affected by polio and could not walk for few years which required continuous medical attention. When things were settling down, my grandfather passed away in 1944. Grandma was about 44 years old and her youngest son – my father – was 11 years old. In the next year, her third son, who was about to be married fell ill with chickenpox and lost his life a few days later. She took it in her stride, worked hard and married off her polio affected daughter. Just two years into her marriage, my aunt became a widow six months after she gave birth to her son. My grandma has told my mother many times that she could not even attend the marriages of her first two sons as she was still in mourning when they got married. The only marriage she attended was my Father’s marriage in 1959. She had to go through the pain of losing her eldest son when she was 75 years old.
Though it sounds like old Tamil Film Stories with constant crying in all the 25 Reels of the feature film, no one has ever seen my grandma crying or feeling dejected. That’s the strength of her character. She headed the family in her own style and earned the sobriquet – ‘the family autocrat.’ My father’s friends would call her Indira Gandhi (Indian Prime Minister who herself was known for her autocratic ways).
My Father with his sister (L) and With his brother (R)
A writer once commented, “Anyone who has taken Finnish Ice Bath can run a marathon over broken beer bottles twice a day.” This was in reference to the champion long distance runners Finland regularly produces like the Flying Finn – Paavo Numri, Lasse Viren and many others. I truly believe my grandma would have done both. Such was her mental strength and physical fitness. She brought up three grandchildren in her seventies with no modern amenities; there was no running water; no gas stove or a pressure cooker, no mixer or grinder or washing-machine; nothing. And she bathed 3 kids, washed clothes and cooked and served 3 meals a day. Just amazing.
My earliest memory of her was when she visited us in Thirukazhukundram a town about 70 Kms from Chennai. I was five years old. My father was just transferred from Cochin to Sadras, a small town with a Dutch fort. He was a construction engineer and got transferred all over the country on a regular basis. She came to take me to our native: Kaveripakkam – a village 100 Kms north of Chennai. As my father was in a transferable job, we spent our initial years with our Grandma to have continuity in our education. So I went with her to start my schooling in 1969. My elder sister was already staying with her and during the next academic year my younger brother JK also joined us.
The first five years of my schooling was in a village, in a Government run elementary school. My grandma was very strict but affectionate. She would ask us everyday without fail to go to the market in the morning to get some vegetables. During our walk/run we used to meet our schoolmates who were already on their way to school. They would go to school early and play, while we had to still get back home, have food and leave for school. Of course we were never late to school but Grandma would allow us to leave just minutes before school would start. We used to beg her to let us leave half an hour before but she would just not listen.
She used to take pride in our academic excellence and made sure we studied everyday. She would teach us Tables and only if we could recite them correctly she would let us go to play. She had designed a unique way to lock us in. We would be forced to stay in the living room and she would lie down on the passage connecting the living room to the verandah. We would try all possible ways to jump over her without making noise. But the moment our feet landed on the passage, she would shout, “Where are you going? Get back to your studies!” Though India was already into metric system she taught us the old Tamil Measures in Padi (படி) and Veesai (வீசை) and their fractions. She could multiply or divide fractions mentally and taught us how to do it. It helped us to do well in Maths – at least in arithmetics – throughout life.
She took discipline to extremes. My sister bore the brunt of it. Letter from my parents would arrive in the morning post. When we came back for few minutes for our lunch, she would ask my sister to write a reply. As I mentioned earlier she could read write Malayalam and our parents could not read it. My sister would write in an inland letter but the matter would be for few pages. Poor Vasanthy would write and cramp the entire stuff in one page. And then fun would begin. The Post Office was on her way to school. But Grandma would ask her to post the letter, come back and take the school bag and go to school. Her logic was simple. She would forget to post the letter on her way to school. This would infuriate my sister Vasanthy, but no one could argue with her.
I was about 8 or 9 years old when this incident happened. I saw a calendar on a daily errand to the bazaar. It had actor Sivaji (a popular Tamil Hero) with some pictures of Gods and I paid 25 Paise (about 0.004 cents in today’s currency). On seeing it, she just went ballistic, scolding me for wasting money and made me cry. For three nights I prayed to all The Gods to give 25 Paise back and hoped that The God would have thrown the 25 Paise through the roof at night on me (no such luck though). In the five years I spent in the village, she allowed me to see just one movie – an epic and that too when our neighbours pleaded with her to let us watch the movie as was a movie on Lord Murugan. She herself never watched a movie nor listened to movie songs. Even today, she occasionally comes in my dreams, chiding me for wasting my father’s hard earned money.
She had her way in everything. Father brought us a Table Fan and when we went to bed, she would direct the fan towards her head. If we tried to turn it towards us in the hope that she might be asleep, she would immediately ask us to change it in her direction. If we set up oscillating the fan, she would say, “I am suffocating. Switch off oscillation.”
Years later, when she came to Chennai to stay with us she gave the biggest exercise for JK and me. We had two fans in the two rooms. And every week she would ask us to change the fan complaining the fan was not good. She would wait for us to come back form school and ask my brother, “Jayakantha, இந்த fan சரியாவே ஓடலை. இதை கொஞ்சம் மாத்தேன்! – this fan is not woking properly- change it!” The fan saga deserves a separate blog, so I am not dwelling deep into it.
She would ask the tailor to stitch dresses which she hoped would last forever. We must have worn the most ridiculous looking dresses in the village. All our protest would fall in to deaf ears. At last our mother started sending readymade dresses for us and saved us lot of embarrassment in school.
She hated all English vegetables like potato, cabbage, beetroot etc and we were fed on a diet of vegetable grown in the village. Occasionally, my sister would buy some potatoes and ended up getting a scolding of her life. But she would make sure we were fed properly and ate what was put on the plate.
She had a way with the vegetable vendors who used to sell seasonal vegetables. They would carry the vegetables on a big basket, go from home to home to sell their produce. My grandma would ask for a price with the vendors and her quote would be final. I still remember one such vendor called Kaamatchi. She would carry two baskets of tomatoes and my grandma would ask her to leave one basket at home. She would say, “go sell the tomatoes in the other basket and while returning I will pay you for this.” The poor lady would come back after couple of hours and my grandma would give her some money. We used to think that Grandma was cheating her, until one day, on a visit our Dad explained that Grandma would give her more money for the basket which was left at home than what she would have made on the other basket going from home to home. That’s why the vendor was more than happy to leave one basket at our place. On a per capita basis, my sister, JK and I would have had more tomato juice than anyone in our generation. All the tomatoes were pulped into juice and served with plenty of sugar every day when we came back from school. We drank gallons of it.
She was fair in what she did. Our maid servant, Lakshmi was paid a salary of 3 Rupees a month but never once complained. Because Grandma fed her everyday and packed food for her children. My mother used to say this was actually costing more than just a salary. But Grandma had a philosophy that no one should be hungry.
She was the village wise counsellor and midwife. Even in the seventies many babies were born at home in the villages and my Grandma would go to any house for delivering a baby. Many considered her as the lucky one (which probably was because of her experience she could even oversee complicated births). She would counsel neighbours on family and property issues.
Her courage was something unbelievable.
Our Ancestral House; Photo taken in 1989
The Village houses always had common walls. In early seventies, our neighbours decided to covert his house into a two storied house and my Grandma feared that the wall of her house would not withstand such pressure. These houses must have been at least 100 years old at the time of dispute. The neighbour was having some political influence as well. She fought with him and made sure he shelved his idea. He eventually built his two storied house after Grandma sold her house to him. You can see the wall of his two storied house on the Left Hand Side of our house.
My aunt (mother’s sister) died of cancer in 1976. My grandma was in the village. She just left the village and landed in Chennai to pass on her condolences to my mother. The only problem was she did not have our address. She just knew we lived in West Mambalam and vaguely remembered the location. It is still a mystery to us as how could she guided the rickshaw guy to our place.
Though not religious or orthodox, she made sure we prayed everyday and went to nearby temples. The most amazing story about her was recently narrated by my mother. One of her friend, who was poor, was widowed at a very young age. She was a very beautiful lady and immediately became a target for many young people in the family, married and unmarried. To escape their prying eyes and harassment, she became a mistress to an affluent man (who she thought would give her protection) from a different caste. The Brahmin community banished her and prohibited anyone from making contact with her (the men must have got angry at a missed chance). My grandma just did not bother. She went to her house everyday and helped her in whatever way she could. She did what was fair and was not bothered about what people said. This was in the 1930s in a village. Her own contribution to Social Reforms. Some woman she was!
She was very intelligent and could foresee what would happen in future if something was not done correctly. My grandfather’s side of the family pledged the house for a loan and could not pay it back. When they were about to be thrown out of the house (grandparents only asset), my grandma requested her brother to pay the loan. What she did then was amazing. Since the house now belonged to her brother, she made him register the house in her name so that Grandfather’s family could not claim any rights on the house in future.
We all remember her autocratic ways but at every opportunity at family gatherings we also recall how affectionate she was. On India’s 25th Independence day, I got a First Prize on a debate, ‘Village or city life; which is better?’ and she paraded me through the entire Agraharam (the brahmins’ quarters in the village) proudly displaying the trophy I won. On one of the birth anniversaries of Tamil Leader Annadurai, JK (my brother) was dressed up as Annadurai and she would tell anyone who cared to listen that he did indeed look like the Great Tamil Leader and kept repeating the story for years.
On the Masi Magam day (an auspicious day for Tamils) when I was 3 years old, I got lost in the morning in Madurai city and returned late in the night thanks to a neighbour who saw me wandering 4 kms away from home and brought me back. My grandma who was staying with us went searching for me and stood in the bus stand the entire day without food or water till I reached home.
An Autocratic Lady who played fair all her life. Parvathi Ammal or ‘Panapakkam Mami’ as she was fondly called, like many in her generation would have attained great heights in any profession had they been educated. But it’s no less feat, that they worked hard and against all odds to see their children become successful in life and showered tremendous affection on their grandchildren.
I hope the blog helps readers to recollect, rewind and relish their time with their Grandmothers!
Doodle Courtesy: Rachna