Saturday, February 17, 2007



Once appa got married, life changed a lot. Days of pampering and petting were over. Life took a different turn. I was so far a pet to everyone in the village. Everyone looked at me with utmost sympathy and special care and love were showered on me. I was a 'motherless-child' for every one. I stood out from the crowd in the village. All these things changed once we came to Madurai.

It should be 1949. I should have been five years old because immediately after our arrival I was admitted in the school in the first standard. Better I say something about the house where we got settled. It was an old house in the South Marret Street. Compared to the modern standards it was more a ‘mouse trap’. It was in a busy area and so like any other house it was packed among a row of houses on a considerably busy road. It was a rectangle and the portion we rented out was at the back of the house and the house owners lived in the front portion. The two portions were divided by a well. Like any old house of those days in Madurai this well was small, probably three feet in diameter. It was called nazhi kinaru ( 'cylindrical well' ). I don’t know what could have been the depth. But for a kid it looked very deep. For some time peeping into the well during noon time and seeing my image deep down there was a good past time. I was always afraid of looking into the well from outside in our village till I learnt swimming. But here there were protective stone slabs around the well and they were almost shoulder high to me then. I felt safe here unlike the large and open wells, which were like open-mouthed giants. This well had an important association with my early days since for many years – almost for the whole of my school life – I was in charge of keeping a large drum near the well always full for the use of the whole family. I used to have a big callus on my left knee since I used to keep that point of my knee as a fulcrum to help me pull the bucket and how I hated that responsibility imposed on me. Even at odd hours I would be asked to draw water. That is about the well. Let us come back to the house now.

I still wonder how we managed to live in that house for so long. It was a long period of 16 years – starting from my school entry to the end of the first year of my post-graduation. We entered the house as a three-member family, appa, amma and I. When we quit the house we were, I think, nine! There was only one pucca room and even that would be half-filled with sacks of rice for most part of the year, in addition to a wooden almirah, a sewing machine and a table and chair. I am wondering now how there was any moving space at all in that room since it was not even a big room. Wooden lofts on three sides of this room probably helped us keep most of our things. I had one rack in a cupboard on the wall for keeping my books and other things. My dresses would be in a small suitcase, which would be above the sacks of rice.

Then there was a sort of verandah with tiled leaky roof making it almost unusable during rainy days. The only safe place during such days was a corner made safe by curved stairs overhead. Even part of this was occupied by a manual grinder. The only furniture in this low roofed room was appa’s cot. Many a time that formed a tier system – appa on that cot and I safely cuddled under that, the lower berth! Then there was a kitchen. Don’t imagine a kitchen with a lot of cupboards, gas stove and all that. It had on all sides bamboo mats making it a separate entity with one cupboard on the wall and a firewood stove at the ground level with a stack of fire wood, and cow dung-cakes on one corner. We had also a luxury item of those days, a kerosene stove.

Wondering that I have not mentioned anything about a bathroom? Well, it was an open space next to the well and that was also the passageway for our portion. Appa made some arrangements with some more bamboo mats giving it a little more privacy. This passageway along the well had a great significance since it was a nightmarish experience to get somebody to our portion of the house. The passageway was narrow between the well and a wall. Part next to the well had a stony pavement but the other half used to be quite slippery with constant flow of water. Anyone stepping on that part was sure to fall like an uprooted tree. Whenever somebody visited our home for the first time they had to be carefully ushered for a ‘safe landing’ on our portion of the house. Once I got into college I never invited my classmates to my home worrying about the great fall they could experience.

There was one good thing about this house that it had an open terrace. It had half-built pillars. I was told that the owner wanted to go for another floor and paucity of funds deterred him from that and half-finished pillars stood as a silent testimony for that. Appa made a shed there with some bamboos and coconut-mats. This became a comfortable place for the students who used to come in large numbers for private tuition. Appa was a great and popular teacher in English and Math in our school. Till this day I consider him as the best teacher I had, especially his way of teaching English grammar was fantastic. It is not merely a son’s blind appreciation. But a real, impartial and judicious statement which I hold till this day.

The terrace became my living place once I got the courage to be there alone in the nights too. Because always the very big banyan tree on the next road with its rustling noise at nights could scare any week hearted person. Added to this was the story of somebody who committed suicide on the very next house. The room where the suicide took place was within a few feet. The stairs running down from this terrace was mostly very dark, who had very bright lights on those days! So whenever I alighted the steps at nights after switching off the only light at the terrace, I used to have a feeling that somebody, mostly the person who committed suicide in the next house, following or rather chasing me down. I used to run down faster in the beginning. Then I thought I should have a ‘face-to-face’ fight with this ‘follower’ once for all and do away with ‘him’ for all times. So with this decision I stopped running madly down from the terrace; instead I used to step down very slowly and at times would stop and turn around to warn anything that could be at my back. Once I did this a few times the fear was gone for ever and then staying alone in the terrace became routine and casual. Once I entered into my teens it became my abode for the nights. It was also my study room.

Friday, February 16, 2007



Before I reached my college days, this caste situation underwent a lot of changes, good and bad. Waiters in the hotels were not addressed anymore as sami. They were simply waiters irrespective of their caste affiliations. This was due to, I strongly believe, the social reformation that was brought by Periyar and his Dravidian movement. But the sad thing was this movement was mostly anti-brahminic and not pro-dalit, a term which came into being only very late. So sami was replaced by ‘waiter’ but the so called low-castes and the treatment they meted out in the society remained so for long – rather, it still continues. Periyar’s service would have made people realize that brahmins were not from the forehead of Brahman as believed but the pitiable plight of shudras and panchamas remained and is remaining almost the same as it had been for centuries.

Even in college days, I never became conscious of this caste differences. Caste was a thing about which I never bothered. The first instance in my life when caste or its importance surfaced was when I shot my very first application for a job. It was even before results of masters exam. I responded to an advertisement from a college. I applied. Though people suggested that I should mention my caste I did not. Somebody gave me an idea that I should add my caste name as the postfix to my appa’s name so that I get an advantage since the college was run by people of my own caste. I did not. Then in the interview I was repeatedly asked some indirect questions – like my father’s name, the grand-father’s name – since that was the period when the previous generation always had the caste name added to one’s name and the next generation slowly shedding it -, then my native place which could be clue to my caste. So both I and the interviewer were beating around the bush. Then came the very direct question. I had to answer. When the interviewer came to know of my caste he started saying how sad he felt since the job had already been promised to another guy – of course not belonging to my caste and how glad he would be if I applied again later. I enjoyed his predicament. But never applied to that college again.

More than half of my career went on without any shade of casteism. But in the later years this evil had spread so much in the society it got very much reflected in the college life too. In the later eighties, as I know, the dalit movement had come up in the open making the dalits demand their social and political rights. Animosity between dalits and people of thevar caste, the later being just above dalits in the caste hierarchy caused a lot of friction in the social milieu and this got reflected in every social sphere. The saddest part was that even in a college like The American College, which was and is a cut above many other colleges, had been afflicted with this social malady.

Thursday, February 15, 2007



In my childhood days in Kasiapuram I used to find one odd thing. It was the visit of some poor people in the late hours of evenings with their bowls to every house in the village. They were the dhobis and barbers of the village. They would come by the back door and very humbly announce themselves. Ladies of the houses would give them a chunk of old maize-choru or kazhi as it was known. For this they used to make this kazhi once a week. There were so many questions in my mind then. Why not they could be given freshly prepared kazhi and why always week-old kazhi? Why should they come so humbly and ask for alms? Why were these people treated differently from our other relatives? Even as a child I was tutored to call or talk to them with least respect. Even aged people were called by even children in such language? So many questions. But I never dared to ask anyone about it since it was part of that village life. Whether I liked it or not, I too called them in the usual disrespectful way as everyone. This habit came to an end only when I was around 9 – 10 years old. By that time I hade moved to Madurai.

We had a hair-cutting salon near my house and that is where my appa used to take me for my monthly hair cut – those days I had really thick hair on my present bald head! The owner’s name was Thangam and his salon was entirely of a different type unlike other salons of those days. Salons of those days used to have an array of mirrors and lot of pictures of pin-up girls. I still don’t understand the psychology of those decorated salons of yester years. Was it because it was out and out a male domain and they had the privilege of drooling over such sexy pictures? I still don’t know. Nevertheless Thangam’s salon was not of that type. His shop was quite above the road level without any proper steps; just some stone blocks served as the steps. Whenever I went there I had to be hauled up by Thangam into the shop from the ‘steps’ which were so low. He had just two large mirrors opposite two salon-chairs. There were no pictures; no blaring radio; no unnecessary crowd discussing national and international politics. In any such a salon you could find every minute somebody dropping in to give ’final touches’ to their hairdo, using the comb and mirror of the salon for free. I never knew whether they were all regular customers or regular intruders. Walls of the salon would be very clean. But there used to be only one picture occupying a prominent place in the salon. At that time I did know whose photograph was that. I thought it could be somebody related to Thangam. I used to go there for the regular cutting only with my appa and here too I found appa talking to Thangam in the same parlance as they did in village to those who used to come for the kazhi late in the evenings.

Probably I was doing fourth or fifth standard when for the first time appa sent me to salon alone. He gave instructions as to how my hair dressing should be done and asked me to pass those instructions to Thangam. When I got into the chair in the salon I started reeling out the instructions given by appa. I addressed him using the same disrespectful language. Thangam listened to my instructions. Then very calmly in a soothing tone he asked me which class I was doing. I told him. The next question was very pointed. Did your teacher teach you like this to address elders in this disrespectful language? I was stunned. The question whacked me right on my face. Mr. Thangam appeared to me growing into a colossal figure right in front of my eyes. I mumbled my apology. From that minute I always addressed my elders with respect irrespective of any other factor.

Latter I came to know the photograph that adorned the walls of Mr. Thangam’s salon was the portrait of E.V.R. Periyar !


Monday, February 12, 2007



Yemen was once given the responsibility of taking me back to Kasiapuram after a visit to Kurumbalaperi. We went by bus and after alighting from the bus to reach our home we had to walk by a sandy stretch through palmyra-tamarind fields. Along the stretch we had our family cemetery. It had tombs of our grandparents and that of my amma. I used to always have a mixed feeling whenever I went that side. It was a bit weird. I always wanted to sneak a look at the tomb and at the same time had a sort of fear to look at that side at all. Usually the former feeling used to win. This time I was on the shoulders of Yemen and he started talking about amma as we were nearing the cemetery. I was, as usual, in splits. I was under Macbethian to-be-or-not-to-be dilemma. I did not turn till we almost crossed the cemetery. But I succumbed to the temptation at the last minute. I turned for a fraction of second towards amma’s tomb. What I saw there is still quite fresh in my mind. On both the sides of my mother’s tomb I saw two very tall angels in the usual kneeling position with bowed head and folded hands that we see in pictures. Those two guardian angels were so brighteningly white. They, in the kneeling position, were to the height of the palmyra trees at the background. It was just for a fraction of a second but that “apparition” had become a permanent mental picture.

As an atheist now I analyze that ‘apparition’. It had been rammed into me that each person would be ‘supplied’ with a guardian angel and it takes care of you and all that stuff. And one sees pictures and statues of angels in that kneeling position. I was also quite convinced that my mother should have gone straight to heaven since she was considered by everybody as a good person. These facts being in my inner mind made me see what I wanted to see there. Rather it was a projection of my own mental picture. Apart from the dream my periyamma had at the time of amma’s death which I said about earlier, this is the one another ‘supernatural’ thing that had occurred in my life. While I am able to give satisfactory explanation for this second episode, I am still not able to adduce any explanation for the first.

After I switched over to urban life Yemen visited us twice. He came to Madurai for some medical help. Though I did not understand anything about his ailment then, now I assume that he should have got gangrene on his toe. He was advised to get it amputated. But he refused the first time and went to back to his village. After some time when he came back it seemed the condition had worsened and was asked to go for amputation of the whole foot. He declined to go for it and went back. That was the last of him. I came to know that he passed away shortly due to that wound. Whenever I went to Kurumbalaperi after that I used to enquire about his family. I got only disinterested answers. By that time chithi got married and my visits to Kurumbalperi became rare. Though I had never got any other information about him or his family, till this date his memories in me have never left. Probably he became a reference point in my life for my feelings towards the evils of caste system. Better I talk about this in a separate chapter.


Sunday, February 04, 2007



Let me go back to Kurumbalaperi since I have to mention one another important character. He was Yemen(ஏமன் - எமன் என்பதின் மரூவாக இருக்குமோ?). I had only short association with him but he had remained as a very important character in my life. I don’t know the exact reason how his character had been etched so deeply in my mind. He used to be a tall and well built man. Whenever I used to visit Kurumbalaperi he would come to see me. But he would not enter our home. He would wait in the outer quadrangle but once I come out he would lift me and would carry me around on his shoulders. I felt that he took both pleasure and pride in doing it. When I go out with him it would be very tough for me to make him allow me to walk with him. He always insisted that he should carry me. People in my family showed affection for him but in the early years I was always wondering why he was not permitted to enter our home in spite of the affection they had. It took time for me to understand the intricacies of the caste system. It was so strictly followed in villages that entry into our homes was a forbidden thing for them. The in-built complex in him due to his so-called low birth had made him feel indebted to my amma. He was from lower caste and by the custom of those days in villages he had to depend on our family for all their material needs. When he lost his elder sister with whom he had been very close he wept so inconsolably. My amma consoled him that she would be his akka. That had made him feel so grateful to her since according to his own narration to me it was unthinkable for a higher caste person to accept a person of lower caste as a sibling. Now I wonder what a rift the caste system had made between people. My own caste is not anything that comes under the so called ‘higher’ bracket. Still the divide between castes was and is so deeper into the psyche of the people.