By Chitra Gopalakrishnan
I sit with old and young relatives in Coimbatore, in Tamil Nadu, in the south of India, in my aunt Radha’s home, or rather on her balmy thinnai, her long and wide red oxide porch, its polish alive and glistening at a level of perfection that can be achieved only by hundreds of unsheathed feet stomping on it every day for years. We compare recollections of Rajam patti, as we affectionately call her. In fact, patti is a term I and cousins my age use to cover her as our grandmother though we are a thrice-removed generation from her and should be calling her differently. My daughter, too, refers to her thus though she her great, great grandmother.
The airy porch we sit on, lined with trees, was once her home and my aunt Radha has inherited it from her mother, my grand aunt, Saraswathy, in a painless way as none of the relatives or siblings contested her right to it. Just this very morning, we are told by aunt Radha, a bunch of her grandmother’s photographs has tumbled out of the ancestral cupboard, seemingly of their own volition, smelling of sandalwood. I suspect the fragrance has rubbed off from the many, hidden sachets my aunt uses to preserve her saris. It provokes many discussions around Rajam patti and her life. “My diminutive, just-about-five-feet, grandmother, Rajalakshmi, knew strength in her bones as she knew it in the daily rhythms of her life, quietly yet surely,” declares my aunt Radha.
From this very cupboard that belonged to our matriarch, Aunt Radha brings out several of her handwoven saris, passed on to her by her mother, and urges us, her closest, most loved women kin, to take a few. She mock drapes a few on herself to prove just how classic its exquisite gold threaded work is and how carefully-crafted its motifs are and how sway-worthy they remain. Her generosity is brought on by her granddaughter Tara’s wedding that we have all gathered to attend. There is an overflow of womanly sentiment and emotion in the room. “If you wear her saris, it will be as if she is part of the wedding. The falling of her photographs shows she is already here with us,” she says.
Aunt Radha has arranged for all of us to have lunch at her house which explains why we are gathered collectively on her thinnai. As we sit, the incredibly sensual, rich and sweet smell of jasmines gently invades our being. I let my eyes follow the unruly trails of jasmine creepers which tenaciously clutch both the ends of the porch. The heady smell of its snowy white flowers pulls me back to a remembrance, me on this same porch as a ten-year-old with my grandma, grand aunt and two grand uncles, of being told tales by them of Rajam patti, like today, even as jasmines were used to adorn my hair. All these people are no more and I marvel at how her stories come alive for each generation.
“My mother knew strength as easily and intimately as she knew how to coax black soot from a ghee-laden copper lamp onto an earthen pot. She was as familiar with strength as she was with the process of mixing this soot with castor oil to daily line the eyelids of women, children and the sleep-soaked slits of infants at home so that their eyes redeem a refreshing view of the world,” my grandmother, Sitalakshmi had told me. This as she patiently oiled my jet black, curly, difficult hair and untangled a multitude of its knots to tame them into two tidy plaits.
Her sister, my grand aunt, Saraswathy, who owned her mother’s home then and was sitting next to us, ready with fresh strands of jasmines to be strung to both sides of my freshly oiled hair, had talked more on this subject. “My mother had to know strength, in a noiseless, private and personal way, and feel it as closely as she felt her clinging pavadai in her childhood and the folds of her sari as she grew up. She had no choice. Dispossession, she would tell us all, leads one to such sharp-edged awareness, such intuitive entwining.”
My eldest grand uncle, their eldest brother, Venkatraman, laid out his mother’s family history to me as best as he could. Talking to or tolerating ten-year-olds was not a skill he possessed as everyone in the family knew. “Her family of erudite Tamil Iyer Brahmins and the families before them, though not seafarers, had lived for millennia in the port town of Ratnagiri, in the southwestern part of the neighboring state of Maharashtra. They were originally from Thanjavur located in the Kaveri delta, a little over 300 kilometers from the capital Chennai, in the state of Tamil Nadu, but had never been there. For them Ratnagiri, a land that lined a part of the Arabian sea, its waters calm sometimes, turbulent other times, its silver-sanded beaches, magical seashells, cliffs, forts, green-lined, gently sloping hillocks and quaint coconut shops was home, as much a home as it was of the Maharashtrians,” he had said. Or at least, more or less so.
My grand aunt’s husband Subramaniam continued the tale, familiar as he was with his wife’s family history and its members. I was told much later and in a buttoned up fashion that he was a cousin of the family, that he was not unfamiliar with both my Rajam patti and my aunt before he married her and that it was not unusual in those times to marry first cousins. Iyer families, I learnt to my consternation over the years, routinely married their girls to their uncles or cousins (mother’s brother or father’s sister’s son and such like) to keep property within the family.
I remember his words swimming like an unhurried choreographed dance before my eyes. “The Brahmin community in Ratnagiri had lived within agraharams, row houses in the shape of a garland with a temple in the center, their lives revolving around religion and religious rituals. They were fluent in Marathi as well as Tamil, stuck mostly to Iyer vegetarian food but enjoyed rice flour rotis, a choice of modaks (steamed rice dumplings filled with jaggery, coconut and cardamom) and aam ras (pulpy mango mash) that the people of Ratnagiri routinely made,” he said.
I also remember his unblurred details on how “the women draped Maharashtrian nine-yard nauvari saris, used khun fabrics for blouses which had beautiful brocades and reveled in their rich-as silk, soft-as-satin feel along with the coolness and comfort of cotton, while the men were far more fastidious. They remained true to their roots by only wearing dhotis or veshtis as they called it, opting, as is their tradition, for bare chests and bald heads with a tuft of hair left at the back that they wound into a ponytail.”
My later year readings of history showed how the Maratha displays of dominance towards the Tamil Brahmins flared off and on but became insistent 1880 onward, the swagger and threats of social disharmony and distrust turning into intimidation and serious injury. My grand aunt’s recap of events much earlier had reflected my later textbook assimilations with exactitude. “My mother told us how one May night, in 1890, a muscular group of soldiers ambushed them. She said they were like wolf packs in their feral, cooperative hunting mode, frenzied for action and come to exercise their privilege of power. All the Tamil Brahmin families were driven out overnight, their rights to their land, resources taken, their social, spiritual and cultural identities marked for death and their agraharams, that their ancestors had called home for generations, snatched with the threatening glint of swords.”
Based on my grand aunt’s vivid accounts, I could picture in my child eyes, my great grandmother. She as a five-year-old girl, a girl much younger than me, at a stage perhaps when her consciousness of herself as a person had just begun to emerge. Into my mind crept a doe-eyed girl, with a long, shiny, swinging plait, a billowing silk pavadai, her skirt probably the color of ripe mangos, scared beyond measure to leave a landscape that had shaped her so far and unable to deal with the layers of protection falling away from her. I could see her playing catch up with the fleeing families, sometimes on foot and other times sitting inside the arc of the thatched cover of a bullock cart. This as the people took turns to sit inside them when extreme exhaustion crept into them and they could feel the animal weight of their bones.
I could envision families, in their coiled anxiousness, with rough cloth backpacks twisted with jewelry and silk saris, some heavy with spun gold, others light, with a gossamer feel to them like they were woven from the wind, and portraits of their gods in the firm belief that they would ride the rough journey with them and shield them from the very worst. I could see sightless grandmas, wheezing uncles, roaring-in-pain aunts, crying orphans and gummy babies being taken care of even in these dire moments, no one put out, their abandonment not even a stray thought. And, I could picture the fights this non-warring, un-athletic set of people were forced into. With marauding men. With brutal, buffalo-strengthed elements of nature. With violent, dry, windy days. With nights that brought them unknown terrors, leech bites and fatal scorpion stings. With violence itself, stingingly pumped into their veins.
“Even as hunger bit them, as thirst dried them, as enduring heat drained away their energy and as the lack of privacy denied them their dignity, these people crossed two states in the span of a month and a half and made their way to their original home, 1,450 miles away, the cultural heartland of Tamil Nadu, Thanjavur. As they entered their homeland as strangers, welcome came as assaults from searing dust storms and whirlwinds flowing from various directions. The strong south-west winds continued till September and they struggled infirmly to put roots in this blustery, unaccustomed city, one with a long, fire-flaming hot summer,” explained my grandmother. She told me that she recounted as best as she could what her own grandmother had told her.
“My mother’s young strength that must have been whetted and stropped in this terrible period, would have surely not have settled that easily into evenness. As her family, as those who came with them, struggled to tamp down their outrage and set up new lives amongst the area’s green paddy fields, tall coconut groves, vast gardens of mango, guava and plantain trees and other verdant vegetation, life must have been very foreign and difficult for a child who had lived securely so far,” my grandmother reasoned.
“It would have taken her family years to get over their misfortunes, their destitution. But with time, the family agraharams came up, a sense of community developed again with food, savories and sweetmeats exchanged between families and with the tutoring of their tongues to speak Tamil in the dialect of this city, a sense of belonging must have finally set in,” my grand uncle Venkatraman pitched in.
“Other than going to school, our mother must have been groomed into domestic rituals, how to cook in the Thanjavur Tamil way, make mango curry, spicy pulisadam (tamarind rice), thavala adai (a pancake with lentils and rice) and an assortment of pickles to meet the punishing standards of all the householders. She would have had to master the art of making kaapi (coffee) for discerning drinkers getting the thickness of the decoction to the quantity to be served right, heating bath water in huge copper boilers with the leaves of the neem, bel and tulsi as disinfectants, stitching clothes and embroidering, bathing and clothing the idols of gods in the proper manner as well as understanding which glossy heart-shaped betel-leaf with its white catkin to use for which occasion. Be it to greet elders at wedding ceremonies, celebrate the New Year or the harvest season, offer payment to Ayurvedic physicians and astrologers or chew it after lunch and dinner as a digestive,” my grand aunt explained to me.
After ten years, in 1900, when she was climbing her fifteenth year, her strength was put to test as seismic waves of trouble scooped up her young life again. My grand aunt Saraswathy continued my patti’s saga. “Her father decided that a man fifteen years her senior, from Palakkad district in the neighboring state of Kerala, who traded in spices, one with sharp entrepreneurial instincts, who travelled to coastal Cochin to carry on his business and whose family could afford to nurture five elephants at home and was singly responsible for the village’s annual ratholsavam, an event where gigantic chariots tread the village tracks for over four days from the Sree Vishwanatha Swamy Temple, as a suitable man for her. She was not consulted in the choice of her groom and ordered to abandon her studies.”
My grandmother’s interpretation was this. “Our warm-spirited mother was abruptly thrown into yet another less genteel way of life, into a completely different way of speaking, conducting herself and cooking and was made to adjust her outlook to that of a trader’s family. She had to quickly adapt to the peculiar accent, mannerisms and intonation of the Palakkad Iyers and reacquaint herself with the insecurities of living on another’s land, old scars coming alive in yet another way. The Tamils had come to Kerala in the 18th century as migrants. She must have managed everyday successes adequately, with the speechlessness of a new bride, evident by the high praise she earned from her sharp-tongued mother-in-law and all her neighbors.”
It was not long before her next reversal came. When she had just delivered her first baby, a son, the ship that carried her husband’s spices to other shores turned turtle as did their family fortunes. Debtors began knocking at their doors and to escape them the family had to abandon their ancestral home and find a secret one in Pondicherry. This as it was a French colony, not directly under the British jurisdiction, and it was easier to escape the arms of the law here.
My grand uncle Subramaniam knew the details. “They lived undercover for two years, keeping the outside world where it belonged, outside. My mother-in-law at this time was big with her second son and the days and night unspooled together for her. Time seemed to be somewhere else. Just she was getting accustomed to this lonely, isolated, unlit, subterranean and seamless life, her husband decided on their third home in Coimbatore, a city in the western corner of Tamil Nadu on the banks of the Noyyal river and surrounded by the mountain ranges of the Western ghats on one side and the forests of the Nilgiris on the other. She, as usual, was not consulted. And in this life, he chose to be a moneylender, another anomaly that she could not adjust to. They lived here for thirty years till their last son, the eighth among their children, was born. While my father-in-law travelled for work to nearby Pollachi and Tiruppur, he almost, always skirted his hometown Palakkad, remaining a fugitive from his homeland till his death.”
My grandmother talked of her mother’s last years with emotion she could barely contain. “My mother was widowed in her late fifties and was forced to lock up her Coimbatore home and come be with her sons in the crowded, fast-industrializing, soul-less city of Bombay. Her father, still alive, was devastated by the news of her husband’s death and pleaded that her hair not be shorn as was done with widows. So she kept her long mane but took to wearing the widowed attire of biscuit-brown saris and found a way to live in the lives of her sons and her grandchildren, un-embittered herself while keeping them tethered to life as well. As her life shape became lighter, she came into the fullness of her grace even though their lifestyles and opinions were too various to agree on anything. Perhaps, in a way to atone for their growing lack of connect.”
With tears flowing, my grandmother had said, “She was probably able to do this as she had an enormous capacity to carry her grief within. She made space, as always, for it as it expanded its reach and breadth daily. Undone, renewed, undone and renewed once more, this seemed to be the pattern of her life. But towards the end of her life, she confided in me that her heart was really in Ratnagiri. Her exact words were ‘I have had to leave the land I loved and learn to love the lands where I live.’ She had no trouble with her memory until the very end.”
She died at the age of seventy-eight, two years before I was born. I was born in the same month as the one she died and so I was named after her.
My aunt Radha’s words addressed to me, breaks through my reverie and brings me to the present, to her home, her thinnai, or should I say my great grandmother’s. “My grandmother and your great grandmother knew how to prune her strength and nurture it so that it did not become something else. She was never given a life of her own, something that was hers alone, yet she owned it in her own way. Hopefully, her spirit will guide you to be proud in who you are, be fierce and passionate about your beliefs and face disappointments with the same head as she did. I hope you will also pleat your pride and identity, as she did, within the folds of your sari.”
Tara looks at me and says, “I think I will name my daughter after our family matriarch or a variation of it for her legacy of strength to live on.”