‘Meena delivered a male child. Normal delivery. Both doing well.’

Thus wrote my maternal grandfather in his 1940 Diary, 22 October, Tuesday. He normally covered the day’s weather too. But there was no mention of any thunderstorm, lightning, or cloudburst which would have sent a signal to the world, a la Mahendra Kapoor in BR Chopra’s Mahabharata: Yada Yada Hi Dharmasya, Glanir Bhavati Bharata, Abhyutthanam Adharmasya. Tadatmanam Srjamy Aham. That is, whenever Dharma is in peril, I will manifest myself on this Earth. Apparently, with the elements preferring to take a day off, I entered the world not to make a difference, but to be part of the teeming millions.

By God’s grace I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth. Our textile-business was at its peak. We had everything – vast agricultural lands, a huge house, a car and driver, cook, priest for daily puja at home, errands boy, domestic help… You name any, and we had it.

This was till World War II broke out. The Government enforced price-control on all goods. They fixed the price at which each yard of cloth should be sold. We had to sell goods mostly at less than the procurement cost. Consequently, overnight the business collapsed like a pack of cards, completing a circle of rags to riches to rags.

How come? Yes, my ancestors had relocated from Tanjore to Palakkad for greener pastures. The first ‘migrant’ pedaled from village to village in Palakkad, selling bath-towels, to build gradually a textile business, and later an empire with branches in Palakkad, Eranakulam, Coimbatore, Pondicherry, Madras and Mumbai. The family witnessed its Golden Era when my paternal grandfather was at the helm.

Luckily, this success didn’t go into his head. He performed Sahasra Bhojanam and Daanam (feeding 1000 scholars and getting them to accept daan in the form of Bhoomi daan, Griha daan, Pasu daan, etc. No wonder, his life influenced me a lot – though, in strict confidence, my friends don’t rate me high as a giver.

What personal presence I missed with my paternal grandpa, I made it up with my maternal grandfather (advocate). He is among those whom I adore, admire and respect. When WW-II rendered our family literally on the streets, it was he who gave shelter in his house in the adjoining village. I grew up there from class Eight onwards. I wish I could emulate him on half of what he did in his lifetime – a true Karma Yogi.

While ‘Karma Yogi’ describes Thatha, ‘noble soul’ would fill the bill for Paati who pursued the Bhakti route. She was equanimity incarnate. The family had no extraordinary income to boast of, but she stood by him in his decision to allow children of their near and distant cousins from villages 20-30 miles away, also to stay in their home, to be able to study in Government Victoria College in Palakkad – free board and lodging. This is in addition to Thatha’s leftover family of four, and the seven permanent fixture of our family. Paati thus tended a cow to supplement the family income.

I cherished the most when Paati and the neighbouring ladies would sit in our courtyard at sunset for a chat. I would rest my head on her lap disregarding the chorus-scold by the rest: “Grown up like a buffalo, still resting on poor Paati’s lap”. I will pretend to get up, but she will disallow. Yes, it is during this period that I heard some of the less known, but no less interesting, stories – like Ashtavakra, or Baarbareeka (Gatotgacha’s son). We would literally hang on her lips to hear more

On the lighter side, still on the threshold of adolescence, I always looked forward to our eldest uncle’s visit from Mumbai, more for the scented Brylcream, Brilliantaine, or Swastik Castor Oil that I could have access to for a well-groomed hairstyle, and the five-rupee note he would give just before return. I would accompany him to bazar – not so much to hold the grocery bag. When we pass by Ananda Bhawan, I would tell him: “This hotel is the current rage for Puri Masala.” And when we walk past Ashok Bhavan, I would hint: “Masaal Dosai here is the best.” Before he returned to Bombay I would have wangled a visit with him to all these hotels.

In sharp contrast, our second uncle, Mr Serious, always landed from Delhi with a luggage of Discovery of India, The Story of My Experiments with Truth, by Mahatma Gandhi, or Wren & Martin’s grammar. And, to add to the misery, when he catches me alone, he would ask me: what is a transitive verb, what is a past participle? Consequently, I made sure not to cross shoulders with him.

And my youngest uncle? Well, he was at home when we shifted. Senior by just four years, he and my two elder brothers formed a group. Branding me just a lad, they asked me to form a group with Shanta and Leela, my younger sisters. And I was not very keen. Their discussions always centred around dance, dandia, Carnatic music, or rangoli. I didn’t give up easily. I persisted with the “Men’s” group, following them from ten steps behind wherever they went. Fed up with my perseverance, my youngest uncle called me. “Okay, we will accept you in the fold if you manage to smuggle for all of us ‘cigarette mittai’ from Chitta’s shop at the corner. This is noon, and he will be dosing off at the counter,” he tipped me. Who says one sees dadagiri only in Bollywood movies?

Did I accept his challenge? Did I make my foray into shoplifting? (To be continued – depending on reader response).

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Sundaram Venkatesh

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