Where Everybody Knows Your Name…

A link to this post on Huffpost:


Growing up in the early 70s and 80s, every household in Madras and Pondicherry (and I suspect, everywhere in India) was surrounded by a small village. Or at least that’s what it felt like.

Our grandparents’ house in Purasaiwalkam where I spent my early years in a joint family, and pretty much every summer vacation after we moved to Pondicherry, was a teeming hub of life, and part of a complete ecosystem that sustained itself.

We lived in an upstairs portion overlooking the super busy Tana Street, across the big church which was always a happening place. It had a huge bell that rang every hour (I think). Purasaiwalkam and the neighboring Vepery, being home to many Anglo Indians, there were always weddings happening there, with the brides dressed in actual “western” style gowns, sporting short bobs.

Downstairs was Dinesh Bakery – run by a Keralite guy. Even though we didn’t traditionally eat bread in our typical Tambrahm family (bread was, typically, a “fever” food), there were exceptions when a cousin from Delhi visited, and his mom, my aunt, would buy fresh bread and load it up with butter bought from a family a few houses down the street. I haven’t had bread like that, or the wholesome, thick, creamy, golden yellow butter, although Kerry Gold comes close, since my childhood. The mornings always smelled of freshly baked bread, in odd symphony with the aroma of dal, and the ghee-laden tempering of hot rasam, and incense and camphor from the puja room.

A couple of streets down, there was “Kanniyappan Provision Store”, the family grocer. Every time we visited Madras, a trip to Kanniappan store was a must. Ah, the things that made us happy! The store had the peculiar smell of gunny sacks, spices, sugar candy, “kadalai urundai” (peanut brittle), and all kinds of mysterious things. The lighting was part natural and muted. When “Aradhana”, the Hindi movie (that’s what we called them before there was Bollywood, and before “Boycott Hindi” was a big thing down south) was released and was a big hit, the story goes that Kanniappan actually named his newborn granddaughter Sharmila Tagore – last name and all.

Then there was the incense seller who visited the house, bringing his wares, and the whole family sat and chatted with him. The downstairs also housed a textile store, Maraikair Bros, and I would spend hours at his store, dreaming up dresses made of the beautiful fabrics. Mr. Maraikair (not sure what his first name was, he was always Marakair mama to us) had a handkerchief tied around his head. I am amazed at how well his face and his voice are permanently etched in my memory, even as I struggle to remember names of my coworkers from a few years ago.

In Pondicherry, I remember the lady who came around selling yogurt every morning (“thayirkaari”). And the “kudukudupandi”, the fortune teller, shaking his mini drum, and chanting “nalla kalam porakkudhu” (good times are here), in that peculiar sing song tone.

This guy was the father of the chain mail. If we gave him money, we would be blessed with a wedding in the family, good times, big lottery wins, and the next baby born will be a boy (we are a family of five girls). Heaven help us if we didn’t – our family would be cursed with very bad luck for a very long time. We were terrified of this guy.

There was also the “keerai kaari”, the lady who sold all kinds of greens. And the various vendors throughout the day who would make the trip to sell their wares – fruits, pots and pans, sarees, anything at all!

If that was all the vendors, there were entertainers on the street as well – the famous “puli aatam” in which guys painted themselves like a tiger and danced on the streets, and the guy who staged a snake-mongoose fight with an actual mongoose and a snake, and the “poikal kuthirai” in which people stood in life-size horse models tied around their waist and danced. It was all fascinating for a little kid.

There was also the beach, with its “thengai manga pattani sundal” (boiled peas seasoned with tart mango pieces, coconuts and lime juice, absolute to die for snack). I don’t remember the old lady of Marina beach at this age. She seems to have become a fixture in the late 80s, the fortune teller who tells every girl with a guy that she should have been born a boy in a scary, foreboding tone, and extracts a hefty sum. What girl wouldn’t fall for this line when she’s with her date? I didn’t realize she said the same line to every girl until much, much later, in my 30s, when I met a girl from Madras who said she was told the exact same thing by an old fortune teller at the Marina beach!

I miss those days when we go back to visit – these days, everything is delivered with a phone call. While the convenience cannot be beaten, I am nostalgic for the charm the old way of life held, a pace that was relaxed, and immersed us in each experience. How many of us know the grocer’s granddaughter’s name anymore?


Puli Aatam (Tiger Dance)

poikal kuthirai

Poikal Kudhirai (Horse with Fake Legs)




April 17, 2015

My parents in 1963

My parents in 1963

photo (10)

A couple I’ve known all my life celebrated 52 years of being married on this day. Fifty two eventful years with never a dull moment. Their marriage, like most, hasn’t been a storybook one. It has had its moments of glory and moments of utter despair. It resulted in five daughters—in a land where even a king who has five daughters is prophesied to end up on the streets with a bowl in his hand, they have survived. Gloriously. All five daughters married, with 2 children a piece, totaling ten grandchildren. I am talking about my parents, Jayaraman and Nithyakalyani.

This is my little tribute to their life together. I will follow the order in the phrase “mata, pita” and start with my mother.

She was born to Alamelu (Perambur patti to us) and Venkateswaran (Perambur thatha), with 5 siblings. Due to family circumstances, she had to drop out of school without completing high school to take care of her brothers and sister. She met my dad through her brother, my uncle, Mani mama.

I use the word meeting  loosely here, as it was 1963 in traditional Chennai, where a boy and girl talking in public was cause for a minor scandal. Mani mama and my dad used to work at Binny Mills (or was it B&C back then?) in Chennai. My parents got married at the young age of 23. Theirs was quite the unconventional marriage for those days as mom is the same age as my dad. But, the story I have heard goes like this: my dad said he would marry only my mom, or not marry at all. She married into a huge family of 8 sisters-in-law and became “manni” for not just her “naathanars” (sisters-in-law), but to everyone in the family who came later—including the “maappillais” and the grandchildren.

My mom is an amazing cook, very artistic (she makes beautiful kolams) and has a thing for numbers. She used to tell us stories most days while she fed us.

I love to hear stories about my thatha and how he pampered his daughter. He gave her very unusual wedding saris—a Kanjivaram silk in pistachio green with a dark green border for the wedding, and a gold tissue Banarasi for the reception. I remember the gold tissue sari from my younger days. It was the most gorgeous sari I had ever seen. Unfortunately, it simply became threadbare over time and we lost it. My thatha used to be an accountant for a cardamom estate owner and was able to afford nice things for my mom. From these and other little things she has told me about him, I know she was very much loved and cherished by her father. And that makes me very happy, because my mom’s married life has been no walk in the park.

She used to play the violin and put it away after getting married.

The 3 things that my mom taught me and my sisters, that still guide me are:

  1. Charity, even, or especially, in poverty—I remember one Vijayadasami/Saraswati puja when I must have been 12 or 13. I came home after some school activity. Mom had new clothes set out, and told me we were giving it to some poor kids (we were, by no means well off then—we got 2 new sets of clothes every year, usually from the textile factory where my dad worked, Anglo French Textiles. They were usually rolls of some fabric, in two colors/designs if we were lucky so that all four of us wouldn’t be wearing the same outfit. We also got used clothes from friends and relatives!) I accepted what she said without a question. That’s when she told me that she was just testing me, and the clothes were actually for us. I often think about this and wonder if I have passed this on to my kids.
  2. Run far away from people who do bad things (“dushtarai kandal dhoora vilagu” in Thamizh)—though I don’t always remember and practice this at the right moment, this has been an invaluable lesson and has saved me from plenty of heartbreak and pain, not to mention wasted energy and time fighting people and things when it’s not worth it.
  3. A corollary to #2: Don’t hit back at people who have wronged you, be it your sisters, your enemies, your friends, whoever—people usually get what they deserve. This one is hard, but the older and wiser(!) I get, I understand that the universe works in very just and fair ways, usually. For the rest, there is my old friend, Karma!

Of late, my amma has become frail and weak.  I wish I could bring her here to Florida with me and give her some peace and tranquility, but she is too tired to travel anymore. She talks about living in an ashram. I am not old enough to bless her, but I wish her peace for the rest of her life, with all my heart. Peace that has been a rarity in her difficult life.

Now about my dad. He is quite a character. Known as “meesai” mama by his nieces and nephews thanks to the military-style mustache he sported.

Like my mother, he too, didn’t finish college, and I suspect regrets it to this day. But, my dad never stopped learning. He has not let a lack of college education stop him from leading a successful life, giving all five of his daughters a decent education, and marrying them off.

He is a constant learner, full of curiosity, and doesn’t mince his words. This last trait has not won him any popularity contests, but I know people respect him for it.

He has great work ethics, is a self-starter and knows how to get work done from people. When I read about people like Jack Welch and Steve Jobs, I honestly think under the right circumstances, provided the opportunities, my dad could have been a fantastic entrepreneur. At 75, he keeps himself as much updated on the technology of today’s fast-paced world as he can, drives himself and mom around in the horrible Bengaluru traffic, and pretty much keeps himself busy with a job he doesn’t need, if only for my mom’s sanity. He left India between 1977 and 1985 to work in Kenya and Nigeria to be able to provide a better financial life for his family. (That’s where he learned to speak Swahili, and still retains some of the vocabulary, especially the swear words!)

The things that my dad taught us girls directly or implicitly, in no particular order:

Obsessive punctuality—I sometimes wish I hadn’t acquired this. While it is painful to be fashionably late to social functions, the pain is magnified by the fact that I am married to someone who is perpetually running late.

Curiosity—I like to think I inherited my curiosity about the world around me from my dad, and thank him for it.

Play—my dad definitely is one who qualifies for a “young at heart” award. He has always been boisterous, fun-loving and loud. His “kaaka” (crow) in the kaka-nari-vadai (crow and the fox) story is probably the only one to sing “chaudwi kaa chand” when the cunning fox tricks him into singing. He cheated on all games with us kids. I suspect he still does, when he plays with his grandchildren. He is also the source of the latest kollywood gossip for me—our telephone conversations include an update on the latest movies, politics and news such as “nalaikku Sridevikku valaikaappudi”.

He is also the proud author of a family lullaby, a classic that’s been passed on to his daughters, all of whom have sung it to our kids:

The song goes like this:

“Thoongu paapa thoongu

Thoongina odane ezhundru

Ezhundha odane saapdu

Saapta odane thoongu”


Sleep baby sleep

Wake up after you sleep

Eat after you wake up

Sleep after you eat

Genius, no?

I do wish he would be more patient with himself, mom and everyone around him and generally sit back, relax and enjoy his retirement years. He has earned it.

My parents are polar opposites in everything—personality, temparement and outlook. They bicker, they drive each other mad, and I don’t know how they have survived fifty years together, but I am positive they wouldn’t know what to do without each other.

Happy 52nd anniversary, Amma and Appa!