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My maternal aunt and her husband - Periamma and Ayya

Background – Periamma

Periamma (she was named Kamala) was born on 10 April 1917 in the village of Palayampatti in Tamil Nadu, India. Her only surviving sister (the other sister died during childhood) is my mother Gnanasundari (“Amma”) who was born on exactly the same date 4 years later.

At that time it was the custom in their conservative society not to send girls to school after puberty. So, Periamma was not allowed to complete her schooling; she had to stay at home and help their mother with all the household chores. However, the society’s attitude towards the education of girls was slowly changing, and Amma was allowed to complete her schooling and even to do a pre-university course.

Periamma must have been a happy-go-lucky little girl as by all accounts she went about her house work cheerfully and energetically. She also became an excellent cook. I particularly remember her Gulab Jamun (mini-sausage shaped sweets marinated in sugar syrup) which she kept in a jar in the store room; it was a great treat to be given one. Gulab Jamun has continued to be my favourite Indian sweet. Here is a picture of it (the sweets turn dark brown after being marinated in sugar syrup):

I believe that it was a great disappointment to Periamma that her education was discontinued at an early age because she had found school really stimulating, both for learning and for the opportunity to mix with girls of her age. I remember her telling me how she used to wait eagerly for Amma to come home from school every day; she would then ask for details of everything that happened during the day and also ask to be shown the books that Amma learnt from. All this often had to be done by candlelight as there was then no electricity in the house.

Periamma was such a sweet, gentle person that she would have been incapable of feeling any jealousy towards Amma for the latter’s relative good fortune in many walks of life. Anyway they were life long best friends; they helped and supported each other unquestioningly; all of Amma’s close friends became Periamma’s friends too. However, in character they were like chalk and cheese. Unlike Amma, Periamma was gentle, soft-hearted and gregarious but was easily scared; I remember that at night she was afraid of going upstairs by herself (whereas Amma thought nothing of walking by the cemetery at night)! Here is a photo of the two sisters as young women (Periamma on the right):

The gold chain worn by each of them is called “thali” and indicates the woman’s married status; it is the equivalent of the wedding ring in a Christian marriage.

Amma always addressed her sister as “Kamala” instead of using the formal relationship name for older sister “Akka”. This did not indicate any disrespect but was a sign of their closeness and affection for each other.

Periamma had a lovely voice and it was always a pleasure to listen to her singing, mostly Hindu devotional songs; she wrote a number of such songs too. I can remember her singing Tamil nursery rhymes to my sister Maheswari (4 years younger than me) and brother Mohan (8 years younger than me). She also used to tell all three of us wonderful stories; that is probably how I have come to know the two great Hindu epics – Ramayana and Mahabharata – so well. We also heard from her a number of interesting family anecdotes.

Periamma was quite artistic and good at designing. During the traditional Hindu festival of Navrathri many houses used to have a fine display of beautiful dolls and I remember the enchanting displays Periamma used to create. She also created her own “kolam” or “rangoli” so that there were always pretty decorations at the front and rear entrances to the house.

Here is a photo of Periamma holding me when I was about a year old:

I find this a very nostalgic old family photo. Her face shows her bubbling joy at cuddling the first child in the family, and it seems to me that my face shows absolute contentment at being enveloped by such love and warmth. Well, she did become one of my two second mothers (the other being my paternal aunt). 

Background – Ayya

Ayya (he was named Natarajan) was born in 1915 in the town of Aruppukottai in Tamil Nadu. He had one elder brother and one elder sister. The brothers were very close to each other. Ayya’s education did not extend beyond high school. He went into the family business of general merchants in Madurai with his father and brother, and the business was very successful. He travelled around a good deal on business and frequently visited Mumbai. He learnt to speak Hindi well though he could neither read nor write the language. 

He was a jovial and soft-hearted person but was short-tempered and impetuous. He used to be interested in body-building exercises and weight-lifting. I remember him once taking me (when I was a school boy) to see a weight-lifting competition in Madurai.

Married life – Madurai

Periamma and Ayya lived their entire married life in Madurai, the large city in Tamil Nadu where I was born in 1940. It is regarded as the centre of Tamil (Dravidan) culture which is probably the oldest living culture in the world. The Meenakshi temple there is one of the finest spiritual edifices in the world. Here is a picture of a part of the temple:

and here is a picture of Goddess Meenakshi:

Meenakshi is an incarnation of Goddess Parvati who is the consort of Lord Shiva (one of the trinity of main Gods for Hindus; the other two are Brahma and Vishnu; Shiva and Vishnu have various incarnations, the best known of which are Vishnu’s incarnations as Rama and Krishna). This temple is unusual in that, instead of Shiva being the main God of the temple, it is Meenakshi. Legend says that Lord Vishnu rode on a golden horse to Madurai to attend the celestial wedding of his sister Goddess Meenakshi to Lord Shiva. This event is celebrated every year on the full moon day of the Tamil month of Chithirai (April/May). This celebration is the centre-piece of the annual 12 day Chithirai Festival which includes a procession around the city of an enormous chariot with massive wooden wheels pulled by ropes held by hundreds of men; images of the deities dressed up in splendid clothes for the great occasion are seated on the chariot. I remember as a boy going up to the top floor of Ayya’s office in the city centre in order to be able to get a good view of the fantastic procession; it was an exciting experience. 

Periamma’s mother’s mother and Ayya’s mother were sisters; so they must have known each other since childhood. Their wedding at Palayampatti in 1933, when Periamma was 16 and Ayya was 18, was a grand affair lasting 3 days and included a procession through the village, probably with the bride and groom in a horse-drawn carriage! 

Here is the wedding invitation issued by Periamma’s paternal grandfather who was the head of the bride’s family (in Tamil):

According to the tradition of the Hindu Undivided Family (meaning that all assets were jointly owned), Periamma and Ayya lived with his parents and his brother’s family in a large house in the city centre. I have a vague recollection of the big rambling house – Periamma and Ayya lived in a couple of rooms at the front of the house on the ground floor; the parents must have occupied a room on the ground floor; the rest of the property was occupied by his brother’s large family.

Sadly, Periamma suffered a number of miscarriages and the couple remained childless to the end. To add to their woes, Ayya’s father, and eventually his brother too, were cruel to Periamma and Ayya because they produced no children. They were made to feel unwelcome in the house and it became evident that Ayya was not welcome in the joint business. Around this time (mid 1940s) there was a windfall profit in the business arising from the movement in sugar price. Ayya used some of this profit to buy a warehouse in the city and a car (a black Morris Minor) as well as to build a fine large house at the edge of the city. The house was named “Ilakumi Veedu” after Ayya’s mother called Lakshmi (which is also the name of the Hindu Goddess of Wealth); here is a picture of it:

They moved into the new house in about 1946. I still remember the happy house-warming ceremony when all their family and friends were present. 

Periamma and Ayya loved gardening and music. It was a lovely big garden with mango trees, neem trees, gooseberry bushes etc. I also remember the garden always being resplendent with seasonal flowers – roses, jasmine, carnations etc. There was also plenty of space for children to play in. I remember once playing under a neem tree and being startled by a thin long green snake darting along the branches. I recall too kneading a mango with my hands so that virtually all the flesh was liquefied, then making a hole in the skin and sucking the delicious fruit juice; it was nectar from heaven!

When they first moved into the house, they bought a pair of Alsatian dogs called Chokkan and Chokki (the house was on the outskirts of Madurai in an area called Chokkikulam), mainly to use them as guard dogs, because at that time the house was in a very isolated area. However, both of them became very fond of the dogs which I thought were quite fierce and well suited to being guard dogs. Chokki used to have puppies every 2-3 years; during that time she would not allow anyone except Periamma to come near. When the puppies were 2-3 months old, they were given away.

Periamma and Ayya were both open and outspoken characters. So, they argued and quarrelled a good deal volubly, but they faced all their problems together and were devoted to each other. They were both deeply religious Hindus and put all their trust in God. They had a prayer room in the house and always prayed in the morning after bathing and before breakfast; they often sang devotional songs aloud together; unfortunately I never had the opportunity to hear those lovely duets but Maheswari did. Here is a photo of Periamma and Ayya probably taken in the late 1940s:

They had a neighbour called Dr Balakrishanan and there is an interesting story relating to him. I will include it as an Appendix at the end.

I think Periamma and Ayya got a large house because they wanted Amma and her children to be able to come and stay there whenever possible. Maheswari, Mohan and I always felt that they treated us as their own children. I certainly have many happy memories of the times spent there. Maheswari knew them the best because she stayed with them and attended good schools in Madurai from the age of 10 to 17; she fondly remembers those happy care-free days. She says “Periamma's gentle way of handling things and her advice have helped me a lot later in life, though I resented them at that time”. I recall that, when Mohan fell ill with diphtheria as a school boy, he was nursed at the house.

Some of my memories of the time spent at Ilakumi Veedu include the tragic and sudden assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, the father of the nation, one day in 1948. I was only 8 years old then but can still remember the shock and disbelief that swept through the household as we sat in the garden and two good friends called to give us the sad news.

Another bizarre memory is of a chicken being beheaded in the backyard (in order to get it ready for the pot) and the headless body running around the yard for a while.

I also recall that, when I was about 8, one evening I was chasing Maheswari around playfully with a spray can intended for repelling mosquitoes. Unfortunately she ran into a pillar and suffered a nasty cut on her forehead. She had to be taken to the hospital to have the cut stiched; she was very brave and did not cry.

A more pleasant and spiritual experience was going to the Madurai Meenakshi temple as a family from time to time. We used to spend most of the day there – walking around the vast temple complex, praying at the many shrines, watching the temple elephants and looking at the various exotic stalls lining up the main entrance to the temple, selling beautiful/fragrant flowers (see picture below), toys, decorations, pictures etc etc. To a small boy then it was all absolutely magical.

In the 1950s the joint family was broken up; whilst his father and brother carried on the business, Ayya was just left with the house, a car and a warehouse but no business/job to earn a living. He had to sell the car and Periamma sold most of her jewellery (this jewellery would have been given to her by her father at the time of marriage as part of the dowry). Ayya then became an agent for Britannia Biscuits; this work was successful enough for them to live a good, though more modest, life.

Periamma – final years without Ayya but not alone

Periamma had a good knowledge of the Hindu religion and many related stories as well as Tamil poems. She was also an excellent narrator of the traditional Hindu stories and could lead religious chanting ably and enthusiastically. Some years after moving into Ilakumi Veedu she began to hold twice weekly religious meetings for Hindu women in Madurai; these mainly involved story-telling, chanting and meditation. On Sunday mornings she held very popular gatherings for children. After a while she also organised an annual religious celebration with songs, drama etc. In all these activities she was guided by Swami Chidbhavananda, a Hindu monk of the Sri Ramakrishna Order which firmly believes in religious tolerance and considers that all religions are different paths to one God. This Order is somewhat similar to the Jesuits in that they put a lot of effort into education and health for the community. Swami Chidbhavananda was in fact the founder and head of the traditional Hindu boarding school I attended from the age of 12 to 16. He devoted his whole life to bettering the lives of the people around him.

In all her activities Periamma was helped and supported by Ayya. They must have become very reliant upon each other, especially after my siblings and I grew up and had our own independent lives; I went to university in Chennai in 1956, Maheswari in 1960 and Mohan in 1964. So, it must have been a terrible blow to Periamma when Ayya suddenly died of a heart attack in 1967. The last time I saw him was in 1966 when I went to India in order to attend Maheswari’s wedding.

Periamma must have been a very resilient person because she lived a very worthwhile life for over 30 years after losing her beloved husband. She carried on her life according to Swami Chidbhavananda’s advice; he was her spiritual guide. She ran nursery classes for about 10 children in the 3-5 age group for a few years. Then she gave up all her worldly possessions and became a sanyasini (the female equivalent of a Hindu monk), taking the name “Amba”, and devoted her life to serving the community. She was the guiding spirit for many girls in their education in the broadest sense and they just worshipped her. Many people used to come to her with their problems; she would listen to them patiently and then give practical advice. She loved children and they invariably responded; thus she established wonderful rapport with hundreds of children over her life time. The institution, which is run under the auspices of the Sri Ramakrishna Order, has grown now with about 1000 students studying there and the same good work is still going on.

When I visited India in 1970 for the first time with my own family – it was then just Pat, Anna and Arun – we went to see Periamma and were warmly welcomed I did see her several times thereafter during my visits to India; though her health, especially her eyesight, was failing she never complained and was clearly doing all she could to help others; they too responded by giving her all the support she needed in old age. 

Here is a photo of Periamma with Daniel and Susheela taken during our visit to India in 1990 (in the background is a picture of the late Swami Chidbhavananda):

Finally, here is a photo of Periamma with me, when I went to see her for the last time in 1998:              

She passed away in March 2000. From a personal perspective I believe that Periamma and Ayya helped me and my siblings to achieve a balanced outlook on life and also gave a spiritual dimension to our lives.

Appendix – Dr Balakrishnan 

In 1940 when my mother underwent treatment for TB, a doctor called Balakrishnan was particularly helpful, and my parents became good friends with him. He fell in love with a Muslim girl called Ayesha. His family, being orthodox Hindus from Kerala (a neighbouring State on the South West coast of India), totally disapproved of this inter religious liaison outside the community and practically disowned him. I understood that the wedding of Dr Balakrishnan and Ayesha was only attended by some good friends including my parents. 

He was an able and ambitious doctor, and moved to the big city of Madurai in order to further his career and perhaps also to live away from his disapproving family and near Ayesha’s family. They were introduced to Periamma and Ayya, and a good friendship developed between them. I recall Periamma saying once that Ayesha was a very nice woman. As Dr Balakrishnan became successful, like Ayya, he decided to build a house outside the congested city. In fact he built a nice house on the land adjacent to Ilakumi Veedu almost immediately after Periamma and Ayya moved into their house.

In 1948 Ayesha gave birth to a girl called Meena but unfortunately the mother died during childbirth. Dr Balakrishnan’s widowed mother then came to stay with him and look after the child. After a while he married a Keralan woman, who was approved of by the family; but I think she was quite a strong, independent character. As often happens, mother and daughter-in-law did not get on, and eventually mother returned to her home in Kerala. I remember that the mother used to come and spend time with Periamma, complaining about her daughter-in-law and the way she treated Meena.

My recollection is that neither my parents nor Periamma/Ayya had much contact with Dr Balakrishnan after Ayesha died, though they retained a good relationship with his family. The last pair of puppies Chokki had, was given to Dr Balakrishnan’s family.

I understand that Meena married her first cousin, who is a doctor, and has settled down in the UK. 

Apart from the fact that such Hindu/Muslim marriages were, and probably still are, unusual in India, this story is perhaps not particularly remarkable. However, when my parents’ story unfolds in due course, it will be interesting to see how they reacted to my own marriage across the race/religion divide.

Prem Kumar

September 2008