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My maternal grandparents - Periappa and Thenammal

Background – Numpa

Numpa (he was called Natarajan) was born in 1895 at Palayampatti, a village in Tamil Nadu, India. He had two brothers and five sisters. During his childhood he used to travel by bullock cart to school at a nearby town. He married Aachi in 1914 and moved to Tuticorin (a big town in Tamil Nadu on the SE coast of India) where he worked as a clearing agent until 1940. During the Second World War years he went back to Palayampatti and engaged in some farming which was not successful. From 1945 onwards he worked as an insurance agent. 

Here is a photo of Numpa carrying me when I was nearly one year old in 1941:

Numpa was a tall well-built man with grey hair. He wore a dhothi (a long cloth wrapped round the waist), a vest and, when going out of the house, a short-sleeved shirt and a small towel over his shoulder. South India is a very hot country, so he would use this towel to wipe the sweat off his forehead and to dry his hands after washing them. As in India you eat your food with your fingers, you have to wash your hands before you eat and when you have finished.

He always wore white “khadhi” - this is rough hand-spun cotton which Gandhi encouraged Indians to wear to support home-made products, because in the 1930s and 1940s most Indians wore machine-made clothes spun and woven in the cotton mills of England, and he wanted to give poor Indians jobs. Numpa was a great admirer and supporter of Gandhi’s spiritual and Indian independence movements. He took both his daughters to meet Gandhi. Here is a photo of Gandhi at his spinning wheel:

Even though Numpa’s education did not extend beyond high school, he read a lot and was very much a practical philosopher. He was always a source of comfort to his wife and daughters during difficult times. He was deeply religious and knew by heart all 700 verses of Baghavad Gita (which is regarded by many as encapsulating the essence of Hindu philosophy - see explanation in appendix at the end) and recited these silently every day. During the time of the silent chanting he would be so absorbed with this that he would be oblivious to anything anybody (including his little grandchildren who might be moaning about the long wait for the bus under the scorching Indian Sun) said. Perhaps I have inherited this trait from Numpa as Pat used to say that, if I was absorbed in reading a good book, I would be totally oblivious to the mayhem around me.

In his younger days Numpa used to play tennis and he always kept up his interest. His favourite player was the great Australian champion Roy Emerson who was reputed to be the fastest on court and I think to this day holds the record for winning the most grand slam titles (in addition to singles, he played a lot of men’s and mixed doubles); here is a photo of Emerson:

Background - Aachi

Aachi (she was called Meenammal) was born in 1897 at Aruppukottai, a small town in Tamil Nadu, India. She had five brothers and one sister. She was short, buck-toothed, bespectacled, plain-speaking and fiercely independent. Here is a somewhat blurred picture of her taken when she was about 50 years old:

In the 19th century many Christian missionaries travelled to India from Europe, aiming to convert the idol-worshipping Hindus to Christianity; the missionaries believed that the souls of the converted Indians would thus be saved. Most people in the Aruppukotai area were steeped in the Hindu religion (which is a way of life, as with the Jews). In accordance with the traditional way of life there at that time, the men went out to work, and the women looked after the home and raised the children. The missionaries (which would have included the converted Indian Christians with missionary zeal) reckoned that in this set-up it would be difficult to convert the men or whole families but that it might be possible to start the conversion process through the women. Therefore, they visited the women whilst their husbands were at work and, using very persuasive techniques (which would have included giving help to the needy, such as comforting sick people), succeeded in converting large numbers to Christianity.

However, the men were either oblivious to or turned a blind eye to the wholesale religious conversion taking place in their homes. A number of these women subsequently succeeded in persuading their husbands also to convert to the new religion, but large numbers went on pretending to be Hindus and practised Christianity without the knowledge of their husbands, eg, going to church before their husbands got up in the morning and reading the hidden bible only when the husbands were safely out of the house, because they were afraid of the consequences if the husbands found out about the secret conversion. This secret practising of Christianity was almost invariably passed on down the female line!

Aachi’s mother was converted to Christianity in this way, and the secret practice was duly passed on to Aachi, so that she was at heart a devout Christian when she married Numpa. However, in the traditional Indian manner, she believed that a wife should follow the path chosen by her husband in every walk of life. The young wife decided to confront the problem head-on. She explained her dilemma to her husband and asked what she should do. He wasn’t going to make this easy for her, as he told her that she should do whatever she believed was right! After much heart-searching she decided that her religious belief should be the same as her husband’s. So, she went back to him and requested him to give her the necessary instructions so that she could become a good Hindu. He gave her some suitable books, recommended her to read them and then decide if she wanted to be a Hindu. Aachi duly learnt about the religion and then became a Hindu. After some time the young woman raised the subject again with her husband by saying “I do believe in the Hindu gods; but when I meditate, the face I see is that of Jesus Christ: what shall I do about this?”. Numpa replied philosophically “you don’t need to do anything because after all Christ was also an incarnation of the God on earth”.

Aachi used to enjoy singing aloud devotional songs but mostly out of tune! Her cousin Natarajan (who later became her son in law – that is a different story) would tease her mercilessly and call her an “Anakeena” (half-Christian).

Aachi was a competent seamstress and made most of Numpa’s clothes. She was a perfectionist and a hard task-master with all work-men. She took pride in keeping the home spotlessly clean. The open-fire kitchen stove was decorated with intricate kolams. Kolam or rangoli is a spiritual art form which has been widespread all over India; traditionally the drawing is made on the floor near the main doorway to the house in order to ward off evil spirits, Here is a picture of a woman creating a kolam:

However, surprisingly for an Indian wife/mother especially at that time, she could hardly cook; she even used to buy idlies for breakfast; she only cooked one meal – rice and sambar (simple vegetable curry) for lunch which was always eaten at 12 noon. For dinner at 7pm Numpa cooked for himself a spartan dish of oats over a hot plate. I remember that, when I sometimes visited them during school/college holidays, they would send me out to get Biriyani for lunch from a nearby restaurant as a special treat. Well, I must have inherited from Aachi the traits of striving for perfection and being an indifferent cook!

Married life

Numpa and Aachi lived a very simple life; they never owned a car and the house contained little more than “the bare necessities of life”. Aachi was an autocratic mother and imposed strict discipline on their two daughters – Kamala (Periamma) and Gnanasundari (Amma - my mother). From a very young age the girls had to help their mother with the household chores. It used to be the custom for children to have their heads shaved several times during childhood, because this was believed to result in the hair growing thicker; however, Numpa did not believe in this and flatly refused to allow any such shaving to be carried out on his daughters’ hair.

The great sadness in their lives must have been the tragedy relating to their beloved little daughter Singaram. When Kamala was about three years old and Singaram was one (before Gnanasundari was born), both of them contracted chicken-pox at the same time. Numpa was then away in Mumbai, and a telegram was sent to him informing him of his daughter’s untimely death, without specifying which daughter. The news threw him into such a state of shock that he immediately returned home without any of his belongings (including his wallet). On entering their house, as Kamala ran over to greet him, he joyfully picked her up and was relieved that his cherished eldest daughter was alright; this helped to soften the blow of losing Singaram.

Early memories

My earliest memory of Numpa and Aachi is of the time when as a little boy of seven I stayed with them for two weeks at Palayampatti. It was a very important time because India had been ruled by Britain for about 200 years and became independent on 15 August 1947 during my stay there. It was very exciting as everyone was celebrating. The whole village was decorated with Indian flags; here is a picture of the flag (in the middle is a spinning wheel like the one in the picture of Gandhi):

There were lots of speeches, loud music and some dancers inside artificial horses (a bit like pantomime horses). I can also remember some men walking over burning coals without getting burned, which seemed like magic.

Numpa and Aachi lived in a 2 storey house with a flat roof-top where Numpa kept pigeons in little houses like dovecots. I also remember a mongoose running in and out of the house – he was there to keep the snakes away! Here is a picture of a mongoose getting ready to attack a cobra:

I was really scared of going to the toilet which was in a little wooden hut at the rear of the house, and you had to poo into a bucket – there was no flush and the village toilet cleaner came each morning to empty out the bucket. It was of course very smelly and attracted scavenging pigs, and that’s what made me scared of going!

The house did not have any running water, so all the water had to be carried in pots from the village well. To have a bath, the women used some of this water in the house, but the men went to the well which was in the Nandavanam (a park with lots of trees). I have happy memories of walking for my bath with Numpa. Sometimes he would suddenly say “listen, that is the nightingale singing”! The nightingale has got a beautiful song – we have them in England too. At the village well I used to squat down and Numpa would pour buckets of water all over me - I would squeal when the fresh cool water hit my skin!


Perhaps in order for Numpa to do his job better (the insurance company for which he was an agent had its office in Madurai) and also to live near Periamma, in the early 1950s Numpa and Aachi moved to the big city of Madurai which is about 40 miles from Palayampatti. 

They lived in a small house in the centre of the city. You had to go through small, noisy and congested lanes to get there but inside it was a calm oasis. When you entered, there was a small yard with a tree and plants with flowers (bougainvillea was Numpa’s favourite flower), which was open to the sky at the top; birds would often perch on the climbing plants and twitter. As you went inside, a small hall accommodated a bench and Numpa’s rocking chair which was his favourite seat. There were 2 small rooms which could be reached from the hall; the front room led into the kitchen. There was also a small room on the first floor which would catch the cool air during the hot stuffy Summer months.

Here is a photo of Numpa and Aachi probably taken in Madurai some time during the 1950s (they are both holding up umbrellas as protection against the fierce heat of the Sun):

During the school holidays my sister Maheswari, brother Mohan and I used to spend some time at Periamma’s lovely large house which was just outside the city. Then Numpa and Aachi would sometimes visit us and we would have good family get-togethers. We often played games such as chess, carom and cards. Whilst Numpa would often give in to gladden a child’s heart, Aachi always played hard to win! I remember well one occasion when my siblings and I were sitting on the floor with Aachi; we asked her which one of us she liked the best. In her blunt manner she said “Prem is the favourite as he is the first-born and second is Mohan as he is a boy!”. 

Sometimes Numpa would take me to the cinema. I remember that once we went to see a Tamil film in which the hero was a railway engine driver. So, we got to see a lot of trains – departing, arriving, chugging along, speeding away etc. After a couple of hours of this (most Indian films go on for at least 3 hours!) Numpa got so fed up with looking at train after train that he said “if one more train appears on the screen, we are going home!”. Well, we did get more trains but I persuaded him to stay on till the end as I have always loved watching films. Here is an old Indian steam train:

Here is a picture taken in a photo studio of Numpa with his three grand-children (I am the eldest) in about 1956:

For that occasion I was wearing a dhothi which had belonged to my great grandfather (Numpa’s father) who had lived to the ripe old age of 105. So my siblings ribbed me that such a fate awaited me too, and I playfully responded that I fully intended to match that!

Maheswari lived with Periamma in Madurai for many years so that she could attend the good school there. Sometimes after school she used to visit Numpa and Aachi, and would stay with them if Periamma had to leave Madurai for a while. So, she got to know them well. Numpa was very fond of her. She used to be quite nosy and ask him about his properties, income, expenses and such financial matters. He would happily indulge her by showing her his accounts book and answering her questions.

Final memories

After I finished my degree course at Manchester University in 1963, I spent a year in India working in the family business in Chennai. During this time Numpa was diagnosed with bowel cancer. As he became very ill he was treated as an in-patient at a hospital in Madurai. I spent some time with him there and found that he never lost his interest in how Roy Emerson was performing on the tennis circuit. 

I remember well the night in 1964 I went to sleep in the verandah outside his hospital room, and was woken up just before he died. His death made a big impression upon me; I was very sad but also kept thinking of the happy times spent with him.

The Hindu custom is to cremate the dead body and it is the duty of the eldest son to light the funeral pyre. As Numpa only had 2 daughters, it was decided that, as the eldest grandson, I should do this. So, in the morning we walked over to the Vaigai river in which we bathed and then over to the burning ghat with Numpa’s body. The funeral pyre had already been set up and we placed the body on it. Then I set it alight and walked away without looking at the pyre as I was required to do. Finally all the family and friends walked back to Periamma’s house and had something to eat.

Thinking back, the ceremony was a simple one befitting a gentleman who had chosen to live a simple life. Though some of us closest to him did cry and Aachi was quite inconsolable, there were no histrionics. The pre-ordained events took place in a very dignified way, and I felt that the final rites constituted the natural course of events. 

Unfortunately I saw little of Aachi since I left India for England in 1964, but we always kept in touch through sporadic correspondence (in Tamil as she knew no English!). I think she was spiritually and emotionally very dependent upon Numpa, and so felt quite lost without him. After Numpa’s death she continued to live in the lovely little house in Madurai for several years. Indeed, when I visited India with my family in 1975, we were warmly welcomed into that house so familiar to me. The last time I saw Aachi was in 1977 when I went to India with Arun.

My impression was that she had never established a close relationship with her two daughters who were bosom pals and almost invariably presented a united front. I guess that, when Aachi was widowed, both her daughters invited her to stay with one of them. However, despite deteriorating health in subsequent years and very modest personal resources, she remained fiercely independent by living alone and looking after herself as best she could, until she passed away in 1983. 

I remember Numpa and Aachi with a great deal of love and affection.

Appendix – Baghavad Gita

Baghavad Gita is one of the three main scriptures of Hindu philosophy, and is contained within the Mahabharata (100,000 verses) which is one of the two great Hindu epics (the other being the Ramayana). Mahabharata narrates the story not only of Lord Krishna on Earth but also of the epic struggles between the 5 Pandava brothers (the goodies) and their first cousins, the 100 Kaurava brothers (the baddies); these struggles could be seen as the good and bad tendencies in human beings. In the climactic battle between the Pandavas and Kauravas, Krishna agrees to be the charioteer for the great Pandava warrior Arjuna. As the battle is all set to commence, Arjuna asks Krishna to drive the chariot between the two arrayed armies so that he might glance at those on the side of the sinful war-mongers. However, standing there Arjuna beholds in both armies uncles, grandfathers, teachers, cousins, sons, grandsons, fathers-in-law and comrades. He becomes perplexed – to fight or to flee is the question which he could not decide; so he downs arms. In the ensuing conversation Krishna instructs Arjuna on the basis of existence, the goal of life and the inevitability of death; thus, through these mysteries of nature, Arjuna acquires self-knowledge. Krishna then tells Arjuna to put all his faith in Himself, and says “Treating alike pain and pleasure, gain and loss, victory and defeat, engage yourself in battle; thus you will incur no sin. Devoted each to his own duty, man attains the highest perfection.”. Krishna proceeds to command him “Rise, O hero, casting off your petty feeble-mindedness”, and Arjuna finally responds “My delusion is destroyed. I am firm; I am free from doubt. I shall act according to Your word.”. Here is a picture of the famous scene where the conversation takes place: