Pat and Prem Kumar family
My father ("Appa") and mother ("Amma")
Appa and Amma spent most of their lives in the Indian State of Kerala and in Tamil Nadu towns very close to the Kerala border. So Appendix 1 gives some information on the places in Kerala where they lived and the houses they lived in. It is interesting that almost all the houses they occupied in Kerala were rented. It was only in the 1980s that they bought a plot of land and built a house in Tenkasi, a border town in Tamil Nadu. I think they regarded themselves as Tamilians who went into Kerala only for business purposes.
They were married in 1938 when Appa was 24 and Amma was 17. Here is a picture taken soon after the wedding:
I was their first child and was born in 1940. My sister Maheswari was born in 1944 and my brother Mohan in 1948; I have written about them and their respective families in Appendices 2 and 3.
Appendix 4 sets out some reminiscences of their grandparents by Ramya (Maheswari’s daughter) and Murali (Mohan’s son).
Swami Chidbhavananda (“Swamiji”), a Hindu monk of the Ramakrishna Order, was a very influential figure in the life of the family. He provided the spiritual inspiration for my parents. Mohan and I attended the boarding school started and run by him. Appendix 5 provides some information on him and the institutions he set up, and Appendix 6 gives a brief note on the Baghavad Gita (one of the main scriptures on Hindu philosophy) on which Swamiji produced several authoritative commentaries.
Background - Appa
The eldest child of my paternal grandparents (Periappa and Thenammal - see Section 2) was Annalakshmi Ammal (Athai – see Section 5) born in 1911. Next was Appa (named Rajasankaralingam) who was born on 25 August 1913. The two siblings were not just close in age, Athai had told me several times how well they always got on with each other, and that they never ever quarrelled and always looked after each other. Actually this did not need saying, because the close and affectionate relationship between them was very apparent to all the family – the tone and inflection of the voice whilst they talked to each other conveyed the special bond between them. She always affectionately called him Thambi (meaning younger brother in Tamil) and he called her Akka (meaning older sister).
I remember that, during 1963/64 when I worked in Chennai and lived with Athai, DAR (Athai’s eldest son) and I often used to have a good-hearted laugh about the way Athai and Appa greeted each other when they met after some time and again how they said goodbye on parting. The ritual involved was extravagantly elaborate; it took a good half hour for them to greet and enquire after the well-being of all the family; saying goodbye always took around an hour as the process usually started in the sitting room and very slowly moved through the hall, verandah, garden etc to the car. However, it was certainly not a charade; the pleasure they took in each other’s company was a joy to behold. I do believe that the many cosy chats they had over their long lives were some of the most enjoyable moments for them. Saradhi (Athai’s grandson) adds “My memories of my grandmother and your father saying goodbye to each other chime perfectly with my experiences when I was living in Chitra. One particular time I went upstairs when they were saying goodbye to each other on the front porch. I came down after an hour of reading to find them still saying goodbye!”. Here is a picture of Appa and Athai conversing happily in 1990:
The last of the brood was Kathiresan (Chinniah - see Section 7) born in 1918, who was always treated as the baby of the family. Even though Periappa and Thenammal lived in Thoothukudi, all 3 children were born in Sivakasi where Thenammal’s mother resided, because it is the custom for a woman to spend the final weeks of the pregnancy at her parents’ house so that she could be looked after and helped with the child-birth by her mother.
Appa went to school in Thoothukudi, and by all accounts he was a hard-working and high-performing student. Around the time he became a teenager in the mid 1920s, the joint timber business carried on by Periappa with his brothers became mired in losses and debts. It was decided to partition all the family assets amongst the brothers and there were bitter disputes. Eventually, in order to achieve an amicable settlement, Periappa agreed to most of the demands of his brothers, the outcome was that he was left with the Thoothukudi timber business and the debts.
However, Periappa now needed help to carry on the business, so Appa did some work in the business during his spare time in the final years at high school. As Periappa then needed more help in the business, Appa postponed taking his final high school exams and worked full-time with Periappa to build up the business for about 3 years. Their hard work and vision eventually enabled them to put the business on an even keel, then Appa took his high school final exams.
In 1932 at the age of 21 he joined Christian College in Chennai and successfully graduated with an honours degree in Philosophy. He then worked for a bank for about a year in order to gain some experience and probably also to consider alternative career possibilities. Anyway he decided to commit himself fully to the family business.
Background - Amma
My maternal grandparents (Numpa and Aachi – see Section 3) lived in the village of Palayampatti, and their first child was Kamala (Periamma – see Section 6) born on 10 April 1917. Then Amma (named Gnanasundari) was born on exactly the same date 4 years later.
At that time it was the custom in their conservative society not to let girls engage in any activity outside the home after puberty. So, Periamma was not allowed to complete her schooling. 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. Even though it must have been a great disappointment to Periamma that her education was discontinued at an early age, she 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. Anyway they were life long best friends; they helped and supported each other unquestioningly. 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.
All of Amma’s close friends became Periamma’s friends too. Here is a photo of the two sisters as young women (Amma on the left) looking relaxed and happy in each other’s company:
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 told me that she learnt the simple religious way of life from Periamma. However, both of them really looked up to Numpa and derived their fundamental values in life from him, in particular the simple Hindu religious way of life along the lines indicated by Mahatma Gandhi. During the Indian Independence Movement, when Gandhi asked at a meeting that women should give up their jewellery to support the cause, Amma promptly slipped off the gold bangles she wore and handed them over.
When Amma was 17, Numpa began to make arrangements for her marriage. It then emerged that a cousin had a big crush on her. When he learned about her forthcoming marriage, he locked himself up in a room and said that he would not come out until arrangements were made for him to marry her! Well, a relative brought this news along to Amma who calmly responded “It is up to my father to arrange my marriage”!!
Marriage, religion and family business
Numpa decided that the most eligible bridegroom would be Rajasankaralingam and arranged for the marriage to take place on 10 June 1938, and here is the traditional wedding invitation in Tamil issued by Numpa:
I remember that Appa always called Amma “Sundari” affectionately whereas everybody else called her “Gnanam”. The newly-weds lived with Periappa and Thenammal in Thoothukudi for about a year. This must have been a very difficult period for Amma because she and Thenammal had very different outlooks on life and both of them were strong determined characters, but the main issue related to religion. Thenammal had by then become a devout “Secret Christian” (see “Secret Christians” in Section 2) with a missionary zeal and had a cabal of followers. She probably expected Amma to be a Secret Christian, and so must have been deeply disappointed to find out that the latter was in fact a devout Hindu. However she had a way with words and was a very persuasive talker, so she exerted a great deal of pressure on Amma to convert to Chritianity. Appa apparently told Amma that she could convert to Christianity if she studied the Bible and was convinced that it was the right path, but Amma made it clear that she intended to remain a Hindu.
In 1939 Appa and Ammma moved to Sivagangai where a family timber business had been started. However, they did not like the life there and so returned to Thoothukudi. In order to escape from the tension created by the issue of religion, Appa wanted to emigrate to Burma where there was good scope for timber business, but Amma did not want to leave India as she could not bear the thought of being parted from her sister who was the person closest to her.
Turning to the family business, the timber trade in Thoothukudi had by then become well established. A small office in Sivakasi had been in existence for a long time and was controlled from Thoothukudi. Chinniah was put in charge of the Sivagangai business. Around this time Periappa wanted to explore the prospect of purchasing timber from the source of supply, so he went over to the neighbouring State of Kerala. He established an office in the jungle village of Thenmalai and lived there for some time. Periappa and Appa concluded that there were good business opportunities in Kerala.
The family business was for many years a joint enterprise involving Periappa, Appa and Chinniah; my paternal aunt’s (“Athai”) husband (“Mama”) was also a close and significant associate. As business prospered, they ventured into various activities such as agencies for paints, abrasives, screws, tiles, buckets, cement, asbestos and later paint manufacturing etc. Several offices were opened in Tamil Nadu and Kerala, and the business expanded to the neighbouring States of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. In Appendix 4 Murali has written eloquently on Appa’s very successful business philosophy and practice.
As I have written about Maheswari and Mohan in some detail in Appendices 2 and 3, this section is going to be very much from my personal perspective. In the later part of 1939 the whole family was delighted to learn that Amma was expecting her first child. During the final stages of her pregnancy she must have gone to stay with her parents in Palayampatti. As it is a small village and Periamma was living in the nearby city of Madurai, I was born at Madurai Mission Hospital on 1 May 1940. As the first grandchild in my maternal grandparents’ family and the first grandson through the male line for my paternal grandparents, I must have been welcomed into this world with great joy and warmth, and so I have always felt the love and security within the extended family. Soon after my birth Amma returned home to Thoothukudi.
However, from the personal and business perspectives, it looked logical for Amma, Appa and myself to move to Kerala. In October 1940 we moved to a rented house in a village called Punalur. In Amma’s words “Appa would daily go to Thenmalai about 13 miles from home and return at 8pm. Invariably you would recognise his car horn, wake up, smile and get ready to receive him.”. Towards the end of 1940 Amma became ill and was diagnosed with TB. As she needed to be hospitalised, Appa wanted me to be looked after by his sister, Athai. However, as Athai then had 4 children and the last one (Guna) was just under a year old, Periappa and Thenammal undertook to look after me in Thoothukudi. This eventually led them to regard me as their own, and they always referred to me as “our child”.
To continue in Amma’s words “I stayed in a TB Sanatorium for 8 months and after that also the treatment had to continue. Returning from the Sanatorium Appa and myself stayed in our own house [the house had been bought by Appa’s paternal grandfather] in Edamon, a village between Punalur and Thenmalai. Thenammal and you came to Edamon and stayed with us for about a week. After some 6 or 7 months we brought you to Edamon to live with us. Then we were surprised to see your good memory - you remembered the house, the things that were there and what was kept where.”. Here is a picture of Appa and me taken in 1942 in Edamon:
During the many months Amma had to stay at the Madanapalle TB Sanatorium in Andhra Pradesh, Aachi was with her all the time. Aachi told me that Amma was always calm and brave, and tried to cheer up the other patients. She also said that Appa used to write to Amma every day, and visited her frequently. When Amma was undergoing treatment, a doctor called Balakrishnan was particularly helpful, and my parents became good friends with him – see Appendix to Section 6 for some information about him.
This must have been a very difficult period for Appa because he was not only working very hard to build up the timber business in Kerala but also had to cope with the worries and chores relating to his wife’s serious illness and his son’s welfare. Looking at the 2 photos of him above – one taken in 1938 and the other in 1942 – it looks as though the very stressful period aged him and caused most of his hair to be lost.
After I rejoined my parents in Edamon, whenever anyone came to visit from Thoothukudi, I would hide behind Amma and cling to her for fear of being taken back to Thoothukudi. I do remember that I always wanted to be close to her and please her throughout my childhood. In 1943 we moved to Kollam where Maheswari was born in 1944 and Mohan in 1948. Here is a picture of Amma taken in the garden of the house (Paresh Hall) in 1951:
I recall that, when I was very little, I used to address Amma affectionately in the same way Appa did using the familiar verb form instead of the respectful form required; I think I conformed to the normal form some time after Maheswari was born.
We once found an abandoned kitten which we looked after and kept in the house. Eventually the mother came for her kitten and wailed pathetically outside the house; I did not want to let go of the kitten; but when I was asleep Amma quite rightly put the kitten outside to rejoin the happy mother.
It is interesting that all of Amma’s close friends as well as her sister seemed to have one thing in common – they had no children. So, they were all very fond of her children.
Prem’s education in India
My education started at home where we always spoke Tamil. However, Amma taught me not only Tamil but also English before I started at the Kollam Convent School where the medium of instruction was English. Amma wrote and spoke English fluently and beautifully, something I was fortunate enough to get from her. The Convent School was intended mainly for girls, so boys were not permitted to stay there beyond the age of 8.
My parents wanted me to have a good education and also to maintain our heritage by studying at a school using Tamil as the medium of instruction. This of course meant moving away from Kerala (where the State language is Malayalam) to Tamil Nadu. So, from the age of 7 to 9 I stayed with Periappa and Thenammal at Toothukudi and attended the missionary school where the teaching was in Tamil. I remember this as a happy time in my life especially as I had a good play-mate in my cousin Karnaseela and was indulged by her older sister Kiruba (see Appendix 2 of Section 2). Even though Thenammal was an absolute puritan and strict disciplinarian, Periappa was quite indulgent with his grandchildren. In my case the indulgence just meant that he let me buy some sweets from time to time and go to the cinema about once a week with Thamba (Periappa’s personal assistant as well as his nephew’s son). Anyway this must have been the beginning of my love affair with the silver screen.
My parents felt that I was being spoilt by Periappa, and Thenammal apparently confirmed this to be the case. She must have thought that I would be corrupted by the lax moral standards displayed in Tamil films. So my parents decided to send me to boarding school in Chennai in 1949 at the age of 9, and chose the Annie Besant School in Adyar because it was affiliated to the adjoining Theosophical Society and the vibrant Kalakshetra (the leading South Indian academy for music and dance). The impetus for these institutions came from Arudel who was a disciple of Annie Besant and married the legendary Bharata Nattyam dancer Rukmani Devi. During the time I was at Annie Besant School, Rukmani Arundel was widowed but still very active especially at Kalakshetra. Here is a photo of me taken around this time:
In 1944 an office was opened in Chennai in order to expand the timber business, and this eventually became a very successful operation. Appa travelled from Kollam to Chennai about once a month to oversee the business in Chennai, and always made a point of visiting me at boarding school. However, boarding school life did not suit me at all. I remember that I was terribly home sick and lapsed into bed-wetting. On the bright side, there were good sports facilities at the school. I gained my love of cricket by playing the game a lot during my 3 years there. I also recall an enjoyable school trip to Sri Lanka.
However, my parents felt that proper discipline was not maintained at Annie Besant School and so started looking for an alternative boarding school. Around this time Periamma and Ayya attended some inspirational religious talks delivered by Swamiji in Madurai, visited Tapovanam for retreats and learnt about the school run by Swamiji on
ancient Hindu Gurukulam (it means learning at the place of the teacher) principles - see Appendix 5 for details of Swamiji and the school. Amma then went to see the place with her parents and brother-in-law. Subsequently my parents decided it would be the best place for me. I still remember well the day in June 1952 when my parents departed after depositing me at Tapovanam, my overwhelming feeling was one of desolation, I just wanted to be home with my parents! Even though in retrospect I can see that there were a lot of good things about the school, I do not remember the boarding school stint (1952 – 1956) as a happy period in my life. Here is a picture taken in 1953 with some school friends (I am in the middle of the front row):
In 1956 I commenced my university education in Chennai, staying at student hostels – one year pre-university course at Vivekananda College (run by Sri Ramakrishna Mission) and three year B Com degree course at Loyola College (run by the Jesuit Order). After the very restricted boarding school and home life, I really enjoyed the freedom, and remember those 4 years as a happy time. At Loyola College I learnt to play tennis and had a few games virtually every evening during term time. It was wonderful too that at Loyola College we had a film show every Sunday evening – a Tom & Jerry cartoon followed by an English film which was usually a pretty good one. Of course I was also able to indulge in my love of the cinema by catching up with a vengeance on all the good English, Hindi and Tamil films.
In retrospect I think I was always a bit of a non-conformist but kept the non-conformism well under wraps. Also, I was not a particularly good mixer and did not make many friends. I have no contact now with any of my Indian fellow-students, partly due to the fact that the handful of boys I would have liked to keep in touch, have proved to be poor correspondents. However, I have learnt that I am a quite self-sufficient individual (as Pat perceptively remarked many years later).
Prem in the UK – 1960 to 1963
At the conclusion of my Chennai University degree course, Appa and Mama thought that, before joining the family business, it would be a good idea for me to study abroad and obtain a UK degree, but I suspect that Amma was not really keen on exposing me to Western ideas. Anyway Mama made all the practical arrangements as he had a good network of contacts. As I had no definitive ideas on my future career, I just went with the flow. Here is a picture of my send-off by all the office staff at Kollam train station in June 1960:
Then there was a big send-off by the family at Chennai train station:
The initial plan was that Athai and I would travel by ship from Mumbai to London as this would enable Athai to spend some time with her son Guna (then training to become a chartered accountant) in London. Unfortunately Athai did not feel well. So Appa and Amma came with me on the train journey to Mumbai and then waved me off on to the P&O boat to London on 17 June 1960. I shared a cabin with a friendly Malay student and enjoyed the 2 week journey after recovering from the initial sea sickness. I had the indulgence of first class travel as the tickets had been booked for Athai and me. However, I might have been better off in the tourist class because the first class was full of wealthy British expatriates (much older than me of course) and some of their children, indeed I shared a dining table with a couple and a lady (all British) who had lived in India for a long time. It was then only a few years since control of the Suez Canal was seized by President Nasser of Egypt from Britain and France, so the colonials I shared the table with were anti-Egypt and would not go ashore at Aden where the ship made a stop. Perhaps they were wise to stay on board as my brief foray into Aden clearly indicated that the Egyptians were then very anti-British! It was an uneventful lazy journey but I did win the ship’s deck tennis (tennikoit) tournament.
The boat entered Tilbury Docks on 4 July (US Independence Day) and I caught the boat train into London where I was glad to see Guna waiting for me. He gave me a good deal of practical help then and thereafter. As arranged by Mama, I worked for 3 months at a small firm of chartered accountants called W H Payne & Co in London in order to gain some practical experience. This also gave me the opportunity to see a good deal of the wonderful city. Guna helped me to find accommodation which was as a paying guest at the Golders Green home of a Jewish couple in their late fifties, Mr & Mrs Fox. He worked as a jeweller from home and she dealt with the provision of lodgings for about 4 paying guests. Unfortunately I was very ill with mumps for over a week during this time, and Mrs Fox kindly looked after me.
In October 1960 I joined Manchester University to do a 3 year degree course, gradually got used to the different way of life in England and enjoyed this period of my life as much as I enjoyed the university life in Chennai. It is strange to think now that, when I first met a lot of English students, they all looked the same to me and it took a while to distinguish them individually! It was good to be able to continue playing my favourite game, tennis, and I played in the university team for a short time. Needless to say, my interest in movies widened as I had the opportunity to see some interesting foreign language films. Here is a copy of my Manchester University student card issued in 1960:
When I arrived at Manchester, the University had arranged accommodation for me with a family in Chorlton - Mr & Mrs Haq, their son called Charles of high school age and Mrs Haq’s nephew Trevor who worked in the city centre. Mr Haq was from Pakistan, he had a textile shop and was a somewhat strange man. He banned any alcohol (understandable as he was a Muslim) or meat from the house, he was also a bit smelly and constantly scratched himself! Mrs Haq, who was English, dealt with lodgings for about 4 students plus any food they required. She kept the house meticulously clean. However, after putting up with her bland cooking for about a term, I preferred to use the University Refectory. One of the students was a Pakistani who drank heavily and whenever Mrs Haq could manage it she sneaked a few drinks with him! After staying here for about a year, I moved to a house in Fallowfield rented to students by a Pakistani landlord for a few months. During the second half of my 3 year student life in Manchester I stayed at Woolton Hall, University Hall of Residence, which really suited me. Two people I first met there – Ray Furness and Robert Lush – eventually became good family friends.
I must have inherited the travel bug from Appa. During the 1961 Summer holidays I worked for a while as a porter at Manchester Piccadilly station to make some money to supplement my generous allowance from Appa, so that I could enjoy a good deal of travelling. I chose to go overland to Italy with a student group (only the travelling and accommodation were organised for us) and had a fabulous time – a week in Venice, another in Rome and the third in Florence. Subsequently I went on an enjoyable fortnight’s motoring tour of Ireland right around the coast with my Communist friend Ron who worked as a chemist for the arch-capitalist corporation ICI! I recall that we stopped at a little village in Eire where a few children came to talk to us. They had clearly never seen an Indian as one of them asked if we were brothers despite Ron looking nothing but English as you can see from the picture below:
I went on two further great student holidays in Europe – a fortnight in Scandinavia (a lovely Danish student guide called Hanne looked after us) and a week in Paris. I did some travelling in the UK too. I particularly remember a hitch-hiking trip to Scotland with a Chinese student from British Guiana called Leslie Chin – Edinburgh, Glasgow and Loch Lomond. On this trip there was a hair-raising lift in a truck with faulty brakes – the driver could not stop to avoid a parked car, so he mounted the pavement and then got back on the road after narrowly avoiding some pedestrians – what a relief to get off that truck!
During this period I maintained a regular correspondence with Appa, Periappa and Mama, and also wrote to other relatives in India from time to time. I had to provide a monthly account of my expenses to Mama. Guna also did this. So Mama was able to monitor the position in a general way.
In the Spring of 1962 I joined an interesting week’s holiday in Keswick in the Lake District being offered to overseas students by the British Council, with little inkling of what this would eventually lead to! I will write more about this week in Section 8, suffice to say here that Pat was one of the two British Council staff leading the tour. Thereafter, one thing lead to another and within a year Pat and I decided that we were soul-mates. I knew of course that my Indian family would be aghast if I married someone of different caste, religion and race. In Spring 1963 I wrote to my parents and to Mama indicating that I wanted to marry Pat. There was a good deal of fractious correspondence with Appa, and Mama tried to keep a balance. Guna made a visit from London to Manchester to meet Pat, so he was the first person in the family to meet her.
Eventually I was persuaded to make a brief visit to Chennai during the 1963 Easter vacation and was provided with a return flight ticket. Only my immediate family and Mama’s family knew the reason for my visit. I was under a great deal of pressure from my parents to change my mind. Mama worked out a compromise whereby I should spend a year in India, either in the family business or in another job. If I still wanted to marry Pat after the year, she could join me in Chennai. However, I don’t think my parents seriously thought about the consequences of such a decision by me because they (and probably all the family) felt sure that I would change my mind after spending a year in India.
Mama came to London in June 1963 in connection with the financial affairs of an English client, and also to visit Guna. After the completion of my exams Mama and I travelled back to India together by boat on 11 July 1963. It was very hard to say goodbye to Pat as the outlook for our future together was unclear. I think all her family and our friends felt sure that I would not come back after spending a year with my family in India. Pat too admitted later on that she was not entirely sure if I would come back as she was aware of the pressures I would come under. All this was perhaps unsurprising because at that time there were not many such mixed marriages which posed a good many problems in the society of that time. I must have been the only person who firmly believed that I would eventually marry Pat!
The two week journey by boat gave me some time for reflection. I also wrote out job applications to a few large companies in India with strong UK connections but these did not lead to anything in the end. So my life in the family business in Chennai for a year began in July 1963. Here is a studio photo of our family of five taken in 1963:
Mama and Athai did everything they could to give me as good a life as possible during this period. I stayed at their house, Chitra, in a spacious room and Athai ensured that I was comfortable in every way. In the 1960s Mama was the driving force in setting up a family paint/chemical manufacturing/marketing operation in Chennai – Ravi Paints & Chemicals. It was a very interesting experience to be involved in the setting up of a new company and business under the guidance of Mama who had great vision and flair. He envisaged his eldest son DAR setting up and operating the factory, and me looking after the office administration and finance.
DAR was the Works Manager and I was the Office Manager for about a year. We had an excellent working relationship; he helped and supported me as an elder brother would have done. Furthermore, I was warmly welcomed into their home by DAR and his wife Inimai. DAR taught me to drive and we played tennis sometimes. It was a difficult period in my life – the year I spent away from Pat on something like a trial separation – and DAR’s family helped me in many ways emotionally and practically to cope with the difficulties I faced.
I was under intense pressure from my parents, several other older relatives and Swamiji to give up the heretical idea of marrying Pat. Generally speaking, I just listened to what everyone said with little response because there was no prospect of having a meaningful dialogue. Needless to say, my relationship with my parents was very strained. Mama and DAR too wanted me to stay in India but they adopted a very different approach as they tried to demonstrate that I would have a good life there and even made a discrete attempt to fix me up with a lovely prospective bride!
Well, the crunch came on my visit to Kollam in July 1964 to spend some time with my parents and brother. On the last evening of my stay Appa and Amma wanted to have a discussion with me. I then learnt that Appa had arranged for a detective agency to spy on Pat and the report indicated that she had been seen meeting various men from abroad, and the conclusion was drawn that she was happy to enjoy male company in my absence. The truth of course was that she was at that time working for the British Council and her work involved looking after students from Commonwealth countries. Even worse was the revelation that they had opened and read a couple of letters from Pat to me, again my parents drew a completely wrong inference due to their inability to appreciate that the cultural and social norms in cosmopolitan Manchester and conservative Chennai were totally different. I refused to discuss these ridiculous “revelations” and so there was a complete impasse. The outcome was that I was determined to return to Manchester and marry Pat. However, my parents felt fully convinced that Pat was not virtuous and chaste enough to be accepted into the family. Indeed Amma specifically told me that she could never bring herself to treat Pat in the same way that she would treat Mohan’s wife, and therefore she would not have anything to do with Pat. Well, Amma certainly stuck to this position until the end. Even though Appa was fully supportive of Amma, he did tell me that whatever happens he would always help me in any way he could, and so he did.
On my return to Chennai I started to investigate the complicated and difficult process for re-entering the UK – immigration regulations in the UK, Indian government permission to go abroad by getting a ‘P’ form, money for the air fare etc. I had struck a friendship with the Air India Reservations Manager (my namesake) who introduced me to a good travel agent who eventually sorted out the formalities. The money for my one way air fare from Chennai to Manchester came from a bank loan obtained by Pat with a guarantee from her father! In the meantime Appa took all possible steps to prevent me leaving – attempting to persuade the UK High Commission not to issue me with UK entry visa, trying to get my passport from my travel agent, asking the Indian passport office not to give me a ‘P’ form etc. Looking back, it was a minor miracle that by early September 1964 I had pretty well everything sorted out.
When Periappa got wind of the matter, he was distraught and pleaded with me to change my mind and it was very hard to refuse him. He then tried unsuccessfully to persuade my father to agree to Pat coming to India and getting married to me. Mama felt that he should help me but did not of course want to fall out with Appa, so his help was given in a low-key but practical and effective way. Athai provided emotional support with her love and affection. So from that time onwards, being estranged from my parents, Athai and Mama really performed the parental role for me. They bought the beautiful white and gold silk saree which Pat wore on our wedding day.
Finally on 18 September 1964 I set off on the long flight from Chennai to Manchester with a heavy heart and mixed feelings with no clear idea of what the future held. However, I was really looking forward to seeing Pat again after a year.
Prem’s and Maheswari’s marriages
I will be writing in detail about my working/married life in the UK in Section 8. Briefly, on my return to the UK in September 1964 I threw all my energy into getting an accountancy training contract as I had decided to become a chartered accountant after a discussion with the Manchester University Careers Advisor. I recall that I sent out about 50 letters applying for training contract/job in September 1964, and the following month I received just 3 responses – one from a sole practitioner offering to take me on as a trainee for practically no payment, another from a medium sized local firm offering me £300 per year and the third one from the large national firm Whinney Smith & Whinney (which eventually became EY) offering me a training contract with a salary of £500 per year (almost a living wage then!). I signed my training contract with EY on 28 October 1964 with no inkling that I would spend my entire working life with them. Anyway the following week I requested a week off work to get married and was graciously given paid leave even though I was not entitled to it under the contract.
Well, Pat had a good job with the British Council then and was earning nearly twice as much as my starting salary. However, both of us had to live on her salary for just over 2 months, and we needed to plan for paying off the loan for my air fare, so money was tight then and for a number of years thereafter. With her fine instinct for home-making Pat found a lovely flat in South Manchester and her parents gave us some of their good quality surplus furniture, so by the end of October we were well settled there. We were married at the Manchester All Saints Registry Office on 28 November 1964 flanked by Pat’s parents, her 2 sisters Jossy and Pam, Jossy’s husband Jan and Guna who was the sole representative from my side of the family.
It was just as well that I was kept so busy during the first few months after my return to the UK because I felt quite traumatized. Mama kept in regular contact with me, and I understood from him that my parents were devastated and that my siblings were very upset too. I learnt later that Amma never really got over the shock of my departure but in due course Appa adopted a fairly pragmatic approach. However, in India the news of my marriage was only known to the close family as the pretence was maintained that I had gone to the UK only for further education. I gathered this was done in order to ensure that the arrangement of a good marriage for Maheswari would not be jeopardized. When her marriage was eventually arranged in May 1966, in order to carry on with the pretence, I was invited to the wedding but Pat was not!
Whilst I enjoyed participating in the wedding events and meeting the family in Sivakasi, this first visit to India since my marriage but without my wife was not a relaxing situation for me. Amma refused to communicate with me. Thenammal suggested that I should leave Pat and marry a girl from our community! It was mid-Summer there; the intense heat, spicy food etc resulted in the severest attack of diarrhea I have ever suffered. It was Athai who nursed me back to health in Sivakasi and then in Chennai (even though Periappa wanted to take me to Thoothukudi and look after me there!), and my return to Manchester had to be delayed by a few days. Thereafter Periappa and I slowly resumed communication in Tamil, and this certainly kept me in touch with my mother-tongue.
Here is a picture of the 3 siblings taken just before the wedding:
Prem’s family visits to India
I completed my accountancy training in October 1967. Soon afterwards Pat and I moved into our first house in Didsbury, Manchester, and Anna was born on 31 October 1967, followed by Arun on 17 June 1969. I sent photos of the children to Periappa/Thenammal and Mama/Athai, and gave them all the family news. Mama came to England in 1965 (with Athai), 1967 and 1969, and of course met up with Pat and me. He was very keen for me to return to India with my family and join the family business. By then it was also clear that Periappa was really missing me and was anxious to meet my family.
At Periappa’s request, Mama made all the arrangements for Pat, Anna, Arun and myself to go on a 6 week holiday to India in March/April 1970. On this holiday it was wonderful to see the life-long affectionate rapport being established by Pat with Periappa and Athai. Periappa said that, irrespective of my parents’ wishes, he was prepared to provide all the necessary financial and other support for my family to settle down in India. Having considered the matter carefully, Pat and I decided to stay on in Manchester, initially because it did not feel right to cause friction between Periappa and Appa by moving to India and later also because we were reluctant to disturb our settled family life in England.
During this holiday Appa met us briefly. He was his usual affable self but it was not possible to establish any close connection. Amma of course did not want to have anything to do with us. However, whilst we were in Kochi (Maheswari’s family was then living in adjoining Ernakulam), Arunachalam and Rajalakshmi (see the sub-section on Kollam in Appendix 1 below for some information on them) came to see us. They were very ebullient open extrovert characters, and saw it as their mission to reconcile Amma to my family! So, despite my protestations that it would not be appropriate to pay a surprise visit to Amma against her wishes whilst Appa was away on business, they bundled us and Maheswari’s family into the car and drove us to Kollam. The outcome was disastrous as Amma simply refused to acknowledge us, with the nadir being reached when Maheswari attempted to put baby Arun (he looked angelic) into her arms but she firmly rejected him.
Moving on, in 1971 Thenammal became terminally ill with bowel cancer, so I went to Thoothukudi with Anna in December that year to spend 2 weeks with my grandparents. I gathered that afterwards Thenammal told everybody how wonderful it was to have Anna for a while to liven up the place. Thenammal passed away in May 1972 and soon afterwards I made a 2 week trip to India in order to spend some time with Periappa in Kodaikanal. During these 2 visits to India I had the opportunity to spend some time with Appa in Thoothukudi, and thereafter we resumed regular correspondence.
Appa and Amma in India
Here is a family photo taken on Appa’s 60 birthday in 1973 (standing from left to right are Chidambaram, Maheswari, Indrani and Mohan – seated are Appa holding baby Ramya, Naren and Amma with Murali on her knees):
Appa and Amma had lived in Kollam since 1943. However, in the mid 1970s the Tamil Nadu government introduced significant changes to the sales tax structure for timber business, putting at a disadvantage any business registered outside the State. As most of the customers for the timber business were in Tamil Nadu, in order to maintain a competitive price, Appa decided to move the business from Kollam to Tenkasi which is located in Tamil Nadu but is very close to the Kerala border. It then made sense for Appa and Amma to live in nearby Courtallam which is a lovely small spa town situated at an elevation of about 200 metres on the Western Ghats (more information on Courtallam in Section 2). They moved to Courtallam in 1979 and lived in a rented house for several years. Then in the late 1980s they bought some land in Tenkasi and built a lovely traditional house with spacious gardens, which was their home until the end of their lives.
Here is a picture taken on Appa’s 80 birthday in 1993 (standing are Indrani, Maheswari, Amma, Appa, Chidambaram and Mohan – sitting down Divya, Ramya, Murali and Naren):
Prem’s later family visits to India
Daniel and Susheela were born on 24 May 1973 and Periappa could not wait to see them. So in 1975 we went on an 8 week holiday to India and spent 3 weeks with Periappa in Thoothukudi. Appa arranged for us to make a day trip to the Courtallam Ashram (see Appendix 5) where we attended a prayer meeting held by Swamiji. Appa and Amma were there too. Whilst Appa did his best to make us feel at ease, Amma contrived to just ignore us. However, little 2 year old Daniel was nodding off, and the irrepressible Rajalakshmi unceremoniously picked him up and put him on Amma’s knees where he promptly fell asleep! Unfortunately I have no photo of that occasion, but I do have a picture of us all with Swamiji on our 1980 visit:
During those 2 visits to Courtallam Ashram, Swamiji talked to us a good deal, and during the second visit he asked Anna and myself to give a short talk to the congregation about life in England. Then in January 1981 Appa wrote to me that Amma and himself had a discussion with Swamiji about my family and agreed that I should be invited to settle down in India with my family with the option of either joining the family business or working for a large company in India. He assured me of all possible help to make our life in India comfortable and enjoyable. He added that Swamiji too would give any assistance needed (I knew that Periappa and Mama had talked to Swamiji several times, requesting him to intercede with my parents to accept my marriage to Pat). As suggested by Appa, Pat and I considered the matter very carefully and our eventual decision to remain in the UK was attributable to 2 main factors. One was that we had by then settled well into our family life in Manchester and the effects of a mega cultural change would be unpredictable, especially bearing in mind that Anna was already a teenager then and the rest were growing up fast. The other was the significance of what was not said by Appa – I did not believe that Amma really wanted us to become a part of the Indian family, she had just been cajoled into going along with the proposals endorsed by Swamiji and put to me by Appa.
In August 1983 I visited India with Anna and Arun, particularly to see Periappa who was by then very frail (he passed away in November 1983). Whilst staying at Thoothukudi, we did make a day trip to Courtallam Ashram where we met Swamiji, Appa and Amma. Again Amma ignored us and that reinforced my earlier perception that she would not make my family welcome in India. We also spent some time in Chennai and here is a picture of us with all of my siblings’ families:
In 1987 Anna spent a couple of months in Kolkata with Guna’s family and I joined her towards the end of her stay. We then spent some time in Chennai and Thoothukudi. Here is a picture of us with Appa taken in Thoothukudi:
In August 1990 Arun, Daniel, Susheela and I were in India, and Appa met us in Chennai. Here is a picture of Arun, Appa and me taken at Mohan’s house:
Over the years I was feeling increasingly upset and bitter about the lack of any meaningful relationship with my parents since 1964, despite the invitation in 1981 for us to settle down in India which began to look like a sham. I wrote a long frank letter to Appa in February 1992 expressing my frustration over the matter, pointing out what a lot had been lost to all concerned by the absence of contact between my parents and my children, and hoped for some improvement. However, Appa responded to say that the matter had been discussed with Amma, Maheswari and Mohan, the outcome being that no change was possible. So I had to be content with some contact rather than none. It was then hard to avoid the feeling that I had well and truly lost my parents.
In August/September 1992 all my family was in India but the children travelled on their own for part of the time. Here is a lovely picture of the 4 girls (Ramya, Divya, Anna and Susheela) in Chennai sitting on the famous swing-seat in the rear veranda of Chitra:
This photo of the 3 siblings was taken at the time of the family get-together held during that visit:
In 1998 Pat and I were planning a holiday in India, and Pat wanted to use this opportunity to pay a short visit to her school-friend Poy Siang in Singapore. At that stage Appa wrote to me saying that he would like me to make a short visit to Tenkasi on my own. Pat and I discussed the matter and decided that I would undertake this visit whilst she was in Singapore. I only spent a couple of days in Tenkasi accompanied by Mohan and my communication with Amma was minimal but Appa was evidently delighted to see me and indeed told me so. Here is a picture of Appa, Mohan and Amma in the dining room:
I was so glad that I made that trip because it was the last time I saw my parents. Quite unexpectedly Appa died on 6 March 1999 from a massive heart attack. I was shocked and it certainly felt like the end of an era for me because I did not think Amma would maintain any contact with me.
Prem’s life in England
I will leave the details for Section 8, but will give a brief account here in order to provide the context for the main story. When I first arrived in 1960, even though there was a good deal of diversity in the ethnic background of the population, the dominance of the white male was noticeable; discrimination on the grounds of sex or colour was often regarded as something that had to be endured. However, the British society was changing rapidly and within 3 decades it had become remarkably cosmopolitan. One example is my experience with colleagues at work. In the 1960s, when someone asked me where I came from, s/he always meant the country I originated from and not where I lived in Manchester. By the 1980s the inquirer usually meant where I lived in Manchester.
I also recall that, soon after I started working, I asked some of my colleagues if the Manchester Office had ever employed non-British individuals, and found out that only white males were employed as professional staff, so I was the odd one out! However, things moved fast as in the following year the office recruited the first female accountancy trainee. I was lucky that David Paterson, the senior partner of the office at that time, formed a good opinion of my work when I reported directly to him on a couple of assignments. He was a Liberal and we established a good rapport. I think the positive experience the office enjoyed with me encouraged them to open the door to some more Asians and Africans. After qualification as a chartered accountant in 1967 I specialized in Taxation and progressed well in my career, but I was becoming somewhat concerned about my future prospects especially as David was then nearing retirement. When I talked to him about it, he promised that he would make me a senior manager before he retired. This he did in 1975 but I gathered that he had to overcome opposition to the appointment (presumably on the grounds of ethnicity) from a senior partner in London!
My married life with Pat had the ups and downs but we found contentment together. After living in Manchester for a long time, in 1989 we moved to the small spa town of Buxton in Derbyshire. All our children duly completed their education and eventually found their vocation in life.
In the mid 1990s the family faced the first major health crisis when Daniel was diagnosed with leukemia. After recovering from the initial critical period he went through harsh ground-breaking treatment over a year at Manchester Christie hospital. Whilst family and friends rallied round, Pat was by his side most of his waking hours at hospital and I think it took a lot out of her. We were all overjoyed when he eventually made a brilliant recovery. Appa was very solicitous and supportive in his letters and sent some money for Daniel.
By the end of 1997 we were in celebratory mood as Anna and Jon tied the knot in Buxton. Following in fairly quick succession, Susheela and Richard were married in 2000, Arun and Nicky in 2001 and finally Daniel and Kate in 2002. Just as Pat and I were thinking it might never happen, the dam burst and we had a flood of grandchildren – Ella in 1998, Esme in 2000, Isaac and Julia in 2001 and Sasha in 2003. Here is a picture of the happy family taken in Buttermere in May 2003:
I had enjoyed the varied interesting challenging work at EY Manchester for 36 years, but on 1 July 2000 I moved to EY National Tax Office in London as Risk Manager. We continued to live in Buxton, and I carried out my work by staying in London for a few nights each week and by working from home. Sadly in early 2005 Pat was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and went through a very difficult time for just over a year despite a lot of intensive treatment. I was already working part-time but retired fully at the end of June 2005. I was then able to provide Pat with the necessary care, and we undertook some enjoyable mini holidays in the UK during the periods Pat was feeling better. She was certainly cheered up by the arrival of Martha in January 2006. The inevitable end came on 20 April 2006. Time passed by and in May 2009 the family was buoyed up by the arrival of the twins – Lucy and George. Unfortunately, just as I was recovering from the loss of Pat, Arun was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma against which he had a long difficult battle which was tragically lost on 12 December 2009.
Amma and Prem
Moving back to the main story, on the day I heard of Appa’s death in 1998 I wrote to Amma and received a reply from her just over a month later. I pondered long and hard over how to proceed further because, whilst my communications with Appa had been warm and encompassed all my family, Amma wrote to me as though I had neither wife nor children. I found this hard to cope with and after much thought decided that there was no point in writing to her again.
I had felt really sorry for Appa because I believed he had been so torn between his desire to have a good relationship with my family and my mother's stubborn block on it. I gather that she would simply not discuss anything about me with anybody as she just tried to blot me out and even went to the extent of telling people at one stage that she only had one son. I felt bitter that my own mother was the only person who prevented my own family being treated in the normal way by my Indian family. Even the tragic deaths of my wife and son did not prompt Amma to communicate with me.
My project of writing something about the family history started some time before Pat died and after a pause continued thereafter with encouragement from the family, particularly from Ramya. By the end of 2010 I had written about all the close family in India except my parents and siblings but found it very difficult to proceed further due to the unsatisfactory state of affairs with Amma. However, I had been sorting through my big collection of photos in connection with the project and one small photo of Amma and me (as a baby) really caught my imagination and I managed to enhance and print it, and the picture had a big emotional impact on me. Around this time I was having a good deal of communication with Mohan and Ramya (and Maheswari through her) about my writing project. We talked about Amma and they told me that Amma was physically frail (not surprising at the age of 93) but mentally as sharp as ever, and they encouraged me to contact her. So eventually on 2 February 2011 I wrote her a long letter and enclosed this picture (without it there would have been no section on ‘Amma and Prem”!):
Mohan told me that Amma was looking at the photo for a long time, so I think it had an enormous emotional impact upon her too. Amma wrote back on 21 March 2011 “….After writing that letter some 12 years ago, I was eagerly expecting your reply. Since you did not write, I thought you did not like to reply it….It is nice to see that you have a good happy family….”. Perhaps, when Appa died, she felt the need to keep in touch with me.
I responded on 27 March 2011 “….In retrospect I am really sorry that I did not reply to your letter of 20 April 1999 until last month. The reason that I did not write earlier was that you had not communicated with me since late 1964 and even on the few occasions we met since then you were not willing to engage with me at all; so I thought you were just sending a formal reply to my letter of 6 March 1999. I also found it difficult to cope with the fact that you were not willing to acknowledge at all my family here. When Pat died, I thought I would hear something from you and, if I had, I would certainly have responded. Anyway I don’t think there is anything to be gained by going over the unfortunate past events. However, I can assure you that I have always wanted to keep in touch with you…...”
Amma read through what I had already written about the family and said that she found it interesting. She made a few comments and also, as requested by me, proceeded to give some valuable information which I have incorporated in this section. Putting together Amma’s letters, the details she gave me through Maheswari/Mohan and Maheswari’s own recollections, at this late stage in my life I have become aware of the traumatic events that took place in 1941. Amma was admitted to the TB Sanatorium at the end of 1940, when I was 8 months old, and had to stay there for about 8 months. During that time, as indicated above, Periappa and Thenammal looked after me. When the hospital treatment was over in 1941, Appa and Amma went to live in Edamon and I had always assumed that I joined them there at that time.
However, I now understand that Periappa and Thenammal had by then become so attached to me that they refused to part with me, but Thenammal brought me to Edamon and stayed for a week. Thenammal then suggested to Appa that he should leave his sickly wife and marry another healthy bride! Appa must have been shocked by this suggestion as he was devoted to Amma who must have longed to be reunited with me. Appa must have realized at this stage that Thenammal would not voluntarily give up “her child”, so he visited his grandmother Nammammal (Thenammal’s mother) in Sivakasi and explained the position. Only then, at Nammammal’s insistence, did Thenammal take me back to Amma, just over 6 months after Amma came out of hospital! This meant Amma and I were separated for about 14 months instead of the inevitable 8 months hospital stay for Amma.
I am sure that the traumatic experience had an effect on Amma’s outlook on life. However, I feel that Appa’s calm and constant love and support must have enabled her to look at everything in proper perspective. I believe she understood that what happened was due to Thenammal’s almost unnaturally intense love for me and never showed any bitterness towards her mother-in-law. She not only let me attend school in Thoothukudi for 2 years but thereafter too was happy for me to spend a part of my school holidays there. Indeed, many years later it was Amma who effected a reconciliation between Periappa and Thenammal when a rift was caused by the latter’s Secret Christianity (see Section 2). I also know that towards the end of Thenammal’s life, when she was very ill, Amma sat by her bedside and read her the Bible.
Maheswari and Mohan have commented that those traumatic events of 1941 must have made me very precious to Amma and created a special bond between the two of us. Maheswari has written to me: “Now I remember something mother used to say about you. When you started school you would be out of school as soon as the bell rang to search for mother. You needed to be reassured often. You were fearful that mother would leave you. I would not like any mother and baby to go through the same situation”.
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I wrote to Amma “….Now I know the full heart-breaking story, I feel very sad that misunderstanding and non-communication have caused us to be estranged for such a long period in our lives. I hope that in the time left to us we can make up for it as best we can….” We proceeded to have a regular rewarding correspondence from February 2011 to August 2013 - I wrote 36 letters to her and despite her physical limitations she wrote 19 letters. She showed an interest in my family and, despite being somewhat overwhelmed by her large English family which she had never really met, she made frequent enquiries about Anna’s family and also showed concern for Nicky and Julia, so I wrote in detail about my family and sent many photos. She said a lot about spirituality, prayer and meditation. Anyway I felt that we really engaged with each other, and this connection brought a belated healing of our fractured relationship.
Mohan felt that Amma never really recovered from the shock of my departure from India in 1964 to marry Pat because my actions completely changed the family dynamics envisaged by my parents. I gathered that she went into a lengthy period of depression, and some time after I left she felt so overcome that she tore up photographs of me that were very dear to her, then she wondered if she was going mad and determined to pull herself together. Anyway, as suggested by him, I wrote to her that I would be happy to visit her for a week if that would be in accordance with her wishes. She then mentioned to Mohan that it would be fine for me to visit her, but she would find it hard to bear it when I leave after some time. I understood that she had always felt this sense of loss whenever I visited India and then returned to England, this was perhaps the reason she never engaged with me on my visits to India since 1964. So I inferred that she was content to keep in touch with me by correspondence, and would find it difficult to cope with a face to face meeting.
Here is a photo of Amma and Guna taken in January 2013 when he visited her:
Amma died on 29 September 2013. I can do no better than to conclude with the words she wrote to me “….You must understand that my way of life is very different, I read only religious books, spend time in worship etc. Now and then a few friends would come to me to read with me and have discussions…..I am completely satisfied with this sort of life…..In spite of physical inability I am quite happy and contented…..I see only God’s love everywhere. I am not sorry for anything nor am in want of anything. I am ready to accept death any moment. Peace fills the atmosphere here where there is no doubt, no fault-finding, no more desire for anything but God. Hari Om. I learnt this way of life from Periamma [her sister] all my life”.
Reminiscences of Appa and Amma
I feel that my values in life are essentially those of my parents even though outwardly my life style has been very different from theirs. Some values that come to mind are respect for other people, the value of education, not wasting anything, self-reliance and the importance of developing the spiritual side of life. I believe that Appa was never interested in money just for the sake of accumulating it but enjoyed sharing the fruits of his hard work with the nearest and dearest. Periappa, Mama and Appa established the ASKR Trust, a charitable body set up to provide educational and health facilities to the community. On a personal note, when I married Pat and settled down in the UK, I was content to relinquish any entitlement I had to a share in the family wealth in return for a modest settlement, but Periappa, Appa and Mohan continued to be very generous in giving any help as needed especially for our family holidays in India. There has never been any ill-feeling over money between Appa, Mohan and myself, I think this is often not the case in the Nadar community!
Here is a photo of Appa taken in 1983 in a posture I remember so well:
The family was all important for Appa and he worked very hard to build highly successful businesses but he also enjoyed many other things in life - travelling, playing tennis/badminton, following tennis/cricket, reading, Rotary Club activities etc. He was a devoted father and took a keen interest in every aspect of the children’s lives. He was always generous and thoughtful. I cannot ever remember having to ask him for money to meet any expenses, because he always anticipated my needs and made the necessary provision. He was quite soft-hearted and indulgent with children generally, and they took to him almost instantly. Most of the disciplining in the family was done by Amma. I understand from my nieces and nephews in India that Appa was a fantastic grandfather to them.
Appa liked everything to be well planned and orderly, traits which I think I have inherited. He always had to travel a great deal to control his business interests spread over various places, and his movements were planned meticulously. My recollection is that his daily routine at home consisted of getting up at about 7am, walking around the garden, completing the morning ablutions, praying, breakfasting and then getting to the office by 10am. He would return home around 2pm for a late lunch after which he read and snoozed until about 5pm, but when the children were at home he used to enjoy playing games with them. All five of us in the family could play chess to approximately the same standard. However, I remember that Appa and Amma had very contrasting playing styles – whereas Amma played a kind of rapid chess game, Appa took forever to make his moves! Around 5pm he went to the tennis club for a few games of tennis. After that he returned home for a shower and went back to the office by 7pm to work until about 11pm.
I remember fondly the many places we visited as a family during my childhood – Varanasi, Sarnath, Mumbai, Mysore, Bengaluru, Ooty, Thiruvananthapuram, Varkala, Thiruchur, Courtallam etc. During many school holidays Appa rented a house in Courtallam where we stayed for a few weeks, and Periappa often joined us. I also recall several holidays in Thiruvananthapuram where there are several interesting places to visit.
Appa was quite a motoring enthusiast who kept tabs on various models and changed his car frequently. In the mid 1950s he bought a lovely American Plymouth like the one in the picture below and kept it for a long time:
There was hardly any other car like that in Kollam at that time, and as it drove by people used to refer to it as the “ship sailing by”. Appa was proud of the car and ensured that the chauffeur kept it in immaculate condition. It was a large powerful car and, though it had no power steering, it moved really smoothly and was a pleasure to drive. I enjoyed driving it a few times whilst I was at home in 1964. Mohan adds “Appa did not keep a chauffeur till Plymouth came. Chauffeur was there mainly to wash the car and to keep away curious onlookers from touching/scratching the car! It was Appa that drove the car and the chauffeur will sit in the back seat! He really loved his car. He will scold us if we slam the car door. It has to be done gently.”
He kept up to date with everything by looking at the daily newspaper, listening to the news on the radio and reading the Reader’s Digest. However, I believe that during the final stage of life his reading was focused on spiritual writings especially by Swamiji.
The final words on Appa should be those Amma wrote to me soon after he died: “He had lived a very good life all along, conforming with the rules of divine life. He has always been helping others in many small ways. Of late, he had enough time to reflect upon the higher values of life. Every day regularly he used to pray, meditate and read holy books. For what a long time he used to read! He would also spend some time playing with neighbourhood children. Thus he was serene peaceful and cheerful always. It is this sterling character of his that is now a consolation for us. Again, this itself makes the separation more painful. He had prepared himself quite well for the inevitable death that is the sure end for any and each individual. So, except for the physical pain that he suffered for an hour or so, I believe (I know) there was no mental pain whatsoever. I believe so because he had prepared himself in his life to meet death calmly”.
Amma was a very conscientious caring mother who maintained strict discipline tempered with kindness. She set high moral standards for the children and ensured that all three of us were not only well-versed in Tamil culture and Hindu religion but also had a good command of the English language. I can remember Pat saying that she must have been a very good mother for me to have turned out to be the kind of person I am!
Amma certainly had literary interests in her younger days because I can remember that our book shelves contained several literary classics – Leo Tolstoy, Bernard Shaw, Charles Dickens, Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, Tagore etc. My earliest introduction to literature was a book of Tolstoy short stories that she had, so no wonder he eventually became my favourite author. She also had Bernard Shaw’s complete works – a huge tome which I read from cover to cover, perhaps that had something to do with my great interest in theatre. However, I remember that around the time I went to Manchester University in 1960 all these books disappeared because her reading became confined to spiritual writings.
Amma was a vegetarian all her life by inclination and by choice. She was always quite fearless and would think nothing of walking by a cemetery or crematorium in the dark. There was an occasion when she found that a krait had entered the house. She managed to get a walking stick which she fearlessly planted on the snake’s head and held it there. She then shouted for help until a servant came, and asked him to bring some kerosene. This was duly poured over the snake which was burnt to ensure that it was dead, because snakes have been known to revive after being beaten to a pulp.
One quality that seemed to distinguish Amma from other women in our community was that she never fussed over anything and never complained about her various health problems but just got on with things. She was basically a very serious person and not particularly gregarious. She certainly had a mind of her own, and once she decided upon something, nothing could budge her. She had always been a devout Hindu but from her late thirties onwards she became very religious indeed. She regularly held prayer meetings at the house for scores of devotees. Gradually she lost interest in all worldly pursuits and became preoccupied with spiritual matters.
My greatest regret is that we have all lost out so much because Appa and Amma did not get to know my family. It is very sad that, whilst my family have got to know well most of our close Indian family, my parents stayed outside the circle. I think Appa really regretted the absence of contact but could do nothing without taking Amma with him. I don’t think I fully appreciated until recently the effect on Amma of my marriage to Pat and departure for England. Certain unfortunate events led her to decide that Pat would not be a suitable wife for me and nothing could change that. I understand that in 2012 Maheswari told Amma that I have had as good a family life in England as my siblings have had in India. This must have come as a surprise to Amma. Anyway Amma’s stance certainly ensured that we settled down in England rather than India. My siblings and I feel that my family has had a better quality of life living in England rather than in India.
Appendix 1 – Kerala
Here is a map of the Indian State of Kerala, the land of green magic (so called because of the tropical greenery), which is often referred to as “God’s own country”:
The places in Kerala to which this section refers are Thiruvananthapuram (capital city of Kerala situated on the coast in the far South West), Kollam (a bit further up the coast), Punalur (about 30 miles to the East of Kollam), Edamon (about 6 miles further East), Thenmala (about 7 miles further East) and Ernakulam (with adjoining Kochi, about half-way up the coast on the above map). Punalur, Edamon and Thenmala are not shown on the map because these are villages in the Western Ghats.
On a frivolous note, the late Malayalam (the language spoken in Kerala) actor Prem Nazir apparently holds the world record for having acted as the protagonist of over 720 movies, and I have the dubious distinction of having once shared a train compartment with him and his 2 friends during a journey from Kollam to Chennai! Though he was not a super star, Prem Nazir was a well-known film star, so at every station the train stopped he was recognised and crowds gathered outside our compartment!
Two of Thangammal’s daughters lived in large adjoining houses in the centre of Thoothukudi; one of them was referred to as Periakka ( meaning elder sister) and the other as Chinnakka (meaning younger sister). Chinnakka was quite close to Thenammal and so used to visit my grandparents’ house quite often. She was a big, voluble, outgoing woman. I have known her son Kalidasan pretty well; like his mother, he is friendly and chatty. Here is a photo taken in 1980 when my family visited his house (Kalidasan and his wife Lalitha are sitting at each end, and their two children are seated near Lalitha):
Well, a century ago this was a dense forest area with thousands of mature trees ripe for human exploitation. The ruling British government and subsequently the Indian government used to auction the standing trees. The bidding timber merchants needed to have the expertise to assess the quality and sale potential of the trees, and be able to finance the transactions. In order to purchase at source the timber for his business Periappa went to Thenmala in the late 1930s, lived there for some time and established an office. Appa then became involved in the business and took charge of it in the early 1940s. Their skill and application enabled them to become highly successful entrepreneurs and make the business very profitable.
I remember Thenmala quite well as I went there a few times with Appa from Kollam in the early 1950s. I recall going into the forest a couple of times with Appa and watching elephants move huge logs. I particularly remember a family visit to walk through a railway tunnel (during the time a train was not due to go through there!); somebody from the office caught a wild rabbit and I wanted to bring it home – it wetted the floor of the car during the journey back to Kollam; Subhayya (our gardener) made a fenced enclosure for it in the garden but after some time killed it with a reflex blow when it bit him!
When Appa went to Kerala in order to take charge of the business set up in Thenmala, after a sojourn at Punalur, he moved to a house (which had been owned by his grandfather who used to buy timber in Kerala and transport it by bullock-cart to Thoothukudi) in the nearby jungle village of Edamon where Appa, Amma and I (aged 1-3) lived for about 2 years. There you could hear jackals howling at night and occasionally the roar of a tiger. We had a cow at home for milk and once the cowherd who took it out for grazing during the day could not find it as night fell. My parents were worried that a tiger might get it but the next morning it was found safe but cowering under a tree. There were a lot of snakes around the house and leeches had to be watched for. In the mornings the ashes from the previous night’s cooking (which was done on stone-built stoves burning wood) had to be checked carefully for any scorpions seeking the warmth. I recall being enchanted by fire-flies twinkling about in the dark night, which we sometimes caught and put in a bottle and I wondered why they had no light the next day. Here is a picture of me having a bath in the garden:
Appa used to travel between Thenmala and Edamon in a black Ford model T car. He always worked late into the night. On his journey back home he had seen wild elephants and the occasional tiger crossing the road nonchalantly. He used to carry a powerful torch and an axe in his car – the torch was to frighten any tiger and the axe was to clear the road of any fallen trees. My parents chose to live in Edamon rather than Thenmala because malaria was then rife in the latter place as well demonstrated by the fact that Appa endured 2 severe attacks of malaria. Anyway it was just as well that my parents were brave and resourceful people who just got on with their lives in any circumstances they found themselves in.
Kollam (anglicised as Quilon) is the fourth largest city in Kerala and is known for cashew processing and coir manufacturing. It is also a major business and commercial centre. It is the southern gateway to the Kerala Backwaters and so is a prominent tourist destination. There are lovely sandy beaches though the sea is too deep and rough to swim in.
Appa, Amma and I moved from Edamon to Kollam in 1943. Our first house in Kollam was near the level crossing on the way to the beach. The area occupied by the house was somewhat triangle-shaped; on one side ran the main road to the beach and on the other a minor road. Apart from the main front gate, there was a gate through which the minor road could be accessed and our garage was on this road. As you entered the house from the front, you walked through a verandah and reached the drawing room (sitting room) with bedrooms, dining room, kitchen and bathroom further on. On both sides of the house there were verandahs and gardens.
Maheswari and Mohan were born in this house. Here is a picture of Mohan lying on a traditional folding cot (bed) in the garden; the typical Keralan door is the one leading into the minor road:
In the early 1950s we moved to Paresh Hall, a more spacious house with a big garden. It was on the main road to Thiruvananthapuram but was set well back from the road with a drive way and garage. Across the road a few hundred yards away ran the main train line to Thiruvananthapuram. When I was a teenager I spent hours knocking a tennis ball against the wall of the garage. The garden was lovely with a lot of trees and plants. We had a sand-pit and there was room to improvise a court and string a net to play badminton or tennikoit (deck tennis). Here is a picture of Maheswari, Mohan and me taken in the garden in the early 1950s:
The verandah to our house can just be seen next to me. The house in construction behind us over the wall remained in that state throughout the many years I was there because the owner ran out of funds!
Our house was a typical Keralan house with a high ceiling to make it airy and cool. There was a nice verandah at the front where I often used to sit in a chair and read. There was also a store room adjoining the verandah. Beyond the front stable-door was the large drawing room which was the main living area. There were 3 doors leading further into the house; on the right was a dressing room where clothes etc were stored; in front was a kind of passageway with a bed which was often used by Amma; to the left was a bedroom which had doors leading into the prayer room in the front and the dining room in the rear. The spacious dining room lead into a store room and kitchen. The passageway lead into the bathroom. There was a lovely open courtyard in the rear surrounded by the passageway, dining room, kitchen and outside wall. The courtyard comprised a covered verandah, the well, the lavatory, washing area and dog-house. In the late 1960s a large prayer hall was built as an extension to the house so that Amma could hold Hindu prayer meetings for devotees. Swamiji (see Appendix 5 below) visited from time to time.
I should mention that, as with most properties in the warmer areas of India, the house had lots of windows and doors for light and air-flow. This also meant that, in comparison to life in England, there was little concept of privacy. For example, no rooms were kept closed as bedrooms. At night folding beds were brought out – males slept in one area and the females in another.
I recall that during the monsoon season torrential rain would sometimes send down a mini waterfall from the roof of the house. From time to time I used to enjoy standing under this lovely shower. The monsoon usually heralded the end of the very hot weather and the onset of more pleasant temperatures.
We once had a goat and a dog at the same time; they were both quite young and used to romp around together; Mohan too romped around with them. The goat used to enjoy eating tit-bits from Mohan’s hand.
I recall that the lavatory used to be a hut at the far rear corner of the garden. There were 2 holes over which you squatted and 2 buckets underneath collected the excretions. A scavenger used to come every morning to empty the buckets and clean out the area. He carried the awful-smelling stuff in a big bucket from house to house; not a very hygienic refuse collection service! In the 1950s, probably as suggested by Swamiji who was keen to educate everyone on cleanliness and civic sense, we installed a flush toilet in the rear yard.
We did not live extravagantly or ostentatiously, but we did have a cook, gardener, cleaner and chauffeur. The cook came from Tamil Nadu and lived with us in a room adjoining the kitchen. The gardener was Subhayya who joined us as a young man when we first moved into Paresh Hall. He worked for us full-time and acted as gardener, food shopper and general factotum. His work included drawing water from the well for our use. He carried on working for the family until he fell ill and could no longer do so; then his son took on his duties. Subhayya’s mother Lakshmi did the cleaning for us every morning. She died whilst I was at high school, and then Subhayya’s wife did the cleaning for us.
I particularly remember one of the employees in Appa’s office called Rajendran who was a distant relative. He operated for a long time as Appa’s personal assistant and often came to our house. I was quite fond of him. He taught me to ride the lovely English BSA bike that Mama bought for me. I then enjoyed riding around Kollam on the bike, and particularly liked cycling to the beach.
Arunachalam (everybody called him Chinnathambi meaning little brother), who was distantly related to us, and his wife Rajalakshmi moved to Kollam from Tamil Nadu around the same time as we did and lived about a mile away from us. They were both extroverts, she extravagantly so (“quite the drama queen” according to her younger son). They had 2 girls, Anu and Geetha (around Mohan’s age) as well as 2 younger boys called Ashokan and Vijayan. Initially Arunachalam went into timber business with his brother. However, they soon established a good connection with the Dutch company Philips and started Quilon Radio Service which has been a successful business and is now run by Ashokan and Vijayan.
I remember several happy joint family visits to the beach in the evenings. Usually Appa took us in the big car, and Amma too came with us sometimes. I remember them all well as good family friends though I think Maheswari and Mohan saw more of them. After 1964 I did see them from time to time during my family visits to India. I recall that in 1970, whilst Pat, Anna, Arun and I were staying at the Malabar Hotel in Kochi, Ashokan came to visit us one day as he was then spending some time at Ernakulam. Here is a picture taken at Maheswari’s house in Chennai in 1990; Anu is sitting to my right and Geetha’s daughter, who looks very like her mother, is on my left (Geetha tragically died in a lift shaft accident in June 2013):
I was interested to hear recently that Anu’s son married a girl outside the Nadar caste and so his parents refused to accept the girl into the family. The sad outcome was that the couple emigrated to the US and completely severed all ties to the family.
In 1990 I had a holiday in India with Daniel and Susheela, which included a brief stay at a place called Alleppey not far from Kollam. We had with us a car and chauffeur on hire, and one day decided to make an unplanned day trip to Kollam. I knew that Quilon Radio Service was on the Main Road and so we headed there. After the initial shock of our sudden appearance there, Ashokan and Vijayan made us feel welcome. Ashokan took us to see Paresh Hall which sadly looked to be in a state of decay – a far cry from the house and garden maintained in tip-top condition by my parents. He then took us to his house for an enjoyable dinner. The picture below shows Daniel, Susheela and me with his family (I understand that Ashokan’s daughter Aardhra has now settled down in the US with her husband Prem):
In 2014 Vijayan and I established contact by e-mail and exchanged several interesting messages to catch up on mutual news. I learnt that both his sons have settled down in the US. His younger son has married a girl of Chinese origin and his older one has also married a non-Indian girl. In sharp contrast to his sister Anu, Vijayan says that both his parents were very open-minded and encouraged the absorption of outside influences, so he and his wife are very happy with their sons’ choice of partners. Here is a lovely picture of Vijayan (second from left) with his wife and sons:
Appendix 2 – Maheswari (my sister)
Maheswari was born in Kollam on 4 September 1944. I remember well her birth in the rear bedroom of our house when I was 4. Aachi was helping with the child-birth. Appa and I were in the front drawing room. We were very excited to be told that I had a baby sister.
Amma told me: “I remember very well how you were very affectionate to Maheswari and Mohan. If I scold Maheswari for something, she will not cry, you will cry! ‘Where will the child go if you push her away like this?’ you would cry out!”. Here is a picture of Maheswari and me taken in 1946:
I must have been a bit jealous of her sometimes because I can remember pushing her off Amma’s lap so that I could sit there. Maheswari did not seem to mind as she was usually happy to amuse herself! My recollection is that as a child she was a bit of a loner, and enjoyed wandering around the house or garden to do her own thing. However, after Mohan was born, I recall that Maheswari and I sometimes competed for his affections. Even though she was younger, I think she was craftier as she usually got her way. She was also quite independent-minded and could be a bit willful, so came in for more chastisement from Amma than her brothers.
I recollect an incident when Maheswari was about 4 and we were staying in Madurai with Periamma and Ayya. 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 stitched; she was very brave and did not cry.
Maheswari attended primary school in Kollam. She was often generous to a fault and tended to give things away to other children at school. From the age of 10 to 17 she lived with Periamma and Ayya in Madurai during school term time and attended school there. She fondly remembers that time as happy care-free days, and goes on to say “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”. 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.
After completing her schooling in 1960, Maheswari did a Domestic Sciences degree course in Chennai for 4 years to 1964, and lived in the student hostel quite near Athai and Mama’s house. They acted as her local guardians. I think she really enjoyed this phase of her life as she was able to be more independent than at any other time in her life. I was working in the family business in Chennai during 1963/64, and used to visit her from time to time. She was still studying there in 1964 when I left India for England in order to marry Pat. I recall Mama telling me how upset she was when I left India.
Maheswari has an impressive academic record at school and at university, but she has not subsequently had the opportunity to use her qualifications and skills. Here is her graduation photo:
My family in India decided that my marriage to Pat in 1964 should be kept within the close family because it was felt that public knowledge of this could jeopardise the arrangement of a good marriage alliance for Maheswari. Anyway in 1966 my parents arranged her marriage to Chidambaram, a chemical engineer whose family come from the large town of Virudhunagar which is quite near Sivakasi. I attended the wedding which took place at Sivakasi in May 1966. Here is a photo of the wedding ceremony:
When I returned to Manchester, I wondered how my relationship with Maheswari would develop as I knew little about Chidambaram. So I was delighted to receive a very friendly letter from him in July 1966 telling me that Maheswari had explained to him how I had married Pat against the family’s wishes and settled down in Manchester. He expressed the wish to maintain cordial relations with Pat and myself. A couple of years later he came to Europe on a brief business trip, and took the opportunity to spend a little time with Pat, Anna and myself in Manchester. He charmed us with his open friendly manner, and we found him to be an easy person to get on with. At a later date he did comment perceptively on how secretive and closed-up he thought Maheswari’s family (and mine!) was. Anyway he has always been a favourite uncle to my children.
Soon after the marriage Chidambaram’s work required them to live in Ernakulkam in Kerala and they stayed there for about 10 years. In March/April 1970 Pat, Anna, Arun and I had a holiday in India, and we spent about a week in Kochi (the adjoining Ernakulam contains the main commercial sector). Maheswari and Chidambarm helped us a good deal – taking us to interesting places, lending us Narens’s cot so that Arun can sleep well and give us peaceful nights, etc. Here is a photo of our two families taken at that time:
Maheswari and Chidambaram have 2 children – Naren (standing next to Maheswari in the above picture) and Ramya. In 1977 they moved to Chennai, and soon afterwards Chidambaram set up his own drying/chilling plant fabrication business. Overcoming several initial problems he built it up into a very successful enterprise which designs and installs plants anywhere in the world.
During our several family visits to India we have always enjoyed spending time with Maheswari’s family, and they always make us feel welcome to their house. When we were in Chennai in December 1980 the 2 families had an enjoyable outing to the snake park. It is a bit scary as you can’t help wondering if any of the numerous snakes hanging down on the branches of the large trees might manage to drop down outside the enclosure! It was interesting to watch an expert get a cobra out of the pit and collect its venom into a phial for medical purposes. Here are a couple of photos taken on that occasion:
Naren was born in Kollam in 1967 and was the eldest grandchild for my parents. He went to school mostly in Chennai, and did his undergraduate course in Agricultural Engineering at the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology in Kharagpur. This was followed by an MS in Food Science at the University of Massachusetts in the USA. He was then ready to join the business already established by Chidambaram involving the fabrication of drying or chilling plant. He has traveled widely in connection with his work.
Naren must be the one in the family who simply minds his own business, and just gets everything done quietly and efficiently. Perhaps he is quiet because he struggles to get a word in edgeways with chatty outgoing parents and sister! However, when I once managed to get him on his own, I found a really interesting person to talk to.
Here is a lovely wedding picture of handsome Naren and his pretty bride Meena (who comes from Madurai) taken in 1992:
Naren and Meena have 2 daughters – Dhanya born in 1995 and Diksha in 2000. They live in a lovely house on the outskirts of Chennai. Here is a picture of the family with Amma taken in 2010:
I was telling Ramya about the mice problem Anna and Jon were having, and she wrote on 30 Jan 2011 “Regarding the mice, I have a story too. Meena caught one in her mouse trap at night, she usually gives it a glorious death by shoving it into a bucket of hot water. There's nothing that can faze her - not rats, cockroaches, lizards, frogs nor snakes. She's the Indian Steve Irwin! I digress. She was tired that day and decided to dispose it off the next morning. She woke up the next day to find that the wily fellow had given her the slip. He actually nibbled his way out of the wooden trap, he well deserved his freedom for his perseverance. Was my sis-in-law to be outdone by a mere mouse? Not she. She promptly put out an enticing cheese slab in a brand new steel trap and what do you know...... the silly chap came over for his last visit. I hope Anna has the same luck. If not, simply ask her to invite Meena for a visit!”
Ramya was born in Kollam in 1973. She went to school mostly in Chennai. She did her B.Com degree course at Ethiraj College in Chennai, followed by M.A in Journalism and Mass Communication. In 2009 she worked hard to add the qualification of M. Phil in the same field.
I first saw Ramya in December 1977 when she was a lovely 4 year old, and Anna wrote in her 1978 school project on her family: “None of us except daddy have seen Ramya. He says that she is an absolutely delightful child.”. All my family visited Chennai in December 1980 and were then able to meet Ramya and decide for themselves if I was right! One amusing incident I remember took place when Maheswari’s and my families were together in a car one day. Ramya piped up to her dad “why do they all speak English in a funny way?”!
I think Ramya was brought up in the traditional way and so, in accordance with the norm in the community, as a girl she would have had a quite sheltered life after reaching puberty. Anyway her arranged marriage to Yuvraj took place in 1995. I recall Appa writing and telling me of the happy event and mentioning that Yuvraj is the great grandson of Appa’s uncle (Thenammal’s brother). Here is the wedding photo of the happy couple:
They lived in Sivakasi, and in 1997 Ramya gave birth to Ananya. Yuvraj had family business interests in Sivakasi, but he did not prove to be a successful business man. Very sadly the marriage ran into problems and his parents’ involvement had a negative effect. Despite a lot of effort to make the marriage work, eventually it had to be recognized that he was not willing to make any compromises at all with his life-style for his wife and daughter. He also made life difficult for them. So in 2004 she took the decision to separate from him and has since then brought up Ananya with no help from him.
After separating from Yuvraj she wanted to do some paid work in order to provide for Ananya and herself, but had to confine her work to activities which did not involve leaving home for any length of time. However, she has excellent command of the English language. So, she started by writing books for children, and has later been writing the contents for the websites of commercial firms and also editing articles/papers for journals/students.
Fortunately she has had a lot of help and support from the family. Ramya and Ananya live in a comfortable flat in Chennai not far from Ramya’s parents’ home. Here is a picture of mother and daughter taken at the time of the family get-together in 2010:
I recall that my initial contact with Ramya began when she was a school girl. I used to send her postcards when we went on holiday and write occasional letters. As she got older and the technology came of age we started communicating by e-mail and with the advent of cheap international telephone calls I have also been able to have occasional interesting conversations with her. I think that our relationship gathered momentum and blossomed as I really got going on writing about my Indian family after Pat’s death. We have found that we shared a lot of common values and interests. She gave me a good deal of emotional and practical support in establishing a connection with Amma. I like to think that she too has benefited from our close relationship.
It is very gratifying that I have been able to establish a connection with Ananya by sending her postcards and occasional letters which are reciprocated. She is a charming young girl with many strings to her bow. She almost always came top of the class at school but in the final year school exams she came second overall in her school, much to her chagrin a boy sneaked into the top place by a whisker – just one mark! She is an accomplished Bharatanatyam (classical South Indian) dancer. She has won embroidery competitions, produces lovely art work, excels in sport etc. She is a real credit to her family. In July 2015 she joined an engineering course at the prestigious National Institute of Technology at Tiruchirappalli.
Finally, I have to say that I did not know Maheswari particularly well during our childhood as we did not spend much time together at home as children. Unfortunately she is not a good correspondent. However, both of us have made the effort to keep in touch and enjoy the times we are able to spend together on my visits to India. Perhaps our relationship has become closer through Ramya.
Appendix 3 – Mohan (my brother)
Mohan was born in Kollam on 29 September 1948. At that time I was living with my paternal grandparents (Periappa and Thenammal) in Thoothukudi and was thrilled to be told by Periappa that I now had a baby brother. I remember that subsequently there was a family discussion on a suitable name for the new baby and that it was decided to call him Mohandas after Mahatma Gandhi (full name: Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi) who had been assassinated earlier that year; what a name to live up to!
I adored my baby brother and doted on him. Amma said to me: “About Mohan you used to say 'See how beautiful his smile is! Our Mohan is the most beautiful child in the world'. When he was a little boy he would take my books and say ‘this is Mohan’s’. Then you will try to teach him good manners! If I receive any letter, he must read it first; then also you teach him all manners and etiquette!”. Being the youngest he was naturally somewhat petted. I was very fond of him but we never got to know each other well during childhood as we only got together during school holidays and not all of our respective school holidays coincided.
Mohan attended the Convent School in Kollam, where the medium of instruction was English, until 1956. I was then 16 and finished my schooling at Sri Vivekananda Vidhyavanam High School (SVVHS), and went to Chennai for further education. At the same time at the age of 8 Mohan became a boarding student at SVVHS (see Appendix 5 for some information on the school) where the medium of instruction was Tamil, so I think it took him a while to attain proficiency in Tamil. He appears to have loved boarding school no more than I did, because in his letter to me of 2 March 1966 he said about SVVHS “I am wondering how I stayed there for 8 years. You were lucky to escape with 4 years.”!
In 1964 Mohan finished his schooling and followed my footsteps to Loyola College in Chennai, where he did B Sc Chemistry, and then went to Christian College (Appa’s old college) to do his M Sc. When Pat, Anna, Arun and I visited India for the first time together in 1970 Mohan was in the process of taking his final exams. I remember that he took some time off his studies and came with us on a day trip from Chennai to Mamallapuram. Here is a picture of him taken then:
After completing his education in 1970 Mohan entered the joint family business mainly comprising timber wholesale, paint manufacturing/marketing and agency for Carborundum; the business spread over Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. He developed further the well-established timber business by travelling widely in India and subsequently also visiting South East Asia. In 1977 there was a partition of the family business, which resulted in the timber and Carborundum businesses being carried on by Appa and Mohan, and the paint business being carried on by them in conjunction with Ramesh (see Appendix 3 of Section 5). With foresight and much hard work he has taken the family businesses to great heights.
Even though Mohan’s work involved a great deal of travel, since finishing school his base has always been in Chennai. In 1971 his traditional marriage to Indrani (who comes from Madurai) took place; here is the wedding photograph in which the bridegroom and bride are flanked by their respective parents:
As Appa and Amma did not wish to publicise my marriage, sadly I was not invited to the wedding. However, during all my family visits to India we met up with Mohan’s family, even though we engaged in little correspondence with each other at other times. Mohan and Indrani have two children - Murali born in 1973 and Divya in 1976. Here is a picture of both our families taken in 1980:
Murali was born on 12 January 1973, just a few months before Daniel and Susheela were born. I have seen him grow up from a toddler into a fine young man as I have visited India regularly at 3/4 yearly interval and of course spent some time with him at every visit.
All of Murali’s schooling was done in Chennai, he must have been relieved that he was not sent away to boarding school like Mohan and myself! Whilst he did well enough at school and university, I think academic excellence is not his main forte. He has always had a sunny bubbly personality, and gets on well with everyone – ideal attributes for a successful businessman! Unsurprisingly, at the conclusion of his education, he joined the family business and helped Mohan to make it even more successful. I understand from Ramya that Murali has a phenomenal memory thanks to which he retains virtually everything he hears, sees or reads; he can perfectly call to mind all the stories he has heard from Amma.
In 1998 the traditional wedding of Murali and Sudha was celebrated; here is a picture of the happy couple:
They have two children – Madhu born in 2000 and Mahi in 2004; here is a picture of the happy family:
Murali and Sudha are both gregarious and socialize a good deal with their familes and friends. The family enjoys travelling in India and abroad. I have also been surprised that they have developed some uncommon (for Indians in our community) Western tastes, eg, Murali loves opera and Madhu is an ardent fan of Chelsea Football Club. Murali is very interested in cars too, he probably gets this from his grandfather (my father).
It's interesting that Murali's family lives with his parents on the traditional joint family model even though neither my parents nor my grandparents aspired to use such a model! Nevertheless the arrangement seems to work very well.
Divya was born on 30 January 1976 and was then the baby of the family, indeed she is the last grandchild for my parents. As she grew up she dazzled everyone with her academic brilliance at school and at university. She is also an accomplished dance/music performer. I remember that during one of our family visits to India, as a little girl she performed a vibrant dance routine on an inverted pot. Here she is playing the traditional South Indian string instrument, the veena:
During our family holiday in India in 1980/81 Divya was 5 years old and met us for the first time but did not fully grasp the family relationships. I gather that she excitedly told Amma about the close relatives from England and went on about us until Indrani hauled her into the kitchen and gave her a good telling-off and instructed her not to talk about us to Amma. Divya says that she only understood the state of affairs when Indrani likened the situation to that in a Tamil film called “A daughter-in-law from abroad”!
Anyway during our visits to Chennai she was usually one of the first people to welcome us and always made the effort to spend as much time with us as possible. When Divya was a school girl she commenced corresponding with me regularly. We have kept this up for a long time, using email, Viber, Whatsapp etc as the technology developed. She has always been an Anglophile as her imagination had been fired by some English teachers at her Convent School.
Divya was brought up in a very traditional manner, which resulted in her freedom of movement being curtailed severely when she reached puberty, eg, she was not allowed to be on the first floor verandah of the house in order to ensure that she did not attract the attention of boys passing by. Unsurprisingly, when she had completed her honours degree in commerce with distinction, her parents wanted to arrange her marriage in accordance with the usual custom. Even though she was initially reluctant to get married so young as she wanted to put to use the qualifications she had gained, she eventually realized that marriage was the only option open to her. So in 1998 she was married to Srinivas from a very successful business family in Sivakasi. In December 1998 I was in India, and visited Divya and Srinivas in Sivakasi where they were living with his parents in the traditional way; here is a picture of all of them with me:
They made me feel welcome, and I thought Srinivas and his parents doted on Divya. Soon afterwards Divya and Srinivas moved to Bangalore as he wanted to expand the family business by setting up a printing press there. His flair and hard work made the enterprise very successful. On 1 November 2001 they had a daughter Lakshana; here is a picture of the family:
The family enjoyed life in the cosmopolitan city of Bangalore. Srinivas developed an interest in photography, joined a photographic society and has made several field trips (India and Africa) to film wildlife. Of course he has a vast collection of great photos. Divya developed a passion for aerobics and became an aerobics instructor. Lakshana enjoyed the school life and made some good friends there.
In 2009 Divya and I exchanged a lot of emails and had several interesting telephone conversations as she seemed to find it helpful talking to me for advice and guidance on her life at that time. These eventually brought me closer not only to Divya but also to Srinivas and Mohan. Anyway in 2012, as a result of the settlement following some disputes on business matters in Srinivas’s family, Srinivas had to move to Sivakasi. Unfortunately Divya and Lakshana did not manage to settle down satisfactorily in provincial Sivakasi after experiencing cosmopolitan Bangalore. So in 2014 it was decided that they would move back to Bangalore even though this would involve a good deal of additional business travel for Srinivas. I think they have a much happier family life after moving back to Bangalore.
As with Maheswari, I did not know Mohan particularly well during our childhood as we did not spend much time together at home as children. Unfortunately he too is not a particularly good correspondent. However, both of us have made the effort to keep in touch and enjoy the times we are able to spend together. In recent years 3 events have brought us closer. Firstly, the exchange of emails and telephone conversations with Murali and Divya have enabled me to understand Mohan’s family much better. Secondly, Mohan not only gave me valuable help in establishing a good connection with Amma during the final part of her life, but also helped me to understand better Amma’s attitude to my marriage with Pat.
Thirdly, only in the late phase of our lives did Mohan and I have the opportunity to spend some quality time together and thus get to know each other better. In November 2012 Mohan made an 11 day trip to England – he spent a week with the family and also watched the final 3 days matches of the ATP Masters Tournament at O2 arena in London with his friend Chandramogan. He stayed for 5 days in Buxton with me – we made day trips to Manchester and Nottingham to see Anna’s and Daniel’s families respectively and also had the chance to look around Buxton. We also visited Stratford-upon-Avon with an overnight stay at Gerry and Philip’s (Daniel’s in-laws). Mohan then overnighted at Hitchin, so he could meet up with the family there – I think the highlight was the tour of London by foot that Sushy gave him; here Mohan is in front of Big Ben and Sushy on the London Eye:
When I asked Mohan how he had found his short stay with me, I was very touched and flattered by his response that he really enjoyed the experience and felt as though he had spent some time with Appa whom he misses a lot. He also said “I still cannot believe that I have made a trip to the UK! It is like a dream come true. My trip is once in a lifetime trip and I will cherish it forever.....”. He went on to say that, only after spending some time here, did he realise the distance and travel times between the places where my family lives and how everyone has a busy life, so I do really look after myself on a day to day basis.
It seems to me that Mohan has inherited a lot of Amma’s traits whilst I have Appa’s. He is a real home-bird and dislikes travelling whilst I love visiting different places. He gets up early in the morning and off to bed early too, whereas I indulge in owlish habits. I think Divya is a home-bird like Mohan and dislikes travelling whereas Murali loves being on the move.
Finally, the bonds between our families were really strengthened in early May 2015 when Murali’s and Divya’s families came to Buxton for 3 days and were joined by all my family so that 23 of us spent some quality time together. Here is a picture taken of the happy band on our visit to Chatsworth:
Soon after the visitors’ departure from Buxton I was very touched to receive the message from Divya saying “….I’m in love with Buxton. It was so emotional for me to say goodbye to all of you. I felt like I was leaving home”, and from Murali “You remind me a lot of both my grandfather and great grandfather and to a great extent dad”.
Appendix 4 – Ramya and Murali on Appa and Amma
I think that Ramya was the grandchild closest to Appa and Amma. At my request she was kind enough to set down in 2011 (when Amma was still alive) her fond reminiscences of her maternal grandfather (Thatha) and grandmother (Achi) as below:
Ramya on her Thatha
“The hardest part of visiting Tenkasi today is walking in without hearing Thatha's cheery welcome. When his health was better he used to be at the station waiting for us, with a delighted smile at our frantic waving. I remember somehow cramming in all the important news in the short car ride home.
During our school days Thatha visited us quite often at Madras. He was very interested in how we fared at school and closely followed all our academic accomplishments. He was fond of carrying around a copy of our marks when we did exceedingly well at school and often pulled it out with a flourish to proudly show it to friends or relatives. Divya excelled herself year after year and there is a copy of her Std X exam mark list at Tenkasi to this day. As a parent now, I tend to listen with half an ear to the ramblings of whatever is happening at school. Thatha never did that, he was very keen to know all about our school life and lent a patient ear to all our school stories. He encouraged my philately interest when I was young and kept me steadily supplied with an assortment of exotic stamps. When I visited Tenkasi, we enjoyed going for long walks together in the evening. We used to take all the by-lanes and come upon several interesting sights. Sometimes we got caught in the Courtallam saaral [light shower], we never rushed back home on that account and I can't say who enjoyed it more!
He was very punctual, I have never known him to be late anywhere. For a long time he used to go to the market and bring plenty of fresh vegetables when he came home in the afternoon. He had a phenomenal memory and seldom forgot anything, he used to keep repeating to us anything that was important. He was meticulous about making lists and you could find them on old letters and neatly slit envelopes turned out the wrong way. I imbibed that value for paper and do the same as Thatha even now.
After I finished my B.Com Thatha took me to the Ravi Paints office, I spent a whole day there looking at the actual maintenance of accounts. He was very keen that I should have some practical knowledge. I'm touched today to think of his interest. When I was doing my masters in Journalism I had to conduct an interview, I chose Thatha and asked him to answer my questions as a veteran timber merchant. On reading his lovely write-up I realised that there was much I didn't know about my grandfather.”
Here is a lovely picture of Amma, Ramya, Naren and Appa in the garden:
“I spent a great deal of time with him after I was married, I was forever running away from Sivakasi for a change. Thatha was very happy with my wedding, Yuvaraj's grandfather P.K.S.Appa was Thenammal's brother and Thatha was delighted to renew old acquaintances when he visited me in Sivakasi. He was very fond of Ananya, she is the only great grandchild they both saw a great deal of. While she was on the mat (pai) as a baby he used to pull up a chair and talk to her, she responded with gurgles of delight. When she was older he used to enjoy taking her for a walk in her pram all around the house. She had her first solid food introduced by Thatha and Achi.”
Here is a photo of Amma, Maheswari and Appa with Ananya:
“He was fond of gathering all the neighbourhood girls together and took us for short trips to Sankarankoil, Srivilliputtur and Papanasam. I have seen all those lovely places with Thatha, I especially remember how when once on the way to Papanasam I was struck by the several hundred yellow butterflies flitting past - he stopped the car and got out so we could sit and enjoy it for awhile. We did the rounds of all the temples each visit, the first time I went alone afterwards I missed him quite horribly.
Thatha did not believe in long telephone calls. Why call when you can write was his policy. I received regular letters from him that I have to this date. If you sent him a letter this week you could count on a reply the very next week. He sat down with his account papers each evening and promptly switched on the radio in time for the news. There was no TV in those days. Thatha was very fond of yellow and pink hibiscus flowers, they flowered profusely and we used to count how many there were each day. He used to hand out a rose to every visitor when they left and was very fond of the mild fragrance of chamangi [tube rose] flowers. He read a lot too, all books from cover to cover, never skipped anything at all. He never rested in bed in the afternoons but would doze sitting in his favourite chair. All the neighbours came to him for wise counsel and he was on excellent terms with all the children who were forever visiting him.
I know how much he used to encourage all of us to do our best. When I first started cooking I used to try my new recipes on Thatha, he greeted every dish with delight and declared it cordon bleu, no less. I used to have music classes when I was visiting Thatha, he always claimed I sang better than the teacher! He was very happy to be able to attend all his [Indian] grand children's weddings, he enjoyed meeting people very much. I'm glad he never fell ill in bed, the loss of mobility would have been a great blow for Thatha. It is still very disturbing to see his meticulously kept room, spectacles in place, his sparse belongings all in their rightful places. There is so much one can say about him, he was simply the perfect grandfather any girl could ask for, I'm very grateful to God for that. Do you remember saying you don't want to only say how wonderful everyone was in your chronicle of the family history? Well, I would simply have to say just that - he was a wonderful grandfather to all of us.”
Ramya on her Achi
“The first thing that came to my mind as I started to write about Achi is that she is a story teller par excellence, she wove her listeners into the magic spell of her narrative.” Here is a picture of Ramya, Amma and Naren to illustrate it:
“Achi has a little red and gold note book where she has story hints written down, I would go racing to get the book each night after dinner. Not all of them were mythology but they were all enthralling stories alright. I heard the two epics from Achi, none could have narrated the Ramayana and Mahabharata better.
Achi is an early riser and when she enjoyed better health would be there in the kitchen soon after her prayers scouring an already clean stove to a shining spelndour before setting out the dal and vegetables. Although she has always had a cook she constantly supervised and oversaw the work by sitting down at the small kitchen table and adding masala powders for sambhar and rasam. I have seen her cutting sambhar onions (shallots) and squeezing a drop of the pungent juice into each eye. I remember hanging around to watch her eyes smart and water, she proclaimed it was good for the eyes. I also recall her resting in the afternoon with two adukku nandhiyavatta flowers to cool and refresh her eyes.
Achi is especially fond of decorating the shrine with blooms of every hue from the garden. The flowers enjoyed special attention; Achi sprinkled water on some blooms, used a wet towel to wrap some and floated some in water – customized treatment to maximize the freshness quotient. She uses an assortment of bottles collected over the years to hold leaves– pain balm bottles, jam bottles, catalin eye drop bottles and the like in different shapes and sizes. The flowers not only stay fresh longer but the height variation makes the whole arrangement look ethereal. She taught me how to make pretty garlands from parijatham flowers (pavazlamalli poo) – you can pinch the orange stems for a closely woven garland or simply string the delicate blooms as they are. When we visit Tenkasi Ananya and I enjoy decorating the shrine very much.
I have arrived at Tenkasi to be welcomed by a beautiful and artistic arrangement of flowers inside, and a lovely kolam outside. Achi is very fond of kolams; if I am keen on it today it is solely due to Achi who introduced the beauty of mere dots and intricate lines to me. She made several books for me with simple designs to start with and even today draws splendid designs with great artistry. She cuts out the kolams from the Tamil papers and thanks to her I have an excellent collection today. Once I am done decorating the shrine with flowers and a kolam Achi will painstakingly walk over to see what I have done. She will look over everything asking occasionally where a particular leaf came from. Her praise, never as effusive as Thatha’s but eagerly awaited, was either well deserved or suggestive of betterment.
Achi is particular about using time wisely. So, after a hearty breakfast, at 11 everyday it was study time for all of us when I was a school girl. As a college student it was music classes, Achi sat beside the teacher choosing appropriate ragams for songs she hand-picked from Devaram or Thiruvasagam. Even now, we try and fit in some hours of reading and music although our visits never exceed 5 days.
Achi pays no heed to meal times, clearly eat to live with her; she has breakfast no earlier than 10.30 and lunch at about 3! Thatha was used to more regular hours, he used to go and ask Achi if they could sit down to eat but surprisingly never grumbled about Achi delaying. She has an early, light dinner in the evening, a couple of idlis before retiring around 8 to bed. Such monotonous fare would drive me crazy but Achi has never complained. She enjoys a good cup of coffee with karuppetti instead of sugar twice a day. She would be particular that the cook makes our favourite dishes whilst we were visiting.
As far as I remember Achi has always worn a khadi blouse in white/sandal colour and other muted shades. I remember asking as a child why she did not wear matching blouses like Amma [Maheswari]. The saree made of khadi is too heavy to be worn on a daily basis else she would have preferred that. I think this penchant for khadi is because of Numpa being involved in the freedom struggle and her admiration for Gandhiji. Achi is not particular about her clothes; she wears simple cotton sarees in summer and kancheepuram silk in winter. She has a meager wardrobe, less than 7 sarees and nothing whatsoever of value in her house other than her books. I know she likes the colours red, maroon, ochre and yellow, she does not favour green. It was Thatha who was immaculately dressed when he set out; light pastel coloured full sleeved shirts and perfectly polished shoes were his preference.
Achi is very good at knitting and passed on her talent to Amma [Maheswari] who knits beautiful sweaters in intricate designs. Reading [religious books] – now that is what Achi does every spare minute. Most of her books have passages marked, to be committed to memory. Sadly, her eyesight is not what it used to be and she cannot read for a prolonged duration. Achi is fond of transcribing Swamiji’s upanyasams [spiritual talks] from the tapes she has, not an easy task.
Achi is extremely generous to the people who work for her. Mariamma, I know, takes home enough to feed four people everyday. Although she is cross at slovenly work she is solicitous of their well-being having heard her make frequent enquiries. She knows several excellent home remedies, made easier by the fact the herbs flourish in the garden. A sniffle and we had to chew up several thulasi leaves, a cough and it was thoothuvalai.
Achi is a very good listener. All the sangam [religious discussion group] members shared their family troubles with her and no doubt received wise counsel; I could see they were happier when they left. I have known Achi to say often ‘Yarukku thaan ma kashtam ellai [Who doesn’t have troubles]’? No truer saying for it is how one copes that counts. Achi still calls all her acquaintances every now and then even though her hearing has deteriorated considerably.
My childhood memories are full of Achi, some of my treasured moments have her in the forefront. I used to be up early in the morning and tag behind her the whole day. I remember conducting my own special pooja to which I invited only Achi. We solemnly sat through the childish procedure, I was never hurried through it all, and I still remember the warm feeling I had when Achi remarked that it was an excellent pooja. The funny part is that I also went on my knees at the end and recited The Lord’s prayer because I presumed it was the done thing, studying as I did at a Christian institution. Anna [Naren] used to tease me saying I had a halo around my head when I was visiting Achi – he was right, I was always on my best behaviour and not because I had to be but because I wanted to be.
She writes wonderful, inspiring letters, more to Ananya now than me. Even that is rare now because of her arthritic trouble.
To sum it all up I’d like to quote Swami Ranganananda (in the context of an ideal lifestyle) as I feel it best describes what I’d like to convey about Achi as I know her, ‘Simple Living and High Thinking’.”
Here is a picture of 4 generations; Amma, Maheswari, Ramya and Ananya:
At my request Murali has also been kind enough to set down in 2014 his fond reminiscences of his paternal grandfather (Ayyappa) and grandmother (Ayyamma) as below:
Murali on his Ayyappa and Ayyamma in Kollam
“Holidays, trains and Kollam (or Quilon as it was known then) are what I can remember vividly when I tinker with my earliest memories of Ayamma and Ayappa. Amma [Indrani] used to take us to Kollam from Madurai after visiting my maternal grandparents. Travelling by train those days [1970s] in first class used to be an adventure for me and my sister Divya, and I still remember it clearly. On reaching Kollam we used to be greeted by Ayyappa in his Ambassador car and then taken to the simple but huge house they used to live in there.
My main recollections of the Kollam house are the wooden gate in front followed by a narrow passage with gardens on both sides, which then opened into a huge ground with the elevated sand stage on the right and the garage to the left. The main house was of course in the middle with those big ivory coloured pillars which I then thought held the entire house up! There were two rooms near the garage which were mostly locked and opened only when some spiritual meetings were held. I was amazed that this house had so many doors. I still remember running around the house happily and being asked not to run too fast! We were allowed to play outside most of the time. Playing in the sand on the stage made me very happy. So did going up and down the slide near the dinning room!” Here is a picture of Murali and Ramya in the garden:
“My earliest memories of Ayyama are of her wearing a simple saree. She was always the gentle and kind but firm grandmother. She never fussed about anything and that was something I used to note even as a child. She was also a symbol of spirituality for me. The entire atmosphere in the house was calm, serene and peaceful during the day; after 6pm in the evening bhajans and hymns were sung. I remember that her bed in Kollam was very near the pooja [prayer] room, and I used to think that she liked to pray to God and look at the pictures of them frequently. She was the one who aroused my interest in Hindu mythology by telling me some really amazing stories.
Ayyapa always dressed in white. He wore a dhoti and a sleeved banian [vest] at home and when he went out wore a lovely full sleeved shirt with golden cuffs et al! He also used to wear western suits when he went out for his rotary and other meetings and also when he travelled. Ayyappa those days was quite busy at work and we used to see him only later in the evening after he got back from work. He was very fit and was still playing badminton and tennis. I remember once he took us all to the boat club for Christmas and it was a grand evening. He loved to buy us toys, books and sweets. I still remember with pleasure the many toys he got for me.
My parents were very calm and obedient around Ayyappa and Ayyamma, and I still remember that sometimes Divya and I used to take advantage of that and do mischief. Then Ayyappa would scold us gently and tell us not to do such things and then talk with us in such a way we would forget what mischief we were up to. Thinking back now, simplicity is the attribute I would most associate with them. Their food was not rich but very tasty and extremely healthy and always available in plenty. We could eat as much as we wanted as long as we did not waste. That was one of the earliest lessons I learnt from Ayyama and Ayyappa.”
Murali on his Ayyappa and Ayyamma in Courtallam and Tenkasi
“In 1979 Ayyappa and Ayyamma left Kollam and moved into a lovely small bungalow with plenty of place to play around in Courtallam. Ayyappa also opened a small office in Tenkasi. After some time they moved to a small house in Tenkasi, which was not very comfortable, but I remember having a whale of a time even there! Then, as suggested by Athai [Maheswari] and dad, Ayyappa built a big and spacious house with a wonderful garden and a nice garage. It also had a cemented playground for playing shuttle [badminton] and tennikoit [deck tennis]. Ayyappa would invite all the youngsters living in the area and let them play there. We had many interesting competitions with all of them, so the holidays passed quickly!
Ayyappa was very interested in sports, especially tennis and cricket. He played tennis to a very good club standard throughout most of his adult life but not after he left Kollam. He followed cricket and I can remember how we used to listen to Sunil Gavaskar making centuries over the radio commentary. We used to talk about some of the great sportsmen of the past. He had seen several tennis and cricket stars in action, and listening to him was like reading a page from history! Whenever Ayyappa visited us in Chennai he would only watch sport events on TV, and tennis was always his favourite. He liked to keep up to date with events by listening to the daily news over the radio after dinner.
As I grew up Ayyappa was always there to guide me. He wrote to me regularly and kept in touch with what was happening in my life. He also spoke to me at length whenever we spent time together on how he developed the business and what his challenges were. He never sought to advise me on how to run the family business, but would allow me to sit with him, dad and other senior managers during internal business meetings, so that I could listen and learn. The way he conducted deals and administered the business was most impressive – he was firm but always courteous and showed respect to people – it was never about money alone as he ensured that relationships and ethical behavior were maintained. What I learnt from him has been of immense help in my life, perhaps most importantly I learnt how to deal with people because he had a natural flair here. Every single invoice raised by our businesses had an extra copy which was sent to him. He looked over them and brought any relevant matter to the attention of the manager concerned. Ayyappa also had great foresight as he developed different businesses and ensured they ran smoothly by efficiently monitoring them.
He would invite me to play chess with him and it was very hard to defeat him!
The early morning drives to the waterfalls with him will always remain fresh in my memory. He loved to drive and I enjoyed watching him drive. Ayyappa passed away in 1999 just after my marriage and it was indeed a great shock to all of us. He was always active and maintained excellent health until the end. I will always remember him as a kind and warm-hearted person who helped people all around him to the best of his ability.
Ayyamma always ensured that we learnt something useful during the holidays. So, Ramya , Divya and yours truly were put through rigorous training in vocal music and I once was asked to try to play the violin! Ayyamma was very strict though and sat through the entire class to ensure we were taught properly. She chose the songs and asked the tutor to teach us properly. She was very well versed in Sanskrit and Tamil, and knew thousands of verses from our Puranas and Vedas. The Bhagvad Gita was her favourite and she always made us learn a few verses each holiday. Ayyamma would also ask me to read books every holiday and I spent time reading some wonderful books about spirituality. She would later talk to me about what I learnt and understood from these books. She had an excellent command of English and had given me some help with learning the language.
I visited Ayyamma several times after Ayyappa passed away and she was always happy to see me and my family. She ensured that special dishes were cooked for us in the right way. I distinctly remember that Sambar always tasted different at Ayyamma’s table from all others! She would always make us eat first, attending to us and only eat after we all had finished. I am extremely happy that my children had plenty of time to play at the Tenkasi home where Ayyappa and Ayyamma lived, and that my daughters could see her and spend some time with her.” Here is a picture of a meal with Sudha, Madhu, Mahi and Amma:
“My best memories of Ayyamma are of her final decades in Tenkasi. She was a great believer of the saying from the Gita “Take sad and happy things equally”, and she lived it till the end. That is something I learnt from her and have tried to emulate. I think that her great qualities were her simplicity and humility. I also think she was a great teacher. She taught so many people as everywhere she went people simply came to her. Her teaching was mainly by making them listen to talks or read writings from the great spiritual masters. I can still remember her last advice to me: “Please take your children to temples. It is very important.”
Appendix 5 - Swami Chidbhavananda (“Swamiji”)
In the later part of the 19th century Perianna Gounder and his wife Nanjammalar lived in a village in Tamil Nadu. He was a diligent and successful farmer who owned a good deal of land. He was also a learned man and as he got older his thoughts turned more towards spiritual matters. He became a highly respected elder of the community. In 1898 the couple had a seventh child and named him Chinnu. Chinnu’s primary education was at local schools but he was clearly no ordinary boy. In 1912 he was admitted to the elite Staines High School in Coimbatore, which is the nearest big city; all the boys at the school except Chinnu and another Indian were British (the ruling class then)! In 1918 he passed the Senior Cambridge examinations with distinction. Chinnu’s family wanted him to complete his university degree course in Chennai and then go to England for further education with the view to achieving the coveted position of a senior officer in the Indian Civil Service.
However, whilst Chinnu was in Chennai, he read a book on Swami Vivekananda’s philosophy and it had a profound impact upon him. This led him towards the Ramakrishna Movement which was founded in 1897 by Sri Ramakrishna’s chief disciple Swami Vivekananda. Digressing for a bit from the main story, Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission are twin organizations which form the core of a worldwide spiritual movement which aims at the harmony of religions, harmony of the East and the West, harmony of the ancient and the modern, spiritual fulfillment, all-round development of human faculties, social equality and peace for all humanity, without any distinctions of creed, caste, race or nationality. The Mission conducts extensive work in health care, disaster relief, rural management, tribal welfare, elementary and higher education and culture; it uses the combined efforts of hundreds of ordered monks and thousands of householder disciples. It is affiliated with the monastic organization Ramakrishna Math (an order of Hindu monks) with whom it shares members. More information on the Ramakrishna Movement is available on the website: http://www.belurmath.org/home.htm.
During his stay in Chennai Chinnu spent an increasing amount of time at the Ramakrishna Math there and had many discussions with the Swamis (Hindu monks). He formed a special relationship with Swami Sivananda (a direct disciple of Sri Ramakrishna), who became his guru. He informed his father that, after completing his degree course, he did not wish to go to England but wanted to become a monk and dedicate his life to the service of people in India. In 1923 he took his vows of celibacy and formally became a disciple of Swami Sivananda. Over the next 3 years he spent time at the Ramakrishna Order HQ in Belur learning Sanskrit, studying the Hindu scriptures, meditating and carrying out other tasks required of him. He also undertook several pilgrimages and travelled through many villages in Tamil Nadu. In 1926 he was given sanyasa (holy orders) and named Swami Chidbhavananda (Swamiji) by his guru who charged him with carrying out the work of the Ramakrishna Order in South India. Over the next 14 years he carried out much valuable work at the Ooty Ashram (ashram is a secluded building used for religious retreat or instruction), which is situated in the Nilgiri Hills in Tamil Nadu, acting as president for the last 10 years; here is a picture of the Ashram:
Distinguished visitors to the Ashram included Mahatma Gandhi who was then campaigning hard for the integration of “untouchables” into the community. His visit was marked by the holding of a prayer meeting attended by all classes of people.
During his time at the Ooty Ashram Swamiji began his research into the Hindu scriptures and philosophical tracts, and also developed his considerable talent for communication by writing about and delivering talks on spiritual and social issues.
In 1934 his guru passed away and in 1940 at the age of 42 Swamiji set out by foot to find the inspiration for the work he was charged to carry out. He arrived at the village of Thirupparaithurai (near Thiruchinappalli) in Tamil Nadu on the banks of the mighty Cauvery river with plenty of fertile land around and water from the river. He spent about two years at the temple in deep meditation and contemplation seeking divine enlightenment. He then established in 1942 Sri Ramakrishna Tapovanam (Tapovanam) which has developed as a distinct Tamil Nadu institution of the Ramakrishna Order; the website address for Tapovanam is: http://www.rktapovanam.org/.
Swamiji arrived at Thirupparaithurai with virtually nothing in his pocket but succeeded in establishing a vast network of ashrams, schools, colleges, training centres, home for old/infirm women etc throughout Tamil Nadu. He was able to raise the necessary funds from benefactors who were only too willing to help when they looked with admiration at the outstanding work he was carrying out. Tapovanam has been the main base for the organisation and the work is ably administered by about 30 Swamis and 20 Brothers (men who have taken the vows of celibacy but have not yet been offered sanyasa for confirmation as Swamis). The primary aims are to spread the spiritual message of Sri Ramakrishna, provide high quality education to the youth and train people for spiritual life as well as service to the community. I have given below a brief account of the main areas of work.
Initially Swamiji ran a small primary school at the Thirupparaithurai temple for the village children and by 1943 this developed into a middle school. In 1945 he obtained land on the Cauvery river bank to build Sri Vivekananda Vidhyavanam High School (SVVHS) together with land for farming (dairy, rice, vegetables, flowers etc) so that a self-sufficient community could be established. There is a flood bank in Thirupparaithurai between the river and the main road. The land referred to above lay between the river and the flood bank so that it was liable to suffer flooding every 10 years or so when heavy monsoon rains resulted in the river overflowing. Therefore, the buildings had to be constructed to stand well above ground level. On the other (safe) side of the flood bank lay the main Tapovanam building erected in 1946 to house the hostel for children and Swamiji’s disciples as well as accommodation for teachers. Here is a picture of the main Tapovanam buildings taken in 1956, looking down from the flood bank (the main road can be seen in the foreground):
Additionally there is a printing press established in 1951 (not in the picture above). Subsequent building work increased the hostel accommodation for pupils from the initial 150 to about 400 now. The picture below shows the Tapovanam courtyard which is used extensively for group activities:
Education of the young in Tamil Nadu was a top priority for Swamiji as the primary route to improving the future. He wanted to provide education in the broadest sense – academic excellence, civic sense, discipline as well as understanding of cultural, moral and spiritual values. He was quite an Anglophile in that he took on board the best bits of his Staines School education – discipline, commitment, enquiring mind, using time properly, self-correction of work etc. Tapovanam forms the nucleus from which has emerged 14 branches spread all over Tamil Nadu, which manage 40 schools and seven colleges besides a community college.
However, Swamiji’s personal imprint was most evident at Tapovanam and SVVHS in Thirupparaithurai. He certainly regarded himself as in loco parentis to the children placed in his care and undoubtedly had a profound influence on the lives of thousands of students as evidenced by their later published writings. I have set down my own personal experiences and impressions towards the end of this section.
One interesting incident relates to the then Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, M G Ramachandran (MGR), visiting Salem Saradha College (which is run under the auspices of Tapovanam) to open a new building (MGR was a matinee idol in the vast Tamil film industry and in later life turned to politics). Perhaps unsurprisingly MGR kept everybody waiting for about half an hour before he arrived with his retinue. Swamiji unceremoniously demanded to know why he was not setting a better example as leader by being punctual. MGR disarmed him by touching his feet and apologizing; MGR mischievously added that he was late because he was surrounded by fools, which also explained why he was elected leader! All was then well as Swamiji had a good sense of humour.
Here is a picture of Swamiji taken in the mid 1950s when his ideas and efforts were really beginning to bear fruit (as indicated by the photo, he had a commanding presence); in the picture on the right he is in relaxed mood during a school excursion:
Swamiji not only had an excellent command of Tamil and English, he was also proficient in Sanskrit (the Eastern equivalent of Latin). From a young age he wrote and produced plays for children to perform. He has written a lot of dramas based on ancient Hindu scriptures that continue to be performed by students. He has authored more than a hundred books in Tamil and English addressing a variety of topics ranging from deep philosophical enquiry to contemporary social life. In 1951 Tapovanam Press was established, it produces good quality publications which are sold at cost price. The Tamil monthly spiritual magazine, Dharma Chakaram, was also launched in that year and continues to flourish. Perhaps his major written work is the comprehensive treatise on The Bhagavad Gita (see Appendix 6 below for some information on it); initially published in Tamil, the English version gives original stanzas in Sanskrit, split-up reading, transliteration, word for word translation and a lucid English rendering and commentary. In 1956, during my last year at Tapovanam, I memorised Chapter 15 (the shortest chapter!) of the Gita in Sanskrit, and for that was rewarded with a copy of the publication which I still have and read from time to time.
Swamiji was a forceful inspirational speaker. From the early 1940s he gave regular talks, initially at Thiruchinappalli rock fort temple, Salem and Karur; then extending to Madurai, Coimbatore, Kodaikanal and eventually all over Tamil Nadu. These talks form an essential part of Tapovanam’s work and are now delivered by 6/7 Swamis.
In the late 1940s Swamiji commenced the holding of Andharyogam (yoga of the mind) sessions or retreats providing spiritual guidance and practice. A typical Andharyogam day would comprise spiritual talk, discussion, prayer, meditation, reading and silent periods (most participants engaged in quiet contemplative walking). This has become established as a core activity of Tapovanam. Andharyogam at Tapovanam itself is held 3 times per year and is a 3 day residential retreat. My parents, my maternal grandparents and my maternal aunt/uncle used to attend the early March Andharyogam which followed the celebration of Sri Ramakrishna Jayanthi culminating in plays performed by the students. I remember acting the role of Swami Vivekananda in an English play about his visit to the USA, I was given the role probably because my command of English was better than that of my co-students! One day Andharyogam sessions are also held in about a dozen places around Tamil Nadu, usually about 4 times per year. It is worth mentioning that in 1979 a group of Roman Catholic Fathers came from Italy and spent a month at Tapovanam in order to observe the spiritual training provided by Swamiji.
Once every 10 years or so during the monsoon season Thirupparaithurai and surrounding areas have suffered from flooding caused by the river breaking the flood banks. From the time he arrived at Thirupparaithurai Swamiji was very conscious of the need to provide flood relief to poor people. So, whenever there was flooding, he mobilised action, raised money and distributed food.
In 1943 a free medical dispensary was started with a visiting doctor and a resident orderly. It treats about 10,000 patients per year. An eye clinic is also held once a year.
In the 1960s Swamiji was obliged to have all his teeth removed in order to deal with a serious infection. The false teeth changed the shape of his face and perhaps gave it a softer look. Here is a good picture showing his happy countenance:
It reminds me that he always extolled the pleasure given to all onlookers by a happy smiling face at no cost to the giver. During the last part of his life (his life on earth ended in 1985) he suffered a great deal from Parkinson’s Disease. Typically he never complained and declined any invasive treatment. All the visitors were told to “be happy”. I have treasured two of his great works – Baghavad Gita and Daily Divine Digest. The latter is a small volume providing a thought for each day of the year, one that made a deep impression upon me relates to “the golden age”:
“It is possible for man to be in the golden age or the iron age according to his choice. It all depends upon his disposition. He who is of a clean frame of mind can be in the golden age here and now itself. Relinquishment of selfishness is its first condition. Abandoning jealousy, hatred and calumny come next. Love of all beings is the golden age.”
Swamiji was indeed in the golden age.
Finally turning to my personal perspective, I was a student at Tapovanam from 1952 to 1956. Swamiji believed that the educational process would best serve the pupils if it was continuous and sustained without too many breaks. Therefore, the school functioned 6 days per week, with Saturday being the only day off. The school terms were also much longer than standard, with annual holidays being limited to about 2 months – 10 days in January (Pongal), 10 days in August, 10 days in October (Diwali) and just over one month in April/May.
A typical day for a Tapovanam student would be to rise at 05.30, participate in some group exercises, bathe, assemble together for prayer, sit together for breakfast and then walk over to school. He would walk back to Tapovanam for lunch. After school he would engage in sporting activities before finally returning to Tapovanam for prayer followed by dinner. After a period of relaxation there would be a study period and lights out by 20.30.
There is a strict routine, discipline and order to the life at Tapovanam, based on the ancient Hindu Gurukulam principles – it means learning at the place of the teacher. It is simple healthy communal life with no frills. The food is vegetarian, mostly grown on the Tapovanam farm and cooked to a good standard. Though there were desks and benches in the classrooms for older children, the children usually sit on the floor. Swamiji was very particular about good posture produced by keeping a straight back. Well, though aged over 70 I can still sit cross-legged on the floor with a straight back! The student sleeps on the floor on a sheet and pillow which are simply rolled up and put away in the morning. My recollection is that throughout the time I was at Tapovanam I never wore anything on my feet even during the hot weather when the ground was baking hot. Here is a photo taken in the assembly area of the school by the river in 1956; I am standing on the left; two of the class rooms can be seen in the background, robustly constructed with thick high pillars to withstand flooding (the grounds also contained a swimming pool and extensive playgrounds):
I recall that on Saturdays we used to be given gingeli oil to rub over our bodies and then walked over to the river for a good wash with a special powder. This process called oil-bath is traditionally regarded as helping to cool the body in hot weather. Here is a picture of the mighty river Cauvery taken from the bank where the school stands:
Once a year we were also given epsom salt to clear out the digestive system, with nothing to eat for 24 hours!
The middle and upper classes in India generally regard it as demeaning to engage in any kind of cleaning work. Echoing Gandhi, Swamiji was keen to show the youth that everyone should be willing to undertake any menial tasks when necessary. He ensured that all students did their share of cleaning work. He wanted to promote cleanliness and civic sense in the wider community through the students, especially by impressing upon the final year students that the training they have received should be for the benefit of their communities.
My parents of course established a close connection with Swamiji and Tapovanam. This extended to Appa becoming a member of the Tapovanam Governing Body, and eventually my brother Mohan succeeded him. Since leaving Tapovanam I continued to have a connection with Swamiji and even had a little correspondence with him. He wrote to me on 5 January 1978 saying that he hoped I would be happy wherever I lived, he also sent me his love and blessings. Appa ensured that the connection was maintained. This was facilitated by the fact that Appa and Amma moved to Courtallam in 1979 and by then a thriving Ashram had been established there; here is a picture of it:
Appendix 6 – 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: