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My paternal grandparents - Periappa and Thenammal

Background – general

I have provided in Appendix 1 some information on the main places of importance in my grandparents’ lives – Sivakasi, Thoothukudi (also details of the house) and Kodaikanal.

Background – Periappa

Periappa was born in 1892 at Sivakasi and was named Rathnasamy. He was a stocky, well-built man of average height, with a kindly face, and his presence commanded respect. He was usually calm and even-tempered but, if roused, he could swear like a trouper with the workmen! His life revolved around his family (he had a very large one) and business. He was very fond of children and had a real rapport with them. All his children’s and grandchildrens’ families visited him regularly, and he had a close, affectionate relationship with them. Here is a photo of him taken when he was in his sixties:

Periappa’s grandfather had started a timber business in Sivakasi in a small way. Periappa’s father had four sons and one daughter, and sought to expand the business in partnership with his sons. Periappa went to school at Sivakasi until 1906 and then joined the family business at the age of 14. As a part of the expansion plans an office was opened in Thoothukudi in 1900. After his marriage in 1910 Periappa moved permanently to Thoothukudi in order to build up the business there. Even though Periappa had not completed his high school education and his knowledge of English was sketchy, he was very good at working with figures and also developed the ability to evaluate the quality and sale potential of a tree before it was felled; for example, he could calculate in his head the circumference and height of a tree just by looking at it, and his workings would be accurate enough for all practical purposes. 

In 1915 Periappa’s father died and thereafter the joint timber business was carried on by the four brothers. However, in the mid 1920s the business ran into losses and it was decided to partition all the family assets amongst the brothers; but bitter disputes arose over the outstanding business loans. 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 timer business and the business loans. 

Periappa’s business then went through some very difficult times. With tremendous help and support from Thenammal and later from his older son, my father (“Appa”), and no doubt with great conviction in his own ability, he eventually managed to turn the business into a successful venture. In the 1940s, with the view to purchasing timber from the source of supply, he went over to the neighbouring State of Kerala. He established an office in the jungle village of Thenmalai and lived there for a year. By then Appa had joined the business and proceeded to establish a thriving timber business in Kerala. In 1944 an office was opened in Chennai and this became a very successful venture.

The family business was for many years a joint enterprise involving Periappa, Appa and my paternal uncle; 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.

Periappa was more successful than his siblings in their business ventures, and he was always happy to provide employment to any willing and able descendents of his siblings; so there have always been a number of his nephews, great- nephews and other relatives working in the business. His most trusted and loyal lieutenant was his sister’s son, KCS Annamalai Nadar (“KCSA”). He was initially asked to open a timber business in Sivagangai, which was in due course run by my uncle. At that point in 1944 KCSA went on to face the challenging task of opening an office in Chennai and this eventually became a very successful operation; he was in charge of this office to the end of his days. I knew and liked him well; I saw a lot of him during my time in Chennai (school, university and work). I felt that he always kept a kind watchful eye over me. KCSA’s son, Sonachalam (known to everyone as Thamba), joined the business in Thoothukudi; he eventually became manager of that business and was for many years Periappa’s right-hand man on business as well as personal matters. He was always kind to me and helped me in many ways whenever I was in Thoothukudi.

Periappa was very regular in his habits and punctilious, and this is the routine he followed during most of his life whilst he was at Thoothukudi. He always got up well before 05.00 while most people were still asleep. His first activity was to take about an hour’s walk (he always kept a brisk steady pace – I know because on the handful of occasions when I accompanied him it was a real struggle to keep up with him!) around the town. He owned many properties around the town and varied the route of his walk every day in order to ensure that he regularly visited all the properties. So the walks served the twin objectives of exercising and inspecting the properties. He bought a lot of land upon which to build houses and then rent them out. I remember that one of the first things he did on buying land was to plant suitable trees in appropriate spots; he had an “architect’s vision” of how the property development would look.

On his return to the house he would drink a bottle of soda water, light up a cheroot (cigar) and go to the toilet. Then he had a leisurely bath, said his prayers and had breakfast listening to Tamil classical music on the radio. He would then be ready to walk down the passage to his office. Around 11.00 he would walk back to the house, and have a coffee and an orange before returning to the office. After lunch he would lie down and have a nap. On waking up he would have a wash, drink coffee, eat some tiffin (snacks) and then walk over to the office. He would return to the house soon after 18.00, drink a bottle of soda water, light up a cheroot and go to the toilet. After a good wash he would say his prayers before the evening meal. Finally, he would sit down, and chat and/or listen to the radio before going to bed around 21.00.

Home and office lives were inextricably wound up together. As a lot of the staff lived on the premises, business was never completely closed down. However, Sunday was officially a holiday and not much happened that day; but in the morning Periappa would go to the office and sit in his chair with a pot full of small change. Over the morning there would be a long procession of beggars seeking alms and he would give something to each of them.

Periappa loved playing cards for fun. He was very good at card games because he could always remember all the cards that have been played out and so could work out the cards still in the players’ hands. I particularly remember a game for two called “Out” which I played with him many times. I too like playing cards and have passed on some interesting games including “Out” to my children.

Background – Thenammal

Thenammal’s mother, Valliammal whom I knew as Nammammal (in Tamil this means ‘our mother’), was married when she was just 9 years old. She had three children – the first was a boy called Arumugam, followed by Thangammal (see Appendix 2 ) and finally Thenammal in 1896. Nammammal’s husband died when she was only 17, leaving a lot of property. The financial affairs of the family were then looked after by Nammammal’s brother (who was also Periappa’s father, making Periappa and Thenammal first cousins), until Arumugam came of age. Here is an interesting photo taken in 1919 of Nammammal’s family (all women and children!):

I have not been able to identify all the people in the picture, but the central figure in a white saree is Nammammal, on her right is her daughter-in-law, next to the latter at a slightly elevated level sits Thangammal and her dashing eldest son Ramalingam (see Appendix 2) stands next to her; on Nammammal's left sits Thenammal, standing on either side of Nammammal are Athai and Appa, and sitting on Thenammal’s knee is my uncle. In accordance with the normal tradition, as a widow, Nammammal is wearing a white cotton saree without any blouse. She also wears no jewellery except for the large gold pendants which were permanently fixed to her ear-lobes; the weight of the pendants stretched the ear-lobes over the years so that the pendants are touching her shoulders!

Though Periappa was very much the grand old man of the family (his name literally means ‘big daddy’), it was Thenammal who was the stronger and did whatever was required to keep the peace in the family, very much the matriarch behind the scenes. She was the one who persuaded Periappa to settle the disputes with his brothers amicably. She then proceeded to provide him not only with tremendous moral support and encouragement but also valuable practical advice. So, it was the combination of their respective talents that led to the successes in business and family matters. As in most families, there were various undercurrents running through the relationships between family members (for example, the relationship between Appa, the capable/dominating elder brother, and his less able/zealous younger brother could not have been an altogether easy one). Thenammal had a finely tuned antenna which picked up quickly the difficult issues which arose in the family. She also had a sweet, persuasive tongue that made it impossible for people to go against her wishes. She used these talents to act as the binding force in the family and cleverly sorted out many tricky problems. Since she passed away, I think no one has been able to perform so effectively the role of mediating and keeping any bickering under control.

Here is a photo of Thenammal, probably taken when she was in her early sixties:

Thenammal was an excellent cook and amongst her specialities were Meenkolambu (fish curry which used to mellow in her store room for days), Varatukari (fried mutton which everyone relished) and Cheedai (small crunchy savoury pieces, the unique flavour of which is unsurpassed). About once a month she used to sit on a low stool and, with the help of the cook, produce huge quantities of delicious sweet and savoury dishes which were then put in tins and despatched to various family members. I also remember that every morning the cowherd came to collect the cow for grazing and returned it in the evening; there was also a milking man who used to come to the house every morning and evening to milk the cow. I recall too witnessing the birth of a calf once. Thenammal used to produce butter regularly; she did this by sitting on a low stool in front of a pot with milk into which would be inserted the thick long churning stick which had grooves; she wound a rope into these grooves and then, holding the pot with her feet and legs, pulled fast alternately with her left and right hands to churn the milk and produce butter; it was a skilled operation.

Children and grandchildren

Periappa and Thenammal were married in 1910 when he was 18 and she was 14. They had three children – first Athai (see Section 5), then Appa (see Section 4) and finally my uncle (see Section 7). Athai had four children and then I was born in 1940 and must have been welcomed into this world by my grandparents with great joy as I was the first grandson through the male line. However, soon after I was born my mother (“Amma”) was diagnosed with TB and had to stay in a Sanatorium for nearly a year. During that time my grandparents looked after me.

Moving forward to 1947, when I was 7, my parents felt that the educational facilities in Kollam (Kerala), where we lived, were not particularly good at that time and perhaps wanted the medium of instruction to be Tamil rather than Malayalam. So I went to live with my grandparents once again and went to school there. At that time there were only a few cars in Thoothukudi; the main modes of transport were rickshaws and horse-drawn carts; here is a picture of a typical cart which would have been hired to transport people and goods:

As my school was about a couple of miles from the house, Periappa bought a bullock-cart (it was similar to the one in the picture but was drawn by a single bullock which was kept in the cow-shed) for taking me to and from school. He also hired a young man to drive the cart which would take me to school in the morning, bring me home for lunch and then do the return journey home in the afternoon.

I have a vivid recollection of gangs of men bringing in or taking out enormous logs stacked up on either side of the passageway running between the house and the office. They lifted the logs on to and out of long hand-drawn carts, using crow bars and wooden supports, chanting rhythmically; I can’t remember the song they used to sing but it always started with “Eh John, eleh John”. I also recall that, when I was about 8 years old, I was once watching a snake-charmer showing off his cobra which appeared to be obediently dancing to his tune. However, it must have spotted the big chance because quick as a flash it disappeared underneath the numerous logs – no amount of music could then entice it out!

One somewhat unpleasant memory is that Thenammal, deeming it necessary to build me up physically, insisted upon feeding me a raw egg (newly laid by the hen in the pen, of course) every morning; she used to hold my nose and pour the egg into my mouth. So it is not surprising that egg dishes are not my favourites. A pleasant memory is that even at that young age I was passionately fond of films. Though Thenammal was a puritan and thought that going to the cinema was too frivolous, Periappa was indulgent and let me go to the cinema about once a week, usually with Thamba.

After a couple of years my parents felt that I was getting a bit spoilt by my grandparents and also that I would benefit from being educated at the Annie Besant School in Chennai; so at the age of 9 my boarding school life commenced (more of this in Section 4 on my parents), despite strong protests from my grandparents.

Whilst I was at boarding school in Chennai, Periappa was involved in a tragic accident in the early 1950s. He had come to Chennai on business and was walking at his usual brisk pace along a main street when he suddenly slipped on a banana skin and broke his knee. He was taken to the general hospital and his knee underwent an emergency operation. Unfortunately the bones were not set properly and it would have been too complicated and risky to correct the fault. So he bravely went though a long period of rehabilitation and was eventually able to walk quite well but the movement of that knee was permanently restricted.

Here is a picture of my grandparents, with my sister Maheswari, brother Mohan and me, taken outside our house in Kollam in the early 1950s:

Holidays in Courtallam                                 

Courtallam is a small spa town situated at an elevation of about 200 metres on the Western Ghats in Tamil Nadu, close to the border with the State of Kerala. A number of rivers originate in the hills here and Courtallam water is regarded as having therapeutic qualities as it runs through forests of herbs before descending down several lovely waterfalls. The two pictures below show Periaruvi (Main Falls) on the left and Thenaruvi (Honey Falls) on the right:

I remember that often during the school holidays we rented a house there for family holidays; on several occasions Periappa joined us. The main activities included walking to Periaruvi every morning to have brilliantly refreshing showers under the water cascading down; we used to pour oil over our bodies before the showers in order to avoid the skin becoming too dry; then we would walk over to the temple to say our prayers. We would also have outings to the other Falls. 

My favourite outing was to trace the source of Periaruvi by climbing up along the footpaths; I can remember Periappa leading these interesting walks with the river running alongside one side of the path for long stretches. About a mile up are the Shenbagadevi Falls alongside which stands the Shenbagadevi Temple. A lot of people climb up to this spot in order to bath, worship and picnic. Around a couple of miles further up you reach Thenaruvi, so called because of beehives on the promontory. It is a romantic, spectacular and secluded place up to which not many people venture. I have been up to this spot but not beyond. Periappa had climbed further up to the source of the river but said that the scenery there was nothing to write home about. During the 1940s there were still some tigers living in the forests there, and people used to be wary of encountering one. I remember once seeing a magnificent tiger shot by a local man.

I recall that some time in the 1950s just Periappa and I had about a week’s holiday there. Before I set off, Amma said “look after Periappa and help him; wash his clothes for him as he can’t bend his injured knee” (the washing was done on the stones at the foot of the Falls). It was really good advice which stuck in my mind; otherwise as a teenager I might not have been as considerate towards Periappa as I ought to be.

Secret Christians

In the 19th century many Christian missionaries travelled to India from Europe, aiming to convert the idol-worshipping Hindus to Christianity; the missionaries believed that the souls of the converted Indians would thus be saved. Most people in the Sivakasi and Thoothukudi areas were steeped in the Hindu religion (which is a way of life, as with the Jews). In accordance with the traditional way of life there at that time, the men went out to work, and the women looked after the home and raised the children. The missionaries (which would have included the converted Indian Christians with missionary zeal) reckoned that in this set-up it would be difficult to convert the men or whole families but that it might be possible to start the conversion process through the women at home and the children at school. 

Thangammal and Thenammal went to Christian missionary schools in Sivakasi, which not only provided much needed good education for the children in this area but also took every opportunity to convert the children to Christianity. The two sisters were converted to Christianity in this way. However, Nammammal was a practising Hindu; so the sisters practised Christianity secretly and pretended to be Hindus both in public and to their mother. Nammammal’s daughter-in-law died at a young age leaving a lot of children, and the former brought them up as Hindus but somehow failed to realise until too late that her own daughters were practising Christianity secretly. This secret practice was then passed on down the female line.

So Thenammal was at heart a devout and puritanical Christian when she married Periappa in 1910. She also had the missionary zeal to convert as many people as possible to Christianity and thus save their souls. When my parents were married in 1938, Thenammal must have been very disappointed to find that Amma was a practising Hindu (though I understand that Nammammal was pleased about this). As my parents lived for about a year with my grandparents soon after the wedding, Thenammal must have used all her considerable persuasive powers to convert Amma, but without success. I think this must have created a certain tension and lack of warmth in the relationship between the two women as, understandably in the circumstances, Amma was a less frequent visitor to Thoothukudi than other members of the family.

During the two years when I lived with my grandparents as a boy aged 7 – 9, Thenammal never made any overt attempt to convert me, probably because Appa had made it clear to her that I would not be allowed to stay with them if any conversion was attempted (my parents of course wanted me to remain a Hindu). However, I do remember that, whenever she greeted me on arrival or said goodbye, she would take my face in her hands and unobtrusively make the sign of the cross on my forehead! I think she went through this ritual with all the women and children in the family.

Thenammal did lead a truly simple and austere Christian life, and never hesitated to offer help and comfort to anyone in need such as the poor and the sick. She also had a very sweet and persuasive tongue. The outcome was that she succeeded in converting a large number of women in Thoothukudi to Christianity from Hinduism, but mostly the husbands were unaware of what was going on under their noses! However, eventually a number of husbands found out about the secret practising of Christianity by their wives and were outraged. So, a delegation arrived to lodge a strong complaint with Periappa who was furious because Thnenammal’s activities had put him in this awkward position. A big row ensued, resulting in Thenammal leaving her home to live with her elder son, Appa, in Kollam sometime in the late 1950s.

After a while Amma acted as the intermediary and talked to both my grandparents. I think she pointed out to Periappa that, if he had wanted his wife to be a Hindu or simply keep her Christianity under wraps, then he had indeed left the matter too late as she could not be expected to change her religious belief at this stage in life. She probably suggested to Thenammal that she ought to be more discreet so that Periappa’s high standing in the community was not jeopardised. Anyway she succeeded in making the peace and bringing them together again; I think her relationship with Thenammal thereafter was more cordial.

Here are my grandparents caught in a relaxed mood in Sivakasi in the late 1950s:

East and West

Throughout my time as a student at boarding school and then at university, I kept in regular contact with my grandparents by correspondence (in Tamil). Periappa lived strictly by the code that any letter received must be answered on the same day; unfortunately most of his response would refer to how he has noted or was pleased with what you had said in your letter; whilst this would be fine for business letters, with personal letters this always put the onus on the other person to say something interesting! I used to tease him about this when I was a teenager.

Fast forwarding to 1963, my grandparents were devastated to learn that I wanted to marry someone outside the community. After spending a year in India I was still determined to marry Pat in 1964; both of us then seriously considered settling down in India. At that stage Periappa tried unsuccessfully to persuade my parents to accept the marriage because he did not want me to leave India. So, Pat and I got married in Manchester in November 1964. During the following two years I had little communication with my grandparents who were I think under pressure from my parents to “excommunicate” me.

However, I went to India in 1966 in order to attend my sister Maheswari’s wedding at Sivakasi and of course met all the family there. Here is a photo of my grandparents’ family taken at that time (there are 33 people in the picture – the only missing ones are Pat and my cousin Guna who was unavoidably away at that time – comprising my grandparents, their 3 children with their spouses, 10 grandchildren with 4 spouses and 11 great-grandchildren); Periappa and Thenammal are sitting at the centre of the picture, next to Thenammal are my parents, next to Periappa are Mama and Athai, next to them are my uncle and his wife, my sister Maheswari (the bride) is standing behind Periappa, I am standing at the far rear right and my brother Mohan is standing next to me:

After this the regular correspondence between Periappa and me re-commenced. He also began to explore ways, in conjunction with Mama, to arrange my return to India. Anna was born in 1967 and Arun in 1969; I sent my grandparents a photo of our family of four. They were anxious to see us as soon as possible; so it was arranged that we would go on a 6 week holiday to India in Spring 1970. Periappa paid the air fares and all other expenses of this holiday as well as our subsequent ones in India.

We spent a day in Madurai where we met Thenammal and various other relatives. As Periappa felt that it would be good to spend some time together in the lovely surroundings of Kodaikanal (see Appendix 1 below), we then travelled up there. Periappa and Athai (who looked after us wonderfully well) were awaiting us at “Lodore”. An annexe to the house had been built and we were comfortably installed there. I remember that in the evenings we had to be careful not to tread on the numerous frogs which were happily croaking around; we also had to ensure that the doors were kept closed so that they did not jump into the house.

When we were in town one day, Pat saw a Laughing Budha at a shop window and commented on how nice it was. Periappa then insisted upon buying it for us and shipping it to our home in Manchester (it was too big and heavy to travel with us by air). This Budha has now become a family treasure; all my grandchildren have loved putting beads, bangles etc on him, and patting his round smooth tummy. Here is a picture of him with my 3 years old grand-daughter Martha who, having decorated him, is hiding behind the Budha:

Pat wore a saree all the time we were in Kodaikanal so that Periappa would feel at ease; everything must have been rather strange to her but she made a big effort. I think Periappa was completely won over; I remember him saying to Athai and me “Pat is the same as our women; I see no difference”. We spent 10 rewarding but tiring (Anna was 2.5 years old and Arun was 9 months old) days in Kodaikanal – walking, rowing, visiting some scenic spots around, eating the delicious food my aunt served up, shopping, chatting etc. Time flew by and we were at the end of our stay there all too soon.

Ever since then to the end of his days Periappa used to send us regularly (about twice a year) large tins containing delicious South Indian savouries, cashew nuts, honey etc. He also gave us significant financial help to make our life more comfortable. He told me too that, irrespective of my parents’ wishes, he was prepared to provide all the necessary financial 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 a lot of friction between Periappa and Appa by moving to India and later also because we were reluctant to disturb our settled family life in England.

Final memories - Thenammal

Thenammal became terminally ill with cancer in 1971 and went through a very difficult time. Her main carer was Athai who spent long periods in Thoothukudi nursing her mother devotedly. I went, with Anna, to visit her in December 1971 for two weeks. Unfortunately Anna, who was only aged 4 then, had a very bad tummy bug so that I had to spend about a week looking after her; I remember that we had only a few children’s books and, as Anna really liked “My naughty little sister”, I read the stories there so many times that we both almost knew them by heart. When Anna was recovered, she entertained Thenammal with her singing and dancing; this was an excellent diversion for Thenammal. 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. Soon afterwards Periappa went to spend some time in Kodaikanal, and various relatives took turns to stay with him. I made a 2 week trip to India and visited Periappa there. Periappa described to me Thenammal’s last moments when she was surrounded by all the family. She was looking around anxiously and Periappa said to her “You are looking for Prem, aren’t you? He is in England, but don’t worry, I will do all that is necessary to make his life comfortable”; then he went on to say “I assure you that the final rites will be performed for you as a Christian, and your body will be buried; so go in peace”. As promised, he proceeded in due course to erect a lovely memorial over her grave in the Christian cemetery.

Many years earlier Periappa had established a charitable trust for the purpose of providing scholarships for higher education to students in the Nadar community (see Section 1). He used this trust to build and run the Thenammal Memorial Hospital which treated all patients who came and charged what they could afford. During our family visits to Thoothukudi we paid many visits to the hospital and witnessed the good work being carried out there. Periappa’s dream was that Anna should qualify as a doctor and take charge of the hospital. .

Visits to Periappa

Periappa always really looked forward to our family visits; after Daniel and Susheela were born in 1973, he could not wait to see them. In 1975 we went on an 8 week holiday to India and spent 3 weeks in Thoothukudi with Periappa; Athai came to stay and look after us; those were wonderful, happy days. We had visits from many relatives – close and not so close – some of my uncle’s family (see Section 7) came to stay. My uncle’s youngest son Vittobha had only recently married Sandhya, and the couple moved into the house across the passageway as Seethammal’s family (see Appendix 2) had gone to Madurai; he worked in the family business in Thoothukudi.

We stayed in the lovely 3 bedroom flat on the first floor, which had only recently been constructed. As Anna and Arun had been taken off school for the long holiday, they had to do the work set by the teachers; they did this most mornings. On many evenings we went to the sandy beach and played games with Vittobha and Sandhya. We saw a lot of the couple and the children became fond of them. Arun was 6 years old then and his holiday diary (which Pat made him write) included the entry: “Here is a photograph of Daniel and me on Uncle Vittobhas motor scooter. Uncle gave us rides on it round the town. I sat on the back seat and Daniel stood in front of uncle. He always went very fast.”   

Periappa arranged many outings for us – the lovely Thiruchendur temple further down the coast, the harbour (including a visit on to a merchant navy ship and tea with one of the officers), boat trip to one of the islands, the salt pans, a big chemical factory recently set up, etc. Here is an extract from Pat’s interesting diary of the holiday: “13 Dec 1975: Periappa showed us all his properties. Periappa’s garden. Man climbed coconut palm with rope round his ankles and large hatchet in his hand. Hacked coconuts off tree and threw them on to ground. Slid down like a monkey. Prem, Arun and Periappa drank with great expertise straight from coconut; we drank ours from tumblers. Walked round garden. Plants watered by little channels carrying water from well. Each evening Sandhya brings us (the females) flowers for our hair – small jasmine buds laced together with raffia. Susheela wears her ankle bells all the time – Periappa wants us all to!”

The shops were brought to us - lovely sarees, blouses and skirts for the girls – gold jewellery for all of us: rings, chains, ear-rings, bangles and anklets. In order to please Periappa, Pat and Anna had their ears pierced in the traditional way – not a pleasant experience.

Periappa had built a student hostel called “R P Kumar Lodge” for the benefit of my family; we visited it of course. Unfortunately, some years after Periappa died, the property had to be sold due to the problems involved in looking after it but the proceeds helped my children with holidays in India.

In 1977 I went on a short holiday to India with Arun, and we spent some time with Periappa in Thoothukudi.

Our next family visit to India was in 1980 when we went on a month’s holiday and were able to spend just over a week with Periappa in Thoothukudi. Athai came with us from Chennai and as before looked after us wonderfully well. Periappa was still in good health but age was catching up with him (he was 88 then); he had difficulty walking to the office every day and spent a lot of time in the sitting room of the house. As his eyesight had significantly deteriorated, he dealt with his correspondence through one of the young office employees, who read the letters to Periappa and then wrote out the replies dictated to him. Here is a picture of Periappa dictating a letter to him:

One particular event I recollect from this holiday is that, soon after we arrived at Thoothukudi, Vittobha told me that a cobra had been spotted in his house a few days earlier; his house was of course connected to ours! I told him to keep quiet about it and said not a word about this to my family until we were back in England, though I did check every night that all the mosquito nets were tucked in well, the water holes were blocked etc. I know I did the right thing because Pat and the children told me later that knowledge of the snake would have spoilt their holiday.

Here is a happy family picture:

As we said tearful goodbyes, it was sad to leave Periappa then because we were not sure if we would see him again. I think these visits captured for Pat and our children the true meaning of the traditional extended Indian family system, and thus opened the way for them to appreciate and love their Indian heritage. Though Pat and I kept a gentle hand on the tiller, the children experienced the way most Indian children are spoilt, if not by parents, then by grandparents, uncles, aunts etc! I recall Periappa telling me that, if I had to discipline the children, I should do so out of his sight; he had clearly left all disciplinary matters to Thenammal!

Final memories - Periappa

The last time I saw Periappa was in August 1983 when Anna, Arun and I went to stay with him for some time. He was then very frail and his memory was not good. Even though he had been told that only the three of us were making the trip, I remember that on seeing us, his first words (even before greeting us) were “Has Pat not come?”. He was house-bound most of the time though he did come down to the beach with us one evening. A kind-looking middle-aged man had been appointed as his full-time carer; he looked after Periappa really well and Periappa liked him. Vittobha and Sandhya also helped a great deal. Here is a photo of Periappa with Anna and Arun taken during that visit:

Periappa passed away in November 1983 aged 91, leaving behind a family of 67 - 3 children (all with spouses), 11 grandchildren (all with spouses), 31 great grandchildren (4 with spouses) and 4 great-great grandchildren. It was the first loss that really hit me to the core as he had been such a rock for 43 years (from my birth to his death). I missed not being there to participate in the final rites. I remember that Pat diagnosed me as suffering from depression for several months afterwards. Perhaps the event somewhat loosened my ties to India. However, it was heartening to remember that he had established a warm, affectionate relationship with Pat despite the differences in age, race, culture, language etc.

Some concluding thoughts

I think my grandparents felt that I was their own child and so were inordinately fond of me and my family because they looked after me during the first year of my life, I stayed with them for 2 years when I was 7-9 years old and always kept in close touch with them thereafter. In retrospect, though I did not get as much in financial terms as my siblings and cousins, I must have had more than a fair share of my grandparents’ love and warmth. I have sometimes thought about how these relatives felt about my good fortune, but have felt gratified that they have shown me no resentment over this; on the contrary, they have invariably been kind and welcoming during my visits to India.

Appendix 1 – General background


Sivakasi is a town of about 80,000 people in Tamil Nadu, India. The town is well known for its powerful printing and match-manufacturing industries, and is famous all over India for its fireworks factories. It was given the nickname "Kutty Japan" ('Mini Japan' in Tamil) by the first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru. 

A number of peacocks and peahens adorn the large garden (“nandavanam”) within the Sivakasi temple complex, and also come into private gardens. Here is a picture of Sridevi (my cousin D A Rajan’s daughter) feeding a peacock in her garden in Sivakasi, taken when Pat and I visited her in 2004:

Periappa and Thenammal regarded Sivakasi as their native place because they were born there and all their ancestors lived there. However, since Periappa and Thenammal moved permanently to Thoothukudi in 1910, the main family connection with Sivakasi has been through holding properties there, having marriage ceremonies there, building/maintaining memorials for the deceased elders and of course the many relatives still living there. 


Thoothukudi (anglicised as Tuticorin), is the tenth largest city in Tamil Nadu, India; here is a map showing its location on the SE coast:

Thoothukudi is traditionally known for its pearl fishery, shipbuilding and salt production. It is one of the major seaports in India with its history dating back to the 6th century. Development of the port has led to industrialization and made the city a centre for maritime trade.

Periappa and Thenammal moved from Sivakasi to Thoothukudi soon after their wedding in 1910 and spent the rest of their lives there. The picture below (Anna and Daniel on the elephant Periappa had brought in for the children’s entertainment; the person standing on the left side edge is Thamba), which was taken in 1980 during our family visit, may give some idea of the house/office/yard premises.

Entering the premises from the road (the elephant in the picture above is facing the road), one will first walk under the passageway connecting the houses on either side; Periappa and Thenammal lived in the house on the left; Seethammal’s family (see Appendix 2) lived in the house on the right for many years; further down, the wooden structure housed timber yard, sawing pit (one man below and another above used a huge saw rhythmically to cut through massive logs - this is no longer done manually!), storage facilities, offices, staff living quarters etc. The picture below shows Pat and our children with Periappa in his office (taken during our earlier visit in 1975):

My grandparents’ house has gone through many ‘improvements’ over the years, but I will describe it from my boyhood recollection. On entering the house you find yourself in the large sitting room which was simply furnished with a couple of unsprung sofas and a few chairs; there was also a large radio in one corner. This room also used to double up as the main bedroom at night when Periappa would open up the folding bed with rush matting and then put some bedding on it; he always slept in that front room; when I was in Thoothukudi, he would make up a similar bed for me, next to him. Turning left, you would enter a room which was used for storing clothes, bedding and the folded beds; there was also a staircase in that room leading up to the first floor. Beyond that was a room with just one window facing the road; Thenammal slept in this somewhat stuffy hot room as she always liked to keep warm; there were a couple of clothes cupboards there and also Periappa’s iron safe.

Retracing your steps back to the sitting room, the door immediately on the left led to a small Hindu prayer room. A door from that room led into a sparsely furnished dining room with a table, bench and stools. In one corner stood an earthenware pot with cool drinking water; Thoothukudi water was particularly good to drink; Thenammal used to put a little bit of Vetiver in the water to impart a lovely mild fragrance. A door at the end of the room led to the store-room which was designed to protect food from ants and mice! The feet of the large storage cupboard stood in small water cups and the doors had metal-mesh; there was also a large food container which was hung from the ceiling.

To the left of the dining room was a passage with a few rooms which were rented out, and there was a tree in the small yard there. In later years my grandparents wanted to extend the house into this area, and wondered what to do about the tree. The solution they came up with was to leave the tree in place and build around it. The outcome was that the tree was located in the middle of the rambling house, and became quite a feature.

The door to the right of the dining room led into a large bathroom which was open to the skies though there were metal bars to prevent entry from without. The bathing was done by pouring water over oneself with a mug from a large tub; hot water was produced by a contraption similar to a samovar. When I was little, Periappa used to sit me on his feet (he would be sitting on a low stool), pour water over me and wash me. He used to do this in the morning to all the little grandchildren when they came to stay at Thoothukudi, before he had his own bath!

Next to the bathroom was a covered area (open to the elements on one side) where the cooking was done on open wood/coal burning fires. Stepping out of the covered area, there was the well; straight ahead was the cow-shed; to the right was the lavatory. There was a door leading to the main passageway from the road; in a small area next to the house here some hens were kept; there were also some banana trees, the leaves of which were usually used as plates for eating from (no washing-up as the leaves were just thrown away after use!).

On the first floor there used to be just a store-room and a large bedroom with a small bathroom; later on this area was converted to a lovely three bedroom flat. Further up, there was also an open terrace.


Kodaikanal was discovered by a British Lieutenant in early 19th century, and was established as a hill station by American missionaries in mid 19th century as a refuge from the high temperatures of the plains. The town of Kodaikanal sits astride on the southern summit of the upper Palni Hills in Tamil Nadu. The beautiful location and pleasant climate have now made it a popular tourist destination. The focal point of the town is an artificial, roughly star-shaped 60 acre lake built in 1863 which has a 5 kilometre circumference. Here is a picture of the lovely lake:

I think Periappa started visiting Kodaikanal in the late 1940s and stayed in rented accommodation. In the 1950s Mama bought a lovely house called “Lodore” on the hillside, and invited all the extended family to come and stay there. Periappa then enjoyed spending several months in the year at Lodore regularly; business continued to be conducted from there! His routine was to walk to the lake in the morning and row round it at a steady pace, and in the afternoon to take a brisk walk round the lake. Thenammal almost always preferred to stay behind in Thoothukudi as she did not like the cooler climate in the hills. However, throughout the hot Summer months, various members of the family came to join him. After Thenammal died, he had extended stays in Kodaikanal as he really liked the cooler climate and the facilities to row and walk in beautiful sorroundings.

Appendix 2 - Thangammal (Thenammal’s sister) family

Thangammal (in Tamil it means golden woman) had four daughters and three sons – all the daughters were brought up by their mother as Christians but the sons remained Hindus. I knew all of them quite well and also got to know most of their families. Thangammal’s eldest son Ramalingam and three of her daughters lived in Thoothukudi; I knew these four families particularly well because:

  • · for 2 years, when I was aged 7-9, I lived with Periappa and Thenammal and went to school in Thoothukudi, and therefore met these families fairly regularly; and
  • · during my subsequent periodic visits to Thoothukudi, Thenammal always took me (rather unwillingly!) on a tour of relatives to show off her eldest grandson through the male line.

Ramalingam was born just a few months before Appa and they were quite close, though their respective characters were like chalk and cheese. I remember that his wife’s name was Roseflower (unusual for an Indian woman); when they got married, she could not cook properly but he could and he taught her! Ramalingam was until his late middle age quite a tearaway; the only person he would really listen to was Thenammal. I was really fond of him, and remember that once he took me with him in a jeep on a shooting expedition. I always felt that he had special affection for me because of his closeness to father.

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):

One of Thangammal’s daughters, Seethammal, lived for many years with her family in the house owned by my grandparents (the outside wall of the house can be seen in the picture under “Thoothukudi” in Appendix 1 above). Her husband was a rather weak character; he did some agency work and owned some properties. Seethammal must have been a strong character as she held the family together and ensured that all the children received good education. My grandparents probably provided any necessary support as the family lived just across the passageway.

Seethammal had four children – Kiruba (born in 1930; so 10 years older than me), Karnaseela (born in 1940 exactly a week after me), followed by Kanagaraj and Hema. From the time I went to live in Thoothukudi aged 7, I was taken into the bosom of that family – Kiruba was very much like a big sister to me and Karnaseela was of course my play-mate out of school (we went to different schools – I went to a school where all the subjects were taught in Tamil and she went to a school where everything was taught in English!). Though we never again lived in such proximity after I left Thoothukudi aged 9, the close relationship established at that time endured.

I still remember vividly the great excitement when Kiruba’s marriage was finalised in 1948; I ran over to hug her and tried to spin her around, nearly causing her to crash to the ground! The bridegroom was Dr Thangaraj; she could not have found a better husband. The wedding took place in my grandparents’ house with all the usual fanfare of Indian weddings. Karnaseela married Santhaseelan in 1957.

Dr Thangaraj joined the medical practice of a famous doctor in Madurai; so he moved with Kiruba to that city. They had two children – Rajkumar and Suraiya (affectionately called Baby). As for some years they lived quite near my maternal aunt’s house, I used to visit them whenever my family went to stay with my aunt. Dr Thangaraj went on to establish a successful medical practice of his own and built a lovely house. He took Seethammal’s family under his wings – always very generous with his time and support to all family members. He provided Kanagaraj (his brother-in-law) with the required help and motivation to become a doctor in due course. Eventually all of Seethammal’s family moved to Madurai. Sadly, Dr Thangaraj suffered an attack of polio and became wheel-chair bound during the last part of his life, though that did not prevent him from bravely carrying on with his medical practice.

Over the years I have met up with Seethammal’s extended family many times, often enjoying the wonderful hospitality at Dr Thangaraj’s house in Madurai; this has continued after I married Pat and we had children. When Pat, Anna, Arun and I visited India in 1970, on our way from Chennai to Kodaikanal, we all stayed with Kiruba and Dr Thangaraj for a night and were overwhelmed by their kindness and hospitality. As Pat and I had not gone through an Indian wedding ceremony, Dr Thangaraj wanted us to have a garlanded procession around the city on an elephant; not wanting to make an exhibition of ourselves, I declined the generous offer with many thanks! 

Kiruba and Dr Thangaraj really wanted me to return to India with my family and settle down into the family business. So, they made a number of unsuccessful attempts to reconcile my parents to my marriage outside my Indian family religion/caste; I will elaborate on this when I write about my parents in Section 4.

In 1975 our family of six spent 3 weeks in Thoothukudi with Periappa. On our way back we spent a day in Madurai before catching the night train to Chennai. I can do no better than to quote from Pat’s fascinating diary of that holiday: “Tuesday 16 December 1975 – depart Tuticorin (by car) 8am. Speedy 3 hour journey to Madurai – saw wild peacock run across the road. Flamboyant welcome at Dr Thangaraj’s ‘ice cream’ mansion – pink, green and vanilla – ornamental, colourful garden. Temple elephant at porch to put garlands of roses over our heads. Temple band – two trumpets, drum, harmonium, and bell. Noisy but fun. Gifts came in on two trays – embarrassing profusion. Anna and Arun had a ride on elephant. Visit Aachi (my maternal grandmother) in Ten Pillar St – muddy side-streets, then along several alleys to tiny, cool, secluded little house with courtyard with vine, birds and squirrels. Very simple but pleasant. Ten pillars outside Maharaja’s old palace where he kept his 10 elephants chained. Masses of food all day. Food delicious but too much and too often. Grand send-off to Madras – loaded with fruit, gifts etc. Little ceremony with flames when we left the house.”

Here is a picture of that happy occasion – the six of us with Periappa, Kiruba and Dr Thangaraj:

My last visit to see them was in 1998 and my brother Mohan came with me in the car to drop me at their house. On arrival Kiruba and Karnaseela embraced and kissed me; this was seldom done in the Tamil culture, especially with members of the opposite sex; but that welcome demonstrated the warmth and closeness that existed between us; I think Mohan was very surprised! I was very distressed to hear that Kiruba passed away in 2001 and Karnaseela in 2002.

However, happily my close relationship with the family has continued. Rajkumar qualified as a doctor and married Gowri. Baby married Dr Gandhirajan. The two doctors carry on a joint medical practice – Dr Rajkumar specialises in holistic care embracing the family of the patient and Dr Gandhirajan specialises in psychiatric care. They built a new hospital in 2004 just in time for Pat and myself to see it when we visited them to have a very pleasant breakfast with all the family. Here is a picture of Dr Gandhirajan, Baby and me taken on that occasion:

Prem Kumar

February 2009