Memories: Grandmother Tales 4 – The Travel Edition

I guess I get my love for travel from my paternal grandmother, my ammama. She used to take off as the urge struck her and has travelled the length and breadth of the country. There are three such stories which I remember even today, two in which I star in and one which I remember.

When my sister was born, I was about less than a year and a half and because my mother could not handle a newborn and a toddler, my grandparents took off to New Delhi with me. Her daughter lived there with her husband, who worked in the Indian Air Force and they must have lived in airforce quarters. This would a when India’s then Prime Minister, Mrs Indira Gandhi imposed a state of emergency in the country. I was barely eighteen months at that time, so don’t have many memories of that period, but I remember the name Indira Gandhi used to be used to evoke fear, especially among children. So when I refused to do something, say eat my food, or drink my milk, I would be threatened by Mrs Gandhi. It’s a wonder that I didn’t develop any irrational fear of the government and especially Mrs Gandhi. But kudos to my grandmother, who at that age, (she must have been in her late forties or early fifties) took a toddler with her and looked after her for a few months. We returned to Bombay about three months or so later and by this time, my mum and sister were back home from my maternal grandmother’s house where she had gone for her delivery.

The next story is also from my childhood. I must have been around 7 or 8 and we were travelling by train to our ancestral village in the Tirunelveli district in the Tamil heartland. We were travelling with my father’s cousin for his wedding. My grandparents were also travelling with us but in a different compartment. After we reached Chennai, my parents, uncle and we children were supposed to take an overnight train to reach the district headquarters of Tirunelveli and my grandparents were to take the overnight train to the same destination. My sister and I threw a tantrum at the station and insisted we travel with my grandparents and not our parents. They had to give in, my grandparents giving in to us was a huge reason, and so we took the train. We were ticketless and had nothing with us, which was with our parents. I remember my grandfather talking to the ticket checker to buy tickets in the train and scrambling to find space for us to sleep in. They found space and we managed to get to Tirunelveli in one piece.

The last story does not have either my sister or me in a starring role. Around the time I was around 6, after my grandfather retired, my grandparents decided to go on an all-India pilgrimage. I don’t remember the specifics after all these years, but I do know it was led by a tour leader and was aimed at mostly senior citizens. They would take the train and maybe also travel by road and visit many of the important places of worship. The tour also included a trip to Kathmandu in Nepal to visit the Pashupatinath temple and other places of worship in that city. I do know they visited the temples of Badrinath and Kedarnath and from the north went all the way down south to Kanyakumari. I remember them making a stop in Mumbai during the trip and we went to the station to meet them. I have a memory of my uncle taking me with him to the station and then because I was so upset of meeting my ammama and then getting separated from her, he took me out and we came home quite late, after eating ice creams and chocolates. I remember this was during our summer holidays and because we reached home so late, I overslept the next day and was still asleep when my friends came to call me to play in the morning. From Kathmandu, my grandparents got me and my sister a beautiful chain with a butterfly pendant which I treasured for many years.

I hope you enjoyed this edition of my grandmother’s tales. If you want to read more about my memories of my ammama, here’s part 1, part 2, part 3 and one about my maternal grandmother.

Grandmother Tales: The Maternal Edition

In today’s Grandmother Tales, the spotlight is on my maternal grandmother whom I also called ammama just like my paternal grandmother. And following me, all my maternal cousins also called my grandmother ammama while their paternal grandmothers used to be called pati, the traditional moniker for a Tamil grandmother

We lost my K ammama last December at the age of 91 and this was a huge blow to all of us. Because of COVID restrictions, none of us had met her in over two years and I was stoked to be able to meet her when I planned my India trip in January, but it was not meant to be. My mother had met her in September and she was so thankful to have made that trip because otherwise, she would have lived with the regret of not meeting her mother even though they both lived in the same country.

Ammama lost her mother when she was about 9 or 10 and she and her younger brother were brought up by per uncle and aunt (her father’s older brother and his wife). Her father was a teacher and retired as the principal of a school in the south. She was a very petite lady and barely came up to my shoulders, but had a superb work ethic, one that I can only hope to emulate. Even at the age of 91, she would work tirelessly until late at night, finding something or the other to do, instead of just sitting down and wasting time.

She was married to my tatha or grandfather when she was about 18 or so and moved to what was then Bombay. Initially, they lived in a joint family, but when everyone’s family grew, they moved to a one-room apartment. My tatha worked for Indian Airlines on the operations side and so had to work shifts. They had four daughters, of which my mother was the oldest. After the youngest daughter was born, they gave her to her childless sister-in-law (my tatha’s older sister) who lived nearby to raise her. There was no legal adoption done and my aunt used to call her adoptive parents uncle and aunt and my grandparents as mother and father but lived separately. The sisters used to meet daily and knew of their relationship, it’s just that this aunt was raised in a different building. My grandmother always yearned for a son and so my male cousins quickly became her favourite, but we girls never really minded this.

Growing up, of all the sisters, only my mum lived the closest and so my sister and I spent many holidays at ammama’s house.  I remember the times when we were in kindergarten and the early primary school years when my mum would come to school during dismissal time to pick us up and take us to our grandmother’s place. We would spend the whole day there and go back home after dinner when my dad would come to pick us up.

When I was moving from grade 9 to 10, I had tuition in the summer holidays, so after spending a couple of weeks in Bengaluru, I took my first flight alone back to Mumbai where my grandfather picked me up and I stayed with them for the rest of the summer until my mum and sister came back from their holiday. My father came home earlier, but he lived at home while I was at my grandparent’s house and used to travel to my tuition centre daily.

One of my best friends lived next door to my grandparents’ home and my grandmother used to always complain that when we visited, I used to pop in, say hello, leave my shoes and then run to my friend’s house. I have so many memories of playing with her all day and when I stayed overnight there, late into the night. We played so many games and had so many heart-to-heart talks. I am still in touch with her and used to go and visit her parents every time I visited Mumbai until they passed away.

I was in my teens when my grandparents moved to Chennai after my grandfather retired. They were able to sell their small flat for a larger flat so they could finally enjoy the space in their retirement years. When they moved to Chennai, we used to split our holidays between their home and my other grandparents’ home in Bengaluru. I remember taking the train to Chennai, spending a couple of weeks there and then taking the overnight mail train to Bengaluru where my grandparents used to wait at the Cantonment station.

My grandmother had a great work ethic and I remember waking up at almost midnight when we used to stay over and see her either cleaning the kitchen or some other work because she could not sleep. And even just a few days before she fell and had to be hospitalised, she was working daily, cooking and cleaning. She was very particular about cleanliness and would spend hours making sure everything was spotless and in its correct place. She was also very particular about other things in her life and would spend hours making sure her clothes and her children and grandchildren’s clothes were clean, and neat and would immediately stitch anything that needed stitching.

In the last few years of her life, she slowed down considerably. She lived alone in Chennai for a few years after my grandfather passed away and then moved to Bengaluru to live with my mum’s third sister. And then after her second daughter’s husband passed away and my aunt had some issues, both physical and mental, she moved in and started looking after her daughter. She spent almost 10 years with this particular daughter and my aunt has been especially hit hard by her death.

When she died, because of COVID, nobody could go down and see her one last time. But thanks to technology, we were able to see her death ceremony rituals streamed live and even though it was via my phone and laptop screen, we all could see her one last time. When I was in Bengaluru earlier this year, my aunt who also lives in the same community as my parents and I spoke a lot about my grandmother and shared so many memories. This is the same aunt with whom my grandmother lived before she moved in with my second aunt. I was quite heartbroken that I could not see my grandmother one last time, and missed her by just about a month.

Writing this blog post has been quite cathartic and I found myself smiling at memories of my ammama and also shedding a few tears. Thanks for reading and allowing me to share some memories of my maternal grandmother. If you haven’t yet, but want to read my memories about my paternal grandmother, click here, here and here.

My Singapore Journey

Yesterday was Singapore’s 55th National Day and as I reminisced about my twenty odd years here, I thought back on my journey in Singapore.

I have written about my journey to become a Singaporean last year, but this post will be slightly different. 2020 is my twentieth year in Singapore and as I have mentioned previously, I could have become a Singaporean about two to three years after I got my Permanent Residency given that S is native Singaporean and BB & GG were already born who are also citizens by birth. But I wanted to make sure I was taking the right decision. When I first came to Singapore, I was quite happy with my permanent residency status and had no intention at that point to renounce my Indian citizenship. I was very proud to have been born in India, especially Mumbai (and till today, I proudly call Bombay my hometown) and since I was actually getting some of the benefits which I would have not gotten if BB & GG were not Singaporeans, there was no real hurry for me to take the next step.

As I grew used to staying in Singapore, it slowly started becoming home to me. In fact I remember a conversation with the officer at the Immigration & Checkpoints Authority when I went to get my passport stamped with my re-entry permit who was doing the stamping. She asked me why I didn’t apply for citizenship since I am married to a Singaporean and my children are also locals. I should have no problems with my application according to her. I responded saying I didn’t feel Singaporean yet and so will wait before I take such a decision. That feeling came about fifteen years into living in Singapore. I can still remember when I finally acknowledged to myself it was time to become a Singaporean not just in spirit, but officially too. I was returning back from a business trip and when the plane landed in Changi airport, the pilot (or co-pilot) said the usual welcome dialogue which SIA usually has which has something to the effect of “Welcome to Singapore and for Singaporeans and Permanent Residents, welcome home”, I realised that Singapore was indeed home for me. I also completed a new rite of passage as a Singaporean recently when I voted in the recent general elections which happened last month.

When the sight of Changi airport’s control towers says you are now home, when Singlish seems as normal as Hindi and Marathi, when Majulah Singapura means as much to you as Jana Gana Mana, it means that Singapore has become home to me now. Even though it took me about fifteen years to come to this realisation, I decided that was the time to take things to the next level and make Singapore officially my home. BB & GG were, I think, the most excited when I took this decision. I have not travelled much, especially regionally after getting my red passport, but I look forward to exploring more countries in the region. I can remember trips to Thailand and Cambodia where I had to rush to get my visa on arrival stamped in my passport while S and the children either waited for me or went ahead to collect the baggage because they had Singapore passports which ensured that they just walk out. Or even work trips where I had to get visas every single time and my colleagues usually had to wait for me before we went to collect our baggage. Pre COVID, we used to drive down to Malaysia, specifically Johor Bahru quite often to buy groceries and shop and crossing the causeway without needing a visa was so convienient.

Happy birthday Singapore! Prosper and flourish for years to come…

What’s a National Day, without a National Day song? I’ve shared my favourite NDP song, Home by Kit Chan last year, so here’s this year’s song sung by Nathan Hartano.

Memories: Grandmother Tales – 3

Sometime back I received a video on one of my family Whatsapp groups. This was a small documentary about Sanskrit scholars who had settled down in the villages on the banks of the Tamarabarani River in Tirunelveli district in Tamil Nadu a few centuries back. They were fleeing muslim invaders, most likely the Mughals and fled to preserve their culture and way of life. These scholars are today most likely known as the Tamil Brahmins who are my ancestors. When I saw this video, I was instantly taken back to a conversation I had with my paternal grandmother a few weeks before she passed away.

We were travelling back to Bangalore from Sringeri, after a wonderful trip to celebrate my cousin’s thread ceremony and we stopped at a place, whose name escapes me now for a break. That was when she told me, possibly in passing, that her ancestors originally came from either or someplace close to Nagpur in Maharashtra and then moved to someplace in Karnataka, where they settled down for a few centuries before finally moving down south to settle on the banks of the Tamarabarani in Tirunelveli district. So when I saw that video, I immediately thought of my ammama and was very sad that she passed away before I really got to know her as an adult. I did some research on this and this is probably true. I also found writings which said that Tamil brahmins probably came down to the south from either coastal Andhra Pradesh from the Godavari basin or coastal Karnataka. This ties in to what my ammama told me.

I was very close to her and I was her favourite, maybe necause I was her first grandchild and was named after her. I am also told I resemble her a lot, both in looks as well as in temperament and in the way we look at things. I have only seen her in the traditional tambram saree called the Madisar and when I wore one at my wedding, pretty much everyone in the room, including my parents and extended family said they felt I looked like her. She loved reading and was interested in history. I really wish we had some more time with her so I could get to know her as a person, speak with her as an adult and learn more about my family.

Unfortunately, we don’t have any written family history, and those who knew the oral history have passed away. This is a very sad thing and I wish I was interested in this a lot earlier, when I could have perhaps gotten to know my own ancestral history a bit more.

While this is not really memories of my grandmother, when I read about things like this, I remember her a at that point in time and have a happy smile the rest of the day.

This is Home, Truly

I am not sure if I have ever shared this, but I finally bit the bullet and became naturalised as a Singapore Citizen a couple of years back. Since today is Singapore’s 54th National Day, here’s my story.

I became a citizen after having lived here for more than 15 years and it was a decision that I didn’t take lightly. Of course, having the strong red passport which means easy travel was a big draw, but if that was the only consideration, I could have done as soon as I completed my two years as a permanent resident. Given that S is a natural citizen, and having children who are also citizens by birth, my application could not really be rejected unless it raises some serious red flags. But I waited and when the time was right, I decided to take the plunge.

There are many blogs which have the whole process documented, so I won’t document the process, but I would like to say that it really takes time. It took me six months after applying online to get a slot to meet an officer who would check my documentation, including my educational transcripts, marriage certificate and my children’s birth certificates and passports. Then, after a waiting another six months, I got the letter confirming that my application was accepted. I had to go through a three process orientation which included an online quiz, a visit to some Singapore places of interest and lastly a session at my nearest community centre.

I chose the National Museum plus the NeWater Plant for my visit. Here, I realised that for many people, this citizenship is just a means to an end. At the museum, after going through with the guide provided, we were grouped into groups according to age. I was in the second oldest age group and within our group, we were asked to finish a questionnaire which had questions about the history of Singapore, the answers to which were found in the museum. I knew the answers to almost all the questions, but when I started consulting the others in my group, I was met with shrugs. They indicated to me to answer as I see fit as they were not interested. Out of around 4-5 people in the group (excluding me), almost everyone was from a particular ethinicity and from a single country. I don’t want to take names, but most minorities in Singapore would instantly know which ethinicity and country I am referring to. I was really saddened by this as it didn’t seem to me that they are becoming Singaporean because they believe in this country, but because they just want to live in a better country and have a passport which takes them places. No emotion is involved in this decision of theirs at all. Of course this is true for people across the spectrum of ethnicities and old nationalities (including India), but at least those people can converse in English!

Anyway, back to my motivation to get naturalised. I used to tell anyone who asked when I planned on becoming a citizen (including once an immigration officer when I went to get my permanent residency extended) I used to tell it will probably happen when I stayed longer in Singapore than in India. I had been mulling over this for a few years prior to actually clicking on the application form and for me it when I realised that Singapore is now home for me! When the sight of Changi airport’s iconic tower brings relief that I am now home and most important for me is when I no longer have the deep sadness I used to have when the flight takes off in the initial days of shuttling between Mumbai and Singapore, I knew that my definition of home had changed from Mumbai to Singapore and that was when I decided that to formalise what I felt internally. I had already felt Singaporean and even spoke with the lilt associated with the local lingo and could spew Singlish like a local, so it was just natural that I also decided to call myself a Singaporean officially.

After my orientation, I had to renounce my Indian citizenship for which all I needed to do was submit a form to the Indian High Commission and then a week or so later go down and get the letter of renunciation and my old, now invalid passport. I then booked an appointment with the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority to go and formalise the process and officially become a citizen. This meant going down there and after documents were checked and after fingerprinting for the identity card is done and S signs some documents as my sponsor saying he is doing this of his own free will and not being forced, I had to take my oath of citizenship in front of a Justice of Peace. Then I got a temporary identity card and also dropped off my passport application at the same time. After around 3 months, I got a letter asking me to head down to a community centre in my constituency whose turn it was to host the citizenship ceremony where I got my citizenship certificate and pink identity card.

That was my journey in becoming a Singaporean! I think BB & GG were the most thrilled as now all of us have the same passport. I just think it was the right time to do, since I already feel Singaporean, so it’s nice to have my identity validated in the form of my pink IC and red passport! I also have the Overseas Indian Card which allows me visa-free entry to India for a lifetime (or until the policy changes) so I can travel to India on the drop of a hat!

Happy 54th birthday Singapore! May you prosper and flourish for centuries to come!

To end this post, here’s one of my favourite national day songs and the one which inspired the title of this post and one I actually used as a reference when I applied to become a Singaporean.