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.

The Elixer of Life: My Water Stories

Water is essential for human beings to survive. Water carries nutrients to all cells in our body and oxygen to our brain. allows the body to absorb and assimilate minerals, vitamins, amino acids, glucose, and other substances, flushes out toxins and waste and helps to regulate body temperature. As a general rule of thumb, a human being can survive without water for roughly 72 hours or three days. And many experts have predicted that the next major world crises will be over water and suggest that growing water scarcity will drive violent conflict as access to water dries up for certain communities.

So with all the importance of water, it is certianly an essential part of our lives. In many parts of the world, water can be hard or soft and most water that is piped is usually soft water, which is treated and only has chorine and sodium. I am super finicky about the taste of water and probably because of the water I am used to, both while growing up in Mumbai and now in Singapore, which is treated chrolinated water, I can’t drink or find it hard to drink any other type of water. So here are some water stories from my life.

A representation of the water cooler we used to carry. Source

When we were younger, we used to travel by train during our summer holidays to visit our grandparents, first only to Bengaluru and then to Chennai first and then to Bengaluru. This is way before bottled water flooded the Indian market and on a train travel, the only water you had was either the water you carried with yourself in large cans or coolers or what you were able to refill in stations enroute. So we would carry as much water as we could from home in large five or 10 litre cans and this was common with pretty much everyone doing the same. This water would finish up roughly about halfway into the journey and we would have to fill it up from one of the stations, usually in Andhra Pradesh. The water would usually be hard and have a brackish taste to it and I would stop drinking water. If I was very thirsty, I would badger my mother to buy me a drink or something else to quench my thirst and if nothing was available, then a sip or two would all that I could stomach. Luckily the period of low to no water would not be too long and we would reach Bengaluru soon and as soon as we reached home, I would gulp water from the largest glass available.

In fact in our home in Bengaluru or Bangalore as it used to be called then, we had two sources of water – one from the well in the house which was slightly hard and the second which was piped in by the city from the Kaveri. I always preferred the Kaveri water and would always tell my grandmother to keep that water for drinking. This water would come in once every other day and when it came in, it would be a process to ensure it was pumped up to the holding tanks so it could be used for cooking eating and drinking while the well water was used for other needs. In fact, on our most recent trip to Bengaluru, my aunt’s house also had some kind of semi-hard water and I just could not bring myself to drink it. This trip was a very short one and we spent a fair amount of time outside visiting family in the city, so I didn’t have to drink it a lot, but the relief I felt when coming back to Bombay and drinking normal water was so immense that everyone who saw me rush to the kitchen to drink water as soon as we reached home had a hearty laugh at my expense.

Source

My maternal grandparents house in Chennai was another matter and there was no source of any soft water. So holidays there used to be a torture for me because there was no alternative source of water I could use. I soon learnt that if the water was ice cold, the taste could be masked and I could drink it, so that’s exactly what I did. Now, I am someone who normally does not drink cold water, but when in Chennai, I would ensure that there was sufficient cold water available so I could use that cold water for drinking and for even brushing my teeth! Our trip to Chennai used to be for a week, after which we would travel to Bangalore for the rest of the holiday, so it was not too bad.

Another story, similar to the above comes from the time when I was around 15. We were on a school trip to the beach town of Bordi which lies almost at the border between the states of Maharashtra and Gujarat. The whole class X cohort was on the trip, and was a combined Girl Guides and Social Services service trip. In Bordi the water was so bad that pretty much none of us drank the water. And this was the late eightees, so we didn’t have much in terms of pocket money and would restrict ourselves to one bottle of a soft drink a day which we would empty into our water bottles. Girls with a larger amount of pocket money would have purchased more than one and all of us were so glad to be back in Bombay where we could drink water to our heart’s content. This three day trip has been in my memories for more than three decades now because I can still remember the feeling of thirst and now being able to drink water because it was so bad. Like what I used to do in Chennai, when the thirst got too much to bear, we would drink a couple of sips of the hard water and then stop.

Source

So these were my water stories. Water is the true elixir of life, with over 71% of our planet and up to 60% of our bodies made up of water. Without water, life will cease to exist and for this reason, we must learn to preserve it for the future generations.

Music Appreciation: The most potent instrument of education

When I was young, most people I knew had a subscription to a local music sabha. A sabha is supposed to be a congregration or an assembly in ancient India and in the south, a music sabha is a conregration for music lovers, especially during the music season. Close to our home and very close to my grand mother’s home was the music sabha we went to. My grand parents were members and when they moved out of Bombay (when it was still Bombay and had not yet been renamed to Mumbai), my parents took over the membership.

I remember a representative from the sabha would come home once every few months and pass us the membership card along with the sabha schedule for the next few months. This was way before social media and mobile phones, so everything was done manually. This sabha was one of the most prestigiuous sabhas in Bombay at that time. It was established a few years after India’s independence with the aim of promoting the fine arts and provide a platform to showcase various artists in the various areas of the fine arts, especially music, dance and drama.

My parents and grand parents from both sides used to look forward to this programme and we would also be taken to the sabha for a dose of culture and music appreciation. Sometimes when a friend was also going there, we would not mind going, but most times we would rebel. When they could not get us to accompany them, my mum would leave us at my grandmother’s house which was just 2-3 minutes away from the sabha and go and enjoy the concert. We would enjoy the next few hours in the company of friends and when the concert ended, they would come to my grand mother’s house, have dinner and go home. Most of the concerts used to involve classical Carnatic music and dancen and when a distinguished artist was scheduled to perform, people would beg and borrow extra passes so family and friends could also listen and see the artist at play. 

When a distinguished artist was performing, we would all troop down to the sabha and any requests to stay at home would not be entertained as this would be a rare opportunity to hear and see such a distinguished performer. Relatives who stayed in other parts of the city would also make their way and I remember an aunt, my mother’s sister who was herself a singer and had learnt Carnatic music when she was younger would come down, especially if the concert was on a Saturday and stay at her mum’s place so she could attend it. I remember either attending or my parents attending performances by M.S Subbulakshmi among other celebrated artists.

When I just finished school, the sabha was unfortunately destroyed in a devastating fire and for a very long time all performances were stopped while it was being rebuilt. By then, we had all grown up and after a few more years of being members, my parents also gave up their membership and the sabha is now just a distant memory or a place for nostalgia when we pass by it.

Though I didn’t really recognise it then, this forced attendance has help me appreciate music. Though I did learn Carnatic music and my sister learnt Bharatanatyam, as did pretty much every tambram girl I knew, we did not take it up far and gave it up when school got too much for us. But those lessons and the concerts and dance performances we attended gave us a appreciation of what good music was all about. We learnt how to carry a tune and recognise when someone is out of tune. Even today, when I hear music which is even slightly out of tune, even though I may not recognise the raga being played, I know it is not correct and I wince, mostly unconsciously.

Today, research has confirmed what our parents and grandparents instinctively knew. That when you learn and listen and appreciate good music, it is extremely beneficial, especially to young children. Music is a megavitamin for the brain, the ultimate mood enhancer for emotional balance, a golden key for unlocking creativity, the secret code behind health and longevity, and the connective fiber between human beings of all races, nationalities and generations.

Musical training helps develop language and reasoning as it develops the areas of the brain related to language and reasoning. Children who are exposed to music early are more emotionally developed with empathy towards other cultures and also tend to have a higher self esteem and are better at coping with anxiety. Math and pattern recognition skills are developed with a music education and someone who has learnt music can better detect meaningful, information-bearing elements in sounds. Music also builds the imagination and intellectual curiosity and help foster a positive attitude toward learning and curiosity. An artistic education develops the whole brain and develops a child’s imagination. It is universally known that music helps fight stress and can be incredibly relaxing and also develop spatial intelligence in children.

When I look back in hindsight, I am so thankful to my parents for forcing this on me, even when I could not see it then. At that time, all it meant that going to classical concerts and dance performances meant that my Saturday evenings were being wasted, and I could use that time to play with friends. But today, as I do the same to my children, I realise how much this has benefitted me. GG & BB started learning Carnatic vocal music at about the age of seven. BB dropped it when he was about 12, when puberty hit and his voice started to break, but GG has still continued to learn. When I told her she could drop it if she wanted to, she told me it was very relaxing and wanted to continue. I do believe that these forced lessons have made them appreciate good music, even if their current music taste is not classical. GG also learnt western ballet for almost a decade, but gave it up when school got too much to balance. Today GG continues to sing, both classical and other music while BB, who actually has a good voice and a head for tune, sings very casually, though he will not really admit it.

My Favourite Books as a Child

I have always loved reading and my earliest memories are either reading or looking for something to read. Growing up in the mid to late seventies and eighties in India meant that other than the school library and maybe friends, access to books was limited. But I still managed to read, sometimes resorting to newspapers and magazines to feed my reading addiction.

I was always reading one to two grades higher than my peers and by the time I was in grade seven and eight, I remember being allowed the read from the adults’ section in my school library. This was a locked cupboard from which teachers and other staff were allowed to borrow books and I started reading books from authors like George Orwell then. I think I was probably the only student at that time who was accorded this privilege.

But this post is about my favourite books I enjoyed as a child, so let’s dive right in.

The earliest books I read and loved are those written by Enid Blyton. An English children’s author, Enid Mary Blyton who died in 1968 has written books since the 1930s and whose books have sold more than 600 million copies and have been translated into 90 languages and as of June 2018, is in 4th place for the most translated author.

My first introduction to Blyton’s books was the Faraway Tree series. The stories take place in an enchanted wood in which a gigantic magical tree, the Faraway Tree grows. The tree is so tall that its topmost branches reach into the clouds and it is wide enough to contain small houses carved into its trunk. The wood and the tree are discovered by three children named Jo, Bessie and Fanny, later updated to Joe, Beth and Frannie, who move into a house nearby and go on adventures to the top of the tree along with the inhabitants of the tree, some whom befriend the children. As I am writing this, a memory pops into my head. I must have been five or six and we were travelling down south to my paternal grandmother’s ancestral village to attend a wedding by train. I can still remember the title of the book I was reading, which was The Magic Faraway Tree and the 24-hour journey (at least the time spent in reading) flew past in a jiffy!

I have also read a few of the Noddy books, but don’t have any great memory of reading them. Noddy was made by a woodcarver in a toy store but runs away after the man begins to make a wooden lion, which scares Noddy. As he wanders through the woods naked, penniless, and homeless, he meets Big Ears, a friendly gnome who decides that Noddy is a toy and takes him to live in Toyland. The other toys can hear him coming by the distinctive Parp Parp sound of his car’s horn and the jingle of the bell on his blue hat. Noddy’s best friends are Big Ears, Tessie Bear, Bumpy Dog, and the Tubby Bears. Noddy has many run-ins with Mr Plod, the local policeman.

I then graduated to reading Blyton’s mystery books like the Secret Seven, the Five Find-Outers and the Famous Five. Of the three, my favourite was the Five Find-Outers mainly because one of the characters used to disguise himself to solve the case. I read these books more or less during my primary school days.

The Secret Seven is a group of child detectives consisting of Peter, the leader, Janet who is Peter’s sister, Pam, Barbara, Jack, Colin and George. Jack’s sister Susie and her best friend Binkie make occasional appearances in the books who they hate the Secret Seven and delight in playing tricks designed to humiliate them, although this is partly fuelled by their almost obsessive desire to belong to the society. Unlike most other Blyton series, this one takes place during the school term time because the characters go to day schools.

The Famous Five is a series of children’s adventure novels featuring the adventures of a group of young children, Julian, Dick, Anne and Georgina or George and their dog Timmy. The stories take place in the children’s school holidays after they have returned from their respective boarding schools. Each time they meet they get caught up in an adventure, often involving criminals or lost treasure, sometimes close to George’s family home at Kirrin Cottage in Dorset. George’s home and various other houses the children visit or stay in are hundreds of years old and often contain secret passages or smugglers’ tunnels. All the novels have been adapted for television, and several have been adapted as films in various countries.

My favourite, the Five Find-Outers is set in the fictitious village of Peterswood. The children, Larry or Laurence Daykin, Fatty or Frederick Trotteville, the leader of the group, Pip or Philip Hilton, Daisy or Margaret Daykin, Bets or Elizabeth Hilton and Buster, Fatty’s dog, encounter a mystery almost every school holiday, always solving the puzzle before Mr Goon, the unpleasant village policeman, much to his annoyance.

Another set of books written by Enid Blyton I loved were her school series, Malory Towers and St. Clare’s. I have read both the series throughout my school days and when GG was in primary school, I introduced them to her and she was as hooked as I was. Reading these books always made me wish I was in a boarding school with all the fun that the girls had. My friends and I would try to recreate their world in our school.

Malory Towers is a series of six novels based on a girls’ boarding school that Blyton’s daughter attended, Benenden School, which relocated during the war to the Cornish seaside. The series follows the protagonist, Darrell Rivers, on her adventures and experiences in boarding school. Darrell Rivers begins her first year at Malory Towers, a castle-like clifftop boarding school in Cornwall. Determined to do well and make friends, her first term is turbulent and the first book ends with Darrell becoming best friends with Sally Hope. Darrell eventually covers herself in the personal, scholastic and sporting glory that was originally expected of her and is head of the fourth form, games captain of the fifth, and head girl in her final year as well as being a successful lacrosse and tennis player. When she is in the fourth form, her younger sister, Felicity, joins her as a first former at the school. From then up until the last book in the original series, the focus is also on Felicity and the rest of her form. At the end of her school life, Darrell is bound for the University of St Andrews with Sally, Alicia, and her friend Betty. She puts her younger sister Felicity in charge of upholding the standard that she and her classmates set. The second series follows Felicity from the third year to her final term.

St. Clare’s is a series of nine books about a boarding school of the same name. The series follows Patricia or Pat and Isabel O’Sullivan from their first year at St. Clare’s. The series had the girls up to the usual English boarding school antics like the Malory Towers and we aspired to be like them.

Once I had finished the teenage detective books, I moved to slightly older books, and the timeline is roughly the time I was about 10 to about 12-13 years. I read the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys series almost concurrently and my preference was for Nancy Drew, maybe because I identified with her more. Both series were created by publisher Edward Stratemeyer with the Nancy Drew series created as a female counterpart to the Hardy Boy series.

An American teen, Nancy Drew is a fictional amateur sleuth living in the fictional town of River Heights with her father, attorney Carson Drew, and their housekeeper, Hannah Gruen. Nancy is often assisted in solving mysteries by her two closest friends, cousins Bess Marvin, delicate and feminine and George Fayne, a tomboy and also occasionally joined by her boyfriend Ned Nickerson, a student at Emerson College. Often described as a super girl, Nancy is well-off, attractive, and amazingly talented at everything. The books were ghost-written by several authors and published under the collective pseudonym of Carolyn Keene. Over the decades, the character evolved in response to changes in US culture and tastes. The series was immensely popular worldwide with at least 80 million copies sold and translated into over 45 languages and has been translated into film, television shows and computer games. A cultural icon, Nancy Drew is cited as a formative influence by many women.

The Hardy Boys, brothers Frank and Joe Hardy, who are amateur sleuths, solving cases that stumped their adult counterparts. Frank is eighteen and Joe is seventeen and they live in the city of Bayport on Barmet Bay with their father, detective Fenton Hardy, their mother, Laura Hardy and their Aunt Gertrude. The brothers attend high school in Bayport, where they are in the same grade but school is rarely mentioned in the books and never hinders their solving of mysteries. The books themselves were written by several ghostwriters, most notably Leslie McFarlane, under the collective pseudonym Franklin W. Dixon. This series was also very popular with the books selling more than a million copies annually, and have been translated into more than 25 languages, television shows and video games,

These were the books and series that brought a lot of smiles during my childhood. This was a childhood where there was no internet, no smartphones and computers were large and restricted to offices. So, one of our minimal forms of entertainment was books and probably today’s children would never know the pleasure of just sitting down with a good book and spending hours on it.

Which were your favourite books growing up?