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.

Poem: Family

A family is defined as the basic unit in society traditionally consisting of two parents rearing their children or a group of individuals living under one roof and usually under one head and having a common ancestry. But a family is so much more than that. They are your biggest supporters, the people who love you unconditionally and under any circumstance. They are there through thick and thin and show up when you need them the most. This poem is a celebration of those ties and the love they have for you.

Family

When you are down, they are there for you
When the stakes are low, they are there to pull you up
When you need to get things done, they are your trusted crew
And they are there to prop you up when you need that pickup

They are your family, your loved ones
Who wouldn’t hesitate to go all out for you with blazing guns
Family, a word that brings automatically brings a smile to the face
The anchor in your life, your secret life’s ace

The foundation on which your values stand strong
The close circle of love to which you and your loved ones belong
The people who know you inside and outside
From whom try as you might, but you can’t hide

So, learn to treasure your family, the memories
The ones who knew you at your worst and your best
With whom you may squabble and quarrel and who may torture and tease,
But you have their love, and with that, you know you are blessed.

Memories: My Chitti

In pretty much every Indian language, every relationship has a specific name. A paternal grandmother is referred to differently than a maternal grandmother and a mother’s sister has a different name than a father’s sister and some communities have specific ways to distinguish a sister’s daughter from a brother’s daughter and the same for their sons. In Tamil, your mother’s sister and father’s brother’s wife are both called Chitti. I looked but could not find the exact meaning, but it probably means a younger mother or someone who could potentially replace a mother if something happens to her.

My mother is the oldest of four sisters and consequently I am the oldest grandchild from my maternal side. I was very young, maybe slightly older than a toddler when the next sister after her got married and so I don’t have many memories about her. Her last sister was brought up by their childless aunt who lived close by, and so my biggest and best memories are about my second aunt. I was her favourite and in fact, long after she married and moved overseas, I was her favourite. So much so that on one of their trips to Mumbai, during an outburst, her older daughter even complained that she loved me more than she loved her and her sister.

When I first started school, around the time I was about four years old, my parents and paternal grandparents had to go to a temple town in South India for a family wedding. I can’t really remember why I didn’t go, but I assume it was a combination of me refusing to go because I didn’t want to miss school and the fact that my aunt may have jumped at the chance to look after me. I do remember that I was supposed to live with my maternal grandparents and aunt for about a month or so since my parents were supposed to do a small pilgrimage given they were going to a temple town which was close to other temples. My sister would have been a toddler at that point, so they took her along and I was sent to my grandparents house along with my things. My aunt was working as a teacher then in a nearby school and used to take tuitions in the evening and perhaps in the mornings too.
On the first that I was to go to school from there, we were at the building gate bright and early, waiting for the school bus. Even after waiting for more than 30 minutes, the bus did not come and after asking around, we were told the bus had already left. My aunt was so angry, but because we were getting late, she quickly bundled me into a taxi and dropped me off to school. At school, she made sure to tell the teacher to put me in the correct bus (otherwise I would have landed in my parents place which was empty) and when the bus dropped me home, tore the bus driver a good one, which ensured that I was never forgotten as long as I stayed at their place.

Kindergarten ended around noon and I would reach home around 12:30, around which time, chitti would be getting ready for school. She taught primary classes which meant she would leave home around the time I got home. Once she left, my grandmother would get me changed, feed me lunch and make me take a nap. By the time I woke up and was ready, chitti would be back from school. She would then start her tuitions on the days she had them and teach me together with her students and get me to complete my homework. Once that was done, I would go down to play with friends before it was dinner time.

The month flew past before long and I went back home to my parents. But the bond between me and my aunt has remained till day. For both her pregnancies, when she came home from the hospital, I insisted to spending time with her, especially during her second pregnancy because I was older and it was our summer holidays. I must have spent the whole holiday there playing with my sister, cousin and friends and helping her look after the new baby.

This post took me down so many memory lanes that I throughly enjoyed putting it down. I am going to show this post to my chitti the next time I meet her to show her that I still remember our time together even after so many decades.

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.