A summer vacation in 1955

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[Editor’s Note: My mother, a late adopter of the Internet, used to write the loveliest of letters to her children pre-Internet era. The letters stopped after I returned to India. In the past few years, after she got comfortable with Internet and gmail, the letters resumed as emails to her children. This is email #4 – a 3-part magnum opus covering her summer vacations in Madras, Vijayawada and Guntur. The earlier ones were A marriage in the winter of 1962Ravi Varma in a Vijayawada home, and Anatomy of a pilgrimage (Sringeri edition). This letter was written on May 13, 2017 so it has (unfortunately) taken nearly a year for the editor to do his job. The email has gone through a minor editing lens without changing my mom’s tone and voice. I’ve italicized the Telugu names and provided translations in “[ ]”.]

Part 1 (Madras)

Dear ones,

Once again I want to bore you with my past memories. As I grow older my mind wanders more to the past. I want to share these with Vasanta, Sasi, and Kaza sisters – vichu will take care of the former and Udaka will take care of the later.

I will make this into 3 parts. In summer, people go to the queen of hill stations (Ooty) and we used to leave Ooty and go to Madras,Vijayawada, Guntur, Rajahmundry, and Kollur. The heat would make my nose bleed and Kakki used to get boils but still we enjoyed our summer vacations.

Our first halt would always be Madras before going to places in Andhra. Only rarely would our father accompany us, most of the time he would join later. My father would do journey planning one week in advance. He would say “Suppose mavayya [my mom’s uncle] doesn’t come to the railway station, you leave the luggage in the left luggage, then take taxi and go to Shenoy Nagar. It is not at all difficult – just a straight road.” I will nod foolishly. My mother will comment from behind “my annayya [elder brother] will definitely come.”

Madras in 1950’s

Nilgiri Express reached Madras Central exactly at 7 am. It was always a happy sight to see my mavayya waiting for us, always with his goggles on (I can’t imagine him without goggles). The next hard thing was our big trunk, packed with all our things. Mavayya would find it very difficult to fit into his car and I used to feel guilty. He was the only one among our relatives who owned a car in those days.

We were very happy to spend time with our cousins (Sirisha, Indu and Bharati). My athayya [aunt] was very affectionate and took care to cook our favorite items – brinjal for me and baby potatoes for Kakki. In those days their house seemed to me like a palace. Mavayya took us to the Marina beach or we would go to the park nearb. Being a doctor, he was very particular and careful and we didn’t go out much. Sirisha and Indu had very long hair, reaching down to their knees. Bharati’s hair was wavy and reached her hips. Sirisha was delicate and graceful (even today she is the same). My Mavayya never sent them to school by bus, he used to drop (and pick) them in his car.

My cousins used to learn dancing. It was a serious business, complete with proper dance dresses and performances too. We went along to one such program in a place called Tada (2-3 hours from madras). We went to Tada in Mavayya’s car, an overnight trip with amma [my grandmother] and ammumma [my mom’s grandmother] staying back in Madrasa. It was a LOT of fun – on the way we had food under pine trees and I felt very proud to watch my cousins’ performance the next day. My cousins then went to Amalapuram (their grandmother’s place) while we spent some more time with my Ammumma and Mavayya until my father joined us and took us to other places.

We spent a number of vacations with my Mavayya’s family including a Ganesh pooja where allrounder Bharati  did everything. Those were unforgettable days. I will write about Vijayawada in my next episode.

Part 2 (Vijawada)

Dear ones,

From Madras we proceeded to Vijayawada with my father. It was quite a busy place. I don’t think you have seen my Vimala Kakki. Six inches taller than Ammumma, she was fair with curly hair and wore a lot of jewellery including kattevanki [gold band worn on upper arm] and oddannam [gold belt of immense proportion]. She was always fully decked-up with ornaments, she looked like a beautiful queen with dazzling diamond ear studs and nose rings. She wore dark colours. We were a little bit afraid because of her strict and loud tone. Sarma kakka was a heavy man with a proud and sarcastic smile. They had 11 children (4 sons and 7 daughters). Eldest was Chandram annayya [older brother] and youngest was Santhi. So naturally house was full of halchal [pandemonium in Hindi].

Nobody can sleep beyond 5 am in Vijayawada summer.. even if somebody wanted to.. my Kakki would not allow. I remember the place where she sat with a bowl of coconut oil and a comb – she had to comb 6 girls’ heads (oldest girl Seeta was married by then) and make 12 jadas [braids]. It was a difficult task as everyone had curly hair. She would be constantly calling for the next one to be ready with her ribbons. Before nylon ribbons came into existence, we had to struggle with the task of straightening crumpled ones.

There were no dining tables in those days. All of us [the kids] would eat along with my uncle – the elders would eat later in the next batch. The big plates would be full with a variety of things. Vimala kakki made many types of pickles, odiyalu [fried yummies], oorumirapakayalu [literally translates to town’s chillies] and kandi podi [roasted lentil powder]. I used to wonder how she could do all this. Removing the plates and cleaning the floor was done by Vasumati and Rajyam [the two older daughters].

All of us would go to the gate to see my uncle leave for the bank where he worked. He would go in a cycle rickshaw but his face will be as if he was going in a chauffeur-driven Mercedes car!

Afternoon turned into a workshop. Uniforms of the school-going children and blouses were all made at home. Vimala kakki would cut the material and Vasumati would help her in stitching [they had a leg-operated sewing machine]. Our afternoon snack would be rice again but not in that elaborate way – only pickle rice.

The pre-sleeping duty of arranging beds (once again) fell to Vasumati and Rajyam. It was a tough job indeed – with a lot of arguments and yelling, all the navar manchams [coir beds] were kept outside in the courtyard, piles of beds, covers, and pillows were inside. Both (V and R) would make the beds for everybody including the guests. The next morning it was their job to stow them back.

The only entertainment in those days was movies. As it is Vijayawada people are very crazy about movies. The whole family would go to the movie in different batches – my kakki and kakka would be the last to go. During this entire period, everybody would discuss various scenes and pass comments. Viswam and Purushotham [two of the sons] would sing the movie songs throughout the day.. until they went to the next movie. Not a single day passed without guests trickling in.

Vimala kakki had a cook, a widow named Avvagaru. She stayed in their house along with her son Narayana. They were quite helpful to the family. Narayana was given basic education and my Kakka helped him get a decent job. He eventually got married and settled down in Ongole. Narayana’s children grew up to be model citizenry. Till today he attends all the functions of Tenjarla family [family name of Vimala Kakki clan]. I happened to meet him in one of those functions. He introduced his son who was working as a software engineer in Hitech City. I was touched. I have been told that he performs taddinam [religious ceremony to commemorate progenitors] for my Kakki and Kakka every year. How well he is expressing his gratitude.

Anyway Vimala kakki and kakka were a successful couple. After completing their responsibilities they passed away without much suffering – both within a 2 year gap.

Part 3 (Guntur)

Crazy coincidence: “Guntur” is an Indonesian film released in 1955

Guntur was our last halt for that summer. My heart jumped with joy when we saw Guntur station. We spent a longer time here. I told you all many times about my mamma [her father’s mother] – if not for her we would not be here. If you can imagine a dark tatayya [my tatayya – her father was a very fair man], that’s what she looked like. She was as tall as tatayya and always wore a big bottu [vermilion dot on forehead].

There was a gorintaku [mehendi/henna] tree in their backyard. The very next day itself we would pluck the entire leaves and Ammumma [her mother] would grind it for us. My cousin (Koti Annayya) lived with them.

They had a buffalo, which would be milked by mamma herself. A small boy would take the buffalo out for grazing. Every morning mamma would make buttermilk.. just like Yashoda ma [of Lord Krishna fame] she would tie the rope to a pillar and churn it. She would keep the milk, butter, butter milk and curd carefully in a kavidipette [covered wooden box]. Since curd was special and available in small quantity, three of us would get in turns. She would give buttermilk generously to anyone who came home and asked for it. She would also make mango pappu [lentil dal] and pulusu [a variant of the South Indian dish sambar] in large quantity.

In the afternoon she would read Bhagavatam out loud. She knew how to read but couldn’t write (except her signature). Whenever my father sent 5 rupees Money Order, I would see that the money order receipt was signed as Raghavamma [it was not uncommon to be oblivious of grandparents’ names].

She (Raghavamma) didn’t expect any help from her daughter-in-law [my grandmother – ammumma] but, driven by her own nature, Ammumma helped to the extent possible (especially grinding and drawing water from the well). It was a great job because well water was the only source. Drinking water was brought by mamma from outside the compound wall in the evenings. My tatayya used to keep a mirror and thilakam bottu (black forehead dot made with banana flower) in front of his meals plate – pre-meal tradition to put on the thilakam.

There was a small room where my tatayya slept during day time. During nights everybody slept outside looking at the stars. He had bed with silk cotton and green pillow cover. He would hang a vattvaru tadika [brown coir-based thingy] on the door, and splash water on it periodically, creating an a/c room effect.

There was a shade giving bogada tree in front of the house with wide spread branches  with sweet smelling very small flowers and fruits. There was also a neem tree. We used to play there. Neem and bogada fruits were our refreshments.

There were a pile of bricks and partly constructed portions in the premises. Tatayya had an ambition and long term plan to build houses for his 4 sons and 2 grandsons. He would do this work as and when he got enough funds. He used to get a pension of 15 Rs per month. He had fertile lands at Nallurpalem (near Tenali). Every harvest season he went there. He kept some paddy for his yearly family requirement and sold the rest. He continued construction work with that amount. He didn’t believe in contract labour. Instead, he got the job done using daily wage labourers. He was a tough master. I would see him wetting the bricks and cemented walls every morning. There was another small room [pantry?] where mangoes and vegetables like kanda, pendalam chamadumpalu, dosakayalu would be stored. His favourite mango variety was imampasand.

He rented out one portion of the house. He was very careful in collecting the rent. When we were leaving he bought 3 crepe silk blouse pieces on my mammas request. Mine was brown color. It was more valuable than a pattu sari.

Our Visweswaram babai’s [uncle] family was living in Arundalpeta (opposite Vishnubhotla’s house). We visited their house a number of times while in Guntur – sometimes we stayed overnight also. It was a very small house but who cares? Prasanna Akkayya and 6 boys were there – there was no end to playing. On top of it, they took us to movies. Though my babai’s job was not that great he got free movie passes. We watched movies from balcony seats. We enjoyed Guntur trip very much. Poor thing kakki was suffering with hot boils.

We finally returned home. It was thrilling when the train was nearing the destination. The driver would start the whistle from Fern Hill station. The Blue Mountain Express will reach Ooty at 1’o clock passing by the lake. We would take a taxi to come home. The blooming dahlias, roses, and chrysanthemums gave us a warm welcome. Our neighbour would keep food ready for us.

So that was our vacation when I was 12 years old.

 

Ravi Varma in a Vijayawada home

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{Editor’s Note: My mother is a late adopter of the Internet. In the pre-Internet era, she used to write the loveliest of long letters to her children. The letters stopped after I returned to India. In the past year, after she got comfortable with connectivity and gmail, the letters resumed as emails to her children. She’s harvesting from the oldest tendrils of her memory which is making the reading so so enjoyable. In this email (Sep 29, 2016), she’s relating a chance encounter with an art connoisseur rich lady during her Vijayawada walking years. The email has gone through a minor editing lens without changing my mom’s tone and voice. I’ve italicized the Telugu names – fewer references compared to the first story – A marriage in the winter of 1962. My mom’s sub-text/commentary is “italicized within quotes.” My comments are within “[ ]”}

Dear ones,
    Some time back I saw portraits of famous painters on TV. I thought about Ravi Varma’s paintings. By now you know that I take a long time to come to the actual point. I don’t do Précis writing.
    I started walking as a mere excercise, probably in 1992. Slowly it became enjoyable, a habit, and part of my daily routine. I needed no other entertainment or company. Walking along the Vizag beach from from our Kirlampudi house, 6 am to 7 am, was the best.  It was continued in Vijayawada. In those days Nannagaru [dad] was not tensed up, he started worrying after Lakshmi’s accident. [Years ago, my dad’s sister (Lakshmi attaya) died on her way to a neighborhood store when a rash auto rickshaw driver ran her over in Hyderabad.]
        Walking  was like eating gulab jamuns (an Indian dessert). I surveyed all the places. Once I walked to Kanakadurga temple [a distance of 5km that undertaken as a mokku (aka mannat in Hindi) – a sacred pledge]. Anandamayee and Siah garu moved to Abhilash in 1999 [retired couple who became our parents’ neighbor]. Both Anandamayee and I started walked together. She was not in favour of freelance walking [freelance as in, changing the route every day at will]. So Siddhartha college ground became our new walking venue. She was a good conversationist. They had lived in many places like us – Calcutta, Bombay, Jamshedpur and and even Srilanka. We knew a lot of common people – Seeta pinni, Rama of Calcutta Kasturi garu (Anand’s attaya) and KCP Reddy garu. Very strangely she knew my mavayya [uncle] when he was in Samalakota [a town in East Godavari district in Andhra Pradesh] many years ago. Moreover their Susarla [a Telugu surname] family was very big and she had enough material to share with me [my marathon friends will relate to material]. It went on smoothly for quite some time. One day we decided to wear salwar kameez [North Indian dress that rivals the sari in popularity] as our new walking dress code. A latent desire previously expressed meant I already had Prashanti’s [mom’s niece] dress. Anandamayee had to buy.
Shakuntala in the forest - a famous Ravi Varma painting

Shakuntala in the forest – a famous Ravi Varma painting

We stepped out in our new attire [you’ve got to imagine how big a deal this is for two South Indian women in their 50’s wearing a new outfit for the first time in their lives in public]. For the first 100 feet I concentrated on the road only. After crossing 2-3 buildings I could notice raised eye brows and slight smiles. We reached the ground. Some walked away without any expression [Indians can rival Jeeves’ stiff upper lip]. Lolla Sarma (my cousin) opened his mouth but immediately closed and walked away. We finished our walk, re-entered our building with a sigh of relief – first day was over. Next time when we visited  Lolla Sarma’s house he told his wife “Mythily Akkayya [i.e. the protagonist] and her friend vesham vesukuni [translates to costume or disguise] walking ki osthunaru.” [translates to coming.]

    Somehow our relationship got spoiled and we stopped walking together. She started walked on the terrace and I walked in the colony [back to freelance walking]. I walked up and down the street parallel to ours. It was a chukki walk – just like a bull goes round and round a chukki (ganuga) to crush til into oil, so was I walking. Now the topic story starts.
    A woman of my age stepped out from a palatial house. She was in walking shoes and all. She said she will join me in walking. [Note the use of “said she will join” as opposed to “may I join”] She introduced herself as Siris Rajugaru’s daughter, Annapurna. Siris Raju was one of the richest men of Vijayawada – sucessful industrialist, owner of Siris pharma company, Raju of Bhimavaram (which is the most fertile land of West Godavari). So my new walking companion was seriously rich lady.
Shakuntala and Dushyanta in the forest - another Ravi Varma painting

Shakuntala and Dushyanta in the forest – another Ravi Varma painting

In the first round of our walking, she told everything about herself and her family, then she narrated stories of the other bungalow owners. She suddenly stopped in front of a new apartment and said “I will show you something.” It was a 3 bedroom apartment on the 5th floor. When she opened the front door, I can’t express the sight that beheld me. An apartment with very minimal furniture but otherwise it was an absolute feast to my eyes. Room after room was filled with paintings – some original Ravi Varmas paintings bought by her from different places and exhibitions, portraits of Rama, Krishna, Yashoda Krishna, Nala Damayanti, Shakuntala Dushyant bought in various auctions. There were some statues as well. I was so happy, so happy, I wanted to share with others — Anandamayee, Udaka [my mother’s sister], and Seenu [my older brother]. She said I can bring anybody – to give them a similar tour. She gave me her phone number. I was so much thrilled. I took 2-3 rounds. She showed me the difference between original and others (as if I understood]. It was like drinking rasagulla juice [can you tell my mother has a sweet tooth?] It was an unplanned trip..  Nanna [my father] would be anxious as it was past my usual walking duration.. so I returned home. I thought to myself “will come again and do detailed survey” but opportunity comes only once.

    Next day she was waiting for me near her house. After one round of walking she invited to her house. She showed her well decorated and well kept house – turned out to be one more museum. However, I was not that much impressed… it was ok with all crystal and marble things, the kind one sees in airports and malls in USA. She had a separate studio where she paints and employs others to paint for her. After a cup of tea I left.
    Next day onwards she was not to be seen. When I asked her maid servant, she said she was sleeping. Later, when I happened to meet her she refused to recognize me. Anyway my childhood desire to see original Ravi Varma paintings was fulfilled.
    Rasagulla freelance walking came down to walking in the school ground then to chakki walk and finally to corridor and drawng room walking. Eventually I stopped it completely after I started and became regular with the Art of Living routine. Thank you for reading my thoughts.
    Yours loving Amma
[Closing note: the apparent amnesia displayed by the lady reminded me of a Vikramaditya/Raja Bhoja story. If your childhood reading involved a healthy diet of Amar Chitra Katha, you probably recall that story too?]

Why language matters in India

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Pic: courtesy upenn.edu

A few weeks ago we went roller skate shopping for our older son. We avoided all the fancy sports outlet chains (who only stock skates with    integrated shoes – such a scam!) After visiting a few mom-and-pop stores we went to the store where we would eventually make our purchase.

Our family was conversing amongst us in English and we were talking to the two store clerks in Hindi. The other customers were also talking to the clerks in Hindi. At some point, I noticed that the store clerks were conversing in Telugu (my mother tongue).

It was finally our turn at the checkout counter. In an inspired moment, I asked her (in Telugu), “If I talk in Telugu, will you give me a discount?”

For a few seconds, she had a look one normally reserves for aliens… and then she gushed “Oh! You are from Andhra!”

She continued (in Telugu of course) “After an entire day of customers trooping in and out, many annoying ones at that, to hear you suddenly talk in Telugu it took our day’s tiredness away. Of course I’ll give you a discount. Normally it would be 10% but since you are speaking Telugu it is 15%!”

I could have been Sunil Singh (from Bihar) or David Abraham (from Chennai) but I had spoken in Telugu. That was the key connector . She may not be this harried every weekend and might not give an extra discount to every Telugu speaking customer but would definitely feel similarly connected.

Replace Telugu with French, Bangalore with New York and similar stories are probably playing out throughout the world. Language matters in India. Also in the rest of the world.