Monday, May 20, 2019

Made in Mylapore

Randy Pausch of “The Last Lecture” fame was waiting at a Doctor’s office.  Carnegie Mellon University had invited him to give what was to become a world-famous talk.  They had been sending him ‘gentle’ reminders to send in a talk title.  He hadn’t really arrived at a theme for this lecture.  And it suddenly dawned on him that all of what he wanted to achieve and eventually achieved were rooted in his childhood dreams.  Bingo!  Problem solved.  He titled his talk, “Really achieving your childhood dreams.”  A few days back, my childhood friend texted our group of friends with the sad news that his grandma had passed on.  To offer my condolences, I spoke to him and his Mom – the latter lives in Mylapore (a bustling neighborhood in Chennai, India for those that are unfamiliar with the city).  After I hung up, I was reminiscing about my own maternal grandma whose first death anniversary is May 22.  As you may know from previous write-ups, I used to call her Thathama.  She passed on a day before her 82nd birthday.  As I was reflecting on Thathama, I realized that most of what she was as a person and certainly a lot of what I remember of her could be traced back to her roots in Mylapore, where she was born and raised.  The more I thought of Mylapore, the more I seemed to see my grandma in it, and vice versa.  I could now relate to the sheer joy that Pausch experienced in his epiphany!

I have visited a couple of times the house where Thathama spent her formative years.  I don’t have many vivid memories of this place except for the fact that it was a quaint courtyard house.  Thathama’s brother’s family lived there until the 90s.  I honestly don’t even know the current state of that house.  But more than the house itself, I remember Thathama’s memories of the house.  She had lived with four sisters and two brothers.  She lost her Dad before she turned 10.  There was something very poignant about how she reminisced about her Mother.  She spoke of how from a young age, she could empathize with the pain of a relatively young widow who never remarried and on whom was the responsibility of raising several children.  She was extremely close to her siblings.  In fact, three of the sisters including Thathama died within five months of each other – one of them breathed her last less than two weeks before Thathama did.  Surely that was no coincidence, right?  I don’t have an answer.  But I feel that destiny played its part.  I remember Thathama’s anguish when her elder brother died of cancer in 1992.  What I remember even more was how she teared up at my upanayanam when she saw her brother who made it a point to attend despite having very little time left.  But don’t let the tears evoke the image of a weak person.  She had tremendous inner steel.  She had taken a lot of hard knocks in her life, starting with the early loss of her father, the unexpected death of her husband in a freak accident and her daughter predeceasing her, to name a few.  She may have fallen down many times.  But she never failed to get up.  More importantly, she never failed to rally around her family even when the magnitude of her loss was bigger than that of her family’s.  Her growing up in that house in Mylapore with her family and feeling a strong sense of responsibility towards her mother from her formative years – all of that laid the foundation of her deep empathy and resilience. 

Both her school as well as mine were in Mylapore!  She studied at Lady Sivaswami School.  But she never went to college.  I suppose that women going to college was not the norm in the 1950s.  Instead, she got married when she was 18.  Owing to the fact that she didn’t get educated beyond high school or her exposure extending beyond the confines of Mylapore, she was very insistent on top quality education for her daughters.  Despite belonging to a regular middle-class family, it was upon her insistence that my grandpa had my Mom join the Rosary Metric Convent.  To Thathama, a solid educational foundation was a surefire way of instilling confidence in her children.  This is not to say that that’s the only way of life.  I am just making the point that she wanted for her kids what she hadn’t gotten as a child. 

My childhood was spent pretty much entirely in my grandma’s house.  Even though my parents lived in other apartments and homes in Chennai, my ‘base’, so to say, was Thathama’s house.  It was very close to my school.  This meant that in primary school, when parents were allowed to bring lunch for kids in the large shed in my school, it was not my Mom (who was a working professional) who came – it was Thathama who would show up with steaming hot lunch!  One of my school friends thought that she was my mother.  I suppose he was not too far off!  Thathama packing my lunch was the norm up until I finished high school.  Of course, in addition to the food itself, she offered a lot of food for thought on education!  Not that I was always the most attentive listener.  She would waste no time in reminding me that I should work a lot harder to stack up to my Mom’s credentials.  Once, after my final exams, I was stacking a set of text books.  Back home in India, you could sell these books by the pound.  The heavier the book, the more money it would fetch.  So, I was joyously getting ready to make some money off the books that I couldn’t comprehend anyway.  Poker faced, she quipped, “Why don’t you wait until the results are out?!”  Over the years, I’d like to think that she developed a little more confidence in my aptitude.  My undergrad professor who attended my graduation told me later that he couldn’t quite comprehend why my grandma was sobbing uncontrollably.  I replied, “Tears of happiness, Dr. Jamison!”  It was more relief, now that I think of it! 

Anyone that staked claim to being a hardcore Mylaporean would have tasted the kaalathi kadai rose milk at least once in their lifetime.  This shop was within a stone’s throw of Thathama’s childhood home.  She had taken me many a time to this rather charmingly nondescript store that served this delectable beverage.  Both of us had a sweet tooth and it suited our palates just fine.  I have seen her enjoy the continental breakfast spread at hotels with equal relish.  But she never forgot the simple pleasures that she had experienced in her formative years.  I am glad that she made me a part of the times that she took a stroll down the memory lanes of Mylapore!  The other Mylapore place that was an integral part of her life was the vegetable market.  She took great delight in buying vegetables herself and striking a conversation with the shop owners that invariably extended beyond produce!  In fact, she seemed to be very familiar with all the shops in Mylapore that catered to my needs - be it Vijaya Stores (stationery shop), the Ambika appalam store or a tiny framing shop (whose owner proudly showed off photos with Vaali and TMS!) where broken frames - courtesy of yours truly - would be fixed in a matter of hours.

But the one place in Mylapore that will be forever associated with Thathama is the Srinivasa PerumaL temple.  Frequenting the temple on a daily basis was a habit that she cultivated when she was barely into her teens.  As a kid, I would shamelessly accompany her just for their delicious curd rice while uttering the same ‘saraswati namasthubyam’ regardless of the sannadhi that she took me to, much to her chagrin!  I would cheekily remark that the Gods in the different parts of the temple would communicate with one another and pass on my prayers.  I found it funny then; I am not sure she did.  When in my teenage years, following my grandpa’s passing away, I went through an extended phase where I felt incredibly indignant that the God whom Thathama prayed to every day had let her down so badly, so irreversibly.  She, of course, continued to pray as hard as ever.  But there was a phase when I would accompany her to the temple but would wait outside in the car, gleefully chatting with our chauffeur about how I was going to change the world for the better.  I am not sure if even my family or friends think that way, let alone the world!  

Last year, when I visited her in April, she was confined to the bed as a result of the massive cardiac attack that she had suffered in January.  But upon my family’s insistence on a particular auspicious day during that trip, I visited the temple.  I broke the ‘no photography allowed’ rule because I wanted to show a picture of the deity to Thathama on the phone.  If she couldn’t see the God that she had visited on a daily basis, then the God better come see her.  I don’t think it was the right thing to do but at the time, it felt like something I owed my grandma.  The temple priest yelled at me for not following the rules.  For a change, I was thick skinned and after offering an apology of an apology, I stepped out of the temple, picture safe and secure on my cell phone to show to Thathama.  She believed in the lord until the very end despite all the joys and sorrows of her life.  It was the anchor that allowed her to be the anchor for the family as it faced its share of happiness and despair. 

Thank you Mylapore, for how you shaped Thathama.
Thank you Thathama, for how you shaped me.


Anonymous said...

Nice one Ramoo...nice to read about Thathama...and her childhood and yours...
Can't believe she is not at 1BM st.

Zola said...

What a woman of strength, substance and steel ! A lesson for us all and an inspiration

Her spirit must lurk in all those good ole landmarks of Mylapore that you've so masterfully written about.

A life well lived and a heritage we can look upto but will find it next to impossible to live upto.

Twitter Comments said...

Anu Hasan on Twitter:
"Such a fresh and childlike narrative of an adult perspective of loss and strength.. Not necessarily in that order ��thanks for the share"

Margaret on Twitter:
"What lovely memories you have!"

Viveka Parasuram said...

Ram Murali, such a lovely write-up on your grandma. I can sense what a strong and caring soul she must have been. You are certainly very lucky to have basked in her warmth and love. Hot steamy lunches at school- that sounds so appetizing. And, the rose milk too. Such heartwarming memories you have of her and I’m sure you have a lot more that you reminiscence about your Thathamma.

Twitter Comments said...

Sara on Twitter:

"Ram, it’s lovely to read about your grandma, a loving and strong woman. You are honoring her memory by your writing."

Kousi (Shoba's friend) said...

Such a nice write up ram..

Fresh in my memory her temple.visits.

Very sad that we have lost half the people whom we have grown up with.

Whenever I think of her I can only asssociate with love,care, warmth and her strong will power.

Ram whenever I feel sad and miss people I immediately think of their admirable qualities and like to practice it in my life.

Liked the way you ended thanking Mylapore & Mami.

Anu Warrier said...

Good read, Ram. I've always liked your personal essays. :)

RM said...

Thank you, Anu. So nice to see your comment.

Unknown said...

Dear Ram Murali Sir,

Not sure whether the previous comment that I had posted had been accepted by your blog under comments section or got filtered out.

By the way, MYlapore, Alwarpet is incidentally a place where I have been earning my livelihood for about 11 plus years without accounting for the breaks in between to work at other geographies forming part of Chennai

In case my previous comment was not posted successfully, I am redoing the copy-pasting of the following exchange I had with my long term neighbourhood friend.

​[15/4/2017, 12:43] My friend: I have suggested comfort home to my parents already.

[15/4/2017, 12:44] My friend: I said my mom that she shudnt be wasting time in serving me n dad all her life

[15/4/2017, 12:45] Thandri R N: She can't do that even if you forcefully asked her to do. She will be by your side.

[15/4/2017, 12:45] Thandri R N: She has been brought up that way.

[15/4/2017, 12:46] My friend: Again her conditioning. But i m not guilty.

[15/4/2017, 12:47] Thandri R N: Need not be guilty....We can be empathetic...That they are the last leg of the dharma which our culture has so far nurtured and passed on...

[15/4/2017, 12:53] Thandri R N: Otherwise we are only feeding Elon Musk kind of futuristic ideas....Of course, humans may be so absorbed by all these technological wonders ..

They may be able to generate powers by bringing helium from Mars...Or from moon....And may also invent homes there like climate controlled house settings mirroring earth way of living....

I only get to reminisce J. Krishnamurti's remark that "thought can go to moon but it can't be quiet".

It felt nostalgic to read about your thoughts on your grandma.

Please accept my greetings and a big HI to you.