S Meenakshi (1917-2010)

As I sit here, in yet another quintessentially Tambram function, observing several folks busying themselves with rituals, odd jobs and other paraphernalia, listening to brusque orders given by a couple of priests who are constantly interrupted by their mobile phones, with custom sloka ringtones, I almost entirely forget that the event is actually a funeral. Tambrams have a way of turning every festival, every celebration and even every death into a homogenous sequence of homams (havans), coconuts, kalasams (brass vessel), priests and arcane minutiae in no particular order. Somebody who isn’t steeped in this tradition can easily confuse a wedding with a funeral.

I am told that this particular event is called “Kirekkiyam” and that the 13th day after a person’s death is the day that they are finally sent off, with food, clothes and an assortment of fortifying mantras, to their next birth. There is nothing about this function, and every preceding one (the 9th and the 10th days) that brings people’s attention to the person who has passed away. There are no memorials, no remembrances and barring the obligatory entry in the The Hindu obituary column (curiously located on the sports page), no collective declaration of any sort that the person who has died will be missed.

I suppose that an ailing 93 year old’s death is, in a strangely rational way, not an occasion for too much grief. In fact, the person who just died used to tell me that the 2 week sequence of highly elaborate rituals that happen post-death serve the social function of diminishing grief as it keeps people busy while letting the oldest psychological medicine in the world, time, do its work.

This 93 year old was my paternal grandmother, Meenakshi. The gender insensitive customs of her era had forced her to declare herself a widow when she lost her husband by adding “Ammal” next to her name, but I am going to dispense with that for now.

I’ve generally stayed away from personal and autobiographical posts for a long while now, but I am going to make an exception for this lady because as a child growing up in a family where both parents went to work, I (and my brothers) are products entirely of her upbringing, and she is, in large part, responsible for this blog (at least, the few nice parts of it). In the interest of readability, I’ve split this post into several anecdotal paragraphs, each of which can be read in any order at any time.

Meenakshi Paati (or simply Paati as we knew her) was born in 1917 in Nagercoil, then part of the Travancore state in British-India and spent the best time of her life going to a convent school for a brief period till she was ready to be married off. Notice how we Indians say “I got my daughter married off”, with the “off” serving to indicate the transfer of property rights over a human being to the groom’s family. One day, when she as 13, she was asked to serve a not-so-young gentleman visitor some coffee, which she did and then asked her grandmother who the man was. She was told that the 31 year old widower that she had just served coffee to was going to be her husband. She protested but some “bug” in her horoscope meant that she had to get married to a widower.

She had her first child when she was 15 and by the age of 25, her family was complete with 5 children, the youngest being my father. Her precocious younger brother went on to do his PhD at Carnegie-Mellon (in the 1940s) and became a highly respected research scientist. She, on the other hand, ran a household with 20 children as she took into her fold several nephews and nieces who had lost their mothers early. Her husband was an aberration, a not-very-educated, atheist Iyer businessman (ever heard that combination before?) who ran a thriving petrol pump business in Tirunelveli before letting the depression arising from the questionable death of his eldest daughter at her in-laws place run his business to the ground, taking with it all land, savings and towards the end, Meenakshi’s jewellery as well. She finally left Gopalasamudram, where she had lived for over 50 years of her life, and moved in with my father at Madras in 1971.

What I find remarkable about her personality was what she was *not*, despite the rigid orthodoxy of her upbringing. No, she did not sit under a Peepul tree and have an epiphany but she lived her entire life with a sense of wonder at the world that never diminished despite the early loss of her father, the grind of married life, the cruel culling of her desire to study (she loved reading), the multiple tragedies of one mentally retarded son and the suspicious death of her favourite (and pregnant) daughter at her in-laws place and the financial woes of her late husband.

Her greatest strength was the ability to not be rigid about anything, not her beliefs, not tradition or for that matter, her opinions.

I am reminded of a few years ago, when we took her back to Gopalasamudram, her last ever visit to the village where she spent most of her life. We stopped at a distant relative’s house in the agraharam and since there was another 90 year old lady living there, we felt that these two might hit it off, speak about the old times et al. I was eavesdropping on their conversation and I heard the other lady say this (and I translate) – “Nowadays, not many people live in this agraharam”. I didn’t quite understand that. After all, almost all the houses seemed to be populated. My grandmother’s smiling response eventually clarified it for me. She said – “All these folks here are people too”. In case you did not quite understand that exchange, let me “translate”. The other lady had said – “Nowadays, too many non-brahmins live in the agraharam”. Apparently, they did not qualify to be “people” in her estimation. She assumed that a another 90 year old from her generation might share her bias. Her response, without the need to make the situation uncomfortable was – “Aren’t the folks living nowadays in this street people too?”. The other lady quickly changed the topic. She had this unique ability to package profundity without seeming pompously intelligent.

No sane parent would have entrusted their kids to her for the simple reason that she never stopped them from doing anything except the most dangerous things. She sat back and let us creatively (and often highly inappropriately) express ourselves, embarrass our parents, relatives and in general try everything there is to try and getting bored of it ourselves instead of being mollycoddled, pampered and closeted. We grew up without boundaries of propriety being defined for us ahead of time. When we did something improper, she would tell us that it was wrong, but never before we did it.

Uncharitable people might call her naive, but I prefer to call it a constant belief in the possibility of progress. Having seen a light bulb only when she as 60 or so, she did not, like most other people from her generation, close herself from science and technology and live in an artificial world of their own, frozen in time at the moment of their greatest comfort. She continued to wonder at how large objects lift themselves off the ground, how TV works and how operations could fix her cataract problems. About 7-8 years ago when I video chatted with her for the 1st time on Skype from the US, the 86 year old Meenakshi Paati’s immense curiosity and wonder were still there. When I came back to India, she wanted to understand how this internet thing works, and if 7 year olds could have a tenth of her enthusiasm to learn about the brave new world that’s always beyond the horizon of their current understanding, they’d all become astronauts and video game designers.

She once asked me what job I did and I attempted to explain – rather unsuccessfully.

When I got married, despite younger relatives pressurizing my wife to procreate quickly, she was the only one who told her to focus on her career and when she felt like it, have maybe, a kid or two. Having lived an entire life pinching pennies and being a second-class citizen as a result of her gender, her proudest moment was when one of her granddaughters went the IIT-IIM route and landed a job whose starting salary continued to amaze her till the very end of her life. Many women from her generation silently feel proud of their daughters’ achievements but somehow are still reluctant to change the marriage-resign-deliver-kids routine that women are consigned to. When she saw what her granddaughter achieved, she was quick to adapt her advice to girls. Her first question on meeting any young working woman would be the rather inappropriate – “How much salary are you earning?” and would then followed by “Continue working, and don’t be in a hurry to give up all of this for marriage and kids”. When successful career women advice young girls this way, it’s good for them, but it’s only when women like my grandmother, who’ve never experienced financial independence in their lives undergo this shift of mindset that serious change becomes possible.

I’d call her highly tolerant and broadminded, but those are vapid expressions that don’t capture the essence of a complex human being. The best I can do is say that she was alive to possibilities. In the back of her mind, despite what tradition demanded of her, she knew that all of these rituals and customs were obsolete bunkum, frozen in their own time, reluctant to be contemporarily relevant, but she was never brazen in her opposition to them. She played along and was a model, nine-yard-saree wearing woman who enjoyed MS Subbulakshmi while secretly admiring Michael Jackson because in her mind, she still believed that Jackson had overcome the barriers of slavery to be successful. Sometime in 2003 I had discovered a band named System of a Down. I decided to see if there were limits to her ability to find excitement in anything new that she discovered. Now, Chop Suey is unlike anything that a 88 year old Tambram woman is likely to have heard and in general, metal and rock tend to be categorized as industrial noise among elderly Tambrams. I put the headphones on her, and after about a minute or so, she said – “This must be very difficult to play no?”. No criticism. No dismissal as incoherent noise. Just a recognition that there must be something good in things she did not quite understand.

She was a voracious reader. As long as her eyes held out, she had a book in her hand. For someone who studied till class 7 before getting married, it’s incredible that she could read Tamil, Malayalam, English and Sanskrit and while she enjoyed RK Narayan and Sudha Murthy for their simplicity, she never shied away from trying to read heavier tomes in English. In keeping with her philosophy, she never gave up reading anything she did not grasp. She lived her life with the constant assumption that there will always be new and exciting things that she may never understand and, like her response to System of a Down, she refused to criticize things she did not fully appreciate.

Another unique way in which she was different from the rest of her generation was her private belief that “old was not gold”. She was more the “old is mold” sort of person. Her only problem with modern times was the cost of stuff. She preferred the trappings of modern life but wished that gold would cost the same Rs 13/8 grams that it did back when her grandfather made jewellery for her. Inflation is one of those concepts I was never able to convincingly explain to her (apart from the Software industry, of course), but perhaps that reveals my ignorance of economics more than her inability to understand it.

While she was ailing, I decided to shoot a few videos in an attempt to capture a bit of her wisdom for posterity, and this bit, I felt, was worth sharing. Despite her flexibility with rituals and custom, she was a deeply spiritual person and I asked her what exactly devotion meant. “Bhakti”, she said, comes in three varieties. The first one is about praying for material success. Money, land, career etc. It’s usually accompanied by rituals of various kinds, sacrifices in the past, homams and poojas in the present. The kind of devotion higher than that is to pray for one’s own mental strength and the fortitude required to lead a peaceful life. This happens when people read the Upanishads and realize that it’s all really about the inner self and things like that. The last, and the highest kind of devotion, she said, is to pray for the wellbeing of everything around you. And she ended by qualifying all of this with a “That’s the way our ancestors saw it. The rest of the world might see it differently, and they might be equally correct too”

I write this while being interrupted once in a while by a bunch of priests performing the 13th day rituals of her passing away. One of her hobbies, in the last decade or so, was reading the Obit column in The Hindu to see if anyone she knew from her generation had died, and even kept count. Eventually, she had outlived all of them, and in her memory, the rest of the family conducted an elaborate series of rituals she wouldn’t really have cared for.

She was a story teller par extraordinaire. Every lunch of mine from when I was a year old to a shameful 11 years old was accompanied by a side dish of enthralling tales from the epics, stories from Tamil magazines she read (Serialized tales in Ananda Vikatan) and even randomly made up tales featuring me and my brothers as heroes (Yes, we liked hearing those). I would also ask her to tell me tales from the Asura perspective, and she would, without telling me off for preferring the dark side 🙂

Most Tambrams associate their grandfathers with Hindu crosswords, Wordsworth, Test match cricket and a passionate love for intellectual pursuits. Most grandmothers are remembered for their killer Sambar, special avials and delectable snacks. Meenakshi was never interested in cooking. She had managed a household of some 20 kids and her sense of proportion of salt and spices never really re-adjusted to a small nuclear family, but I will only remember her for the vastness of her knowledge (ah, the number of times she has politely corrected pompous maamas’ pronunciations on tradition and custom), and the boundless curiosity that lulled everyone into thinking that she was simply yet another behind-the-scenes denizen of the kitchen.

This blog is dedicated to her. No, not the Lonely Planet rants or the scathing criticism of Phir Mile Sur. That’s not her. She would have said – “Poor guys, Lonely Planet. They just don’t know about Chennai. Leave them be” and “Good effort by the new Phir Mile Sur producers but I don’t think it’s as good as the original” and left it at that. She would also offer angry commenters some filter coffee

ps: I had a bunch of other things to post, but they had to wait because I wanted to do this first