Wednesday, April 29, 2015


Triveni, October 1955


Among our rivers, the Tamraparni is said to be the home of pearls, of a kind considered priceless, in ages when the pearl was greatly prized. Among the human pearls that emerged from its banks was Nammalvar in the remote past, and the late Sri V. Narayanan in the recent past. Nammalvar had to wait for centuries before one who had poetry in his soul and was thus uniquely endowed to interpret him, came along in the person of Narayanan. In the neighbourhood of Tamraparni, is the sacred mountain from which arose the father of Tamil, the sage Agastya. Narayanan resembled Agastya not only by his stature, but also by repeating Agastya’s feat of drinking up the twin oceans of Sanskrit and Tamil. Venkatanatha (Vedanta Desika) who hailed from the banks of the Vegavati, paid his homage to Nammalvar when he named him the Muni and his work the Dramilopanishad and ranked it higher than the Veda; and lest anyone should perversely dispute his opinion, well on to add that “when a puny cloud threatened a pompous downpour over Agastya, who had drunk the sea dry, the river Tamraparni broke into a pearly smile.”1 Venkatanatha was one of the intrepid defenders of the ‘Divyaprabandha’ and he helped to give the Tamil language its place in our life and culture. But his approach was religious and philosophic. Narayanan, whose approach was artistic, discovered Nammalvar quite independently; and he made his own significant contribution to Tamil letters when he undertook to interpret the Tamil classics, for which his gifts and equipment so eminently fitted him. He loved Tamil and wooed her like a lover. But like the fabled Chakora that subsisted on moonbeams, and Parikshit who took no other food than the ambrosia of Saka’s words, Narayanan drew his nourishment from Valmiki and Nammalvar almost exclusively. One may say that he had dedicated himself to these so wholly, that he outgrew his taste for anything else.

The only son of his father, he married the only daughter of the late Justice P. R. Sundara Iyer, a recollection of which he has preserved in the wistful reverie ‘Ayyarval’s son-in-law’ after he had lost his wife and become ‘visarada’. The saintly lady passed away in 1936, and till then she had taken sole charge of the family and the domestic responsibilities, relieving Narayanan completely and leaving him free to his harem of books and dream-children. At the time, Narayanan was such a stranger in his own house and was so seldom seen, that his children addressed him as ‘Sir’ when he did appear. But when she passed away, he replaced her, playing the role of Tayumanavar (Matrubhuta) so wholly and tenderly that the children never missed the mother, and when they were a little older, he combined the role of father and mother like Siva Ardhanariswara. In the reverie referred to above, he relates how he handed over his marriage invitation to his teacher, who did not even remember his name and who was greatly surprised to learn that his humble pupil had been chosen as the son-in-law of a High Court Judge. One can imagine the young Narayanan, diminutive and demure, with felt cap on big head and a pair of goggly spectacles, chuckling to himself at the teacher’s discomfiture. It was a habit so characteristic of him; he would express the most devastating opinions in a grave and apologetic manner, laughing in his sleeves all the time.

He had already taken his M. A., and M. L., with distinction after a brilliant academic career. He practised law for some time rather perfunctorily. I remember him in his legal garb with watch and chain, turban and brief-bag, appearing in a literary case where a copyright was involved; but I do know Narayanan got far more deeply involved in the labyrinth of Kadambari. His heart belonged to literature and not law. When years later he joined the Tamil Lexicon, he got work that found an outlet for his knowledge of languages. Sri N. Raghunathan justly praises his accurate scholarship and appreciation of the nuances of meaning and overtones of suggestion, that found full play when Narayanan played the role of Dr. Johnson, for a while, at the Lexicon. The Tamil Lexicon was one of the sagas of our time and had a long and chequered history. But that portion of it with which Narayanan was connected, bears the stamp of his genius and learning.

I also remember his depredations of the Hindu office, annexing an enormous booty of miscellaneous books, which he would review with the patience and fortitude of a Job. He loved the dingy old Hindu building of which he had very pleasant memories; one of the reasons why he joined the Indian Express later was perhaps because it was located in that dear old building. But he did not admire the then new sky-scraper of the Hindu, which he considered lofty and American. In those days, I was one of those who considered, early rising immoral. Narayanan, an authority on the ethics and aesthetics of early rising–vide his discourses on Palliyezhuchi–and the sacred month of Marghazhi, was a confirmed early bird. Almost every day Narayanan would arrive on his bicycle and, with an agility worthy of a better cause, clear the stairs at one bound, accompanied by his war-cry ‘C-M’ (an abbreviation of my nickname–Caveman–because I always kept indoors) and be at my bedside, leaving my wife to scamper off as best she could–a heroic attempt on the part of Narayanan to set our crooked habits straight, though not a very successful one. The bicycle was his favourite vehicle and his daily routine (which was of course subject to variations) was to inject Prof. K. Swaminathan with his theory about the text of the Ramayana, because he was his neighbour and nearest to him; then invade Perungulam House at Elliot’s Road and spar with Sri Anantanarayanan, I. C. S., over his father-in-Law’s Ramayana theories and exchange compliments with M. Krishnan who was just winging for the stellar height where he now is; drop in at Prof. Kuppuswami Sastri’s for a sloka or two; hold up Sri N. Raghunathan for at least half an hour before he left for office; and to peep in at the ‘Asrama’ to clear his accounts of the funds of the Sanskrit Academy of which he was the Treasurer. The beach and the evening he reserved for Tamil and friends like Somasundara Desikar, Pundit Rajagopala Iyengar, who edited ‘Ahananooru’, and Sri Vayyapuri Pillai. In between he used to look up his relations, of whom there were quite a number, irrespective of their worldly success and importance, and attend to their wants, as in duty bound.

Besides the literary page of the Hindu, he was a prolific contributor to the ‘Everyman’s Review’, ‘Triveni’, ‘Journal of Oriental Research, ‘Vedantakesari’, ‘Bharatamani’, and ‘Silpasree’. He also gave some very valuable talks under the auspices of the Archaeological Society and the Sanskrit Academy. Prof. K. Swaminathan said that “about a dozen associations and two or three dozen journals exploited his goodness and learning”. But Narayanan never considered himself so exploited. Out of his innate goodness, he scattered the gems of his thoughts far and wide to whoever wanted them, and even to those who did not want them. If I may be permitted to say it, the late Prof. P. T. Srinivasa Iyengar, who was himself a very good scholar, was not above borrowing ideas from Narayanan. Narayanan was therefore a scholar sought out by other scholars–the scholars’ scholar, so to say. He gave cheerfully and he gave lavishly without any motive of gain or fame. Equally disinterested was his pursuit of knowledge. He threw himself heart and soul into the functions of the Sanskrit Academy, and was ebullient and beside himself with happiness when scholars of the stature of Pundit Raghava Iyengar, the Elder, were honoured. For Raghava Iyengar whose outlook was very similar to his own, and who was the one man who could understand his own work, he had genuine affection, which he has given expression to in an essay describing a visit to him. Once he sat up a whole night to prepare a Tamil version of ‘Swapna-Vasavadatta’ because the All India Radio wanted it urgently. It can never be said that Narayanan was a recluse who kept to himself; not only did he take considerable interest, but also participated with gusto in contemporary life. He was never idle, but was always reading or writing or discussing literature and art.

In the make-up of Narayanan was an excess of modesty (vreeda) which ripened and mellowed into a saintly humility as he grew older and which completely masked the prodigious range of his attainments. He had so much to say and said so little of it, that I gave him the nickname ‘Iceberg’ which was mostly submerged under water, the top alone being visible and a month before he passed away, in a tragic flash of illumination, he wrote to me that the ice was thawing and on its way to join the ocean. If ever there was a man without trace of vanity, it was Narayanan; he never talked about himself nor allowed others to talk about him. Even the little appreciation he did get appeared to delight him, as though he had partaken of a banquet. Rich in contentment and equipoise, he never seemed to regret the lack of recognition, and went about his work as cheerfully and nonchalantly as ever. He wrote just to disburden himself of some divine discontent and not to canvass for fame and name. He had a genius for friendship and a good assortment of talented friends. He took pleasure in reading poetry with friends; and some poems he was never tired of reading again and again. Needless to say that I learnt a good deal from his readings and conversation.

It was Sri Aurobindo Ghose who thought that the ‘Uttarakanda’ was a late addition and pleaded for its exclusion from the Ramayana, as also the other patent interpolations in the other ‘Kandas’. But it was Narayanan who studied the Ramayana in close detail and tabulated the various species of interpolations that the Poem invited in the course of ages from various agencies. Relying on the Alvar he would quote ‘Uruttezhhli vali Marbil Oru kanai Uruva otti and make out that in the Ramayana known to the ALvar, Vali rose against Rama and was quelled by a single arrow. From the beginning of the ‘Aranyakanda’, the theme, according to Narayanan, was the prowess and heroism of Rama which rose in a crescendo and reached its climax in the defeat and destruction of Vali. What a pity that before he could restore the pure gold of the quintessential Valmiki, Narayanan was snatched away! How invaluable would have been his masterpiece on the masterpiece of Valmiki, had he been spared to write it! His favourite passage was Sita’s message to Hanuman, in the course of which she breaks down in a hallucination and addresses Rama in the first person, as though she saw him bodily there. When Narayanan read it, his voice would falter and choke, and tears flow down his cheeks.

            In a moving narrative Narayanan has recounted how his deeply religious father and mother came under the spell of Sarada Devi, wife of Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, whom they actually entertained in their house and from whom they took lessons in spiritual discipline. Later Narayanan made a pilgrimage to the village where the lady was, near Calcutta, along with his mother; and there he was fascinated by an image of Rama. The saintly lady, reading his unuttered thoughts, bathed him in the nectar of her eyes and initiated him into the worship of Rama. The incident throws light on Narayanan’s subsequent outlook and development. He was an intimate devotee of Sree Rama; and it was his faith that sustained him in his hour of trial when he lost his wife, and forged a new link between him and the Ramayana. In an early essay, he speaks of the sacred ladies of his harem. As one who understood him, may I take the liberty of unveiling the principal Goddess there–his Bhakti. The other Goddess who was part of him–Modesty–I have already uncovered. In another mood he described “the solitude of star-lit nights on seashore with the billows sweeping over the sand, while the immensity beyond glowed in the phosphorescent curl of the wave where he met infinity face to face”. So this shy young dreamer saw the Pilot face to face even before he had crossed the bar! How tellingly he expresses himself and his exaltation! Delicious are some of his early essays, revelling in the impish perversities of paradox caught from Chesterton, as in his plea for the cult of unintelligibility and his defence of failure, and the one on the folly of wisdom. In the last, he tilts against Tagore whom he had seen at ‘Santiniketan’, Mylapore, decked out all in velvet. In another piece he rewrote the map of the world, replacing the geographical features with the intellectua1 and spiritual creations of the respective regions. One of the most charming was his dissertation on ‘the lamp’ in the course of which he compared the light-house to the “one-eyed Cyclops rolling his big eye round the broad sea at his feet”. All this was excellent writing,–‘angelic’ as Sri K. Chandrasekharan calls it, from a young man just out of college. If Narayanan had stuck to English, he might have achieved distinction as a master of the personal essay. But the lure and challenge of Tamil and Sanskrit proved irresistible and he turned his back on English to seek his fulfillment elsewhere. Such a step was in harmony with our own outlook and tradition, which reckon achievement as something impersonal and work as higher than the man. But it did deprive him of his share of contemporary appreciation to an extent.

Narayanan had the capacity to do easily what others found it difficult, and attempt things that no one had attempted before. Like Arjuna he was ambidextrous and could formulate with one hand a new approach to the problems of Federation and throw off a formidable thesis on Ramanuja’s indebtedness to ‘Tiruvoymozhi’ with the other. He could hold forth on the doctrinal differences between Kumarilabhatta and Prabhakara Misra and pile Ossa on Pelion to scale the Upanishads. Among his papers are excellent studies of the early Alvars and expositions of the various facets of the Ramayana and the moods of Subrahmanya Bharati. Essentially a thinker, his approach was fresh and original always.

Take his thesis on ‘Chola Polity’, of unique value to those who wish to read and understand history aright. He begins by criticising the method of reconstructing history from the records of foreign travellers and cross-sections of dynastic lists and lexicons, without taking account of the basic concept and philosophy of life of the people. The Solar Race was the ideal of the Cholas; if Bhagiratha brought down Ganga from heaven, so did Kavera bring down Kaveri; the Cholas were ‘Adityas and Vijayalayas and resembled Vishnu; likewise did the eyes of the Chola Kochenganan tinged red with grace resemble Vishnu’s; if Dasaratha went to help Indra, so did the Chola Muchukunda; Raja raja (a title of Kubera) not only resembled Kubera by his boundless riches, but also by his devotion to Siva; Karikala bore the name of Siva who tore asunder the elephant and did not get his legs burnt to a cinder in an attempt at firewalking. The line in the Chola inscription ‘Kanthalurchchalai kalamaruttaruli’ is responsible for a number of amusing deductions on the part of the professional historians. ‘Kalam’, according to the Tamil dictionary, means a boat or ship or eating vessel; and ‘chalai’ is a road or Oottupurai. One school of historians claim that the Chola smashed a fleet of ships in the harbour of Kandalurchali; the other claims that the Chola broke all the eating vessels in the Oottupurai. This is history indeed with a vengeance! If Mohamed Ghazni smashed images, the noble Raja Raja smashed pots and pans in a hospitable eating house! Narayanan said that the Chola, like Vishnu, got rid of the pest of wicked men (khala) and established Dharma in that region, especially because in the first two lines ‘Thirrumagal polap perunilach chelviyum thanakkeyurimai poondamai Manakkola the Chola is said to have made the wide earth, along with Lakshmi, his very own like Vishnu. The word ‘aruli’ denotes an act of grace and the historians, unaware of the poetic approach of the king to his duties, not only miss the significance of the reference, but misread and distort it. What a vista of happy circumstances does the title ‘Sungamthavirthapiran’ of Rajendra, evoke! But it has meant nothing to the historians, because they are not students of literature and fail to read the overtones of the poetic title. Besides, the Vaishnava commentaries of the middle ages represent untapped sources for reconstructing social history, which no historian seems to have utilised. Narayanan concludes, “Every brick in the edifice of history must be truth-moulded and put in proper place with utmost care, or the edifice will tumble down. This is specially so in Chola history, as Chola Polity was suffused with poetry and philosophy which moulded the life of the people of that great epoch.” His incursion into historical research was not unlike the advent of the bull in a China shop. But what a valuable lesson he taught when he said that history, no less than literature, needs men of creative imagination and taste! How one wishes that the research scholars benefit by his suggestion and realign their enquiry from the new angle, however unsweet the taste of his rod.

His note on ‘Tamil Civilisation’ in ‘Triveni’ was a closely reasoned argument. Beginning with a reference to the late R. Swaminatha Iyer’s thesis that the peculiarities of Tamil grammatical form and construction were features common to most prakrits, and that the early Tamil vocabulary bears close affinity to Vedic vocabulary and that of the early prakrits of the Punjab, Narayanan passes on to explain the co-existence of Vedic and Agamic forms of worship in the same community; and after examining certain crucial words, concludes that the evidence only reinforces an identity of culture throughout India–a conclusion on which the new State of India and her policy are based.

His interpretation of the word ‘Sanga’ as the variant of ‘Sanghata’ i. e. Anthology, and his suggestion that many of the poems” of ‘Purananooru’ represented the speeches of characters from old Tamil dramas playing the parts of poets and kings, started a new era in the understanding of Tamil poetry and chronology, and were as sensational in their own way as Prof. Dubreuil’s discoveries in Pallava history. According to him the Sangam Anthologies represented a literary dialect like Sanskrit, that found favour at Royal Courts and was confined to a specific literary group that adhered to a specific set of literary conventions; it was therefore but a segment of the Tamil literature. There must have been and were other groups earlier and later who did not conform to the conventions, or chose themes with which the conventions did not fit in, or chose a different diction altogether. Indeed there was more than one school of literary conventions that flourished side by side when Tamil was a creative language. Narayanan therefore thought that an intensive study of Tamil literature as a whole was more immediately needed than deductions based on a segment of it. I am yet to find a scholar who studied Tamil as Narayanan did, or summed up his findings as neatly and succinctly. Whether it was history or literature, his standard of truth in investigation was very high. Unfortunately for him, the world of Tamil was more bleak and lonely than history; and where he expected a multitude of voices for and against him, he was disconcerted by listening to just one voice and that was his own.

Besides, he had an original explanation for the female icon interposed between Krishna and Balarama in the Puri temple, and he derived Narasimha from the sculptured pillar. His essay on the interplay of arts gives an insight into the inwardness of his knowledge of art. He was the first and only one to interpret the significance of the dances described in ‘Silappadikaram’.

When I started ‘Silpasree’ in 1937 Sri Y. Mahalinga Sastry hoped that even as ‘Sree’ (Lakshmi) chose Narayanan in the primeval Swayamvara, ‘Silpasree’ would choose Narayanan. So she did. During the two years of its existence, it was Narayana who sustained and kept the journal going. He wrote on how to rejuvenate Tamil and prescribed some ‘kayakalpa’ treatment for it. Out of the many fine things he wrote, I would single out the Playlet ‘Natakavataram’ portraying the origin of the drama under the guidance of Bharatamuni, in which Krishna plays the part of Rama, and Rukmini and Satyabhama contend for the part of Sita, as something entirely original.

Towards the end of his career he was attracted by the hymn literature in Sanskrit of which he gave some very readable translations.

I hope I have given an idea of the work Narayanan was doing which called for talent and capacity of a very special kind. It is one thing to have merit and quite another to get it recognised. The latter demands faculties of an entirely different order. No wonder that Narayanan found himself quite alone in his pursuits. He was indeed the stone rejected by the builder, though to us, his friends, it seemed that his place was as the headstone of the temple. If, according to Ibsen, the strongest man was he who was most alone, Narayanan may be said to have achieved that ideal, closely followed as he is in his spiritual isolation by others, among whom I include myself. Did not Cassandra stand most alone, though she spoke nothing but the truth?

Sri N. Raghunathan has said that ink was in Narayanan’s blood; I am Sure that at least some of that ink was of the indelible kind–the kind that survives, unlike that which vanishes. Sri Raghunathan hit him off when he said that literature was his passion and that, once started, his non-stop discourses delighted more prosaic souls by the serenity with which he ignored the importunities of the clock! And who does not share his regret that Narayanan is not here to waste one’s time by his genial buttonholing way? The late K. S. Venkataramani wrote that “in the last five years Narayanan was ripening so perfectly that every hour I spent with him was a great fertiliser to me. In any other society he would have been gratefully used for a higher purpose and honoured and recognised as a dynamic hermit, a Karma Yogi saturated in the culture and traditions of our life”.

We all remember the story of how music was buried in the time of Aurangzeb and how Aurangzeb asked the musicians to bury her deeper. Some ages happen to be uncongenial and unpropitious for certain causes and ideals. The time-spirit had undoubtedly its share in denying collaboration to people like Narayanan. If a complacent and self-sufficient society that had no use for the thinker and dreamer, notwithstanding pious professions to the contrary, kept aloof, no wonder that though Narayanan had plenty to give and gave freely, he did not give of his best. Clearly the society did not deserve it. The infant mortality of journals like ‘Everyman’s Review’ and ‘Silpasree’ and the lifelong martyrdom of ‘Triveni’ are eloquent of a malady for which no treatment has yet been devised. The romance of archaeology ought to tempt people, but at the Society where Narayanan lectured, the audience consisted of about seven people, of whom two must have been the peons waiting in impatience for the speaker to cease, so that they may close the doors the sooner. The following epitaph by Emily Dickinson seems to have a topical appropriateness for the circumstances of our own time and place:

“I died for Beauty, but was scarce
Adjusted in the tomb
When one who died for Truth was lain
In an adjoining room.

“He questioned softly why I failed
‘For Beauty,’ I replied.
‘And I for Truth; the two are one,
We brethren are,’ he said.

“And so as kinsmen met anight
We talked between the rooms
Until the moss had reached our lips
And covered up our names.”

To us his friends, however precious the pearl-like hours spent with him, the recollection of them is but a poor substitute for the real pearl of peerless sheen–the pearl from Tamraparni–irretrievably lost six years ago.

“Oh for the touch of a vanished hand
And the sound of a voice that is still!”

1 That is to say, the river with its myriad pearls seemed to laugh at those who, with a little knowledge of Sanskrit, looked down upon Tamil.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Jayanti Lakshminarayana

"God from afar looks graciously upon a gentle master." These are words a young student, Taplow, hitherto unsuspected of such hidden depths, inscribes in a copy of Robert Browning's translation of the Agamemnon, which he gifts his retiring teacher Crocker-Harris in Terence Rattigan’s play The Browning Version. During my years teaching at the Asian College of Journalism, I often shared an audio cassette of the play with my students (The Winslow Boy by the same playwright was another), eliciting heartwarming responses, I like to believe.

Crocker-Harris is deeply moved by this unexpected show of affection and gratitude, but there is a twist in the tale, quite a few twists, in fact, before the surprise ending, but I always find the pathos, bathos even, of the hurt and humiliation life deals an unattractive, plodding schoolmaster completely devoted to learning and teaching, profoundly moving.

In real life, I came across such an iconic teacher 45 years ago, when desperate to catch up after letting cricket distract me from academics for nearly three years I joined Jayanti Tutorial Cllege at Egmore, Chennai. Jayanti Lakshminarayana, the principal and possibly the owner of the college, was by no means physically unattractive, but he was unconcerned with social niceties, or the impression clothes or style made on students and visitors, totally dedicated as he was to his mission in life: that of turning poor students into performing ones.

Lakshminarayana was perhaps in his late 40s or 50s then. His hair was black and he was quite well preserved. He had a gravelly voice so typical of his Telugu genes (or so I believe). He always had on a full-sleeved bush shirt, which he wore out rather than tuck in to his trousers. He taught chemistry and physics—he really taught us every moment he was with us, not stopping for idle conversation of any kind. He loved chemistry and knew the subject inside out, but also the lives of the great scientists of the 20th century and before. These stories he related to us with the excitement of a child, excitement that was infectious and captivating. He literally jumped up and down, thrilled to the core of his being when he described to us how Kekule dreamt of a serpent swallowing itself leading to his discovery of the structure of the Benzene molecule. He made Mendeleef’s periodic table into a suspense thriller  and taught us to how to draw it up by logical steps in the examination paper to impress the examiner (I actually did that in the exam). He used pens, foot rulers and dusters to explain atomic configurations and the behaviour of subatomic particles, thus making the unavailability of models a non-issue.

Lakshminarayana had a constant cough, sometimes going into paroxysms, which he fought manfully in the classroom. To him, each student was important, and he did not want any slackers in the classroom. Most of the students had failed the examination and were making a second attempt, and he was constantly concerned about the anxieties and aspirations of their parents.  I learnt my lesson very early in his class. Though thoroughly enjoying his lectures in his crowded classroom—we used to joke that each of us had only room for half a bum on the packed bench—I was still nervous and diffident, so I bunked the first test he had for us.

The next day, Prof. Lakshminarayana refused to allow me to enter the class. He gave me such a fierce tongue-lashing as I had never received in my life. Why are you wasting your parents’ money? Did they send you here to cut class and go to the movies? When are you ever going to grow up? The questions flew fast and thick, and I had to really grovel before he let me in, with a stern warning that the next time I missed a test, I would be sent home with a letter to my parents.

I never missed another class or test, and I never looked back. The professor’s explanations of the most complex lesson were so good that we never needed to refer to a textbook He promised us that our notes taken in his class were all the study material we would need and he was absolutely right. He advised each of us to buy a slate and use it to work out all our problems, and that was a brilliant suggestion too. I followed his advice implicitly, and never needed to look at any of my textbooks. Sure enough, in the university examination, there was a question relating to the periodic table in theoretical chemistry and I proudly drew up the whole table. My performance that year was easily my best in science subjects.

Throughout the months I spent at Jayanti, Prof Lakshminarayana never once referred to the unpleasant incident, nor did he dish out any praise for my consistent performance in his tests. He was probably waiting to see if I would maintain my form into the exams. When I went back to Jayanti Tutorials after doing well in the university exams—I finished highest among his students—to thank him, he was teaching a class. I tried to leave quietly, but he stopped his class to invite me in and proudly declare to the students how well I had done. That was my first experience of applause outside a cricket ground.

PS: Despite all my effort, I had been so nervous on the morning of the university examination that my parents must have decided I needed some external help. When I reached the college, I was surprised to see my old history teacher from Vidya Mandir, Srinivasan Master, waiting there for me. He slapped me violently on my back as was his wont, and said, “I know you will do brilliantly! (Nee jamaichuduve enakku teriyum)! I couldn’t have asked for a better omen or morale booster. He was another great teacher that generations of students worshipped.

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Wednesday, August 29, 2012

My name is Vidya

The autobiography of a transgender
Living Smile Vidya
Translated by V Ramnarayan
Price Rs. 100
Buy at

Chapter 1


I love the window seat in trains. Stretching my legs, I enjoyed the landscape, the trees and plants, the houses, as they flashed past me outside the window. It was a pleasure much like the first lazy cup of coffee on a holiday.

'Where are you headed?'

The unexpected question woke me from my reverie. I looked up. It was a rozwala, a regular commuter on that train. One look at my ordinary clothes and he must have decided that I did not belong in the sleeper compartment, that I was perhaps a ticketless traveller. You wore the most basic clothes on your way to the operation we call nirvanam. The same applied to jewellery. That's why I had on the oldest sari I had, a white one with blue flowers on it. My tiny nose stud was all the gold I wore. I must hand it over to Sugandhi Ayah after the operation tomorrow.

'Baithoon idhar?'

The rozwala was asking if he could sit down beside me. I was pretty sure he thought I didn't have a ticket. Still, his manner had been polite, so I made room for him by shifting my legs. I went back to looking out of the window.My train reservation from Pune to Cuddapah had been done at the Lonavala station the very day after Nani agreed to send me for my nirvanam. That day, I didn't go to work-to do my dhandha of begging.

The whole thing was surprisingly different from the norm- usually no Nani planned a nirvanam a month in advance, down to the last detail. And no Tirunangai or transgender made advance train reservations to go for the operation."You have to be discreet in such matters, observe great secrecy." Sugandhi Ayah was in a plaintive mood, complaining non-stop. "Girls nowadays don't listen to their elders; they do exactly as they please." She was constantly comparing and contrasting transgenders of past and present, adding to the pathos by relating some personal experience from her own past.

Sugandhi was the matron for hundreds of doctors. Of massive physique, she wore her salt and pepper hair in a tight bun. The two-rupee-coin sized kumkum bindi on her broad forehead instilled awe in onlookers. Her mouth constantly chewed paan. Her bell-like voice matched her impressive physical appearance. Sugandhi Ayah looked formidable. Satya and I sometimes took the liberty of teasing her, calling her grandma, and she indulgently allowed us. . Today she was taking us and Nagarani, our next door neighbour to our nirvanam.Sarada Nani was an important person in the Pune locality where transgenders lived in substantial numbers. I was one of the chela daughters of one of her chela daughters Aruna Amma. Satya was older, my senior in the transgender group. She was of swarthy complexion, solidly built like Sugandhi Ayah. She had a voice to match, and long, thick hair. She was an excellent cook. She was so senior to me in the group, still her operation was only now about to take place. That my nirvanam was scheduled along with hers was a big step for me. My hair then was still short to tie up in a bun.

Satya did not show as much interest as I did in nirvanam. It wasn't clear who would accompany her and so I reserved only my train berth. All that was not so important, though-any old ticket would do for Sugandhi Ayah and Satya. They sat on a newspaper they spread near the compartment door and answered the TTE's queries. Nagarani huddled close to them and they managed to stay there till morning. I got up after a while and joined them. The old woman continued to tell oft-repeated tales of woe from her own life, her trials and tribulations. To all three of us, they assumed new dimensions that evening. As she went on with accounts of nirvanam and its after-effects, we listened in terror. I went to my berth when Ayah was overcome by sleep.

Just one more night. Tomorrow would dawn the fruition of my desires, the fulfilment of my dreams. The night was long. I tossed and turned. I woke up and looked around.

The whole train was asleep. Very few were awake-the engine driver, a few policemen on patrol duty, and I.Nirvanam! How long I had waited for it! What humiliation I had suffered! Obsessed with it, I had mortgaged my pride, my anger, my honour-even begged on the streets to achieve that end. How could I sleep now, with my dream about to be fulfilled tomorrow?Morning at last. I welcomed the new day eagerly, with not a trace of fatigue even though I had kept awake all night. I drank a cup of coffee. Sugandhi Ayah had warned me to take only fluids in preparation for the operation.

It was the most important day of my life. Autorickshaws mobbed us as the four of us emerged from the railway station. It was 26th April. "Naganna or Bapanna?' the hordes of drivers pounced on us with their incessant questioning. We managed to stave off the competing marauders, and negotiating the fare with one of them, got into his autorickshaw. "Ayah, how do they know we are going to one of those doctors?" I asked Sugandhi."Even the newborns here know our kind come to Cuddapah for the operation,' Nagarani said."Right down to the doctor's name? Tell me Ayah, which doctor are we going to?"There was no reply from Sugandhi Ayah."Why are you so glum, Ayah?""Shut up."I had no option. I kept watching the Telugu film posters.As we got off the autorickshaw, I was filled with happiness that we had arrived in Cuddapah and reached the nursing home."Hurry up." All of a sudden, Ayah rushed us in.

The nursing home was right on the street. Though not a main road, it was a busy street. The cinema theatre across the road displayed a poster of the film, Chandramukhi.The hospital was abuzz with activity. We were herded upstairs through what was evidently a rear portion. A nursing home attendant accompanied us, talking all the while in Telugu to Sugandhi Ayah. She must be a frequent visitor here, I said to myself. The attendant left us in a room. There were three steel cots in that room which had a bathroom next to it, with a solitary bucket. The cot was bare, with no mattress or sheet on it. Many female names were scrawled on the wall, some in ink, others in charcoal. The room seemed to be reserved exclusively for transgenders. Our predecessors in the room had scribbled their names on the wall, presumably because they feared they could die on the operation table. That was their way of ensuring the survival of at least their names after the hazardous operation we called nirvanam. "Write your name on the wall, if you like," Sugandhi Ayah said.I didn't feel like doing so. I was certain I would live. Hadn't I struggled all the while just for that?

I was hungry. Sugandhi alone had eaten since last night. The three of us had obeyed her instructions to fast."Go to the bathroom now if you must. Once in the operation theatre, your stomach should be completely empty." Sugandhi Ayah warned us. Nagarani looked scared. I watched Satya. She looked grim as usual. I was all aflutter. "When? When?" The tension was palpable. None of us minded the strange odour in the room. Tension gripped us.We waited for a while. A male attendant came to Sugandhi. He said something to her and went away. We were watching all the while. Ayah then took all three of us downstairs. They took blood from each of us for a blood test in one of the rooms there."We'll get the blood test report in half an hour," Sugandhi Ayah said. "They will do the operation once the report shows you are HIV negative. The operation won't take more than half an hour."Would there be no more tests? Wouldn't they test us for BP, blood sugar? Only AIDS? Nagarani asked, "Why, won't they operate if we have AIDS?""Do you see Janaki in the next room? She has AIDS, they say. They collected an extra 2000 rupees from her to do the operation."

Only after Sugandhi Ayah pointed her out did I see the woman lying there post-operation. I went in and saw her. She was from my own street. Though she had been in Pune for many years, she still retained the flavour of the village, her language had remained unchanged. She had lived in Mumbai and Pune for five years or so, but couldn't speak a whole sentence in Hindi. I didn't know her very well, but I had seen her being heckled while walking on the street. It was a rude shock to Satya and me to know she had AIDS. The three of us chattered nervously for a while, anticipating the moment with suspense."Who's going first?" Sugandhi Ayah asked. I couldn't bear it any longer."I'll go first Ayah!" I shouted, "Let me go."Ayah came to a decision. "Satya is your senior, let her go first, you go after her," she said. No one replied. It was frustrating to know we had to wait longer."Akka, let me go first Akka, please.""Ok, go. I don't mind. Ask the hag."Sugandhi Ayah was particular about seniority. There was no point in pleading with her.The blood test results were out by then. Ayah handed over the report to each of us, asking us to keep it carefully. Thank God, none of us had AIDS.Speaking in Telugu, a hospital attendant called Satya, asking Nagarani and me to wait. He asked us to change, wearing only skirts, and be ready.Ayah had already got us ready. They took Satya away.

"When will the operation be over? How long will it take?" I kept asking Ayah.I wasn't prepared for the speed of the operation. I expected an operation to take at least an hour, and a vital one like ours at least two hours. In barely twenty minutes, a man and a woman wheeled Satya out. It was all over. Neither attendant looked like a nurse or a hospital worker. You'd think they belonged to some completely unrelated profession.They lifted Satya from the wheelchair (stretcher?), and, spreading a couple of newspapers on a steel cot, dropped her unceremoniously on it. Their unsafe, unhygienic approach made me nervous. There was no time to worry. They whisked me away immediately after dumping Satya on the cot. "Keep repeating the name of the Mother during the operation," Ayah told me before I entered the operation theatre.

It was no operation theatre, I realised as soon as I entered the tiny room. It was like going into a slaughterhouse. "Mata, mata, mata," I repeated to myself. In the room was a solitary cot. A masked doctor stood by its side. His eyes were those of an old man. Two more people, a man and a woman, filled the minuscule room. There was no way another person could enter.I wanted to talk to the doctor, but the environment silenced me. They removed my skirt and made me lie down on the cot, and helped me overcome my embarrassment. They made me curl into the embryonic posture, and gave me a spinal injection. It hurt. I lay down straight and was given glucose drips through a vein in my right arm. I was able to cooperate with the staff as Senbagam who had undergone the surgery a few months ago had given me a detailed account of the various steps. She had warned me that the spinal shot would anaesthetise me below the waist, so I was quite brave.Only when the surgeon made the first incision on my abdomen with his scalpel did I realise I hadn't quite lost sensation altogether. Another spinal injection followed my screams of pain.

The pain subsided but did not disappear. I couldn't move my hands and legs, but I felt the movements of the surgeon's knife and my pain quite clearly. I cursed and swore. "I can't bear the pain, let me go," I screamed at them constantly. I wanted to run away. I wanted to kill the doctor and his helper. Desperate with pain, I repeatedly called out to Mata following Ayah's advice, reaching a crescendo screaming, "maaaaa...aaataaa." As the operation reached its climax, the pain rose to unbearable heights-as if someone was digging deep into my innards with a long rod and removing my intestines.Yes, what I saw in that instant was death. They had removed that part of me over which I had shed silent tears of rejection from the time I could remember. I saw that my penis and my testicles had been excised.I was sutured and applied medication after that. I could feel all that very distinctly and bear the pain.

Ah! Nirvanam. The ultimate peace!My operation took all of twenty minutes. They put me on a stretcher, writhing in pain, and carried me down a ramp accompanied by violent jerks, causing new pains and aches. They dumped me on a newspaper-covered steel cot just as they had dropped Satya. In the bed next to me, I could hear Satya crying and moaning. Even though I was in great pain, I was able to bear it. Soon, to my surprise, Satya began to sob uncontrollably.

Was it really Satya crying, unable to bear her pain? She had been an elder sister to me in Pune at the place where we had sought refuge. She was a strong person. Thrashed by Nani after an occasional drunken bout, she used to lie down absolutely still and quiet. I couldn't believe that she was crying in pain now. Or that I was able to stand the pain better.Inside, I was at peace. It was a huge relief. I was now a woman. Mine was a woman's body. Its shape would be what my heart wanted, yearned for. This pain would obliterate all my earlier pains. I wanted to thank everyone, cry out loud to the doctor, his assistants, Sugandhi Ayah, express my gratitude to them to my heart's content. I couldn't move my lips or open my mouth.I thanked them silently. "Thank you for removing my maleness from my body, thank you for making my body a female body. My life is fulfilled. If I die now, I'll lose nothing. I can sleep in peace," I told myself.The intensity of the pain grew with the hours. My abdomen seemed to be afire. I couldn't move my arms and legs. The pain was unbearable, however hard I tried to bear it.

Amma, Amma, I have become a woman. I am not Saravanan any more. I am Vidya. A complete Vidya. A whole woman. Where are you, Amma? Can't you come to me by some miracle, at least for a moment? Please hold my hand, Amma. My heart seems to be breaking into smithereens. Radha, please Radha, I am no longer your brother, Radha. I am your sister now, your sister. Come to me, Radha. Chithi, Manju, Prabha, Appa... Look at me Appa, look at my dissected body. This is a mere body. Can you see that I can bear all this pain? I can take any amount of pain, Appa. Look at me Appa. Look at me as a woman. Accept me as a girl, Appa.Only I could hear my screams.

Chapter 2

When I was born the first time, my parents named me Saravanan. I was their sixth child, born after years of prayers for a boy child. In fact, their first had been a boy, unfortunately still born. Four girls followed, two of them succumbing to unknown diseases. In the circumstances, I realised pretty early in life what joy my arrival must have brought my parents.

My family wasn't exactly well off. My father Ramaswami was known as Nattamai or chieftain in Puttur, next to Tiruchi. The title must have been somebody's idea of a joke, for my father was hardly any kind of chief, certainly not the kind immortalised by Tamil cinema. He was a municipal worker of the lowest rung, a sweeper. He married my mother Veeramma in 1973. They started life together in a small hut they built on an unoccupied piece of land on Attumanthai (flock of sheep) Street.

My mother was someone special. Her name meant a brave woman, and she was every bit that. Brave and hard working, sweet tempered. She was also a typical Indian wife, who submitted to her husband's tyrannical ways. She died in an accident when I was eleven.

The pain and awareness of their oppression on the basis of their caste haunted my parents all their lives. Their intense yearning for a son must have sprung from their desperate hope that he would change the course of their abject lives.

Appa, my father, was at first in the business of milk supply. I remember that he had job opportunities in the police and Southern Railway. He was not too keen on such careers; he perhaps believed he must do his own business, however small. Making both ends was never easy. His relatives were determined he must find employment. They repeatedly counselled him, persuading him to join the Tiruchi Refugee Camp as a sweeper.

My father's life was one of frustration. Frustration that his lack of formal education beyond Class 8 had landed him in a lowly sweeper's job, for all that it was a government job. He constantly dreamt of his son growing up to be a district collector, surely the top job in India! His dreams, desires, ambitions all centred on his son of the future.

When these dreams were shattered, and his first child to survive turned out to be a daughter, Appa accepted her cheerfully.

Appa adored MG Ramachandran, the famous film star popularly known as MGR. Who wasn't an MGR fan those days? Appa named his first daughter Radha after the leading lady in an MGR movie. Manju, his second daughter too, was named after a co-star of MGR.

My father was hoping the next baby would be a boy to make up for the loss of his first born and the next two being girls, but that was not to be. The next two were girls, Vembu and Vellachi, and both succumbed to mystery ailments. This was a turning point in Appa's life which had plumbed the depths of despair.

For long years he had practised his own vague brand of atheism, but now he made an about turn and visited temple after temple. Landing finally at the Vayalur Murugan temple in Tiruchi, he vowed to name his next child after Murugan, the presiding deity there, if he was a boy. He would also shave his head in pious offering of his locks to the lord.

I was born on 25 March 1982. My parents named me Saravanan in fulfilment of my father's contract with Murugan. Saravanan is one of Murugan's many names.

My parents had been married in 1973 and I was born nearly ten years later. What challenges they encountered during the period! Their surroundings had undergone considerable change. Vacant land belonging to the government is known as poramboke land. Squatters often occupy such land and eventually occupy it permanently. The poramboke land on Attumanthai Street, where Appa and others had built their huts was now a full-fledged neighbourhood, Bhupesh Gupta Nagar, in memory of a revolutionary of that name. My father, the nattamai, was responsible for the name change.

The street had grown. So had our town. The whole city had been transformed in that decade. Only we were poor as ever. My father continued to be a municipal conservation worker, a sweeper. He was eternally running from pillar post to apply for an electricity connection for our street. At home, my mother and my sisters took care of me, spoiled me. By the time I was ready to go to school, my father had made preparations on a war footing.

I was a privileged member of the household. Of the three children, I was the one person who didn't have to do any work at home. That was the unwritten law. I enjoyed every kind of concession.

"The only work we want you to do is study," Appa said. "Remember, it's your job to study." He was quite the dictator when it came to my education, allowing no discussion.

"If any of you dares to give him work that interferes with his studies, I'll kill you," he warned us.

My two sisters, ten-year-old Radha and six-year-old Manju were so terrified of Appa's threat that they never let me do any household work. I was the male heir of the family and that was reason enough to exempt me from work of any kind! My doting mother carried me around until I was five years old. When he came back from work in the evening, Appa usually brought us sweets and snacks, and you could bet he slipped in something extra for me every time.

I don't remember my sisters ever being jealous of me. They showered me with love. From the time she was born, Radha had grown up amidst my parents' constant prayers for a male child. From a tender age, I remember her as a second mother to me. When Amma died, Radha took over altogether as my mother.
Radha was a goddess to all of us. She took charge of the house as soon as my parents went to work everyday. She could cook when she was barely ten. Sweeping and swabbing the house, washing the dishes and our clothes, storing water-she took care of it all. We should in all fairness have treasured her, treated her like royalty. We did not. I became the sole beneficiary of all the love and affection at home by virtue of my being a boy.

Amazingly, not once did I hear my sisters criticise this overt partiality. Neither Radha nor Manju did that. I think they came to believe in time that looking after me was the very purpose of their existence.

On my part, I studied well, to Appa's great joy. My academic excellence in contrast with my sisters' unschooled ways gave him immense pride. I was ranked first in my class in the first grade. When Appa came home and heard the news, he carried me on his shoulders and went round and round Bhupesh Gupta Nagar, broadcasting the news to the world. "My son got the first rank," he announced again and again.
I remember the day so clearly. Appa loved me but he had never carried me or fondled me before. His public demonstration of his love for me that day was the best reward I could have asked for. My stock in the neighbourhood shot up. I was the boy who was ranked first in his class.

My academic feats complicated life for my sisters. When Amma left for work at five o'clock in the morning, it was Radha's duty to wake me up to make me study. She had no escape from that responsibility. If I did not study, Radha or Manju would be spanked even more than I.

Up at that early hour, I studied for an hour. Manju went out at six o c'lock to buy tea and porai biscuits. Radha swept the house and started cooking by then, while Manju cleaned the vessels. I had to continue studying until 7.30, when Appa woke up. The girls then had to ensure I bathed, ate my breakfast, got ready and dashed off to school.

Appa gave Radha our daily allowance of one rupee every morning. My share was 40 paise while my sisters each got 30. They could not go to their classrooms without depositing me at mine. As soon as I came home, I had to do my homework. After that started Appa's lessons for me.

Appa made me do third grade exercises when I was still in the first grade. He made me do the multiplication tables-from one to 20-ten times everyday. "Do you know Abraham Lincoln studied under the street light and became president of America?" he repeated constantly. He made me believe that studying hard in the light of a hurricane lamp would one day make me the district collector.

I had a natural aptitude for studies, and I was an eager student. I was doing quite well at school, but as time progressed, I began to resent Appa's constant harassment, both mental and physical. I knew he was only doing what was good for me, but my loss of the simple joys and freedom other children of my age enjoyed was an irritant. Was a childhood without games worth living? Home was a virtual prison. Even the love of my mother and sisters could not make up for that.

My father never allowed me to play with boys and girls. I could not understand this blanket ban. I didn't know if it was because the kids in our neighbourhood were poor students. Our neighbours did not give education a great deal of importance. My father was very different in this aspect from all of them.

It was my sisters' responsibility to prevent me from giving Appa the slip and going out to play. Radha and Manju kept a constant vigil over my movements, fearful of what Appa might do if I did get away. Sometimes they scolded me and even slapped me playfully if I tried to step out of line. They were so fond of me that they never let me down by carrying tales to Appa, though.

When I came home form a school exam, Appa conducted the same test at home all over again. I was not allowed to go out to play even during vacations. Preparations for the next examination started right then and there.

This was all on top of the demands of my school teachers who made me answer all the question papers at home without omitting a single question even in multiple choice papers. I had to do five question papers in a single day. Invariably, just when I breathed a sigh of relief at completing them, Appa's home lessons started. If I slowed down my home work to avoid Appa's exercises, he thrashed me. My body would be bruised black and blue with belt marks all over. If Amma or my sisters tried to stop him, they got belted too.

"Weren't you expected to ensure he did his home work?' he screamed at them. I regularly wetted my shorts in fear and shock.

It was around this time that my mother died in a road accident. I was eleven. My grief was immeasurable, indescribable. I had been my mother's little boy, always at home, always protected by her. It was hard to come to terms with her absence all of a sudden.

Appa made matters worse by remarrying. Lata aka Thangammal, who was younger than Radha, was our new stepmother.

I was too young then to know if what Appa had done was right or wrong. Luckily, Chithi was a good person. She treated me with love. And my sisters were a great consolation, too. The wounds of losing Amma slowly healed. Gradually things changed for the better. Except for Appa's watching over me. As his dreams for me grew, his oppressive ways too kept increasing in intensity, even though I continued to do well at school. God knows what fears and anxieties troubled him, but he never allowed me a normal childhood.

I remember this incident. I came second in my class in the sixth grade exams. I was scared beyond description that evening. I didn't sleep a wink that night, afraid of the consequences of showing my report card to my father next morning. When I finally drifted into sleep, I dreamt of Appa belting me. I wetted my bed that night.

As the day dawned, I had no choice but to show Appa my report card, trembling with fear. I received the cruellest punishment of my life that morning.

Remember how Appa carried me around Bhupesh Gupta Nagar the day I was ranked first the first time? Today, unable to bear what he saw as the first crumbling of his dreams, he lifted me much the same way again. Only, this time he dropped me forcefully from a height. He then kicked me in my stomach. I was terror stricken.

He picked me up and thrashed me wildly. My chithi and sisters who tried to protect me got thrashed too. Our pain and tears and screams made no impression on him.

Second rank! Something he had never imagined I would get. It made no sense to me. How could I explain to my father that not much divided the first and second ranks?

He would never understand. He did not. He smashed me around until he got his fury out of his system.

I was a complete mess, beaten black and blue. With no strength left in me, I sought refuge in my sister's lap.

Why didn't I have a loving father like other children? The question comes back to haunt me even today, every time I see loving men.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Ramani, RIP

Today, at 8.30 am, Rajan Ramani, my friend of nearly five decades, passed away. He was 62, a man at the height of his career as a legal expert at India Cements. Diagnosed with cancer three and a half years ago, he tried to lead a normal life till almost the very end, staying in touch with his many, many friends, enjoying evenings at the club, though less and less able to get a round of his beloved golf.

It was Ramani’s move from tennis to golf about a decade ago that reduced the frequency of my contact with him. He had made me a member of Besant Nagar Club in the 1980s and bulldozed me into overcoming my inhibitions enough to become a decent club level player despite my late start, well into my thirties. His love of golf soon turned into an obsession and eventually left him with no time or inclination for tennis. His golf circle grew and grew until in time a whole gang of players began to call themselves Ramani’s team.

Ramani was still a schoolboy when I first met him. A couple of years older than him, I was already in college. When I started playing competitive cricket, it became impossible for me to continue neighbourhood cricket, in which my brother Sivaramakrishnan and Ramani were prominent. Later, when Ramani joined Law College, he became active in politics and actually became a member of the CPI (M). It was only in the 1980s that he slowly weaned himself away from leftist ideology, and started a career in the private sector, looking after the legal affairs of a company associated with the India Cements group, which he was eventually to join and become an important part of.

Ramani was a natural ball player. In tennis, he had a superb top spinning service which he sent down from a considerable height, obtaining impressive bounce and swerve. We loved playing together as a doubles pair, and thanks to his dominance of the court, did not do too badly, in our sometimes raucously competitive recreational tennis. On the few occasions we played against each other he used to get irritated with my high, lobbed returns of serve, not realizing I knew no other way of handling his service. He loved talking tennis as much as playing tennis (even when a game was in progress) and loved telling his opponent what his brilliant shot would have done to him had it landed inside the court! (Despite his best efforts to convert me to golf—he even made me a member of the Tamil Nadu Golf Federation—I never took to the game and so have no way of knowing how he entertained his friends on the course, but I have no doubt that entertain them he did).

Ramani’s sense of humour and penchant for repartee and spontaneous jokes were the stuff of legends. Once he and I were part of an anxious threesome waiting for a fourth to start the morning’s first doubles game. “Let’s hope and pray it is not Sankaran,” Ramani said, referring to a late friend of ours whose tennis was about as exciting as tennikoit. Who should walk in then but Sankaran? Ramani’s response to this setback to our plans for some good tennis was to burst into song. “Ninaithen vanthai, nooru vayathu” he crooned, the first line of a famous film song, which translates to, “I think of you, and here you are! You’ll live to be a hundred!”

Ramani also had a rich collection of jokes and anecdotes, and a phenomenal memory for old real life incidents, strange and funny. He was particularly fond of recalling a moonlight dinner he and a number of our common friends including my brother had at Elliot’s Beach, days after my wedding—the reason why I had excused myself from the fun and games. The party returned well after midnight and realizing they had forgotten a thermos flask at the beach, they decided to enlist my help, because they did not want to walk all the way back to the beach from Shastrinagar, Adyar, and because I was the only one in the gang who could drive a car. So, to the complete amazement of my wife of less than a week, I dashed out of the house along with nine others packed into my father's Standard Herald car, on our mission to recover our lost treasure. Ramani loved to recall how, returning triumphantly from our adventure, we decided to have some tea, knocked on the door of Chandran Tea Stall, woke up Chandran and got him to make us ten cups of tea, with a promise to pay him on the morrow.

Yes, Ramani’s sense of humour made him the hugely popular person he was, but he was also a gregarious and helpful man. I have been the beneficiary of his acts of kindnesses, and so have many other friends I know. He sailed through life’s ups and downs, including his battle with cancer, with a smile on his lip and hope in his heart. Rajan Ramani was truly one of a kind—brilliant, well read and informed, witty, generous, warm and cheerful. A true sportsman on and off the field.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012


The friends you make during childhood, boyhood and adolescence are the best, and those friendships are the longest lasting. Right? I must be a particularly lucky bloke, because friendship keeps coming my way even in my dotage. In the recent past, not only did I make a new friend, I also renewed contact with one who had been my mate back in 1960, all within a couple of days.

The moment I learnt that the Asian College of Journalism—where I teach Language and Style—was sending one batch of students to Thoothukudi as part of the Covering Deprivation project under which ACJ’s students travel to different parts of the country in some five or six batches, I eagerly volunteered to go there with the students as faculty supervisor. I had been a student of Subbiah Vidyalayam there in the year Flying Sikh Milkha Singh ran a brilliant 400m race at the Rome Olympics, with my father posted there as Agent of the Indian Overseas Bank. That is when I spent my idyll in the sun—literally—with our neighbours’ kids Subash, Nargunam and Ravi. The first two were brothers and Ravi was their cousin, and they were my and my brothers’ constant playmates.

Subash Hall Sargunaraj, for that was his full name, was a somewhat squat, solidly built athlete, around my age, which made him 13 or 14 that year. I came from a cricket family, with father, uncles, cousins and brothers as seriously interested and talented in the game as I was, most of them more gifted than I, though in the long run, I perhaps made better use of my resources.

Subash introduced me to the joys of track and field. For that golden year I learnt to long-jump, high-jump and triple-jump longer and higher than I could ever have imagined. I was still a distant second to Subash, but my distances/ heights were fast becoming respectable. Our house was within walking distance of the famous VOC College, though it was a really long walk, and we spent a vigorous couple of hours every evening on the sands bordering the college’s grounds. We followed the Rome Olympics with passionate interest, and were sorely disappointed when Milkha Singh so narrowly missed a medal at the Games.

The idyll came to a premature end when my father moved to Delhi to start a new job there and all of us went with him. I had to say goodbye to all my friends in Thoothukudi, including Ganesh, my classmate, his brothers and sisters, his parents Delhi Mama and Delhi Mami, Uday Shankar, son of sub-judge Bhavanishankar, another classmate NS Radhakrishnan, and most important of all Subash, his brother and cousins. Radhakrishnan moved to Madras soon afterwards and we remained in touch for a number of years, but I met Subash only once afterwards. It was probably in 1965 or so, when I was playing a match for Presidency College on the Marina grounds. He was in the city on a brief visit and he ran up to me fielding near the boundary and we exchanged a few words. I have yet to meet him since then, but I was able to trace him and he called me from Coimbatore where he lives when I was at Thoothukudi. It was quite easily the high point of the trip.

I also managed to locate the two houses at Chidambaranagar where we lived during our brief Thoothukudi sojourn in 1960-61, stare at Delhi Mami’s house, actually go to Subbiah Vidyalayam’s present school premises and meet the Headmaster and APC Shanmugham, Correspondent of the School—the latter a son of APC Veerabahu who had been my father’s friend—and even catch a glimpse of the old Indian Overseas Bank building on whose first floor my family spent a few days and nights before we moved to our residence at Chidambaranagar back in 1960.

All this was made possible by my new friend—Sriram, perhaps the most successful auditor in Thoothukudi, whose incredible affection and hospitality it was my privilege to enjoy during my visit to the pearl city.I have been in touch with Sriram through email over the past few years—ever since his daughter and my former student Harini told me in class that she was from Thoothukudi. Sriram has a phenomenal memory and appetite for making connections with people, digging into their family histories and bringing people together. Over the years I have known him, he has become an expert on my own family history, with probably a deeper knowledge of the various branches of my family than I have.

Even before I met Sriram—whom I telephoned on the first morning of my weeklong stay at Thoothukudi—he started sending goodies tro my hotel. On that first day, it was two large cakes, which I shared with the whole tour party. The next day, it was an enormous quantity of Tirunelveli halwa, followed on the morrow by some special Thoothukudi mixture, and then by some deilicous macaroons another pearl city special, so on and so forth. On top of all this I also had coffee and snacks at his place and lunch at a nearby mami’s mess as his guest. Thank you, Sriram for an unforgettable experience.

The Thoothukudi trip was also made memorable by a visit to my ancestral village Perunkulam, which happened to be right in our path, as we set out to study the problems faced by farmers depending on Tamraparani water for their irrigation, as a result of diversion to big industries and damage caused by effluents. My students were able to interact with Mr Ramanujam, who was once caretaker of our property, now gone, at Perunkulam and learn about his own experience as a farmer looking to the Tamraprani for water. But Perunkulam is quite another story, for another day.