MY PARENTS AND EARLY SCHOOLING
My mother had been given in marriage to my father at the age of 12 when my father was in his late twenties. Such early marriages were common those days. A girl had to be got married before she attained puberty. No horoscopes were matched before my mother was married. In fact no horoscope had been made on her birth. The straitened circumstances of my maternal grandfather did not allow such luxuries. However, instead of matching horoscopes, the system of ‘ selecting flowers’ was followed. It worked like this. Some red flowers such as hibiscus and white flowers such as jasmine were gathered. The red flowers were wrapped in a leaf such that it was not visible outside. The white flowers were also wrapped in the same way. Both were given to the priest in the village temple who kept both the bundles at the foot of the deity. At the end of worship the priest picked up one of the bundles and gave it to the person concerned. If the bundle contained white flowers, it was the will of God that the marriage be solemnised. If red flowers are in the bundle, the Lord did not approve of the marriage. In my mother’s case the bundle given by the priest after the worship contained white flowers and thus the Lord had put His seal of approval on the marriage proposal.
My paternal grand parents started worrying when my mother did not conceive even after five years. Their daughter-in-law was now 17 and it was high time that she gave them a grandson or granddaughter. Mother was in a dilemma. She was approaching her twenties and some thing had to be done urgently. She told her father about this problem. Putting his knowledge of Ayurveda into use, my maternal grandfather prepared some herbal medicines according to the procedures laid down in Ayurvedic texts. After taking the medicines for a couple months, mother conceived and I was born on the 1st of September 1931 when mother was twenty. I was born in the eighth month of pregnancy but grandfather’s knowledge of Ayurveda ensured that premature birth did not affect my healthy growth. By convention, I had to be named after my paternal grandfather and therefore I was given his name. Since it was not considered proper for the younger ones to take the name of the elders I was given a nick name by which every one called me. Grandfather himself used to call me ‘Swami’, I didn’t know why.
Our family was not an affluent one. It was not even middle class. We could just manage to meet both ends. My father and his brothers were running a hotel in a small place on the main road to Pollachi town in what is now the state of Tamilnadu. The elder brother of my father had become a widower early in his life and had not married since his wife’s death. He had a son who was the eldest in the family and a daughter who had already been married quite early in life even before I was born. This eldest uncle and his son also helped run the hotel. On week-ends my father or one of the junior uncles took turns to visit us at Perinkulam. They used to bring sweets, sack-full of groundnuts, potatoes and small onions. While groundnuts were roasted and eaten, the small onions were used to make delicious sambar. We children used to like potatoes boiled, peeled, mashed and made into mouth-watering curry.
After my grand mother’s death, my father left the place where the hotel was being run. He delegated the job of running the hotel to his younger brothers and their nephew ( my eldest uncle’s son). He started doing odd jobs to earn a living. We shifted from the ancestral house to a modest accommodation in the South Village of Perinkulam. Grandfather also came to live with us. During this period father lent the money he had saved to a person in the village who had a piece of agricultural land tilled by a tenant. The person, in return, mortgaged the land in favour of my mother. Our share of paddy from this land was adequate for feeding our family. For sundry expenses, father used to make some money doing odd jobs.
At about this time I was entrusted to a teacher who taught a few students the three R’s, reading, writing and arithmetic. The boys assembled in the veranda of the teacher’s house for their lessons. For me it was not a happy experience. I struggled with my arithmetic. I got my sums done by one of my classmates and showed the results to the teacher. In return, I gave away my pencil, rubber, chalk or some other thing to the classmate. At home I got spanking from my mother for losing my pencils. Mother did not know that I had given them to my classmate for doing my sums.
A few months after this I was admitted in class II of the aided elementary school in the village. I remember myself only as an average student up to class IV. In the lower classes we used to chant routinely the multiplication tables up to 16. Ultimately the tables became hard-wired into our system enabling us to compute columns of figures manually without the use of calculators. From class V we started learning English in addition to Malayalam which was the regional language. At home we spoke the Palghat version of Tamil. Our forefathers must have migrated to Malabar from one of the Tamil- speaking districts. Our Headmaster was good at teaching. He used to narrate to us many stories from the Epics Ramayana and Mahabharata and from the Puranic literature. He could hold the students’ interest without allowing their minds to wander away from the subject being taught. It was from Class V that I developed keen interest in my studies.
Schooling those days was not the drudgery and burden it is today for children of tender age. Up to class V we had to carry only a slate, a pencil with which to write on the slate, a note book and a lead pencil. The children were allowed to play in the ground in between classes. In the summer we used to assemble in the shade of a tree outside the classroom. I never remember to have been assigned something to be done at home. My parents never put pressure on me to perform as is happening now-a-days. The fact that I was an above-average student as reported by my teachers was sufficient assurance for them. I had plenty of time to pursue my own interests which were mostly in the area of language and literature during those days.
The marriage of the only son of my eldest uncle was solemnised when I was about eight years. The girl was only 15 years old. After the marriage my cousin could not take her immediately to his place since only bachelor accommodation was available there. Until family accommodation with some privacy was arranged, my sister-in-law was forced to stay with us in our ancestral house. She was senior to me in age by 7 or eight years and she had great affection for me and my siblings. She used to join us and lead us in the evening prayers after the lamp was lit. She knew a lot of hymns in Sanskrit and Malayalam and she motivated us to learn them by heart and recite them daily. My cousin from Pollachi used to visit his wife on week-ends. They used the upstairs hall as their bedroom. Though my cousin had not completed his school education he had gained a smattering of English by self-study. From him I learned the English words for animals, birds, fruits, vegetables and household articles of common use.
Soon after my father left the place near Pollachi, my two uncles had also returned to the village. That was the end of the joint family. The families of the three brothers (my father and his two younger brothers) had become separated, each living in a separate house. The youngest uncle and his family continued in the ancestral house. Now my cousin managed the hotel. During the summer holidays I used to visit him. I used to travel by train which those days was jam-packed with passengers. There was no system of advance reservation. I had to board the train from a place around 8 KM from my village which I reached by bus. The train journey took about 2 hours and I got down at a wayside station a short distance from Pollachi. From there I could walk the distance to my cousin’s hotel.
My eldest uncle was staying with his son. Early morning, he used to peel the boiled potatoes from which bondas were made for sale in the hotel. Bonda was an item of snack made of small balls of boiled and mashed potatoes dipped in a paste of gram flour with salt and chilly power and fried in vegetable oil. I also used to lend a hand in the peeling. I used to accompany my cousin to Pollachi when he went there to buy the groceries required for the hotel. On days of the weekly shanty at Pollachi the hotel did roaring business. People used to stop for snacks and coffee on their way to the shanty at Pollachi.
Not far away from the hotel was a river in which I used to bathe in the mornings. There was a railway bridge on the river and I used to be awe-struck when the train passed thundering over the bridge. Many times I lingered in the river waiting for the train to pass over the bridge. I also used to go to the railway station and wait there for the arrival of the train. I used to wonder how the driver and the firemen in the cabin operated such a huge steam engine. This fascination for trains and travel by train I carried for quite some time into my adult years.
After a year or so of my sister-in-law’s stay with us, my cousin had private quarters constructed for their living and his wife joined him soon after. After that my sister-in-law used to cook for the family. My cousin and my eldest uncle (my cousin’s father) had now homely food. I too enjoyed the food cooked by my sister-in-law during the holidays when I visited them.
There was a mosque in the place where, on Fridays, women irrespective of their religion, used to bring their small children and offer prayers. After the namaz the person in charge used to touch the children with a bundle of peacock feathers tied together as a broom. This was supposed to drive away evil spirits and cure minor ailments. We used to get bananas and raw sugar after the Friday namaz at the mosque.
On one of those visits to my cousin, I was laid down with fever and it was diagnosed as Malaria. Taking bitter quinine tablets was the only remedy those days. My sister-in-law took good care of me and I was touched by her affection. After my recovery from the intensity of the fever, I returned to my village and continued to take quinine tablets for some more days.