Tuesday, November 30, 2010


My early memories go back to the year 1936 AD when I was a boy  of  five  at a little known place called Perinkulam.  It was a cluster of  four villages in the state of Kerala on the west coast of Southern India.  These four villages were  populated exclusively by brahmins. We were smartas who acknowledged  and worshipped all gods in the Hindu pantheon unlike  Saivas who recognised only Siva as the supreme Lord or Vaishnavas for whom the Supreme Power was only Vishnu.  For the  smarta each god was only a different aspect of the ONE GOD. We were strictly vegetarian in the sense that we did not eat meat or fish or even eggs and confined ourselves to cereals, pulses, spices, vegetables and greens. Dairy products like milk, curds, butter and ghee were acceptable to us as these did not involve the killing of animals.  Basically our version of vegetarianism emphasised ahimsa i.e. not hurting any living being for the sake of food.  
 Our forefathers had migrated to Perinkulam in Palghat Taluq from the Tamil speaking areas of the erstwhile Madras Presidency.  We therefore spoke Tamil at home though our Tamil accent and vocabulary was influenced by Malayalam which was the native language of Kerala.  Our Tamil was referred to  as Palghat Tamil by native Tamilians who often joked about the way we spoke their  language.
Perinkulam was surrounded on all sides by paddy fields separated by narrow embankments for retaining the rain water and for pedestrians to walk.  The fields used to be flooded with water during the  rainy season.  Openings in the  embankments allowed  water to  flow from fields at a higher level  to those at  lower levels. The gurgling sound of flowing water provided music to one’s ears.  The undulating landscape with enchanting lush green paddy fields made one forget oneself, captivated by its beauty.  During the rainy season the embankments were strewn with the shells of crabs. They were the remnants left  by crows that feasted on the abundance of small crabs in the fields.  Walking on the bunds was a task demanding skills in balancing oneself while walking. The path itself was narrow and during the rains, with the rain-soaked earth, it was slippery and one could fall into the flooded paddy fields if  not careful . 
Farming was not mechanised those days and the area of a field ranged from 2000 to 2500 square feet only. This was to facilitate manual operations of ploughing, seeding, planting and watering.  Agricultural land, when passed on from father to children for generations, had become fragmented and individual holdings had become smaller and smaller. Land was generally owned by the higher castes among the Hindus.  The actual agricultural operations were done by tenants under an agreement which ensured that the landlord got the lion’s share of the produce.  The landlords exacted their pound of flesh even in those years when the rain gods had failed the farmer or unseasonal rains or floods destroyed the crops.  The pathetic condition of the farmer  gave rise to demands for land reforms. Ultimately, legislation was passed by the Government to transfer the ownership of land from the absentee landlords to the tiller of the soil.   The landlords got compensation but it was a pittance compared to what they were enjoying during the tenancy days.
The villages had no electricity or water supply.  A few had their own wells while others drew water from the community wells of the village.  Lanterns filled with kerosene oil were used to light up the home in the night.   The nearest place where there was  a high school for boys and girls was Alathur about 5 KM from Perinkulam. This place also had a high school run exclusively for girls by the local board.  Students from places as far away as 10 KM used to attend these schools. Generally they walked the distance in groups chatting, discussing local politics and joking about the eccentricities or mannerisms of some of the teachers. 
Ours was a joint family consisting of my father, his two younger brothers, my paternal  grand parents, my mother,  my aunts and six of us children.  I was the eldest of the children,  followed by my two brothers with a gap of only two years between us.  
Household chores were shared by my mother and the aunts.   Being the senior-most, mother cooked food for the whole family and also attended to the needs of my grand parents.  The aunt next in seniority used to manage the hard work like grinding soaked rice and black gram for making  idlis and dosas and masala for vegetable curry. She also ground soaked cotton seeds for feeding the cow. Milking the cow was also her job.  The cow was friendly only with her.  It never used to allow any one else in the family to milk it.   Sweeping and wiping the whole house was also her job.  The junior aunt helped cut vegetables for cooking, draw water from the well, bathe the young children and feed them.  A maid cleaned the cow shed, gave fodder to the cows and washed the cooking utensils. 
Brahmins generally had an obsession about bathing in a river, a lake, a pond or such other water body.  The whole body, including the head,  had to be immersed  in the water.  It was not enough to wash up to the neck. After bathing one had  to change into freshly washed clothes.  Wearing  the clothes in which one slept the previous night was strictly taboo unless the clothes were first washed clean and dried in the sun.   A clean body was associated with a clean mind conducive to the performance of various religious rites.  Such strict observance of cleanliness was referred to as madi in Tamil.  Loosely translated into English as ‘ceremonial purity’,  madi was an absolute must  before anything auspicious was done.  It was applicable both for men and women.  Any  physical contact with a person who had not bathed called for fresh bathing.  Therefore we children  had to keep away from the elders after they had bathed and changed clothes. We could touch them only after we ourselves bathed and put on freshly washed clothes. An early morning bath was prescribed for brahmins before they  performed the morning Sandhya with the chanting of the Gayatri mantra.  This mantra was addressed to Savita,  the Sun God,  beseeching Him to fill our minds with noble and sublime thoughts.
Women of the house  could enter the kitchen and cook food only after bathing. This was absolutely necessary as the food was symbolically offered to the deity during worship.     During their monthly periods they were not allowed to mingle with others or enter into the main areas of the house.  They had to keep themselves aloof in a separate room earmarked for this purpose.  They could enter the kitchen and other areas of the house only on the fourth day after bathing and wearing freshly washed clothes. We children were not allowed to enter the main hall when we returned from school.  We had to take off the clothes which we had worn to school and put them in one corner of the passage. Those would be picked up by mother or one of the aunts and washed in the village pond where they used to go for bathing in the early morning hours.  We had mingled with the other boys in the school irrespective of caste distinctions. we had, therefore,  to take off the clothes before we entered the hall where the family deities were worshipped. These were the customs during those days. The purpose of these restrictions was perhaps to ensure a modicum of hygiene and  to avoid infections.
Every morning, before sunrise, the space in front of the house (courtyard) was swept clean with a broom by my mother or one of the aunts.  The courtyard was then sprinkled with water mixed with cow-dung which was supposed to have antiseptic properties.  After this,  the courtyard was embellished with  beautiful patterns,  known as kolam in Tamil,   created by drawing white lines, with rice powder,  around a series of symmetrically placed dots of rice powder.  This was an art form which the girls of the family used to cultivate and master at an early age.  Incidentally, the rice powder also fed ants which carried away tiny particles of rice powder in their tiny mouths.    
Another daily ritual was the lighting of  an earthen or bronze lamp just before evening twilight.  The lamp used to be lit by my mother or one of the aunts in front of the place where the family deities were worshipped.   Sesame oil with wicks of cotton  strands were used for lighting the lamp.  During the sandhya we children were expected to sit around the lamp and chant hymns in praise of the Lord.  Most of these hymns were in Sanskrit, composed by great acharyas like Sankara.  Habitual recitation enabled us to  chant them from memory without fully grasping their meaning.  The urge to learn the meaning of the stotras I had committed to memory provided the motivation for me to pursue the study of Sanskrit.  The meaning gradually dawned on me in later years as I learned the rudiments of the Sanskrit language and improved my Sanskrit vocabulary.
Those were days of black and white movies.  The actors themselves had to sing in  song- and-dance sequences. There was no  playback singing. Most of the movies were in Tamil and were made in Madras which was the capital of the Madras Presidency comprising the Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam speaking areas. The stories were drawn from the epics and the puranas of Hindu mythology. In the outskirts of our village we had a tent showing these movies.  It was named ‘Mookan Talkies’.  The word ‘Talkies’ in the name was  to emphasise the fact that they were not showing the silent movies of the earlier days but talking movies. 
For one anna one could secure a seat in the lowest class which was nothing but a thick layer of  fine sand from the river bed spread on the floor. Behind the spread of sand was a few rows of benches followed by rows of chairs on a slightly higher level.  I used to accompany the auntie next door who never used to miss a movie.  My mother and the aunts visited the makeshift cinema only on very rare occasions.  My grandfather frowned on such entertainment.  
The cinema  owned a jeep which was used for driving through the village distributing notices of movies to be screened.  A band used to play in the jeep blaring out music through loudspeakers.  Children ran behind the jeep collecting notices. Half the story of the movie was narrated in the notice. Readers were asked to see the other  half on the silver screen.  Outside the cinema hall little booklets containing the  songs in the movie used to be  sold for a small change.
 In the village was a halfwit who lived alone and did odd jobs for the villagers for whatever they gave him.  He was known as chozhiya Narayanan, chozhiya being a sub caste of brahmins.  He had a push cart in which he used to carry and deliver the lunch boxes of students in the Highs school. He got paid monthly for this service. He could not count or do mental arithmetic.  There were some who exploited this inability of his.  He used to draw water from the common village  well for some of the residents.  He saw every show in the makeshift cinema hall sitting absolutely in the front near the screen.  The cinema charged him only for the first show.  The other shows were  free for him.  
The village was also visited frequently by the bioscope man who came with his equipment.  For a quarter of one anna he showed pictures of towns, cities, places of pilgrimage, temples, rivers, mountains, sea beaches, natural beauty spots, animals and various other things of interest to children.  We used to crowd around him waiting for our turn with one quarter of an anna in our hand.
Looking back on those days, I realise how much  the value of the rupee has been eroded over the past  7 decades.  A family of two adults and 2 children could subsist on  rupees fifteen, a ridiculously paltry sum by the standards of the 21st century.      My grandfather used to get a sack-full of vegetables for four annas (the equivalent of Rs. 0.25 now) from the weekly shanty those days.   Once I remember to have picked up a one-anna coin  (1/16th of a rupee)  which  my mother had kept  in the kitchen.  I went to the grocery shop and   asked for jaggery (lumps of raw unrefined sugar) for one anna.  I thought I would get a few small lumps to eat.  Instead, the shopkeeper packed almost half a kilo of jaggery  and gave it to me. I did not know what to do with it. I took it home and gave it to my mother.  Hearing my story she laughed  and,  in mock anger,  warned me against pinching  money from the kitchen.  Rupees fifteen which in the 1930s could support a family of two adults and two children for a month cannot now (in 2010) buy even a litre of milk or a litre of bottled mineral water.  

Monday, November 29, 2010


Our family lived in an ancestral house owned by my grandfather.  The house was built, as was the case with most other houses in the village,  according to the ancient science of ‘Vastu’.  It was an East-facing two-storey building with tiled sloping roofs to let the rain water to drain away completely. It had white-washed walls of brick and mortar with uneven finish.    The doors of the house were placed in such a way that from  the main door at the entrance you could see right through the door opening on to the backyard.  The steps leading to the main door were flanked by open raised platforms sheltered only by an overhead roof. The idea was to provide shelter to any lone wayfarer who  wanted to rest  his weary limbs there without disturbing the inmates.  Entering through the main door, one  stepped into a narrow passage-like room with a door leading into the central area of the house. The room had a ceiling of wooden boards.  

Adjacent to the passage, to the North,  was a room used as a granary  for storing paddy.  On the side facing the passage it was covered by wooden boards up to a height of four feet.  Above that were wooden boards moving vertically in grooves made in the wooden frame.  These boards could be removed when required.  The ceiling of the granary was also of wooden boards.  For taking out the paddy one had to slide  the removable boards in their groove, lift them up and put them aside and get down into the room from a height of four feet.  The removable boards would be put back after taking out the paddy. The granary was completely weather-proof.   I remember an occasion when, during an unusually heavy monsoon, the rain splashed the open rooms around the nadumuttam.  These were the rooms where we slept in the night.  The downpour had not left any area inside the house dry.   We opened the granary which was weather-proof and all of us huddled together in that small space and slept there for the rest of the night oblivious of the fury of the rain outside.

Adjacent to the above granary, to the North,  was a store room.  It was pitch dark inside as there were no windows.  One had to carry a lamp into the room  to  take out things when needed.  An year’s or six months’ requirement of Items like edible oils, jaggery, pulses and spices were bought and stocked in this room when the prices were low after the harvest.  The room was closed most of the time and was opened only for periodical replenishment of the stock in the kitchen. Some times I used to sneak into this room to pinch pieces of jaggery which I used to share with the other children.   

As one entered the central area of the house there was a rectangular depression or trench in the floor.   This was known as the nadumuttam and was  five feet long, four feet wide and two feet deep.  The bottom and the sides were lined  with rough-hewn granite slabs.  Parapets had been built on three sides with one  side open.  A  bucket of water and a mug used to be kept at the open side for the inmates or guests to wash their faces, hands or feet. The nadumuttam thus functioned as a wash basin.  It was a standard architectural feature  in almost all the houses in the village.  It was built  open to the sky and during the rains water poured through the opening above. Occasional heavy downpours splashed the surrounding open rooms. One could bathe in the nadumuttam on occasions when one could not go to the  pond or river for bathing.  One had  to stand in the nadumuttam  and pour water on oneself after applying soap or rubbing the body with a wet towel.  Hardly a house in the village had a separate bathroom the need for which was seldom felt as every one including women bathed in one of the village tanks (ponds) or in the river a few kilometres away.

Adjacent to the nadumuttam, to the North, and separated from it by a wooden lattice was the main hall of the house.  On the North-West corner of this hall was a built-in cupboard in the wall where the sivalingam, saligramam and idols representing the gods in the Hindu pantheon were kept for worship. There was, in the hall, a triangular opening in the common wall with the neighbour’s house.  This facilitated communication between the occupants of the two houses without  one having to go out of the main door.  In the South-East corner of the hall,  under the stairs leading to the first floor, was the place where my paternal grandfather slept during the night. My paternal grandmother slept in the space adjacent to the nadumuttam, to the East.  Others slept in the main hall on mats woven from palm leaves. Pillows filled with a cotton-like substance obtained from a tree were used for resting one’s head. Cotton sheets were used as bedspreads and also to cover oneself in winter and during the rains.  The mats were spread on the floor; cots were not used to avoid cluttering the space.  Moreover, in the hot summer, a few preferred to sleep on the red-oxide coated  bare floor that was cool and smooth,  with only a pillow to rest the head.  I was  among them though my grandmother used to dissuade me from sleeping on the bare floor.  We had no electricity in the village and only hand-held fans made of palm leaves gave us relief from the heat. After we woke up early morning,  the mats with the cotton sheets and pillows were rolled up and stacked away in a wooden loft in the main hall.  Those sheets and pillows were not to be touched after you have had your morning bath.  They were retrieved only in the night when one wanted to sleep.    
Adjacent to the hall, to the West, was the kitchen where food for the family was prepared on mud ovens using firewood. This was no mean task especially when the firewood was not dry as usually happens during the rains.  My mother or the aunts often choked from the smoke emanating from the oven.  The smoke also  hurt their eyes.  My mother used to blow into the oven through a cylindrical hollow metal pipe to ignite the firewood.  Many times this was quite an ordeal for the women of the family. Attached  to the kitchen  was an open  well from which we used to draw water using  a rope- and- pulley system and a  bucket or a pot of copper or brass.  The water from the well was used for cooking as well as for drinking.  There was a window opening out to the well which was closed during the night. This was the only window in the entire house.  Glass panes had been fixed  in a couple of  places in the roof to let in sunlight into the main hall.
Adjacent to the nadumuttam, to the West, was a small room for the women to stay during their monthly periods.  They were not allowed into the other parts of the house until they bathed and changed into freshly washed clothes after three days.
The main room upstairs was used as a bedroom by my parents during my father’s visit.  My uncles, with their wives,  occupied the upstairs room when it was their turn to visit us.  At other times every one slept in the main hall. A small room upstairs was used by my grand father.  He kept his personal things in the room.  These included books  of vedic mantras in grantha script and hymns like vishnusahasranama.  His clothes, mainly dhoties and angavastrams, were also kept here, neatly folded, in a wooden box.  He used this  as a reading room and also took rest here on occasions.
The backyard of the house extended to about forty feet.  The neighbouring house to our North had also a backyard of equal length.  There was no fence between the two backyards.  Adjacent to the backyards, to the North,  was a pond which was used by a few  villagers for bathing and washing clothes.  We could from our backyard get down to the pond for bathing but we preferred the other ponds in the village which had better facilities and better water quality.  There were a few coconut palms in a row in the backyard.  Once in a while we engaged a person skilled in climbing these trees and plucking the coconuts. The coconuts from these trees were used in making delicious sambar and other vegetarian dishes.
Vastu did not approve of toilets inside or in the proximity of  the house. Makeshift, primitive toilets were located away from the main house.  They were nothing but pits dug in the ground with planks placed across the pit for people to squat. The place was curtained with cotton  or sack cloth tied around four poles driven into the ground. One had to carry water in a bucket or other vessel  to the toilet in order to wash one’s behind, hand and feet.  Children relieved themselves at the far end of the backyard which was fenced in by thorny  bushes.
The house had already started showing signs of crumbling about the time I am talking about.  During the rainy season, the roof used to leak and we had to keep  pots or similar vessels to collect the dripping water from the roof. The plaster on the walls was peeling off and the stairs were creaking. All this bore eloquent testimony to the straitened circumstances of the family. 

Sunday, November 28, 2010


My grand mother was about sixty five at about this time. She had a fair complexion unlike my grandfather who had a light dark complexion.  She was taller than my grandfather  but had a stoop which concealed her real height.  She used to narrate to us grandchildren stories from the Epics and Puranas.  She never interfered in the affairs of the house and never bossed over her daughters-in-law.  Most of the time she would be silently chanting,  namassivaya, meaning ‘prostrations to Lord Siva’.  Most nights grand mother couldn’t get a wink of sleep until the wee hours of the morning
My paternal grand father was in his early  seventies during this period.   His day started at around 4 in the morning.  He recited the Vishnu Sahasranama ( the hymn containing the thousand names of Lord Vishnu) every morning.   He walked a distance of 6 KM in the morning for bathing in the river.  After bathing in the river,  he performed Sandhyavandanam  (the morning prayers which include the chanting of the Gayatri mantra) sitting on the bed of the river where it was sandy and dry.  He then offered prayers  at the Siva temple situated on the bank of the river. On the way back he plucked flowers for worship from the plants on the road-side fences using a hook tied at the end of a long thin bamboo stick which he carried with him.  Reaching home, he worshipped the Lord in his aspects as  Siva, Ambika, Vishnu, Ganesha and the Sun God  (known as the panchayatana puja).  The worship involved  invoking the Lord in the various symbols like Linga, Salagarma, Sphatika  etc. and offering 16 upacharas chanting Vedic mantras.   The food to be offered symbolically to the Lord in the worship was cooked by one of his daughters-in-law who,  clean in body and mind after bathing  and chanting prayers, did the job with the utmost devotion. After the Puja grandfather  retired for some rest.  He had early lunch at about 10 o’ clock as he did not take any breakfast. He ate only the rice offered in the puja along with sambar, rasam and cooked vegetables prepared for the day.  He made the rice into small balls,  dipped the rice balls  in sambar and gulped them down  without chewing.    Sometimes my grand mother used to comment on this habit of his saying ‘one day this man is going to be choked when the ball of rice gets stuck in his throat’. 
In his younger days grandfather had walked the whole distance of about 2500 kilometres from our village to Varanasi.   He had left the house with a friend, wihout telling any one at home,  taking only a few clothes and may be some cash.  Later on, people at home came to know about his whereabouts only from a third person.   Those days one could get food at temples  and dharmashalas where they could rest for the night also. He must have prayed at all the temples en route.  I was told he reached Varanasi in 6 months or so.  While returning he covered part of the journey by rail since railways had started operating on some sectors.     
Grandfather was hard of hearing.  My help was sought for any  message to be conveyed to him. I used to deliver the message in a loud voice close to his ears.  This habit resulted in my inability in later years to talk in whispers or even at a normal decibel level while in conversation with others.  Many times, in later years, after I myself had become a grandfather,   one of my grand daughters used to ask  “Thatha, why do you shout?  speak normally.’’  I had to explain to her the history and the reason for the loudness of my voice.
I used to run errands for my grand father.  Some times he used to send me to buy idlis from a household in the village where the woman used to make idlis for sale.  My commission to carry out this errand was in the form of two idlis.  I was always ready to run these errands because of the commission.  Grandfather used to get eatables like crunchy murukku and cheedai  made at home by his daughters-in-law exclusively for his use.   The eatables made for him were put in air tight containers and kept in his room upstairs so that he could eat them whenever he liked without disturbing the other inmates of the house.
In the peak of summer,  with temperature at 40°  Celsius, grandfather used to cover himself head to foot with a light woollen shawl and expose himself to the scorching  sun for several minutes extending up to one hour sometimes.  To this day we couldn’t find out how he was able to accomplish such a feat. 
Grandpa was a votary of kindness to animals.  Any cart man overloading his cart, driving it through the village and whipping the bullocks to make them pull the load, was sure to invite his wrath.  During the mango season he used to buy basketfuls of ripe mangoes and distribute them among the children of the village.  He used to give boys of the village problems from Lilavati, a treatise on Mathematics in Sanskrit by Bhaskaracharya. 
Grand father was a great disciplinarian.  He insisted that we return home, wherever we might be in the village, by the time the evening worship in the village temple was over.  We knew the doors would be closed if we did not return in time.  Without ever scolding us or punishing us he held us in fear of his punishment if we transgress the rules laid down by him.
Grandmother, by contrast, was very affectionate and never scolded us even when we were naughty. The younger children preferred to lie by her side during  the night and she put them to sleep.   Whenever I got an opportunity during the night I would nestle up to her and, hearing  stories from the epics narrated by her,  quietly slip into sleep.  I also learnt some of the prayers she used to recite. One of her favourite prayers in Sanskrit ran like this:
                            anaayaasena maranam vinaa dainyena jeevanam
                            dehi me kripayaa shambho twayi bhaktim achanchalaam

                                 अनायासेन मरणं विना दैन्येन जीवनम्। 
                                 देहि मे कृपया शंभो त्वयि भक्तिमचञ्चलाम् ॥                         

“O Lord!  Please give me an easy and painless death,  a life without abject dependence on others and unwavering and loving devotion to you” 
The Lord did grant her what she wished.  She had a peaceful  death free from any kind of suffering.  That was my first encounter with the reality of death.  When her body was being carried for cremation, we grand children followed it with lighted torches for a few yards.   We were not allowed to go to the cremation ground.  My eldest uncle lit the funeral pyre and for full 13 days after her death there were rituals to do for the peace of the departed soul.  
The final rites on the 12th day were performed at Perur near Trichur in Kerala.  That was the first time I saw a train when we stayed at Trichur as guests of one of my father’s friends.  While in Trichur, I had unknowingly taken out some currency notes from my father’s shirt pocket and left them somewhere outside.  Luckily,  after some search,  the money was recovered.  Otherwise, all of us would have been in a soup not having a penny to return home.  I was afraid of a severe scolding from my  father  but he did not have a single word of rebuke for me. 
When my grand father was about 80 years of age, my youngest brother fell seriously ill with double pneumonia. His body was reduced to a skeleton.  Those days medical science was not as advanced as it is today.  My maternal grand father, who had a good knowledge of the Ayurvedic system of medicine, was treating him to the best of his ability.  We were desperately fighting for my brother’s life.  It was at this juncture that grand father quietly passed away after a sleepless night during which he kept on drinking very hot water. After the death of my grand father my brother’s recovery began and gradually he attained his normal health.  It did look as if my grand father had sacrificed his life to give a new life to my brother. As far as I knew, grand father had not  been  bed-ridden even for a single day in his life. His departure left a void in our life which we couldn’t fill for quite some time.

Saturday, November 27, 2010


My mother’s parents stayed in a village about 4 miles from our village.  I used to accompany my mother when she visited her parents.  We used to cover the distance on foot in about an hour and a half.   After walking along the narrow embankments of paddy fields for about a mile we used to reach a pucca road leading to the village.   Occasionally we used to take a bus plying on this road.  It left us half a mile away from my mother’s village.  We then covered the distance on foot.  During summer the journey was tiring  because of the sweltering heat.  At a couple of places along the roadside there were small huts ( known as  tanneer pandal in Tamil ) where you could get drinking water stored in earthen pots to keep the water cool.  At times diluted buttermilk was offered to wayfarers to quench their thirst.   At places along the road,  stone structures had been put up to help people carrying heavy loads on their head. These were made of granite slabs of 5 feet each by placing two of them vertically, 4.5 feet apart, and placing  the third one on the top.   Those carrying heavy loads on their head  could offload their burden on these structures and rest a while.   These things had been arranged by persons of a philanthropic bent of mind.   Hindus believed that such acts earned them punya resulting  in material and spiritual benefits
My maternal grandparents lived in a house which was owned by  their eldest daughter-in-law.  My maternal uncle had qualified as  a Sastri,  an honour conferred on one who had studied the Vedas and the ancient scriptures of the Hindus in Sanskrit following the traditional system of learning.  He was employed as a teacher of the Sanskrit language in one of the schools at Madurai in the state of Tamilnadu in India. His wife had come from a comparatively affluent family. She had a condescending attitude towards her sisters-in-law including my mother.  Naturally, my mother and her elder sisters did not like this attitude of hers.
My mother’s elder sister had been widowed early in her life.  Her husband had been in a government job as a registrar.  He was interested in Ayurveda. He, along with my maternal grandfather, had made a study of the ancient treatises on Ayurveda. Since the texts were in Sanskrit, my grandfather’s knowledge of that language proved useful. Together they used to prepare many standard Ayurvedic  formulations explained in the texts,  Unfortunately,  the  untimely death of his son-in-law wrenched my grandfather’s heart.  He had to make provision for his widowed daughter and her five teenage children. With a heavy heart, he got jobs for his three grandchildren in a hotel at Tirupur.  He put up my widowed aunt ( i.e. my mother’s elder sister) and her daughters in a rented house in the same village as his. 
I used to enjoy grandfather’s company during our visits.  He had many interesting anecdotes to narrate from his life. He had faced many trials and tribulation in life and had met them with a stout heart .  On one occasion, he travelled on foot the whole distance of 950  kilometres  from Kanyakumari to Gokarnam, on the west cost of South India,  praying at all the temples on the way seeking  peace of mind.  He had an inexhaustible stock of Sanskrit verses from the Upanishads, the Gita, the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata as well as from the classics of poets like Kalidasa, Bhasa, Bhavabhuti, Bharavi, Magha and Harsha.   He used them to good effect during his conversations and explained to me their meaning and the poetic beauty of expression.  My association with him kindled in me the desire to seriously pursue the study of Sanskrit. An Upanishadic quotation I heard from him is indelibly imprinted in my memory:
      Yathaa nadyah syandamaanaa samudre
      astham gachanthi naamaroope vihaaya
      Tathaa vidwaan namaroopaad vimuktah
      paraatparam purushamupaiti divyam

     यथा नद्यः स्यन्दमाना समुद्रे 
           अस्तं गच्छन्ति नामरूपे विहाय।
      तथा विद्वान् नामरूपाद्विमुक्तः 
            परात्परं  पुरुषमुपैति दिव्यम्॥


Just as rivers empty themselves into the ocean and become one with the ocean shedding their names and forms so too men of wisdom attain the Supreme Brahman transcending all names and forms.

Grandfather introduced me to sreeramodantam  a simple composition in Sanskrit widely used in Kerala those days as an introductory text for Sanskrit studies. It started with the invocation:
                         Sreepatim pranipatyaaham
                         Sreevatsaankita vakshasam
                         Sreevalmeeki prakeertitam  

                          श्रीपतिं   प्रणिपत्याहं श्रीवत्साङ्कित वक्षसम्।                      
                          श्रीरामोदन्तमाख्यास्ये  श्री वाल्मीकिप्रकीर्तितम्॥
I Offer my salutations to Vishnu whose consort is Lakshmi and on whose chest is  the mark of srivatsa and narrate,  in brief,  the story of Rama which has been expounded by Valmiki.
Sivanandalahari by Sankara was a favourite of grandfather who used to chant this stotra every evening.  One of the slokas he narrated to me was:
                 Maa gachcha twam itastato girisha bho mayyeva vaasam kuru
                 Swaamin aadikiraata maamaka manah kaantaara seemaantare
                 Vartante bahusho mrugaah maatsarya mohaadayah
                 Taan hatwaa mrugayaa vinoda ruchita laabham cha samprapsyasi

                                 मा गच्छ त्वमितस्ततो गिरिश भो मय्येव वासं कुरु

                                       स्वामिन्नादिकिरात मामक मनःकान्तारसीमान्तरे।

                                  वर्तन्ते बहुशो मृगाः मदजुषो मात्सर्य मोहादयः

                                       तान् हत्वा मृगया  विनोदरुचिता लाभं च संप्राप्स्यसि॥                   
In this sloka Sankara is addressing Lord Shiva thus:   “ O Girisha! do not go here and there in search of a place to live. Please make my heart your permanent abode. You are the ancient hunter (aadi kiraata).  Within the confines my heart which is like a forest many intoxicated animals like matsarya ( fierce competition)  and moha (delusion) freely roam around.  You will certainly enjoy the sport of hunting them and killing them”. 
 He had a fairly good knowledge of herbal medicines used in Ayurveda.  He used to quote a sloka eulogising the qualities of haritaki (harra in Hindi, terminalia chebula in English):

Dasha vaidya sama patnee
Dasha patnee samo ravi

Dasha soorya sama maata
Dasha maataa hareetakee

दश वैद्य समा पत्नी दश पत्नी समो रविः

दश सूर्य समा माता दश माता हरीतकी॥

In the matter of helping a patient recover from his disease, the wife is equal to ten physicians, the Sun is equal to ten wives, the mother is equal to ten Suns and haritaki is equal to ten mothers.
Once when one side of the body of my youngest uncle was paralysed grandfather  treated him with his Ayurvedic medicines and by the application of medicinal oils for massaging the body. The treatment continued for two or three months after which my uncle became completely well. Those days it looked like a miracle. 
My grandfather had interest also in astrology.  According to him the planetary positions in my horoscope were very good and he predicted that I would do well in life.  Jupiter in the constellation Cancer and Moon in Taurus were ascendant in my horoscope  Sun in Leo was in his own house.  These planets will have beneficial influence on my life.
My  maternal grandparents led a simple life.  Their eldest son helped them financially only occasionally.   The second son was working as the master chef  in one of the small  hotels at Mandya in the State of Karnataka in India.  He was still a bachelor.  He used to send every month ten or twelve rupees which,  those days,  was enough for two adults.  Grandfather also earned some money from patients who used the Ayurvedic medicines prepared by him. He grew vegetables in the backyard of the house.   He set an example in ‘simple living and high thinking’.  It was during this period that his second son’s  marriage was arranged with a girl at Vaikom in Kerala where there is a famous Siva temple.  My mother and I travelled to vaikom along with the bridegroom’s party.  We went to Ernakulam by bus and from there boarded a motorboat to Vaikom.  We sailed through the backwaters of Kerala lined with coconut palms on both the banks.  Rafts criss-crossed the backwaters selling tender coconuts.  We bought a few tender coconuts and quenched our thirst with their sweet water enjoying the scenic beauty of Kerala known as ‘God’s own country’.
My father joined us later for the marriage celebrations spread over four days in those days.  We travelled to Trichur by bus and from there took a train to Palghat, 80 KM away.  It was my first experience of travel by train.  I was fascinated  and over-awed by the steam engine.  I noticed with wonderment houses, trees and paddy fields flying past us as the train sped towards Palghat.  We reached our destination in about an hour.  From there we took a bus to Alathur. Reaching Alathur, we walked the distance to our village.
During the Navaratri I used to visit my grandparents.  There was a special reason for this.  Navaratri was celebrated at the temple as in other places.  Prasadam was given for each and every member of the family, including guests,  whether they were present at the temple or not.  Only one member had to go to the temple to collect prasadam for all.  In our village only those who were physically present during prasadam distribution got it.  My grandfather used to collect my share which my grandmother gave me next  morning.  After eating the prasadam grandmother used to give me rice with curd to counteract any ill effect of sugar or oil in the prasadam.  The rice had been cooked the previous night for dinner and the left over rice had been put in an earthen pot and soaked in water.  This was what grandma used to give with curds after my taking the prasadam.  
Whatever my grandmother cooked was very tasty.  She cooked fresh vegetables with the minimum of dal and coconut but it  tasted great.   Partly this might  have been due to the soil and water of the place but  definitely grandmother’s touch added to the taste.  People used to say that she had kaimanam  meaning her hands gave whatever she cooked great flavour and taste. Whenever a guest came without prior information grandmother would take a piece of yam grown in the back yard, cut it into small pieces, and grind it with grated coconut and green chillies and salt.  Add a little curd and seasoning with mustard seeds and the arachukalakki  was ready .   Cook some rice and fry some papad.  The lunch was ready for the guest in less than an hour.  Those days they did not have pressure cookers and mixer grinders.  If they had them the lunch could have been made ready in 20 minutes.
Unlike my paternal grandmother my maternal grandmother died early. She was chronically bed-ridden during her last days.  My grandfather was treating her with his Ayurvedic medicines but her condition continued to deteriorate.  I was attending to her when one of her granddaughters ( my mother’s widowed sister’s daughter ) was getting married.  Everyone was worried that nothing should happen to my  grandmother before the marriage ceremony was over. Grandmother was not in a position to take part in the marriage.  Since every one else was participating in the function I was asked to be near my grandmother and take care of her.  I was about eight or nine years old at that time.  When my grandmother died shortly afterwards I accompanied the body to the cremation ground along with the others. I, as her grandson, followed the body torch in hand. My eldest maternal uncle lit the funeral pyre. That was the first time I had seen a dead body being burnt in the cremation ground. Every one stayed on until the body was completely burnt.  Then followed the after-death rituals spread over 12 days followed by the 13th day  rituals which were auspicious unlike the previous twelve days.