A boy’s take of life in early days
It was a big, very big joint family. The palatial house in Krishnarao Agraharam, where I was born, was the property of Thor-thatha and Laan-thatha (big (meaning elder here) and small (meaning younger) grandfather, two brothers whose estate was very big, this house being the capital of their kingdom. They were maternal uncles to my maternal grandpa. Legally I don’t inherit a brick of that house, but emotionally every one of us children who grew up there owned the entire house.
The house itself was divided into three parts. The first part was the living apartments. The second one was granary and service area. Third one was reserved area. I will explain later.
As long as the two thathas were there, the atmosphere was strictly religious. I was born after the Thor-thatha, so I know and can write only about the time of the Laan-thatha. His presence in the house would keep everyone on toes. Devotional song would be relayed in the hall through a speaker, connected to the radio in thatha’s room. Such arrangement was very high-tech then. When Pooja to the Deity of the house, Lord Nrusimha was nearing completion, one of the kitchen staff would strike the bronze gong at a particular rhythm, calling everyone to attend to the Haarathi. Then food was served on banana leaves spread in rows throughout the hall. There would at least be 30 to 40 people on any day having food there, and on festival days the entire Brahmin community in the neighbourhood would eat there. No invitations. All would come to partake of the holy Prasad. There was no dearth of anything. This was for the elders, who could suppress their hunger and wait for the pooja to get over at its own pace. This was also only for the day time. On special occasions, the number of people partaking food would run into several hundreds.
For children like us and others who cannot wait, and for dinner, there was a separate batch where simple food would be prepared and served. I remember a Kamalabai who used to cook and serve for a long time in this ‘vowla’ batch. When the number of people was high, which it used to be during summer holidays, we had dinner in the third portion mentioned above, leaves spread in a row along the walls of rooms there. In order to save time, instead of serving items one by one, Kamalabai was asked to pre-mix and serve. I remember Badri (Gopa’s brother) taking the lead during one particular holiday when it was election time too. As soon as the leaves were spread and all diners sat, he would start shouting in a high-pitched tone: “Vote For”. All the other children were shout back in chorus “Sambar Bath”! As soon as eating that was over, he would again shout “Vote For” and we would shout back “Saar Bath”. Like that, dinner would continue amid a cacophony of calls of various items from all of us. Then we would all retire to bed, on a huge, thick sheet of what is called Jamakkalam, under the old dome-fan in the hall, sharing stories. Once in a bluemoon, in the middle of the night, we would awake to the shrill cries of a type of tree-dwelling civets (“mara-naai” meaning tree-dog in Tamil), fighting each other on something.
Getting up early was imposed on us, because the hall was to be readied for the religious activities every morning. We would wake up to the sound and smell of – no, not coffee, but fresh banana leaves arriving in bundles and getting unloaded/dropped on the porch of the hall. As soon as we got ready after brushing teeth, Vaitha would bring a huge circular tray full of tumblers filled with cow’s milk, hot, sweet-smelling and tasty. I used to allow it to cool under the fan, let the layer of fat collect, and then scoop it and eat it. The milk was so good that this process could be repeated several times. Others would take Bournvita, Ovaltine, Cocoa, Horlicks, etc. to their choice. Everything was available.
Once the beverage was over, we would spread out, mostly to the front yard where there was a huge tree with fragrant white flowers, called “Panneer Pushpam”. It was a type of tree-jasmine, very fragrant and very delicate. The whole street would carry the scent of this flower in the early morning. The children’s job was to shake the tree, collect the flowers and give them to the elders for adding to the pooja material. The other flower we were often asked to collect was “magizhampoo” from Kalu athya’s garden, which again was extra-ordinarily fragrant, getting more so as it dried. Then the boys and girls would separate their ways for their own games.
We would also watch with interest, for a brief while, two smiling men, cut the banana leaves to the required numbers and sizes. What was interesting, for us then, was that both of them – they were brothers – were completely mute – deaf and dumb, but were so charming and communicative that they would engage us for a while with their sign language and hearty smile.
We boys used to wander in the large “bagh” behind, home to a variety of trees and plants you could never see in the city, amid rows and rows of coconut and palm trees. We also used to play in the pile of haystacks, often hiding mangoes we had stolen from the trees (though nobody bothered about it), to ripe there for a few days and eat them later. Sometimes, we would land on others’ catch too, and sometimes we found our stash missing too.
Occasionally, we used take bath in the huge cement tub meant for storing water for bathing the cattle, to take extended dips during scorching summer heat. We would first plug the drain hole with a bunch of hay, and then switch on the motor pump. Standing in the tub, we would show our heads one by one to the forceful flow of water from the pump, until the tub was full, which was about chest-high for us then. Once the tub was full, then we would start climbing the wall and jumping in as if it was a swimming pool, and make merry for hours together, completely losing track of time.
The afternoons, when all the elders would be asleep after a heavy meal, would be reserved for our stealthy explorations. The huge house, with so many rooms upstairs, gave us enough room for adventure for any length of time. Of particular interest was the narrow, dimly lit, long and steep passageway upstairs from the main hall, and the winding stairs to the grandfather-clocks room from the entrance hall. All the rooms had exquisite antique things- furniture, chests of drawer with beautiful glass handles of different colours, and innumerable fancy things inside those drawers which we ogled with wide eyes and deep desire, but did not have the courage to even touch. The grandfather clocks, several of them, were stacked in one of the bigger rooms upstairs. All of them had huge chains with two big cylindrical counterweights and the ends to act as the key mechanism.
We also used to admire several beautiful paintings, which we we later understood were originals by Ravi Varma. One of them was a huge painting of a mother lying with closed eyes either immersed in some pleasant memories or enjoying the feeding of her baby. As small boys, we would often pause and pass an unsure and shy look at her open breasts and at the sight of someone approaching, would quickly run away!
The huge hall, two-storey high, would smell of the fragrant “Nagalinga” flowers offered to the various Gods in huge frames. The rosewood or magagony tables would put polished mirror to shame. The country tiles would breathe and keep the hall cool even in the hottest of summers.
Another area of interest was the occasional trips out, either to cinemas or for festivals in the neighbourhood. Thatha had a Dodge car, and trips to places a little away, such as Idaichumoolai, a village where all his agri-land was, would be on this car. For other places, we used bullock-carts. Riding on them was fun. Cramped in the small cart, we rode through the busy town streets shouting and chatting, and constantly bugging Krishnamoorthy to poke the back of the bullock with the pin-tipped stick in order for it to run faster. I remember when the famous MGR movie Adimai-penn was released, the town was allotted only one copy of the film rolls, but it was released in to theatres – Diamond and Jupiter, if I am right. It was believed that the owners of the theatres planned and timed the show in their theatres in such a way that as soon as one roll of the film was finished at one theatre, it was immediately taken on a bicycle to the other theatre (I don’t remember seeing any two-wheelers in those days, bicycle was the fastest means of common man’s transport).
Can you forget the river? A trip to Kumbakonam would not be complete without a visit to the river, when the water was neck-deep. The river was fairly wide at the Vittal Mandhir ghat. Though the flow would appear slow, it would just push you back when you stand in the water, and you had to strain hard to get a good foothold on the sand beneath and push your way forward in order to remain at the same place! The cold water in the hot sun would feel like heaven, we just would not wish get out of the water, until a servant from the house appeared on the back with strict instructions to pull us out and get us home!
We enjoyed summer rains the most in Kumbakonam. Almost every other or third day the skies would darken, thunder clouds would gather and heavy rains would pour for an hour or two. The house was well ventilated with open spaces in between, neatly equipped with spouts and drains to collect and discharge the rain water. We would make paper boats, let them float at the first point of water discharge in the hall, and follow it through to the kitchen and to the back yard, repeating the process several times until the flow of water stopped.
The hall also featured a broad wooden plank swing, on which my grandma would sleep in the afternoons. In the evenings, all the relatives would sit on the plank, sometimes even 10 to 12 people sitting tightly close and holding each other over the shoulder for support, a couple of us taking turns to alight and push the swing to dangerous heights, much to the thrill of the adventurous and to the bewilderment of the weak and timid. Both elders and children would scream at the top of our voice at the thrill of the swing ride. Occasionally, we have had minor mishaps also, one or two of the riders falling from the swing and getting hurt, sometimes even hit by the returning swing. Despite such risks, the swing ride was always an enjoyable thrill.
The other pastime activity was playing dice with my grandma. She had a collection of exquisite, rare sea-shells which we used as coins or pawns for the game.
I learned to ride bicycle only in that house. When my cousin-uncle Suresh (my mother’s cousin by relation, but younger to me by age) left for school, he had a small (baby) bicycle and I took it to ride within the confines of the hall, around the central courtyard.
The Sidhdha medicine practitioner named “Milagu Vaithiar” would visit at least once when we were there for our annual visits. He used to carry a tin box tucked around his cloth-belt. The box contained several cylindrical vials of powders of all colours neat stacked. After the elders’ consultation with him was over, he would gather all the children around him and distribute a general, digestive mix of powder from his vials, neatly tapping the powder out from the vial on to small squares of paper and folding them into thin strips, to be eaten mixed with sugar or honey.
If I sit down and think back, I am sure it will kindle more and more of the wonderful memories of the beautiful past we had at this lovely place. Now the children who grew up there have all spread out. Some prospered well, some are managing to live. Only a few visit the house, that too not often. The house now looks bare and empty, bereft of all life and activity. The only life clinging to it seems to be the deity of the house, Lord Nrusimha, whose daily rituals are taken care of by the priest visiting every morning. And my aunt, who still lives there as a member of the families of the Trustees. Only nostalgic memories fill the otherwise hollow emptiness of its environs. What will eventually happen to this place, He only knows.