Through the years

From the albums

Through the years

The occasion for this group photograph was my youngest uncle’s wedding on July 2, 1961. I cannot forget the faux pas my father committed while inviting a distant relative.

Putting the card into the relative’s hand, my father said, “Second, marriage, do attend”, implying the marriage was on the second. The relative, not understanding this, raised a commiserating eyebrow and enquired: “Oh, what happened to the first wife?” Fortunately, for my uncle, this marriage has been  the first and the only one, at least, so far!

My grandparents, seated in the middle, the genesis of us Nadigs, were a lovable couple. We suspected that our grandmother, an herbalist of sorts, would be waiting for illness to strike a family member so that she could show off her healing prowess. Whiff of a cough, whimper of a headache or indigestion — out she would rush, pluck some herbs, crush and pour its juice down the throat of the ailing child or the adult. And, good God, would it not work! But poor thing! When she was herself afflicted by pernicious anaemia, neither her own concoctions nor medication of famous doctors could come to her rescue. Despite the wasting disease, she tolerated our pranks, however annoying. My sister and I would divide her thin hair into two parts and plait it. This made her look pathetic but her eyes would well up, lips quiver and her voice would become hoarse. She was indeed grateful for the diversion.

My grandfather, a contrast to my grandmother, was robust of health,  an epicurean in food and clothes, and a darling. At the break of day, he would recite ‘Bhaja Govindam’ and a few other random ‘shlokas’ in his resounding voice. Midway, he’d shout, “Malu’’, which was his name for me. I knew what was coming! I’d spring out of bed, run into his room and tap his shirt pocket for the missing snuff box. Snuff box found, we’d both wink and laugh. Afternoons, after lunch, he would snore in his siesta.

My brothers, standing by him, would incessantly call ‘thata’, just to bother him. Shocked out of sleep, he’d utter a curt “what?” Pretending innocence, my brothers would both pipe in, “just checking whether you’re sleeping.” Wouldn’t he be angry? Curses would cascade which would momentarily turn into laughter. But one enduring picture we have of the old soul is him reclining in an easy chair with the ‘Deccan Herald’ of the day held aloft with both his hands, reading aloud titbits of news for our edification.

One girl and four boys! True, my grandparents didn’t subscribe to family planning! My aunt was a charming woman and was adored by all. Who can forget her “tuttuoota”? We’d sit in a circle and within minutes, barrels of food would vanish. I can’t move on with the family history without reminiscing a happening. It was December 21,1962, the day the world was supposed to end in a ‘pralaya’ and imagine where my siblings and I were — in Chennai, right by the sea! I was away from my parents for the first time in my life and not relishing the prospect of dying alone, I wept. My aunt and her husband rushed to my side and comforted me. My uncle, a tall, athletic man, assured me how when the waters gushed out of the Bay of Bengal, he’d swim with me on his back, to Bangalore. Assured, I slept like a child. Today, before typing my memories I checked with my aunt whether her husband knew swimming. “No,” she said. Thankfully, I didn’t think of checking that night!

My father was the first son and he chose to become a police officer. To this day, he is the only police officer I know, who could obtain a confession from a convict after feeding him ‘obbattu’. My uncles were really cool. While one was an expert in making a pathetic concoction he called ‘weak tea’, the other would horse around and learn bharathanatyam steps from us.
My grandmother died and her body was carried off in a Corporation van, which proved to be an expensive affair. My uncle, the tea maker, trying to break the gloom said, “When I die, don’t order a corporation van, I‘ll walk off to the crematorium.” My siblings and I did not know how to comfort ourselves, as the elders brooded. Noticing, our discomfort, our dancing uncle bundled us off into an auto to the then sensational ‘Circarama’.

Since the grandparents stayed with us, our house was what my father called the ‘Head Quarters’. Come vacations, some uncle or aunt with family would troop in. During their stay, my sweet mother would make mango sheekarane with poori and the entire ‘khandaan’ would slurp it. Together, we’d have oodles of fun and before the schools reopened, we would invariably put up plays. Our all time favourites were ‘Bhaktha Dhruva’ and ‘The Bishop’s Candle Sticks’. While I was Surachi, the bad queen in ‘Bhaktha Dhruva’, I was the humble servant in the other.

I still feel cheated because I didn’t fancy either role. However, the family would surround me and convince me how primal my roles were.  “If there is no Surachi, there is no Dhruva and no Dhruva ‘Nakshatra’.” Extending the same logic, they would say how if there was no maid servant, there would be no ‘Bishop’s Candlesticks’. And the play would go on and I’d push Dhruva off the king’s lap with more gusto, and wipe the floor with greater vigour.  We had and have our share of ups and downs. When down, we get up, square our shoulder and face the world and when up, we regard life as a joy ride. 

Jyothi Natarajan
(The author can contacted at jyojyon@gmail.com)

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