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Chapter 5: Growing up with father and grandfather

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Visalam Balasubramanian was born in Pollachi, on May 17, 1925. She was the second of three children. Having lost her mother at about age 2, she grew up with her siblings, cared for by her father who lived out his life as a widower in Erode. She was married in 1939. Her adult life revolved entirely around her husband and four children. She was a gifted vocalist in the Carnatic tradition, and very well read. Visalam passed away on February 20, 2005.

Editor's note: This is Part 5 of her memoirs, which have been edited for this website. Kamakshi Balasubramanian, her daughter, has added some parenthetical explanatory notes in italics.

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4

Business community

There was one Sheik Mohideen Saheb, a very soft spoken, timid person who had a shop selling clocks, gramophones, radios, electric torches, spectacles and accessories. He was very close to my father. He was one the very few who called my father சீனு ("Cheenu," short and familiar form of Srinivasan). He was every inch a Muslim. His headgear, shaven head, dress and footwear were always strictly Islamic. His sons were raised to be the same. My father was a staunch Brahmin believing wholeheartedly in the tenets of our heritage, teachings and culture. But their friendship was fast. Never once was there any clash of opinions. They even made fun of the other's customs occasionally.

On one occasion, when Sheik Mohideen was about to go bankrupt, my father secretly removed all the goods from his shop, and brought them into our house at dead of the night for safekeeping. Even some big vessels and valuables from his house were brought to our house. Sometime later, my father helped him change the name of his shop from "T.A.S. Watch Co." to "T.A.S. and Sons" and made his sons sit at the counter. (It is his third son Jabbar who still keeps in touch with me addressing me as his தங்கை (thangai, younger sister).

Visalam with daughters and friends

Front L to R: Papu (Kamakshi), Visalam's daughter), Visalam, Radha (Visalam's daughter)
Back L to R:  Jabbar (Visalam's friend mentioned in previous para), Savithri (Visalam's daughter), Rajagopal (a neighbour). Secunderabad, Circa 1963

Another Muslim, Allauddin Saheb, a contractor who was also a "shikar" hunter - hunting for the pleasure of it. My father used to accompany him and the other shikars. Even Kandappan had gone along for crocodile hunting in the river Kaveri.

Once it transpired that Allauddin Saheb was on the verge of losing everything when his house came up for auction. My father took Kandappan, put up a big show of extreme anger, brought away most of his household goods into our house. Even creditors who could claim their share kept quiet, thinking that if such a big, rich man and landlord was so angry and comes personally to take away household goods, then they must wait till the house came up for auction sale.

Actually, it seems the children cried when my father took away their gramophone and their collection of all the records. The women remonstrated when my father went after the brass vessels. My father relentlessly went after even small things. After bringing those things away, for three days he played the gramophone loudly and was telling everyone that Allauddin should have known better when he borrowed money. He should have been more prudent.

We children were sorry for Mrs. Allauddin and her children because we knew them well, and we had played with them. Even my grandfather said of my father that he was rough. "முரடன், கோபக்காரன். போனப்போறதுன்னு விடாமே, இப்படியா வீட்டு சாமானெல்லாம் தூக்கிண்டு வரது?  (Muradan. Kobakkaaran. Ponaap poradhunnu vidaame ippadiyaa veettu saamaanaiyellam thookkindu varadhu? "He's too rough. Short tempered. Somethings you've just got to let go ... is this any way, bringing away household things?"), he said. Kandappan answered, "நமக்கு மாத்திரம் பணம் சும்மா வருதா? ("Namakku maathiram panam summaa varudha?" "Does our money come to us for free?")

Within a week, Allauddin's family had moved out and he himself was living with a relative. My father sent word, and Allauddin came with doubts and hesitation. My father took him inside, and told him to take away his things through the back door in a closed carriage. Mr. Allauddin was struck dumb. (Eventually, he must have done well in another place). My father told him:

"ஏனய்யா,  ஒன்  குழந்தைகள் அழ அழ நான் ஏனய்யா இதை எல்லாம் தூக்கிட்டு வரணும்? ஒன் வீடு ஏலத்துக்கு போயிட்டா நீ இதையெல்லாம் எப்படி காப்பத்துவே? ஒன் பொம்பிளைக பானை சட்டி இல்லமே எப்படி சோறாக்கும்? அதுக்குத்தான் அப்படி கோவம் மாதிரி வேஷம் போட்டேன். யார் கிட்டேயும் வெளிலே சொல்லாதே. என்கப்பாக்குக்கூட தெரிய வேண்டாம்."

(Enaiyya, on kuzhandhaigal azha azha naan enaiyya idhai ellam tookkittu varanum? On veedu elathukku poyitta nee idhaiyellam eppadi kaappathuve? On pombilaiga paanai satti illaame eppadi soraakkum? Adhukkuth than appadi kovam maadhiri vesham potten. Yaar kitteyum velile sollaadhe. Engappaakku kooda theriya vendaam. "Why would I carry away all these things while your children wept? If your house is lost in the auction, how were you going to save all of this? How were the womenfolk going to cook a meal without pots and pans?  That's why I pretended anger. Now don't let this get out to anyone. Don't let even my father know.")

I remember Mr. Allauddin removed his turban and cried into it. (Kandappan always knew my father's strategy, whichever way he enacted it).

A few years later, we were going by car to Pollachi or Palani, I don't remember where. On the way we had to go through a சந்தை (santhai a weekly market where villagers and merchants from several miles around would gather). By necessity, our car had to move very slowly, sometimes even stopping completely because of the crowd. From somewhere this Mr. Allauddin Saheb walked up to say, "Salaam" to my father. He treated us to tender coconut water.

Thus he could be understanding and generous to many people. My father did poor feeding a number of times every year. From two days before feeding such poor he would have the "town crier" (a man who went round the town and adjoining villages with a drum, which he beat at intervals to attract the attention of the people and announce at the top of his voice whatever message he is given) go round announcing the day and place of such charity.

In his business also, sometimes he was forgiving and generous.

I have known him to have forgiven and help a man to re-establish his business, and he happened to be a Muslim. One Chanda Miyan. He failed a second time. His son came with his mother (widow of  Chanda Miyan) a few years later. The boy was young. His mother - a purdah lady - stood in the corridor and spoke to my father in a matter of fact way. She said she couldn't trust her own kinsmen; her son was totally inexperienced , and she couldn't think of anyone else who might help him at that stage without any guarantee of getting back that money. My father put him on his feet.

The poverty and want that was rampant all around did not make any impact on us, the three children.

Even the walking sticks my father and grandfather used had bands of thick silver. Their heavy snuff boxes were silver.

Learning Life-skills

I was writing earlier about how my father believed he was making us versatile. For instance, he would take us to his fields, gardens, at various times like sowing, weeding and reaping. Sugarcane, maize and tobacco were all there but we never touched any of these. We stood or sat at a distance. Same way, in cooking, instead of the usual, initial, elementary thing like boiling water or milk or else mixing coffee or knowing the names of the condiments and the quantities that they would be used in in everyday life, he used to get professional men to make ஜாங்கிரி, மைசூர்பாகு, ஹல்வா (jangiri, mysoor paahu, halwa all Indian sweets) in our house and ask us to watch.

The cooks also never told us how to get the ingredients readied nor the proportion and the like. We would dutifully watch the senior man stir - if it was ஹல்வா (halwa) or  மைசூர்பாகு (mysoor paahu) or squeeze the ஜிலேபி  (jilebi, known as jalebi in many parts of India, also an Indian sweet) into the oil. What temperature the oil should be, we didn't learn then. For bondas (dumplings) and bajjis (fritters) also the same was the procedure. My father did not put us through real practical experience.

At times, on our way to Miss May's house, my father would suggest that we buy small loaves of bread for the dogs in Miss May's home. They had three. Sunny, Rover, a beautiful black fellow, and Gippy, the youngest. Cute looking with patches of brown. Or, he would ask us to go into the shop, and buy wool or flax.

Well. We walked in all right but it never even occurred to us then that we might very well go to the shelves, have a look around at all the colours of wool there may be or some other thing that we might use. We would merely stand near the owner of the shop who knew us and our family even before we were born, state whatever it was that we wanted, and a boy of that establishment would pack it up and put it in the car. Often we wouldn't know if it was the same as what we wanted.

My father used to call that "shopping" proudly. Even later when we, on occasion, went out to buy sarees, we would only walk into the shop, look at some, choose as many as we fancied and bring them home. Since all of these shopkeepers were borrowers from my father, it made little sense to ask for the price. Still, that was not the way.

And all our footwear was made to order. Several types and colours of leather would be brought to our house. We made our choice and our feet measurements were taken. Patterns were given by my father. He preferred them to be roomy near the toes, and have slits or holes. We also went to the shoe shop, if we happened to be in that area, and my father ordered shoes, slippers and belts for himself and my brother.

We saw our father bargaining for curios in ivory, Persian carpets and silver toys. We always took all those things for granted. If there were plush, bright carpets and tiger skins on our lounges and easy chairs, well, they were there. And if they were not found in other houses, again, yes, they are not there because they did not buy those things.

One of the very important things my father was doing by way of giving us கேள்வி ஞானம் (kelvi gnana; aural sensibility in order to develop an ear for music) i.e., listening to music, was taking us to music concerts often. It was not easy. He had to plan to be away from home for hours. He himself started a sabha (an association) along with some music lovers of Erode. First time it did not function for very long. Second time, I think, the sabha functioned for something like nearly three years. One concert per month was held.

There was one sabha in Salem, which town was 45-50 miles from Erode. For attending a concert there, we dressed  up and got ready to leave home by half past one (1.30 p.m.). By about 4 p.m. we would be in the sabha house, where the performers would be readying themselves. My father, being one of the founder members, would join the other office bearers in discussions.

For doing journeys like this, the car had to be in good condition, with all the tyres checked and the stepney (spare tyre) ready, jack, air-pump in place. When a flat had to be changed, the spare tyre would need some air pumped into it for bringing it up to the required pressure. A pressure gauge was also kept handy.

We would leave the concert hall somewhere around 8.30 or 8.45 p.m., reach home tired and sleepy. But we would have our dinner, drink our regular glass of milk before going to bed. Here, I must amend the sentence. It was always Parvathy mami who brought us our night milk upstairs to our bed.

Usually the "set", as they were referred to - the group of  musicians - was engaged for the next day's concert in adjacent towns for about a week, thereby curtailing their travel expenses which was defrayed by the hosting town sabha. That way, the first performance was in Salem, next one in Erode (when the sabha was working), next one in Tiruppur (which also had sabhas off and on) or else from Salem the group went on to Karur. From there they went either to Trichy or Coimbatore. And if the main artist happened to be one of the few vidhwans (maestros) of that period, our father would take us to one of the following concerts either to Karur or Coimbatore. Karur was only 40 miles from Erode whereas Coimbatore was 60 miles. Also, going to Coimbatore, invariably we would stay over for the night at my uncle's.

In addition to these monthly கச்சேரிs (kachcheris concerts) there were a number of regular series. One was ராதா கல்யாண உத்ஸவம்  (Radha Kalyana Utsavam carnival; also religious, temple-related festivity in connection with the mythological Radha's wedding) held in Oonjalur. For that we would leave home by 2.30-3.00, go to Oonjalur, call on my uncle's  ஸம்பந்தி (sambandi the in-law of an offspring), and listen to the whole கச்சேரி (kachcheri concert) from their திண்ணை (thinnai sit-out), and return home at the close of the concert. Every day we drove.

Another was  ஸ்ரீராமநவமி உத்ஸவம்   (Sri Ramanavami Utsavam festivities connected with the mythological Rama's birth) at Coimbatore. For that we sisters spent anything between three days to a week in my uncle's house, attending music performances in the evening while my father dashed home to Erode in between. I think I have said enough to give at least some kind of picture to show the trouble and expense my father went to, to give us a taste and grounding for classical carnatic music. He got us perfectly ideal books written by K. V. Srinivasa Aiyangar, published by M. Adi and Co. before we knew the value/worth of those works. We, however, kept them carefully.

Beloved Grandfather

My grandfather and father had taught us to handle jewellery, musical instruments and machinery gently, with extreme caution and care. And not just that. In our very young days, it was my grandfather who taught us to learn by memorizing. I remember him prompting me and Gowri, separately one after the other:

"பிரபவ  விபவ  சொல்லு" ("Prabhava, Vibhava sollu" "Recite Prabhava, Vibhava," those being the names of all the years in the 60 year cycle),

"அச்வினி பரணி சொல்லு" ("Aswini, Bharani sollu" "Recite Aswini, Bharani", those being the names of the 27 stars in the astronomical cycle).

"சித்திரை  வைகாசி" ("Chittirai, Vaikasi" "Chittirai, Vaikasi," those being the names of the 12 Tamil months).

and like that, the names of months in English, days of the week in Tamil and English, then up to 100 in both languages. After each one of the series, he would say without fail "பேஷ் சமத்து" ("Besh. Samaththu" "Well done, good girl,") and only then prompt us with the next on the line. That applauding always seemed to come from the bottom of his heart. May be it did.

When my brother joined us, he could only go up to 10, and after that it got jumbled, much to our merriment. Same was the case with months and days. So, when Gowri and I laughed knowingly every time, my grandfather would also laugh amusedly, pat him on the back, say indulgently, "அவ்வளவுதான். உளறுவான்" ("Avvalavuthan. Ularuvaan." "That's it. Now he will babble.")

He had a string of loving names he used for my brother: Nagraj, Bhojaraj, Krishnaraj, Chamaraj, Maharaj, Maharajadhiraj.  And my brother would remain quiet and expectant till nearly the last and himself say "Maha ya ya ya" because he never could say "r" or its other, harder Tamil equivalent till he was 7 or 8. Either it was "ya" or "zha" in place of "ra".

These loving special names were not limited to my brother alone. My grandfather never called anyone of his near and dear ones by their full, given names. It was always a pet name. Gowri was always "Gouros" and I was "Kunju"  My brother was "Kakuchi". Thus, Gowri was "Gowramma" and I was "Kunjamma" for outsiders. My father, uncle and aunts called me "Papa". My grandfather's sons were "Kuppannah", "Chuppannah" and "Cheenu", all pet names. Daughters were "Pattamma", "Chachchu." The Coimbatore uncle's daughters were "Papa" (Jayam) and "Kambu" (Kamalam).

My grandfather repeated another maxim that I have never forgotten.

புக்காத்து சமாசாரம் பொரந்தாத்ல சொல்லக்கூடாது பொரந்தாத்து  சமாசாரத்தை புக்காத்ல சொல்லக்கூடாது.

"Pukkaththu samacharam porandhaaththule sollakkoodadhu. Porandhaththu samacharam pukkaththule sollakkoodadhu; "Never discuss what happens at your in-laws' in your parental home. Never discuss what happens in your parental home at your in-laws',")


"ஆம்டையனுக்கு தெரியாமே சிறுவாடு சேர்க்கக்கூடாது"

("Amdaiyaanukku ththeriyame siruvaadu serkkak koodaadhu" "Never squirrel away your own savings without your husband's knowledge.")

This referred to small savings women would put away on the side from the money meant for household expenditure or money that could be earned by selling surplus items in small quantities, but in reality not even worth the name of selling or buying, so trivial would be the sums of money.

"அவனுக்குத்தேரிஞ்சா எத்தனை பணம் வேணாலும் சேத்து வெக்கலாம்" (Avanukkuth therinja evvalavu vennalum seththu vekkalaam" "You can save any amount provided he knows about it.")

Same way, a propos of nothing, he would say,

"அன்னன்னிக்கு நடக்கறதெல்லாம் அவனுக்குத் தெரிஞ்சு இருக்கணும்"

("Annannikku nadakkaradhellaam avanukkuththerinju irukkanum" "Your husband has to be kept informed about everything that happens during the course of the day.")

My grandfather's advice stuck in my mind. I have never  concealed anything from my husband.

Raised by Men

My father wanted us to be accomplished, self sufficient, confident but there were many handicaps. We were too young to pick up many of the pointers. We lived in a very closed, protected atmosphere. Exposing us to something alone was not enough, nor was telling us. For instance, we never arranged our clothes in our wooden bureau. My father or Kandappan always  attended to putting clothes for washing, to the dhobi. Washing, drying and folding were done by Parvathy mami (the cook, described in an earlier part), or  Pavayee (the domestic helper, described in an earlier part) in her absence.

Once, in Tirukkarugavur (Visalam's married home), when I was a young bride, Nagamma சித்தி (sithi this kinship term means "aunt", usually mother's younger sister. Visalam addressed four of her five sisters-in-law as "aunt" mainly because their children, who were closer to her in age, used those kinship terms.  Normally, sisters-in-law are addressed as "sister." Visalam addressed her youngest sister-in-law by name.) asked me whether we wrung out our sarees in Erode by twisting it around the water tap  (குழாய்ல மாட்டிண்டு பிழிவேளா​?  "Kuzhaila maattindu pizhivela?")

I neither understood the question nor had any idea of how it was done in my father's house. I helplessly expressed my ignorance. (மெள்ள உதட்டைப்பிதுக்கினேன் "Mella udhattaippidhukkinen." "Hesitantly I pursed my lips"). I must say she and others were extremely understanding. My father-in-law simply said, in a matter of fact way, "Perhaps they never went that side," (அவாள்ளாம் அந்தப்பக்கமே போஹ மாட்டாளோ என்னமோ. "Avaallaam andhappakkame poha maattaalo ennamo") meaning the middle and rear portion of the house. Then they undertook to teach me - step by step - to dry wet clothes, rinse, wring out, need to change water for rinsing, separating coloureds, good silks, towels, before and during soaking and/or washing. Never ever did they make fun, nor did they tell others (viz., neighbours or relatives), nor were they at any time harsh. Even the servants in my in-laws' house would condone it:  "They are not used to housework," (அவுங்க வீட்ல வீட்டு வேலை செஞ்சு பழக்கம் கிடையாது. "Avunga veetle veettu velai senju pazhakkam kidayadhu") and were tolerant.

On another occasion my mother-in-law asked me whether I knew how to light a stove. I shook my head. Then also Nagamma sithi happened to be there. My mother-in-law asked, "Shall I sing the song: how to light a stove...?" (பாட்டு பாடட்டுமா அடுப்பு மூட்டும் விதம்? "Paattu paadattumaa aduppu moottum vidham?") This is a sarcastic song describing a young bride's lack of housekeeping skills but before she could even say all this, Nagamma sithi interrupted her, with a firm shake of her head, "No, mother, if she doesn't know something, it's up to us to teach her," (இல்லேம்மா, அவளுக்கு தெரியதுன்னா நாம் தான் சொல்லிக்குடுக்கணும்; "Illemma. Avalukkuth theriyaadhunna naam dhaan sollik kudukkanum") and she proceeded to do it.

Here I must relate something. My Chinnu periappa, just before my marriage, called me and said, "Look here, my dear. When you want to light a stove, you have to arrange small bits of coal. The fire has to be started from the bottom using a piece of paper. Some people pour kerosene on top and put a match stick to it. That will go out as soon as the kerosene is gone. It isn't proper to keep pouring oil again and again to get it going. The coal won't catch fire either. Some piece of clothing might get in the way and that's dangerous. At your mother-in-law's you'll be asked to cook."

(அம்மா, இதோ பாரு. குமுட்டி மூட்டரதுன்னா கொஞ்சம் சின்ன சின்னதா கரியை போட்டுக்கணும். அடிலேந்து பேப்பரை போட்டு பத்த வெக்கணும். சிலபேர் கரிமேலே கேரோசினை ஊத்தி நெருப்புக்குச்சியை அது மேலே பிடிப்பா. எண்ணே ஆனதும் அணைஞ்சு போயிடும். மறுபடியும் மறுபடியும் எண்ணையைக்கொட்டி பத்த வெக்கறது  தப்பு. அது கரியும் பிடிச்சுக்காது. எங்கேயாவது புடவை துணி மணி பிடிச்சிக்கிண்டு  டேஞ்ஜர். மாமியார் ஆத்துக்குப் போன சமைக்க சொல்லுவா.  "Amma, idho paaru. Kumutti mootradhunnaa konjam china chinnadha kariyai pottukkanum. Adilendhu paperayai pottu patha vekkanum. Silaper karimele kerosinai oothi neruppuk kuchiyai adhu mele pidippaa. Enne aanadhum anainju poyidum. Marubadiyum marubadiyum ennaiyaikkotti patha vekkaradhu thappu. Adhu kariyum pidichikkadhu. Engeyaavadhu pudavai thuni mani pidichikkindu danger. Maamiyar aathukku pona samaikka solluvaa").

His intention was to tell me something basic and necessary. He didn't think of a firewood stove -relegating it to olden days and so thinking it to be obsolete - and only a coal burner as that's what would be in use as per "modern ways" of those days. Seeing a small idli (steamed dumpling made with rice and lentil batter) vessel, he told me, "You can steam idlis in this in two minutes. Two, two minutes. Otherwise they'll say you are wasting fuel. You've got to learn to be economical. You've got to earn a good name. You've got to speak softly." He advised me not to take things for granted. Like being free to sit in front of my father-in-law, speak to him without any reserve. He said they may say all that is okay, but may not quite like it.

For a man, who did not have a woman or children, to tell me all these things at the eve of my marriage shows his concern. No one from the family told me thing like these. Parvathy mami, of course, used to tell me, "Don't refer to them as mother-in-law and sister-in-law. They'll think you are talking behind their backs. Others too will say you are being precocious. You must earn a good name when you are young."


© Kamakshi Balasubramanian 2015

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