Chapter 8: Early times after my wedding

Visalam Balasubramanian



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 8 of her memoirs, which have been edited for this website. Kamakshi Balasubramanian, her daughter, has added some parenthetical explanatory notes in italics.

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Following my wedding, after the first stay of ten days in Tirukkarugavur with my in-laws, I returned to Erode with Gowri (older sister). My second trip followed soon afterwards and my parents-in-law themselves brought me back to Erode. Then it was time for Deepavali. Even during the first week of my stay in Tirukkarugavur, my husband had told me not to "embarrass" him with "too many invitations" from my father to Erode. Abiding by that, my father did not ask him over for "Avani Avittam" (A ritual day observed annually, for Brahmin men to renew their "sacred" thread) etc. But Deepavali was a major, important event in the first year of marriage. My father had been looking forward to it.

My father-in-law wrote that Thalai deepavali (First Deepavali) will be in Madras where TVB's (husband's  initials) mother was. His explanation was, in the absence of my mother, my husband's mother will take her place. That will be the order on all occasions when a mother, i.e. a senior sumangali (சுமங்கலி\; a married woman who was not a widow) was required to be present. That made my father wake up. He protested mildly but did not wish to make it an issue. My father-in-law wanted my father to come to Madras as well because he said he (my father-in-law) wanted to include my father in the festivities!

This is how he put it:  "That you have no wife makes it impossible to celebrate Deepavali in your house but she is your daughter and have every right, you are entitled to take part in and enjoy the celebrations." My father declined the offer. My brother was disappointed that he would be the only one at home in Erode for Deepavali. My sister had gone back to Delhi to her marital home soon after my wedding, and my father was planning a trip to Delhi, taking me along with him after Deepavali. Well. My father-in-law took me to Madras. Travelling between Singara (where I was with my brother-in-law and his wife) and Madras, I joined him at Erode.

It so happened that the next day after Deepavali my beloved grandfather expired even as my father was getting ready to go to the Railway Station to start his journey towards Delhi via Madras. So, all the other plans got dropped. My father-in-law and I went to Erode for a week after Deepavali. I stayed back for a while and went to Tirukkarugavur. My sister's father-in-law had arranged to celebrate my sister's valaikaappu/seemantham (வளைகாப்பு/சீமந்தம் \; festive events to mark various stages of a first pregnancy) in Secunderabad in the month of December. My father took me and my brother to Secunderabad. But, it turned out to be a mole conception and there was no seemantham. We three returned to Erode and my father promptly took me to Tirukkarugavur. My father's idea was if he left me in Tirukkarugavur as much as possible, and actually took me there from Erode without my father-in-law prompting it, it would be possible for him to have me in Erode more easily and more often.

Then I had occasion to go to Singara from February 1940 to April 1940 with my mother-in-law when she went with my brother-in-law and Parvatham manni (brother-in-law's wife, name: Parvatham, kinship term: manni) after their first child, Viswesan's first birthday held at Tirukkarugavur in Jan 1940. We also took Gnanam, Nagamma sithi's daughter, who was four-and-a-half then, and the slightly older Balam, Gowri periamma's daughter, with us.

My husband was in Delhi from December 1934 onwards, writing various exams. He was in Mathura periamma's house where some of his friends also stayed.

Towards the end of 1940 my father wanted to carry my grandfather's ashes, and also that my mother's, to Kashi (also known as Banaras) for immersion there and perform the first death anniversary of my grandfather in Gaya. While going all the way to Northern India, he thought he might as well purchase a round trip ticket to see some other parts of the country. And as was his habit, he wanted to take my sister and me along with him.

By now a pattern had been set. Whenever my father wanted to have me in Erode he had to do a lot of ground work, go through preliminaries, before he could get my father-in-law's permission to take me with him. He used to call the procedure "filing a petition". Because of that even before he decided the route he was going to take, the class by which he would travel, the length of time he would spend in sight-seeing, he wrote to my father-in-law for permission. And, the first of the poison arrows from my father-in-law was released. (Here I am reminded of Visha Vriksham, a story by Bankim Chander Chatterjee. He develops the story in parts describing the steps as 'sowing the poison seed', 'the seeds germinated' and the 'poison tree growing'.) My father-in-law wrote to my father saying that as a grown up girl I cannot be entrusted to the care of my father, who is a widower and alone. There was no older woman accompanying us. And he, my father-in-law, was responsible for my safety. So, no permission.

Using a lot of persuasion, my father managed to take me along. He bought three tickets: for my sister, me and himself. On reaching Poona, where my sister was, he was told by my sister's husband that his sister Saradha (Chimni was her nickname) was expecting her first baby in Secunderabad at her parents' house in the course of 3-4 weeks, and they thought it won't look nice if Gowri was on a sight-seeing tour with her father and sister, and did not assist her parents-in-law. After discussions and deliberations, my athimber said that Gowri could go with us.

My father decided that he would curtail the length of time, which he did. We visited Bombay, Mathura and Agra before going to Delhi. From there we went to Benares, Gaya and Calcutta. My father did all the rituals in Prayag, Kashi and Gaya in the shortest time possible. While in Calcutta, where we spent 4-5 days with TVB, my father gave Rs. 101/- as birthday gift (it was 21st Dec 1940) to TVB.

We came to Secunderabad before the naming ceremony of Chimni's child. Leaving my sister there, my father and I went on to Erode. From there my brother travelled with us to Rameswaram, Kanyakumari, Trivandrum, Suchindram, etc. My father reached me to Tirukkarugavur where only cook Narayanan and my mother-in-law's mother were at the time, my father-in-law and mother-in-law being in Madras as Nagamma sithi was having the middle finger of her right hand amputated following a scorpion sting.

There was a second such occasion when my father had brought Gowri to Erode and my cousin Tippu's (nickname of Tripurasundari) marriage was to be celebrated. My father-in-law reminded my father how reluctantly he had agreed to send me on earlier occasions and this time I may go and return in 10 days. (Colloquially one says "ten days" in Tamil when it could be anything like 12-15 or even 20 days - Visalam). We took it like that. But on the tenth day I got a letter from TVB that I was in Erode on the 'understanding' that I'd return to Tirukkarugavur in ten days, etc., etc. He had written from Madras on behalf of his father in Tirukkarugavur.

In a matter of another week or so a cousin of mine (aunt's son Sundaram) was getting married and my people wouldn't let me go. They simply did not like the idea that I would not attend the wedding. None of her other sons had got married, and Sundaram was already late for marriage. He was virtually brought up by my grandfather, uncle and my father. So there was elation in the family. We wrote to TVB as also my father-in-law explaining the circumstances. An extension was granted but only up to the time of the wedding. But the grihapravesham ceremony was held two days after the wedding, and Sundaram himself was going to Pudukkottai then. So, it was decided that Sundaram will escort me and my brother up to Tanjore by train. He would take a bus from there and we would continue the journey to Papanasam/Tirukkarugavur. On my reaching the village, my father-in-law made me spend that day at the place of a neighbour, Ramamurthy anna (அண்ணா or "elder brother" is a respectful term used when referring to older men who are not blood-relations) as it was supposed to be not a good day.

It went on like this: my father or brother would visit me but every time that my father wished to take me to Erode for a short stay was a big exercise.

And my brother-in-law, Gowri's husband, used to send fancy letter paper pads with matching envelopes to my brother and me whenever my sister came to Erode. We ourselves used to buy stationery for writing letters. This became a point of contention. My father-in-law's objection was that I kept a supply of stamps exclusively and money for buying stamps separately whereas everybody in his house bought envelopes from the post office. I did not have the sense to point out that his second daughter and son-in-law  used envelopes like I was doing, and my husband was also doing likewise. My sisters-in-law were dissuading me from keeping up correspondence with friends and relatives.

The third such occasion was when Jayaraman, Gowri's first son, was born. There had been no small child in my paternal home for a long time. And the jubilation and spirit of celebrations were on a high level.

My father-in-law was down with pleurisy\; my brother-in-law Narayanan wrote back (as per his father's dictation) to my father, categorically stating that I will not be permitted to go to Erode. My father sought an explanation. A long letter came to say that my father's influence was bad for me and I will not be allowed to associate with him anymore.

In the meantime, my father sent an uncle of his (his father's cousin) to fetch me for the naming ceremony of the baby. That thatha (grandfather) of mine was sent back with a message that a letter will be sent to my father dealing with the subject of my coming to Erode. He tried his best to take me along saying that there was a festive crowd at Erode waiting for me, and it would be extremely embarrassing and difficult for him to return without me.

And, it was my maternal grandfather - Pollachi thatha - who consoled my father then. Some days later, my father himself came to take me to Erode, and that day he lost his temper. He shouted ultimatums but he went back disappointed. Somehow, I don't know what prompted it, but I was escorted by Manikkodi Rajam Iyer to Erode. Thus, my father-in-law was heckling and irritating my father. Needless to say, I had no affection for my father-in-law and my mother-in-law.

All this happened over a period of almost three years. But, I have put it all in a bunch one after another. Many things had happened in between.

There are, of course, pleasant memories. My father-in-law was not orthodox in his views. As such, the matter of a daughter-in-law's personal comforts was the same as everyone else's in the house. All of us slept on the topmost floor at night. All of us had separate cots and beds. There was always moving space between cots. The bed chamber (that's how I'd call it\; it was only used for sleeping at night - Visalam) was airy, with sloping roof and open on all sides. The roof was asbestos, resting on solid well-made wooden frames and iron rods. Provided with bamboo screen - thatti (தட்டி in Tamil, chik in Hindi) made to size. When there were more of us than could be accommodated in that area, some of us slept on the next lower floor with electric fans on.

The two daughters-in-law, i.e. Parvatham and I, always had our lunch and dinner along with my father-in-law. We were served our food by the cook, my mother-in-law, or even sisters-in-law. Kalpakam (youngest sister-in-law) was like one of us. We three never went into the kitchen to help the cook or my mother-in-law's mother, who would be doing something like churning butter, portioning off curds and butter milk for use in cooking, and serving to be eaten with meals. She managed the milk distribution. There was a certain quantity required for coffee or to be drunk as milk, and the rest had to be set aside for curds and butter milk. She also got the coffee beans roasted when needed, and got the servants to grind the required quantity by the manual grinder.

There were cows and buffaloes in the yard of the house. My father-in-law believed in good quality food. So, he purchased additional milk from others. He insisted on green vegetables being in the menu for lunch and dinner, and coconuts in at least one item.

We were neither expected to nor made to do any work as a matter of compulsion or convention. My father-in-law and mother-in-law chewed betel leaves four times a day. My mother-in-law carried a brass box for betel leaves and nuts (வெற்றிலை செல்லப்பெட்டி vettrilai chella-p-petti) back and forth every time. She never asked any of us either to fetch it or put it back.

This brass box was self contained. With a lid and clasp, one could even lock it. It had compartments, also with lid, for betel nuts, quick lime, herbs, and tobacco. No one in my father-in-law's house used tobacco in any form. Whereas in my father's family, my grandfather, Coimbatore uncle and my father took snuff, and Chinnu periappa used to smoke a pipe and later used tobacco.

My sisters-in-law were quite fond of me, and I of them. They treated me and took care of me as though I were a child.

Gowri periamma had, on many an occasion, given me proper advice. She also spoke to Raghava athimber on my behalf when he tended to find fault.

One such occasion was when my husband lost his wrist watch. I happened to mention the loss to my father. Only the loss. I never suggested he buy one. But my father asked one of his customers to take a few watches - in different sizes and shapes as also functions - and let TVB make a selection. Gowri periamma actually came forward and helped us choose one.

But, Raghava athimber and my father-in-law roasted my father alive for giving a watch "just like that" and giving a cash present on his birthday in Calcutta. That was when Gowri periamma spoke to athimber: "It is just a watch. It can be given. He gave it. So what?"

Another time athimber said that I was like a "trained nurse" and then also periamma said, "She's been brought up without any exposure. Her father wished her to be married into a big family because he wants her to be with people." She defended my father, pointing out that he did everything only because of the affection and love he had for his children.

My father used to at times partake dinner at Gowri periamma's place without prior intimation, and even alone, if he had to take a train or something. He always said, "Now there's a lady, who serves you just whatever there is: a pepper rasam, a chutney, anything she happens to have. But how gracefully, affectionately she serves you, urging you to eat. It is hard to say ‘No, thank you.'" He had great respect for her and liked the way both athimber and Gowri periamma ran their house.

And periamma herself used to say that if she offered a bite to eat, he would readily consent. "Just a baked papad, a chutney, whatever was served, he would eat it with satisfaction and say how good it was. That's the gentleman he was."

Strangely, I never told my father what my sister-in-law thought of him, nor did I ever tell my sister-in-law my father's opinion of her. She has said to my mother-in-law, in my hearing, regarding my father, that he didn't deserve to be chewed out. "He doesn't know what it is to be status conscious or pompous," she said.


There was a pooja in my father-in-law's house. It had been there for generations, perhaps. What I saw was: a priest came from Melattur, a nearby village, and every day and performed a pooja. That priest, whoever did pooja, had lunch in our house every day. Although there was this pooja, an offering made and aarti, I never saw either my father-in-law or mother-in-law do the minimum requirement of a namaskaram (நமஸ்காரம்) or take the aarti. Dakshianai (தக்ஷிணை\; formal payment) was given. Food was given to the priest. But, no namaskaram for the panchayadala (பஞ்சாயதள\; possibly an alloy) figurines and icons. My mother-in-law's mother regularly took aarti. She did pradakshina namaskaram (circumambulatory prostration). Neither of them went to any of the three temples in Tirukkarugavur. When there was a procession of the deities, coconut, camphor etc. were offered, but even then my father-in-law always remained standing on the threshold, and never came out on to the street to pay obeisance.

Whereas in my father's house, my grandfather woke up chanting God's name, rubbed both palms together looked at them as was the old tradition to welcome the auspicious dawn, and then closing his eyes, still chanting, came to the icon of Lord Krishna, touched it and put his hands on his eyes and proceeded to see the back of the cows.

My father started his day by 4.00 a.m. (sometimes earlier) with divine names on his lips. He went to temples, always taking us with him. Very frequently he went on pilgrimages, combining sightseeing with visits to temples. Very often we drove to Palani. Bathed in Shanmuga River, did circumambulation of the hill itself, climbed up the hill for abhishekam (அபிஷேகம், a ritual worship with offerings of fluids like milk, honey, etc.) and archanai (அர்ச்சனை, a ritual worship with flowers and coconut offerings).

We frequently went to other places like Sivanmalai near Kangayam, Chennimalai. He read out biographies and teachings of saints like Pattinattaar, Tayumanaswamigal, Sri Ramana Maharishi, Ramalingaswamigal and Sri. Tyagaraja Swamigal. He was fond of repeating: "Not an atom can move but for Him." But he never advocated leaving everything in God's hands. He always said, you do what is to be done and leave the outcome to God. "Half is self and half is God" and "God helps those who help themselves" were two sayings he kept telling us.

Whereas my father-in-law believed in fire-sacrifice or homam on the day of his birth star every month and a three-day meditative chanting or japam and fire-sacrifice or homam on the annual birthday, my father believed in arranging for performance of pooja in a temple. His endowments were for a kind of perpetual, continued observance.

Thus, when my father constructed halls or roofs in open spaces around temples served the purpose of people gathering to celebrate a function and to worship, as it was a temple.

More about my father constructing big halls in the temple across the street from our house, the story of a kitchen that came up there, a roof for the Ganesha on the banks of the canal that ran at the end of the road where my father lived, and other charities, later.

Going back to the subject of not letting me visit my father. After Jayaraman's (my sister's first son) birth, when my father failed to take me to Erode, he also stopped trying to have me over. He resigned himself to be content with seeing me in the Railway Station on my way to and from Singara and Tirukkarugavur or else during a break of a few hours when we, the party travelling, would have enough time to go and rest in my father's house.

Here, let me recount an incident that concerned Parvatham, my sister-in-law. Parvathy, her second child, had been born a few weeks before in Tirukkarugavur. Parvatham and I were going to Singara, escorted by a cook, Narayanan. My parents-in-law were going to Madras that same day with Viswes, then 2 1/2 years old, en route to Delhi. Our route lay via Tiruchi, Erode, Mettuppalayam - where we had to change trains.

In Tiruchi, we had a wait of over three hours. Parvatham's mother was critically ill at that time in Tiruchi. Parvatham's father brought us some food. After giving it, he refused to stay even a minute because his wife's condition was so bad that he had to rush home. My father-in-law had very strictly told Parvatham not to think of taking a chance to go to see her dying mother. He had also entrusted cook Narayanan with the task of seeing that Parvatham's father did not persuade her to make a quick run!

It so happened that Kottur Sivan - one of my father-in-law's schoolmate - was there. While he could not detain Parvatham's father to help him prevail upon Parvatham to go and have a last look at her mother while she was alive, he himself would not let Parvatham eat the food there at the Railway Station. Both Parvatham and cook Narayanan were like "Casabiancas!" (A reference to the famous and much anthologised poem by the same name, where a boy stood on the burning deck steadfastly, as he was obeying orders.) They will not, dare not defy the strict injunction!

But, Sivan mama used all kinds of arguments and assurances. Assurance No. 1:  he will reach Parvatham to the Trichy Town Station to take the train there. Assurance No. 2: he will speak to Ramani  (my father-in-law's shortened name among his close friends) for this transgression by Parvatham, and urged her saying the precious minutes she was wasting in indecision were not helping at all.

He managed to get hold of a horse drawn carriage (ஜட்காவண்டி\; jutka vandi). Then, he took me, Parvatham, baby Parvathy to Harihi mama's (Parvatham's father) house, having put Narayanan to load our luggage in a compartment in the train bound for Erode when it was ready. He had retained the same jutka for our return to Town Station.

Mathura mami (Parvatham's mother) was barely alive\; she died after 2-3 days. Sivan mama was pleased that the mother and daughter saw each other, but those two had hardly any words for each other. And Sivan mama kept his word. Not only did he safely put us on the train, he also wrote to my father-in-law immediately afterwards explaining his part.

This was the second occasion when Parvatham lived with her heart in her mouth. The first time was when Viswesan (her first son) was born in Tanjavur in Parvatham's parents' house. My father-in-law and family were in nearby Tirukkarugavur, having retired from Government service.

Word must have been sent to my father-in-law soon after Viswesan was born. Although they could have gone to see their grandson any time they wished, my parents-in-law went only to the naming ceremony in the morning on the 11th day. And, then they returned to Tirukkarugavur without waiting for the festive luncheon with Parvatham's parents.

Their relatives and even neighbours are said to have requested them to stay to lunch and pointed out that it was not proper to refuse. But my father-in-law argued that he will have lunch in his own house on the day of his grandson's naming ceremony. Seeing the stiffness during the short time they spent in her parents' house, Parvatham was scared out of her wits.

So she insisted on being taken to Tirukkarugavur by a taxi immediately after lunch! Her parents had arranged for the "Cradling" ceremony that evening. But Parvatham was too scared of the father-in-law to think of the consequences or her parents' position or even their mental worry. She had her way and arrived by taxi, her mother accompanying her and her 11 day old firstborn son, much to the surprise of my parents-in-law, my mother-in-law's parents and perhaps all the neighbourhood.

They did not expect Parvatham and her parents to take such a step. Hurriedly they brought aarati (ஆரத்தி\; the welcoming dish of turmeric water) to receive their grandson into the house, arranged for thottil (தொட்டில்\; cradle) that evening. But Parvatham's mother would not stay for any of that. No sooner were Parvatham and the baby inside the house than she went back to Tanjavur.


© Kamakshi Balasubramanian 2016

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Gripping stuff ! Lucid narrative style...

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