Chapter 2: Memories of Erode

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 2 of her memoirs, which have been edited for this website. Part 1 is available here. Kamakshi Balasubramanian, her daughter, has added some parenthetical explanatory notes in italics.

I think I will write about the town Erode and life in general then.

Visalam with Gowri and two others

L to R: Visalam, Friend, Gowri (older sister), Sakku (friend) C. 193x

It was a dusty town with open drains. Until 1932-33, there were only two three motor cars but there were omnibuses.

My grandfather never lived in rented houses in his life. He always bought a house whenever he moved from one place to another. Our house was on one of the main roads. Early every morning, workers from the municipality came and washed away the drains on the roads. Then another batch swept the roads and a lorry went behind them sprinkling water.

Elections for the municipal office were held, and we have attended some of the functions in connection with the new chairman assuming office or a commissioner getting transferred or some inaugural celebration of park, opening of a hospital ward, etc. Even in those days, people used to talk of corruption, favouritism and the like.

During the term of one chairman, a Muslim, he converted a few Muslim burial places that were right in the middle of busy thoroughfares and residential localities into parks by planting trees, placing some cement benches and putting up either a fence or trellis wall, and naming them after a European district collector or executive engineer.

He closed the other public parks on Fridays to men, declaring it Ladies Day. He made the main bazaar street one-way to all traffic. He was elected chairman three times. Two terms he held continuously, and once with a break. All the time he was there all the rules were strictly observed. But people used to talk of him slightingly, saying that he acquired property. His name was Sheikh Dawood. He was conferred the title of Khan Saheb.

Long before that, the municipality had constructed four huge tanks at the highest point of town. They were set in a picturesque architecture of four towers, paths, lovely steps, broad at some levels, wide and curving at some or uniform and symmetrically parallel at others, with decorative, sloping parapets, dotted with masonry flower pots, lotus tanks in an area of about four square miles for supplying drinking water to the town from river Cauvery that skirts the town on the northern side. There were bowers, nursery, enclosed areas to rest, away from the sun and rain, with fixed wrought iron benches.

There was a central library with deep verandahs running on all the four sides, where one could read books or periodicals undisturbed. It was also built on an elevation so that the view was beautiful. Attendants were always present, trimming the crotons, pruning, planting, watering as well as preventing people from walking on or trampling the grassy slopes or plucking the flowers.

It was a library and free reading room.

There were some natural ponds and rocks. There were two lotus tanks, one with a fountain in the middle and white ducks placed in four places inside. I don't know what they were made of\; may be they were of refined mortar. I know they looked new even after forty years of installation. It had a ring road running the circumference of the park.

There were living quarters for the superintendent and some of the workers. An Anglo-Indian old man, McDonald, lived there with his wife, son, and daughter-in-law. A large area was always maintained and looked after for playing football, basketball, with the goal posts and high ring for the basket there. There were some parallel bars and other things for gymnastics. There were see-saws and swings for youngsters in another grassy enclosure. It was a lovely beautiful park. Originally, it was constructed at the time of one Srinivasa Mudaliar and named after him.

There was a small Hanuman temple in one of the gradients, and a platform with a Muslim prayer wall where Tipu Sultan was said to have conducted prayers near the main reservoir at the top and it was called   பேச்சிப்பாறை (Pechiparai). When Sheikh Dawood succeeded Mudaliar, he renamed this "Peoples' Park" and added a small zoo to it. I think the park was the boundary of the town municipal limits on that side.

There was another big playground and football field belonging to the London Mission (popular name for the London Mission Society established in Erode in 1936). They had a big church, hospital and school. That hospital was exclusively for women. Dr. H.M. Pollard, one of the senior doctors there, was respected, admired and feared. She attended on me and delivered Savithri (Visalam's first-born, daughter) in the year she retired from service and left for England.

That road and compound were named after Rev. Brough, whom I remember as a genial man. His wife was a kind woman. After him, Rev. H.A. Popley took over. He used to don வேஷ்டி அங்கவஸ்த்ரம் (veshti angavastram\; dhoti and upper cloth) and speak on திருக்குறள் (Tirukkural) in Tamil.

There were three Mariamman temples, one பெரியமாரியம்மன் கோயில் (Periya Mariamman Koil, Great Mariamman Temple) at the western point, நடு மாரியம்மன் கோயில் (Nadu Mariamman Koil, Middle Mariamman Koil) right in the middle, and சின்ன மாரியம்மன் கோயில் (Chinna Mariamman Koil, Little Mariamman Koil) at the eastern part. An annual celebration lasting fifteen days with தேர் (ther, the ceremonial temple car to take deities on procession through the streets) for four days towards the end was held in பங்குனி (Panguni, the last of the twelve-month Tamil calendar). This event was piously and strictly observed by all sections of the people.

Boundaries of Erode in those days: On the East, it extended up to one கருமாதி கருப்பண்ணன்    கோயில் (Karumathi Karuppannan Temple) beyond the railway line. On the South, it ended up near Kollumpalayan, bordering on the Railway Colony built by the South Indian Railway. On the West, it was இடயன்காட்டு வாசல் (Idayankattu vassal). Later it got extended even beyond திண்டல் மலை (Thindal Malai). On the North, it was the Municipal Park. As children, we have walked (our daily evening constitutional routine!) close to those boundaries. So, I know the roads and routes to Coimbatore, Trichy, Palani from Erode.

I could write a lot more about those times, about the townspeople, some of the customs, the regular beggars who rested in dilapidated, disused buildings, arches or under trees, who were known by their names, but I don't feel the need to do it. If Kartik  (Visalam's grandson) would want to know anything, I could tell him. Otherwise, I think I will concentrate more upon my own family life after writing about the anti-Brahmin movement that had its home in Erode.

On second thoughts, I will do the anti-Brahmin movement separately because it was very much there during my father's time, and he was finding methods and ways to beat it.

My father was one of the honorary magistrates of the bench court that used to sit twice a week. He was the only Brahmin. Of the others, I remember one Christian lawyer and another Christian lady doctor, Anna Devairakkam Rajanayakam, whom we knew very well. Her husband, Mr. Rajanayakam, was a teacher by profession. Very quiet, studious, he was liked and respected. His hobby was assembling and listening to home radio. I don't know if Ham radio was known in those days. He had three children by his first wife. When she died, he married her friend, Anna.

Incidentally, it was he who told me of the outbreak of the World War II, even before it came over All India Radio. I came home, told my father (and uncle who happened to be there), and he sent messages to the business/merchant community.

There was no electricity in Erode till 1932-33. Even after the adjoining places got electrified there was some disagreement between the GEC (General Electric Company) and the municipality, and it was held up.

When my father learnt that the electric wires were going within 30-40 miles of Erode, he spent his own money, got the poles erected, wires drawn and brought current to illuminate the Shiva temple. The entire expenditure was his. The light on top of the கோபுரம் (gopurm, temple tower) was to be on all nights except on full moon days. Lights on the four corners were to be on between 6.00 p.m. and 9.00 p.m. It was one of my father's first big works of public interest combined with தர்மம் (darma piety) that I remember.

Go to Part 3


© Kamakshi Balasubramanian 2015

Editor's note: I approve all comments written by people. The purpose of the approval process is to prevent unwanted comments, inserted by software robots, which have nothing to do with the story.


So many details about the city, society and history intertwined with her life. She has a way of observing and remembering them. Amazing!

As you have pointed out, this is not just a personal, family story ? it is actually a historical record of how life was back then, from her perspective. And, that is its attraction - beyond the family.

As I work on my mother's manuscript, I marvel at her mind. The details she has presented give a quick and reliable account of the past. Some of the people she mentions are important historical and cultural figures.

I read all the three parts n i liked it very much .It is very intrersti ng n love to read further .Ifeel how ppl then were so good had humanity

Great, Jyotsna. There's plenty more. My mother has left us a treasure.

I liked it hence I have forwarded it to Jyotsna..She too liked all the 3 parts & is equally excited to follow the remaining parts..

Youe encouragement means a great deal. Thanks, Bhaiya.

The family home was one of the first in the district to be completely rebuilt in very modern style of the times in 1950. However, the open drains continue to this day, carrying rubbish carelessly and callously dumped into it, making it a breeding ground for mosquitos and unhealthy stink in the air. One has to waylay the local Councillor when he went for a morning walk to get a municipal worker to come and give a push to make it flow. Aunt Visalam and her siblings were brought up with the dedicated help of Kandappa Gounder(Man Friday), Parvathi Ammal (Cook cum girls personal care taker), and Sadasiva Iyer(clerk). There relationship of these unrelated people to the motherless children (the baby boy was just six months) was not due to old fashioned caste and status based deference but a deep empathy for them and admiration for the man who chose to remain widower from the age of 29 for the sake of his children. The two men in particular continued to have maternal softness towards them until their dying days, mentioning them only as children even when both aunts were middle aged. I hope there is narrative of these people's role in the lives of the three siblings. That would be a fitting tribute to the three "servants".

Mahalakshmi! How nice to hear your comments. Indeed, there is a section about the unrelated people who brought up the trio of the two girls and a boy... just click here thanks for reading this. how did you happen to find it?

I am trying to find the name of The sister of Erode grandmother's sister who was a writer. Is there any reference to her in athai's diaries? I would be very glad to hear that. One thought to another, I googled you and Radha and stumbled on this. I found both your profiles in FB but not sure my message to you both got through.

Name: Swarnam, pseudonym Guhapriyai. link--

Mahalakshmi--these are not amma's diaries. these are memoirs she wrote over a period of some two or three years, filling up many pages. she destroyed her diaries herself. what's your FB profile name? i haven't seen your message on my FB page. love, papu

If I am not mistaken, Swarnam aka Guhapriya was the twin sister of Alamelu. Karpagam, the latter's was a teacher of veena and was a long time resident of West Mambalam/Kodambakkam. I am in touch with Vivek, Karpagam's son

I never ventured in to South India. Well. Bombay was not "South" in my twisted geography. Reading this piece I realise how much I have missed . Ms Kamakshi Balasubramaniam as the "editor" of these recollections has made me appreciate a land, a culture, I never knew. My chief and his 2nd in command in Safdarjang hospital were both from Madras. We conversed always in English.

Many thanks, Anand-ji. The south of India is waiting for you. Come and visit.

When I first visited Tamil Nadu as a young student(aged 21) and met Visalam Auntie I knew I had encountered a very special person. She spoke to me of Erode, of how her father was a very rich man who rather coddled her, and of the shock of becoming a "married woman" at age 14. I loved her English, which bore the echoes of PG Wodehouse (a favourite author in my family) and could never quite fathom how someone who had never been to school could be so erudite! I am loving these, Papu, where is Installment #3?

Amazing details. makes it feel really like sitting with her and she is explaining the whole thing. great stuff

Dear Trusty , I am Ramesh from Erode. Any details about Rev.A.W.Broughand Rev H.A Popley please send us and call +91 88838 46783

Dear Trusty, I am Ramesh from Erode. any details about Rev A.W.Brough and Rev.H.A.Popley Thank You

Hi can u help me out by giving a copy of writings of Visalam on memoirs of Erode chapter? I’m great grand son of Sheik Dawood munsipality chairman of Erode during that time. My mail

Amazing. I feel as if i'm at erode during 1930's. I belong to the family of then chairman of muncipality Sheik Dawood. Can anyone help me to share the real pictures of Visalam's writings which was given in this page?

Please send me an email

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