Chapter 9: Early years of marriage: Family rifts and squabbles

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 9 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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Same way, when I became pregnant the first time in 1942, all the problems of the first years of my marriage resurfaced.

It was then that my father actually shed tears, speaking to my father-in-law. "There's just so little that I can do even if she is my own daughter. Will I not want to take her home and buy her some fruit to eat?" But nothing like that could move my father-in-law. He, I conjecture, gloated that my father was grovelling and was going to return without me. I say this now because soon after my father left, my father-in-law said to me, "Your father is like a woman. He uses his tears."

Sometime during the sixth month of my pregnancy, TVB (Visalam's husband, known by his initials) was transferred to Bezwada (now called Vijayawada).

From 1939 till 1942 I was mostly in Tirukkarugavur, occasionally going to Singara or Sivaganaga, always a welcome change for me. TVB was then in Delhi - the first part and later in Calcutta before he got posted to southern India in 1941. My father-in-law's pleurisy and the war made us all stay in Tirukkarugavur till late '42. It was in Nov. '42 that civilians slowly began returning to cities and TVB and I, along with a couple of other relatives of Raghava athimber (Visalam's brother-in-law by marriage\; husband of her eldest sister-in-law) took up residence with Gowri periamma (Visalam's eldest sister-in-law) and athimber in Madras.

Around the 8th month of my pregnancy, my father brought up the subject of my going to Erode for the childbirth. My father-in-law refused permission. A number of letters were exchanged. My sister and her husband were in Secunderabad then, and visited me once. They found that I looked anaemic and pale, and told my father so.

My father thought the better of going himself to plead with my father-in-law. Accordingly, he chose a friend of his to go to Tirukkarugavur, and speak to and wrest permission from my father-in-law to bring me to Erode from Bezwada. Sri. Panchapakesa Iyer (This person's connection to Visalam's family is now not known. KB) achieved success in not only countering all of my father-in-law's objections but also ensured that my father-in-law wrote to TVB to let me go with my father. That was no easy task. It speaks for Panchapakesa Iyer's ability to foresee all possibilities on the other's side. Unless Panchapakesa Iyer got my father-in-law to write categorically to TVB, it was very much in the "realm of possibility" to twist his initial permission into nothing. Panchapakesa Iyer was shrewd enough to see all that. Well. The long and short of it for that time was, my father came to Bezwada, and brought me to Erode.

The lady doctor in London Mission Hospital, Erode, did all the ante-natal tests. My haemoglobin level was alarmingly low. She found I had hookworms. Now, the problem was: if I was given the medicine for eradicating hookworms and a purgative also, the baby could be born premature, underdeveloped and (it could not be ruled out) the baby may not be strong enough to live.

Alternately, if I was not given the medicine, hook worms will multiply, make me more anaemic, which may end up tragically for me as well as the baby. I was very much underweight. Pollachi paatti (Visalam's maternal grandmother--KB) and my athai (aunt: father's sister--KB) were in our house to be of help but they could not volunteer any opinion. They felt helpless.

Dr. David also consulted some other lady doctors for their views. Anyway, Dr. Pollard of London Mission Hospital decided to give me "CTC" or "ETC" as it was called and epsom salts. But she would have me right there in the hospital to watch the elimination of hookworms, also watch the number of bowel evacuation and, in the event of premature labour setting in, be able to move me to the ward. I was given two courses.

London Mission Hospital in Erode was exclusively for women - often referred to as "Gosha Hospital." The superintendent was very strict in the matter of not allowing men inside the precincts, except during visiting hours in the evening. So my father had arranged that Gowri and I will have our babies at home and not in the hospital.

My labour started on a Sunday. The chief doctor herself came and saw me that morning. She estimated the baby wouldn't be born for quite a few hours and advised that I could keep walking around, etc. That evening Kandappan (A devoted, long-term member of the household staff-KB) even took me out for a breath of fresh air. The pains never diminished. Monday also I was uncomfortable. Tuesday, my paatti gave me an oil bath (a soothing bath after an oil massage of head and body--KB) and some medicinal herb tea.

The pain seemed continuous rather than intermittent. The doctor and a nurse saw me and advised that I be moved upstairs where the confinement would be. By night, the pain got worse. I could not sleep. The chief nurse of the hospital was in attendance along with my grandmother, Coimbatore periamma and Gowri. They were worried that the pains did not come in spasms, did not spread beyond the navel region and the baby did not come down.

The doctor came and stayed on to watch the progress after 4.00 a.m. or something. She came twice during the night. I was getting exhausted.

After 7.00 a.m. she decided to apply forceps and sent for her medical assistant who brought anaesthesia and delivered Savithri at 8.40 a.m.

I regained full, complete consciousness only after the doctor and nurse had left, which must have been quite a while. They were treated to coffee which can't have been very quick, because Parvathy mami (the long-term cook in the household, and loving caregiver to Visalam-KB) had to grind the coffee beans every time.

My father sent telegrams to my father-in-law as well as TVB informing them of the birth of a baby girl. As could be guessed there was no acknowledgement from either of them. A few days later a postcard came from TVB to my father from which I remember one sentence. "I would have liked more details of the ordeal underwent by Visalam." My father only wrote a formal letter after the 3rd day to my father-in-law inviting him with family for the newborn's naming ceremony.

My father and my Pollachi thatha and paatti were piqued that my in-laws didn't ask after my welfare. They were equally upset that TVB showed no concern or anxiety when it was reported that I had hook worm, was low in haemoglobin or even made any reference to the letter my father had written on Monday, mentioning the onset of labour and yet "now writes a post card in this tone" asking for details.

My father did not reply to TVB. A few weeks later, while my father and I were at dinner, TVB and his mother arrived. Opening the front door for them, Parvathy mami came announcing, "Visalam's mother-in-law and husband are here." My heart fluttered and came into my mouth. Parvathy mami told me not to be scared at all. TVB and his mother said they had had dinner already. Both went to bed in the same hall where I was with my baby.

(I had been only ignorant and inexperienced till then. Now I was defiant with regard to TVB and his parents. But I lacked the courage to confront them on the key issues of fairness and openness. I merely got into endless argumentative angry exchanges).

Next morning my mother-in-law wouldn't wait even to have her morning coffee and left by train. Parvathy mami was preparing a real feast with payasam, vadai and wheat halva (delicacies traditionally offered at festive meals--KB) for TVB but he did not wait. Actually, he refused. Parvathy mami begged me to entreat TVB, saying that everything was ready and was made especially for him. Why did he have to by bus without a proper meal during lunch hour, etc., etc. (Parvathy mami was cooking that elaborate lunch without even waiting for my father to give her the menu or permission or anything.)

As a result of worry and anxiety, my father developed diabetes and carbuncles on his abdomen, back, and neck.

TVB left for Mettur where his brother and family were. On his way back to Madras, he passed through Erode and spent half a day with us. We were arguing and fighting all the time. He thought we had defied his father by devious methods, i.e. sending an outsider, making it impossible to refuse permission. I was sore that he did not come earlier nor spend more time with me, even though, being on transfer from Bezwada to Madras, he had been on leave and chose to spend more than 10 days in Tirukkarugavur.

(That neither of us recognised the close call in my having had hookworm shows how immature we both were. And TVB's parents, old and experienced as they were, ought to have put TVB wise to the reality of the situation. My father-in-law who would talk of "service" and "disservice" to children in great detail, failed to do it himself when it was his turn to do it. On the other hand, he inflamed TVB by harping on the slight shown to him by my not having the baby under his care.)

After TVB's return to Madras, there was no mention of when I might return to my husband's house. My father and others thought that I had better stay on till the baby was six months old. But, I became afraid. My mother-in-law and Kalpakam (Visalam's youngest sister-in-law-KB) with her first child were there with TVB. My father thought, seeing a small baby in the house, TVB will be desirous of having his own child in that place. Whereas I was afraid that people would poison his heart against me, and harden it to the extent of shutting me and the baby out completely.

I forced my father to take me to Madras. My brother was studying in Christian College there. Parvathy mami made fresh lehiyam (A medicinal preparation made of herbs and spices and used as a tonic. The consistency is somewhere between jam and jelly. Cf. Chyavanaprash-KB).

Contrary to our expectation, TVB was not there at the Central (Central Station, Madras--KB) to receive us. But, Nagu (Visalam's brother-KB) was there. We engaged a taxi and drove to where TVB had his quarters. Living portion was on the second floor, and required climbing 72 steps of a winding staircase. We rang the bell a few times. Getting no response, Nagu picked up my luggage and the three of us started climbing the stairs. Nagu asked the taxi to wait. At the landing to the house, again we stood. My father had a painful swollen middle finger on his right hand. So, I was standing with my baby and Nagu, who was ready to drag the luggage in.

Lights were on inside the house. We could hear voices and movement but nobody opened the door! We were wondering what else to do beyond knocking when Sri. Sivaramakrishna Iyer (Father-in-law of my mother's third sister-in-law--KB), who must have been passing through Madras and therefore stopped for the night there, opened the door. Of course, he didn't know we were coming. Surprise and shock crossed his face. He managed to smile and say "come in." Leaving the door open he turned and went into the next room.

We entered. No one, literally, no one acknowledged, or greeted us. And my mother-in-law was standing, Kalpakam was sitting in her bed where her baby was sleeping, and TVB was lying in his cot! I walked up and peremptorily told TVB to get up because I wished to put the baby there and he complied. My father and brother were still standing near the entrance door. In a business-like manner, TVB went to the phone. Rang up the dairy asking whether the morning milk was on its way.

My father looked around in a general way, and took leave. There was not so much as a nodding of head by anyone. He asked me whether I could stay on. I answered levelly, "This is my house. I will stay. You go and keep your appointment with your doctor." When they had left, Sivaramakrishna Iyer came out and asked why they went away without even coffee. I said my father had to see some doctors for his painful finger and diabetes.

Then followed days--one after another. My mother-in-law did not change in her attitude. Gowri periamma (Visalam's eldest sister-in-law-KB) visited us often enough. She would have sensed that things were not going smoothly. Meanwhile, on some pretext my mother-in-law directed TVB to write to my father that he need not ever come or see us. When TVB showed me the letter, I asked him to think over it. I pointed out that if he said something so strongly, he won't be able to retract it, and it was not possible to continue living without any communication with my father.

He had written it. He was sending it. That was that. My mother-in-law looked triumphant.

After that when my brother came to see me, he stood outside, and I came out of the house to meet him. There was no place to sit. So, we would stand for some time. Then he would go back to college. Occasionally his friends Singaravelu or Margam used to come. Though there was no bar against their coming into the house, they also preferred to stand outside. Singaravelu always brought something to eat.

Shortly after that, I went to Tirukkarugavur with my mother-in-law and Viswes (Visalam's brother-in-law's first son). It was then that my father-in-law saw my first child, and named her Savithri. Both my parents-in-law confronted me. My father-in-law putting words into my mouth which I never said. My mother-in-law held out against me that the "hook worm condition" did not warrant any special attention. They treated me as if I did not belong there. I did not deserve to be there and it was their magnanimity that I was allowed to be part of the family.

My mother-in-law's mother may or may not have understood or even known all the details. But, she felt kindly disposed towards me. And she kept it to herself! She managed to give me extra milk and curds by conniving situations. Mixing curds and rice mid-morning, she would reach it to the back yard where she would direct me. At night, she would hide a big tumbler of milk, and send me to the same backyard on some pretext.

All these things made me feel bitter and angry. In those days, some close family members had a definite voice in the general scheme of things. These forces were always inciting TVB and my father-in-law to pick up a quarrel with my father. They were also doing the same between TKB's mother (T.K. Balasbramanian, Visalam's youngest sister-in-law's husband-KB) and my father-in-law.

This culminated in my deciding to leave TVB and go back to my father. It was almost like, "either my father or my husband," for me. If my father and brother could have been visiting me and spending time together, I would not have taken that kind of decision. These people were blind to my need. Need to be able to see my father. Showing my growing child to him. Obstinacy of my father-in-law caused the rift.

And I left when Savithri was around eight months. I lived away from TVB, without any communication, for a little over a year.

Here again, I have to record my father-in-law's stupid behaviour.

He wrote to me, addressing me formally as "Madam," on behalf of TVB asking me for custody of my child, Savithri. I was terrified. I was afraid that my father-in-law was strong enough to wrest my baby from me. Our clerk, Kittu, also said the same thing.

It was then my father showed his diplomacy in handling tricky situations. He consulted a lawyer, who wrote out the texts for replies to that letter as well as several that followed. Bland and long-winded, the letters that went out from me must have been baffling. TVB himself wrote two letters and even to those, our lawyers Sri. Srikanta Iyer wrote the replies for me to copy. The correspondence ended in a stalemate.

Then, my father thought of seeking Sri. Sivaramakrishna Iyer's (Father-in-law of my mother's third sister-in-law, mentioned earlier in this section-KB) views and, if possible, help in bringing TVB and me together.

Our Kittu went to Devakottai. Sivaramakrishna Iyer suggested that my father and I go to Trichy, ostensibly to attend Sarasa's post-wedding grihapravesam ceremony (Sarasa was a beloved niece of Visalam's by marriage--KB), where my father-in-law, mother-in-law, and brother-in-law Sri. Narayanan would be present. Our clerk, Kittu, also came with us.

There we were to meet and decide on the future course. There was no discussion. Nothing. Only Sivaramakrishna Iyer took me aside and asked me the reason for my discontent. I remember telling him that my father-in-law was selfish, an autocrat and my mother-in-law was an unfeeling woman. Sivaramakrishna Iyer suggested that my father bring me over to Sivaganga (Visalam's third sister-in-law, Nagammal lived there with her family-KB) and leave me there. (The ban on my father meeting TVB or entering his house stood intact. So, a neutral place had to be chosen).

On the day my father brought Savithri and me to Sivaganga, Sri. Sivaramakrishna Iyer made it a point to be there. He assured my father that he need not worry.

I spent some time in Sivaganga. Then all of us, Nagamma Sithi and children, and I went over to Mettur. Although I did not know it then, they had arranged for TVB to come to Mettur and take us to Madras. TVB came and spent about a week in Mettur. At that time, I asked TVB to go to my father's house, meet him at Erode. We were, in any case, spending a few hours in Erode to take the train to Madras. But it was not to be. We travelled from Mettur to Erode, and from there took the train to Madras.

By consenting to meet my father, TVB could have made me a very happy person. That refusal contributed to many quarrels and bitterness.

I feel bad, having to recount the unpleasant times because, as I stated earlier, my life with TVB in the last forty odd years (I am leaving out the earlier decade) has been lovely.

He is a person with fine qualities. My maternal grandmother once long ago described TVB as an uncut diamond. Her words were: "An uncut diamond, that what's he is, dear child." What clouded his vision in the earlier years, I don't know. TVB is a person who never harbours any ill will against anybody. Even when he gets hurt by somebody, he behaves with utmost grace. He never retaliates. He succeeds in putting all such unfortunate encounters out of his mind as soon as it is over. It disgusts him to see meanness in anyone.

Falsehood, duplicity and revenge are alien to his nature and are things he hates in other people.

I don't have to describe his qualities because I am writing this only for my children to see. They know him well enough. Probably even better than I do. They are his flesh and blood. And they take after him, by nature and by observation and association. My children are kind, compassionate, helpful, truthful, honest, and steady.


Between the years 1946 to 1950, we were mostly in the South. I was deficient in housekeeping. I was unimaginative. TVB never found fault. He has never once scolded me or spoken rudely or roughly. He has pointed out my deficiency but he never humiliated me or tried to correct me. He always gave me domestic help.

I think, I will take up another notebook to write about my years of good life when my children were growing up and how much TVB loved them. He used to love taking them out, buying things for them. Things like warm clothes, full sleeved uppers and long pants so that they are not exposed to chill as also protection from mosquitoes. I would never have thought of such things myself. That is why I say I lacked imagination, whereas TVB was practical. He enjoyed going on picnics, sightseeing, travelling with family. Road, rail or air, when he wanted to travel, he just planned everything to fine detail and started on it.

Thinking back, I musn't say I wouldn't have thought of warm clothes, etc., for my little ones. It is wrong.

I knitted a full-sleeved sweater for Savithri, a pullover. I picked up stitches from the right front side of the neck and knitted a long piece that could be wound round the neck like a scarf\; taken over the head covering both ears to substitute for a cap or just brought round and buttoned up to look like an ornamental collar.

This was soon after we moved to Jabalpore. I knitted a sport shirt, beret, gloves for Ramesh (Visalam's second child-KB), who was then two. Most of these were my original designs. People complimented me as hoshiyar ("smart" in colloquial Hindi, the language used in Jabalpore--KB) for the designing, without guidance from any book.


© Kamakshi Balasubramanian 2016

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The early years of married life are rarely easy for couples who are so young. Girls in their teens are not ready for adult responsibilities. I can understand Visalam seeking refuge with her father.

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