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Our big family

Before I enter the next phase of my life it would be worth recalling the persons and characters who dominated my life in Calicut. First and foremost was my grandmother. She was the presiding deity of the big tharavadu that was my home from the day I set foot in Calicut. She was widowed well before I was born. She was attired only in a light plain yellowish silk saree with the head covered as was the custom in those times. Her husband left her with three sons and three daughters and a large house with a sprawling compound which also had five smaller houses mostly let out for rent. In the approximately three acre compound grew coconut trees, jackfruit trees, plantain trees and many other fruit bearing trees which yielded their fruits in abundant measure. My grandmother lived a very long life well into her nineties and saw all her children grow up and set up their families. She was an admirable woman strong willed and able bodied. Her children looked up to her for everything they wanted. My mental picture of her in my childhood was how she pampered us, a brood of a dozen kids, with jackfruits in the season, plantain fruits all year round and the choicest of dishes she prepared. She would not remain idle during the day and I have never seen her taking a nap in the afternoon. She would be busy in the vast compound collecting fallen coconuts, their dry leaves and branches with which she would make nice brooms, checking on the ripeness of the jackfruits and plantains in the trees, directing the servants to clean up the compound periodically if not everyday, turnover the bases of the coconut trees and manure them periodically and hundreds of such things. I used to accompany her around and keep chatting all the time. In later years when her children grew up and the daughters of the house left her after their marriages she guided the sons to take over her chores. It used to be a ritual for all her daughters to gather around her in the afternoons for a session of gossip before disbursing for home in time for their husbands to return home from work

Her first son, Rasappa (Rasappa Mama to us), my uncle about whom I knew very little, had an unhappy life. He was a bright student and his mastery over the English language was legendary. After his studies he was working with a British firm. He had a car which was a luxury in those times. It was said that he fell in love with a beautiful girl whom he married against his mother’s wishes. It was also said that she died within a year after delivering a child. The tragedy broke him down completely and he never recovered from the shock for the rest of his life. My memories of him was of a man who had completely withdrawn from life, living like a zombie confined to a single room which had just one mat and pillow and an easy chair. We children were terribly afraid of him and would never go anywhere near him.

He would be on his easy chair most of the time smoking bidis endlessly and muttering things none of us understood. His only link to this world was his growing up daughter whom he was very fond of and his youngest brother, Ramurthy Mama, who looked after him and provided him whatever he needed or asked for. Ramurthy Mama used to wash his clothes, get the room cleaned up of the hundreds of bidi butts and an odd newspaper or magazine thrown carelessly around. When he was too bored with his room, he would wander around town and make a visit to the cinema theatre where his brothers worked to collect a few rupees to buy himself a drink and a few packets of bidis. Ramurthy Mama, my younger uncle, saw to it that he had his food regularly and in fact he took good care of his brother like a child. Rasappa Mama lived long and died very late in life at the age of probably in his late eighties. It was a tragic and lonely life that he led comparable to Devadas, Sarat Chandra Chatterjee’s immortal lovers who after loosing his lady love, Parvathy (Paro) withdrew himself completely to a secluded life. The difference in this case was that there was no Chandramukhi.

Radhakrishnan, (Radha Mama for us), my second uncle, was comparatively quieter and led a sedate life. He was the bread winner of the family. And he had a large family to look after. In a freak accident early in his life he lost his right arm. It was said that when they were young they used to play hide and seek. Radha Mama chose to hide himself in a big wooden case and as he got into the empty case the lid which was quite heavy slipped and caught my uncle’s arm which was holding the lid for him to get into the case. He and my uncle Ramurthy Mama, were so inseparable that they used to call them Rama and Lakshmana. When the time came for them to earn a living they banded themselves together and chose to enter business instead of a ‘ten to five’ clerical job. I am not aware of their financial situation in those days but I know that apart from the rent they use to collect from the tenants and the income from coconuts from their property they had to work to earn a living. The uncles joined the staff of a cinema theatre and rose in the ranks and Ramurthy Mama became the Manager assisted by Radha Mama at the ticket counter. They learnt the tricks of the trade in next to no time and ran the theatre efficiently. In order to what in today’s parlance called diversification, Radha Mama bought the interests in a provisional stores. It was a disaster from the beginning. My uncles incurred heavy losses and closed the business eventually. Even the theatre business was affected and they went through rough weather for a number of years thereafter.

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