These days, im spending more time in the past. Not sure if that’s due to reduced anxiety levels I have about the future. As you might have noticed from my blogs, I’m a sucker for nostalgia. The further I travel to the left of the timeline however, the more intriguing and demanding it becomes, since it is a struggle to recall events from the baby years of my life.
It strikes me that I don’t think much about my (paternal) grand father these days. Maybe since my grandma filled the space – she continued the journey with us for thirty three more years. I don’t even have his picture at my new home.
I feel compelled to write about him. For the sake of my kid who will otherwise know much less about her ancestors. And for my own sake. I borrowed his name, after all.
I will start with what I have. A few incidents and images of him are indeed registered in my head.
I remember him walking me from the school. Wait. No, he is lifting me up on his hips as he collects me from the primary school, walking back home along the road. He does not talk much. I remember him being tall. When you are a kid, everyone else looks taller. Gee! I don’t recall much more of him.
Then, I get flashed with another image: We are somewhere a temple in Ernakulam, standing on the elevated slab / base which has a big tree. I see my aunt (his daughter) teasing him to jump to the ground. My grandpa ignores the challenge stating he could have readily done that, if he was a bit younger.
Now, that is amazing. I don’t think anyone narrated this incident to me. When you really scratch your head, the grey cells do play out a scene from the past. If you think I am hallucinating (I hope I am not), take a look at the recent breakthroughs in neuroscience, about the way we remember the past and recollect from our memory.
But I cannot forget the day he passed away. I was just seven years old. In the morning, I was sent to school and don’t remember if I had said “bye” to him. Later, I watched my uncle walk in to the classroom requesting my teacher to let me go home early. I saw a crowd of relatives and neighbours in the very small living room. I see “him” lying on the floor. There were many other aspects of that day that clouds my memory, but I remember this weird feeling, as clear as sky: I tried to cry like everyone else, but couldn’t.
He was not known for displaying his emotions. A shy and often silent person that he was, he had a tough life. I try to recall the narrations I have heard as a child from my father, about his dad’s life:
My grandpa’s family owned a restaurant near the bus station in Erode. As an independent adult, he ran the kitchen in the weekly train between Erode and Ernakulam and must have impressed a certain gold merchant who decided to get his last daughter married to this tall and handsome man.
Moving to the city of the bride, he sets up his own restaurant in the main streets of Ernakulam. Not much later, he faces revolt within the larger family which unfortunately leads to the sale of his only asset. With cooking as his only skill and, faced with limited opportunities in that small city, he takes up the job of the chief-cook in the same shop.
I wonder how he felt that day he was downcast as an employee from being an employer . It must have crushed him. Not surprising then to learn that he packed his bags, took his wife and son (my dad) to a bigger city:Coimbatore. There he would work for many hotels and eateries – some of them still thriving even today. He has made dosas in Bombay Ananda Bhavan, spun jelabis during Diwali, delivered pooris to students by 6 am, served the canteen at the famous Central theatre, together with a coffee specialist who later became a famous restaurateur.
I asked my father why grandpa had to change so many jobs. It seems he flinched and revolted often against people in the kitchen who were lazy and indifferent about quality and hygiene. He once threw an entire vessel of sambar down the drain when he spotted a floating insect. The next dish he cooked was weeks later, in a different hotel, several kilometres away which he had to cover by foot. Those long walks continued for some years.
My grandma somehow managed to run the show during intermittent job “breaks”. The four children growing up and taking odd jobs even as they were finishing studies, also helped.
The only regret we all have is, by the time the family clawed back to the middle class level, he had left us. He didn’t see the first black-and-white TV we bought. He wasn’t around when we watched our first movie at home at 10 pm (African Safari). He didn’t get a chance to push a button on a machine that would crush rice and deliver flour in an hour – relieving him from the physical pain of handling a manual stone mill grinder. And he didn’t answer the first phone call we would receive at home. He missed the convenient motor bike rides. He didn’t sit in my car.
I feel guilty from not retaining him in my mind. But it is actually worse: I miss the chance of a meaningful conversation with him. That would have added some colour to the teenage years of me and my sister. Even for today, as I deal with tricky questions on career and life as such. A man who lived for 67 years, migrated to various cities, walked much distance, silently and on barefoot, fed hundreds of thousands of mouths, would definitely have something to offer. It feels like I am missing an important book from my library.
I will need to explore, talk to uncles and aunts. A bit more about my grandpa’s lineage might be even more interesting. The ancestry might be traced to one of the agraharams (village) in Palakkad. I vaguely recall an incident narrated by my dad about someone (grandpa’s uncle?), a police constable who lost his hands while trying to arrest illicit-liquor vendors during a night raid. That explains why grandpa, his brothers and cousins chose to arm themselves with cutlery instead.
TN Seshan, a famous son of the Palakkad soil, the man who revolutionised the way elections are conducted in India, says, “Palakkad is famous for producing cooks, crooks and civil servants”.
My grandfather was a cook. My father retired as a civil servant. That leaves me in a strange predicament.