That R. Gopalakrishnan is a successful corporate executive, a highly regarded manager and an author with three books under his belt is all well known. He proves that he’s an equally good raconteur too with his fourth book, “A comma in a sentence”, a delightful narrative of his family’s history spanning 200 years and six generations.
The best way to narrate history is through anecdotes and that is exactly what Gopal does while tracing his family’s journey beginning with his great-great-grandfather, Ranganathan in the village of Vilakkudi in Tamil Nadu’s Thanjavur district, and ending with his cosmopolitan children in Cuffe Parade. The first thought that comes to mind when reading the book is: how did Gopal manage to gather so much information and so many anecdotes of his forefathers in the absence of any records or notes?
The answer is in the preface where he acknowledges the help from his uncles, aunts and the extended family for recounting events from their respective lives. After all, the greatest of Hindu epics have been handed down through generations by word of mouth so why not family anecdotes? The most delightful of these is the one relating to the quarrel between two Iyengar sub-sects, Vadagalais who wear the ‘U’ caste mark on their foreheads, and Thengalais who wear the ‘Y’ caste mark. The quarrel that erupted in the 1700s over whether the Devaraja Swamy temple in Kancheepuram should use the ‘U’ or ‘Y’ mark and if the temple liturgy should be in ‘U’ or ‘Y’ style degenerated by the late 1800s into which mark should adorn the temple elephant. And it ended up in court.
Gopal cleverly uses the controversy to narrate how his grandfather, Gopalan, was left disenchanted wondering if this is what religion was all about. The anecdote lays the foundation for the narrative about the anti-Brahmin wave set off by the rationalist thoughts of Periyar that swept the southern parts of the country, especially Tamil Nadu.
Change, as they say, is the only constant and that is borne out through Gopal’s family narrative. His grandfather Gopalan’s life was transformed by the arrival of the railway, the postal system and the newspaper. Gopalan himself was the beneficiary of formal school education while his sons were the first to step out of the village to work. Gopal’s was the first generation to get a college degree.
Even as members of each generation learnt to cope with the changes and evolve with the times, they held on to the core values. Thus, the traditional Brahmin tuft was let go of by Gopal’s father while he himself allowed his children to choose their life partners. Yet, the core values such as a commitment to education and learning, adaptability to different cultures and the art of family conversation were all retained.
This is a unique attribute of many Tamil Brahmin families who have all adapted to change very well, letting go of the accoutrements while holding on to core values. Thus, the narrative might sound familiar to several readers of the book. Though the book is essentially the history of one family over 200 years, Gopal has managed to make it relevant for a larger audience by drawing lessons from the experience of his forbears. The most important of these lessons is in the last page: that the greatest treasure we can leave for our children is not wealth but values.