At a time when storytelling by grandfathers has become a rarity due to greater penetration of satellite channels, here is a book titled Mitcham Meedhi: Oru Anubava Kanakku (What Still Remains: A Ledger of Experience) and published by Kalachuvadu Pathipagam, which centres on a grandfather narrating his life story to his anthropologist grandson.
Both grandfather and grandson have woven magic, taking threads from distant places and a bygone era. It’s a story about the times that have passed by and their relevance to the present. Through the tools of memory, the grandfather who is the central figure of the story has narrated what remains in the experience of one generation to be passed on to another generation. The book exemplifies this genre of storytelling.
The journey of a commoner who throughout his early life moved forth and back between Madurai and Burma in search of livelihood, such struggles and experiences form the content of this memoir. Unlike certain narratives which fall into a pattern of predictable certainty, this book calls for attention to the uncertainties of human experience and the complexities of human nature. The book comes out of a journey of encounter between a grandson and grandfather, and the coincidence of an anthropologist working with a subject who happened to be his grandfather.
Ayya (M.P. Mariappan) was much more active than what one might expect from a 93-year-old man. His eyes were gleaming when he talked about how the Dalits were treated during the 1920s in Madurai, where they were served tea in coconut shells. He himself had to undergo such caste discrimination when he and his father were asked to sit on the ground outside his Vellala friend’s house while they were served food. The book has a lot of minute details concerning the social practices of various times: Ayya having to leave his school when he was in his VIII standard, although a bright student, due to the machinations of internal caste politics within the village Nadar caste association.
Grandfather’s experience in Burma as a shopkeeper after he left India, and his times with Burmese people are interesting parts to read in the book. Ayya finds them more honest and welcoming than Indians. The deadly trip he and his brother made back to India when the Japanese invaded Burma during the Second World War are part of the forgotten history of an exodus which needs more historical attention. Sixty years later, Ayya returned to Burma with his son and grandson in search of his father’s grave.
A hardcore atheist, Ayya never shied away from highlighting the cheating that was going on in all the business he was involved with, especially among the cloth traders. His grandson, Anand Pandian, Associate Professor of Anthropology at Johns Hopkins, said that although he had worked on three books so far, it was the most emotionally intense project that he has done. “I’ve sat down to write in Baltimore with tears in my eyes, not tears of sadness but the feeling that my grandfather’s story was like a vast wave that I was also part of, a historical force moving all of us along.” “My grandfather worked and struggled, but he also needed luck and chance on his side,” he says. “One of the most important lessons of my grandfather’s story has to do with the challenge of living with uncertainty, a challenge that all of us face.”
The book talks about such lessons of experience, social histories, and caste-based networks of business, education, and marriage. It also touches upon the Nehruvian imagination of the nation and ethical aspects of everyday life. “It’s a book about the extraordinariness of an ordinary life, a story of the 20 century through the journey of one individual,” says Mr. Pandian.The book got shaped through a triangular production process, between Baltimore, Chennai, and Madurai. Apart from Ayya and his grandson, Kamalalayan, a writer from Chennai was also involved.
Mr. Pandian has this to say about the origins of the book. “Although I was born in America and lived very far from my grandparents, we all grew up hearing about Ayya’s trek from Burma to India.”
“Ralph Waldo Emerson’s important essay on “Experience” begins with his reflection on his son’s death. Likewise most stories are born out of this sense of frailty and mortality. This book grows out of the fact that both Ayya I were growing older and beginning to think about such things together,” says Mr. Pandian.
Pandian in this book makes one reference to a notebook that his father used to carry as a medical student in Madurai. The notebook has some details about one toddy tapper’s physical exertions, but Pandian is struck that his father does not seem to feel any caste-based sympathy for him.
“The body of the toddy tapper reflects the suppressed history of the community,” Pandian says. He had no idea of this history himself until he had laid his hands on Robert Hardgrave’s book. “The Nadars had suppressed their background as toddy-tapping Shanars; they created a fictive past for themselves, through a collective re-writing of their own history,” he says.
Explaining the significance of a Burma Evacuee Identity Card pictured in the book, Pandian describes the card as an ironic reminder that the state, no matter whether British or postcolonial, did almost nothing to help these refugees.
Autobiographies or memoirs need not be based on social or economic category. The long journey of his grandfather’s life through colonial and postcolonial India, Burma, and the US shows how ordinary life was globalised much before globalisation became a keyword. In Burma, Ayya learned something about world history by looking at photographs on scrap pages of the New York Times newspaper bought by shopkeepers to wrap up their goods.
“I’m no Mahatma, no great man,” Ayya says. “As long as I’m around, I’ll share my story with my children, my grandchildren, and my great-grandchildren. And then, after that, my story will remain as a historical tale. For other five or six generations, people may read it, and they may come to know that someone like me once lived.”