The childhood days I spent in my native town of Tirunelveli constitute some of the most important pages in my life. We woke up with the cries of the crow. My mother bought greens every day. We used to get greens in exchange for a fistful of rice.
My mother had two constant companions, our maid Sundari, and an Alsatian dog named ‘Tiger’. The maid was treated as a member of the family and the dog was given near-royal status.
Never would the dog let anyone, even us, wake up my mother or our maid in case they were having a siesta. Both my mother and the maid generally woke up in the morning before us and went to bed after us. They worked faster than machines and attended to the needs of my conservative father, my two brothers and me. As my house was right behind the bus stand, commuters would often ask the maid about the arrival and departure of buses. Sundari would help them without a whimper.
We were regular customers of the salt-sellers and the shikakai sellers who came every fortnight. The washerman came every fortnight to collect my father’s dhoti and shirts. The flower-seller supplied a fragrant string of buds every day. All of them would share their joys and sorrows with my mother. The way they addressed my mother as ‘akka’ and ‘amma’ depending on their age came from their heart.
My father, unpredictable as the weather, often brought guests. The hospitality shown to guests and relatives made them visit us again. During summer, an earthen pot of water was placed on the verandah for the sake of passersby.
I used to wonder how my mother could find the time for everyone and everything. Did she have more than 24 hours in her day?
My mother studied up to Class 8. But the way she recited the Thirukural while I was in Class 5 still rings in my ears. Her amazing memory power often left me spell-bound. Around Deepavali, the aroma of ‘vada’ from the kitchen woke us up early. Our parents bought dresses for everyone only twice or thrice a year. We eagerly waited for Deepavali to wear new dresses. We competed with one another to burn crackers early in the morning. On birthdays we went to the nearby temple and puja was performed.
Summer vacation was spent in writing letters to friends, chasing dragonflies, catching silkworms and learning how to ride a bicycle. The ice-cream vendor uncle and the postman uncle became our seasonal friends through the summer. Letters from friends were read and re-read.
Like Tom Sawyer, all the children had a collection of assorted pebbles, bus tickets and match boxes. We hired bicycles at Re.1 an hour. We routinely fell down, got bruises and learnt everything on our own. Boys learnt swimming in the well. There was no expert to teach co-scholastic skills. In December (coinciding with Margazhi) my brothers and I took bath early in the morning and went to the temple, also for the mouth-watering prasadam. The worth of sweets and clothes was cherished. Once a year we were taken to a hotel and for a film.
But slowly but steadily devices such as the telephone and television barged into our lives while I was in high school. Slowly we got glued to the TV set on Fridays, and for the Sunday matinee and evening shows.
I still wonder how my father remembered the telephone numbers of all his colleagues and relatives. Did he have a chip in his head? Today, I have to jog my memory to recall my own phone number. There were no malls, not many four-wheelers or phones. But every moment of life added zest to my life. Just think: what memories do we leave for our children?
As a project leader, my mother led the whole team of family members, maintained social ties and bore testimony to the fact that serving hands are better than praying lips. What an irony it appears to be.