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Jottings on an Indian summer

`Travancore' to Tiruvannamalai ... Join SUSAN VISVANATHAN on a journey of discovery.


MY sister, Esther and I, with our children caught the Island Express to Kerala. Morning brought the blue grey hills of Palakkad (Palghat) to our view. Our 86-year-old mother was waiting for us at the Ashram where she had been staying for over a year. She had planned a trip for us, which would take us over most of what was known as Travancore — eight towns and villages in nine days. We took a taxi that bright sun-lit monsoon morning and went up some country roads outside of Kottayam, to Peace Hill. My mother was looking pretty and excited and well. She had a monster of a van ready and was waiting for us.

We flung our luggage into it and we crammed in as well. We said goodbye to all those anxious old people at the ashram who saw us off, and we raced down narrow country roads at an alarming speed. This is a closely kept secret about God's Own Country — everyone drives madly.

Maramon is green and pastoral. The paddy grows well, the shops have remained traditional nooks, but you can buy multinational detergents. My cousin gave me a pile of books, which he thought I would be interested in. His son-in-law is a hotelier in the Gulf, and the travellers at his Inn left behind the books they'd finished with. So I come away with nine books from Maramon — Aunt Julie and the Script writer by Varghosa to name just one book. In Maramon we had spent a day and a night, visited four other clan members and my mother's sister who is 90 years old and still sweeps her front yard and remembers all our names, as well as those of our children. But every time we leave, she calls us back in, and weeps and laughs and touches our faces and recites our names, till my daughters get very puzzled and dart side long glances at me. The Syrian Christians live in patrilocal hamlets so at any given place you can get fed five times consecutively within an hour or two. There was a cry of "Dinner" from the next house so we tore ourselves from my nonagenarian aunt who sat on the porch looking at us in the gloam with desperate hungry loving eyes grumbling to herself, "Will I ever see these lovely children again with my own eyes?"

We moved the next day to Ranni. It is a hilly region, and Poovanmala is a small hill where my cousin and her husband grow rubber. My cousin's husband also keeps bees all of whom live quietly in boxes he has fashioned for them. When I would wake up in the morning in the terrace bedroom I would see acres of green around, and the bees would be setting out on their daily route.

My cousin's daughter who lives in England came to see us and there was more family feasting. I had lived in Sutton with them in 1999 for a week, and there too I had been given fried fish, beans, rice and curried curds just like my cousin cooks. My niece had telephoned her mother, desperately saying, "Susan chechi, (elder sister) is coming, and I want to make pal appam. How do I do it?" My cousin had comforted her, saying that would be very hard to do in Sutton, since the batter ferments only in tropical heat, but that ordinary Malayali food was perfect anyway. I was so startled at how much my niece slogged for me, because I've always thought the English sandwich tradition is excellent — but the hospitality of my niece and her husband could not be insulted by any expressions of consternation on my part. The only gift I could give them was to come home from the Library one day with Fish and Chips. My mother had trained in England (as a nurse on a fellowship) for a diploma in Public Health in 1948, and decades later had happily spoken to my sister and me about the wonder of fish and chips.

We went on to Alappuzha (Alleppey) after that. Every summer, for 20 years, we had a home there. Now the house was being whitewashed and repaired for a tenant. Although we had many relatives, my mother did not want to inconvenience them by our pack arrival. With her own clan she felt comfortable about imposing seven of us to stay, but with my father's family she was hesitant. We stayed one night in a Lodge, where the walls had seen green paint, and the airconditioning thundered permanently on. We missed our house, the roofs always drumming rain, and the creepers always flowering on walls and the ceiling always comforting with the ancient sense of wood and belonging. The next morning we looked in at our house, wondered whether we should not just get mats and sleep there at night. It was clean and newly painted ... but suppose there were snakes which looked in on us in the overgrown garden? One of my father's cousins insisted that we sleep at their house, so we didn't have to go back to the Family Lodge with its staff with good-manners but no windows. We went to the beach and watched the dull grey waves slam the white shore. All one's endless longing for life's pleasures are stilled on the shores of the Arabian Sea.

We went on a boat ride on the Vembanad Lake which had suddenly sprouted hotels, spas and boats, but the rural people with their hinterland of coconuts, drying fish-nets and pocket sized paddy fields looked happy about the additional commerce. We ate breakfast lunch and dinner with our many relatives, all of whom were delighted to see my mother.

At Peace Hill where my mother had chosen to stay at first, she found she was far away from her clan, and that her nephews and nieces found it difficult to visit her. She enlisted their help and found a new place near their homes. So Mavellikara was our next stop. Here again our families welcomed us with food and clean beds. My mother visited the new Old Age home that she planned to join, and we were startled by how beautiful it was. There were only six residents in all and the superintendent was as my mother said, "Very young, only 60." Dr. Alice was back in India after 25 years in Hawai, and everything about her communicated an enthusiasm and verve which I found startling. "I've had fun," she said, "Now I've come to serve. My mother has been given a room which is like a picture book cottage, with flowers waving outside the window and a modern attached bath and toilet. She has been there for several months now and says she's happy, though with old people and very young children one never really knows.

The next stop is my father's brother's house. Everyone has a favourite Uncle, and this is mine. We spent three days with them. My aunt who is one of the most resourceful people I know, had hired a family cook, who proceeded over the days to cook everything he knew. My Uncle was laid up with an arthritic problem, but from his couch or hobbling about he would carry on renovation to his house. An engineer for an American company in the Gulf, my Aunt and Uncle, after he retired, have decided to keep occupied. This involves keeping track of all their three children who live in Canada, orchestrating the latter's vacations in Kerala and their own annual trips to Canada for the birth of grandchildren. For the rest of the time he has authoritative parish responsibilities, as does his wife. He also spends time at the Bank to check to see if his savings are in order. It is impossible to invest in Kerala — capitalists are not welcome yet. Conspicuous consumption is not the norm.


From Chennai we go to the Ramana ashram in Tiruvannamalai. One brilliantly calm cool summer evening, Mani Anna, one of the ashram's trustees decides to take us around the campus. We walk past the new Ramana Archives Building which has just been inaugurated and are shown the water harvesting schemes.

Then the cowsheds, where the cows are fed, washed, milked. Mani Anna shouts at the men for not removing the cow dung, and hosing down the byre. The cows look puzzled but pleased to see us. In Ramana's gardens, like Francis of Assissi's forests, all living things, perhaps even inanimate things like stones, are imbued with intense personas. After the fat and friendly cows have nuzzled us, we go to the kitchens. Here blue clear flames cook the dinner from natural gas — thus the anxiety about collecting and clearing the cow dung. It goes to a tank which bubbles in a brown coagulated ominous Dahlesque mass — but then the gas is piped into the kitchens. There is an electric stainless dishwasher, and we are shown the idli makers and large vessels which cook food for hundreds everyday. The kitchen gives an impression of light and air and austerity. Nothing is out of place, everything is larger than life. I am reminded of a different time, when Ramana Maharshi would chop vegetables, fry pappads, wake up very early, before dawn to make the sambhar. Now the workers ( the cooks are male, the cleaning staff is female) look at us and smile. The general principle is when you're with Maharishi's grand nephews all the workers smile because the family aura has not diminished and one feels the intensity of that love and respect for the family members who continue the Ramana legacy of concern and hospitality. Many of the workers come from the squatter settlement immediately outside the ashram. They were placed there as a political wedge against what was thought to be a Brahminical disposition. Over time through the contract of work, there is a symbolic relationship between the two communities. The slum dwellers clean the magnificent hall, the courtyards, the kitchens. Outside the rear gate, their well fed pigs roam, transistors play romantic music loudly, children play, young girls comb their hair, men in dhotis smoke beedis and with narrow eyes, watch the devout climbing the hill. Without the contribution of the slum women labouring in the hall, devotees would not have such gleaming bronze lamps, such shining floors. Even Thatha, that ancient, grizzled, but sturdy, man who carries the incense burner around, breathing in the resinous fumes as he fans them, comes from the settlement behind the ashram.

One day, just before we leave, my friend Varalakshmi tells us to visit her at the place she has set up for old people. We arrive by auto, thinking that this summer seems to have been set aside for visiting Old Age Homes. Curiously it had been my father's dream. He once called the Head of our Church and begged him to accept our family home and convert it into an Old Age home. The monk, who had been my father's friend in Union Christian College in the early 1940s, refused. He said, "Paul, you have two daughters, the house belongs to them." Only recently has a law been passed that allows Syrian Christians to donate their house and land to charity if survivors exist. My father would have been pleased with that act — he was always desperate to give away his property. My sister Esther and I are still grateful to that Lord of the Church who refused to accept a gift to the church, because he must have noticed our carefully blank faces at 15 and 18, and decided in his wisdom that perhaps a surety of a house would be good for us.

Seeing the gardens which Varalakshmi has set up of hibiscus and jasmines and the white buildings against stark outcropping, I think this is where I'd like to stay when I grow old. She takes us to the rooms, each of which is clear and bright and cool. I'm amazed by her energy and will power.

How could she have managed so much? She says "Bhagawan arranges" and laughs, pleased that we like it. An adjacent plot now belongs to the Kanchipuram Mutt, and next to that is a beautiful rock formation which looks like hands folded in prayer. One of the residents puts out reed mats and gives us cold water to drink. We refuse the coffee she offers us and smiling with the pleasure of having been there we leave. Old Age homes are part of the grammar of the present — they don't fill the elderly with dread, if it's a question of co-operative autonomy. The family will always be there, but a new vocabulary will establish itself where planning for the future, for the resilience of old age as a time of serenity and support will now become a general principle of Indian society. We have only to provide the infrastructure as Varalakshmi Amma has so brilliantly done, and my father, a trained social worker, hoped to do way back in 1975.

Finally it's time to go, but on the night before we leave, Doctor Murthy, who became interested in the teachings of Ramana Maharshi in the late 1970s, agrees to be interviewed. It's a great breakthrough for me as an anthropologist, because I have been wanting to talk to him for years, since May 1996 when we first met. But I have to walk the tightrope for some more time, because he laughs and says, "To satisfy your curiosity I will answer your questions, but it's not for publication."

Susan Visvanathan is Associate Professor Centre for the Study of Social Systems, JNU, Delhi.

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