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The Madipakkam Periappa

Here was a man who was everything to everyone – in life as much in death

A trip to Madras (now Chennai) would never be complete without a visit to Jaga Periappa’s house in Madipakkam. True to our ancestry, he had comprehensive Tamilian version of the “bhalo naam” and “daak naam” as in Bengal. His official name was Krishnamachari while his pet name was Jagannathan (a.k.a Jaga).

Trips in the late-1980s and through the 1990s used to be a monthly planning affair for us. Being an honest IAS officer, my appa would be in a position to afford travel for the entire family (amma and brother, me and appa) once every two years when leave travel allowance (LTA) became applicable. Having been posted in a far-flung district in North India, the travel planning process once every two years was an expedition in itself. Getting to the State capital, then catching a bus / train to the national capital and then taking the revered Grand Trunk Express or the Tamil Nadu Express for a two-and-a-half day journey. Those were the days when flights were not easily affordable and the central government entitlement was restricted to air-conditioned second class up to hometown (with family, of course: thank god for small mercies). The silver lining on the cloud was that appa was an IAS officer. He could afford to get headquarters quota cleared in either of the trains despite the fact that these only two trains connecting the south to the northern hinterland used to be booked full months in advance.

Those were really fun days. Having fun on the train, ice cream and oranges in Nagpur when the trains stopped for a long duration to change track and engine. Playing with other kids in the compartment. All were enjoyments that my flight-savvy kids today would never be in a position to savour. The days of train travel represented continuous family time spent with both joy and anxiety. Joy, because we would meet Jaga Periappa and his kids (that is, our paternal cousins) as well as our maternal cousins spread between Adyar and Velachery. Anxiety, to make sure that we reach in time for us to enjoy the entire span of our two-month holiday and not lose out a day or sometimes two to the ubiquitous rail delays that plagued India during the 1980s and 1990s.

 

The welcome

I remember the warm welcoming smile that Jaga Periappa would have. He was the patriarch of the family of four brothers, my father being one of them.

Jaga Periappa was not a man of means but he was definitely a man of religious discipline and kind- heartedness. Far-flung relatives whom we didn’t even know and were remotely connected to, would throng his house for general chit-chat or for serious life advice. He would welcome everyone with the same equanimity of warmth. When I would go into the Madipakkam house post a tiresome train journey, he would yell out to Periamma: “Geetha, get some coffee, Deepak is here.” Then he would instruct me to go inside and take some rest, which I would wilfully follow. Evening would be a time of conversation and merriment followed by a trip to the local cinema (malls were not yet in vogue) for a blockbuster Thalaiva (aka Rajnikanth) movie.

My periappa’s patriarchal position was not bestowed but earned. My father and his family came from a lower middleclass household. My grandfather passed away so early that my father hardly remembers his face. Paati (my grandmother) brought up the four boys in a rural Tamil Nadu post from where they moved to Madras (now Chennai) for better education and employment prospects. Periappa had to stop his education early, being the eldest in the family, in favour of starting to work to support the family. He helped the family get through initial financial troubles. This helped my father focus on academics, which obviously reaped good results. He topped his university throughout graduation and post-graduation, appeared for the civil services examination and cleared it in the very first attempt with appointment to the IAS.

 

Those sacrifices

None of the brothers forgot the sacrifices our Jaga Periappa made for our household. Hence, like in leadership, he earned the patriarch position in my paternal household. Every ceremony, big or small, whether it be housewarming, upanayanam (thread ceremony), marriages or childbirth had to be conducted with his presence (not because he mandated it but because my father and uncles felt that no function would be complete without his blessing).

I am now myself a father of two and was working with Jaga Periappa on my elder son’s thread ceremony. I had just met him a couple of months back on the eve of my father’s retirement and we were planning for the event by selecting auspicious dates and other logistics.

Post-retirement, my dad started travelling a lot between Bangalore (my place of work) and Chennai (to visit Jaga Periappa and my other uncles). The trips also helped plan Appa’s movement from his cadre State back to Bangalore so that he and amma could be near my kids and at the same time be able to visit Chennai often.

On May 13, 2016, I had just finished a critical call from office and was awaiting my father’s arrival from one of his trips to Chennai. Appa called me and I assumed he was to report the exact time of arrival so I could ask my driver to go and pick him up. The news that he gave changed our lives forever. Appa informed me that one of my uncles had called appa while he was still in the train between Chennai and Bangalore and had informed him that Jaga Periappa had suffered a sudden stroke and passed away. He wanted me to book a train ticket back to Chennai so we could go for his final rites.

 

Moment of truth

I have always been a cold person not amenable to too much emotion in such situations. But, when Appa informed me I felt a cold chill run through my spine. “Jaga Periappa is no more?” I thought to myself. The full impact didn’t sink in immediately given that I had to start making arrangements for our travel. I called my wife, who insisted she would come. Thankfully, my in-laws were at home; they advised that they would take care of our children and that we should proceed immediately. A visibly heart-broken appa came home and my wife and I ushered him immediately into the waiting car bound for the railway station. We caught the Shatabdi back to Chennai and were in Madipakkam in seven hours.

I couldn’t help but feel the eerie in the joyful household of Jaga Periappa where laughter, conversations and the sound of children playing were a constant rendition. The hall was cleared out to accommodate the freezer where the cold, lifeless body of my Periappa lay. Grimness pervaded the Madipakkam air which shocked me into sorrow. The sullen faces of my father and uncles, my three cousins in a state of shock, all was unbearable. The state of my periamma is better undescribed. My other uncle recommended to my father and I that we go back to his house and come back early morning for the ceremonies. I found myself suddenly weeping in the car. My father, a strict and no-nonsense officer known for his penchant for rules and despise towards people who flout them, was grim, speechless and quiet. The next day, when we were completing the rituals, for the first time in my 36 years of existence, I saw my father shed quiet tears. Throughout our problems in life, my surgery, my ailments, my younger brother’s eight-hour-long neurological surgery, my father never wrinkled an eyebrow and fought his battles in life with massive courage. Losing Jaga Periappa was like losing a father all over again and my father couldn’t keep his eyes dry during the final rites.

I wish we had the ability to have one final chat with our loved ones before they go. I would have told periappa that I would eternally cherish my time with him. His warmth, his prioritising my coffee over others, his help in tying my dhoti invariably before every family function, his holding my shoulder and saying that things would get better when the going was tough, his bringing up my father into a fine gentleman and giving him the gift of education, his interest in the well-being of the entire family. There are many things to say. I couldn’t say all this and for that, I would always feel regret.

 

Rich and poor

If you wanted to understand how rich my Jaga Periappa was, you should have seen his last rites. The house was swarming with people of different age groups. Uncles, aunts, nephews, nieces, daughters-in-law, grandchildren, cousin brothers, distant relatives, friends, acquaintances and many more people who he helped and advised. My brother-in-law (cousin sister’s husband) cancelled his business trip and returned from Japan for the last rites. Our family Acharya cancelled his religious commitments to come to Madipakkam to bless the departed soul. If being rich is being revered as a human being, if it means being charitable, if it means being a source of succour for troubled minds, Jaga Periappa died a very rich man with all his near and dear ones around him.

I miss him. I have not made a single trip to Madipakkam post his passing away. It would be some time before I can make it. My cousins keep inviting me and I keep turning them down for some flimsy reason or the other. I am not brave enough to go to Madipakkam without hearing Periappa’s warm voice welcoming me in. Jaga Periappa taught me the true principles of family and leadership, through his life and death. I am obligated to respect his memory by building the courage to go to Madipakkam and reconnect with my paternal family. I will do so — someday.

I am really not concerned if this gets published. A eulogy from my side was overdue for one of the best human beings I have known. That, in itself, brings me some spiritual peace.

 

 

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Printable version | Feb 17, 2020 9:38:21 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/The-Madipakkam-Periappa/article17047353.ece

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