Keeri who loved humans

Keeri who loved humans
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Saturday, 21 April 2012

Sepia Stills

Testing my memory: like sepia photos because a great proportion of life was lived in the gloom of rooms with small wooden shutters. Electricity arrived only in the late forties and then it was considered a huge luxury. To be used sparingly and with due awareness of indulgence.The forty watt bulbs pushed the darkness to the corners of the rooms, where in my imagination the ghosts lived. 
   Alongside were the cockroaches and the bright orange tree frogs, which hopped around the veranda and indoors when they could. We caught them with cloth wrapped round our hands and threw them out into the compound, from where they hopped back in due course. When the monsoon came and the front yard was flooded, the frogs came in droves like refugees seeking campsites and we filled buckets with them.
   Most of that memory is in stills. Achamma's (father's mother) hair, golden in old age rather than merely gray. 'You look like a madamma,' I would say to her and she , as usual, ignored us girls. She only heeded Appuettan, her pouthran, that almost divine gift of a son-of-a-son who would perform her funeral rights. As it happened she went mad long before she died, so what was left was a brittle old woman, given to crazy impulses.
   It was the loss of her sons, they said, that sent her round the bend. She had contempt for her three daughters who came first and looked after her all her life; her sons went off to study, to work, to find adventure...
   My father, the youngest, Raghavan, was recalcitrant, devoting his life to politics, which in 1940 meant speech-making, imprisonment, loss of livelihood and absence of family life. Her eldest, Appa, died of small-pox when he was still in his early twenties. He was trying to start an English Newspaper in Madras, before Indian Express or Hindu came by. 
   The middle one, Shankaran, was the crafty one. He ran away to Ceylon and from there, to Malaya, got himself an education and became a physician in the rubber estates, owned by the British. A man of great humour he had incredible stories to recount about his life there, which went on right through the second world war. He lay low during the Japanese occupation and hung a big photo of Netaji on his living room wall to escape their summary justice. 
   My father's nephew, Balan, who had gone to Penang to live with his uncle, Shankaran, escaped the war in a Japanese sub-marine pretending to be a spy. He disappeared to his village as soon as he could get away from the Special Police in Madras, who had found him on the beach, burying his rubber dinghy in the sand.One evening he turned up in our house in Western clothes, including a waistcoat over his shirt. 
   My uncle in Penang sent his children home to go to school and they escaped the war. But they were orphans for that period and by the time their parents came home in 1946 (with trunk loads of worthless Japanese currency and yards of white parachute silk) the children had lost all faith in them.
   Through the rationing, the poverty after the men disappeared in various directions, the diseases like small pox, cholera and plague, which were still rampant, there is no recollection of real deprivation. We were quite happy in our threadbare clothes, our monotonous food and our nothing-to-look-forward-to lives. I suspect the total absence of any real discipline after my father went to jail had something to do with it.
   I remember the foul herbal medicines I had to drink by the cupful to ward off the pox when it struck the neighbourhood. My grand mother forced lemon juice down us to fight the cholera and the plague. Since sugar was scarce she put lumps of jaggery in the lemon juice. This would not melt. She also put down cow-dung water in coconut shells on the walkway to the house to ward off the bad she-devil, Mariamma, who apparently brought the diseases.
   When the plague came the migrant family camped in the empty, unfinished house opposite ours died one by one. The municipal shit cart came and took the corpses away. In the end not one survived. The three of us, Mani and Appu, my cousins, and I, watched with some trepidation.
   Schools abolished examinations because paper was in short supply. I was in class four and this was liberation - I was an indifferent student at that point.
   People died in our house: my father's mother of madness, age and desperation. I remember her hands swelling up and getting dark pink. She burned as though someone had lighted a fire inside her. She went quietly; her daughter had to hold a mirror to her nose to see whether she had stopped breathing. We dipped the sacred thulasi leaves in water and gave her drops on her lips at the end.
   Later my aunt who ran the house died of stress and hopelessness. My father was released on parole for a week or two each time. He did not even have time to mourn. He seemed not of the house.
   So much to remember, to record before my memory goes. I still remember the names and the faces; I understand the names go first. Some names I would be glad to forget.

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