Memories and Musings

My memories which have remained with me over so many years, coloured with my thoughts, and tempered by my experiences.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

BABUJI’S EARLY DAYS


This was written in 1990-92 for my grandchildren, especially the ones who were too young to know him.


Babuji was born on the 11th of April, 1920, as the second child – first son – of Annaji and Ammaji. He was named Ramakrishnan and affectionately called Ambi. Even today, his childhood friends call him Ambi. In those days, Annaji was a very rich man – was doing business, owned a shop, a big house and had enough land to produce his annual need of rice, and all this back with good capital in the bank.

Annaji had four brothers and three sisters. Their father, that is, Babuji’s grandfather, was a lawyer. He had to start his legal practice from scratch. He had nothing to call his own other than what he earned. But he was very good in his profession. He was able to make a lot of money and when he died – and he was not very old when he died – he left for each of his sons enough to provide for their lifetime. So whatever Annaji owned, he inherited, like his brothers, from his father.

Annaji and his two younger brothers were in their teens when they lost their father. So, having nobody to take care of them, Annaji was not able to finish his studies. He took to business and was doing very well for the first few years. Babuji along with his elder sister had a wonderful childhood, enjoyed the best in life for the first few years of his life.

He had his own paid playmate, who was with him all the twenty-four hours of the day. When Babuji started to go to school, the boy would wait outside the classroom. I remember Ammaji telling me that one of the boy’s duties was to take Babuji out in the pram every evening for a ride. You know what Babuji used to do? The moment they were out of sight of the house, Babuji would make this boy sit in the pram and Babuji would push the pram, at the same time threatening the boy not to open his mouth about this at home.

Those were the days when people needed very little to make them happy and be satisfied. There were no movies, no televisions, no telephones, no cars, no aeroplanes, no electricity, no running water. People’s needs were also very few as they were not exposed to anything other than what they had. People used to travel in carts drawn by either horses or bullocks and the very rich traveled by palanquins, carried by human beings.

So for entertainment the people of olden days used to make an occasion of every event. It started with birth and went on till death. The birth of a child was celebrated very grandly, with the distribution of bananas and sugar (instant sweet!) and a measure of unhusked rice and cash to go with it.

On the eighth day, the child had the “kappu” ceremony. It is the duty of the “athai”, father’s sister, to come and present the newborn with gold bangles and silver anklets. Those who could afford it also used to give a chain for the neck and waist. Gold was very cheap those days. All the womenfolk and young children of the neighbourhood were invited and everyone has a merry time.

On the 11th day, there was the “naming” ceremony in the morning and the “cradle” ceremony in the evening. The custom was the first boy and girl would be named after the father’s parents and the second boy and girl after the mother’s parents. (So, Babuji got his grandfather’s name). All the near and dear ones, sometimes from far off, were invited and treated to a good lunch.

When the baby completed six months, he would be given his first morsel of rice (called “Annaprasanam’), a ceremony usually performed in the temple of the family deity. The first birthday, even in those days, was celebrated in a grand style, again with everyone from far and near being treated to delicious feasts.

When the male child completed three years of age, a function called “kudumi” was celebrated. (Kudumi is the name of a hairstyle. Even now in many parts of our country you see many pundits and purohits with this style, long tufts of hair at the back of their head.) Till then, the child’s hair was never cut. An auspicious day was fixed, friends and relatives invited. Pundits performed puja to get the blessings of the gods for the child and the parents. Then it was the barber’s turn, to cut the boy’s hair. The pattern was to shave only the front portion, from ear to ear, and leave the hair at the back to grow. There would also be a lot of merrymaking and feasting, and presents exchanged.

Then at the age of seven, the boy had to go through another ceremony called “poonal”, the initiation of the boy into the “Veda” world and the “Gayatri” mantra. Again, an auspicious day is fixed and friends and relations come from near and far. (Far in those days would be just a 100 miles, but when traveling is done by bullock carts on rough roads, it would take 3-4 days). Gods’ blessings are invoked by performing “homam” and the sacred thread – the “poonal” – is worn on the boy’s neck and the “Gayatri” mantra recited into his ears by his father. This ceremony and merrymaking and feasting lasted for four or five days. The reason: people coming from afar should be ready to travel again; they should get over their “cart-lag”. Again, presents are exchanged and from that day the hero of the day is called a “Brahmachari”.

Oh, forgot something. When the child is five, whether a boy or girl, they are given their first lessons in the 3 Rs. It is done on “Vijayadashami” day, (the last day of the “Navarathri”), also called the “Vidyaramban” day. “Vidya” means arts-learning.

So, you see, all these Babuji also went through. Not only did he have his “Kudumi” till he was seven or eight years old, he had his ears pierced, had studs on them and also was wearing gold bangles and chains. That was the custom of those days. Babuji was also a good student and that helped him very much when disaster struck.

Yes, disaster came in the guise of the “Mappilai Riots”, when Muslims and Christians fought with each other – for their very existence. There was arson, looting, killing, everything. And Annaji’s (Babuji’s father) shop was one among many that was looted and burnt. Among the brothers, only Annaji was the loser. One of his brothers (elder) turned out to be a lawyer, one younger brother was also a businessman, but he was not affected by the riot, and another younger brother became a doctor.

Now a few words about Babuji’s mother, Ammaji. She lost her mother when she was barely three years old. Ammaji had two sisters and two brothers. After her mother died, the mother’s mother took the responsibility of bringing up Ammaji and her sisters for a few years. But this old lady was without any income. Still, with the help of friendly and kind neighbours, she was able to feed and clothe them. Ammaji’s father was a schoolteacher. Ammaji and her sisters also went to school but in those days no importance was given to the education of girls. It was considered enough if they could count up to 100, a little addition and subtraction, and also read and write their mother tongue. But they were trained well in house work in the early ages itself. Another art that was given to them was singing. It was always considered a plus point if a girl could sing. So the girls were given music lessons when they completed five years. And before girls were 10-12 years old, they were married off.

So Annaji-Ammaji got married when Ammaji was 11 years old and Annaji 17. Ammaji got a lot of ornaments – gold – when she got married and Annaji presented her with a lot in the following years. Though girls were married when they were barely 10-11, they stayed on with their parents till they were 14-15 and after that only joined their husbands. By the time Ammaji joined Annaji she had a lot of jewellery and they had a comfortable, in fact “kushi”, life for the first few years.

Now, when disaster came, Annaji started selling his lands and his house and so many things one by one to continue his business. He started by opening another shop but it seemed Lady Luck had enough of him. He did not succeed in his new venture. Now there was nothing left other than Ammaji’s jewels – and, oh boy, what a lot she had. Every kind of item from the head to toe, all in solid gold. Only the anklets and toe-rings were in silver because, it is said, only women belonging to royal families could wear gold on their feet. That was so in the olden days. Nowadays everyone is king of his own house (castle) and can do whatever one wants to do, can please himself anyway one likes. In fact, if things were otherwise, you children would be the proud owners of some of those items.

Coming back to the events by the time Babuji was six years old, Annaji decided to leave Trichur to try his luck somewhere else. So Ammaji with her daughter went to stay with her brother (she had lost her father also soon after marriage) and Babuji stayed with his uncle (Raman Kunjappa) to continue school. Ammaji was only 20 miles away but for Babuji that was a long distance. He missed her a lot. He used to take a bus to join his mother for the weekend and come back on Monday mornings. Babuji used to tell me he used to dread and hate those trips, of travelling all by himself, but he made it every week to be with his mother. (I always feel sorry for him. Maybe that is why, because he suffered so much in his younger days, I used to spoil him in my own way.)

This continued for a year. Annaji came back to Trichur, a failure again, and the family was together again for some days. By this time, Annaji-Ammaji had two more boys, they lost one, just two years old. Annaji now took a very bold step. He, along with Ammaji’s brother and the money he got by selling Ammaji’s last piece of jewellery, went to Waltair (Vishakhapatnam) to try his luck there. Ammaji and Athai and the younger child also went with him. This time Babuji was left in the care of Kuttiappa, Annaji’s youngest brother, the doctor, who was in Madras.

Babuji was there for two years. He went to Christian College School and did his fifth and sixth grade there. So now Babuji was exposed to new people, new life and new everything. As Babuji himself used to tell me they were the best years of his younger days. Kuttiammai really took care of Babuji, as if he were her own child. Kuttiammai was the one who got Babuji his first pair of shoes and socks and also helped him wear them the first time. Babuji never forgot how much he owed to this uncle and aunt – their love and affection also – to the last. He was very, very grateful to them for everything and some of his feelings for them rubbed on to me also. So even now I have so much respect for them and love and affection, not only for them but to their son Raja and his family. The same aunt and uncle were in Babuji’s life again and again. They helped him in many ways.

Well, the same old story where Annaji was concerned. He lost everything in Waltair and came back to Trichur, a defeated man, poorer. Now, he had nothing, not a single rupee to call his own, but he gained one thing. He had by then another son. So with four children, and no money, no education, how was he going to face life? He was brave enough for that. Packing and putting aside all his self-respect and pride, he started working in a bank as a mere clerk, for Rs 25 a month. What a fall for a great man!!

Athai, who was nearing 12, was being married off to Annaji’s cousin. Babuji was in his 8th grade. He had two more years of High School before he joined college. Annaji could not afford to pay his school fees, which was Rs 5 every month. So Babuji, along with his father, met his headmaster and explained the situation to him. The headmaster was a Catholic priest, a very good man. After listening to Annaji’s trouble, he said that because Babuji was good in his studies, he would pay half the fees from his own pocket, the other half Annaji had to provide. Annaji said no, he just could not stretch his budget any more. So it was up to Babuji to make that two rupees 50 paisa every month. He thought of many ideas and at last hit upon some good ones.

Those were the days when India was under British rule. Indians were becoming aware of many things, the world marching forward while they were still under foreign rule. So many great men, like Mahatma Gandhi, Motilal Nehru, Vallabhai Patel, Jinnah, Rajagopalachari, Gokhale, started the national movement. All these great people along with many others were trying to get independence from British rule and form a free India. To make the people aware of it there were many different movements. Pictures (posters as they are called now) of the leaders were printed and sold door to door to collect money for the movement.

Babuji started selling these pictures door to door in the evenings and for this he was paid a small sum. But that small sum seemed a lot. And in the mornings, for an hour before school time, he used to weave and make khadi (handwoven cloth). This was another movement started by Gandhi and followed by many. Even today many people in India wear only khadi. Babuji was paid for this also. This way, he was able to make enough money to cover his fees. And he passed his high school examination with flying colours and got a scholarship when he joined college. And in his finals, he topped everyone and was the recipient of a gold medal, the first one in the family. Two of our daughters also were gold medallists, Raji and Gowri. Now I wonder how many of you are going to have your names added to that list. I want all your names to be there and I’m sure I won’t be disappointed.

Now, a few words about Babuji’s friends. Most of you would know from your own experience that friends play a great role in anyone’s life. They help one to mould one’s character, even if it is a small way. They help each other in creating interest in so many activities and at the same time, if one gets into bad company, the very same company can make one also turn out to be a bad person. Luckily, Babuji got some good friends who really helped him a lot in getting interested in reading, debating and also in music. Babuji and these friends would never miss a concert. They used to walk seven-eight miles to go and listen to concerts. Babuji used to have his fun also, telling his parents that he would be studying with his friends; they all would go for movies. I would say these friends of Babuji played a great part in shaping Babuji’s character and general outlook on life and for that I am grateful to them. Yes, I know them, Babuji used to meet them whenever he came to his hometown on leave.

After graduating, Babuji had to look out for a job. Babuji very much wanted to make it to the ICS, Indian Civil Service (nowadays this is called IAS) but his eyesight (short sight, a family heritage, which has touched even some of you, Babuji always used to say that ours is a spectacular family) prevented him from trying for it. So at the age of 20, he left home and came to Madras to try his luck. Annaji was working in the bank as before and Babuji’s two brothers were in school. So Babuji felt he had to get a job to help Annaji financially. Babuji did get a job soon. He joined Voltas as a junior clerk on a small pay of Rs 25. Babuji again started staying with Kuttiappa and Kuttiammai and cutting down many of his personal expenses used to send Annaji Rs 10 every month.

Those days the rupee had a great value. One could get a pant made for three quarters of a rupee, a pair of shoes (Bata) for the same amount, a good lunch for about one tenth of a rupee and a full meal for a quarter. Those were the days of plenty, things were cheap or rather money had more value and people were much more honest with each other in their dealings and had fewer needs.

While working, Babuji also learnt shorthand and typing and sat for a test to join the Government of India in Delhi. He passed the test – he was good at shorthand and typing also – and got a job in the Secretariat in Delhi. He joined the Home Ministry in 1940 on the 27th of September.

Times were also changing. Electricity and running water had by now become available to all who could afford it and there were many cars on the roads. Gramaphones (record players) were fairly common and even radios were seen in the houses of the rich. And World War II had started. In spite of all these changes, going to Delhi in those days was considered as difficult as going to the moon nowadays. Now, going to the US is much easier than it was going to Delhi in those days. You know, it used to take 56 hours by train from Madras to Delhi and from Trichur to Madras another 15 hours. There was no reservation and if you were traveling third class (that is what the common man could afford) you had to sit for the whole journey. There were just a handful of South Indians in Delhi in those days and they used to take the new arrivals under their protective wings and help them settle down.

Young boys – no, it will be correct to say parents of young boys who had just come out of high school or college with typing and shorthand at their fingertips – thought that getting a job in the Government of India, where provident fund and pension were there, was the ultimate thing and the boy and family were considered as lucky. People in Trichur used to say that now Ambi has got a job with the Government of India, Kittan’s (that is how Annaji was known in Trichur) worries and troubles are over in this life. And Babuji also saw to it that Annaji did not have any more worries or troubles.

As the custom was, as I mentioned before, when Babuji arrived in Delhi on 26th September, 1940, he was taken to “Madras Hotel” by one of the good helpers and made arrangements for him to stay there. He had to share a room with two others, each having the space to have a cot to sleep and to have their trunk under the cot. There were also two meals in the hotel and for all that, the charge was Rs 30. Babuji’s pay was about Rs 75 in the beginning. Even then he used to send Rs 20 to Annaji every month and as Babuji’s pay increased his remittances to Annaji also increased.

Now, when Babuji left Madras for Delhi, Kuttiammai presented him a purse containing Rs 100 (by the way, that purse is still with me) and with that money, Babuji was able to buy a cycle and generally settle down in Delhi. As I told you before, Babuji is of a friendly nature and soon he made very many friends. And all these friends helped Babuji with his idea of renting a house and all of them living there together with a cook. So the MESS was started in 1941 in No 1, Jain Mandir Road and there were always 10 to 15 people staying there at any given time and of course, Babuji was the manager and as a manager he was very strict. That is what he used to tell me. I have my own doubts. But as the manager he had one privilege and that is he alone would have his second cup of coffee, which the cook would give him without anyone seeing it or knowing about it.

Babuji is very fond of coffee and he generally has three-four (half) cups of coffee in the mornings. His manner of drinking coffee is also very unique. He would take one sip and then leave his glass somewhere and after 10 minutes he would remember he had not finished his coffee. Again, he would have another sip and so on like this until the coffee would be over and he would want it refilled. Sometimes he would even forget that he had not finished his coffee and many a time I have had to remind him. So, while in the Mess, most times he would take one sip from his cup and leave it on the table, or somewhere, and attend to other things. A fellow Mess-mate would be waiting for this chance and he would finish off Babuji’s coffee very coolly. Babuji, in all his innocence, would think he must have finished his coffee when he found his cup empty. Until, one day, he caught the other fellow red-handed, or more exactly, cup-handed. And this fellow was a very good friend of Babuji till the last.

In the office front also, Babuji became very popular. He, along with a few others, started a cricket club which was doing well for many years. And I hope it is still going strong. I don’t whether Raji or Bala remember this, but we had gone to watch Babuji play for the Home Ministry two or three times. At the time Babuji joined the Home Ministry his immediate boss was an Englishman. Which reminds me of an incident Babuji has told me. You know Babuji was summoned by this boss to take down dictation and as soon as Babuji entered the room, can you imagine what happened? Poor Babuji, he is meeting an Englishman for the first time – he started shivering all over, his knees knocking, and he could not even answer the Englishman’s questions with a mere Yes or No. The boss, sensing Babuji’s condition, was pleasant enough to say: Look here, young boy, I won’t eat you. Calm down and come back after some time.” After this, everything was okay between them.

As I have already told you, Babuji used to read a lot and this gave him a good control and mastery of the English language and this he used to the maximum in writing notes and putting out drafts, for which he became very well known. Another thing for which Babuji was well known was his sense of dressing. At that time, even though his wardrobe was very limited he had a good dress sense was easily the best dressed man in the whole Secretariat – which he retained for a very, very long time.

So Babuji settled down to this new life in Delhi and was happy, going home every year to meet his parents. Life went on like this for five years by which time he wrote another exam and was promoted as an Assistant. As in every year, in 1945, by the end of May, Babuji was thinking of taking his annual leave and going home, when he got a telegram from Annaji, saying “Start immediately. Marriage fixed.” Babuji was in a daze. But he knew one thing. The telegram meant what it said – it was a reality. Otherwise Annaji wouldn’t send a telegram. Babuji suddenly remembered an incident that happened a few months or a year back. Either he was not well or he was lazy. Whatever it was, he did not write to Annaji for a few days. He was generally very regular in writing letters home and this resulted in Annaji getting worried and sending a telegram to Babuji asking him to wire back urgently about his safety. Well, Babuji very sheepishly sent back a wire home saying all is okay and that he did not write “just like that”. Back came a postcard from Annaji with just one line, “Shame on you, made me spend money on a telegram in these poor times.” Babuji never forgot that incident and after that he was very, very regular in writing to Annaji, till 1953, when Annaji-Ammaji left Trichur for good and came to Delhi.

Sorry, I am rambling. Now back to Annaji’s telegram. Babuji knew it meant business. As I said earlier, Babuji was dazed. He had no idea to whom he was getting married (maybe if he had known he would have refused!). Anyway, he applied for leave and made preparations to go home when all of a sudden came another telegram from Annaji, saying: “Don’t come. Marriage cancelled.” Poor Babuji. He was more dazed. He knew a letter, with explanations would follow, but it would take about a week to 10 days for a letter to reach him. He did not know what to do. Anyway, after much debate, he decided to go home on leave, as he did every year, marriage or no marriage, and planned to leave Delhi on the 15th of June.

Just a day or two before he left, he had another letter from Annaji saying that Babuji is getting married on the 27th of June, the girl is from Trivandrum, and that he should go straight to Trivandrum to meet the girl and then only come to Trichur. More surprises! Babuji did not know what was happening. Anyway, after reaching Madras, he went to Trivandrum with Kuttiappa’s son, Raja, to meet the girl he was to marry.

Well, he came to Trivandrum, was received at the station by the girl’s people and taken home, spent a night there, saw the girl – yes, only saw the girl – and the next day left for Trichur. He then came back to Trivandrum with his whole family and friends and near and dear ones and tied the three knots on this girl’s neck on 27th June.

4 Comments:

  • At 9:43 AM, Anonymous Raji said…

    WOW, Maiji
    Some sides to Babuji I was not even aware of - his dread of travel during his trips to meet Ammaji. So moving!

     
  • At 11:13 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Just like Aunt Agatha's telegrams to Bertie Wooster...

     
  • At 9:48 PM, Anonymous raja said…

    I am touched.
    You probably did not know Babuji's cricket skills.He had knack of bowling me out with the first ball when ever he can to bowl.
    raja

     
  • At 12:07 AM, Anonymous Kumar (sangeeta) said…

    Dear Aunty
    This is wonderful. Love the part about the telegrams- 'Dont come. Marriage cancelled'....just reading all the stories from you feels like going back all those days to Gulmohar Park....One day I still have to have your orange mithai...

     

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