In the years immediately following the Great War, in the small town of Perungalathur, in North Arcot district in the State of Madras, Srinivasa Raghavan was the town’s manikaarar, its revenue-collector. Srinivasa Raghavan was an orthodox Tamil Brahmin, an Iyengar whose ancestors had come down from Central Asia centuries ago. Srinivas Raghavan married Kanaka, a girl from the nearby village of Kazhiyuur. This couple went on to produce two boys – Pattanna and Ranganathan. What follows is the story of the second boy, Ranga.
Ranganathan was born in July 1917. His father’s prestigious job as ‘manikaarar’ meant that they lived in a large house with multiple rooms. The house had a traditional “thinnai,” a front portico. The thinnai was a wide raised platform with a red-oxide floor, and a shingled roof supported by round wooden pillars. The open thinnai faced the street. Visitors would have to cross the thinnai to enter the house. Srinivasa Raghavan conducted a lot of his revenue business right there in the thinnai. Ranga was a quiet and a shy little boy. He liked to sit in a corner on the portico, away from the heat emanating off the street and watch the passers-by on the street. His elder brother Pattanna was the adventurous one.
Ranga’s earliest memory was a very bad one. It would haunt him his entire life, one that he never cared to think back on. One day, two boys came running towards the house, crying. Ranga’s elder brother Pattanna had gone swimming in a local pond. No one was exactly sure how it happened, but the boy drowned. Ranga lost his beloved elder brother.
That drowning accident shaped Ranga’s life in many ways. Pattanna had been Ranga’s window into the world, his guide-rail. With the trust that younger siblings have, Ranga had relied on Pattanna. He was confused and saddened and guilty. The loss left Ranga rudderless and adrift. Already shy by nature, he turned further inward. That withdrawal was the little boy’s way of coping with the unpleasant things that life threw at him. For the rest of Ranga’s life, people would always wonder why he was such a reserved person. They didn’t know of his deep loss.
Overnight, Ranga became the only remaining child of his parents. With the fearfulness that is unique to parents who have lost a child, they wanted to protect Ranga from all possible dangers. Every little thing that Ranga needed was taken care of by others. He decided that he would do the best he could to please his parents. He simply focused on his studies. His parents’ love ended up smothering him. Ranga never got to be street-smart, a skill so crucial for later success.
From his home in Perungalathur, Ranga walked to a school in Cheyyaar, the bigger town 3 miles away. The town of Cheyyaar was named after a river that flowed very close to the school. Back in the 1920’s Cheyyaar was a co-ed school, though there were overwhelmingly more boys than girls. Since Cheyyaar was the only decent school for miles, each class had a large number of students. In Ranga’s class there were over 200 students, split into six sections. Even in that large group, the teachers noticed this shy boy. He grasped concepts and was good with prose. After school, when it got really hot, many of the boys headed to the Cheyyaar River nearby to cool off. Ranga would simply walk back home.
Ranga’s mother Kanaka hailed from Kazhiyuur, which was one town over from Perungalathur. She had lived there all her life and married into a family two miles away. Kanaka was the eldest of 4 sisters. The other three sisters married went on to produce a total of 11 children of their own – Ranga’s cousins. These cousins were not as academically inclined. Three of them – Chakravarthy, Manavalan and Rangaswamy would show up at the Perungalathur house regularly. To them, Ranga was “Chinnanna,” the smaller-elder brother. Pattanna, who had passed away had been the “Periyanna.” And because Ranga was so good at his studies, his cousins looked up to their Chinanna. And even the ones who were younger than Ranga in age would often end up protecting him from the taunts of other boys.
One cousin, Chakravarthy, was a few days older than Ranga. He liked to go to the local temple and help in running it. For his efforts, he would get paid small sums. He soon figured out ways to increase the amount he got paid for his help. He offered to take care of the selling of “prasadam” to the devotees who came to the temple. He was worldly-wise in ways that Ranga was not, and soon Chakravarthy was making a good income. Chakravarthy was always affectionate to his Chinnanna because he liked the fact that Ranga was guileless.
Cheyyar School was a British-run institution established in 1831 that operated in two languages – it was a Tamil-medium school where the instruction was in English. The teachers were excellent. Ranga was very diligent and found most of the subjects to be easy, and he kept doing well year after year. One day, when he was in High School, a white-robed teacher who was handing out graded English exam papers asked, “Where’s Ranganathan?” Ranga stood up startled. “Young man, you have a gift for the language. I hope you are planning to attend a college in Madras!” There was no college in Cheyyar. Ranga didn’t know anyone who had gone to college, but that comment planted a seed in his mind.
The year that Ranga finished High School his parents wanted to get him married. They wanted him to get settled and become the next “manikkaarar” for the town, just like his father. Ranga wasn’t interested in taking on the role that had been chosen for him. He told his parents that he was determined to go to college to study further. His parents knew how stubborn he could be when his mind was made up.
The trouble was that no one in the entire family had ever gone to college. They asked around, but no one even knew how to go about the admission process. But, thanks to an itinerant magician, luck was on his side. It is on such unlikely factors that a person’s entire life takes turns. One of Ranga’s chithis, his mother’s younger sister, was married to a man who went by the name of ‘Mel-Ma.’ Mel-Ma earned his living by performing magic shows all over the state.
Mel-Ma the magician needed a few insiders and Ranga had sometimes been a reluctant accomplice. For one trick to work, Ranga would have to slide a long flat bar of metal hidden inside his clothes, going from his armpit down to his feet. The audience didn’t know this. The metal bar had a hinge at the top end. Ranga would stand on the stage holding a long vertical pole. Mel-Ma would secretly attach the hinge to the upright pole. Mel-Ma would then start lifting the boy from the feet, until Ranga’s body was parallel above the ground. The metal attachment bearing his weight would be invisible to the audience. Mel-Ma would flamboyantly let go and the audience would gasp. Ranga appeared to be floating horizontally from the vertical pole.
Mel-Ma used interlocking rings, he would juggle balls and he would cut and fuse ropes. He went from town to town performing on many nights. Thanks to his constant wandering, Mel-Ma knew a lot of people in all the cities and towns up and down the state of Madras. By nature, Ranga didn’t like asking people for help. But such was his need that he asked Mel-Ma if he could help him with getting into a college. “Oh yes, I know many people in Madras. I will take care of it,” Mel-Ma told him confidently. Ranga had his doubts about whether it would all work out.
And true to his word, Mel-Ma started talking to people about his bright nephew. Through his connections, he managed to secure an admission for Ranga in Pachayappa’s college, right on Poonamallee High Road. And then Mel-Ma went further. He got Ranga a scholarship through someone he knew via Pachayappa’s Trust. And finally, he also arranged for Ranga to stay with a Brahmin family in Madras and get his meals. Ranga from Perungalathur was headed to college in Madras.
Ranga never took to the city. Most of the distractions of teenage boys didn’t appeal to Ranga. He was shy around girls. In the early 1930’s the topic of politics often came up, because Indians were getting serious about self-rule. Ranga was interested, but true to his nature, he kept his distance. And during holidays, he’d rush back to his favourite Perungalathur. In Madras, Ranga just focused on his studies and he thrived in college. After three years he graduated with two gold medals – one in mathematics and one in Sanskrit language.
One day in 1934, Ranga was shown a black-and-white photograph of a slender smiling girl. His parents had decided that it was time for him to get married. He was not given any details about the girl, except that she lived in Thindivanam. They would all be going that weekend to see the girl. Ranga was instructed to “dress properly.”
On a scorching hot Saturday, Ranga, his parents, and a couple of others from Kazhiyuur boarded a bus to Thindivanam. Ranga was curious about the girl, but he didn’t ask his parents anything. Sitting in the bus, based on the discussions between his parents and the others, he was able to piece together the story of the girl they were going to see - Jayalakshmi.
No one called her by her full name. To everyone, she was Jayam, a vivacious girl who was always smiling. When Jayam was nine years old her mother passed away leaving four sons and three daughters. There was no one else to take care of the cooking for her father and her little siblings. Jayam didn’t even need to be asked. She walked into the kitchen and assumed the cooking duties. She was a largely self-taught cook. Every day, she’d go to school with her little sister Jaana. She was interested in everything and loved to read. After school, she would hurry back to the house to get the food ready. That was a lot of responsibility on the shoulders of a little girl who was still in primary school. But it was not in Jayam’s nature to complain to anyone. Jayam learned to manage all the kitchen tasks. She’d prepare lists of provisions needed and walk to the stores. Before she turned 10 she learned to bargain in shops, always with a smile. The shopkeepers, who knew that the girl had no mother, and that she was managing everything by herself, would always give in and agree to her asking price. The vegetable vendor would throw in a couple of extras into Jayam’s bag. After she finished her seventh standard, her father decided to stop her education. A few years after that, he started to look for a groom for his daughter.
In Jayam’s neighbourhood the news spread quickly that a prospective groom was coming all the way from Perungalathur. The ladies discussed among themselves. 'பாவம், தாயில்லா பொண்ணு paavam thaayillathaponnu (poor motherless child) The ladies all knew what they had to do. On that Saturday afternoon, they showed up wanting to help Jayam.
And it was into this household in Thindivanam that Ranga’s group from Perungalathur walked in. There was nervous chatter from both sides, each praising the girl and the boy respectively. Jayam was looking radiant, decked in finery. She was instructed to step out from inside her room to serve the visitors coffee. She walked in balancing a tray with six sets of stainless steel dabra-tumblers. Jayam served the elders first and finally, she proffered the tray with last cup of coffee to Ranga, never even looking into his eyes. But Ranga was already smitten. He’d never interacted much with girls, having only seen them from afar. He was attracted to Jayam in ways that he couldn’t even explain to himself. He decided that during the bus ride back, he would tell his parents that he liked Jayam. But he didn’t even need to. His parents could tell from Ranga’s face. He was never very good at hiding his emotions.
Ranga’s father and Jayam’s father, Seshadri discussed the wedding arrangements. An engagement date was set and they went to consult a priest to fix the wedding date. Seshadhri agreed to pay whatever dowry his finances allowed. Within months, Ranga and Jayalakshmi were married in Thindivanam. It was decided that after Jayam left, her sister Jaana would take over the kitchen duties. When Jayam set out for Perungalathur with her two packed iron trunks, her father and her sister were not the only ones who were sad to see their beloved Jayam leaving Thindivanam. The street vegetable vendor, the milk man, the flower lady and the corner grocer all felt a tinge of sadness knowing that they would be missing the young girl’s ready smile.
Marrying Jayalakshmi was one of the very best things that happened to Ranga. At one level, he knew it right away, but it would take him several decades to fully internalize this fact.
In Ranga’s house Jayam was quiet and intimidated for the first few days after marriage. She watched how her mother-in-law ran the household. As the daughter-in-law, she was expected by everyone to do most of the housework. Fortunately for her, Jayam was already used to that. She learned quickly. She found her husband easy to deal with. He focused on his work and didn’t speak much around his parents. But her father-in-law was a man given to sudden outbursts of temper. If some dish Jayam had prepared didn’t meet his expectations, he would shout at her. Jayam would get intimidated and for the next few days, whenever she had to serve food to her father-in-law, Jayam would physically tremble. That memory stayed with Jayam for years afterwards.
Ranga was happy to be done with his studies, happy to be back home in Perungalathur after three years in Madras, happy to be married. But he wasn’t happy about inheriting his father’s role of “manikkaarar,” the town’s revenue-collector. To his father’s disappointment, Ranga told him that we would be looking for other jobs. For someone with a graduate education there were no jobs to be found in Perungalathur. He would have to look in the neighbouring town of Cheyyaar where he had gone to school. A visitor mentioned that the Postal Department always had numerous vacancies and so, early one morning Ranga set out to enquire.
The first thing they told Ranga at the Cheyyaar Post Office was that he was over-qualified for all the jobs they had. They said that only had a clerk’s job for him, and that he should really look into writing the departmental exam to join as an Inspector (IPO). Ranga knew that he was over-qualified, but he was eager to get employed and so he told them that he’d take the clerk’s job. His plan was to write the IPO exam soon. And just like that he was employed. Ranga’s starting salary was 35 British-Indian Rupees a month. Since he had gone to college he was eligible for 3 increments. He would get a “graduate’s bonus” of 3 extra Rupees. So Ranga started to bring home 38 Rupees a month. With this amount the young couple – Ranga and Jayam, both not yet 20 years of age, started their life together.
This was in the late 1930’s and major events were brewing in Europe. Ranga got the news filtered through the British sources, but it wasn’t difficult for him to guess that a big war was in the offing. The whole world seemed to be headed to the brink but Ranga’s personal life, in stark contrast, was idyllic. He had adoring parents, an affectionate and a capable wife in Jayam and a job that he liked. Ranga would walk 3 kms each way daily. He was an efficient worker and he was very good with numbers and a Post Office clerk’s job was quite easy for him.
Ranga felt conflicted about the whole Indian movement for independence. He wanted the British to leave and he wanted self-rule just as millions of others did. But he also recognized that it was the British system that had created institutions – for his education and for his employment. He followed the happenings in Delhi keenly. Gandhi’s philosophy appealed to him and he was able to follow the eloquence as well as the political shrewdness of both Jawaharlal and Jinnah.
While he admired those leaders in Delhi, Ranga was in awe of a one man who was making waves in the State of Madras – Rajaji. He was impressed by the bravery of Rajaji who risked Britain’s wrath and imprisonment by mirroring Gandhi’s Dandi march with a similar march from Trichy to Vedaranyam. Ranga would remain an admirer of Rajaji for the rest of his life.
In the autumn of 1938, Jayam got pregnant with their first child. Meanwhile, the British, who had ruled India with an iron fist, were getting distracted. The inevitability of an imminent war was becoming clear. Even at the Post Office, Ranga started noticing the impact. He expected that he would have to wait for his IPO exam to be held.
One day in April of ’39, Ranga read in the newspaper about a letter that the US President Roosevelt had sent to Adolf Hitler, seeking peace. That same day he got a telegram from Thindivanam saying that Jayam had delivered a healthy baby boy. They named the boy Narasimhan.
With a young child, Ranga’s life changed in many small ways. The young family moved out of the Perungalathur house and rented a place in Cheyyaar to be close to his work place. In the mornings, when Jayam was busy in the kitchen, he’d read the day’s newspaper while simultaneously rocking the baby’s cloth cradle hanging from the ceiling. At night, he would hum lullabies in Tamil. After a lifetime of receiving so much affection from his parents and cousins, he was figuring out ways of showing his own affection.
Ranga was very good at his work. He was meticulous and he had the right amount of impatience that makes a person very efficient. Bureaucratic organizations reward diligent workers by assigning them even more work. And so, Ranga was transferred from Cheyyaar and called up to the district head office of the Senior Superintendent of Posts in Vellore, TN.
In Vellore, Ranga quickly earned a reputation for being reliable and efficient. He always helped his colleagues and his supervisor trusted his opinion. Once, Jayam's youngest brother, Rajagopalan approached Ranga needing a job. Unhesitatingly, Ranga recommended him to his boss, and Rajagopalan ended up joining as a clerk at the same level as Ranga in Vellore. That family never forgot Ranga’s gesture.
Three daughters were born to Ranga and Jayalakshmi during the war years. Choodamani was born in ’41, Rukmani in ’43 and Pushpavalli in ’45 just months after the war ended. Money was very tight, but Ranga enjoyed his domestic life in Vellore. With Jayam assigning him small household tasks and errands to run, he comfortably grew into the role of a father. One task that Ranga eagerly looked forward to in the evenings was to rock the babies to sleep. A 1000-year old lullaby his favourite: மன்னுபுகழ் கோசலைதன் Mannu pugazh kosalai thaan by Kulashekara Azhwar. From the kitchen, Jayam would pause her work and watch Ranga rocking the cloth cradle. She loved to hear him singing to the baby in his gentle voice: என்னுடைய இன்னமுதே! இராகவனே! தாலேலோ! Yennudaya innamudhe, Raghavane, Thaalelo Thaalelo (Sleep, the sweetest of my sweet ones, go to sleep.)
Years later, when he was far away from the family, Ranga would remember the war years with real yearning. He now had 4 children, with a fifth one due. He’d take his lunch with him and walk to work. At work, he would borrow and read The Hindu, the English newspaper. (He didn’t subscribe to the paper at home since his growing family needed every paisa that he earned.) In the afternoons, Jayalakshmi prepared hot tea exactly to his liking and poured it into a flask. Ranga eagerly looked forward to the time when one of the little kids, Narasimhan or Chooda, would walk the two furlongs from home to office to deliver the tea to him. Those were among the very best years of Ranga’s life.
In July of 1947 when Ranga turned 30, he was still a clerk. The Second World War had ended up disrupting Ranga’s plans. Every year, Ranga hoped to write the Post Office Inspector’s exam. But year after year it kept getting postponed. But the British had things in Continental Europe to worry about. “Sorry, Ranganathan. No IPO exams this year.” When the war ended, he was one of the most over-qualified clerks working in a Post Office anywhere in the whole state. In India, the demand for self-rule was gaining momentum. Everyone felt that it was just a matter of time.
It was 1947. On a Friday morning in mid-August, Jayam was the first to hear it on the neighbour's radio . ;விடுதலை' They were playing Bharathiyaar’s patriotic songs on the radio. India had achieved its independence from the British after nearly a century of British rule. Lord Mountbatten accepted the position of Governor-General. On the radio they announced that Nehru would be addressing the public the very next day, on Saturday morning. Ranga bought two newspapers that day, one Tamil and one English, to make sense of the chaos and excitement all around him. That day’s newspaper had a colour front-piece, with India’s flag emblazoned over the text in the top left of the front page. (For years afterwards, Jayam held on to that day’s newspaper until it was lost in one of the many house moves that followed.) The excitement in the streets of Vellore was palpable. People burst fire-crackers on the streets though Deepavali was months away. Ranga’s kids were extra-excited because the school was closed that day. Jayam was pregnant with her fifth child. She was in her second trimester and she had an incessant craving for something sweet. The quantity of sugar in the pantry was running low, but she decided that the occasion warranted it. And so she prepared paal-payasam for the family on India’s Independence Day.
The next three years were tumultuous for India – the Partition, the creation of East and West Pakistan, the dissolution of small kingdoms and Gandhi being shot. But strangely, not much changed in Ranga’s life. With the birth of his daughter Amrithavalli in ‘50, his sixth child, the family had grown in size to eight. The family’s finances were stretched thin, with just his clerk’s salary to support all of them. In 1950, three years after India’s independence he learned that his department would be finally offering the IPO exams. Ranga knew that if he managed to pass the exam, he would get a sizable salary increase and would be able to support all of them much better.
He prepared for the exam questions with single-mindedness. Life was giving him an opportunity and he was going to give it his very best shot. After writing the exams he was confident that he’d qualify. He had done his best. One day, a few weeks later, an office postman in khakis came up to his desk. “Saar, IPO பரீட்சை ரிஸல்ட் போட்டிருக்காங்க IPO exam results pottirukanga!” (The exam results have been posted.) When Ranga scanned the results for his roll-number to check against the results he was pleasantly surprised. Ranga, a self-taught young man hailing from the small town of Perungalathur had obtained an all-India rank of 4!
Clearing that exam and becoming an Inspector brought about a big change in Ranga’s life. His days of leaving his family behind and going off to work started. The Postal Department was short of Inspectors and right away, Ranga was posted to Guntur, a town 400 kilometres due north of the city of Madras. It was still part of the larger of State of Madras, but Guntur was in Coastal Andhra.
Since he had been transferred to a Telugu-speaking town, Ranga had to leave his wife and young children behind. The children were attending Tamil schools and moving to a Telugu-medium was out of the question. This transfer had one unanticipated consequence for the family – they ended up incurring additional expenses for Ranga’s living quarters and food in Guntur.
One major hurdle was the fact that Ranga didn’t know how to cook. When he was young, he was sheltered and he never had to step into the kitchen. Every little thing was done for him by the ladies in the household. For his part, he never had the slightest interest or the aptitude to learn to cook. And soon enough it became too late to learn. Ranga himself often heard two versions of comments regarding his lack of kitchen skills. The tone depended on whether the person was empathizing with him or chastising him.
'பாவம் அவருக்கு காஃபி போடக் கூட தெரியாது' 'Paavum, avarukku coffee poda kooda theriyaadhu!' (Poor man, he can’t even make a cup of coffee for himself.) Or, he’d hear a variation of:
அவருக்கு கிட்சன்ல என்ன தெரியும்? பால் காச்சக் கூடத் தெரியாது; 'Avarukku kitchen-la enna theriyum? Paal kaacha kooda theriyaadhu.'(What is he capable of? He doesn’t even know how to boil milk.) Ranga’s nature was such that he didn’t ever get provoked by either comment. He never defended himself. And if he felt annoyed by the comment, he didn’t show it.
However, this decision to never enter the kitchen, to never learn to cook had consequences far beyond what Ranga could have ever imagined. Guntur was famous for its spicy food, including its Avakkai Biriyani. The cooks there took pride in outdoing each other on how much red chillies they added to each dish. For someone like Ranga, with his delicate constitution, the food quickly turned nightmarish. Within days his stomach lining erupted with numerous ulcers. Ranga ignored the pain and kept eating what he was given. He had no real choice since he didn’t know how to cook himself. He’d mix the spicy food with curd. But it didn’t help much. There was, however, one thing that Ranga loved in Guntur. The city boasted of having the best mangoes anywhere in the country, and Ranga was a true lover of mangoes. Each day, he looked forward to the time when he’d grab a whole mango and bite into it, with the juices dripping down. But even the succour of the mangoes didn’t help the discomfort in his stomach.
One day, the family back in Cheyyaar got an STD phone call. Ranga had been admitted to a hospital in Guntur. His stomach ulcers had become unbearable and he was spitting out blood. The family wasn’t able to help from afar, and so Ranga took a train south and came home to convalesce. Jayalaskhmi’s careful food preparation, eating lots of bland idlis and dosas, he recovered. Soon after, he had to get back to Guntur to report for his office duty. And sure enough, thanks to the spicy foods, the stomach pains came back. Ranga couldn’t have known it then, but what started in Guntur was a chronic ailment that would torment him for well over fifty years.
Many colleagues advised Ranga to request a medical leave or at least a transfer to his home district on medical grounds. But Ranga would only play by the rules. The ‘right’ way was to request a transfer in writing and send it to the zonal head office. Even Ranga knew that it was a very long shot, with low odds. But undaunted, he started writing letters asking that they move him to ‘any Tamil speaking town’ so that he could stay with his family. For months he kept writing. He never heard back from anyone. He didn’t like to complain, he just kept writing to whatever address he could find. He would keep trying until he succeeded.
At every opportunity, Ranga would come down and visit his family. In August of ’53, Jayam gave birth to a son. It was their seventh child. In keeping with an ancient tradition of a grandson inheriting his grandfather’s name, Ranga named the boy Srinivasa Raghavan. After each visit, Ranga had to get back to Guntur where his health would again suffer. For over 2 years, he sent out letters requesting a transfer.
Bureaucracies the world over share one common characteristic: At unpredictable times, they actually work. That is also why they survive. The Indian P&T Department was no different. Through sheer luck, one of Ranga’s letters requesting transfer reached the hands of an officer who had been recently assigned to the “Mutual Transfer & Repatriation Board.” This employee who was from Kerala had just been posted to Chennai. He was missing his wife and young son. Something about Ranga’s plea struck a chord in him. He opened a huge ledger which held all the vacancies and scanned them. The Thanjavur office was in need of an IPO. Ranga fit the bill, and the officer jotted down two numbers in the numbers and stamped “Approved” on Ranga’s letter and placed it in a tray marked OUT. After nearly three years of trying, Ranga’s life changed in two minutes.
Thanks to that transfer order, the family reunited and moved to Thanjavur. The children were admitted to good schools. Narasimhan started junior college, and every day he would commute more than 40 miles to St. Joseph’s college in Trichy. Jayam’s father moved in with them, and he would help the children with their studies. Ranga’s stomach continued to bother him, but Jayam made sure that when she cooked, she avoided tamarind or anything that might inflame his ulcers. As an Inspector in his home state, Ranga was delighted to be staying with his family.
For all his reticence and humility, Ranga was not above conceit. He had the natural superciliousness that those who are academically gifted have towards those who struggle with their studies. One day Chooda was playing with another girl. Ranga walked up to the girls and told them about an employee in his office. The Postman’s exam was supposed to be really easy, but this person had performed very poorly. “Do you know why this fellow got Third class?” Ranga asked. And then he answered his own question. “Because there was no Fourth class!” Hearing this remark, Chooda’s friend burst into tears. It turned out that she’d also gotten Third Class in a recent exam.
After a couple of years in Thanjavur, Ranga was transferred again, to Pollachi, in ’56. The whole family moved yet again. In 1957 a daughter was born to Jayam, their eighth child. They named her Hemalatha. In Pollachi, the family had children of all ages from toddlers to teenagers. Narasimhan was headed to Chennai, to study Chemistry in Loyola college.
Ranga was happy to learn that his Pollachi office was in the same building as his house. The department was giving him a large house with many rooms, and the front portion of the house would serve as his office. The kids were instructed to keep the noise levels down during his office hours. Jayam was particular that all her children be raised ‘properly.’ To her this included having them stand up (as a sign of respect), when Ranga entered the house after working all day at the office next-door.
It was in Pollachi that Ranga really got to know his children individually, and they got to know their father. All of his children had inherited one thing from him – his scholastic aptitude. He was very proud of how well his first three girls – Chooda, Rukku and Pushpa were doing very well in.
Pushpa, who was in seventh grade, approached him one day. “Appa, I have to give a speech on ‘Patriotism’ in school. Can you help me?” Ranga replied with a terse “Sari,” and went to his room. He started writing, with a large wooden board serving as his writing desk. After twenty minutes, he emerged with a finished draft and handed it to Pushpa. When she read it, she was delighted. Only when she showed it to her sisters did they all realize that their father could quote entire paragraphs of Abraham Lincoln’s “With Malice towards None” from memory. Using the metaphor of one’s affection for one’s own home town, Ranga explained the idea of patriotism. He then made Pushpa memorize the entire speech. Ranga corrected her modulations and instructed her to be confident and to do her best. And he was pleased to hear that after she had delivered it, a number of teachers had come over to applaud her.
Pollachi was famous for its sandhai – weekly farmer’s market held on Thursdays. When she could manage to get away, Jayam would go there taking the girls with her. Money was always tight and so each kid was given a budget of one anna to spend. The kids loved seeing everything on display, from cows to coconuts to colourful condiments. Ranga preferred to stay back in the house, babysitting the little ones. Chooda and Rukku went to Municipal Girls' High school in Pollachi, where they both got gold medals for their studies.
In 1960, Ranga was promoted to the post of ASP – Assistant Superintendent of the Posts. The family had to move yet again from Pollachi to Kanchipuram. The children loved it there. Narasimhan, who was in Loyola College in Madras would frequently visit. He would then spend hours playing chess with Srinivasan (Kannan) and Gopalan, his cousins, on the terrace. Pushpa and Amirtha studied in SSK vidyalaya where Pushpa outdid Chooda and Rukku in SSLC, scoring higher than them.
The family was struggling financially – having to depend just on Ranga’s meagre income was a huge strain. The kids had always grown up knowing what it was to be frugal. On the first of each month, Ranga would bring his entire income, cash in a long brown envelope and hand it over to Jayam. She would set aside a small amount (much needed savings for the girls’ marriages) and she’d pay off the previous month’s debts to the vendors. With what was left, they all would have to manage until the next pay check. It was never enough, given that there were 10 people with growing needs and expenses.
People who have never been in financial trouble, who have never had to forgo essentials do not really appreciate poverty. They have a very simplistic view of it. They often think it means children sleeping hungry without anything to eat or not having enough clothes to wear. Or, they naively assume that it means skipping going out to a restaurant from time to time. They don’t realize that for lower income families, poverty comes in a hundred insidious shades.
The children in the Ranganathan family were acquainted with several of the nuances of financial strain. They knew that it sometimes meant not having the money to buy the prescribed textbook and thus borrowing it from friends during recess and copying down as much from it as they could. It meant shaking your head and saying no, when a friend invites you to movie that you are eager to watch, because you don’t want to ask your mother money for the ticket. They knew what it was to stay thirsty on a hot day when all their friends were buying a cool drink at the street corner. Ranga’s children knew that every paisa counted.
While financial troubles are hard on children, the worst form of this is the one that parents experience. It is the shame that the parents have to face, saying no to something their kids genuinely need. Though they never spoke about it openly, both Ranga and Jayam endured this quietly.
All three of his daughters (Chooda, Rukku and Pushpa) did extremely well in their SSLC (11th grade) studies. All three girls wanted to attend college. Just as their brother Narasimhan had, they too wanted to attend college. Ranga, who had been the first to attend college in his family, knew that a girl got very few opportunities like this. But he also knew the pain of being perennially short of money. Even having to say no once to a daughter can break a father’s heart. And Ranga had to say no to his daughters, not once or twice, but thrice. Puspha had scored sufficient marks in her SSLC to even qualify for a scholarship. But they didn’t even have enough for her other expenses. And each time he said no, Ranga wouldn’t sleep properly for weeks after that, thinking about it. He made sure that Amirtha and Hema, the fourth and fifth daughters went to college.
After graduating, Narasimhan started working in Vivekanada College as a Chemistry lecturer. Chooda also started working and these were much needed additions to the family’s total income. In 1962, Narasimhan cleared the Indian Civil Services exam. Ranga’s first son was joining his own department -– the Indian Postal Service – as an officer recruited by UPSC.
Around this time, Srinivasan (Kannan) who was very well-known to the family (Narasimhan and Kannan played chess almost on a daily basis) expressed his desire to marry Chooda. Ranga and the others wanted to wait a couple of years, but Srinivasan’s family was quite insistent. Ranga, as the father of the bride, would have to bear all the wedding expenses. Ranga’s family simply didn’t have the money needed.
Most people will offer to help if asked for it. But there a few people, very few, who step in and volunteer to help without ever being asked. Ranga’s cousin Chakravarthy from Kazhiyuur was one. In the intervening years, Chakravarthy had done well for himself. He’d grown his prasadam-catering business and had secured a grant with the Sri Venkateswara temple in Tirupathi – the biggest catch of them all. With a simple, 'சூடாவுக்கு கல்யாணமா, நான் தரேன்டா' 'Choodavukku kalyanama? Naan tharen da' (I will help you for Chooda's marriage' He gave Ranga the loan that was needed for the wedding.
After four years in Kanchipuram Ranga was promoted from an Assistant SP to a full SP – Superintendent of Posts. This was reason to celebrate because it also meant an increase in his salary. However, when life hands out these rewards, it oftentimes comes with a catch attached. And one was waiting for Ranga.
In the early 1960’s, the P&T Department always had difficulty filling vacancies in the remote Northeast region of India. Ranga, as a newly promoted SP was a perfect candidate. So they immediately assigned him to serve in Guwahati. On hearing this, one colleague reacted with a “Ayyo, Assam-a?” It was clear that his family won’t be accompanying him. Jayam kept reminding everyone about how his earlier stay in Guntur had led to his health complications. Jayam and the children would be moving to Madras, to join Narasimhan. Ranga just didn’t want to go to Assam.
But a government employee doesn’t have a real choice. And so, with a heavy heart, and a heavier suitcase full of bland food items that wouldn’t harm his delicate stomach, Ranga boarded the Howrah Mail. The train took nearly 2 full days to reach Calcutta. He changed trains there and he still had another 1000 kms to go before he reached Guwahati, because the train circumnavigated around East Pakistan.
As the Superintendent of the office, Ranga was given his own quarters. The watchman there, a Nepali Gurkha, also doubled as Ranga’s cook. What the Nepali lacked in cooking skill, he made up by his enthusiasm. It was only when the Nepali asked, “Sambar achcha hai, Saab?” did Ranga realize what he was supposed to be eating. Ranga helplessly smiled and nodded. The Nepali’s sambar tasted no different from the dal, and Ranga didn’t care for either. Ranga would mix all the curd that he could find with rice and that was his main daily meal. Starting from the first week in Guwahati until the end of his tenure, Ranga missed home cooking.
Outside of his work, Ranga was not the type of man who had many interests. He did not cultivate friends. He would get copies of Tamil magazines that were 2 to 3 week old, but he read them with pleasure. He had so much time on some evenings that he would read the day’s paper a second time.
Occasionally, one of the Tamil families living in Guwahati would invite him for dinner. He enjoyed getting dishes that he liked, but the visits reminded him of his family back in Chennai. Ranga wanted to visit Madras often, but it was 3 full days of travel of each way, and so his trips home were very infrequent.
The family put out the word that they'd started searching for a groom for Rukmani. She’d done well in her studies. Soon, the parents of many boys came enquiring about the possibility of marriage. But when they learned that the father (Ranga) was far away in Assam, they would not proceed and the potential alliances fell through. So Ranga made a trip south and got the wedding fixed. On the day of the wedding it rained in Madras as it never had. The rain was so heavy that they were worried no one would show up in Singaperumal Koil near Madras where the marriage was fixed. But people did come and Rukmani married Varadhachari, a young man from North Madras.
While visiting his family in Chennai, Ranga was told that he was being transferred. Eagerly, he went to the Madras head office to pick up his order. The order letter said that he had been posted to a place called Aizawl. It mentioned that it was in Mizoram. No one in the entire office had heard of the place. Ranganathan and a colleague walked up to the large map of India on the back wall. Its colours had long faded and there was a thick layer of dust on it. The colleague spotted a small speck in the northeast, to the east of East Pakistan. பர்மா பார்டர்ல இருக்கு சார் 'Burma border-la irukku sir! (It is on Burma Border. Aizawl was the capital of Mizoram. The colleague was not sure if he should congratulate or sympathize with Ranga. On the PTC bus back home, Ranga recalled a quote that he had come across recently: “If you make no appointments, there can be no disappointments.” Ranga would hold on to that sentiment for the rest of his life. That evening Ranga felt like he was being banished even farther.
It took three days of riding in trains/buses to reach Aizawl from Madras. Ranga was missing his family even before he had reached Calcutta. Before getting to Aizawl, he first went to Guwahati and collected his belongings. Aizawl was a hill town, 1 km above sea-level. Ranganathan would be wearing a sweater during his entire time there. In all the months he spent in Aizawl, he never fully adjusted. For a South Indian vegetarian, the food options were abysmal. His stomach started acting up on a daily basis. He had to hike up Zion Street to reach the post office, his place of work. He was short of breath, pausing every few steps. On his way to work, walking through a market (Bara Bazaar), he would often see the smartly dressed boys in school uniforms and girls in colourful sweaters looking cute. He remembered his own young children. They’d be walking to school as well. His kids were growing up quickly and he was missing all of that. He felt a pang of homesickness that was worse than his stomach-ache. But the family had loans to repay, and he had daughters who had to be married. And so he continued walking to his office.
When he reached his office, however, all of those thoughts vanished. He was the Superintendent of Posts there. Ranganathan didn’t speak any Hindi. He worked entirely in English. The clerks in the Aizawl head PO were aware of his desire for efficiency, and would fear the occasional temper of their “Madrasi Superintendent saab.” The department’s mission was to deliver mail efficiently, and every day Ranga saw opportunities for how ‘his department’ could do things much, much better.
After Ranga had been in the Northeast region for over 3 years, the department decided that he had done his part. He had paid his dues. A junior SP from Maharashtra was sent off to replace Ranga, and Ranga was transferred to Madras. After 35 years of serving the department, he was being posted back to his home state, to finish the remainder of his tenure until his retirement.
In Chennai, the family had rented a house in No. 2 Mandaveli Street. One monsoon season, the house roof was leaking and progressively getting worse with each set of rains. Jayam and the other children had to place buckets below to catch the dripping water. Ranga was a non-confrontational man. But he got furious because his children had to be scurrying around, emptying buckets all afternoon. After calling the landlord over, Ranga didn’t take him to any of the rooms that were leaking. Instead, he took him to one room and pointed to the ceiling. “I want you to look into this one room. It alone is not leaking!” he told the startled landlord.
And then, it was time for Narasimhan to marry. He was already twenty-eight. Ranga was approached about an alliance. The girl was from an orthodox Iyengar family. Her father was a civil advocate in Cuddalore. Ranga was told that the girl had won a gold medal in college. (Though Ranga wouldn’t say it out aloud, he was quite proud of his girls winning gold medals in school and of having won two gold medals himself.) Ranga didn’t need to hear anything else about his future daughter-in-law. He had already made up his mind. In 1967, exactly one month before Ranga turned 50, his eldest son got married.
In 1970, when they were living in No.2 Vedachala Gardens, his third daughter Pushpavalli’s wedding was fixed. Since they were the bride’s side, the entire family got busy with the hundred little things that needed to be taken care of. Ranga did his best to keep out of the way while Jayam and the children worked through checklists.
Four days before the wedding date, when Ranga was at work, he felt his stomach hurting. The pain was excruciating and he could not continue his work. So he returned home. He didn’t want to cause a fuss, so he drank some water and went to his room to lie down. In the evening, he felt the metallic taste of blood in his mouth. Within minutes he threw up and his vomit was red with blood. They rushed him to the hospital where he was admitted to the Intensive Care Unit (ICU).
Ranga’s sons conferred with a few family elders. The marriage preparations had proceeded too far, and it seemed unwise to postpone the wedding. They hoped he would recover in the next two days. On the day of the wedding, Ranga pleaded with the doctors and got permission to attend his daughter’s wedding. He showed up looking pale. And from his wheelchair, he blessed the young couple and immediately after that he was wheeled back to the hospital.
In the 70’s, Ranganathan and Jayalakshmi started to see all their efforts in raising eight children pay off. Their children were doing well. Their fourth daughter Amritha married Parthasarathy, Jayalaksmi's uncle's son, a boy the family had known for years. In ’72, Ranga got the news that Santhanam, his second son, had been selected for the very prestigious Indian Administrative Services. He had done so well that he had been selected for his home cadre, the state of Tamil Nadu. For weeks after that, at work or at home, people would come up to Ranga and congratulate him on his son’s achievement. Santhanam's marriage was also fixed with the daughter of a senior IAS officer in Karnataka cadre and took place in Bangalore a few months before Ranga's retirement.
In the mid-seventies, Ranganathan bought a house of his own – a flat in Thiruvanmiyur. It had taken him a lifetime of working to be able to afford a house. Six of his eight children had married and most of them had children of their own. Ranga, Jayalakshmi and his two youngest children moved to the Thiruvanmiyur flat.
In 1975, Ranga turned 58. He was the Assistant Post Master General serving in Madras. After four decades of diligent service to the P&T department, he was given a warm send-off and sent home. Retirement is tough for everyone. But retirement is particularly hard for those for whom their job becomes their main identity. The end of his job seemed to rob Ranga of his sense of purpose.
Jayam had to get used to having Ranga around in the house all day. Throughout the 1970s more grandchildren continued to arrive. Ranga and Jayam visited their children in Bhubaneswar and in Chittaranjan. Along with a tour group they took a long planned Badrinath yatra – a trip to Badrinath and other holy sites scattered across the Himalayas. Ranga turned back but Jayam stayed on and completed the whole trip.
During the 1980’s Ranganathan learned to comfortably fit the role of the family’s patriarch. People would show up in their Thiruvanmiyur flat seeking his blessings. His children were shining in their careers. He had two sons in the Civil Services both getting promoted regularly. His youngest son Raghu was married to a girl in Bangalore in 1980. He was sent to Germany the next year, the first in the family to go abroad. His daughters were doing very well professionally. (Two of his daughters worked in adjoining desks their entire careers.) His grandchildren had inherited Ranga’s aptitude for academics. All the families had plenty, and his children’s children were given every little thing they asked for and more. His grandchildren would never learn of the dire straits the family had been in, back in the 60’s. Ranga learned that affluence had a magical way of wiping away memories of financial difficulties.
He made more trips with Jayam to spend time with their children – Narasimhan in Bombay, Amritha in Baroda. They went on a Gaya Shrardham trip to Gaya, to pay homage to their ancestors. Everyone was doing fine. By all accounts, Ranga should have been happy. And yet he worried. In his Thiruvanmiyur flat, he kept to himself. His grandchildren only got to see flashes of his wit, and when they over-stepped, they’d see flashes of his irritation. Already a reticent man, he retreated further. He started to sit for hours on a green steel folding chair by the window in the living room with a hand-fan in his left hand, a newspaper in the right. He would eat when told to. His stomach continued to bother him. With not much to keep him occupied, he started to worry a lot. He worried about the careers of his children. He worried that his youngest daughter was not yet married. He worried that the Threptin biscuits he took were not effective against his ulcers. And after reading the local politics, he worried about the country.
In the 1990’s several of Ranganathan’s grandchildren started getting jobs and getting married. A few of them went to other countries for their education.
As happens to many couples who have lived with each other for decades, Ranga and Jayam started to get on each other’s nerves. Especially after Hema, their youngest daughter who was staying with them was transferred out of Chennai, they sometimes got into verbal arguments. They were fundamentally different individuals and that added to the strain.
Ranga’s only remaining interest was in politics. Jayam was interested in everything, but she didn’t care for politics. He read The Hindu with unflagging enthusiasm. He had always harboured a soft corner for the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka, but he was appalled when the LTTE assassinated Rajiv Gandhi in ’91 in Sriperumbudur. Ranga didn’t have anyone to discuss the happenings. He had never cultivated friends among his neighbours. His sons didn’t visit him that often. And his grandchildren were interested only in frivolous things – like playing cards, watching cricket or going to the movies.
Jayalakshmi would give him shopping lists, groceries needs, errands to run, and things to buy. Sometimes, he wondered if she was giving him tasks just to have him out of the house for a little while. But he welcomed this chance to head out of the house. Even when the days were very hot, he’d grab an umbrella and venture out. On other days, he’d come up with trips to the bank or to the post office.
With each passing year, the contrast between him and Jayalakshmi amplified. She was the essence of every gathering, always effusive and smiling. He’d very easily retreat into the background. After 50 years of marriage, they’d end up often trade barbs at each other. One day, Jayalakshmi asked him to go buy some Rasna. It was a flavoured sugary drink powder, which she’d mix with chilled water and serve to guests. Ranganathan came back with a black powder called ‘Kala katta.’ (Sometimes, it seemed as if even the shopkeepers sensed that Ranga was not all that worldly-wise.) It was also made by Rasna, but not the orange drink they always bought. Much to amusement of tittering grandchildren, she lambasted him for getting such a ‘weird’ flavour. (இதை நான் எப்படி வரவாளுக்குக் கொடுக்கறது? Idha eppadi naan varavaalukku kudukkaradhu? How can I offer this to visitors?)
As with many patient men, Ranga would tolerate these, up to a point. But when he got the chance, he would verbally give it right back. Jayam had once made some fried lentil dumplings. “How are the vadais?” she asked him. 'இந்த வடைக்கு கல்லே சாஃப்டா இருக்கும்' was his reply.Indha vadaikku, kalle soft-a irukkum!' (Even a stone would feel softer than this vadai.) There was always a low-grade civil war in Thiruvanmiyur.
One way in which Ranga showed affection to his grandchildren was to write letters to them. He would buy a pale blue Inland letter and would write taking up exactly half the space. Jayam would fill in the other half, writing in tiny Tamil letters. Ranga’s handwriting was awful. One grandson (Mukund) who was attending the University of Roorkee was reading an Inland letter that he had received from Ranga. A classmate looked at the writing and remarked in genuine surprise, “Hey Mukund, I didn’t know you could read Urdu!” Ranga’s handwriting was so bad that it was difficult to even guess the language it was written in.
In July of 1997, Ranga turned 80. Hong Kong had just been handed back over to China by the British. He was a patriarch with his family now extending to three continents. Ranga’s his children arranged to celebrate his Shathabishekam. A large community hall in Indra Nagar was booked. To acknowledge the milestone of Ranga having lived beyond a 1000 moons, a silver pot of holy water was ceremonially poured over him. (Given Ranga’s history of sneezing bouts whenever cold water touched his body, the holy water was first heated up.) Several of the biggest dignitaries of Madras showed up to seek Ranga and Jayam’s blessings.
Ranga’s youngest son Raghu had settled in Australia. Raghu was very keen that his parents make a trip to Sydney and visit his family. After multiple requests, Ranga caved in and agreed to make the trip. One minor problem was that Ranga had never ever been on an escalator, and he would have to get on many at the various airports. And so, he was taken to Spencer’s Plaza in Mount Road to practice getting on and off escalators. Spencer’s was the only mall in Madras that had escalators for the public.
They stayed in Sydney for over 2 months in 1999. From the facilities in the public parks, the shops, and the clean beaches, Ranga realized what a rich country Australia was. Ranga was impressed with the size of the house, the yard and delighted that his son’s whole family was flourishing. On the return flight to Singapore, Ranga overheard Jayam explaining to an Australian couple in her broken English. “Visit Sydney. Third son.” Ranga had always admired her ability to instantly make friends and to fit in everywhere.
Fate seems to have a cruel way of treating people. After an enjoyable stay in Australia, in late 1999, two months before the turn of the century, Ranga received bad news – two of his grandsons, the sons of Rukku and Pushpa – had died in a road accident in the UAE. The suddenness of it took everyone by surprise and there was an outpouring of grief. Ranga was catatonic. Seventy five years after his brother Pattanna’s death, long repressed memories resurfaced. The others coped with their grief by crying and talking about it. But Ranga had always been reticent. He felt a huge sadness for his two daughters and their loss, but he couldn’t find the words for it. He kept his grief to himself.
When the new millennium dawned, Ranga felt that the end was near. He sensed that his body was giving out. His faculties were slowing down and he was in constant pain. 2001 brought some news to cheer him up. He was quite pleased to hear that one of his grandsons (Venkatesh) had cleared the IAS exams and gotten into the Tamil Nadu cadre, just as his son Santhanam had done 30 years earlier, All of these things had been put in motion fifty years back, in 1951, when Ranga, not satisfied with being a clerk, had decided that he had to do better and had appeared for the IPO exam.
Ranganathan passed away the next year in a hospital in Chennai. He was 84. He could be proud that he had lived his entire life on his own stoic terms: Ranga had faced whatever life threw at him, without complaint, and he had done his best.
Ram Prasad & R. Narasimhan (with a lot of inputs from a number of others)
Prasad and Narasimhan with his grandparents and other relatives
1st July 2017
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