For a large portion of my childhood, Thiruvanmiyur was like a second home to me. I spent many schoolday afternoons there, and it was a special treat to go there during my school holidays. There was not much to do there except to read and play Ludo or Paramapatham and eat dosas (or as a snack, the manathakkali berries that grew in a pot on the balcony), but this was precisely what I loved – the uneventfulness, the near-stillness. The more slowly time passed, the longer it was before I had to go back to school. I would count the number of days that remained, and reassure myself with the largeness and seeming abstractness of the number. This pleasurably lazy quality of my summers, the pure repetitiveness of the days, has stayed with me. Even then I must have sensed that my happiness depended upon those who had made that world and set me free within it, and who kept it for me in my absence. They operated in different ways. Paati filled the space with the warmth of her presence – she bustled about the kitchen, asked questions and told stories, arranged the entertainment when the quiet threatened to spill over into boredom. Thatha, fanning himself in his seat by the window, was subtle yet essential, like the drone of a tanpura.
I loved Thatha and felt an affinity with him, but I can’t say I ever really knew him. We had a few traits in common: introversion, a focus on academic achievement, a conservative streak. Perhaps some of these very traits stopped me from knowing him better. Is that something I regret? I’m not sure. It’s always tempting to substitute the child with the adult, innocence with knowingness. At that time the bond felt sufficient. Now, of course, I can take the longer view, I can appreciate the sacrifices that Thatha and Paati had to make to raise 8 children on a meagre government salary. It was evident that Thatha took his responsibilities seriously, and that he expected others to take their responsibilities seriously. I see my father living up to those expectations, and it is something I ask from myself.
I wonder how Thatha felt about retirement. After all those years of providing for the family, of knowing exactly what he had to do and when to do it, to be returned to himself – was this a relief, or a puzzle? In the ashrama system of Hindu tradition, retirement has its place – after grihastha comes vanaprastha. ‘Vanaprastha’ does not necessarily mean retiring to a forest, especially in this day and age when the forests have retreated. It means withdrawing from the world in a metaphorical sense, achieving detachment, providing counsel and support and teaching to those who are younger. This role Thatha, the responsible one, fulfilled perfectly.
And yet… The roles are always the same, but each person is different, and the world is always changing. During Thatha’s time already, the joint family system started to break down, and families grew more and more separated by physical distance. This can’t have been easy for him. Children are naturally selfish, and as far as I was concerned the Thiruvanmiyur bubble world created for me by Thatha and Patti needed no one else to make it complete. But perhaps for them, it was in large family gatherings, in reunions, in weddings, that life felt complete.
The Ranganathan family is scattered across the globe now. But we do still connect often, online through Twitter or Skype or Whatsapp or family web sites, or in real life in Europe or America or Bangalore or Kanchipuram or Chennai, for birthdays or weddings or family visits or centenary commemorations. The bonds are still strong. It almost seems that it is change that is illusory, and that our loyalty to place, to family, to values is fundamental. And this is a legacy that would surely make Thatha happy.
1st July 2017
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