My grandmother (R Rukmani) walks up to me and asks me to read a snippet written by her to commemorate the centenary of her father’s birth. I go through it and feel an instant urge for more information about this man that Paati reminisces with a choke in her throat and reddened eyes. I say to her at once that I will write with the support of whatever she is willing to share with me instead of from the piece of paper she gave me. I was just five when my great grandfather died and I have no idea of what he was like apart from photographs and mentions in family conversations. Not until now, have I made a conscious attempt at collecting whatever I can about him from the memories that Paati could offer. I soon understand that Paati had not done justice to the man with the small paragraph that she wrote. More and more memories streamed across her mind (with a constant flurry of questions from me) and I started to make an outline of a character that belonged to her father.
T Ranganathan was a man of principles. Or so, said everyone in his time. A simple man, with eight children to feed at home, clutching the family with the sole income that was his, had life going the hard way. Therefore, a few principles helped him nurture his family well and stringent rules made sure that there was just enough for everyone. Whenever my granny or any of her siblings asked for what they craved, the immediate retort from him would be, 'இது இல்லாம நம்மளால முடியாதா?' Idhu illame nammalaale mudiyaadha? (Can we not live without that?). To set an example, he never bought anything which seemed unnecessary, and no one could point a finger at him. Not that anyone dared to, in the first place. Paati associates this tough handling in her childhood to be etched as a defining quality in her to always question herself before purchasing anything - which I, most certainly do not possess. Ignoring her hidden criticism of my spendthrift nature, I beckoned her to tell me more.
The siblings were ardent with their books in school, and when exams approached, feverishly studying late in the nights. Paati says her father condemned them from overexerting themselves. So much changes in two generations, I say! Neither do I overexert myself with study books, nor do my parents ask me not to!
Shortage of funds was the greatest burden of the glorious family. One man’s income from a Government job (in pre-Pay Commission days) could not suffice for all the needs of eight children and so, great grandad could only provide college education to the eldest of his sons. My granny, Pushpa Chithi and Chuda Perima were not able to pursue their higher education. By providing them typewriting lessons, their father provided them with means to pursue a decent job. Paati recounts from her days of going to interviews that her father always accompanied her, waited patiently till the end of the interview, and walked her back home.
During his days of being Postal Inspector, my grandma and Chooda Perima acted as his PAs to write down Inspection Reports. When I asked the reason for this, my abashed Paati, quite hesitantly told me that his handwriting was awful, to quote her, கோழி கிறுக்கிற மாதிரி இருக்கும் kozhi kirikara maadhiri irukkum (Like a scrawl by a hen) So once he finished his inspection (which used to last days), he would return home and dictate to his daughters the inspection summary, which they filled up in his inspection book and made copies of.
Another instance she shared was when they were in Thanjavur. Her father was transferred to Pollachi. She recounts to me that back in the day, the postal department union was very strong and even officers were intimidated by huge congregations of the postal realm. In such an atmosphere, when great grandpa received the transfer, a group of nearly 30 union members paraded the streets of Thanjavur with the garlanded and respected Ranganathan smiling solemnly. Paati and her siblings rushed up to the windows to have a better look at the parading party and noticed that each member now gave speeches standing in front of their home hurling in praise to the man whom my grandmother felt very proud at that moment and even by the memory.
Another insignificant but unforgettable memory (that my grandmother spoke with a dry throat and teary eyes) was when they lived in Kanchipuram when she was around 17. It was Viakunta Ekadashi, and the family walked from their home in Periya Kanchi to Chinna Kanchipuram. They started the journey at 3 AM in the morning to witness the Swarga Vaasal. But due to habits forged from childhood, all had the need of drinking coffee at the wake of their day. They had no fridges back then and the milk man would not arrive until 6 AM…and hence they stopped at a tea stall to drink coffee. Having been accustomed to a much better version of coffee at home, great-grandfather retorted that this wasn’t coffee at all, but “Kofe”, a way of telling that that coffee was indeed pretty bad. I wondered, how the most insignificant of memories stick to us in complete detail, when my grandmother showed signs of a breaking voice.
From Kanchipuram, her father was transferred to various places in the north, like Silcha and Tezpurr. where, his indications of ulcer grew, as he was forced to eat bread most of the time. I asked her then, if he attended her marriage. She smiled and said, yes. She told me, how he took a month off from work as he came back home to make the preparation for the marriage. But to his bad luck, my Thatha’s parents took a long time to provide an answer. Due to the lack of time, my great grandfather went up to their place and asked them to give him an answer soon. At once, given the circumstances he was in, they chose to give him a swift yes. Yet he still had to take another half a month off. On the day before her marriage in the acute heat of summer, there was heavy wind which led to a ttal power shut-down. She says to me with much dissatisfaction that they all had to suffer a lot in the heat without a fan…except for her father. I did not understand this at once. Then, further digging led to the understanding that Mr. Ranganathan never used the fan at home, only a hand fan. It was either his way of saving electricity or the consequence of habit, I do not know. So the absence of electricity did not bother him.
With much remorse, my grandmother says that her father, my great grandfather, suffered a lot of pain towards the end of his life. Excruciating stomach pain after two ulcer operations weathered the man’s body. With a grip of courage in her voice, Paati finally tells me that he never spoke much and cared a lot for all his sons and daughters. Even a minor cold, he could not bear to watch them suffer. He showed most remorse to handle pain. Another’s suffering would be his own and hence he could not bear to stand and watch. To watch such a man suffer must have been deeply painful to my grandmother and all her siblings.
As I wrote earlier, I was just five when my great grandfather died. So my great grandfather seems like a stranger to me, and up until this moment, he was one to me. I can never tell that I am in some way like him, for I have been raised in much different circumstances. Still, a part of me is him, and his presence will never be forgotten. From what I gathered, T Ranganathan was a man who deeply cared, was very well respected, and an inspiration to many of his time.
I pray for his soul to continue to rest in peace. I am very happy that we are celebrating his birth centenary this month. He and my great grandmother made a life statement with the way they lived their life and it was a reservoir of learning for all those who were fortunate to have been a part of their life. Such a glorious life definitely needs to be celebrated.
Aditya & Rukmani
1st July 2017
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