This is the story of a Jayam, who at 9 was known as a vivacious girl who was always smiling. When she died at 85 she was known as a vivacious grandmother who was always smiling.Her Centenary according to the Gregorian calendar is on 27th May 2021 and according to her birth star is on 31st May 2021
Click on each photo to enlarge
Jayam was born on 27th May 1921 to Singaravalli (my father’s elder sister) and Seshadri Iyengar. She was born when the star Tiruvonam (known as Shravana) was ruling. Though she was named Jayalakshmi, no one called her by her full name. To everyone, she was Jayam. Jayam had three elder brothers, one younger brother and two younger sisters. Her affectionate father had arranged a music teacher for her from the age of 5, thanks to whom she and two of her elder brothers developed a great taste for Carnatic music.
In 1930 when Jayam was just nine years old, her mother died while giving birth to the eighth child. The child died at birth and the mother died of pneumonia soon after. The brothers were 16, 14, 12 and 8 and the sisters were 6 and 4. The burden of running the family fell on the shoulders of this 9-year-old girl. The only saving grace was the resolute denial of the father to remarry when remarriage was the norm in those days and the father was a man with a deep sense of responsibility. He was reasonably well-placed in life as Head clerk in the Collectorate in the State Government.
The responsibility of running this 8-member household was borne jointly by Padur athai (Jayam's father's sister) and the puny Jayam. Jayam learnt how to cook. She was interested in everything and loved to read. She would take her little sister Jaanaa to school. After school, she would 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 a burden she bore without complaining. Jayam became a competent manager by the time she completed her 7th standard. She was known in her neighbourhood in Tindivanam as a vivacious girl who was always smiling. She was also one to be helped as 'பாவம், தாயில்லா பொண்ணு paavam thaayillathaponnu (poor motherless child)
When Jayam was about 12, she was saved from a certain death by her (late) mother. That was what her maternal grandfather (and my paternal grandfather) believed. There was an uncovered ground level well where Jayam was playing and she fell into it. When her grandfather noticed her absence, he jumped into the well fully dressed. The well was very deep. He caught hold of the little girl just when she was about to drown for the third and final time. By that time, people had gathered there, and the grandfather and granddaughter were pulled out with a rope. Miraculously there was not even a scratch on little Jayam's body. After some time, she opened her eyes, and asked, "Where is mother?" Every one was surprised because her mother had breathed her last about 3 years earlier. Then she told her grandfather that when she was about to drown in the well, her mother took her in her arms and told her, "Don't be afraid. I am with you and no harm will come to you."
When she turned 13, her father started scouting around for a bridegroom for her. A day before her 14th birthday, Jayam got married to Ranganathan from Perungalathur, who would turn eighteen two months later. Ranganathan was one of the first graduates in the district and had won two gold medals from Madras University – one in mathematics and one in Sanskrit.He was the only surviving son for his parents.
As a graduate, he could have got a well-paying job in Madras. But his parents were very possessive about their son and would not let him go too far from home. So he found a clerk’s job in Cheyyaar Post Office for which he was over-qualified. His plan was to write the IPO (Inspector of Post Offices) exam soon. His starting salary was 35 Rupees a month. He would also get a “graduate’s bonus” of 3 extra Rupees. So Jayam’s husband started to bring home 38 Rupees a month. With this amount the young couple – both not yet 20 years of age, started their life together. From Perungalathur, Ranganathan would walk 2 miles each way daily. He was an efficient worker and a Post Office clerk’s job was quite easy for him. Unfortunately, due to the World War and India;s independence, his dream of becoming IPO had to wait for over fifteen years.
Their married life began in Perungalathur. Jayam’s father-in-law was a short-tempered man. Young Jayam would get intimidated and was mortally afraid to serve food to him. That memory haunted her for many years. But Jayam found her husband easy to deal with. He focused on his work. Thanks to her husband’s attitude to work, she knew the seriousness of work. In her later days, if anyone fretted about the spouse being busy in office, she would say வேலை முக்கியம் இல்லயா Velai mukhyam illaiya.”.
In the autumn of 1938, Jayam got pregnant with their first child. On 13th April 1939 Ranganathan got a telegram from Thindivanam saying that Jayam had delivered a healthy baby boy. They named the boy Narasimhan but called him Kannan at home. After Jayam came back to Perungalathur with the child, the young family moved out of the Perungalathur house and rented a place in Cheyyaar to be close to Ranganathan’s work place. Jayam was already a competent home-manager and had no problem managing the child as well as the husband.
In 1940, Jayam had to move to Vellore with her husband. During the war years. Choodamani was born in 1941, Rukmani in1943 and Pushpa in 1945. Both Jayam and her husband felt that the Vellore years were very satisfying to them at a personal level. The one early memory which they shared with Kannan in later years was how Ranganathan eagerly looked forward to the time when one of the little kids, Kannan or Chooda, would walk the two furlongs from home to office to deliver the thermos flask containing evening tea prepared by Jayam for him. Kannan also remembered the Vellore years with fondness and would even recall the address where they lived - 16, Engineer Subbaraya Mudali Street. Kannan and Chooda went to a primary school run by a single woman in her middle ages. She taught all the subjects except English as she considered English a relic of the disagreeable British The school fee was an uniform 4 Annas (25 paise) per month per child. Perhaps this memory prompted Kannan as Chairman of the Family Trust to approve every application from Vivekananda Kendra for single-teacher schools.
There was an inflation in the post-war and post-independence years. The addition of Santhanam to the family in 1947 made it impossible to make ends meet. Jayam persuaded her husband to opt for a transfer back to Cheyyar where they would be able to take care of her in-laws. They would also get support from his parents in Perungalathur and his cousins in Kazhiyur, both of them near Cheyyar. Ranganathan was சின்னண்ணா to his street-smart cousins, who respected his degree, erudition and guilelessness and showered a lot of affection on him, Jayam and the kids. Jayam’s father-in-law owned land in Perungalathur from which agricultural produce would be received regularly. But within two years of moving to Cheyyar, both her in-laws died and the land had to be leased out.
Jayam continued to be in touch with her father and her siblings in Tindivanam. Her elder brother Ramaswamy had realized very early that education was his only passport out of a mediocre existence. By 1941, he had joined a private company at a good salary and in 1947, he was sent by his company to England. This made a deep impression on Jayam who was even more determined to somehow provide a good education to her children.The siblings used to visit each other occasionally. Jayam was quite attached to her brothers Gopu and Rajam and sister Rukku who used to visit her family. Since their mother was no more, Rukku gave birth to both of her children in Jayam’s place.(The only photo with six of them was with Raghu.The seventh, Rukku is in the other photo.)
Jayam’s father, Seshadri Iyengar was a pillar of support to her. He was genuinely fond of Jayam and her kids and they in turn loved him a lot. He would visit them often in Vellore. Jayam had always wanted her father to stay with her family. After her in-laws died, Jayam invited him to come over to Cheyyar. He was more than happy to be with his favourite daughter and the grandchildren. With the birth of Amirtha in 1950 the family had grown in size to eight. The family’s finances were stretched thin, with just Ranganathan’s salary of about fifty Rupees a month to support all of them. But Jayam,with her proven skills of running the home could manage the budget within the amount her husband earned supplemented by her father’s pension of 27 rupees. .Jayam and her children got used to the comforting presence of Seshadri Iyengar. He was good at teaching the kids and tending them during sickness.
In 1951 Jayam's husband learned that finally he would be able to appear for the IPO exams. He prepared for the examination with single-mindedness fully supported by Jayam who could by now control the children with just a look. When the results were published, he was pleasantly surprised. Ranganathan, a self-taught young clerk from the post office of Cheyyar had obtained an all-India rank of 4 in a field of over one thousand candidates
The first pay commission appointed in 1947 had fixed the minimum salary of a Class-III employee at 60/- rupees with Dearness allowance of 25 rupees. As Inspector, he would draw more than 100/- rupees. As an inspector’s job involved touring, the travelling allowance would be a bonus. Jayam and her husband had moved up from lower middle-class to middle middle-class as far as finances were concerned. But their value system was always top class.
However,an unexpected problem cropped up. As Inspector, he could be posted anywhere in the Madras Postal circle which till 1961 included the present Tamil Nadu, Andhra. Karnataka, Kerala and Telengana. He was posted to Guntur and decided to join the new post leaving his family behind.
Around 1953. Jayam's husband was hospitalized in Guntur with a stomach problem detected as ulcer, a cross that he would bear till his death for not knowing how to cook. Financial problems also cropped up with the addition of Raghu to the family in 1953. This caused Jayam to sell a bit of her favourite golden ornament, ஒட்டியாணம் ottiyanam (hip ring). It was her mother’s ornament given to her as dowry. More bits of it had to be sold when her son started going to college. She always would say that the tangible gold was sold for getting the intangible but more valuable education of her children.
In 2016, Hema found a Fixed Deposit Receipt of Jayam. All the eight children felt that the proper course of action would be to donate it to the family Trust. In the meeting on 23rd June 2016, the Managing Committee passed this resolution. ‘Resolved to accept with gratitude an amount of Rs. 5,50,000/- (Rupees Five lakh fifty thousand) only from the eight children of (late) Mrs. Jayalakshmi Ranganathan. The amount belonged to (late)Mrs. Jayalakshmi Ranganathan and was in the joint account of Miss R.Hemalatha & Mrs. Jayalakshmi Ranganathan with Corporation Bank, Indiranagar. Each inheritor of (late) Mrs. Jayalakshmi Ranganathan agreed to donate the entire amount of his/her share to the Corpus Fund of the Trust. It was therefore resolved to credit the entire amount to the Trust and transfer it to the Corpus Fund.' Out of curiosity I searched the cost of ottiyanam and found that in 2016, one could have bought an ottiyanam of 192 grams (24 souverigns+making charges) for that amount. The ottiyanam which helped the education of 8 children was back with the family helping more than 8 children every year.
Cheyyar was the place where Amritha was born in 1950. And the first step towards achieving Jayam’s objective in life was taken with Kannan topping the school in SSLC. with very good marks. When Kannan’s SSLC results were awaited, the good news of Ranganathan’s posting to Thanjavur was received. With regret, they left the house at Thattara Street in Cheyyar. Jayam had the knack of befriending people and cultivated a friendship with the co-tenants, who were known to everyone as banker and overseer. It was a friendship that lasted throughout her life. But to Jayam Cheyyar was the place where her eldest son topped the school in SSLC. Appropriately the first Medical camp organized by the family Trust was held on 14th February 2010 in that very school.
The family shifted to Thanjavur before the schools would reopen. All the four girls were admitted to Girls’ Christian High School and Santhanam to an English medium school. Since there was no college in Thanjavur, As IPO, Ranganathan would be on tour for most of the month and it was Jayam who managed the entire household with help from her father. Jayam and Ranganathan decided Kannan would join ‘Intermediate’in St. Joseph’s College, Trichy. Stay in the hostel was the best option, but was ruled out as the least hostel fee (in a dormitory of 4 boys) was Rs. 50/. For the next two years Kannan would leave home at 4 A.M. with his grandfather (who carried a stick to ward off stray dogs) and had to travel by two trains and walk a mile each way in pursuit of a good education.
At this point I want to talk about the only ‘vice’ of Seshadri Iyengar. In the 30s,’ S.S.Vasan wanted to boost the circulation of Ananda Vikatan. Crosswords invented in USA had become the rage all over the world like the movies invented a few years earlier. Vasan hit upon the idea of prize-crossword contest (called by him as பகுத்தறிவுப் போட்டி- Pagutharivu potti) with prizes of upto Rs. 10000/-, an unimaginable sum for the middle class. A person could send upto four entries. With a Vikatan costing 4 annas, it meant the expenditure per month could be 5 Rs., including postage, a considerable sum at that time. In Thanjavur he had become addicted to it and was disparaged in the family circles as a greedy person. Jayam tried to talk him out of the habit, but his reply stunned her.’I am not doing it because I want the money. I cannot bear to see this boy (Kannan) suffer so much in commuting. If I get a prize, I will ensure that he joins the hostel.’ And Jayam also learnt that her father did not touch a paisa from his pension for his addiction. He would go to the post office, write letters dictated by illiterate persons and he would buy as many copies of Vikatan as his extra earnings permitted. And another act of kindness of Seshadri Iyengar was that he would go to the temple every day for Darshan at Prasad time. The prasadam wiould not be touched by him or Jayam, it would be distributed equally among the children. His addiction stopped with Kannan completing the course in 1956. (Prize-crosswords were banned in 1957 when Supreme Court held that such contests were games of chance.). A noble soul, Jayam’s father and my athimber. As a follower of Gandhiji he must have gone through the moral dilemma of whether the ends justified the means.
In 1956, the family had to split as Kannan could either go to Chidambaram or Madras for higher education in Chemistry. With his Principal’s recommendation, he could get admission in Loyola College, Madras and he joined there. More bits of ottiyanam and other ornaments were sold but there was no wavering from the objective of a good education. In 1956 Jayam and her six children had to move to Pollachi. With regret, but also with a sense of achievement, Jayam left the house at Manambuchevadi in Thanjavur.
Jayam and family occupied a house in Ramakrishnapuram in Pollachi. More than forty years later Kannan visited the house again as the father of Sub-collector, Pollachi. Jayam’s skills as a home-maker were thoroughly honed by now. Hema, the eighth and the last child was born in Pollachi. Jayam ruled with an iron hand but the children were so good that the iron hand was not needed. There were certain rules which were sacrosanct. You can read about or listen to them in Chooda’s write-up / audio . These instilled a strong value system. Whenever Amritha and I discuss the way we were brought up, she would be shocked that there was no rule at all in my house. It was laissez-faire in Vedachala Gardens. I think I imbibed a strong value system more by watching people like my father, my chithappa, my grandfather and yes, my athimber.
Finances continued to be a problem with a chunk of the salary going towards Kannan’s education. But Pollachi was an ideal town for middle-class with its ‘sandhai’. Kannan in his article mentions that over two kgs of onion or potato could be bought for 2 anna (12 paise). Chooda who topped her school in SSLC was the first in the family to take up a job in the handlooms department. In the 1950s it was not very common for women to take up employment. But times were changing and Jayam was one of the first to welcome the change. Another interesting tidbit is that Chooda and Rukku were perhaps the first in the entire family circle to learn Hindi. They and Pushpa learnt typewriting as well, skills that would help them secure a decent employment later.
The reader may wonder as to why school-toppers, Chooda, Rukku and Pushpa did not have a college education. To answer this, we must know the social and educational situation prevailing at that time. Among the many castes in Tamil Nadu, Chettiyars have been in the forefront of women’s reforms including education. Tamil Brahmins were not very far behind. But changes took over three decades to happen. Pre-puberty wedding was common till 1910. The marriage age of girls changed to 13 to 15 till the 1930s. By the 50s, this went up to around 20 and from the 70s, twenty-five became the norm. The changes can be seen in Jayam's household. She became a grandmother at 41 while her daughters became grandmothers only after 55. In the educational field the attitude among the middle-class brahmins up to the 50s was that SSLC was adequate for girls. Apart from the financial issues and the difficulty of not being able to find a more educated boy, there was the problem of finding educational institutions. We saw earlier that even a mid-size town like Thanjavur did not have a college. My father used to say that the middle-class girls who went to college in the 50s and early 60s were mostly the eldest. When my sister Vanaja went to college in 1954, she was the only girl in our Agraharam (of 26 houses) among ten girls of her age to study in college. Three factors were responsible for her college education. One was of course my father’s commitment. She was also the eldest. The third and perhaps the most important was the fact that there was a college within a bus-ride distance. When I was in Guindy Engineering college between 1962 to 1967, there were two girls among the over 1000 students. When I went to my college in 2007 for our 40th year Reunion, I was told that girls were 52 percent of the students. All these factors made Amritha the first girl in the family to become a graduate. Hema went on to be a post-graduate.Though Amritha also started working, she had to quit her job as I was posted in Solapur in 1973 and we were moving around India thereafter. A regret that Amritha had was that while every sister had a job, she was confined to home.
In 1959 Kannan completed his studies and took up a job near Coimbatore to be near his parents. Later when he moved to Madras, Chooda also joined the state government in Madras. In 1960, Jayam and family moved to Kanchipuram. The stern mother was slowly changing. Frequent visitors to the temple town, particularly from sinful Madras, brought an imperceptible change in Jayam’s household rules. The first wedding in the family – that of Chooda - took place in 1961 in Tirupati. I attended it as a guest of the bridegroom, who paid for my journey. The groom Kannan (Srinivasan- my aunt’s son) was a teacher in Rajah Muthiah School. I was in SSLC then. He was not finding time for correcting the 9th standard students' exam papers and asked me if I would do it. I agreed provided he would take me to Tirupati to his wedding. I corrected the papers and prepared the mark sheet and he had to only sign it. He would later tell me, 'I could get married only because of you’ and my reply would be, ’Are you thanking me or cursing me?’ 1962 was a landmark year for Jayam. She became a grandmother at 41.
In 1962, the family moved to Madras. Gradually the Vedachala Gardens culture (laissez faire) seeped into Jayam’s household. Raghu and Hema enjoyed a much greater freedom than their elder siblings. But some rules like the morning puja and eating together at night still remained in place More marriages took place and I became a part of the family in 1973 with my marriage to Amritha. Between 1962 and 1988, Jayam got 15 grandchildren who were to change her back to the smiling girl she was. She would play chess (she taught many of them. Her grandson Prasad is now a well-known international chess writer), carroms and the family card-game, Mail. Her aim of giving a good education to her children was achieved and all of them were well-placed in life.And they in turn inculcated the value of education to their children.
Circumstances made it difficult for Jayam to travel in her early life. Except for the mandatory travels to Madras for attending functions of close relatives and a few pilgrimages, mostly within Tamil Nadu and to Tirupathi, there weren't many journeys. Later she visited many cities in India where her children lived. But two journeys remained fresh in her memory till her death. One was the 52-day pilgrimage all over India and Kathmandu in Nepal, always referred as Nepal-Badri trip by her.Her chinna mama (my chithappa) was the leader of the foursome. Jayam's husband and her periya mama (my father) joined them only for the Badrinath leg.
The second was her travel to Australia to spend time with her son Raghu and his family. Raghu's father-in-law was the leader of the foursome. These two journeys would be retold by Jayam to her grandchildren.
The most important and perceptible change was when Jayam moved into her own flat in Tiruvanmiyoor in 1976. For over twenty years, it became a home away from home for all her children and grandchildren, irrespective of where they were. We could still see Jayam in the balcony in Tiruvanmiyoor with her sloka books, stack of Tamil magazines and a note-book for writing Sri Rama Jayam. She would wait in the balcony with dosa batter and Rasna in the fridge and abundant love in her heart.for a grandson or granddaughter to make an appearance She was also mischievous in sending her husband on needless errands. She was the grandmother bird waiting for the grandchildren for whom Tiruvanmiyoor was the veritable Vedanthangal.
31st May 2021