Our Native Place

Suchindrum, (Nagercoil district) a temple town, just 12 kms. before you touch our Land’s end, Kanyakumari.  After many long years of having worked in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, with practically no vacations, my younger sister, recently retired school principal, agreed to accompany me to our native place – where my paternal grandparents had settled, built their home and raised their family.  Their children, my father and his siblings, had long shifted to greener pastures in Mumbai (Bombay, then), Delhi and other cities.  All we knew about Suchindrum was what we had heard from Appa.  He never tired of talking about his simple, childhood days in this town, our huge, long house overlooking the pond (teppakulam), in the middle of which stood the ‘teppam’ (a small mandapam, which was decorated and lighted during the bi-annual ‘ther’ festival (‘rath yatra’), the majestic ‘gopuram’ which could be viewed from our verandah where most leisure hours and after dinner chats were enjoyed at a time when electricity was too futuristic a possibility!



He immortalised this view for us with a song:  (He had a song for every person, occasion and even the names of his children)

“Teppa kulam kandein, chutri ther odum veedhiyai kandein”.  (Thyagaraja Bagavathar?  Not sure, I have to check up with Google sir), but since he credited most of his Carnatic classical songs to Thyagaraja Bagavathar, I think, yes.  Purists, scholars, please excuse and correct.

(Translation:  I saw the ‘ther’ and the street around, where the ‘rath’ was taken in a procession).

 Appa also had lots of stories about people in this town, his school, teachers, family antecedents and histories with which he regaled us.  Every single person in his narrative was simply singular and unique, one of their kind – the teacher who would request his students to get a few brinjals or plantains or whatever grew in their fields or backyard, the multiple-attempted, never cleared SSLC neighbourhood boy, who claimed to be a master in history and offered to teach anyone willing to learn from him, the young freedom fighters of his school, burning foreign goods, the ‘rasa vada’ vakils, barefoot doctors – all this happened only in Suchindrum!


Flashback over.  My siblings and I had no great attachment to this place, except that, feeling somewhat rootless growing up in various suburbs of Mumbai and then Ahmedabad, we, by default, fixed our roots in Appa’s town, and visited from time to time, as tourists, pilgrims whatever.  In those days, it was an ageless, sleepy, rather slumbering, little town, where time never moved.

My sister, however, had roots a little deeper than mine, because she had lived and studied here for a couple of years (may be 4th and 5th standards) when our Amma and younger siblings re-located here because of financial setbacks in our Thane (Mumbai) times.  So had my paternal cousins whose mother and father were from this same village.  Their maternal grandparents lived here all their lives.  Their grandfather was a much-revered school teacher.  But we found pastures elsewhere.  Now, my sister was here after 50 years.  We stayed at a hotel in Kanyakumari and took a rickshaw for the 12-km. ride to Suchindrum.

The rickshaws in these areas are huge 6-seaters.  No meters.  The drivers quote anything from 400-250 rupees.  One has to bargain. There are State buses also.  In fact, all the buses that go from KK towards the nearest city, Nagercoil, halt at Suchindrum.  It took us about 20 min. to reach.  The route is very beautiful with greenery on either side, small streams and temples.  In fact, the entire stretch in Nagercoil district and around is very green as it borders Kerala.

The houses in this part of Suchindrum (Teppakulam street) surround the square bank of a big pond.  A huge carved, colourful gateway welcomes tourists at the entrance to the town.  This road leads directly to the ‘Sthanumalayan’ (another name for Lord Shiva) temple.  This image represents 3 deities – Shiva (Sthanu), Shiva (maala), Brahma (Ayan).  Perfunctorily, every family had one son named after this deity.  In earlier times, the temple with its labyrinth-like, mysterious corridors did not attract so many outsiders, except for temple-hopping pilgrims.  The devotees were locals and only during ‘aarti’ times there used to be small groups of people.  Young women and girls did not go there without escort.

The main attraction of the temple is a gigantic statue of Hanuman.  On Saturdays, when some or the other family fulfilled their vow of adorning the statue with a garland of coconuts or ‘vadas’ (made of dals and similar to ‘medu vadas’ with a hole in the middle through which strings were drawn), all the children would collect for ‘prasad’.

Some legends also have it that this was where Lord Shiva, on his way to wed for the second time, was halted by Narada’s crowing like a cock, on the instructions of Parvati.  Shiva had to marry secretly before dawn.  The ditched maiden waits in all her bridal finery, 12 kms. away, on the banks of the Indian Ocean.  She is Kanya Kumari.  The temple and seaside town are dedicated to her.

Half a century later, much had changed in Suchindrum.  Mobiles, social groups on whatsapp, internet had made their advent.  The street around the ‘Theppakulam’ (the pond with the mandapam in the middle), is narrower than it used to be.   There is a Juice centre at the corner of the road, where once used to be a small Madrasi eatery run by our Telegu tenant.

The temple attracts lot of tourists.  Though it retains its old-world charm, it is now crowded at all times of day.  On the outside are vendors of flowers, incense, lamps.  There is a footwear stand – quite a change, because earlier most people in this town walked barefoot everywhere and those who had footwear, left them home when they visited the temple.  The walk around the pond is less than half a kilometre.  We go to our ancestral house which has changed hands two times after Appa sold it.  Some rooms are modernised, there is a western toilet and bathroom inside the house.  (Earlier, there was just a four-walled structure with a hole in the middle at the rear end of the long house.  Most families did not even have such structures; the backyard was the open toilet).  Most houses have been renovated and re-constructed with modern facilities and are 1 or 2-storeyed, but our structure and a few others remain the same with brown, sloping tiled roofs.  But one feature remains – the houses are long, one room behind the other.  If you looked from the entrance, you could look through all the doors right upto the backyard.

Some things had not changed.  When we made contact with some old residents who could connect with our ancestors, a small crowd followed us everywhere, taking photographs, telling us about other old people who might know us.  We belonged, and yet we did not.  Appa would have observed that hardly any Brahmin families were left in this once exclusively Brahmin stronghold. Behind the ‘teppakulam street’ is the ‘rettai theruvu’ (double street) which gets its name because there are houses on either side of the street.

Beyond that is a place called Ashram, named after Sati Anasuya who is supposed to have welcomed Lord Rama there, when he was on his way to Lanka.  As an honour and respect to this saintly woman, every third daughter in this town, used to be invariably named Anasuya (the older two having got their grandmothers’ names according to tradition.



My sister’s school, Government Upper Primary school, stood exactly where it had always stood, outside the gateway, to the right.  Appa, his brother, nephew had all studied in this same school.  Very little had changed here, except that the children had uniforms and footwear.  After interacting with the head mistress and some students we returned to Kanyakumari with mixed feelings – rooted or rootless?  I cannot say.















Nimma and I knew each other even before we started school.   We were neighbours, the same age and joined the same school, the same day.   She spoke only Kannada and I knew only Tamil.  We used some gestures in the beginning and slowly we conversed in some kind of Bambaiyya Hindi like – ‘aayenga’ ‘jayenga’, using only the masculine gender.  We learnt English, Marathi, good Hindi, in due course, but we still converse in our old Hindi like some kind of code language.


We were inseparable, and fortunate to be in the same class. Different sections, at times, and the same, many times.  There were many ‘katti’ batti’ phases – lasting from 30 minutes to 24 hours. We made more friends.  We walked home together – gossiping about friends, teachers, neighbours, chasing ice wagons or bullock carts at the back of which we placed our bags. But in the last stretch, only Nimma and I were left. First, we stopped at my gate and talked.  Then we walked to her gate and talked some more.  After we reached our homes, we called out from the window to check on homework.  ‘Tumhare paas Athavale hai kya? (Maths text).  Dondo hai kya? (French book), Wren and Martin?  These books being heavy, we often took turns to carry them to school.


On lazy afternoons, we walked under some shady trees, picking raw mangoes, jamun, some strange seed we ate as ‘badaam’, and a stranger black and red beadlike pip, which we swore were the devil’s eyes.  We saw ghosts under the huge tamarind tree and if we saw someone with heels in the front and toes at the back, we were to run.  Those were days when there was no border between fantasy and fact!


When we grew a little older, we carried our infant brothers on our hips and stood at the end of the lane, amusing them with passing vehicles.  We discussed the pros and cons of having brother or sister, the fears their tearing our books when we were at school and many important things.


One day, Nimma nearly died.  It was a rainy day, in our fourth year of school.  On our way home, we were both washing our dirty shoes, with our feet inside them, in a wayside ditch which had turned into a pond.  The rain was pouring.   Suddenly Nimma screamed.  She had slipped into the water.   I was sure she was dead.   I screamed too.  In no time, some passersby pulled her out of the water and brought us home safely.


That night I slept badly.  Next day I was a changed person.   Not that I understood the value of friendship then, but I certainly could not think of life without Nimma.   Over the years, we learnt to appreciate each other and love unconditionally.   Though our lives ran different tracks, we lived far away from each other, no telephone, mobiles, only the occasional letter or news through family or common friends.  Nimma married, had children, family joys and woes and health issues to boot.  I remained a spinster, busy with jobs, travel, spiritual pursuits.  But we never lost touch.   A minor tragedy taught me a lot.  Sixtysix years later, 2000 miles apart, and in the last stretch, we are still best friends.




One of my favourite peeves – cribbing about the cost of popcorn when you go to watch a movie.  You pay 200 rupees for a medium-sized tub – the same costs just Rs.25 when you buy at any store outside.  Samosas which used to be around Rs.70 for 2, are now anywhere between 100 and 120 rupees.  Cold drinks, sandwiches are all priced at almost ten times what they cost in a restaurant.  All this, over and above the high cost of the movie ticket.


When the movies shifted from single screen ‘talkies’ to the multi-screen theatres in malls, one was happy to be free of the domination of ‘Lalas’ and blackmarketeers.  The multi-screens also gave the movie-goer a wide choice of films in one venue.  Also, the comfort of being in an air-conditioned space, shopping, washrooms, food courts where one could hang around.  Not that any favour was being done to us.  All these sprouted because of the huge number of footfalls.


Everything is priced higher in these malls, but people reconciled considering that it was a nice place to hang out even if one did not buy anything.   But the obscene cost of refreshment in the movie halls beats all logic.  You are not allowed to carry your own food.  When I went to a movie recently with my little nieces, they pointed out that the theatre was extremely cold and they felt hungry every now and then.  The movie halls alone are kept cooler than the lobbies or the rest of the mall.  A deliberate ploy to sell more refreshments.  And what refreshments?  God knows when the popcorn machine gets cleaned.  When you go for a morning show you will see the previous night’s leftover in the machine and more stuff is added and sold.  About the other items – sandwiches, pastries, samosas, coffee – who can tell?  The pressing queues at the counters do not allow a buyer enough time to think about all this.


In such a scenario, it was very heartening to read a news item (Mumbai Mirror, 6th April 2018) about a filmmaker who has filed a PIL against the ban on carrying food to multiplexes.  One can carry food on trains, airplanes, so why not to movies?  The case is being heard.


It will be a happy day, I am sure, for all moviegoers when this ban is lifted.  The vendors will come to their senses.







Why does  Sushma look so worried?  I wondered, when I saw her by chance last evening.  As we came nearer, and after the initial greetings,   “Do you live on rent?” she asked me, knowing that I (a singleton in my 60s) had moved out of my married brother’s flat to another.  “No,” I tell her.  “My brother has bought a second flat and I am occupying it.”  She lives in the same complex with her husband and grown-up son and is looking for a second house on rent.  This, for her 80-year old mother, at present with one of her brothers, but the brother is going abroad and the mother has to be relocated.  Can’t the old woman continue to live with her brother’s family?  No.  Can’t she live with Sushma and her family?  No.


Increasingly, this is the situation in most urban families in this city (Mumbai).  Either the old do not want to live with their children or the children do not want the old to live with them.  This prompted me to make a survey in my own housing complex, a huge one, with ‘upwardly mobile’ and ‘already there’ urbanites.


Mr. D’Souza, a widower, lives alone in a flat, close to his son’s.  He is happy to get all his meals from his son’s home and occasionally visits the family.  His daughter lives in a nearby suburb with her family. He visits both children from time to time, but stays alone.  It is a happy arrangement for everyone.


Same is the case with Raina, a widow in her sixties.  She has a married daughter nearby and a married son abroad.  But Raina lives alone, freelancing with an advertising firm and occasionally meeting her daughter’s family.


Neeta, a retired professional in her 80s lives by herself in a flat next to her daughter’s. That the daughter is a divorcee, no children, living alone does not prompt them to move in together.


Is this a developing trend only in the cities?  Is it that in pursuing individual goals, family is only seen as an intrusion in our day to day lives?


The maids, drivers, watchmen and such who are part and parcel of our daily lives do not seem to have this generation gap to the extent the upper class does.  With the quibbling and quarrels, in-laws, outlaws and extended families live in cramped quarters.  Is it the affordability, which turns families nuclear?


Most families have turned child-centric, unlike the parent centric families of our times.  The parents, particularly mothers, have to run around and after the children to various tuitions and classes.  This, of course, costs a lot of money, for which reason, most women also have to work.  In such cases, the grandparents escort the children everywhere.  But children grow up and the grandparents are slowly edged out of family concerns and are at a loss what to do.  Some wise ones get involved in social activities or clubs; others hang around parks along with other elders.


Indeed, it is the law of nature, that the old move on and make place for the young.  But the moving on takes longer now, what with life expectancy and longevity on the rise.  Even medical insurance advances the upper age limit regularly, considering that people live upto their 80s.


Traditionally, our culture is known for the joint family.  But as we do away with so many traditions, the joint family is slowly becoming a thing of the past.  Want of space and changing aspirations, particularly the need to pursue one’s individual interests,   it is no longer comfortable to live in the huge family.   Leave alone the question of living with in-laws and extended families, even grown-up children are keen to leave the nest and experience the freedom of being on their own.  My colleague’s daughter, doing her post graduation, constantly requests her parents to rent a flat for her, close to her college, where she can stay with a friend.  The old family pattern is slowly becoming most unfamiliar.


A Supreme Court judge, having dealt with many family disputes, advises the elderly to let their married children move out, even if they have to rent a place.   Let them raise their children as they wish and not offer to be babysitters.  If requested, they should not extend their services to offering advice and counsel.  It is better they plan their retirement and enjoy their old age in whatever way possible.  Above all, he tells mothers, particularly, “Your daughter-in-law is your son’s wife, not your daughter, so when you are at her place, remember you are a visitor.  Whatever problem or character she has, let your son deal with it.  He is an adult.”  It makes sense.


All children and grandchildren grow up to be adults.  The older generation needs to do a re-think on the family scene and seek their own pursuits and activities.  Needless to say, one has to also save for one’s old age. The loneliness that accompanies age is inevitable.  When accepted with grace, it is possible that one is able to devote more time and attention to the inward journey.  In our scriptures, it is said, this is ‘Vanaprasthashram’ – the city is also a ‘Vana’ in its own way!























Dakshin Chitra


On way to our native place in Kanyakumari, my sister and I had a 2-day halt in Chennai.  When we asked people about places nearby that can be toured in 3-4 hours, the first options are temples – Kabaleeswar, Parthasarathy, Anjaneyar (in Mylapore, where we stayed), and yes, Kanchipuram, Thiruvannamalai – half day tours.  If you say, one temple is enough, then the alternatives are beach, Mahabalipuram ….  Then someone suggested a different site – Dakshin Chitra. 

Curious, we did some research and found that it was about an hour’s drive from Mylapore, on the way to Mamallapuram, a few metres away from the VGP Amusement park, on the main road.  Though the 3 hours we spent there were not really enough, we saw quite a lot and returned home in time for lunch and to catch the evening train to Kanyakumari.

What is Dakshin Chitra?  It’s a live museum of restored ancient cultures – architecture, paintings, houses, lifestyles – of the four South Indian States, we were told.   We thought it was some kind of artisans’ village.  Anyway we set off and spent a delightful 4 hours – too short a time to see the entire place, but enough to appreciate this unique venture.

The place is huge – about 10-12 acres, spread out.   There is sufficient parking.  No food is allowed inside.  You can carry a water bottle.  You can also eat in the parking area.   There is a washroom and a small shaded area here for drivers.


At the entrance are list of programmes, workshops, seminars etc.  On that day there was an Andhra dance and drums performance.  Also available is a video about the museum.

Important information:

Timings: 10 am to 6 pm

Days   : All days, except weekly holiday, Tuesday, and some limited public holidays. (It was open on Republic day, the day we visited).

Entrance fee:  Rs.100/- per adult (Rs.120 on festival days)

There is a charge for cameras, but we did not have one, so no question.  We took pictures on our mobile and no one minded

DK 1


After a short walk of a few metres, you come to a central area from where arrows direct you to the State you want to see and as you move on there are more indicators giving you directions to the kind of exhibit you want to view.   Along the pathways, there are vendors selling various artefacts, drawings, paintings, jewellery, mementoes and some snacks and soft drinks.

We were there by opening time.  The crowd grew as the day progressed, but there was no pressing or jostling as the area is spread out.  We could walk and view very comfortably at our own pace.

We first took a tour of Tamil Nadu and were amazed to find a replica of our own village house in a Brahmin street.  The house was furnished with the swing, staircase, pillars, cradles, well, pooja room, stone grinders,  even photographs as you would find in old houses.  The outside had a ‘kolam’ (rangoli), freshly drawn and here and there were some lifelike models.   The streets too were well replicated, with temples, idols, lanes where other castes lived including the model of their houses, cowshed, bullock-carts etc.

We were told by our local guide that the curators had actually dismantled the structures of old houses and had them transported to this museum where they are restored and restructured – very, very unique.  When we came out, we felt transported from another age, as though we had been through a time machine!DK 4


As we moved to other States, we realised that 3 hours were not enough.  One could spend the whole day in this museum, literally experiencing a century old lifestyle in the South of this country.  Christian, Muslim houses were also represented with their symbols, prayer rooms, the area outside the houses very realistically.   There are also separate exhibition halls displaying period clothing styles, textiles, jewellery etc.

There is a café, apart from small shows and displays here and there.  There are sufficient, clean toilets outside every lane.   The place is very open and well-maintained.

I wonder if there are similar museums elsewhere representing the northern, western and eastern States of our country. If you do happen to be in Chennai, do not miss Dakshin Chitra village.





What we suffer from

Walking alone has some advantages, especially if you are not glued to your phone.  Strangers wish you, ask for directions, offer you deals on ACs, water purifier and other things.  Among the ‘other things’ category, fall these two very respectable women who wanted to speak to me on the road.  About what?  How to end all suffering.  They handed me a pamphlet which said Jesus will end all suffering.  This in a posh Mumbai suburb, bang in front of a Ganpati temple (Who’s afraid of right wing activists?), not some remote rural area.

What was I suffering from?  They did not ask, but anyway I was okay with their assuming that everyone suffers from something and so must I.  Their Church had asked them to spread this message. And also invite people to a gathering later this month.  You know where all this leads to.

Many years ago, when I was working in a rural college in Maharashtra, a fellow teacher had handed me a similar pamphlet.  That was the homework given by his Church. I wonder what prompts these ‘do-gooders’, whatever be their faith, to seek followers to their flock.

What we suffer from

I have a good friend, Hindu, married to a Christian girl.  They go to both places of worship as do their children.  When the woman goes to the temple, she worships as all others do.  No one notices her.  But when they go for Sunday mass, the reverend father never fails to ask my friend if he is now ready to convert.

On a recent visit to my native village in Kanyakumari, the driver narrated, how some reverend brothers in his local church, kept persuading his family to convert.  Among the many ‘apples’ they offered was free education for his children, even if they wanted to go abroad.  But God has warned Man against temptation; the driver says that one day he and his neighbours physically drove away the brothers with a warning!

I have nothing against Christianity or Christians.  In fact, my entire schooling has been in an institution run by Jesuit priests and nuns.  I have lot of Christian friends of all sects and sub-sects.  I can recite the Angelus and Hail Mary and quite a few other prayers.    A beautiful Church stood on our grounds and I, like my friends, learned to walk across the pews, making sure to kneel at the aisle.  We enjoyed watching weddings, communions, even funerals in the Church.  I remember borrowing the Bible which my friends carried for Catechism classes, and have enjoyed the fascinating stories of Jesus and his miracles, just as I enjoyed reading myths and mythology of many faiths including my own.  Was there a desire to convert?  The initial glamour and style of the Church, faded as I grew and my outlook broadened and I know Christianity as one more religion of the world.

I have never felt compelled to display any outward symbols of my faith – ‘mala’, ring or colours on my forehead.  I hardly participate in ‘pujas’ or rituals.  No one in my family or friends’ circle have minded this.  Nor has God sent any messenger to call me or warn me.  “God’s in his heaven” and everything is alright with me.

Right from our primary Civics books to our Modern History books, we have been told, ‘India is a secular nation’.  One of my professors interpreted this in a very practical way.  He used to say – ‘secular’ does not mean ‘respect for all religion’ – it means ‘no religion matters’.  It appeals to me.  Why do we carry our faith to the roads, to our workplaces, to our social gatherings, everywhere? This indeed is our suffering – that our religions are the weakness used by manipulators of all kinds. Why  do Gods who are believed capable of saving humanity, need such saviours?

Once we leave our homes, we are students, workmen, professionals, traders.  When you want a good doctor, teacher, plumber or whatever, do you ask what religion he/she belongs to, or do you check how good they are at their work?  My most trusted optician is a Parsi, when I want materials or threads for embroidery I go to a Muslim locality, my regular carpenter is a Sikh.

Am I complaining about these missionaries and their persistent attempts to save my soul from my ‘heathen’ religion and uplift me?  No, I am very thankful to them.  Today I respect my faith even more; a faith that worships the elements even before all this talk about conservation ever began; a faith that is so inclusive and expansive that it includes practitioners and non-practitioners; a culture and tradition that is confident enough not want to convert others.  Truly, Hinduism is a way of life!

Continue reading “What we suffer from”





‘Thorthu’ – that is the Tamil word for a thin towel, usually white, with a coloured line or two at either end.  In some, 2 flag-like coloured strip is stitched.  These, I think are for identifying each other’s ‘ thorthu’.


How we, as children, longed for the thick, fluffy, Turkish (Why Turkish?) pastel coloured towels which we occasionally saw in hotels or friends’ houses.  They absorbed water well and it looked good to be wrapped in one when we came out of the bathroom.   The ‘thorthu’ not only looked beggarly, it also revealed our ‘Madrasi’ identity to one and all, in a place where we were a small minority.  Neighbourhood children and even some schoolmates called out ‘Anda gundu, nara gundu’ ‘swami’ and such names to make fun of us.  Visitors were often directed to our house by the ubiquitous ‘thorthu’ hanging on the window sill or clothesline.


Our parents were quite oblivious to our painful embarrassment.  Our Appa even draped it on his shoulder when he stood at the corner chatting with some friend.  Even in these times, the Shiv Sena had reared its parochial head, wanting to drive away all ‘Madrasis’ because they had taken away their employment opportunities.   Now the ‘thorthu’ took on some fearful dimensions.  We tried to keep it away from public gaze, as we did other tell-tale signs of our ‘Madrasi’ origins, like Amma’s ‘thali’, ‘kadambam’ in our hair, our ‘pavadai chattai’ (long skirt and blouse).


We swore to ourselves that when we started earning we would buy the Turkish towel, preferably Bombay Dyeing, and  never have or use this (whose name I will not mention).


Years passed.  We grew and established ourselves as proficient students which earned us respect among friends.  Our friends, too, had grown up and we formed lasting bonds in which we developed a more broad and cosmopolitan outlook.  The disgraceful little item faded into the background of our existence, though the resolution about the Turkish towel remained.


As we studied and appreciated different cultures through books, films and acquaintances, I noticed that throughout the length and breadth of this country, men always carried something similar to the ‘thorthu’ – like ‘gamcha’ –  and women had a ‘pallu’ ‘dupatta’ or ‘odhni’.  These versatile garments served several purposes – a duster, a shade against the sun, a napkin, waistbelt, turban – just anything.  In a monoact which stays in my mind, the actor uses this small towel alternately draping it over his shoulder or as a ‘pallu’ over the head, depicting a husband and wife, in a 15-minute conversation.  A Turkish towel could only help in Bollywood dances (remember Saira Banu, Kajol, Ranbir Kapoor?)


When we could actually afford thick Turkish towels, after the initial exuberance, we found them a pain to wash, unhygienic for reuse, difficult to pack during travel – not at all ‘paisa vasool’.  By this time, we also had sufficient natural cushions on the body so even that comfy feeling was lost. Back to the humble ‘thorthu’.  So utilitarian, so economical. Now even friends ask us to get the ‘Madrasi’ towel for its lightness, easy wash and dry, travel convenience and even if it is lost, no worries.  Easy on the purse.


Use the ‘thorthu’.  Have a clean and dry day!