Family & Friends, Memories


The relief marking the end of my final exams in summer would give way to anticipation of my annual trip to Bombay. I would travel by the Udyan Express that would reach Bombay at 7:00 am in the morning. I would peer out of the window as the train pulled into the Dadar Railway Station and as the train slowly ground to a halt, I would sight my grandfather and wave out to him. He was easy to spot – tall, ramrod straight, dressed immaculately in his white kurta and dhoti. He would hurry over and negotiate with a coolie (porter) and then we would head off to the taxi stand.

My grandparents’ house at Kings Circle was a short cab ride away from the station and when we were done with our breakfast, we would settle down for an hour’s conversation starting with my exams, the health of my parents, my brother’s studies and the state of our garden. At 10:30 am, it was time to head to the local market. I would accompany my grandfather with folded empty bags and we would return laden with bags of vegetables, fruits and other provisions. I would then settle into this routine for a month, where if I was not visiting or staying with other relatives, I would accompany him each morning and evening to the market.

As is the case with many Indian languages, Konkani, my mother tongue has unique words to identify relationships.  While one is stuck with the generic “uncle” in English, there are different terms in Konkani to refer to uncles on the maternal and paternal sides.  The relative age of your parents compared to their siblings is also factored in.  So also with aunts.  Grandmothers depending on whether they are paternal or maternal also have different words, however, there is just “Ajja” for grandfather.  I prefixed the location where my grandfathers lived to identify them.  So it was “Kumte Ajja” and “Bambai Ajja”.  Over time, “Bambai Ajja” just became “Ajja”.

Ajja was born in Bantwal in Mysore State in 1911.  He was the oldest of 8 children,  his mother passed away giving birth to her 8th child.  My Ajja was probably a teenager then. His father was a dry fruits merchant who for some time would travel to Peshawar in undivided India and bring back dry fruits that he would sell in the coastal region around Mangalore. Ajja was an Art and Math teacher in the local school at Bantwal but it was hard to support a growing family.  Like so many of his generation, he migrated to Bombay in the 1930s in search of better opportunities. He worked with a relative initially and then started his own business. He rented warehouse space to importers and exporters.

Once he and my grandmother settled down in a small apartment which was probably all of 600 square feet, his family which expanded to six children, saw a steady stream of visitors. The forties and fifties were a time of urbanization and relatives and friends moved from South Kanara (our native place) to Bombay in search of jobs. Some stopped by for a few months, others stayed put for several years. My grandparents welcomed them all and gave them a foothold in the city.

My earliest memories of my Ajja are that of an intimidating man.  He was tall, standing at about 6 feet.  He had gray eyes, a solid jaw and was broad shouldered.  He stood ramrod stiff and his voice could instill fear into my heart.  He brooked no nonsense and to a certain extent expected his grandchildren to follow the same discipline as he did.  As I got to know him over the years, I grew to understand and appreciate him.  Behind that seemingly stern exterior was a generous, tender, caring grandparent with a heart of gold.

Ajja as I remember him in the 1970s

The forays to the market were when I grew to know him better.  This chore was avoided by my cousins and I accompanied him initially out of a sense of obligation but later of my own volition.  There were two trips – one in the morning and one in the evening.  At 10:30 am, he would have a cup of tea and then we would head out with bags in hand.  As we walked, he would talk to me about school and studies.  He emphasized the need to do well academically.  But it was not all about studies, he spoke of the need to be well-rounded, to exercise regularly and to participate in sports.  When we reached the market, he would reconnoiter the whole market first looking for the freshest fruit and vegetables.  He would inquire prices and then he would return to bargain and make the purchases.  We would also stop at the “Shri Sadguru Provision Stores” if we needed to pick up provisions.  He would chat with the owner in Konkani.  We would then return with heavy bags.  The routine was repeated in the evening.  These walks served as an exercise for him.

Occasionally, I would accompany him to Masjid Bunder. These were very rare trips, I probably went there just twice with him. These trips were to purchase school bags and school supplies. We would travel by bus and these trips would take an entire afternoon. After shopping, he would take me to a restaurant where I would have fruit salad or lassi and we would then return home.

Ajja was in his element when he visited us in Bangalore. When our house was being constructed in 1980, he stayed with us for a couple of months. He would leave each morning by bus and supervise the construction of the house. When the house was completed, he would visit us once in two or three years and stay with us for a month or so. He conscripted me into helping out with the garden. He loved the open space in Bangalore and the area where we lived had not developed much. There were large ponds and houses were spaced far apart. Under his guidance, I planted vegetables such as ivy gourd and greens such as spinach and Malabar spinach. We planted crotons and flowering plants like Mussaenda.  He brought coconut and sapodilla saplings from Mangalore. The sapodilla tree supplied us with the sweetest chickoos for several years and was ultimately cut down when my brother built his house upstairs. The coconut saplings which were supposed to be of a dwarf variety grew into towering trees that were finally chopped down a few years ago. There is still one remnant of my grandfather’s gardening days. On a walk in my neighborhood, he espied a “Song of India”.  After chatting with the owner of the house, we returned with a small plant that we planted at the corner of our garden. It still grows, 35 years since the day it was planted!

My mother doted on my Ajja whenever he visited us.  My grandmother was a fantastic cook but she was also a classicist. There were some combinations that were just anathema to her.  My mother would indulge her father. He would recommend combinations of vegetables that she would happily cook for him.  He was predominantly a vegetarian but ate fish occasionally.  I distinctly remember a day in 1987 when my mother made some crab curry at home.  This in itself was a rare event, we rarely cooked crabs at home.  My grandfather however relished the curry and it made my mother’s day.  He was also resourceful.  He noticed that my mother would finish her cooking reasonably early and the food would have to be reheated.  These were days prior to microwaves.  He got a large styrofoam box from somewhere and had it placed in another box.  For a few years, my mother would place her hot dishes in the styrofoam box.  When we built our compound wall, he repurposed old windows from my aunt’s house in Bombay, had them welded to form a gate and they still stand at home, a testimony to his ingenuity and frugality.

He was frugal to a certain extent and it was understandable. He was part of a generation that saw tough times, supported large families and survived on no credit. He and my grandmother were incredibly generous though. Whether it was welcoming people at home or the cash gifts that were bestowed on occasions such as marriages and thread ceremonies.  He was also a matchmaker of sorts. His extensive social network and respect within the community meant that his word was trusted and he facilitated several marriages. He was called “Ramachandra Master”, a nod to his school teacher days and until a few years ago, my mother had to just mention that she was Ramachandra Master’s daughter and people could place her without a problem.  My cousin Linah visited Bantwal a few years ago and reported that pictures of our Ajja and Pijja (great-grandfather) are displayed in the school.  My great-grandfather had apparently founded the school and started a program to provide free education and meals to hungry children while my Ajja was honored for his teaching and contributions over the years.

Ajja had another influence on me and my brother for which I am eternally grateful. When we were younger and he would visit us from Bombay, he would bring us books. He believed in the classics, so it was “Silas Marner”, “The Three Musketeers”, “The Count of Monte Cristo”, “Pickwick Papers”, “Tale of Two Cities”, “David Copperfield” and “Rip Van Winkle”.  Shakespeare was not forgotten, there was the Oxford University Press edition of “Tempest”.  All abridged versions of course, suitable for 10-year-olds and just enough to whet our appetite. He gifted us a copy of the Hamlyn Junior Encyclopedia in 1972 or 1973 and I spent many happy summer afternoons flipping through its pages. Sometime in the 1980s, he brought us another cache of old books, I’m not sure from where but these included an old unabridged edition of “Tom Brown’s Schooldays”. He had read these books as a youngster and his English was excellent.

He loved movies too, particularly Westerns. My youngest uncle shared his love of Westerns and sponsored our video rentals. “High Noon”, “The Man who shot Liberty Valance”, “Gunfight at OK Corral”, “Guns for San Sebastian”, “The Magnificent Seven”, “The Quiet Man” and a whole host of Spaghetti Westerns were watched over several summers. My cousin once lent me “Gentleman Prefer Blondes” but when Ajja saw that it starred Marilyn Monroe, he forbade me from watching it!  He listened to Carnatic classical music, the saxophonist Kadri Gopalnath was a favorite. He listened to K.L. Saigal and Pankaj Mullick.  Somewhere at home in Bangalore is a cassette with a recording of “Baba man ki aankhein khol”. This recording was done on an old mono tape-recorder with the tape recorder placed in front of the radio. My Ajja’s voice can be heard over the recording naming the singer – “K.C. Dey”.

Ajja had hoped that one of his children or grandchildren would study medicine. As an orthodontist, my brother came closest to that dream.  I did get into med school but my heart was not in it and if Ajja was disappointed, he did not show it. Each year, he would ask me if I needed any textbooks and if I did, he would buy them second hand in Bombay and send them to me. When I decided to apply to universities in the US, he contacted his brother whose son was studying in the US and sent me photocopies of the “Peterson’s guide” for selected universities. He followed my application process with interest.  Unfortunately, he had fallen ill when I left. He was bedridden, if not, he would have accompanied me on my shopping expeditions.

After I started my campus job, I sent him a cheque from my first earnings as a token of my appreciation. I received a lovely letter from him. He was too weak to write, it was dictated to my cousin. I still have that Aerogramme with me. Ajja was very particular about his health. A non-smoker and teetotaler, he ate moderately and walked a fair bit. Unfortunately, towards the end, he was bedridden and dependent on my grandmother. He passed away in 1993. My master’s thesis was dedicated to him along with my parents and my brother. People who have had an influence on me and have been my role models.

I wish I had spoken more to my Ajja about his youth and his life. As I grow older, I think of him now and then. In a world that is caught up with material things and where bigger is better, he lived all his life in a small apartment.  He lived simply and was principled.  He was always clothed in Khadi, perhaps an influence of the Indian independence movement.  He was generous to a fault and he, along with my grandmother, touched many lives. He saw tough times but he handled them with grace. He was contented and lived a full life. He had an impact on several people who still remember him with fond memories. Especially, a young boy who looked forward to his summer vacations and was richer for the time spent with his Ajja.

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