Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91
Vol. XXXII No. 7, July 16-31, 2022
She has always remained a household name. In the 1970s and 1980s, when I was growing up in Calcutta, the suspense would begin building up by Thursday – the next day would see the latest issues of Tamil magazines hitting the stands in the South Indian dominated Lake Area. If you went late the copies would all be sold and then you would have to wait for someone to lend you theirs – the wait could be interminable and you needed to know what happened in the next instalment of Sivasankari’s novels such as Palangal, Ini, Amma Please Enakkaga, Oru Manithanin Kathai or 47 Naatkal. There would be discussions by letter among relatives, over long-distance phone calls when the connection was made, and in person during holidays. I have even seen aunts weeping over some of her works, such being the impact. There was even a story that did the rounds that following 47 Naatkal, there was a dip in demand for prospective NRI sons in law! If there was someone more mesmeric than Sivasankari the writer, it was Sivasankari the speaker. She always communicated from the heart and gripped audience attention from the word go. And there was a message in each work, as it was in each speech.
Given all of this, when she chose to write the story her life, titled Surya Vamsam, it was just as gripping. Last year, an English translation of the earlier Tamil work was released and I attended the event. It was nice to hear Sivasankari speak, and then pick up a copy of the book, translated from the Tamil original by Chitradeepa Anantharam. The title, for those who have not read the Tamil version may seem intriguing. It is just that her father was Suryanarayanan, who was the founder of the well-known auditing firm Suri & Co. Being descended of him, she chose that title.
The book itself has her story in complete detail – birth into an affluent family of the city, her growing up years in an atmosphere rich in culture, her education, her marriage, her coming to grips with childlessness, her discovery of her writing skills, the losses she suffered including that of her husband at a very early age, her friendships, her experiences of writing, meeting famous personalities and finally, her philosophy of life. You can hear Sivasankari speak through the pages, here you find the writer and the orator coming together in a very harmonious whole.
To readers of Madras Musings, there is a lot about the city that will be of interest to them. The story begins at T. Nagar, goes through Srinagar Colony Saidapet (which Sivasankari’s father developed), famed schools and colleges of the city, moves on to working life at a top-notch bank and then writing for some of the best-known Tamil journals, all published from the city. Several characters of Madras, ranging from M.S. Subbulakshmi and D.K. Pattammal to G.K. Moopanar weave in and out of the book. It is as much a record of the city as it is of a life.
We publish some excerpts below.
– The Editor
Even though Appa was a strict disciplinarian, he was progressive in his thinking. He gave freedom to all his children. He wanted his daughters to be self-reliant and independent and, most importantly, he wanted us to be able to face any situation with confidence. He ensured that all of us got college degrees. In the ‘50s and ‘60s it was rather uncommon for women to go for swimming classes, but Appa ensured that we all learnt how to swim. In those days there were only two swimming pools in Madras; one at the Marina and other inside the YMCA campus. My father went to the YMCA and sought special permission for a separate and exclusive time slot for women. With that arrangement in place, all the girls in his household went for swimming classes every Saturday from 6 am to 8 am. Amazing, right? Once I start talking about my father, it’s hard to stop. He was such a special person.
* * *
I was born in 1942 in Chennai, then called Madras. Appa had built a house in South Boag Road in T. Nagar and named Kamalalayam. It was in that house that I was born. He had planned the house meticulously, paying attention to every aspect. I am told he had even dedicated one room especially for setting up the traditional Kolu (display of images of deities during the nine-day Navarathri festival dedicated to Goddesses Durga, Lakshmi and Saraswathi). Usually, miniature parks, waterfalls, temples and tanks, were created by people to beautify their Kolu displays., Appa went one step further and designed a small shallow pit for that purpose in the Kolu room. Sliding aside a floor slab would display the pit, which could be used as the site of waterfalls or other creations. Imagine such forethought! Our Kamalalayam house was later sold, and changed many hands. Today it is a marriage hall. Murugan Kalyana Mandapam.
Around 15 years ago, I happened to attend a wedding in that hall, and Chandru Anna, my eldest brother, who had accompanied me, took me to all the nooks and corners of the building. During our wandering within that building. Anna told me that only the facade had changed, while the rest of the building was retained as Appa had originally built it. As we went around each section, Anna stood transfixed at a particular spot in the middle of the building “Jibu, you were born in this room. I was returning from school, and everyone in the house told me that a baby sister had been born. I was curious. I peeped into the room and saw the head of a curly-haired baby. That was you.”
Decades may have passed, but standing at the spot where one was born can be an intense experience.
In Madras, during World War II, everyone lived in fear as the threat of aerial bombing was ever present. Fearing calamity, many people sold their properties at lower prices and left the city. Appa also sold off Kamalalayam and we relocated to Bangalore, where we lived for over six months. Once the danger had passed, we returned to Madras. Therefore my family did not live for many years in the house that Appa built. The only significant event for the family in that house was my birth.
When we returned from Bangalore, we moved into a huge bungalow at No 33, Thirumalai Pillai Road in T.Nagar. It was here that my first birthday was celebrated. T. Nagar then was not like what it is today. It was calm, much less populated and, most importantly, it was peaceful. Ours was an independent bungalow with a lot of open space surrounding the house. The compound was so vast that one had to walk a fair distance to reach the boundary fence. There were many trees towards the back of the compound. Behind our secluded property there was a large slum settlement. There were no other houses in the neighbourhood. Valmiki Street was the closest street to our home, and the present-day Chinnaiya Street and other streets did not exist then. The entire area was like a vast open ground. Across the road was the residence of the then Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, Sri. Kamaraj. His house was later converted into a memorial to him.
* * *
Making Deepavali snacks was a grand affair in our household. These snacks were prepared in large quantities not only for our own household but also for distribution to extended families and close friends. A Kottai Aduppu (wood-burning stove) of the kind generally used for cooking at weddings was set up at home during Deepavali. It was constructed by digging a pit five feet long and one foot wide. Firewood was stacked in the pit and bricks were placed to hold huge vessels. In a Kottai Aduppu of this size, we could accomodate five vessels at the same time. Sweet Somas, Laddu, Mysore Pak, Adhirasam and Kunjalaadu were some of the sweets made. As for savouries, it was always the tasty and crispy Thaen kuzhal, Mullu Thaenkuzhal, Omapodi and mixture with cashews and groundnuts. The sweets and savouries would be carefully stored in large drums with airtight lids to maintain freshness. I can still remember the expectation and eagerness with which we children used to return home from school to the aroma of ghee and sweets. Getting excited about every little thing was the nature of children in the 1940’s, I guess!
* * *
A trip to Elliot’s Beach at Besant Nagar was a fun-filled activity for all of us children. During those days (the ‘50s and ‘60s), the beach was not as crowded as it is today. In fact no one would even venture there after 6 in the evening because anti-social elements moved about in that area after dark. Once or twice a year, the entire family got together and visited this beach. It was a picnic of sorts, where about 40 to 50 of us used to arrive at the beach with mats, tamarind rice, curd rice, sweet pongal, podi idly and loads of snacks. Food items would be prepared and packed in huge bronze containers by cooks in the house and would be sent ahead in cars, and then we would all get there by 5 in the evening. It was such fun to picnic on the beach on a full moon day, playing on the sand, feeling the wavelets run over our feet, and later eating a splendid dinner served on individual leaves. Post dinner, all of us would sit around in a circle and each of us would sing a song (whether one could sing well or not was immaterial). The fun activities would continue till 10 pm, at which time we would pack up and leave for home.
The beaches were clean during my childhood days. The silvery moon in the dark skies above, the rhythm of the waves in my ears, and the cool sand under my bare feet…can one ever again
hope for experiences like that on the beaches in Chennai? Will I ever again get an opportunity to go on a picnic with my family to the Besant Nagar beach? How I wish I could!
* * *
During Navarathri, it was a tradition in many houses to send out invitations with specific dates to friends and relatives. In our house, three days would be chosen, and invitations printed and sent out. Among the three days chosen, one would always be my birthday. Yes! I was born during Navarathri. Even today Navarathri Kolu is a grand affair in some households. Some of my friends organise high tea or dinner for their guests during the Navarathri celebrations. They erect a shamiana and bring in caterers to serve a variety of dishes to the guests. In those days, this was not done. Invitees who came home to see the Kolu were served Sundal, coconut burfi, sweetened sesame balls and other traditional Navarathri dishes. The snacks were served in disposable dried-leaf cups, or just wrapped in newspaper…
* * *
I was about 10 or 11 years old, when one day Appa said, “Jibu, come along with me.” With no questions asked, I was happy to get ready and go with him. We drove towards West Mambalam. In those days, this locality of Madras was considered the breeding ground for mosquitoes. The area had no civic amenities to speak of, and there were open drains everywhere. To add to these woes, there was a railway crossing for the electric trains, and if the gates were closed one had to wait for almost half an hour to get across.
On that day, we went to a location past the railway crossing where I saw some people already assembled. Among them was Appa’s close friend M.C. Subramaniam (MC Mama to us children) – a bachelor and Gandhian dedicated to social service. Congressman C.R. Ramaswamy was also there, along with TTK Mama. I noticed that a pit had been dug and bricks were stacked nearby. “Has everyone arrived? Shall we begin? Is it the auspicious hour?” someone asked. Appa called, “Jibu, come here,” and a priest handed me a brick. “Pray to God well for the welfare of every one and place the brick inside the pit,” Appa told me softly, and I did as instructed. It was only a few years later that I came to know that I had laid the foundation stone for the Construction of the Public Health Centre in that area!
West Mambalam sorely lacked health facilities, especially for the economically vulnerable families. The pregnant women lacked access to even basic medical care. That day I had laid the foundation for a very small centre with basic amenities. The labour ward had three beds and there were midwives to assist the women who came to deliver their babies. I wondered, much later, why I was invited to lay the first foundation stone for the health centre. I was told that there had been a discussion about who should be invited to lay the first stone. Someone suggested that popular well known personalities must not be invited for this, but instead an individual with a good heart must lay the first stone for the building. When Appa happened to hear this, he told them he would fetch a person with a good heart. That person was me! I heard all these details from the horse’s mouth, but only after my father passed away. MC Mama himself brought up the subject and explained how the decision was taken. Tears welled up in my eyes. I was thinking of my beloved father and was moved by his high opinion of me. It was as if someone had showered me with scented flower petals. I felt blessed that Public Health Centre is functioning very well even today. In fact it was expanded and developed into a 150-bed specialty hospital with a separate cardiology wing in which even open heart surgery is being performed. At the entrance of this building you will notice four marble plaques. One bears the name of Rajaji, one has G.B. Pant’s name etched on it, a third pays tribute to the Kanchi Paramacharya, and the fourth plaque bears my name. I consider this to be one of the greatest honours I have ever
* * *
When I was doing my SSLC, my sister Laxam got married. After many years, that was the first wedding planned by my nparents and therefore they conducted each and every aspect of the event very meticulously, The wedding took place at Satyagraha Hall now known as Hemamaliní – on Lloyds Road. It gives me joy to recall the occasion of Laxam’s wedding. In those times when transport and logistics were not yet well developed, my father managed to get apples from Kashmir for the wedding menu fruit salad. He arranged for jangri (a traditional popular sweet for auspicious occasions) to be brought from Coimbatore which was famous for it. He sourced ghee from the place where the quality was the best. He made arrangements to get seeroti and pheni, two popular sweet dishes of Karnataka. He placed an order for 100 saris, all identical in colour and pattern at the Nalli Chinnasami Chetty store for gifts. In fact, it went by the name of “Suri Sari” for a few months! Please understand that I am describing all this in such detail, not with the intention of showing off, but to give you an idea of how beautifully my father organised the first wedding in the family. By the time I got married, no such special arrangements were made. Mine was the usual kind of wedding, just like what other families performed.
For those interested, Surya Vamsam, Memoirs of Sivasankari can be purchased from Vanathi Pathippakam, email: firstname.lastname@example.org, ph: 24342810, 24310769, e-copies can be had from Amazon and Pustaka.co.in