Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Timeless Ammomma

It simply can’t be, but it is. My maternal grandmother is 82 years now, so she was 50 years when I was born – but she has remained exactly the same ever since I can remember.

I vividly remember the Tirupur house where Thatha and she used to live, when I was a child. We only had to alight from the bus and tell any auto-rickshaw driver to take us to ‘Paul doctor’ house, and we would be there in 10 minutes – through the rickety lanes, across the sewers with coloured water from dyeing factories nearby, little multi-coloured pigs splashing around in them!

Tirupur was beginning its ascent to becoming the textile hub it now is. Enterprise, ambition, greed, quick-money, exploitation – all in equal measure. Traffic zoomed rapidly around dusty roads. In the midst of all this, Ammomma and Thatha’s house really felt like an haven. The small verandah with Ammomma’s plants, the large space at the back to dry clothes. Mosquito nets, Odomos, Tiger balm. Paapathi, the household help, who had worked there for around 20 years and would remain with them for around 20 more years. Cold water in the refrigerator to offset the burning sun. The food was both delicious and healthy. There were always fruits to eat on the table, we munched on dates after dinner. We would watch the 9 ‘o’ clock Doordarshan news without fail.

Constancy, simplicity, wholesomeness – these things have been really been characteristic of Ammomma ever since I can remember. At the end of every year, when we visited, she would take me to the dressing room and empty a box of 1 Re. coins she had been collecting all year. There would typically be around 100 coins. We would take this to a nearby shop and buy something for my sister and me. So, to the above qualities, I should add generosity and selflessness. As the years have passed, she has continued to shower us with her generosity – with a few zeroes added to that original amount of Rs. 100! Thank you, Ammomma.

She is a wonderful person, but there are two things in particular that I find remarkable. One, she grew up in a wealthy home as the 11th of 12 children, and then adapted seemingly effortlessly to being a wife to my grand-father Dr. Paul, who was a doctor posted in various parts of rural South India. The change in lifestyle must have steep, but I have never heard her say it was. Second, while Christian parents often, understandably, agonise about schooling their children in the faith, she and Thatha seem to have achieved this without much fuss at all. Each of her three daughters (including my mother) are deeply committed Christians, and I know that each of their husbands consider themselves blessed to have them as their wives.

What else comes to mind when I think of Ammomma? Of course, her brilliant cooking – all her 7 grand-children would testify to that, and even her 2-year old great grand-daughter. Her concern for people, especially the under-privileged. She has selflessly helped so many people in need, with her time and money. The dignity with which she carries herself, so much so, that my wife surmised Ammomma’s privileged background just by observing her, especially her beautiful saris!

In the above paragraphs, I have just described Ammomma as I know her. But there is whole avatar of hers that I have not spoken about, just because I have not observed her in that - as a School Adminstrator. When she was approaching 60 years of age, she started working as Principal of Subbiah Matriculation School. Through this, she implemented a very progressive philosophy of education, emphasising conceptual rather than rote learning, holistic development of the individual with a focus on students being responsible members of society. Knowing Ammomma as just my grand-mother, I confess I did not fully realise the extent of the impact she has had, until I met one of her former students, Sathya, around 3 months back in Helsinki. We were speaking about different places of education and I was telling her about some students I had met from Santi-Niketan (founded by Rabindranath Tagore), who speak about the unique and stimulating environment there. Just before I finished, she interjected excitedly, “my experience in Subbiah was like that! I can never forget it. In fact, to this day, my mother says it was one
of her best decisions to send me there. so many of my friends say the same thing. we can
really never forget our days in Subbiah”.

I was dumb-founded, proud, humbled. Well done Ammomma – on a beautiful life of service. May you have many happy days ahead, and thank you again for your generosity :)

Monday, 25 April 2011

Driver Ramasamy

When I was 6, we had a new driver join us, to drive and take care of our Mahendra Jeep. I was in 1st grade and I remember seeing him for the first time when he took my sister and me to school. He was thin and quite tall, his complexion was as black as coal - giving him a sort of pleasingly unambiguous dark appearance. He wore a white shirt and a white veshti. The enduring image of him in my head is of him loosening his veshti, pulling it up nonchalantly and fastening it with a tight knot - all done with a quick-silver dexterity, borne of years of experience. At first glance, there was nothing striking about him, except perhaps that he carried himself with a confidence and pride quite out-of-proportion with his station and physical stature. This characteristic of his earned him the sarcarstic nickname of "King",from my friends.

I remember asking my mother what his name was. "Ramasamy", she replied. At that time, we had other servants in the house for cooking and general housekeeping - Sarasa for our family upstairs and Anthoni for my grand-parents downstairs. Anthoni left afterwards, and so did Sarasa. They were followed by a seemingly endless succession of servants-Ramatha, Devi, Padma, Dhana, Mallika, Mary, Ratna,Vanitha.

But 21 years on, Ramasamy is still going strong...

Not just in his length of service but also in his behaviour, there were noticeable differences from others of his class. He seemed to possess a self-respect and assuredness in himself that was rare. I have never seen him feeling anything less than completely adequate. I remember him once boldly striding into my 60-strong classroom in his simple shirt and veshti, to hand me my lunch ( I had forgotten it at home). When he was impatiently waiting for my friends and me to finish playing cricket in school, so that he could take us back home - he would shout, scream, rant, rave but never plead, beg,beseech...

He had his own code of conduct and within this framework, he had a firm integrity. While alcoholism and smoking is rampant among men of his class, he was free from these habits. We was punctual and very very regular. He seldom asked for holidays, sometimes even reporting for work inspite of illness. He tended to the car like it was his own. He considered the car not so much his office, but his palace! (lending further weight to the King analogy). Of course, he had his own idiosyncracies. He could be moody. Sometimes, he would flatly refuse to drive my mother somewhere. The male-chauvinism inherent in his upbringing probably helped him feel justified in refusing orders from a woman younger than him.

But beneath these apparent marks of disrespect was a complete loyalty. While other servants would behave friendly outwardly, one could never be sure of their sincerity. In contrast, Ramasamy was undemonstrative but when there was an urgent need, we could be sure of his immediate and willing help even at personal cost to himself. Probably, this loyalty sprung out of affection for us. Over the years, it seemed that he identified himself with us - to the extent that he enjoyed our successes and despaired at our failures. When I go home from the UK, I can sense his pride that I am doing well in the UK. When my British brother-in-law first came down to India to ask for my sister's hand in marriage, he also had to pass a thorough evaluation by Ramasamy. I think the relationship Ramasamy shares with our family is an example of how a master-servant relationship can be completely honourable - when it is based on mutual respect and even affection. In a very real sense, Ramasamy is part of the family :)

Friday, 4 February 2011

Inna (grand-mother)

My grand-mother was around 50 years of age when I was born. Since I was little, I have never known her to not be busy, to not be in a position of responsibility, to not be making big plans for some venture. So, I was surprised when I grew a little older to learn that her parents had denied her permission to get a college education - girls in India those days were, by and large, only allowed a school education. Inna had stoutly resisted of course, and many protestations and a hunger-strike after, she was allowed. After she finished her first degree, she was marshalling her powers of persuasion to obtain permission to study further when her parents decided enough was most definitely enough and got her married - to my grand-father.

I was also befuddled to learn that for about the first 20 years of her marriage, Inna was a house-wife. By all accounts, she kept a model home and provided a stable and supportive environment for my grand-father to excel in his career. Then, at about 45 years of age, she launched her own career. She trained in art and began producing paintings with a distinctive theme - Jesus in Indian contexts. I remember her paintings from when I was young - the firm but graceful lines of her sketches, the understated but confident colours, the feminity and poise of the female subjects in her paintings. And then, there was Jesus - manifestly human but clearly displaying the most divine qualities; humility, gentleness, love...

At about the same time she started painting, she also started an Interior Decoration business and soon gained a city-wide reputation for her creative but professional style of decoration. She also assumed some management roles - she was made Secretary of a Women's Vocational Training Centre and substantially enhanced its profile. A bit later, she also became involved in a number of social work initiatives.

30 years on and she has lost none of her enthusiasm. In the course of these 30 years, her artist career has blossomed - people in possession of her paintings include the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury. Her penchant for management has also opened up major avenues for her. About 12 years back, she conceptualised and oversaw the building of an Arts & Science College funded by the Church of South India. Under her stewardship, the Institute has grown by leaps and bounds and is now considered one of the best in Coimbatore. Recently, she also provided the impetus to start a Teacher's Training Institute, also funded by the Church. She has also encouraged a number of social work initiatives - a major project on rehabilitation of women prisoners, another on providing basic education to children on the fringes of Coimbatore. And 3 years back, at the age of 75, she embarked on her PhD on Women Studies...

But the reason I admire is her is something far more valuable than mere accomplishments - I admire her wisdom. To hear her express an opinion is to hear the result of years of careful consideration. The sense that she is saying something precious is almost tangible. Often, I have come away feeling consciously enhanced after listening to her.

I have learnt a lot by observing her people-centred attitude to life - on many occasions, she has waived fees for poor students and enabled them to get an education. Once, when one of her office staff was found stealing, she admonished him, forgave him and offered him a second chance. A student from her college once told me that the reason he has great affection for her is that, even though she is strict, he could clearly see that it was out of concern for him.

Humility is also a characteristic of her interactions with her God and with other people - she refers to God as avare (a term of respect for an elder); one of her closest friends in our church is a 12-year old girl called Percys. Her opinions are unfailingly balanced - when I was excitedly jabbering on about India's unprecedented economic growth, she quietly pointed out to me that almost half of all Indians were below the poverty and that our attitude should always be tempered by this reality. When I was self-righteously expounding to her that individuals should be concerned with fulfulling their responsibilities rather than availing of their rights, she punctured my argument by explaining how both rights and responsibilities should be honoured in a model society.

Her most distinctive quality however, is the way she enjoys the simple things in life. She takes great delight in even the simplest of jokes, especially when made by one of her grand-children. On family outings, to ice-cream parlours for example, she is usually the most excited. She firmly believes that one should learn to enjoy novel experiences - I once remember her telling me I should enjoy the novelty of having a cold in the summer! The most recent occasion that I saw her enjoying life's little pleasures came on the last day of my holiday in India. We were all going to the beach just near our resort and I persuaded her to come along because I thought she'd enjoy it. After leading her to the sea-shore, I became occupied talking to my cousins, but turned back a little later to see her standing just close enough to the water to get her feet wet. I smiled to myself but didn't think much of it at the time. Three weeks later, I had come back to the UK and received a birthday card from her. After wishing me a Happy Birthday, she had written, "I thank you for persuading me to go to the beach on the final day of our holiday. I had the joy of standing near the waves after so many years. Thank you my precious grandson Nitin! - Your loving Inna"

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Mike & Carol Pearson

Mike and Carol Pearson are an elderly couple in my church. They are very much a part of the church and enjoy its fellowship. Mike is into cricket and Carol can't understand why. They have two dogs. They both participate actively in the Sunday service - Carol often prays out loud during worship. But they're different from the rest of the congregation in one way - both Mike and Carol are completely blind.

Their two dogs are their respective guide dogs. They can only read the song lyrics during worship because they have a digital device that converts it into Braille.

Mike and Carol could choose easier options or wallow in self-pity - instead, they choose to try to lead as normal lives as possible. In doing this, I think they teach us one simple but profound lesson. They teach us that often, things needn't be as bad as they seem to be. They teach us that often, when one decides to make the best of an unfortunate situation, that one can mange better than one would have thought possible.And they teach us that by the clever use of technology, that one can overcome limitations and enjoy activities in a very nearly normal way. Mike and Carol - courageous, God-fearing, tech-savvy and also blind :)


When I was about 6 or 7 years old, I had a hero. His name was Bovas. He was good at everything that a 6 year old boy thinks important. He played cricket like a dream - when he bowled, he would run from the end of the road and hurl the ball ferociously at the batsman as I watched open-mouthed. When, he batted, he dealt in sixers. He was also the best at football, his team always won.

But the reason I worshipped him is that he was a leader. Before he moved to our neighbourhood, we were a group of small boys of 6 or 7 years and another group of boys around 12 or 13 years old. After his arrival, he soon became influential. He then organised us into a team and challenged the team from the next neighbourhood to a tournament. Thus began a series of intensely contested cricket matches which make up some of my most vivid childhood memories. He then decided that we should start playing 'real cricket' with a leather cricket ball rather than a rubber ball. So, amidst protests from our parents, he introduced a Fund that each of us were to pay 5 rupees to every month. In 6 months, we had collected enough to buy a set of pads, a brand new cricket ball, a few cricket balls, stumps and a 'ball guard'. At the peak of his popularity, he inspired fierce loyalty from all of us - we looked to him for direction and wondered where he would take us next. Then, after his 12th standard, he didn't come to play anymore.

He was intelligent, flamboyant, confident but he was also poor. His father was a taxi driver and didn't have enough money to send him to college after 12th standard. So, he had to find work. When he used to play with us, I did sense that he had a vision for himself - that he badly wanted to break free of his circumstances. He seemed intent on making something of himself, of becoming famous. But ultimately, the poverty swallowed him. The last I heard of him, he had also become a taxi driver. A case of shattered dreams, suppressed initiative and wasted talent...but I hope it is some consolation to him that, in organising and leading those 6 and 7 year old boys, he also taught them dream boldly and work to achieve their dreams, especially when their circumstances allowed them to do so.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

Jonathan 'The Outlier' Haenen

His first degree was in Computer Science, his Master's in Philosophy, his PhD in Psychology. He is a tall, broad, curly-haired South African, but he doesn't possess the ruthless professionalism one associates with people from that country. He is not religious, but he yearns for a fairer order and has better intentions than the most religious people I know. Concepts and ideas are his currency, 'thought' is his area of expertise, but he does not want to stay in academia after his PhD - choosing business instead. Jonathan Haenen certainly doesn't lend himself to classification.

So, the only way to understand him is as an individual and so, that is what I seeked to do. The change of approach worked. I began to appreciate him for the genuinely deep thinker he was, began to marvel at his conceptual grasp of things. To hear him express his views is to get the sense that he has just been in a fight and won - a fight to untangle interwoven concepts and to dispel the mist surrounding a concept clearly understood. His thinking seems to have an angry edge to it, like he finds fuzzy thinking intolerable and has spent considerable time and energy reconciling his ideas with his existing knowledge. I always enjoy discussing things with him, especially controversial topics. You can be sure that you will be listened to sympathetically but objectively and get a well-thought-out response in return. And if he doesn't know, he will admit so. The few conversations I have had with him about the brain have been epic - there was this sense of two bulls locking horns, each spurring the other on to higher levels of cognitive prowess - higher and higher, faster and faster. They left me exhausted.

But most of all, I admire his egalitarianism. Talking to him, you get the sense that his education has really 'worked'. That because he has pursued his education with the objective of exposing himself to the best of human thought, that he has come away a much better person for it. He seems to understand in a deeper way, the ludicrousness of narrow prejudices, he seems to realise just that little bit more, the necessity of putting the greater good above self-interest. Talking to him, you also sense an exceptionally deep-rooted respect for other cultures and peoples. This expresses itself in intriguing ways - while other Whites I know have also enjoyed it, he is the White I know that has most enjoyed the Chennai Dosa experience (an authentic South-Indian restaurant in Reading,UK). I think this is because of his absolute openness to new cultures and different experiences, while for the other people, the experience was always tinged with some fear and reservation.

Of course, like everyone else (probably even more so), he also has his dark side. There seems to be a part of him that delights in the macabre. I remember how, when a group of us were coming back after watching a particularly morbid play, he was exclaiming enthusiastically about "enjoying the creepiness of it".

As a guy from a traditional Indian background coming to the UK, I always wondered what novel experiences awaited me. Jonathan has been one such novel experience - one that has opened my eyes to new possibilities of being, once one dared to venture out of the 'conventional' and 'familiar'. But on Tuesday (14th Sep 2010), he leaves back to South Africa and I might never see him again. So, here's wishing him a great life ahead - Jonathan Haenen, a genuine thinker, a good human being and an outlier in the nicest possible way :)

Wednesday, 18 August 2010


Below is the unedited text of my Toast to Mitha at her wedding. I worked very hard on it and so, it was most gratifying that it was well appreciated.

"Hi everybody. To those who don’t know me, I’m Nitin, Mitha’s brother.

As some of you know, as part of my Toast, I created a wordle of Mitha – a wordle is a picture summarising words from a list where the size of the words varies according to how often it occurs in the list. For this, I messaged each of her FB friends, asking them to get back to me with 1 word that they think describes Mitha best. I then created a list of the words and put it into a wordle generating software and what I got was this!
(show Wordle)

The first thing I thought when I saw the newly generated wordle was that it was worth the effort generating it…because I think it describes Mitha’s personality very very well.

There are many things you can read about Mitha’s personality from the wordle, but most of all, I think it shows:

i. what a people-person she is – the most common words are adorable, bubbly,
cheerful, sweet, vivacious
ii. how much fun she is to have around (how much she adds to social settings she
is part of)– size of words like entertaining, fun, happy, hilarious, jolly, crazy.

so yes, I think the wordle gives us a better idea of Mitha’s personality than I could ever give.

But as a tool to understanding Mitha’s personality, I think the wordle has one limitation. It gives us an idea of Mitha’s personality right now but it doesn’t show you how Mitha’s personality has evolved over the years and this is where I feel I can offer something that the wordle can’t.

So, from my experience, I would say that if we split Mitha’s life into 3 stages – childhood, adolescence and early adulthood, we would have three personalities which had a lot in common but also had a lot of differences.

Stage 1 – childhood

So, if we saw her in her childhood, I think we would see a very cute baby girl, but also a baby girl who knew what she wanted and how to get it! To illustrate this, I have brought a letter she wrote to Santa when she was around 6.

The letter starts with, “Dear Santa, I would like to thank you for the stuff you got me last Christmas. I really appreciate it, especially the boots”

But the next paragraph is the most amusing…she says “ What I would like for this Christmas are listed below and as usual, I give you 11 items and a choice of 8. (pause)…and then, she guides Santa about which items to choose, saying, “There are 3 main items which I hope you can get, especially the jeans” (show page 1of letter)

As you can see, she then goes on to list the items (in blue) –

She seems to really want jeans - the first item is “as many pairs of jeans as possible” in brackets, at least more than 5!! And this is 1 item !! and by now, she has decided that Santa doesn’t have a choice with this item, so in brackets, she writes in the spelling of a 6 year old, ‘compulsory’ !

So, now you know what I mean when I say she knew how to get what she wanted…

The letter ends with her making sure she keeps Santa on good terms (show page 2 of letter)

She says “I hope what I asked for is not too much (oh yes, it is!!). Hope you have a great Christmas”

Stage 2 – adolescence

Anyway, if we fast-forwarded to her adolescence, I think we would see a quite different person. At this age, I think the quality that best described her creativity. She deliberately set out to create her own style and everything she did had the stamp of her unique personality on it – whether it was the way she dressed, the way she decorated her room, her taste in music, the way she spoke, even the way she prayed!

Stage 3 – early adulthood

But again, I think if we fast-forwarded to her adulthood, we would see quite a different person. Although her uniqueness is still part of her personality, it is not the most prominent. For the past 3-4 years, I think the quality that best describes her is ‘other-peopleness’ and I think this has something to do with the fact that, in this time, she has gotten closer and closer to God.

For the past few years, she has been always warm, always encouraging, always patient, always understanding, always selflessly putting the interests of others above herself. To me, the depth and consistency of her love for others is clear a sign as any, of how God is in her and working through her.


So, that brings me to the toast. Today, she enters the 4th stage of her life – her married life. This stage is significant in 2 ways. One is, it such an important stage that we all gather together to usher her into this stage. But perhaps even more importantly, it is the only stage where we get to give something small back to this girl who has selflessly given us so much, by toasting to her happiness. So, let us not let this moment pass us by. Let us fully realise the poignancy of the moment and with feeling, toast to her health, happiness and marital bliss.

I hereby propose the toast! (check up specifics of how to do this)"