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The Pottallam Reader

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Caty

This is the story of Catherine, my father’s mother, a peasant woman.

My grandmother was a little girl when she was married. She told me that she was about 8 or 9 years old and playing in the field one day, when her brother came looking for her to fetch her home. She wondered why her playtime was interrupted and went home crying only to find out that she was to be given in marriage that afternoon. That day she was hurriedly dressed up in some new clothes by her mother and was taken through the rituals that took place in the front yard of their hut. She was so tired from all the crying and bewilderment, she fell asleep on her father’s lap during the ceremony. She did not remember the groom nor the rest of her marriage ceremony very well. After her marriage that day, she stayed back at her parents’ home until her puberty. Upon getting her first period when she was 13 or 14 years old, she was sent to the home of her husband to live with her new family. All the other children, her siblings, had typical rustic Indian names, but her father named her Catherine, and no one knows why now. I never did ask her how she got a Christian name like that. For much of her married life she was a Hindu and had another name. It amuses me now, to realize that she had a name like that. Funny, it never struck me as odd, when she was alive.

Soon she began to have children in quick succession every year without a gap. I think she managed to have at least 12, of which 9 survived. My father was her first born. She was still reproducing at the time of my father’s marriage, and his youngest sibling was an infant suckling at his mother’s breast at that time.

I guess this is not an unusual story for any little girl that grew up in the same village, at that time. The one little difference that separated Catherine from the other children in the village was that she learnt to read and write, when most of them were illiterate. In fact  most members of her own family were illiterate. She was fortunate to be sent to the local government primary school by her father, much against her mother’s wishes. So her formal education happened in those 3 or 4 years until her marriage. She was probably taught the Telugu alphabets, small words and small sentences and nothing more. But she was a smart woman and she never forgot.

Catherine was determined to send all her children to school. This was an unusual wish for her to fulfill in her part of the world. She was a poor untouchable woman, and in those days the practice of untouchability was very much alive and kicking in the villages of India, as indeed it is today, though its manifestations are more subtle now, and the community of untouchables is protected now by the Law. Those were the days when India had just got her independence and the social milieu was very different from what it is today. I guess words cannot adequately describe how ugly things were for these disenfranchised people back then. Even if words could be found, images cannot be conjured to mark those regressive times.

My father was the first boy in the village to go to College, a remarkable achievement, not so much for the boy as much for the mother who made it possible. Those days Dalit or Untouchable children from the rural parts of India did not have many reasons to go to school and college. There were no schemes to ensure their enrollment. For the poor Dalit families tattering on the edges of starvation and poverty, putting their children in school was a loss of a farm hand and therefore wages. Only a fool would send his son to school!  The benefits of education had not yet captured their imagination, and they did not comprehend that it would pull them out of their vicious cycle of oppression and suppression. What good is a son who can read and write, if he has to come back to the fields to work as a coolie, a laborer at the end of the day? What options lay before him when he finished school? The way their world view unfurled in front of them was that this education could do nothing to reverse their fortunes and circumstances. It was futile to have such aspirations.

But Catherine was determined and she had her way. She sent her son to the primary school in the nearby village and then to a school about 10 kilometers away, for higher classes. She sent all her other children to school also, but it was my father who took exceptionally well to academics. Most of the other children dropped out. It is nothing but sheer magic that my father thrived under those unseemly circumstances.

Anyway, the story goes that my father would give her books to read, and she would read all of them with a great passion. She read everything she could lay her hands on. There was not much material for her to read in a remote village nook. So she would read the papers that were used to wrap articles of food items or other consumables bought in the local kirana shop. We call them pottallams or parcels. After unwrapping the pottallams, she would preserve these scraps of sundry paper and read and re-read them, even though they had no beginning or end, no head nor tail. It was perhaps a shred of a newspaper, or a fragment from a magazine. She read it all and enjoyed greatly the created word. She escaped into the world that this fragment offered her a peek into.

When my father grew older, he got her books from the town’ government library. It did not boast a great collection of books I imagine, but she read with eagerness any book that was placed in her hands. My father told me, that she had read every book from the library.

Once my father left home to go away to the big town, to continue his high school studies, he stayed in the government welfare hostel, and he visited her only during the holidays. In a way, it was a going away for my father for good, for after he left, he never really returned home in the strict sense. But every time he visited her, he remembered to get her books to read.

My grandmother told me that she was always having babies, and there was so much work to do on the farm and at home. Her older children were away at school, and they could not afford to hire laborers, so the couple had to double up and work, looking after their now newly acquired small piece of land, their cattle and their fowls. One can imagine that there would have been no time left to read. Not for Catherine! She told me that she continued to read her books, while she was nursed her babies at her breast. That was the time she squeezed for herself to read.

Almost all of us can recollect our grandparents telling us stories, and Catherine was no different. One summer when she came to visit us, when my brother and I were small, she narrated the entire Mahabharata to us in daily installments, with all its many, many subplots, and florid characters much to our great fascination. The stories were more breathtaking than any grandiose TV serial. She also regaled us with stories from the Ramayana, Jathakas, Sindbad, and the Panchatantras to name a few. Catherine was very graphic with her details and her word imagery was powerful. In due course when I began reading the wonderful Amar Chitra Katha comics as a child, I remember telling myself, these are the same stories, that my grandmother told me, but she added greater detail.

Later in life, she was introduced to the Bible, and towards the end of her life, she read only the Bible and abandoned reading any other book, save this one. I could be mistaken. But I do believe she did not read any other book, and only read books and magazines related to the Bible. That was her personal conviction and a decision that she made for herself. She read and re-read her Bible many times over. She would quote large passages from memory with great ease, and give references without any difficulty.

She must have been 55 years old, and I was a young woman just out of Medical College, when she complained to me of blurred vision. She was in despair, as she was not able to read. By that time the family fortunes had ameliorated, and she was well looked after by her children. She didn’t need to work at all. My father wanted her to come to the city to live with us, but she preferred to live in her beloved village. She spent her days in her room, reading and enjoying her Theological books. Once her sight failed, I was the one who took her to an Ophthalmologist, and had her operated for cataract in both eyes and I am fortunate to have looked after her during that period. How grateful she was to me! The restoration of her eyesight was nothing short of a miracle for her. I don’t think she really cared for anything much in her life other than her books. She didn’t want money, didn’t crave good food, jewels or clothes or anything else that people want when their children fare well. The TV had no fascination for her. She was content with her books.

Looking back, she was a peculiar woman who did not belong to her era and social setting. She read till her last day. Her books were her companions all her life. Only three of her children became graduates, and the rest of her children didn’t show any aptitude for reading. My father did very well for himself and became a civil servant in the elite Indian Administrative Services, and went on to hold important public posts and made a distinguished career for himself. It strikes me as no small achievement for a lowly peasant woman to see her son go that far.

Of all her grandchildren, I was the one who inherited her love for books, the most precious gift anyone could ask for. I never ever thanked you, Nanamma.

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