Rediscovering Family in India
I admit, I’ve gotten lazy about updating this blog. Inertia is real, guys. Also, it’s easy to get sucked into the daily nothingness of wandering aimlessly around places, work, and meeting new people. But this…well, meeting family you haven’t met or talked to in 20 years is something worth writing about, I think.
The story begins in Madurai, where I had just decided that my next destination would be Trichy, famous for a huge temple complex called Srirangam. As is my usual practice, I Whatsapped my family chat group to announce my plan to head to Trichy the next day, and curiously, my dad responded saying “Your aunt lives in Trichy. This is her number. Give her a call if you can.” He then followed that up with my aunt’s daughter’s (my cousin’s) contact information, saying that she lived in Thanjavur, where I had planned to go after visiting Trichy.
Now, this may not seem particularly strange to you, but family ties between my dad and his siblings are tenuous at best. Of his ten (!) siblings, I believe my dad only speaks regularly to two of them. For whatever reasons, my dad doesn’t speak to, and of, the others. I had assumed this aunt was the same.
Now, I had met her before. 20 years ago, my family visited India to perform some customary rites for my deceased grandfather. As a child of merely seven, I have a vague memory of her in my grandmother’s house, and of her making some delicious chutney for us to take on the overnight train with us. That’s the last time I remember seeing her, or speaking to her. Apart from that, I had no other recollection of her, nor any other information about her or her family other than that she had two daughters.
Anyway. Back to the story. Suddenly, my trip to Trichy had taken on an interesting dimension I had not expected. Despite having her number, I did not contact my aunt immediately. I mean, after 20 years of not talking to her, I had no idea what to expect. I instead headed to Trichy, and spent a couple of days there before I finally worked up enough courage to try to call the number my dad had given me.
After all that anticipation, it was a huge letdown. The number was not valid. -_- I tried my cousin’s number instead, and surprise of surprises, she answered! She even knew who I was when I introduced myself! She had no way of contacting her mother either, but instead gave me her address, telling me to go visit my aunt when I could.
Armed with just an address, I set off the next morning in an Ola cab that took me right to her doorstep. I had no idea what to expect, and felt strangely nervous about the whole situation. She had last seen me when I was seven. What would she think of me turning up unannounced at her doorstep after twenty years of silence? I was about to find out.
The door was shut, and there didn’t appear to be a doorbell, so I stood awkwardly at the gate, wondering what to do. Thankfully, at that moment, the milkman rode up and tooted his horn. The door opened, and out came a man I presumed was my uncle – I had no memory of ever having met him, nor seen his photograph. I let the men conduct their transaction, and then spoke up.
“Is my aunt at home? I’m here from Singapore, her youngest brother’s second daughter.”
He gaped at me, confused, for a second, before inviting me into his home and telling me that my aunt had gone to the temple and would be back shortly. I sat awkwardly in the living room, and waited for my aunt while making small talk with this stranger I was apparently related to.
Eventually, my aunt arrived in a flurry of activity. She was just as I remembered her – a bit heavier, a bit slower, a few more lines etched in her face, but still the same in essence. She greeted me with such joy as I had not expected, and I found that she bore no grudge against me for my absence from her life for the last 20 years.
She immediately started making preparations for lunch, and questioned me about all my favourite foods, promising to cook everything my heart desired for me. In my family, we’re not big on hugs or saying things like “I love you” – we show love through food, and I guess she felt like she needed to shower me with 20 years of affection in the short time that I had with her. When I arrived at her house that day, I had planned to stay for a few hours just to see her and her family, because, if nothing else, they are part of my family. I ended up spending most of that day and the next, at her house, chatting with her and her elder daughter, Sasi, about things that had happened in their lives in the last 20 years that I had not been a part of. I also got to meet my nephew, Prem, who seems like a cool guy but whom I didn’t get to hang out with much since he was heading back to Chennai that night. And all while stuffing my face with the incredibly delicious food she made. Mutton, chicken, fish, kurma, rasam, chutney, dosai, chappati, idiyappam, murukku, tea, coffee. Just thinking about the food is making me drool all over again.
That evening, while applying fresh maruthani from her garden to my hands, she told me that I was always welcome in her home. That no matter what, if I were ever in or around Trichy, that I should always come back to her house and spend a few days there. That even though she hadn’t really been a part of my life in the last 20 years, there’s no reason why it should be like that in the future.
The next morning, it was off to catch the train to Thanjavur, where my grandmother had spent a portion of her life, where the temple of my family’s deity (kuladeivam temple) was, and where my cousin, Priya, and her family lived. My cousin’s husband, Ramesh, was there to receive me at the Thanjavur train station, and we headed to his house where I met my cousin for the first time that I could remember. She looked exactly like my aunt did, 20 years ago, but I had no memory of her. It wasn’t the time for catching up on long forgotten stories though, because it was almost 11, and she suggested that I head to the kuladeivam temple first before they closed for the afternoon, if they were even open in the first place.
I hopped on the back of Ramesh’s motorbike and we headed to Arasapattu, a farming village. As we rode, he told me about the the area, and the villages that we were passing – things that were part of my heritage, but that I knew nothing about at all. We eventually arrived at the temple, but not before stopping a few times along the way to introduce me to random villagers as my father’s daughter, all of whom knew my grandmother, and had heard of my father but never met him (and probably had no idea that my siblings and I even existed). My presence was a source of some sort of excitement in the village, not least because I apparently “look exactly like my grandmother, just a foot taller and not as hunched”.
Anyway, by a stroke of luck, the temple was open and there was even a priest there, so that worked out quite well. Ramesh told me that I was quite fortunate, because for some reason, when my other uncles had visited the temple, they hadn’t managed to perform the pujas they’d wanted to – apparently only the women in my family have had the blessings to come to the temple and perform the necessary pujas.
On the way back from the temple, we stopped to visit my my grandfather’s brother’s son, an elderly man by the name of Dhanushkodi, and his wife. I think he had been helping out with looking after my grandfather’s assets in the village since my grandfather left for Singapore, but I had no idea he even existed until that day. He and his wife were extremely surprised and pleased to see me – his wife was extremely affectionate towards me in the brief time I spent there, and even teared up when the time came for me to leave.
Dhanushkodi uncle and his wife
After that, it was back home where Priya had cooked up quite a feast. I met Thiyagesh, my nephew, a cheerful 13-year-old who was quite convinced that I could help him hack into various gaming sites (he was quite disappointed when I told him I lacked such prowess, but I think he got over it quite quickly). Over lunch, and the rest of the time that I spent with her, Priya told me stories about my family that I had never known, and probably would never have gotten to know otherwise. I felt somewhat like a sponge, absorbing all the information about this part of my family that I never even knew existed.
The next day, we went to visit the house my grandmother used to live in before she moved to Singapore to live with my family. I remembered there being a small house in an expansive garden full of trees and plants, with a few chickens and turkeys wandering around. The place we pulled up to looked nothing like that, and my surprise must have registered on my face because Priya confirmed that this was indeed my grandmother’s house. It was in a sad state. It was much smaller than I remembered, probably in part because of all the taller, newer houses that had been errected around that plot of land. The garden was dead, with only one guava tree left standing, and the house looked worse for wear. None of it looked familiar at all, until I stepped into the house. Nothing much inside had changed, except that the fan that caused electric shocks was no longer there. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t that, and it made me quite sad.
We left after a short while – there was nothing more to be done there. The rest of the day passed quite pleasantly, as we visited some of Thanjavur’s main sights – the Big Temple and the Palace – and then hung out chatting with Priya, Ramesh and Thiyagesh. The next morning, I left to catch the 430am train to Pondicherry, and just like that, this episode of my India trip came to an end.
I didn’t quite know what to make of it all, and in some ways, I still don’t. I mean, I had only a vague idea of the existence of some of these people, and no idea others even existed, and it rather blew me away that they were all so affectionate and welcoming toward me, just by virtue of the fact that I am my father’s daughter. I learnt so much about my family history that I had never known, and I suddenly find that I now have family where none previously existed. It was a rather strange experience, simply put.
Thiyagesh, who looks quite displeased here, but was actually quite happy irl.
Perhaps I shall visit them again before this trip comes to an end – my family, no longer forgotten.
Thanjavur doll at the Palace.