ONE STEP AT A TIME
By Venkat Iyer
Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.
~ Albert Einstein
“Appa…… Coffee ready!!”
Called out Visu, as he walked briskly with the South Indian filter coffee in a traditional stainless-steel tumbler to his father Raj. Nimble-footed, he was carefully balancing so that the coffee does not spill over from the tumbler. The aroma of the coffee engulfing his senses.
As was his usual routine, Raj was seated on a rocking wooden chair in his veshti [dhoti], and a milk-white angavastram[white cloth] on his left shoulder. Reading his morning newspaper. A characteristic of the Iyer household.
In the background, the divine fervor was palpable with the Murphy Tape Recorder playing the Venkateswara Suprabhatam recitation by renowned Carnatic exponent M.S. Subbulakshmi.
The smoke from the incense sticks interspersed with the rays of sun peeping through the chimney hole on the roof gave the house a holy effect.
You could skip anything with the Iyers – but the habit of reading the morning newspaper with filter coffee is a ritual passed down from the forefathers. One of the first steps in developing a reading habit, so strongly inculcated through the generations.
Visu’s sister Jaya had filled the coffee to the tumbler’s brim. The disciplinarian that Raj was, Visu was sure to be reprimanded if the coffee spilled on to the davara [saucer].
As Visu moved through the sun beam cutting the room into half, he was careful not to bump into a bench next to the oonjal [wooden swing] anchored to the ceiling with iron link chains. A copy of Tamil newspaper Dina Thanthi was lying on top of the swing, along with a couple of old issues of Kalki and Kumudam.
For Visu, his eyes were focused on the tumbler rim.
Raj was sitting near the main door, which opened into a Thinnai [sheltered space opening into the front side of the house]. The entrance was bedecked with decorative patterns of Kolam [Rangoli] drawn by Jaya.
In the open courtyard, there were a couple of saplings of rose and hibiscus, and a big Tulasi [Basil] plant was on one side. There was also a staircase which went up to the first level of the house.
The house was characterised by thick pillars in between, lime plastering and country tile flooring. The walls had numerous portraits of Gods, the Rani Muthu [Tamil calendar], and an old black & white photograph of Raj’s parents, nicely framed with a fresh garland on it.
Visu was barely five years old – still too young to be doing the household chores. Call it quirk of fate or purely circumstances – whatever it is – Visu and his siblings were forced to take over the home responsibilities rather early in their childhood.
The tasks were clearly cut out in the household and everyone had their role defined. Serving coffee was part of Visu’s daily routine.
In the kitchen, Jaya assisted his grandmother Lakshmi in cooking. The aroma of the food wafting through the air as they prepared the meal for the day. Steaming idlis were getting ready on one large copper pan in the traditional cooking place kindled with firewood, while Jaya was cutting vegetables for the curry and drumstick for the special Sambhar. This was part of her daily routine.
“Appa, breakfast is ready. Do let me know when you want me to serve it,” said Jaya, as she gestured Visu to arrange the plates, water and korai pai [mat] for Raj. No dining tables those days, as Raj always believed in the traditional way of sitting cross-legged on the floor to eat. Food was always served on banana leaf.
Meanwhile, Raj’s elder son Krish, who had gone out to the neighborhood marketplace to buy the weekly grocery and vegetables, returned with his purchases. He had to be prompt in his return as he knew Raj might get angry if he didn’t make it on time for the breakfast. As a rule, Raj always ensured that everyone in the house sat together for meals, be it breakfast, lunch or dinner.
Krish rushed in, washed his hands and legs, and came running to have breakfast. Visu had arranged everything by then. Not too old to handle everything, Krish had massive responsibilities on his shoulders.
Being the eldest of the three siblings and circumstances had made Krish far too accountable than many his age.
* * *
* * *
A young boy with lots of aspirations and extremely scholarly, Visu had dreams aplenty. Born in a very orthodox Tamil Iyer family on July 18, 1927 in a country still reeling under the British Rule, Visu was the youngest of the three children to Raj – a doting father who would do anything for his family.
Having lost his mother when he was barely two years old, Visu was naturally denied mother’s love as a toddler, missing her more particularly during the growing-up years. He was deprived of the comfort of mother’s lap, the cuddle of a mother’s love; and the gentle nursing lullaby – a trait that God has bestowed only on mothers.
Visu could not even fathom what mother’s love was. The word ‘Amma’ was an enigma for him. He had no memory of her face or her embrace.
Nothing. He felt empty.
Visu grew up to be a smart young boy in the comfort of his siblings, Jaya and Krish, under the compassionate eyes of Raj, and the grandmotherly love of Lakshmi, who left no stone unturned to give the kids the much-needed ‘motherly’ affection.
Emulating Krish and Jaya, Visu turned out to be another brilliant student in the school, often outshining others in academics. With Jaya and Krish keeping a tight leash on Visu’s academic journey, it was bound to be excellent to say the least.
He mastered skills in Physics and Mathematics.Visu was also adept at English – the Shakespearean touch was evident in his diction and the Othello tragedy was not all too alien!
And boy, did he love his teachers? Every day, we would sing praises of how committed they were… totally engrossed in the subject to the extent that someone could easily mistake them for being eccentrically obsessed.
His school was just about a kilometre away from the residence. Every morning at the stroke of 8, Visu will energetically move out with his school bag nicely tucked across his shoulders. He would walk it to the school, come rain or shine.
Some days Krish and Jaya will accompany him, but mostly he preferred to walk alone, gathering his thoughts and sometimes penning a poem in his minds. He was very good in studies and equally good at cricket, again a genetic transference in a typical Iyer household.
Their neighbourhood in the posh Railway colony in Jabalpur was a melting pot of cultures and people, bringing together different religions, castes and background in a city known for its cultural attractions.
Though he was very good at cricket, Visu was rarely seen outside playing with the other kids in the locality. Visu was never an extrovert and preferred to stay indoors. Part of this is because a lot of children would often talk about their mothers, their love and care. Visu never had much to share on the subject and would once again withdraw himself into that abyss. He had nothing to say, and his silence deafening.
Mother’s love is priceless. He would miss the soothing love of the mother every time he felt low. He would feel unprotected in a way as he had never experienced the warmth of a mother’s hand. Or the support when he needed the most. These were some moments which he couldn’t handle.
He, though, was never bereft of love, and did not have to look far. All came from Raj, who managed the dual role of a father and a mother with equanimity.
Growing up in a devoutly Brahmin family, Visu imbibed the culture, practices and traditions typically seen with Iyers, growing up as a pious, compassionate young boy with a deep commitment to a ritualistic way of life and charity – without losing focus on his primary goal, which was to excel in his studies.
Whether doing his daily Sandhyavandanam [Salutations to Sun Lord] or fulfilling his role as the youngest member of the family with the daily chores or in academic pursuits, Visu was turning out to the dutiful child that every parent yearns for.
Although it was his job to help with the errands at home, the primary focus for Visu was to focus on his studies. He not only focused but excelled in his academics.
* * *
* * *
As the head of the family, Raj had his side of the story cut out. He was already burdened with the responsibility of bringing up three young, motherless children.
He had already endured the untimely death of his wife at a very young age and managed the childhood of his three kids. The children were aged 2, 3 and 5 when his life partner left on heavenly abode and it was a tough ask for Raj to nurture them without a woman’s support.
So much for the love of the kids, that Raj did not marry a second time, fearing that the kids would be subject to step-motherly treatment and lose out on attention. He loved his children no ends and would do anything to keep them motivated and happy.
Losing his wife at an early age and mother to his three children was one of the most stressful life events that Raj had to face. It completely ripped apart the fabric of his life. He very well knew that if his children did not receive adequate substitute mothering and emotional care, the loss can do long-term damage to their self-esteem, ability to relate to other people, overall feelings of security and aptitude to trust others.
It certainly wasn’t easy for Raj, who was holding a respectable position of an Assistant Yard Foreman with Indian Railways and then was posted as Train Guard, to juggle his professional and personal lives.
It was a tough job for Raj. The Guards are the unsung heroes compared to the Drivers or other running staff in the Railways. The job also came with its share of danger, threats and pains.
As the Guard of the Goods Train, Raj would have to fend for himself alone in the darkness of his guard cabin, without basic amenities, with only his battery light for company for hours, and sometimes nights at a stretch. Coupled with this, there were these major issues and dangers with thefts, especially on transit in the Goods train, and Raj had numerous challenges to tackle on a daily basis.
In more ways than one, this was symbolic with the developments in his own life. He was always in the dark, looking for that guiding light in God. At the same time, he was solely responsible for waving the green flag of his own family and keep the train moving.
He never doubted his abilities, but sometimes he wished there was someone besides him to share some of his feelings and emotions.
A major part of his work life was always on the move on Indian Railways duty. Not sure, when he will make it to home, sometimes delayed by hours and on other occasions by days.
In spite of the constant travel that his job entailed, the passion to his family to keep his life firmly on track kept him going. And did he succeed? Bringing up kids without a mother is no easy task and the three children were growing under the care and love of Raj.
Raj ensured that he gave his children the best of education – so archetypal of an Iyer culture, which believes that only education will be the only constant amidst the vagaries of life.
Extremely religious and spiritual, Raj also wanted to see that the kids grew up with the right values intact. The seeds of culture and traditions were deftly sowed in the children’s minds by Raj, who was also a stickler for precision in whatever he did. Raj also tried to ascertain that all the kids took to this disciplined way of life – be it in their ritualistic and spiritual journeys.
Adding to his personal turmoil was the mayhem which had engulfed India then, with the Civil Disobedience and freedom struggle against the British Rule adding to the chaos, unrest and confusion.
Though he was immensely loved by his bosses at Indian Railways, who fondly called him DRG Pal, he never compromised his patriotic fervor for his job.
He openly participated in various Civil Disobedience movements by publicly joining protests and demonstrations to end the British rule, even as he delicately juggled his life between his British bosses who loved his passion for work, skills and commitment.
There was the fire within him which was burning to see India independent from British clutches!
Did Raj succeed?
* * *
* * *
Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.
Everything was hunky-dory; the family moved from Jabalpur to Mumbai amidst a turbulent socio-political environment. Mumbai was a completely different world compared to Jabalpur. Too vibrant and full of life compared to the sleepy city that Jabalpur was. Having lived there for so long, they had developed a liking for that city, but the demands of Raj’s job brought him to this metropolis.
It took a bit of time for everyone to catch pace with Mumbai. The city does sap your energy in the initial days with its frenetic speed. Mumbai was also at the thick of the action with its freedom movement against the British Rule. Rallies, protests were commonplace, but the charm of the city was infectious.
As hours turned into days, and days into months & years, Raj had greyed into his role from a Railway Train Guard and was now promoted as Station Master and posted at Byculla in Mumbai.
Raj was allotted a massive Railway Quarter near the Matunga Railway Station, which was a blessing in disguise as travel took away a major chunk of time for residents in this city that barely sleeps.
Moreover, his outstation travel duties had also ceased with the Station Master’s job. This, with the failing age, had also slowed him down a bit.
However, this also meant he spent more time with his children at home, especially during their crucial growing years with Krish, Jaya and Visu shaping up to be responsible youth icons with their stated purpose in life.
Raj never let his children down all along, ensuring they got the best of education, values and love that they truly deserved, particularly growing up in a mother-less household.
Of course, God has been kind of him that in Krish, he saw the adoring elder son and mentor who kept Jaya and Visu under his watchful eyes.
Krish was slowly evolving as a young, aspirational role model for Visu, and Jaya was growing to be a loving sister who epitomised her affection for the boys in the family.
Krish had completed his graduation in Science and now was on the lookout for a good job. He was also pursuing a career in civil service and preparing for the examinations which could challenge even the most brilliant.
One thing was sure. He had clear goals in mind and was working hard towards achieving them. With his robust skill sets, there was no doubts why he shouldn’t.
Meanwhile, Jaya was well on the way to settle down in her life with her marriage to Dr Kuppa, who was a medical doctor with Indian Railways and based in South India. Though Raj wanted Jaya to be happy and have a better life in her adopted household compared to what he could give her since childhood, she did face a lot of harassment in the early days of marriage.
For Raj, who had brought up Jaya like a princess, this was a tall order. So much time was lost in settling down minor feuds at her in-law’s place that the precious time to focus on growing her family took a backseat for Jaya during the initial years of marriage.
Petty issues took the centre stage, and Kuppa was stuck between the demands of his parents and the silent anguish of a helpless wife.
The only regret for Raj was that Jaya and Dr Kuppa could not bear a child, due to some medical complications – something that Raj so eagerly looked forward to. When things did settle down between Jaya and her in-laws, the medical complications had taken over, forcing Jaya to remain childless. Jaya was heartbroken. She felt incomplete.
Raj was too, but never expressed his emotions openly. However, seeing Jaya distraught was a difficult sight for Raj.
This is when the first signs of ageing caught up on Raj, with the frequent travel demands on his job during the Guard days, and the long hours managing his personal lives and the three children had started to take its toll. But he was a strong person; wanting to ensure that he passed the baton only when the time was opportune.
The only solace for him was that Visu had also enrolled into Bachelor of Science with Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics. A tall order for anyone in that generation in 1940s when matriculation was considered a Herculean achievement! He knew that Visu had it in him to go a long way in life. Since childhood, this boy was an epitome of grit, and there were no doubts he would make it big.
And then…. It happened!
Venkat Iyer is an Electronics, Sociology and Mass Communication triple-graduate, ajournalist, visiting faculty at a leading Indian University and a communications professional based in Dubai. An ardent reader and an avid listener, Venkat had a passion for writing since his childhood which shaped his career choices in journalism and media.
After stints in leading newspapers in India, Sultanate of Oman, Kingdom of Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, Venkat took a leap into the world of Public Relations and corporate communications in Dubai.
With mounting frustration on the mundaneness of his routine life, Venkat turned his focus on becoming an author. One Step At A Time is his first book as he wanted to unravel the trials and tribulations of his father to the outer world. And, there’s more to come!