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People

This page is about people who have impacted my life. 

I begin with three individuals of my family.

My Father Akki Mai



My Father
Some time ago, Thomas V had sent me a speech delivered to the Class of 2006 at the IIM, Bangalore. Talking about success, Subroto Bagchi  began:

"I was the last child of a small-time government servant, in a family of five brothers. My earliest memory of my father is as that of a District Employment Officer in Koraput, Orissa. It was, and remains as back of beyond as you can imagine. ..."

I too was the child of a government servant, in a family of five siblings. It got me thinking.  Was my father a successful man? Or did he place his ladder on the wrong wall?

My father was born a few years before World War I - a time which is difficult to visualize today. His childhood was spent in a village called Bantwal where the family owned some ancestral property. He lost his father while he was still in school.  His mother, a young widow - Mai to her seven children and later, to her numerous grandchildren - moved the family to Mangalore.

Career
After he graduated from St Aloysius College, he went to Poona to study law, the only one of his siblings to pursue higher studies. He practiced law for a few years, got married and raised five children. He was devoted to his wife, children, mother and siblings. He always remembered to meet his obligations, big or small.

My Father and I (1944)
As a government servant (magistrate) my father was transferred from town to town. I was a pre-schooler when he was on his first judicial posting in a town called Kundapur. He preferred to bicycle or walk to court with the escorting dafadar (police constable) trying to keep up behind, carrying a bundle of papers tied up in the typical cardboard folders of those times. Depending on the weather, either a solar topee or a black umbrella with a curved wooden handle completed the ensemble.

He never accepted freebies from people involved in litigations which he was handling. He was honest and kind beyond the call of duty. He never raised his voice in anger. Throughout his life, he chose not to buy a car or a house.

He invariably encouraged his clients, specially families involved in property litigation, to settle their disputes out of court. He maintained that it is better to relinquish some  property, rather than build up rancour and bitterness that spills over to successive generations.

Family
In an era when corporal punishment - slapping, caning, belting - was routinely administered to children, he was different. A small episode clearly stands out. I must have been about six years old. One evening we were playing on a maidan while our parents relaxed on the grass. Probably it was on Lighthouse Hill, Mangalore. The sun began to set into the Arabian Sea and father called us back to him. I continued to run and frolic despite further calls. When I finally came to him, he quietly told me that it was not safe to be alone on the maidan in the dusk. I had been disobedient and needed to be punished.  So he pulled out a small plant from the ground and administered two little whacks on my legs. Then he took me affectionately by the hand and we all walked back home. I never forgot that lesson in discipline and parenting.

He was a tall and handsome figure, but unostentatious. At home, he preferred to wear the typical Mangalorean white mundu and a cotton vest or bush shirt. When urged to put on smart new clothes, he'd reply with a twinkle in his eyes : "Hastik ghant naka" (an elephant needs no bell) ! One of his few luxuries was an HMV gramophone and a collection of records. Later on, one fine day, we did get a Phillips radio :) He loved music and played the violin till advancing age stiffened his fingers. He taught his children music; sang with them till chronic asthma weakened his lungs.  Our family sessions round the dining table were filled with noise, laughter, anecdotes and lively debate.  My father had his favourite sayings.  Once, when I was angrily railing at someone's unfair and hurtful behaviour, he admonished: "She is ignorant; but you have been blessed with better understanding. More is expected from those to whom more is given". He enjoyed inventing stories to tell us at bed-time. He had his share of setbacks in life. In his declining years, he stoically bore illness and debility. After a particularly severe bout of asthma, he would return from the nursing home with a philosophical "What can't be cured, must be endured".  I was sure that he was the best father in the world.

Later Years
Restricted mobility and curtailed activities did not faze him. He continued to do his crosswords, read and take his daily constitutional. Although he loved good food, he willingly submitted to the prescribed dietary restrictions. He maintained a meticulous medical log to discuss with his physician. When his hearing was progressively impaired, he still liked company and would smile and cheerfully carry on an intelligent conversation. He joked that he could do it, because he'd heard it all before. So without even hearing, he knew what the other person was saying :) Later, when he was bed-ridden, he summoned people with a bell and communicated in writing.

His child-like dependence on his wife, though hard on her, was touching. He once admitted to me that he felt safe only when she was in the room. Another time, he pointed to the nebuliser and said "This little box attached to the Bangalore power supply is all that stands between me and the grave". He knew that death was imminent. He expressed  satisfaction that he had done his best and that he bore no ill-will towards anyone and vice-versa. The night before he passed on,  I was feeding him a soft chapati dipped in soup. After a mouthful, he stopped me and inquired whether I'd kept aside enough for Nagamma, the domestic help. He spoke about his past and what might be in store for him in the hereafter. He drifted into sleep and did not wake up again.

Akki
She was christened Anne(Sant Ann)and the name was shortened to Sonthu. To others she was Sonthubai, but we called her Akki (derived from Akai, father's sister in Konkani). Only after I grew up and became a homemaker myself, did I comprehend the sterling qualities of this extraordinary woman.

Akki was born in Bantwal in coastal Karnataka, the first child of Cocess Tauro and Andrew D’Sa. My Father Appie was their second child. As a toddler, Akki had a polio attack which left one of her legs permanently crippled. She could never wear shoes. She walked with a severe limp all her life. Nevertheless, she went to school with the other children as long as she could. Her father’s untimely death when she was 16, put an end to an idyllic pastoral childhood amidst rice fields, fruit trees and streams. The family packed up and left Bantwal.

In those days, motor vehicles were rare. People travelled in covered carriages drawn by bullocks or horses. The 15-miles journey from Bantwal to Mangalore took several hours. The family took up residence in Kankanady with Sonthu’s maternal grandparents. As the eldest daughter of a young widow with seven children, she was her mother's right hand in managing the home. In addition to the rambling house, her domain included the cattle, poultry and hithal (garden). Her talents were amazing. She was a wizard with crochet lace making and an excellent cook. She had a wide range of recipes which the whole extended family relished on special occasions such as parish feasts, Christmas and Monthi Fest.

Akki and I (1947)
Her siblings grew up and went their way. There were weddings and christenings. Akki lived on in Shedigudda with her aging mother and an unmarried sister. These three ladies were the anchor of the family which had gradually expanded with the addition of more than a dozen nieces and nephews. As schoolchildren, my 4 siblings and I lived several years in Shedigudda under their care, while Dad and Mom moved from place to place because of a transferable job in the state judiciary. Mai gave us grandmotherly love and affection. Aunt Winnie was teacher and disciplinarian. Akki was the undisputed CEO of the household. Lucky us! During schooldays we were at home in Shedigudda. Every vacation was spent with our parents in a new town where my father was currently posted.

In her latter years, Akki suffered from chronic asthma. Very little medical relief was available. But she managed her own treatment, supplementing the codeine syrup with what was called gaunti (native) medicines. She was stoic in her illness. Even after a difficult sleepless night of wheezing and gasping, she would freshen herself in the morning and take up the domestic reigns. Sitting in bed, she managed all domestic affairs with a firm and efficient hand.

After the afternoon siesta, tea with home-made snacks was mandatory. I wonder whether the children of this generation like - or even recognise -any of the delicacies of those days ... Mandas, sukurunde, patoli, dos and manni. Sometimes there would be delicious puffs, biscuits or macaroons bought from M. Vas's bakery in Balmatta.

In the evening Akki would sit in her favourite armchair on the verandah. She enjoyed reading Kannada and Konkani magazines - Rakno and Jhelo were favourites. Neighbours, relations or friends would drop by and chat. She had a sympathetic ear for others’ problems and was generous to indigent visitors. When the sun had set, the children (that is, we siblings) were expected to come back from play to join the evening Angelus recited together by the entire household.

After Mai and Aunt Winnie passed away, Akki lived alone with a trusted old maid Inasia. She was in and out of hospital frequently. Aunts Mary and Virgie were a source of help and company. When I visited Mangalore in 1973  Akki was in Fr Muller's hospital, frail and worn out with the latest asthma attack. Nevertheless, she insisted on sitting up to admire and bless my newborn son Aamir and to hear news of my life in Bombay. That was our last meeting.

My lasting memory of Akki is of a fair woman of short stature with sharp eyes and a .firm voice. Capable and pragmatic, she had great strength of mind and unimaginable fortitude. Her affection for us was rarely voiced - it was a deep, abiding force that was ever present.


Mai
Many women have influenced my life. One is Mai, my paternal grandmother Cocess (nee Tauro) D'Sa. This post is about her.

In the 19th century, Mangalorean girls didn't marry. They were given in marriage. So it was with Cocess (fondly called Cosha). The eldest daughter of Simaon and Magdel, Cosha grew up in Kudibail (Bantwal Taluk). When her cousin (?) died young, after the customary mourning period, the widower Andrew looked for a suitable bride to re-marry. The choice fell on fair, light-eyed and vivacious Cosha studying in the 8th standard. On the appointed day, dressed in traditional long skirt and loose top, Cosha was taken to church where the parish priest conducted a simple engagement ceremony. Cosha came home with her kharar (engagement) gifts - mudi (ring), prayerbook and rosary. The wedding took place at the end of the year in Bantwal. Cosha delivered her first child when she was fifteen - the age when I was still in high school! In the next few years the couple had six more.

Andrew was a landowner, teacher, medical adviser and peacekeeper in Bantwal. In short, a prominent and respected figure in the local community. He was a tall, energetic young man with a high forehead and piercing eyes. Unfortunately he died in his prime, of a stomach ailment which might have been a malignant tumour. Andrew was buried in the Bantwal parish church - a rare honour.

At 28, Cocess became a widow with seven children. Anne (later known as Akki) the eldest, was handicapped by a childhood attack of polio. The second was Appie my father,  then a teenager in high school. Winnie the youngest, was a toddler. Cocess went into mourning.  Along with her seven children, she moved to her parents' home in Kankanady, Mangalore. She lived to see her children and and her children's children. She wore a black sari and long-sleeved white blouse - traditional widow's clothes in her community - for the rest of her life.

My earliest recollections of Mai are of her supervising the maids in the huge, dim kitchen. It had a ceiling of wooden beams which formed a loft to store mude - big round bundles of straw/leaves each holding 42 sers or 3 kalshi of rice. The trees in the compound in Mangalore provided most of the domestic food requirements - coconuts, tamarind, bananas and papayas. In season we also had pineapples, bindam, boram, torenjam, jackfruit, mangoes, chikoos and guavas. Two cows and a goat for milk; poultry for eggs and chicken curry! At various points in time, Mai also raised piglings, ducks and turkeys.

Mai's primary income came from her property in Bantwal which was primarily rice fields. The arrival of the bullock carts from Bantwal laden with rice, jaggery, coconuts, seasonal  fruit and vegetables was a bi-annual event, causing much excitement.

In my mind, I can clearly hear the *dhad* sound of the irwol (tadgola in Hindi) bunch being thrown into the yard and see the nuts break and scatter. With expert fingers tapping, the ripest of the lot were picked out and cut open right away. Yummm... I can almost taste the sweet juice dribbling down my chin, as I eat the tender white flesh.

Mai would direct the maids to boil a huge quantity of kulit (horsegram) and water in a huge thamba (metal ) cauldron. This  mush was mixed with pend (cattlefeed) and fed to the bullocks. The boiled kulit was cooked with mogen (malabar cucumber) to make kulta kaat - a rich, dark curry eaten with a steaming plate of parboiled rice. This meal was also served to the men who came with the bullock carts from Bantwal. From a safe corner, I would gawk at the huge quantities of rice that they could put away with relish. Little did I know  how hard the farmers worked nor how a bottle of the local arrack brew boosted their appetites.

There is more to come, but later ...


7 comments:

Ron said...

That was very touching and brought them all to life as if we'd just seen them and had experienced it all unfolding all over again.

The reality is that we are actually almost in their age group probably ready to be written about ourselves - with what measure of approval being best left to the succeeding generations to decide!

Beryl said...

well written.
i only remember Akki. Mum was very close to her and always visited her as often as she could and we sometimes used to tag behind her. We enjoyed our visits for two reasons:
1. Inasia used to serve us tasty food
2. To roam around the compound

Bernie said...

Going to Akki’s house was like a picnic for us. Inasia’s chappatis and tasty food, fooling around with joki-baab and playing with his cards collection. First thing we used to do is visit the guava and custard apple tree to pluck the ripe fruit.

Bannu said...

As Ron, Bella & Bernie have mentioned, you have written so well about dear Mai, Uncle Appi, Akki and brought them back to life so to say. Thanks Rhoda, and I must find time to add my experiences with and of them. I am sure we will have more family members remembered on your blog.

Prem Rao said...

Thanks for these very nicely written posts,Rhoda. They are so descriptive that I, who don't know them at all, now feel as if I knew these people who were so dear to you.

Rhoda said...

Ron, Bannu, Bernie, Bella & Prem:
Thanks for the positive feedback.
Bannu, jo kal kare woh aaj kar le!

amrit said...

Its very nicely written with full of emotion and love. Each word has its story in the lines and sentences have hidden meaning, question and answer like what is life ....this is life.

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