Thursday, September 15, 2005


My memories of Pedda Chacha (a combination of Telugu and Hindi, literally meaning "big uncle"), my father's oldest brother, range from extremely dim to non-existent. Even those dim recollections may have had their origin in old black and white photographs that I've seen over and over, after a time the photographs themselves morphing into memories.

I'll call him Chacha here.

Chacha in London, 1958

Chacha was in the Indian Air Force, a flight sergeant and a photographer. From all accounts, a dashing guy with a brilliant mind and a deep love and affection for his widowed mother and nine brothers and sisters.

Yesterday, my father gave me a letter dated September 27, 1960 that Chacha had written in response to one that my father must have written a few days earlier. At the time he wrote the letter, Chacha was at a military hospital in Kanpur, recovering from a heart attack that he had suffered when he landed at Delhi's Palam airport after a training stint in London.

I reproduce the letter below. But before that, a quick peek behind the curtains.

Chacha's wife and four children lived in Thiruvunnamalai along with Bombay Chacha (an uncle who lived in Bombay for a long time, obviously!), who was in the Indian Railways and Avva, my grandmother. My father was in Coimbatore, having just started his career with a bank that he would work in until he retired more than 35 years later. My grandfather, a school teacher, had passed away in the mid-40s, penniless.

Avva's greatest fear, my father says, was that her children would grow up without direction, that the world would know them as "fatherless children", the children of a widow. So she more than compensated. She brought up her children with an iron hand and a ferocious love. As far as the children were concerned, their world revolved around their mother, fiercly protective of her as she was of them.

The family stuck together against tremendous odds, foresaking cushy lives in relatives' houses so they would not be obligated to anybody. The older brothers were intensely aware of their role in the family, foresaking higher studies so they could start earning money for the bare necessities. With their support, my father, the youngest of the lot, the tenth child, went to college and got his degree.

Chacha's family learnt of the heart attack only days later, when a telegram arrived at their doorstep. But there was no money to pay for the trip. Bombay Chacha managed to rustle up two train tickets for Avva and Peddamma, Chacha's wife, to travel from Thiruvunnamalai to Kanpur.

So the two women embarked on the long train journey with a promise from Bombay Chacha that he would somehow arrange for the money by the time they reached Kanpur. And he did. Along the way, a Ticket Collector handed Avva some cash from Bombay Chacha.

Avva and Peddamma stayed with Chacha until he recovered and was discharged, and they all returned home to Thiruvunnamalai.


Dear _,

Thank you for your letter. I got it only this morning and am very happy to hear all the news about you, particularly, the trend of your thoughts towards life - God bless you.

I am being discharged from hospital and I will go to the camp for a few days to get cleared. I am coming home for good and I am going to be a burden on you people. I am not sure about the details of my pension yet, but I am sure it won't be less than Rs. 60 per month. Anyway, it will be enough for rice at least at the present rates and of course with a bit of luck and God's grace I may be able to earn some money. I am not very ambitious and I must learn to be satisfied.

Well __, it is a shame that you have not got your bedding attended to. It is I think more important than your clothes, at least it is as important. So get a decent pillow, pillow covers (4 at least), at least 4 bedsheets and a good blanket. I think you should accord the highest priority to the same.

It is nice to see that you have teamed up with a good set - if a chap's idea of relaxation from busy duties is a visit to the temple there cannot be anything wrong with him. Don't you think so? My compliments to all those good souls and may God bless them all! I suppose they are all bachelors in fact and of course it will be foolish to expect them to be in thought also! What?

I will be home any time now. With love and good wishes,

Yours affec'ly,


P.S. Don't worry about the radio for the present. I may bring one with me.

I imagine Chacha sitting in his hospital bed propped up by a pillow or two, a blanket draped over his legs. His bed one in a row of beds in a long, sunlit, dormitory-like room. His fountain pen ready, poised over light blue paper 11cm wide, 18cms long. I imagine him trying to organize his thoughts to respond to his brother, 20 years younger, living alone, away from family for the first time as he embarks on a new career. I also imagine him trying to wrap his mind around the fact that he himself is at the end of his career with the Air Force.

Giving solace, seeking solace. Giving encouragement, seeking reassurance. But trying to keep it all lighthearted.


Sourin Rao said...

Hi Suj
Very well written. Were filal ties stronger then, when compared to the independent nuclear families of today ?
I've seen this in case of my father and his brothers and cousins who came to Bby about 50-60 years ago. The eldest in the family first makes the trip and then helps the others, however big the clan may be, relocate and help them with studies, jobs etc.
With the advent of the nuclear family it more seems like each to their own these days. Or maybe its just me.

karrvakarela said...

Beautifully written. Thank you for sharing.

I agree with Sourin. There used to be a greater sense of cohesion among families, a stronger sense of devotion to each other. The spirit of self-sacrifice was stronger. I don't know but maybe with the fragmentation of families, people themselves have become weaker, lost access to a collective emotional resource. I know from my own experience that my grandparents are much more resilient than people of their children's generation. Of course all this could be simply due to the accumulation of experience and life's lessons but even when approaching something new, their approach is naturally positive. They aren't bogged down by insecurities.

Anonymous said...

Wow...nice brothers & sisters! Sigh...where did they find the energy and time those days? ;)
Serious now. Both Sourin & K. have a point. I think this echo of loss of a 'collective sense of familial spirit' is due, in part, to selfishness and ego. In this materialistic world, each sibling wants to prove one-up over the other! Hence, joint families be damned - its "me, myself & mine" that matters! As far as the strength of parents & grandparents go, they are just too bewildered by the incessant and ceaseless change these days to offer advice and be told of being " old-fashioned." My two cents!

Anonymous said...

Arrrghhh! Pls read "nice" as "nine"!!!

Anjali said...

Lovely post, Sujatha. I guess many of us can find echoes of this in the scrapbooks of our own families - and feel an instinctive flash of recognition for 'the way things used to be'. Very well written.

Sujatha Bagal said...

Sourin, KK and Ravi, thank you for your comments. I agree with what you are saying about family ties being weaker in our generation, but I don't know if it's because we are more selfish/egoistic.

The older generations were bound by distances. Very few people actually went off to a foreign country to live. It was just plain easier to stay involved in each other's lives and therefore work together on household problems. Among the people that did move to the US and UK in those days, I think the stories are similar to ours in terms of the strenght of ties with their families.

Our generation seems more fragmented and disconnected, each doing his/her own thing may be because we have more places, farther places to go to and make homes and lives. In a city like Bangalore, at least among the middle class, it is not exaggeration to say that in every family at least one child has gone abroad to live. It's one thing to move from Bangalore to Delhi, but quite another to have part of your family move to the US or Australia or UK or wherever.

The result of all this is that "people themselves have become weaker, lost access to a collective emotional resource" as KK says. We've lost that resource not because our ties are weaker, but because we feel that the kind of stresses we are under cannot be alleviated by extended family involvement. Plus, as Ravi says, we are are now living in a very different world than our parents' or grandparents'.

Mumbaigirl and Anjali, Welcome!Thanks for visiting and for your nice words!

Anonymous said...

man.. you are great! not just you, chacha... but you, sujatha..

how can you get such ideas for your post? whats really amazing is that you wanna share such things with us. my hat off to you :)


Sujatha Bagal said...

Thanks Bhaskar.:)

The ramblings of a shoe fiend said...

what a lovely post! brought back memories of stories my mother would tell me of our own family.
today we all live so far away from our families, isolated in far flung corners of the world. i wonder what it would be like to live with 10 siblings, eating playing and studying together.

manuscrypts said...

they kept life simple back then, i guess..wish we could

Anonymous said...

Very touching post. I especially liked your sentences at the end. Thanks.

gawker said...

Nice intimate writing style and post. From his photo Chacha looks like a Casanova. Very self assured pose.

Anonymous said...

Sujatha, a beautiful and sweet post - thanks for sharing :)

Sujatha Bagal said...

Shoe Fiend, thanks. Yeah, wouldn't that be fun! The hardest part about living far away is knowing that you can't make a quick trip, it has to be big production, planned daaaays in advance.:(

Manu, agree with you.

Anand and Ash, thanks!

Gawker, yeah, I love that photograph!

Sunil said...

very touching....

Sujatha Bagal said...

Thanks Sunil.

Bhaskar Sree said...

I read this post again today, by chance... and I'm amazed at this even now...

If my grandmom was alive today, she might have known your family at Thiruvannamalai... Such was life in the times... ties were not just stronger within family and extended families.... but also within the community...

Her parents hail from Kuruvimalai near Polur, but she knew almost every family from North Arcot... I am pretty sure the same is the case with many communities...
This is(was?) something uniquely Indian....

Sujatha Bagal said...

Bhaskar, thank you for reading it again and taking the time to comment. I appreciate it a lot. It was a delight to see you back in the comments section!