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Ganga, My Third Grandma – Guest Blog by Dinesh Damodaran

They say you can choose your friends but not your family. It is also normal to have two grandmas. In my case both are exceptions. I have a third grandma who isn’t related by blood but chose us as her family. Her name is Thankam or as my sister fondly christened her Ganga (alluding to the pure and spiritual nature of the holy river Ganges). Ganga has had a tough life. Her father a wealthy and successful trader died when she was young. He was cheated by his business partner when he was away on a pilgrimage. The shock and betrayal induced a heart attack and he died. She was one of the three daughters left with the mother who naturally struggled to care for all of them. Ganga’s mother approached my great-grandmother and asked her to take her in. So as a young teenager she joined the Parakkal household as a companion to my grandmother. They formed a strong and life-long bond. My grandparents got married and my father was born a year later. They had to leave for the UK for my grandfather to pursue his higher studies in oil and gas engineering. They had to leave my one-year old father behind. Ganga and my great grandparents took care of my father and raised him till he was 5. She was my dad’s nanny or even mother by proxy. They developed a strong bond too. She was around when my sister and I were born and she was around when my sister’s first child (my niece) was born too. She could stop my niece from crying in a few seconds just by holding her.
My grandfather’s job meant he was stationed at all the major oil refineries in India. Wherever my grandmother went she followed. She chose to remain a spinster so she could stay with my grandmother. She was an excellent cook and had the knack to reverse engineer any dish by simply tasting it. She also had a great memory and could remember the special dietary needs and favorite dishes of just about any guest who graced the Damodaran residence. So much so that even decades later an old friend or colleague dropping in to see my grandmother would be asked to stay for a meal and their favorite dish from yesteryear would be served. Her memory and hospitality was remarkable. As kids we used to visit my grandma’s on Saturdays. And she would always cook one of her signature chicken, fish or mutton dishes. I always looked forward to the Saturday lunch and just thinking about some of her dishes still makes my mouth water.
She has made untold sacrifices for us. When my dad was struggling to make money to buy our apartment she sold her jewelry and broke out her life savings to help. All unconditionally, just to see us all happy. She continued to live with my grandmother until age caught up with both of them and she decided it was best that she go her own way. My grandmother died a few years later. And Ganga continued to live by herself in a town not far from where she was born. But as she grew older her declining health made it difficult for her to take care of herself. My father brought her back to Chennai to live with him in the house she spent most of her life with my grandma. It wasn’t the same for Ganga without my grandma around. And since we never let her do any work around the house she got bored quite soon. She asked my dad to take her back to her hometown but my dad told her she wasn’t in any position to live by herself. So it was decided she would stay in an old folks home. The picture you see is from my visit to the home.
They say happiness is good health and bad memory. It is something I believe in when we have a memory filter to weed out the bad and retain the good memories. But it’s heartbreaking when your memories of your time with a person is intact but the other person’s isn’t. Ganga has developed dementia and seems to have forgotten much of the hardships and struggles she faced for most of her life: a good thing most people would say, but in doing so she has also forgotten all the good times that came with it namely the family she adopted as her own. I spent close to two hours with her. She seemed to recognize me then proceeded to talk about my father but failed to recognize I was his son. She couldn’t remember my sister getting married and cradling her first born in her arms, my grandmother’s passing and more sadly even her own mother’s who she complained never visited her even once at the old folks home. But there are still traces of the old Ganga in there. Her natural instinct was to make me some tea and dosas (rice pancakes) in her room even though there is no kitchen or stove there. These are the memories of my third grandma that I will forever cherish and hold as long as my brain permits. Forever grateful for you dear Ganga for touching our lives and for your unconditional love and support.

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A Slice of Paradise

Ten days after I landed in Chennai, my parents and I packed ourselves into a car early one Monday morning and started off for Rajapalayam. My dad wanted to fly to Madurai and then drive from there to our destination. I was the one who insisted on doing a road trip so we could spend “quality time” together. Soon it became apparent to me that this was a bad idea. One, the roads are not as great as in the U.S. Two, the traffic. Three, nobody obeys traffic rules! But I was in for a pleasant surprise. Once we escaped the city limits and hit the highway, the roads were pretty darn good. We had to pay hefty tolls along the way but it was well worth it. Leaving the city meant leaving behind the traffic as well. Our driver was a dare devil with a need for speed. If the speedometer wasn’t touching 100, our man was not happy and he insisted on leaving the slow pokes behind by overtaking them whenever he could.

As we traveled further south and away from Chennai, we passed through verdant paddy fields glistening in the afternoon sun with field hands doubled over tending to the crops. The roads were lined with trees on either side, in stark contrast to the treeless cities we passed from time to time. We spotted kingfishers, egrets, and pigeons and occasionally a monkey. Rocky hills and scrub forests gave way to lush valleys and forested slopes. The last city we passed was Madurai, where we paid a small fortune in tolls. As we neared Rajapalayam – a town build by the Rajas who migrated from Vijayanagara – paddy fields and distant hills stretched on either side of the potholey roads. I kid you not, every house in this town belongs to a person with the last name Raja and all of them are related! We were headed to one such house to meet my Dad’s school friend from his Monfort days.

I have to tell you that I’ve been meeting Uncle V and others in his extended family for years and they are the kindest, generous, and most gracious people I have ever had the fortune of meeting. And the most impeccable hosts ever. They say you can tell a person’s character by observing how they treat less fortunate people. Uncle V showers the very same love and care to the house help and drivers as he does for his family and friends. He makes sure they are well fed and rested and medical issues are addressed promptly. Did I mention Uncle V was an ophthalmologist? Someone who built a hospital in rural Tamilnadu and performed free surgeries for the poor.

After tucking into idlis and dosas for dinner we called it a night. I woke up super early (thank you jet lag!) and it was so quiet and peaceful that my morning meditation was easy to slip into. I actually heard birds chirping in the morning. I wanted to explore the area in the early morning light, so uncle dropped my mom and me at the polytechnic college where all the morning walkers were making their rounds, quietly staring at us outsiders. The campus is beautiful and it was immediately evident that whoever did the landscaping had put a lot of thought and effort into it. On our way back we got an unobstructed view of the sunrise. Something I hadn’t seen after I came to Chennai. The lovely Sanjeevi hills served as a backdrop to the field where several groups practiced cricket and a handful of men were running or doing exercises.

Later I asked uncle about the hills and he told me they were named after the Sanjeevani herbs that Hanuman carried from the Himalayas to save Lakshman’s life in the battlefield. The monkey god spilled the herbs along the way as he was flying by and some of it landed in these hills and hence the name. This was no surprise to me. The very air in this place was healing. Peacocks roamed the streets freely.  Exotic birds such as the paradise fly catcher have been sighted often in this area. Even uncle fed peahens and doves in his backyard. It was apparent that there was a deep reverence for all life in this town.

And thanks to the flourishing flora, I saw butterflies everywhere. If you have been reading my blogs for sometime, you know how fixated I am on butterflies. They just added to my sense of rapture in this little place that was so close to paradise. My brother joined us later that morning and we all spent a good part of the day catching up on happenings in each others’ lives and reminiscing the past. What joy it is to be in such company and in such heavenly surroundings!

We met uncle’s brother and his wife briefly and also Uncle A and the lovely Aunty S who despite travel plans found the time to make a casserole and some sumptuous sambar for us. She even packed some idli/dosa batter for the next day.

The next day we continued down south towards Trivandrum to visit my aunt (mom’s sister) and uncle. The roads were nothing like the ones in TN and made hair pin bends and sharp turns through the Western Ghats, which slowed us down considerably. We did make it in time for lunch (more like an elaborate feast) that my dear Valliamma had spread out for us. She loves all of us kids like her very own and is always around every time I come down from the U.S. This is the first time I’m visiting her after I got married. So both my aunt and uncle were over the moon with joy.

Dinesh left the same night for Palakkad and we stayed on till the next morning. Valliachan, my uncle, took me for a ride in his scooter early that day. Rain or shine, fever or wheezing, he has to go to the temple every morning. That day we went to his favorite Ganesha temple. Valliachan is 74 but drives around like he did in his youth. I had to apply hand brakes on his shoulders to slow him down and I almost fell backwards when he accelerated suddenly! It was exhilarating to feel the cool morning air on my face as we whizzed by narrow streets and smoking pyres at every street corner. Trivandrum is not the clean city it used to be back in the day. However, the water tastes like honey and just a shower in that water is equivalent to a spa treatment.

Before we even got there it was time to say goodbye. I promised them I’ll be back soon for a longer stay and we started our long journey back to Chennai. We had to get back the next day as Dinesh would be back from Palakkad.

Look out for the next blog. It is a guest blog by Dinesh about his trip to Palakkad.