A light mist lies over the fields in the colourless dawn; dew keeps condensing on the windscreen as the car jolts over mostly smooth roads, occasionally careening to the side to avoid a snake or playing puppies blissfully unaware of the danger they face. We are in rural Tamil Nadu, and the villagers are already out and about, sitting on rough wooden benches in front of tea shops as they prepare to go to their farms.
When the sun rises, it breaks through the lilac clouds with an inexplicable hurry. The paddy fields are a rippling, fresh green. Canals run through them, fed by the waters of the Kaveri; however, the rains have played truant this year, and the sandy bed of the river lies exposed in some parts. Numerous ponds dot the district, placid and covered with lotus buds. Not a ripple disturbs their surface, their clear mirrors reflect the coconut trees that hem them in. The odd gopuram rises from the middle of a farm. Thatched huts line the roads, their walls painted over with advertisements for saree and jewellery showrooms in the nearest town.
We arrive at Radhanarasimhapuram. Earlier called Sembiyan Mahadevi (presumably after the 10th century Chola queen), this is where my paternal ancestors came from- I have come home for the first time in my life. This is my chance to see the places the family legend revolves around. There are no written records, as is often the case with our families; the stories have been told by the villagers and people who saw the events unfold, and I’m writing down what I’ve heard for two reasons- one, because I’ve had a nomadic life and therefore my roots possess a strong, mystical charm for me; two, because I don’t want it lost in time.
Over a hundred years ago, my great-grandfather chose to become a merchant, in a departure from generations of priesthood. The family owned several paddy fields and coconut plantations, and set up a rice mill in the village. He exported rice to South-East Asia via sea. But he did not give up the traditional Brahmin customs, continuing to recite the Vedas and carry out religious activities; with his brother, he built a temple in the village. He was widely respected and lived like a lord. His son, my grandfather, was reputedly carried to school on a servant’s shoulders so that his feet never touched the ground.
Then the merchant’s first wife died, and he married a second time. She bore him three children- two daughters and a son. Some years on, another disaster struck as a ship carrying cargo sank, as a result of which my great-grandfather lost a great deal of money. Creditors hounded him for repayment. Unable to withstand the strain, he passed away. His second wife, now destitute, went to live with her relatives and took her own children along. Dependent on family herself, she refused to burden them with her stepson as well. Eyewitnesses said the little boy ran behind his stepmother and siblings, crying, but was left behind.
For a few years, my grandfather somehow fended for himself with some people’s help, then went all the way to West Bengal in search of work. New steel plants were being set up then, creating several jobs, and eventually my grandfather settled in the little town of Burnpur. In the meantime, some members of the family in the village reportedly repaid the moneylenders by selling off the land, also making a packet themselves; the dealings weren’t fair, but my grandfather was too busy rebuilding his life to travel down south again to sort things out. Nobody knows for sure what happened to the property, but my grandfather did not get any money out of the sales.
Originally built as an agraharam, Radhanarasimhapuram has just a single street today; the temple priest and the postmaster are its most prominent personages. The rice mill was pulled down four or five years ago and the land is now overgrown with weeds. The house my great-grandfather lived in has been replaced by a newly-constructed structure. The temple is cobwebbed and dusty, and badly in need of an overhaul. The villagers themselves are poor, simple folk: they smile readily, welcome you and offer you coffee, even though you are a total stranger to them. We got talking to a farmer, and it was very heartening to note that both his daughters went to college in the nearest town, the elder one getting a degree in nursing. They let us wander around the area around their house, showing us their cows and telling us life wasn’t very easy; how can it be, when they don’t have electricity most of the time, or even a proper house to live in. Thankfully, the village is well connected to the nearest town and offers youngsters a shot at life, at education in this fiercely competitive world, where people in cities have all the exposure and the advantages.
Who knows what things would have been like had the ship not sunk? My grandfather and my grandmother might never have met; I may not have been writing this story. It is really difficult to predict the kinds of changes that would have taken place. Some day, I’d like to go back and try to construct a coherent history of the family, go further back than just three generations. All I have till then is this jigsaw puzzle pieced together from several accounts and handed down to me, the sole family heirloom.