Inheritance – a dirty word. Visions of fighting siblings, helpless grandparents, high drama and an inebriated Visu along with Manorama.
May be because I grew up with too much of Doordarshan fare, but this movie and the white line drawn across a house, thereby dividing hearts is always an overwhelming association that I have with property rights and inheritance.
Thankfully, life is far simpler than cinema. And the good bit also is that we don’t have that much wealth to inherit anyway.
My family prides itself in being very close-knit. We love each other. And we don’t fight for Madras Thatha’s Post Office Savings or Paati’s Odiyanam. Truly.
At any rate we are too hypocritical and image conscious to openly fight.
The good thing about Madras Thatha and Paati is that they have been very fair. And even if Periappa would have liked the Bazlullah Road house for himself, MT made sure that all the siblings got an equal share. He even used to say much to the chagrin of Periappa, Dritharashtra was blind but I am not. And every family has a Kaikeyi somewhere doesn’t it? Yes, I am aware that they are two different mythologies.
Paati has been fair too – she gave her Iya Pathiram to amma, her Kal Chatti to G Periamma, the Vengala Panai to N Chitti and the Dosai Kal to R Chitti. It must have been some effort to match culinary skills and the type of vessel. Though, I fail to see what the joy is in inheriting old vessels that bears the initials of someone else? But it makes people happy. When someone praises amma’s rasam, she beams with pride and generously attributes that to her maamiyaar’s Iya Pathiram (notwithstanding M Manni’s constant gripe that the vessel increases the risk of cancer). Paati herself has moved to modern Teflon coated vessels.
While MT and MP have been smart enough to ensure that the “loot” got divided when they were healthy and not insane, things are not always as hunky-dory. Dissonance, greed and angst always find a window through which it creeps in.
And so we have the mildly amusing battle of the sisters-in-law. While they are all well-bred enough to not fight for paatis’s vairam, they take great pride in what they bring from the family that they were born into.
Unfortunately people are not born equal and the inherent advantage of being born rich continues to remain an advantage.
Let’s take the eldest sister-in-law aka G Periamma. G Periamma’s Appa ran a printing press of some sort. And even though it was perceived to be a professions that was somewhat bereft of intellect, it made him a lot of money. The printing press also perhaps explains, why G Periamma is the only published author in my extended family – a book on good Iyer gods no less. Anyway, G Periamma’s appa managed to build a rather large house at the Gopalakrishna Iyer Road. On selling it to Alacrity – he got two flats and some money. The flats were given to each of his sons. To their credit, G Periamma and Periappa didn’t demand an equal share for the daughter. Since then, the two brothers have felt infinitely grateful to G Periamma and make sure that they give her some gift for every occasion – Navratri, Deepavali, Karthikai, etc.
After almost every other visit to her brothers houses, G Periamma would appear with a Mysore Silk Sari bought from the KSIC Showroom at Mount Road. G Periamma has this theory that wearing a Mysore Silk Sari is a better way to age gracefully than wearing a Kancheepuram Sari. Along with making her other sisters-in-law see red/green, this also broke my Tamizh and T Nagar loving heart.
Next comes N Chitti, born into one of those Delhi bureaucrat families and therefore moneyed. In addition, she also experienced several perks from the tax-payers money. Even till date N Chitti will give cash put into envelopes of Ministry of Irrigation and Ministry of Agriculture as gifts. Thayir Vadai Thatha as we fondly called him (owing to his initials) worked in both the ministries. I think he moved from Agriculture to Irrigation when Ground Water Exploration was shifted. In the throes of a severe water shortage in Madras, we thought that TV Thatha and by association N Chitti were responsible for our waterless days. Anyway, this exploring for water meant that he built houses in two different cities. The first one was in Delhi, because children born outside Tamizhland didn’t want to settle in Madras. He also built one house in Madras, owing to Apollo Hospitals and nostalgia. TV Thatha was in the unique position of not having any sons and therefore, Big Madras House came to N Chitti.
House in West Mambalam cannot compete with Mysore Silk Saris, can it?
Lastly there is R Chitti, the youngest and richest of them all. She is the rich relative that every family has and likes to dislike. R Chitti is a very nice person and generous too. But because she came to MT’s house wearing a gold anklet (just after her wedding with chitappa), the genteel middle class sensibilities of my extended family was offended. R Chitti’s appa worked for the Chennai Port Trust and apparently made a lot of money when he was sent to Vladivostok. Then there is R Chitti’s mother, who also came from a rich family that owned large amount of cultivable land in Thoothukudi. The result –- lot of money and bags of rice, chilies and groundnuts.
Who can beat that now?
Amma’s family is best described as being lower middle class (read poor). Amma’s thatha was an accountant at a temple in Thanjavur and moonlighted as a Mridangam player (playing at kovils and kalyanams). But he was frugal and lived a simple life. And in the process, he even managed to build a small house. He was a kannakku puli (allegedly) and he hoped that Trichy Thatha had inherited some of those skills. Alas, TT was not interested. Music, arts and dreams were his passion. And when he turned eighteen, unable to bear Mridangam Thatha’s tyranny and petrified at the thought of going to Madras and studying at MCC, he ran away to Trichy. He carried Mridangam Thatha’s Sruti Peti and an old gramophone player.
Soon after this, Mridangam Thatha passed away (a bout of Typhoid) and TT inherited all his wealth. What took Mrindangam Thatha twenty five years to accumulate, TT managed to lose in 2.5 years.
He invested in several unprofitable businesses and being partly naïve, incorrigibly generous and not at all worldly meant that every single one of them – FAILED.
Some of the business ideas included:
a. a tempo business
b. a garments business – procuring bed sheets from nearby Karur and then selling them in Madras
c. a marriage broker service
None of it made money. All of it lost money, and along the way, a wife and four children were acquired.
Amma’s entry into Appa’s family helped to shatter the Tirunelveli dominance in our clan. She likes to believe that she got into the family, the appreciation of fine art and culture that requires a Thanjavur gene. She helped to establish the relevance of Vani Mahal, Bharat Kalachar, Music Academy and Arusuvai Natarajan in our lives.
But there was no loot to show off when she came from her Pallavan and Rock Fort journeys. At best she would get some guavas in December or the Malgova Mambazham during summers.
I had recently gone to visit Thatha in Trichy. After four decades, TT was moving from his Nandi Kovil house to Maama’s flat. He needed to sort and re-sort his possessions, because small homes have smaller hearts and very little place for nostalgia. As his favourite granddaughter (I am mildly delusional) I inherited a smallish carton of things. When I opened it, I saw a huge collection of gramophone records. It seems that, whatever money T Thatha was making/had made, was spent on accumulating records.
And it has the most fabulous collection ever. From TR Mahalingam to Sheik Chnnamoulana. MS Subbulakhsmi at Carnegie Hall and her 1966 United Nations concert at New York. From Muthuswami Dikshitar’s Navagraha songs to Bharathiyar Songs. From Chittibabu to TN Krishnan. Thatha was also very eclectic and there are a number of Hindustani Classical Music ones too. So we have VL Jog, Bismillah Khan, Dulal Roy, Jaya Bose and Ravi Shankar. Then there is the usual – Sound of Music and other such. My favourite of course are some of the old Tamil movie records – Thillana Mohanambal, Devadas, Nenjil Oru Aalayam, Paasamalar and Panama Pasama.
I feel important and responsible -- perhaps for the first time in my adult life. I need to preserve this legacy of Trichy Thatha – one that got its start from Mridangam recitals and counting money in a Kovil Undiyal in Thanjavur.
After all, much as I love Tirunelveli and all the astuteness that I have inherited because of it, Thanjavur needs a place in my family too. Certainly beyond that fake Tanjore Painting that adorns our living room.