I am beginning to enjoy the fact that I am now managing the house. And having Amma and Appa in two different continents has meant that, I and S don’t find ourselves caught in the cross-fire between the two and being forced to take sides.
S has done very well in her exams. That came as a bit of shock.
S is a bright child. But in the seventeen years that I have known her, not once has she said that she has done well in any of her exams. Yes, she is one of those types. In fact, she would usually come home after each exam, then weep, howl and angst till the results would come out. She would be responsible for having the household plunge into gloom for extended periods.
I never did this much of over-acting. In fact, I was the complete contrast. I would come home after every exam that I ever wrote and tell Amma and Appa that I had done very well. I always believed that one day of intense sadness was far more desirable than a month of twiddling thumbs and unhappiness. I was most convincing as well, and Amma usually believed that the good Lord Dakshinamoorthy’s blessings were holding me in good stead. When the results would come out, I would play the wronged-injured-politician who lost an election because of large scale rigging to the hilt. When I overdid this, Amma would visit my school and demand for a re-count and re-evaluation.
The net result was – a very embarrassed Amma. And once back home, she would wail in front of the gods. Not so much for having produced an unintelligent and untruthful child, but more so because, she had produced the makku role model of my generation.
Every family needs a role model, especially the children in the family. One needs someone who can inspire you to achieve academic excellence. And they need to be real people. It wasn’t enough that we had people like Nose Digging Sundaram, the boy who used to live two blocks away and was the first (after I was born, that is) person to go to IIT and become a National Talent Scholar from Bazlullah Road. While, that was envy inducing, and his mathematics teacher became the most sought after person, we liked to have our own heroes. The types who were closer to home and preferably also connected to the Bharadwaja Gothram in some manner.
When I was really young, our heroes were two people – A Atthai and T Chitappa. A Atthai, was a gold medalist from Madras University in English Literature. And she later became a teacher at the school that I and most of my cousins went to. Everyone was completely in awe of A Atthai and she was not only considered to be an expert when it came to Chaucer, but also the person to go to, should you decide to write an obituary. As we mourned and grieved the dead person, people would crowd around the person who was writing out the obituary. Madras Thatha would then yell out for A Atthai and announce that, she should write out the obituary. After all, she is a gold medalist in English, was implied heavily. The men-folk inspite of their general desire to shove an opinion on everything concerning the family would humbly bow down and let A Atthai take over. The next morning, when that small insert would come out in The Hindu, the clan members would bask in the glory of A Atthai’s genius.
Then, there was T Chitappa, the official mathematics whiz in the family. We are told, many years ago, Trichy Thatha bought Madras Thatha a calculator from Burma Bazaar. The calculator stopped working shortly. It needed those button batteries, which were perceived to be too expensive to invest in. But, T Chitappa was anyway there and he did all the simple and complex calculations that we needed to do. T Chitappa is a bit of a purist and doesn’t like to mix mathematics with anything. Nobody should mix mathematics with physics or economics, he would tell us disdainfully. T Chitappa calculated the monthly expenses; he would give us trends in terms of heads that were showing an upswing, he would calculate the number of buckets of water that all of us needed to pump to have the adequate amount of water that the household needed, as also the number of mangoes and bananas that should rightfully be given to the Atthais and other clan members, and most importantly he would very rapidly compute the batting averages and bowling economy of all the dull matches that Madras Thatha followed. Including the ones that were played at the Somasundaram Grounds or even the Kedar Cricket Academy, closer to home. T Chitappa’s reputation preceded him and if he said that, 5 + 6 equalled 14, we would believe him. If he said that Prahlad’s (who was the one-down batsman from our street and my batch-mate from school) strike-rate had dropped from the previous match, Madras Thatha would make it a point to have a chat with him the next day.
In the light of such brilliance, T Chitappa was put in charge of the makku in mathematics children of the family - which included me and rather ironically, T Chitappa’s daughter N. Since the Saturday tests didn’t do their job and in light of our Board Exams, T Chitappa started a Sunday coaching class with a viva method of evaluation. It was concluded that, writing out an incorrect answer was not half as embarrassing as orally failing in an exam. But, since T Chitappa wanted to befriend us and speak to us in a language we understood, he would put forth all problems in the context of our family and neighbourhood folks.
So, we were given problems that involved computing the surface area of a Paruppu Thengai, the falling strike rate of Prahlad, the amount of interest that my Appa allegedly made by loaning some money to T Chitappa. Most of the times, such examples took away the focus from the actual topic (say, mensuration and commercial mathematics) to the family dynamics and so forth.
But, we pursued it. And in the summer vacations before our Class X exam, when everyone else had gone to see the Rajni film Arunachalam, me and N tried to compute missing frequencies. When both I and N displayed minimum interest in what T Chitappa was doing, he said that, don’t you at least want to be like A Akka?
Role models need to be relevant. They need to be from your generation, so that you can aspire for similar kind of lifestyle and at least have some common ground. One needed younger role models, after all. There is only that much that an Atthai and Chitappa could inspire you.
And so we had - A Akka, my Periappa’s daughter. The effortlessly bright person, as she has is often referred to. When does she study, Amma would ask Periamma suspiciously? Periamma would be less than specific in her answer.
A Akka also had excellent handwriting. And a combination of that and her inherent brightness meant that, she was asked to save up all her notes. But, A Akka was strange and possessive. Not only would she refuse to give her notes away, she would laugh at you wickedly when you asked for it. Sometimes after being chastised by Periamma, she would lend her notes. But this only after you crossed your heart several times over and promise to guard those precious notes like your life depended on it. But all said and done, A Akka was rather nice, albeit strange. She was a voracious reader and read some of the most dull, insipid and seemingly intelligent books. When I was in class ten, she asked me if I had read Ulysses. You have not read it, she asked in her usually horrified tone. I squirmed and looked for an escape. But Amma didn’t want her daughter to be reading only Astreix and asked A Akka to lend her book to me. G Periamma also beamed, because she had clearly brought up a better read daughter. A Akka reluctantly parted with her book. She had a complex cataloguing and labeling method for all her books, which none of us comprehended. The only thing worse than A Akka refusing to lend you a book was, when she actually would deign to lend it to you. So, she would shadow you for the next few days.
No molagai podi on the book please, she announced snootily.
Don’t fold the page. Why don’t you use a comb as a book-marker, she would suggest?
Not just that, she would monitor progress on how much I had read? She would constantly ask me, when are you returning the book? I never got past the first page that said:
Do not steal this book for fame or shame
For in the next page, is the owner’s name
Eventually unable to bear it, I told A Akka that I couldn’t read this anymore and went back to Astreix and Phantom comics.
A Akka won.
But, A Akka was a natural when it came to mathematics, so one forgave her for this quirkiness of hers. In fact, one expected her to be quirky. A Akka took a slightly off beat path, and shifted to economics after school. My family thought it was a waste of a brilliant-can-become-engineer and writes some code brain. But then, A Akka topped the university and won a gold medal for herself when she did a post graduation in econometrics.
The first gold medal of your generation, Paati said as she placed the cold golden coloured round on her cheek.
But Econometrics, she asked a little doubtfully?
It is a combination of economics and mathematics, A Akka had offered in manner of explanation. The M word reassured Paati and the whole clan felt proud. I was thrilled too. For, after Revathy in Mouna Ragaam, A Akka was the next person I knew who had studied Econometrics.
After that, A Akka became our family benchmark – the lowest common denominator. Even if we didn’t study the sciences, we at least needed to win a gold medal and study an abstract subject, preferably with some numbers thrown in.
To me, A Akka was always my hero. Not because of great mathematics or the best cataloguing skills, but because she had straight hair. She had hair, unlike mine or anyone else in my family. Straight and smooth as opposed to curly, with a mind of its own, unruly, forming rings at the forehead Tamizh hair.
Yes, she was my hero.
Unfortunately, A Akka’s glory was short-lived. Because the next person to arrive on the scene was - T Anna. T Anna’s genius was identified when he was eight, when he could apparently solve the Rubix cube. His genius and infinitely inadequate life skills were further established when at the age of thirteen all other boys of T Nagar played (or at least hovered around matches) cricket, he read the India Today. This because he had solved every possible mathematics problem of the next few classes and needed a way to spend his summers. So, while I did holiday homework, T Anna would spend time reading about the gory Bombay blasts.
Once, T Anna made it to IIT, he became the role-model. And much of Amma’s time was spent in trying to ward off the evil eye.
He is your brother, I was reminded rather sternly before every exam of mine. Viji Madam and other assorted teachers also felt that the only redeeming quality I possessed was, sharing this gene.
I tried. In vain. And much as I feel sisterly affection towards T Anna, he didn’t turn out to be the inspiration after all.
After my pre-board examinations and the overdose of red in my answer sheets, made Amma talk about Makkan, aka Makku Periappa aka K Periappa. Makkan was my Periappa Thatha’s fifth son and also the dullest. Among the three brothers of my Thatha, Periappa Thatha was the brightest and perceived to be UPSC material. He made it into a fairly low ranked service. I am a mere government servant, he would wildly grin and inform us each time we visited him. Never mind that he had retired from service many years ago. Periappa Thatha was generally doing better in life than my Thatha and had relatively brighter children . But, among his All Stars Team, was a dud – Makkan Periappa.
Periamma Paati (or Periya Paati as we called her) had produced four sons. Periappa Thatha was happy that he had produced four potential civil servants. However, a daughter was needed. The whole: a son is a son till he gets a wife and daughter is a daughter all her life, was bandied around, I am told. That is how Makkan was conceived. Probably it was a lazy Madras May, after eating one too many pieces of the Banganapali Mambazham and being on a bit of a sugar high.
It is a boy, must have sounded like the worst words ever.
Humble government servants can’t fund the lives of more than five children, is perhaps what Periappa might have concluded and no more attempts to produce a daughter were made.
May be that is why, Makkan was brought up differently. Periya Paati perhaps convinced herself that he was almost a girl. Periappa Thatha was generally speaking, indifferent. Among the super achiever siblings, Makkan grew up – unloved, unwanted and shattering gender stereotypes. Somewhere along the line, he became the Makku of the generation – the person you didn’t want to become.
Makku Periappa finished school and got admission into college because of how well placed Periya Thatha was (allegedly). He also managed to get a small time job with a public sector company (also because of PT’s influence, one is told). He also got a wife (S Periamma). They managed to produce two daughters, who have turned out to be fine girls with excellent mathematics skills, lovely voice and shiny skin. If the rest of the clan is to be believed, they are also very snooty. We attribute all of this to S Periamma’s Palakkad gene.
During family weddings, when other male members pointlessly pontificated or actually took up important tasks, Makkan was given the menial ones. Like ensuring that guests got the Thamboolam Pai after the meal or to sprinkle rose water into the eyes of the dodging Maamas and Maamis who walked in. The second bit was usually the task of the teenage girls in the family, and me and my cousins resented Makkan for intruding into our domain.
As a child, even a teenager, or even till a few years back, I enjoyed a good Makkan joke too. Stories were floated around about what Makkan did and what Makkan said (mostly made up, I suppose). The children in the family were asked, before every exam and after every result, do you want to become like Makkan? I felt very sorry for myself, when Amma said that. What! Me a makku?
Makkan is a bit of a recluse. And I of all people know that, it is no fun to be branded – stupid for life. He usually sits in a corner during family gatherings and is seen reading a newspaper. Nobody knows much about Makkan. What his favourite dishes are? What vegetables is he allergic to? What are the things that he likes? What are the issues that he feels strongly about? One assumes that, he has no preferences.
Makkan has always annoyed me. In the same way that I am annoyed when I look into a mirror. May be it is the fear of association that bothers me. But something always does. And I can’t recall having a single conversation with him. Until last week.
People come to visit my house often. The perils of having the extended clan all around you. I am tired of telling people about my job. About the ordinariness of it. Defending my job. Defending editorial stand. And making multiple cups of kaapi and several platefuls of idli.
Chutney illiya, appa asks me as I noisily put two platefuls of idli for Appa and Chitappa. I glare at him. He doesn’t notice.
When I hear S talking to her tuition friend about her exams and how wonderfully well she has done, I can’t help but smile. I feel a surge of sisterly pride. All those sleepless nights that I needed to endure as she paced up and down the room all night, memorizing formulae seems to have paid. All those trips to Ashok Nagar, at 6 am on a Sunday, seem to be paying too. I feel like a co-conspirator in the whole thing. And I am proud. But, I am a little worried too. I am worried about being sandwiched between two over achiever siblings. I am worried about being the weakest link.
Makkan comes home every May. To give us some mangos, plucked from the tree in their Thiruvanmiyur house. Appa asks me to put them into the rice drum, so that they will ripen.
Coffee, Appa asks Makkan?
He looks unsure.
Suddenly I say that, he had better have tiffin. I take out the heavily fermented and disgustingly sour idli batter. Uttappams, I say. I make S chop the tomatoes and add some extra oil and let it cook on slow fire for a change.
Appa and Makkan Periappa try to make some small talk as they negotiate the Uttappam. Lots of silence. There are some old, stale, frozen and battered beyond all shape chocolates in the freezer. T Anna had got it last August. I put that into a Ziploc bag and give it to Makkan.
Appa thinks that it is pertinent to point out that chocolates need to be refrigerated. Makkan puts on his best Makku-just-got-enlightened expression and agrees with Appa. He then says that, he will pick up the chocolates the next day as he was going to watch the match.
You watch cricket matches, me and S ask in unison?
He then says, every Saturday I find out what is happening in the city and go for that.
How do you know about it, I ask him?
I go through The Hindu engagements every single day, he says.
Meanwhile, S needs to prepare for her next set of exams and gets back to studying. And I sit in our balcony, poring through the movie listings and bask in the ordinariness of my life.