Parts of this piece were translated into English from Tamil. Words in Tamil sometimes do not have direct translations into English and as a result I have used words in the English language that are as close as possible in meaning and context to the Tamil words used.
My grandfather stares into his glass of rum, “can you pour me another 60? Once I go back downstairs I’ll have to sit quietly in the hall while your grandmother prays.”
My grandfather isn’t a very religious man but he claims to be respectful of other peoples’ beliefs. I don’t know how far being drunk while people in the next room pray is considered respectful but he says as long as he doesn’t actively interfere in their rituals he’s being a good person.
Debatable, but moving on.
My grandfather is not a self-made man. Born into a “newly rich off of working with silk manufacturing” family, he didn’t really have to worry about his next meal or a roof over his head.
All that changed in 1943. A split in the family had him packed off to Sriperumbudur. He found himself lifted out of a bungalow somewhere in Lavelle Road and sent to a modest two bedroom house in a tiny village.
His father promised him it would be temporary, “just six months and we will bring you back.” he told my grandfather as he got into a bus leaving for Kanchipuram.
His uncle was waiting at the Kanchipuram station to pick him up.
“That was the first day I got a hint of what this caste thing was. In Bangalore no one really cared because we were rich. I was treated like royalty by my father’s employees and the house helpers, but it was different in Kanchipuram. People stood away from Shanmuga as he stood there waiting for me. It was as if he had a contagious illness. I didn’t know why until the next day.”
Shanmuga’s house was located a little away from the main village of Sriperumbudur. He worked as a secretary to the secretary of a party worker in the Dravida Kazhagam. The role didn’t pay too well but it was better than working in the fields and his brother (my grandfather’s father) sent him a considerable sum of money every month which would only increase now that my grandfather had moved in with him.
“There are letters,” my grandfather says as he takes another swig from his glass. “In those days my grandfather was not very rich, my father was the one who’d made it out. He was a free man in Bangalore running a silk mill and minting money. He would send our family in Sriperumbudur quite a bit of money each month but it was never enough. Half of it was spent repaying debts from decades ago and the other half was spent on surviving.”
These letters are old and crumpled. Browned with time and water damage I think. They are barely legible but my great grandfather’s signature and name can be made out if you trace your fingers along what’s left of the writing. It’s hard to figure out what’s written in them but my grandfather tells me they’re mostly addressed to his grandfather.
“Most are details about an attached sum of money, but he’s written about me and my mother here and there.”
“Shanmuga wanted me to meet my grandfather as soon as I arrived. My grandfather was an old blind man who could barely walk but when he heard my uncle and me enter his room he immediately knew I’d arrived. Shanmuga had told him I’d be coming and he was elated to meet a grandson he hadn’t seen for nearly half a decade. I liked him too, I could steal peanuts and loose change from his shirt pockets because he was literally blind.”
At this point my grandfather pauses and takes a long swig from his glass, nearly emptying it. He makes a face and stares at me with a look of disapproval.
“Why did you buy Khoday’s? We used to give this to the horses. I asked you to buy Piccadilly gin, didn’t I?”
I don’t know how to tell him Piccadilly hasn’t been sold in Bangalore since the 1960s so I just tell him that I forgot my card at home and didn’t have too much cash in my wallet when I went to the liquor store.
“My uncle enrolled me in a local school run by missionaries there a week after I’d arrived. I got the admission quite easily because of the money my father sent them but that was about it.”
He pauses and looks down at the floor. “I spilled some rum, there will be ants here later.”
He’s right, there will be ants.
“The children in school always looked at me strangely. How you’d look at a monkey in a full suit.”
Analogies aren’t my grandfather’s strongest skill but I did burst out laughing when he said it like that. Maybe it was the rum.
He nudges me to pour him another 60. We’re both somewhat unstable and making poor decisions. I oblige and pour myself a 60 while I’m at it.
“You’re 20 years old and drinking how I used to drink at 40. Be careful.”
I want to say I feel 90 on most days but I hold my tongue and let him continue.
“These boys in the school looked at me like they knew I didn’t belong. I felt out of place and not because I hadn’t been in a school before. I went to St. Joseph’s European High School in Bangalore. My friends were usually a lot more refined than these small fellows who wore oddly coloured shirts and had no shoes on, but the way they looked at me when I sat in class on my first day there was so unnerving. I was better dressed than most of them (hell my clothes were ironed) but you might have thought I was naked the way they stared.”
I can’t feel my legs and looking at my grandfather I know he can’t feel his either. He pours us both a 60.
I shouldn’t have bought a full bottle.
“My first day in school, most of the boys avoided me. One boy named Vishwesh asked me what my last name was. When I told him my family didn’t have a family surname and used my father’s first name instead he looked at me oddly and walked away. He didn’t come near me after that. Perumal Ramachandran is a nice name isn’t it?”
Caste has never been something that played a huge role in my life. We’re Christians (at least my parents and I) and every time we had to fill up a form we ticked GC or Roman Catholic depending on the place. My grandparents are Hindus. My mother converted so that she could marry my father and I was born a Christian (technically at least). When they’d ask me what my name was they’d immediately know that I didn’t fit into any kind of hierarchy. We’re rice bag converts. Twitter has told me that several times.
“It was a Sunday.” My grandfather says. Then he pauses and stares off into a distance like he’s trying hard to remember or trying even harder to forget, “Shanmuga had gone to some rally or sit-in or protest or whatever bullshit he’d usually get up to on the weekends and I was left at home. I had no interest in talking to my aunt, my cousin was an infant and my grandfather was blind. Not much to do for a ten year old.”
He pauses and pours himself another 60 not waiting for me to do it instead. I follow suit, the bottle is more than half done. I have to wake up at 8 am the next day but I know that’s not going to happen. He looks at me with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, I know what that means.
I tiptoe down the stairs to see if my mother is still working on her class log and if my grandmother is engaged in whichever God she’s praying to that evening (she claims to be a devout Hindu but will make the sign of the cross when we pass St. Mary’s Basilica in Shivajinagar and turn off the music in the house when we hear the Azaan from a mosque two roads away).
I come back up and tell him there’s a low chance of either of them coming upstairs. He smiles and pulls out a small box from his left pocket. I could make out its black lettering on an unmistakably golden box from miles away. Gold Flake has been his brand ever since he started smoking and I think I was drawn to it because I saw him smoke it so much. Neither of us can climb more than two flights of stairs without losing breath.
He taps his cigarette box on the bottom, pulls. out two sticks, hands me one and then lights his up with matches from a matchbox that has a man fighting a cheetah on it.
I prefer lighters because it isn’t the 1950s anymore.
Through a cloud of sickly sweet tobacco smoke he continues, “That Sunday there was really nothing for me to do at home so I did what any kid would do. I wandered around outside looking for something to do. I walked a little bit away from the house into the village and could hear children playing in the distance. I followed the sound and found a bunch of kids playing military with sticks and homemade bow and arrow sets. I was excited. I wanted to play too. I went near them and they welcomed me. They gave me a stick and told me what to do. Since I joined late I was going to be a part of the enemy’s team. I was ok with that. I just wanted someone to play with.”
Both of us flinch as we hear someone outside, there’s not enough time to hide both the cigarettes and the rum. I sit and make my peace with the fact that the silence of my floor will be filled with my mother’s animated yelling for the next two hours while my grandfather hurriedly shuffles to the bathroom.
“Sir, how many coupons shall I give?” a gruff voice says through the window.
It’s the milkman.
I swear I almost had a heart attack.
After my grandfather has dealt with the milkman, he sits down again and lights up another cigarette. He looks at me and says “Good you do not smoke as much. You’re still on cigarette number one no?”
I smile and nod because once again I don’t have the heart to tell him it is my tenth cigarette of the day. I’m trying to quit but it’s not going well. Which is weird because quitting cigarettes is easy, I quit every month.
“Where was I?” he asks, staring at me.
“You were playing with those boys no Thatha?” I answer.
At this point both of us realise we’re slurring our words. Only one thing to do. Pour more drinks.
“Right right, so anyway I was on the enemy team and we were running around playing when one of the boys I was supposedly on the same team asked me what my name was. Perumal Rama…. To this day I wonder if I actually told him my name or accidentally cursed his family.” he says with an uncomfortable laugh.
My grandfather tells me that the boy who asked him his name, dropped his stick and froze. He stared at my grandfather for a second then asked him “dei nee paraiyar ah?” (are you a paraiyar?). When my grandfather confirmed it, the boy abruptly stops the game and passed this information on to the other boys playing.
“Suddenly playtime is over. They all dropped their sticks and very quickly ran off towards their houses and while I was standing there wondering what happened, a man came out from one of the houses nearby. The boy who asked me what my name was is following the man. The man came straight towards me and slapped me. He slapped me hard. He told me I should never show my face in the village ever again. I don’t know what hurt more that day, my cheek or my ego.”
At this moment I think I see something on my grandfather’s face. I cannot tell if it is sadness or anger. He coughs and asks for another drink.
“I went back to Shanmuga’s house that day and threw the biggest tantrum I have ever thrown. I wanted to come back to Bangalore. I felt like shit and I wasn’t used to feeling like shit. My father was a respectable man. No one dared to even step on my shoes back in Bangalore let alone slap. Shanmuga offered to have the man who slapped me arrested or thrown out of his house at the very least. I didn’t care. I just wanted to leave. I was on a bus headed to Bangalore that Monday.”
I know what happened next because I have heard this story a dozen or so times. My grandfather made it back to Bangalore, his father took him home without a word, introduced him to his newly born half brother (a man I knew as Murugan perumama) and sent him back to St. Joseph’s European High School the next day.
My grandfather has seen and dealt with worse things in his life since he was a ten year old beaten for something out of his control but listening to him tell me this story changed the way I looked at him. He has spoken about seeing his mother die in front of him with lesser pain on his face.
I have been lucky with this whole caste thing, I’m Catholic. If someone were to hit me it’d be because I’m Christian not a different minority. Maybe they’d hit me twice as hard if they knew about my family’s history. I’m a bigot’s dream (or nightmare). Double whammy.
I thank him for telling me this story, he thanks me for the rum. We get up to go downstairs and quickly realise we both cannot walk steadily. He sprays some cologne on himself and I pop a piece of candy in my mouth. After a little pep talk we both decide we look sober enough to go downstairs and act like normal, functional humans.
We eventually make it downstairs but the way my mother looks at me more disappointed than angry and the way my grandmother wrinkles her nose at my grandfather as he goes near her to give her a hibiscus he plucked from a pot on my balcony tells me that we aren’t fooling anyone.