The Open Dosa

Consuming the Ordinary Differently

Untold histories paint poor pictures

Albin Fernando was my great grandfather and the editor of the newspaper ‘Tamil Mani’. He was known to be a daring reporter in Tamil Nadu during the ‘50s & ‘60s because he exposed the hypocrisy of several politicians and actors.

When I heard this story again, I was awestruck by this man. Thatha was a hero and would have received greater acclaim in today’s political climate. Now he is enlisted with the other glorious writers who broke out of political constraints and voiced the truth. Mumma, infuriated at his audacity, says, “He was arrogant and irresponsible”. She argues her case by pointing out that he failed to consider the repercussions of his work. Apparently, this was a family chorus against his writing.

Mumma also calls thatha a thorough spendthrift. He jeopardized the family’s financial stability by squandering every penny earned. Of course, they were rich and were even the first on their lane to own a car. Still, the fear of bankruptcy did lurk about and often surfaced in the form of admonition.

I reckon that my family failed to comprehend the job of a journalist, which, more often than not, required boldness and bravado to uncover the truth. Even if they did enjoy the new money that came from the publication of the daily. When they eventually slid down the rungs of the economic ladder, their fears were realised.

One day thatha contracted a boil on his thumb and went to see a doctor about it. Conniving politicians, gaining knowledge of this, sent henchmen to pay off the doctor to amputate the thumb. So during the appointment, thatha’s thumb was unapologetically cut off. I can’t put a finger on whether it was mumma or paati who first told me the story. I desperately wish that paati was here to connect the dots because she could have an elaborate first hand account. Unfortunately, she is busy decomposing since 2011.

There are various versions of this story. Nevertheless, all of them have one thing in common – they are fragments. They form pieces of a complex jigsaw puzzle that can never be completed. Not too long ago, I visited Rakhi paati (my paati’s sister), who is one of the last surviving members of the Fernando household. We met after nearly a decade.

I hesitated to ask her about the incident, but finally mustered up the courage, “Patti, can I ask you something?”

She responded with a firm nod so I went on to pose the question, “Was your daddy’s thumb cut off because of his controversial writing?”

She replied, “No lover*, that never happened to daddy.”

I was taken aback. Was it all a lie?

“Son, how am I supposed to remember these things when I can’t even remember whether I added salt in the food?”

My curiosity jumps back in, “But wasn’t it cut off?”

She finally catches glimpses of her fleeting memory, “Oh, yes! But it wasn’t the thumb. It was the forefinger.”

“No, it could also have been the thumb.”, she concludes.

Since typewriters existed at that time, I asked my mother whether thatha needed to type out his stories after the amputation. She said that he never did because he preferred to write by hand. Later, he would go on to teach my uncle to draw by placing a pencil between the index and middle finger.

Tamil Mani crumbled after the incident. Just like the rest of this family’s history, the enterprise too couldn’t be salvaged. My mother doesn’t remember anything apart from the severing of the thumb. Aunts haven’t a clue about their grandfather being an editor of a paper.

My cousins are oblivious to any other incident, except the oldest one who recounts another snippet. She says that thatha boarded a boat to Sri Lanka to cover a story. He ran into trouble there as well and had to leave at lightning speed back to India. This episode probably happened before the amputation. Rakhi paati confirmed that thatha did indeed travel to Sri Lanka.

Another part of his life recovered! Regrettably, every other memory about this man seems to be exhausted, and thus the picture remains incomplete.

*This is a term of endearment used by Rakhi paati for all the male children in the family.

Image credits: Melinda Sequeira

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