Thursday, April 02, 2015

B – Bangalore – 1939

Four generations: Three continents: Two world wars: One village   
These are tales spanning four generations spread across three continents in between and after the two world wars of people who set forth under different circumstances from one small village called Agaramangudi.   

The story line traverses through different time lines, locations or incidents with no particular order. The only order being the alphabetical one – A to Z meant purposefully for the A to Z challenge. These posts can be read as standalone posts, but would be best comprehended if you read them along with their prelude provided as a link.

Bangalore  – 1939

Prelude :A - Agaramangudi 

Subbu and  Kittu  were brothers.   

Actually they were cousin brothers.  Their fathers were brothers.  Coincidentally  the two of them were born  a few months apart in the same year. Despite the strict upbringing at home and despite the neighbourhood feuds between their fathers for the ancestral property and land, Subbu and Kittu grew up like blood brothers. Nothing would separate their souls from each other.            

They lived in the same Agraharam in neighbouring houses, went to the same school and harboured the secret desire to break out and run away from home.  Handsome,  well built and recklessly young. they had painstakingly worked out their plan in detail to get away from  Agaramangudi  and strike out on their own.  They had secretly planned to run away and enlist into the ‘Pattalam’.
Pattalam’ a corrupted version of the English word ‘Battalion’ was the local slang for the army.

It was the year 1939 and the British Army was recruiting Indian men to fight the war in Africa against the Germans.   
News had reached Agaramangudi  and other far flung villages around Kumbakonam and Thanjavur that the British were enlisting young men to fight the war in foreign countries. It was an exciting dream to chase for the two young men from Agaramangudi. It was as if god had answered the prayers  for Subbu and  Kittu .   
There was no way their fathers or their mothers were ever going to let them go.  In any case they had no intention of asking their parents for permission. At home, speaking their mind or speaking up for themselves was beyond the question.  
 All they needed to do was to run away from home and reach Bangalore, where volunteers were flocking from all over the south to enlist into the British Army.  It was their way of rebelling against the stifling orthodoxy and strict upbringing at home.
Despite being able bodied men in their early twenties, brought up in strict orthodox Brahmin households they still were forbidden to stand up in front of their fathers,  grandfathers or other male elders and speak anything.
Occasionally if one of them was caught in an act of rebellion that shamed the family name , a leather belt would go down and they would be flogged a fifty times by their fathers while their mothers begged their husbands to stop.
The last time this happened was when the two of them set out with Sivachami Padayachi, a loyal young labourer only a couple of years older  to them,  to the Padayachi settlement on the outskirts of the village to enjoy a meal of chicken and toddy.  He was their go between to a world that existed outside the Agraharam. 
Sivachami lived with his widowed mother and brother in a mud hut with thatched roof along the mango orchard rearing the Cattle that belonged to the Natesa Iyer family at the farthest end of the Agraharam.     
News soon got into the Agraharam that the Brahmin boys drunk with Toddy, had made quite a mess of themselves.  Had Agaramangudi had a tabloid this would have been front page celebrity gossip for months.
Only the other day, Kittu was caught perched high up amidst the mango tree when the women bathing in the Agraharam pond in the mango orchard screamed out loud on spotting a young man staring at them from up above when they were in their semi naked state.   
 Sankara Iyer, his father  took his belt out on the front veranda of his house, summoned the errant son and flogged him so everyone including the women could hear the boy scream and shout.      
The young and charming Kittu could never again walk with his head up in the Agraharam, because every time he stepped out, he heard giggles of the women  from behind the doors.
That was when Kittu  decided.  His time in the Agraharam was over.  If ever he would return, he would return as a hero.  No woman would dare giggle at him.
Nothing was ever a secret between the two  of them.  Subbu and Kittu  knew how to keep a  secrets to themselves.  They hatched a plan.        
Subbu’s sister Kannammal was getting married the week after.  The celebrations would last over three days. Amidst all the preparations for the wedding celebrations that were going on in the Agraharam, nobody really had the time to notice anyone.  As brothers of the bride, they were expected to join the ‘Janavasam’ procession and welcome the groom’s family into the Agraharam. The groom would be brought to the village temple in a horse drawn carriage for all the villagers to see before they would seal the formal engagement ceremony between the groom’s father and the bride’s father.  Natesa  Iyer , the father of the bride, had made arrangements for a grand celebration.
For the groom during the engagement ceremony, his eldest son Subbu gifted his brother- in- law-to-be a gold ring, a thick gold chain and a kundalam (diamond earring) which was something all Brahmin men wore as ear studs along with a thick kudumi ( tuft of hair tied up like a ponytail) for a hairstyle.

Through all these ceremonies the bride would remain at home, being readied for the wedding ceremony the next day. She would see  the man she would marry and spend a lifetime, only  a few minutes before the muhurtham – the auspicious  time set for tying the knot. The malai mattru ceremony  where they would exchange garlands is when she could catch a glimpse of her husband to be. That is, if she gathered the courage to look at the groom when she put her garland around his neck.
Kannammal  was 15 years old.  She was what we would call in modern times pretty freaked out with all that was happening to her.  Last year she had come of age and no sooner, her father had started receiving horoscopes of eligible grooms  from far and near for a wedding proposal.   
The bride groom was studying Mathematics and was the son of a the village Mirasdar (landlord) at Oppiliappan Kovil, another Agraharam built around the ancient Vaishnavaite temple on the banks of Cauvery  about twenty miles  from Agaramangudi.
The land was fertile and they were having a good harvest for a couple of years.  Natesa  Iyer was determined to pull off a grand wedding like no other for his elder daughter.  Decked in gold jewellery and made to order Kanjeevaram sarees directly from the weavers in Ayyampettai , the fifteen year old Kannammal  looked demure and pretty on the outside and freaked out from the inside.

There were two  others who were pretty freaked out during the wedding celebrations.  Their plan to run away from Agaramangudi was now polished to perfection.  They could not wait to get out and  breathe the fresh air of the outside world that would be devoid of oppression and ridicule that was rife in Agaramangudi. As per the plan, Subbu and Kittu would accompany the bride to her marital home when the procession left in a series of bullock carts along with the Groom’s relatives.  While Kannammal would be in a bullock cart with her newlywed husband and in-laws, Subbu and Kittu  would board various other bullock carts along with the relatives, thus making themselves inconspicuous.

It was around 12.45 in the afternoon everyday that the Mayavaram – Bangalore passenger train crossed the Railway gate on the outskirts of Agaramangudi before stopping over at the Kumbakonam junction.     

Subbu  and  Kittu silently alighted from their respective bullock carts in the pretext of taking a leak just after the railway crossing and walked backwards and hid themselves behind the Trees.
As the Bangalore – Mayavaram passenger slowed down while crossing the railway gate, they hopped on to the bogie next to the engine and climbed upwards.  It was something that they had seen others do when they walked to school.

It was an exciting moment as they now inched away to freedom.  It would be a couple of days before they would be discovered missing. While the folks  in Agaramangudi believed they had gone to see off their sister settling in her marital home in Oppiliyappan Kovil, their  sister would be baffled  at the absence of her brothers when she reached her Marital home.  She would be too preoccupied to send across the message that they never arrived at her Marital home in the first place.   Meanwhile Subbu and Kittu  would have travelled a long way to Bangalore and would have  enlisted themselves with the British Army.             

Possibilities were rife for the two young men as they walked along  the bogies of the Mayavaram - Bangalore  passenger train as ticketless travellers, escaping the scrutiny of the fearsome Train ticket examiner the TTE.

Normally, travelling ticketless would have bothered them. But in the wake of the massive revolt that they had signed up to, travelling ticketless seemed like a small act of rebellion.  As long as they had managed to travel a couple of hours on the train even if the  TTE shunted them down at the next station,  they would wait another day and take the next train bound to Bangalore or Madras or wherever. All that mattered was to get away from home.

Subbu and Kittu  sat down near the entrance of the door taking in the fresh breeze  that was lapping  across their faces  while the train rattled along to reach Tiruchy junction.  Vendors and passengers were crossing their way to the toilet and to wash their hands after eating from the lunch boxes  that were packed from home.

It was then that Kittu noticed a familiar face.  Raghava Shastry, the pompous old astrologer from Tiruchy was returning in the same train after attending the wedding in Agaramangudi . He was once upon a time a student of their grandfather Sapthagiri Shastry, the Vedic  Scholar who was the head of Veda pathashala (boarding school that taught vedas) in Agaramangudi.  Raghava Shastry himself was  a renowned astrologer and had a popular following amongst all the families in the Agraharam.

Whenever horoscopes had to be drawn up for a new born, marriages solemnized for the young or a bad health had befallen the older ones, they would all flock to Raghava Shastry who apparently  could predict what lay ahead by studying the zodiac patterns of the stars that were juxtaposed during the time of their birth and imprinted as a horoscope. 
The old man had acquired  a celebrity status amongst the clan some ten years ago. That was when his otherwise unknown son-in-law had risen to acquire worldwide  fame.  Raghava Shastry  claimed that he had predicted the good fortunes of his son-in-law through the matching of his daughter’s horoscope almost thirty years ago.     

There was no way Subbu or Kittu wanted to risk getting identified by Raghava Shastry.  If the old astrologer got a whiff of what they were up to, it was only a matter of time that they would be discovered and sent home.  It would be many more rounds of public flogging and that would put an end to all their dreams of freedom.
They had to think quickly.
This was the bogie next to the engine and there was no way they could escape Raghava Shastry and the TTE together.  It was decided that the risk of being spotted by the old astrologer was a bigger risk and had to be avoided at all costs.  The train had moved on after Srirangam station. It  would slow down while crossing the bridge over the River Cauvery.
It was here that they would jump into the river and swim away to safety till the coast was clear.
It looked like a plan. Kittu was all geared up. Subbu hesitated.  It was his fear of heights. Every time when Kittu  would climb high up the trees surrounding the temple pond  and dive deep into the pond, Subbu would tip-toe from the railings of the pond and get into the water to swim in the pond.
Fear of heights was something he could not overcome even in his adulthood.   Kittu goaded him into jumping into the Cauvery.  The Cauvery river was swollen after the monsoons, besides it would be fun, he  said.  Subbu really had no other way out.  It was a much better option than to be discovered by Raghava Shastry and taken back home.
As the train slowed down on the Cauvery bridge, it was Kittu who took the plunge first.  Kittu had  offered to push Subbu, if he could not bring himself to take the plunge.  Subbu refused the help and said he would go next and asked Kittu  to take the plunge.  As he watched Kittu  jump and then swim across the river while the train was slowly rattling across the bridge, Subbu developed what is known in English as the Achilles heel.

It was a  fear that would remain with him all his life.
It was a regret that would remain with him all his life.
The train moved on and crossed the bridge.  At Srirangam station, Raghava Shastry bumped into Subbu and asked him, what he was doing over there when he should have been at his sister’s place in Oppiliyappan kovil. A hesitant Subbu made some excuse,  and obediently  returned to Agaramangudi after going to his sister’s place the next day.  All throughout, he kept his secret to himself, when the entire Agraharam  went  berserk wondering why and where Kittu went missing.  

Kittu  was gently washed aside the banks of River Cauvery where he spent the next day worrying hoarse about Subbu’s whereabouts.  He could not rule out the possibility of Subbu drowning into the river. Kittu suspected he never took the plunge but was not sure. 
In any case, for Kittu there was no looking back. 
He  bided his time in hiding for the next few days and took the Mayavaram–Bangalore passenger train and travelled ticketless, undiscovered by the TTE. He sorely missed Subbu.  But he also knew that he was on a mission.

Bangalore Cantonment was where the British army was enlisting soldiers for the war in North Africa. Men from all over the Madras Presidency were flocking to enlist themselves in the army.  Contrary to what the men had expected, enlisting in the army required them to undergo physical ability tests.  They were to carry a sack load of sand and run the ground at the army camp and do ten rounds. That was the basic minimum physical fitness expected out of a soldier.

It  was a challenge Kittu was not accustomed to.  In the last few days, swimming for hours in the Cauvery had made Kittu  contract fever. Moreover lack of sleep and proper food had made him very weak.  He worried if he would clear the physical fitness test.

When his turn came, Kittu  set out with a gunny bag filled with sand and ran the ground as  fast as possible.  Feverish and suffering a severe bout of cold, he almost  collapsed after the third round. As he picked himself up to continue, he remembered the humiliation and ridicule he had undergone at home. There was no going back. It was his determination to escape the stifling past that made him push himself  to complete the next seven rounds.  It was a triumph of mind over matter.   Kittu finished the physical ability test and was enlisted.
Subbu was back in Agaramangudi and Kittu was enlisted to travel to North Africa to fight the Germans for the British Army. 

It was the first time, the two of them realised that they were not inseparable.  
Destiny would take them in two different directions for the rest of their lives.     

To be continued ...Afterlude - D - Delhi -1979



  1. These stories are amazing. I love Hearing about personal stories to get an idea of different lives.

  2. These stories are amazing. I love Hearing about personal stories to get an idea of different lives.

  3. Can't wait to hear more from you... what happens next? Will they reunite after they go their different ways ?


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