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Friday, April 04, 2014

A tribute to four ordinary men

Excerpts from my yet-to-be-completed book: The Witness – An autobiography of an ordinary man

..............I want to introduce four ordinary people known to me and tell you what their life was all about. I may go a little personal in these pages and this is meant only as a tribute to these four people, and in no way to be construed as a judgement of their life.

My paternal uncle

My paternal uncle died, just missing his 80th birthday by a few days, during April 1996. I have closely seen him from my high school days. He was married to a lady who became invalid right from the very first year of marriage. I understand that some close relatives had advised and cautioned my uncle about this lady that she could possibly be having some serious health problem.

Soon after their marriage, this lady’s health condition deteriorated; she started needing extra help to move around, to lie down, to get up, to toilet and soon, she became incapacitated below her waist. She was a very charming lady, very soft spoken and kind. My uncle managed his life with this lady for more than three decades. He gave her every help, whatever she needed - physically, morally, psychologically and financially. I had never seen him complaining about his life. There was total acceptance of his life condition. Despite advice to re-marry, he refused, countering that if this physical ailment had happened to him, would the people ever advice the lady to re-marry.

Obviously, my uncle did not have any child at home. So, every one of us became his child. On any day, one could always find a number of relative children spending their time in his house, mostly reading books, magazines, newspapers; my uncle had spent fortunes in buying books and periodicals for the sake of my aunt, even with his small income. We all enjoyed carte blanche in his place and the couple, both, had the unique quality of giving, giving away their valuable possessions.

After the death of my aunty, my uncle settled with one of his nephews and spent the rest of his lifetime with them, more or less. He devoted his last decade or so of his life, in the development and maintenance work of our family temple. He walked and travelled to people mobilizing small, small money, for renovating the temple and building a compound wall around it to protect it from the encroachers.

He involved with and dedicated himself to the preparation and conducting marriage functions in several families. He was always there as a friend, philosopher and guide; always went around places with a bundle of horoscopes; finding alliances for marriage for eligible boys and girls.

He was a staunch supporter of Indian National Congress party and happily discussed politics. He discussed many people’s family issues with them and offered them free counselling. He would offer compromises for difficult situations. Orthopraxy was more important to him than orthodoxy.

Eventually, he died in a hospital, after he accidentally fell inside a bathroom and a few complications in his health thereafter. To the best of my memory, he never had any health problem, though he took medicine for his blood pressure in his old days. He had no restrictions on his diet and he liked spicy food.

He always felt young, freely travelling, roaming around, walking, and talking. He was a good conversationalist too, at his own level. I used to address him “ULAGAM SUTRUM VAALIBHAN,” meaning globe-trotting-youngster.

Was this man’s life a fulfilling one? I used to wonder many times. It should be. He must have gone through his life experiencing everything completely. Was he an extra-ordinary man in today’s context?

My Father-in-law

The second person, who impacted me, was my father in law, Madurai Yegnam.

He worked as an ordinary clerk in the Southern Railway at Madurai. With his meagre income, he stayed along with his wife and three children, in a twelve by twelve portions inside a compound wall, in a cluster of tenements, for more than two decades. He was central and pivotal to a large circle of relations and friends. Everyone visited him whenever they passed by Southern Tamil Nadu, even taking a detour, at times, to meet him. Any time of the year, one always found some or other relative or friend spending a couple of days with his family, notwithstanding his pigeon- hole-like apartment. Not many would have ever given a real, serious thought how this man, with a small income, could manage his large family and still entertain so many guests at his home. Madurai Yegnam was important to them, that was all.

Other than his meagre salary from the Railways, he had no other income. Only when he retired from his work, he saw a four-digit income in his life, by way of pension. He enjoyed the privilege of a railway pass to travel with family all over India as a railway employee, but he hardly used it other than to travel to Ayikudi, near Tenkasi to worship his family deity, Lord Muruga.

He smiled all the time, his smile infectious and highly photogenic. He was friendly with one and all and everyone adored him. (Incidentally, my wife seemed to have inherited from him, most of his pleasant temperaments).  Even when he frowned on rare occasions, it will disappear in moments.

He was very helpful, pious, religiously oriented, accepted his hardships as routine, maintained an excellent relationship with everyone and no wonder, he was a person whom everybody in the society liked and wished to deal with.

Though he lived with his younger son, after retirement, he maintained his financial independence, for his wants were very limited. He was highly contended, never had any great expectations from life and obviously, no disappointments and when he died, he left his small savings to his children. He made no special demands from life and was always ready to accommodate. He specialized in giving – giving his warmth, love, affection, pleasant manners, and anything he had.

He took keen interest in Sanskrit and Hindi language. He had a profound knowledge of Carnatic music; though could sing well, he rarely exhibited his talents openly- but he always enjoyed the music.

His wife (my mother in law) is an embodiment of patience and acceptance. Quite uneducated in today’s context – can only read Malayalam and Tamil – had never complained about anything in her life and made no demand from life, like her husband. She has a total acceptance of her life and continues to work actively in the kitchen, even in her eighties. Excepting recently, she never complained of tiredness – she was physically and mentally quite strong, accepted many deaths of her loved younger ones as quite normal. She never argued on any point, respecting others’ point of view. She had her own world and all her relatives adored her, too. She was very simple minded in her approach, never got perturbed over things, and she continues to live – shall I say, successfully in this world.

The Elder Brother of my Father-in-law

Coming to the third person, the elder brother of my father in law, a retired post master, passed away a few years ago when he was ninety two or so. He had enjoyed the company of his next third generation children in his family. He had four sons and a daughter, yet he preferred to live along with his wife separately, away from his children, enjoying his independence. Everyone visited him regularly and occasionally, he too went to live with his children. Excepting his one son, all his other children married persons of their own choice, even trans-language and he blessed all of them wholeheartedly.

He loved his children, supported all their activities, believed in their capabilities and was always proud of them. He went about independently, taking care of his needs, financially with his small pension and physically, too. Money was never a consideration in his life and he always felt that his life was an example of how one could lead a happy and satisfied life uninfluenced by money.

He had extensive knowledge of the Vedas, agamas (the rules and regulations of rituals and worshipping God) and the Puranas (the ancient epics). His wife, though currently suffers from the usual old age effects, is a great conversationalist, literally a scholar on many subjects including nuclear science, an authority on epics and scriptures of ancient India,  and she maintains a high degree of mental alertness. She had brought up almost all the younger children and grandchildren from their extended family, during her younger days. Everyone adores her. Despite her bad eye condition, she virtually sees people, things, and situations through her alert other senses.

When you visit them in their small village, they treat you like elite, privileged visitors, with all their love and affection. Past their age seventies, they travelled all the way to Australia alone, via Singapore, to spend a couple of months with their youngest son.

Overall, they remained very supportive of their children and all that they did, regardless of their being consulted or not on what they do. The children too, reciprocate their love equally. Both of them, and their children and grandchildren understood the generation gap, accepted the reality of the situation and never allowed their different approaches to life to interfere with their relationship with each other. All they had for their children was pure unconditional love.

In essence, they were a great couple, truly made for each other. Are they extraordinary?  

SRS, the cousin of my father-in-law

It would be an injustice, if I don’t make a mention of SRS, as he is fondly addressed by everyone outside and as ‘Puliyoor Ambi’ by everyone inside the family circle, my father-in-law’s cousin. He worked for the Bombay Electricity Board, lived on a meagre income, in a 10x10 portion of a house in the busy Chembur area in the then Bombay. He had just one son, whom he loved most. He was a personification of someone for whom relationship is everything in life. So, even with his small income, he made it a point to attend every function in his extended family - travelling all the way to the South, mostly – many times, in a cramped, unreserved railway coach.

My first contact with him was more an encounter; I was angered and irritated by him, when he forced some dishes on me during lunch, during my marriage celebrations. But he never took it as an offense. He had travelled all the way to Chandigarh, unmindful of the severe cold, to attend my son’s first birthday – attending the function was very important to him. He adored my wife and her brothers. My father-in-law was addressed as ‘hey, Anna’ by him and the response was always, ‘hey, Ambi.’ Their love for each other was legendary, unspoken and knew no limits. Of course, he loved others too, the same way.

He gave full freedom to his son regarding his studies, supported him to the hilt. His son too, proved his mettle by coming out with shining colours from the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore meritoriously and is now a top executive with one of the leading IT companies.

Money, was very rare in the hands of the poor ‘Ambi’ until his son got employed. Ambi loved Ayikudi, his native place in the Tirunelveli District, famous for Lord Muruga and His temple. Ambi jumped at every opportunity to visit Ayikudi, at times, he created the pretext to visit the place, as he loved the company of Lord Muruga.

During the earlier years, he was closely associated with Chembur Fine Arts Society, Mumbai and then Amar Seva Sangam, an international organization for the physically challenged people established and developed by Shri Ramakrishnan, a native of Ayidudi, who has been leading the major part of his life from a wheelchair.

SRS, the ‘Ambi’ breathed last in the soils of Ayikudi during March, 2014, soon after meeting all his relatives and well-wishers, numbering a few hundred, during his Sadabhishekam function, his eightieth year birthday celebrations. He was like a ‘Bhishma pithamaha’, with strong convictions, bonding with people, accommodating and loving everyone. If he had any complaints in his life, at least he never openly exhibited them. He was able to forgive people easily and move with them as though nothing had ever happened.

A couple of months before he died, he was diagnosed with a life threatening illness, necessitating blood transfusion, twice. But he was a completely transformed, rejuvenated man when he landed in Ayikudi for his eightieth year birthday celebrations, full of energy and enthusiasm, without any symptoms of his critical illness. He even travelled all the way to Tirunelveli, just a day before his death. Such was his love for the soil of his birth, Ayikudi. The heavy turnout of people at the eightieth birthday celebration, that included several septuagenarians and a few octogenarians walking with the support of a crutch – was a remarkable tribute to the ever-loving SRS, ‘Ambi’.

What do we call these people? Ordinary! Successful!

Does one need to be extraordinary to be successful? After all, what is success? Is it just material prosperity alone? I continue to wonder.

T N Neelakantan 

Do you like this blog post? If so, you might be interested in my following other, earlier blog post too.


  1. Simple, beautiful, heartfelt and poignant. Thank you!!

  2. Simple, beautiful, heartfelt and poignant. Thank you!!

  3. Blog on this has been very thought-provoking & interesting. As i have seen most of them in a totally diverse occasions / functions now I am able to relate them with your family. They are really extraordinarily great. Within their domain - those days say upto 1969 or beginning of 70's,- their life was within their Joint Family upto 1950's then within a distance of Districts or maximum to City of madras or Bombay. - They wanted everyone of their siblings to have a happy life. Never can we judge them or rate their lives with today's parameters. Ayikudi is our Kula Dheiva Sthalam too. I am proud to be associated with you, Sir. Regards. Natesan / 02 April 14