Friday, December 19, 2008

A daughter-in-law’s story – Ammal Mathew

As a daughter-in-law of the family, let me share my memories about Achayan and Ammachy.

The perfect way to begin would be my first day in Chirayil House. On the fifth day after marriage which was my first day in the house, I got up early, got ready and marched myself to the kitchen. Ammachy was already there. With a sweet smile in my direction she promptly went on with her chores. I didn’t know what to do but stand there and watch her do all the work by herself. How embarrassing!!! It would’ve helped if she had told me what to do but she didn’t and for good reason. She, it turns out, had a set pattern around the kitchen. The first thing she did was to get the ‘aduppu’ (wood stove) ready, then keep the ‘kalam’ (pot) with water for boiling rice on it. Only after this would she switch on the gas stove to make coffee. I swear I also remember her telling me there was no need to wake up so early as there was no such formality in the house and then she made me coffee.

I used to think at first that she was a bit miserly. For good reason, wouldn’t you think? She used to make coffee for the entire family with just one glass of milk. At times, she would scold me for not keeping the left out milk in the fridge, even if it was only half a glass. It was only much later on in life that I realized that this was how she managed to get all her seven children well educated and could bring them up successfully on Achayan’s limited salary as a school teacher.

She loved her children very deeply. There were times when I felt that only her children were allowed into the inner circle. But I know she loved all of us spouses and her grandchildren even though she never expressed this love. Over the years, when I got to know her better, I realized that that was her nature. She might not have expressed it but her love was there for everyone to see and she cared very deeply for each one of us. An example of her love for her daughters-in-law was her sharp reaction to a stray comment about me always falling sick. Ammachy very angrily replied with, ‘Ammal does all her work, is managing her own house and children very well. No one else is doing it for her’. I do not remember if I was there at the time but I remember being very thrilled when I heard about it and I will always remember the incident with gratitude.

I also remember getting a knife from Ammachi before leaving for Madras for the first time. It was strange as I expected advice from her, since I did not have a mother anymore to tell me what to take into a new house and kitchen or what I should do. Then I realized that a good knife is an important part of a good kitchen and it was really nice of her to gift it to me.

She would never stop us going home while on vacation. Normally one would expect a mother-in- law to have a problem with their daughter-in-law going home but Ammachy would not mind. Of course she sure wanted her children to spend time with her at home.

When I think of Achayan, I feel happy and thankful to have had him also as my father. He was a gentleman, a good father, a good neighbor, a good friend to so many and above all a good Christian. I have heard that he was a good teacher and a bad businessman as Biju puts it but I never got to see that side of him. He had a wide circle of friends and knew all relatives, his own and surprisingly even mine. He is the one who taught me all about my grandparents' extended family. You see at that time, I knew my aunts and uncles very well but not so much my relatives at my grandparents' level. But he knew each and every one so well.

I remember him climbing the Puthuppally hill to see Madhu when he was a baby. He would do this quite often and he was quite excited on the baptism day as he was going to be the god father. When we were in Trivandrum, Achayan and Ammachi came and stayed with us for a few days. Ammachi was quite happy to stay there and would never interfere in the running of the house. She would cut vegetables and then take rest. Achayan was a different story though. He could never stay at home. He would visit all the neighbors and by the end of their stay he had made lots of friends.

We were lucky to stay with Ammachi and Achayan for 2 months when Ammachi was bed-ridden. I would cook up curries like ‘chakkakuru manga’ (jackfruit and sour mango curry) and ‘chemmenum manga’ (prawn and sour mango curry) and so on. As mentioned by Johny, Achayan was very fond of food. And once he said it tasted exactly like his mother’s preparation. What was the secret? I used to, very sneakily, ask my aunt for the recipes and prepare them. Even though I had to work quite a lot, I would feel happy when he enjoyed eating it.

Achayan and Ammachy were good people. They used to argue a lot but never used to shout at each other or use bad language. When Ammachi was bed-ridden and couldn’t talk too much, she would always want someone near her. I still remember whenever Achayan used to pass by the room she would stretch out her hands. Most times Achayan would never see but whenever he did, he would go into the room, hold her hand and sit there for a while and talk, True love to the end.

I am happy to be a part of this family. All the credit goes to Achayan and Ammachy for bringing up their children so well. I have never seen them fighting with each other or with other people. So hats off to them and I thank Almighty for their lives and their love for each other and for us.

When I think of Ammachi, I remember her walking up and down the kitchen and I can still hear the sound of her chappals on the floor very clearly even now...

Thursday, December 18, 2008

My Chirayil Family – Rebeca Mathew

I have a strong passion for my maternal grandfather who I called Kottayam Appachen. He was a very lovable person.

My earliest memory of him is that he used to send me biblical story books in Malayalam. As I was studying in Delhi at that time and was not familiar with Malayalam words it was of great help to me and my mother who used to tell me those stories before my afternoon naps.
When we came to Kerala from Delhi, even though we were going to my paternal grandparents’ house in Chengannur, he would be waiting to greet us at Kottayam station and he would invite us to come to Kottayam at the earliest.

People of all age i.e., from small children to very old people enjoyed his company. All of his grandchildren loved him very much. He knew each and every one of them at heart and dealt with each likewise which was really amazing and is a memory which I still keep close to my heart.

Appachen knew many Malayalam and English folk songs and he used to sing them with gestures. As I was a small child and loved music, I would fall into giggles on seeing them. I remember the cat which Ammachi hated, curling over Appachen’s bushy chest hair during his afternoon siesta. Even though Ammachi was bedridden at that time, she could feel the cat’s presence and would shout to shoo it off.

I always remember Ammachi as a strict person and a gorgeous cook. The taste of her beef ullarthiyathu, cabbage thoran, sambar and pacha moru (in that combination) still stimulates my taste buds and to avoid “direct competition” I never make it. As my brother wrote, she used to keep the kitchen very neat which I admired and I now try to do the same!

My mother was very much fond of all her brothers and sisters and I still remember her talking about each one of them often. She told me that tears would run down Johnychayan’s eyes during her story sessions which Ammachi found as an alternative to keep her children calm and quiet.
I was always fascinated by the way Leelakochamma used to keep her clothes in the cupboard. During summer holidays most of the family members would come together at Kottayam. The nightly talking sessions were very interesting. Appachen, Ammachi and all of us would gather together for the evening prayer.

During my mother’s period of illness, all her brothers and sisters looked after her very much. They even left their families and were extremely keen on helping her. We cousins also have that sort of a strong bond between us even though we are in different parts of the world and busy with our own duties.

I always loved being part of a close knit family. I am fortunate by the grace of God to be linked to such a family. I thank my cousin Lisa for giving me this opportunity to write about Chirayil Family. I hope and pray to God that this bond of love between family members will be continued for ever.

Monday, December 15, 2008

What I learnt from my parents - Lily Mathew

Let me start with Ammachi. The foremost impression about her would be that she had dedicated herself to the wellbeing of her children. Ammachi sacrificed her comforts and leisure for her seven children and cared for them equally. She knew our potential and short comings and ably guided them accordingly. She always had a good idea about our teachers, friends and class work. When we returned home after an examination, she could guess how many marks we would score from our body language. Ammachi was proud of her children. It was her firm belief that her children would not lie or do anything that was wrong. Her belief in us saved us from many a wrong deed in our life. I do not recall Ammachi ever punishing us, physically or otherwise. But her scolding was powerful enough. She wanted all of us to have a good education and for that our studies in the lower classes had to be good enough for us to build upon later so she focused her efforts to give us that strong base. As she put it in her colourful way, she had to do all this with one child inside her, one on her hips and one underfoot.

I always tried to limit my study period to a minimum, but stood little chance in avoiding her eagle eye or strong reaction to such tactics. The final university examination for languages was held immediately at the end of my 2nd year of B.Sc and so the usual annual examination for the subjects [Physics and Mathematics] was rescheduled after the long summer holidays. I was reluctant to study during the holidays but Ammachi thought otherwise so I ended up revising and getting a better grasp of the fundamentals during the holidays. This, I think, helped me to graduate with higher grades. If we did not do well in our studies, the feeling that we would be letting her down was always at the back of our mind. Her family always came first for Ammachi.

Achayan was different. It did seem that social commitment came first with him. He was always active in public affairs. Though he was very pleased when we excelled in something and was always willing to help out if approached, Ammachi was the one who put in the hard work and effort. Achayan liked people and cared for them. He was always prepared to help others. We never found him jealous of other’s successes and he was always glad when somebody did well. He refrained from smoking, drinking and most other bad habits except perhaps his love for food, especially well cooked food! He tended to trust everybody unlike Ammachi who had a knack for assessing people with a high degree of accuracy. He found great pleasure in company, inviting them home, serving them good food and talking to them. The difficulties at home hardly ever deterred him from this exercise.

Achayan and Ammachi did not see eye to eye on many things. But there was deep respect and affection between them. During our school days we had to return home before nightfall. The process of settling down for our evening studies usually started with arguments and quarrels and ended only when Ammachi entered the scene. Then it was time for bathing, study and dinner in that order. Achayan would return from the local club or other activity but by then all the hullabaloo was over and the scene was peaceful. The younger kids were asleep by that time. After Achayan’s bath and dinner we would assemble for evening family prayer. This was usually followed by a family chit chat session. Looking back, I feel that that was a very enjoyable part of the day.

Even in our college days, when we returned home for our holidays we tended to share our experience at college and hostel with Ammachi. She was always an interested listener. The usual venue for these conversations was the kitchen. So we were always aware of each other's college and hostel life, friends, teachers etc. Susy, the eldest of us, had a special talent for going into detail in such a way that made it very interesting to listen to. Achayan had no time to spare for such things and hardly ever participated. Later in life he used to say half jokingly that we were all more close to Ammachi. Still later, he often fondly reminded us of Ammachi’s role in our upbringing and achievements. Achayan and Ammachi were able to keep high moral and religious standards, took the effort to develop the same attitudes within us and taught us to be equitable in all our dealings.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Ammachi bribed me - Nisha Mathew

When I first heard about the Chirayil Chronicles Blog I was stumped. I didn’t know what to write and wholly attributed it to bad memory. Then as I started reading the posts I felt bad that I still couldn’t figure out what I wanted to write (I wonder if bad memory is in the family). So I thought I would just let it slide till Amma decided to help me out a bit… very sly on her part I must say!

The earliest snippets of memory I have of Kerala and the extended family is of the vacations spent with them but that was a month’s worth of bonding once in 2 or 3 years, gone too soon and with too little time spent with anyone in particular. However I did get to spend 2 whole months in Kerala with Appachen and Ammachi once because Nimmu Aunty, Kalpana and Kavita were away travelling with Johny Appa and I think I will write a little bit about that time.

Being the whiny child I was, I complained quite a bit about staying there and doing nothing fun. Ammachi was not well by then and was bedridden with a home nurse to look after her. She used to miss having people around her and it fell upon me, very naturally, to give her company. I would spend my days at her bed side, hold her hand and quietly read a book. Looking back, it was such a peaceful time, not wasted on small talk but in our own special way grandmom and granddaughter got a chance to bond.

For those wondering about the title, here we go. Yes, I used to sit by her side but do not think that I went down without a fight! Everyday was a bargaining battle between me and Ammachi. In other words she used to bribe me to sit with her and I used to absolutely love it! We were forever fighting about the status of the fan in the room. I liked to have the fan running while she preferred it otherwise. So while the home nurse would quietly endure the Kerala heat, Ammachi gave me permission to switch the fan on the entire time I would sit with her but I think we bargained it down to alternate days because I remember being positively hot and bothered some days. I guess that’s why she offered me her new chappals as a bribe ;-) Now I wonder if I took her up on the offer or not.

It still feels a bit weird to walk into that room even after so many years. It was her room and will always be.

About Appachen, I remember that Amma would spend quite a lot of time in the kitchen preparing some special dish or the other and would then wait for Appachen to finish eating it. He being the sweetest person would eat with relish and compliment Amma on another great meal. Meanwhile I would be complaining about all the food items on my plate (no offence mom!). The evening prayers were an event even though I would fall asleep halfway thru it. Appachen would make sure he included everyone in his prayers. Another special time for me and a reason to take a break was when he would come into Ammachi’s room and hold her hand and talk. I never stuck around to find out what they talked about or if they even talked really, though I now wish I had!

For all the fights and the bargaining, I felt horrible leaving them, leaving her at the end of those 2 months, all complaints forgotten. These are good memories to have even though I might have forgotten it for a bit. Thank you Amma for reminding me!

Our Role Models - Valsa Jacob

Achayan and my father were old friends so when I came as a bride to my new home, I had an extra feeling of happiness.

Achayan and Ammachi were very different in nature and character but both loved their children deeply. Ammachi was ready for any extent of sacrifice for the wellbeing and progress of the children. I think that this character trait has been transmitted to the children also, though to a lesser extent.

Achayan was of a very social and outgoing nature. Everyday, atleast one new person got acquainted with him and they rarely forgot him. He was a teacher for more than 35 years and his students had loving memories of him.

Recently I had an experience of this when the students and teachers of our school planned a trip to Chennai. I contacted a cousin of my colleague who is an advocate there. When I said I belonged to Chirayil family in Kanjikuzhy, his instant response was whether I was related to Mathew Sir.

Both Achayan and Ammachi were straightforward and broadminded. They are role models to the children and remain ever fresh in our memories.

Vivid flashbacks of Kottayam - Elisabeth Jacob

Whenever I think of Appachan and Ammachi, I remember many people, homes, places, incidences and smells of Kottayam rather than two persons. These things to a large extent made my childhood happy and secure and helped to develop a sense of belonging and also gave meaning to relationships.

A trip to Kottayam was something I always looked forward to. When it was a ride in our Herald car, the three things I remember most are the coffee we drank from the flask during the ride, the place in Vaikom where they sell Karimeen and the tense moment when we were about to climb a steep road somewhere after Vaikom. But I think 99% of the time the Herald car climbed the steep without any hitch.

Usually we took a train journey on the Ernakulam-Kottayam passenger train which started from Ernakulam South Station. At the railway station, we would weigh ourselves on the weighing machine and compare our futures which were printed on the other side of the card which gave us our weight. If it was only Amma, Akka (Big sis) and I, we always sat in the compartment reserved for Ladies. Since the train started from Ernakulam, it was almost empty and Akka and I would take the window seat. The hard wooden seats inside the compartment and the coffee in the paper cup are unforgettable. Whenever a curve came, we would press our faces close to the window to look out and be able to see both ends of the train. When it was a coal engine, we could see the thick black smoke coming out of the chimney and by the end of the journey, a thin black film of soot had settled on our faces.

In Ernakulam it was always red Private buses on the roads, but in Kottayam they were multi-coloured and the bus which stopped in Kalathippady (I think it was called Monichen, wasn’t it?) was orange in colour. When Appachan and Ammachi were staying in the old house, after getting down at the bus stop, we would start walking and would invariably meet one or two relatives so Amma would stop to have a small chat. Amma has this special ability to remember the complicated way a person is related to the family!

The black gate, the mittam (front yard) with charal (stones), the tapioca plants on both sides, the lone Chetthi plant in front of the house, the front door with the little bars, all used to give me a homecoming feeling. Most of the time, nobody would be there in the front part of the house. We would just walk in, put away our bags in one of the rooms and then go to the kitchen where sure enough we found Ammachi near the aduppu (wood stove) or sitting in a chair doing some cutting.
I don't think I had any long conversations or for that matter any small conversation with Appachan or Ammachi. Most of the time it is Amma's or my uncles' and aunts' reminiscences about them which formed a picture in my mind. I always considered Ammachi as a woman with strong will. All her children used to say how Ammachi used to keep prodding them to study, how she considered all her children as the best. Having seven kids and living far away from her relatives with little support from Appachan must have been very tough!

The kitchen in the old house brings to mind Eli and Maria, the two ladies who helped Ammachi. Eli's head always used to move from side to side and Maria had a wide smile which used to show her teeth, which at that time I thought was perfectly set ;-) Ammachi used to move around the kitchen in unhurried steps. The rubber slippers she wore used to make a typical sound. Amma and Akka inherited her ability to cut vegetables finely. I only got the ability to appreciate fine cut vegetables! Though Ammachi didn't approve of it, I enjoyed putting Ola (coconut leaf used for kindling) into the aduppu to watch it catch flame. I remember the kuzhal (blower) to blow in the air and make the firewood catch fire, the pazhakula (bunches of bananas) in the storeroom, the nellu (grain) in the chembu (iron pot) outside the kitchen to be boiled and the brass pot used to boil the water for bathing.

I used to enjoy sipping morning coffee in a glass. It was always puttu (rice flour breakfast meal) and banana for breakfast. By noon, curry and rice was on the table. After lunch, Ammachi kept the leftovers in small plates in the meat safe. I was always tempted to open that small almirah with wire mesh doors but had the courage to do it only after Ammachi went for her afternoon nap. I remember that special smell it had when opened. One by one ;-) I used to pick up and eat the sautéed beans, bitter gourd mezhukkupuratti and the fried (almost black) small pieces of beef.

After the evening tea, we went to visit relatives’ houses. The walk through that narrow thondu (trail) was very exciting. It looked like a maze with big Aanjali trees beside it. The ferns that grew in the space between the stones that made up the walls used to give a damp feeling. We usually came back after 2-3 hours. Ammachi was not very happy about this latecoming and I think since it was Amma she had to deal with, she never ventured into an argument but her silence said it all. At night, the lights were so dim that I was afraid to go to the bedroom without Amma. And Amma (I felt) took her own sweet time to help Ammachi to clean the kitchen. I don't know whether Ammachi appreciated Amma entering into her domain, Akka says they used to argue.

Some of the images that come to my mind when I think of Appachan are; sitting in the grand old chair in front of the table writing in a dairy, reading the newspaper in the cane chair on the verandah or lying down on the bed in the middle room. People used to come home and talk to him and by evening he was out for a walk or to visit somebody. Often Pappachan and Paravan would come to enquire about the work they had to do. I liked to listen to the conversation they had with Appachan. I think both of them had the typical Kottayam accent.

Sometimes when he lay down after lunch, we would ask him to sing and 8 out of 10 times he starts with "Moonu kurutu elikal…" in his vibrating sound. Amma says he was a good teacher and especially the best Geography teacher she knew as he always taught with the help of a map. I think she got her habit of collecting maps of different countries and showing the places in the map to anybody who shows the slight interest from him. Woe betide the the person who is closely related because then even if they are not interested, she will insist on reviewing the map with them!

The hymn “Yesu enn adisthanam…” always reminds me of that dining room and my uncles, aunts, and cousins sitting around the table for prayer. After the prayer, I believe he used to wait for those present in the table to ask a question and initiate a conversation.

I loved both my grandparents and they bound together a big family which gave me this special opportunity to boast of them to anybody who cares to listen and especially to Shaji ;-)

Memoirs of a Grandchild – Kavitha John

Or so I’d like to summarize these few lines I’ve penned down about a couple of moments shared with my grandparents in a time long gone by although I’m afraid that this doesn’t quite qualify for such a title ;-)

Being the thirteenth in a long line of grandchildren and pretty much one amongst the last, I truly can’t comment on the personalities that were Appachen and Ammachy. In fact a thought that has often troubled me is that while they were alive, I took Appachen and Ammachy for granted. To this day I regret that I never really got to know them. Then again I have reasoned and found consolation in that I was merely a kid who hardly understood the dynamics of the world or life as such!

Of the few images I have stashed away in the far recesses of my mind, there are two that I particularly remember. One is of Ammachy sitting on the stairs looking out of the open front door, watching while I dash into the house after spending another torturous day at the playschool (I guess I take after my father in that one).

The other is Appachen walking purposefully towards Kalathipady, swinging his walking stick and looking straight ahead with his head held high. Quite the picture of a very confident man I must say. A word about this walking stick if I may; it served as my make believe mike whenever I took off on my flights of fantasy, entertaining a nonexistent audience!

There are other memories, more of Appachen than of Ammachy, which are flashes from the past. These however, are the two that pop up most often when I remember Appachen and Ammachy.

My Grandfather - Deepu Mathew

As I am the eldest son of the youngest son of my grandparents, I only have some vague memories of them. They both passed away when I was studying in 6th standard. But in that short span I have memorable events.

Like most grandparents, my grandparents were also loving and caring. Most of my memories are about my grandfather. As he was the Scoutmaster of his school, he used to sing to me lots of scout songs. As a kid, I loved it and I used to listen to it with curiosity as he performed actions for each song. I know he didn’t get angry that easily because I used to do all kinds of mischief as a kid and he used to say nothing bad to me about it.

Another thing I noticed about him is that after 3pm, he would always have some visitors and they would all sit on the veranda and chitchat. From my parents I came to know that he loved to talk with people and would always help others in their time of need.

The advantage I have is when anyone asks me “nee evuduthe ana koche” (whose family do you belong to), I only have to say that I am the grandson of Mr. C.V Mathew (Matiyas Sir )and even now, people know of him and from their face and their words, I can see the respect for my grandfather.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

A Silent Tear - Ammal Mathew

This is a poem that Ammalkochamma wrote when Appachan passed away...


I shed a silent tear
For my dear Achayan
He was a great man,
Loved by many

Many thoughts flood the mind
As his body lies cold,
Beautiful memories too
To be treasured for ever

My heart feels heavy,
At the thought of not being there
To kiss him good bye
With others who are lucky

He is watching from heaven above
As I whisper this small prayer,
And shed a silent tear
"May you rest in peace dear, dear father"

You have completed your race
With full faith and trust
Great you actually were, bright you will be
Like a new star in the sky

Thursday, November 13, 2008

A short note on my parents - Shanta Jacob

Ammachi was particular that all her seven children should get good education. She knew each one's capability and talent. Accordingly she took care of each of the childrens' studies and encouraged them to choose subjects suited to them. When any of us had problems, instead of apportioning blame, she would look for solutions and that helped us all in one crucial moment or the other. Achayan, inspite of their difference in nature, used to support Ammachi in this regard. We realised later that they had deep respect and affection for each other like in any good marriage. Ammachi was always courageous and faced adversity with prayer and determination. I am thankful to Achayan and Ammachi for supporting us and sustaining us whenever we needed such support.

Two snippets - Vinu Jacob Mathew

Following are two incidents which highlight the personalities and prejudices of Achayan and Ammachi. The characters of Achayan and Ammachi were quite different in several respects. Achayan was outgoing and gregarious. Ammachi, though friendly, was to a great extent reserved.

Achayan was very particular that no guest should leave the house without atleast a cup of tea. Once, when Achayan was out of station, his friend from Munnar, Mr. A. Mathai, visited us. Ammachi offered him tea but he refused politely. Achayan on returning home was sorry that Mr. Mathai had left without drinking tea. He asked several times why she had not persuaded Mr. Mathai. Exasperated, Ammachi finally retorted that she had tried her level best and the only alternative left was to keep Mr. Mathai forcefully prostrate and spoonfeed him.

Another incident I remember was when I was studying in 5th or 6th standard. At that time TV was unheard of. I had no chance to go to the cinema theatre. Yet I was fascinated by the cinema world and eagerly lapped up cinema news in periodicals and newspapers. However Ammachi had a low opinion of cinema artistes.One day I expressed my desire of becoming an actor. Her instant reply was " It is preferrable to be a beggar than an actor".

Monday, November 10, 2008

Memoirs - By Biju Mathew

I am not of the Chirayil family. Does that make me qualified to write about one of the most illustrious couples of the family? Yes, it does. As their eldest grandson, I lived with them for almost the same number of years that any of their children did. My Appa’s sudden demise and Mummy’s job at Chengannur, resulted in my having to stay with Appachen and Ammachi, and they took over the job of being both my grandparents and my parents at the same time.

My life with Appachen and Ammachi started at a time when Appachen had retired from his job as the Headmaster of a school and both he and Ammachi had started feeling the difficulties of old age. Looking at other retired people I have come across in life, I would roughly place them at the top of a continuum with those whose retirement ends only with complete immobility due to old age rather than with those who await imminent death with despair in every moment of their life.

Appachen was one of those who never really retired. He was always busy. Teaching was his passion and one of his first ventures after his retirement was to start a college which conducted private tuitions for weak students. This (ad)venture failed dismally and proved that Appachen was a very bad businessman. It also threw light on his true character of a big hearted person. He was one of those people who would never become a millionaire. His big heartedness is even today subject to back dated criticism. There were many who fooled him but I am sure there are many more who benefited from his timely generosity. In spite of all the digs made at his big heartedness, his children do display the same generosity, though they may try to hide that fact.

Appachen’s large heart was matched by his physique. Old age ailments were not a deterrent to hearty meals. Meals had to be on time and had to be large. Breakfast was Puttu. Lunch had to have Fish curry or Beef included. Sambar and Cabbage Thoran were also regular dishes. Rice was mixed with Sambar. He would roll the mix into small balls with his hands and they would be rapidly consumed. Dinner was not very different from lunch.

Appachen started his day with a glass of hot coffee followed by ablutions. I was fascinated by his daily shave. He was very particular about using the Godrej brand of shaving soap, a round cake of soap in a small plastic container. It had no distinctive perfume, very unlike the latter day gels or foams. He used an old fashioned safety razor. I would very often venture to touch and feel the fluffy lather.

No sooner was breakfast over that he would be away till lunch time. His attire would be a starched mundu and half sleeved shirt (both white in colour), a rolled up umbrella and a leather pouch. I have never seen him dressed otherwise when going out, though some of the photographs back from his early teaching days, show him dressed in trousers.

Lunch was followed by a short nap. He would be lost to this world for this period. However, his snores were unique. During my early childhood, I would make myself comfortable in the nook of his arm, listen to his snores and somehow feel that all’s well with the world.

His second set of visits to the neighbourhood would start after tea. This time he would be careful to carry his Geep torch since his return would be just after dusk and the by lanes would be dark and lonely. His return would be announced by the sound of the front gate latch opening. His heavy tread would be accompanied by the moving beam of the Geep torch.

Appachen was a fun loving person and an entertainer too. I still remember his renditions of the songs from the days he was in charge of the local Boy Scouts troop. The local church used to organize one day tours to places of tourist importance in Kerala, every year. I was an enthusiastic participant and no prizes for guessing who accompanied me. The other participants would join with Appachen in singing his “Boys Scouts songs” with gusto. The songs were in English, Tamil or Malayalam and were made dramatic by his accompanying actions and gestures. I do not recall the lyrics and very often wish we could compile the songs using some lasting medium, to be enjoyed by future generations.

I cannot proceed further without mentioning Ammachi.

Ammachi’s character, in contrast to Appachen’s impulsive and somewhat boisterous one, was of a cautious and critical nature. She had definite opinions about people, behaviour and the world at large, and her interaction with everyone was based on this frame of reference. This was also a constant cause for heated arguments between her and Appachen.

She was also a stickler for orderliness; her clothes were neatly arranged in the chest of drawers, the cooking utensils were spotlessly clean and she enforced a strict timetable on everyone in the household. From bed coffee in the morning until prayers in the evening, all activities followed a strict schedule. I am in many ways grateful for the training I received from her, though I do not claim the same level of perfection even within a reasonable margin.

This respect for Ammachi’s orderliness came at a later stage. In my childhood, I was a rebel, constantly at odds with her, for her strictness. Like many children, I enjoyed a snack between meals, particularly on weekends, which she strictly forbade. Therefore, I would wait till she took her afternoon nap and then sneak up to the shelf where the snacks were stored and noiselessly try to open the shelf door. But much to my dismay, her sharp ears would catch the slightest creak and I would have to give up my plans.

She also decided who my friends should be, and any child not on her approved list was strictly forbidden to enter the premises of our home, much to my chagrin. The only way again to evade her scrutiny was to tiptoe out of the gate while she had her afternoon siesta. But I am very much sure that she was aware of my unpermitted excursions and only her physical inability to come after me must have stopped her from enforcing her rule at those times.

Her strictness was not a sign of lack of love although she was most undemonstrative about her feelings of affection. All her scolding and her anger stemmed from a feeling of protectiveness and deep concern for her loved ones. My childhood was in many ways a lonely one and there were nights when I would toss and turn in bed, unable to sleep. Even though Ammachi slept in the adjacent room, she would sense my restlessness, come over and sit by my side and fan me with her hand fan till I went off to sleep.

A specific occasion when her innate feeling of affection asserted itself was years later when I was returning to my place of work after a very short vacation. She had become bed-ridden, was unable to speak and was unable to move around without assistance. She burst into tears when I bid her farewell. I was totally disconcerted and the sound of her sobs rang in my ears for many days.

A bystander listening to the heated arguments between Appachen and Ammachi might have concluded that they were an ill-matched couple. However, the same bystander would have been surprised by the single-minded devotion with which Appachen took care of Ammachi, when she became bed-ridden. At this stage Appachen was the healthier among the two, though this was strictly relative; Appachen had serious ailments of his own. Though there were nurses to attend to Ammachi, Appachen was always in the vicinity keeping a close eye on her.

Appachen survived Ammachi, but not for long. Her demise must have most certainly created a void in his life. I am sure he must have missed all those debates which had become a part of his daily routine. He was however, not one to stay at home and brood. I later heard that he used to continue his routine visits to the neighbourhood and even had a spell of dizziness while travelling on a bus. With this incident, he had to be compelled to take bed rest, which he must have been very reluctant to do.

I was not around when either Appachen or Ammachi left this world. However, Appachen’s wish for seeing his great-grandson was fulfilled when my wife, Nancy, took Ajit to meet Appachen.

Appachen and Ammachi were not celebrities to the world at large. But, like many celebrities the world knows about, they distinguished themselves by their strength of character and adherence to values. They have a definite group of admirers among their children and grand children. They are in many ways role models to be copied, in a world which gives scant importance to values. It is my privilege to write these few words as a testimony.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Achayan and Ammachy - John C Mathew

Achayan and Ammachy were two of the most important people in my life. I loved them deeply. And I still love them. Ammachy died on 21 October 1995 and Appachen on 24 October 1997. Ammachy was 85 and Achayan was 89.

Though Achayan and Ammachy were very much different in their characters, one thing was common, their deep love for each other. This aspect of their character gave us children the capacity to love and care for others.

Both my parents gave me the freedom to grow as an individual. They were wise enough to give us that quality to face life with an optimism, which I will always cherish in my life. My parents' principled life is what I consider the greatest contribution to my "character forming". Their memory and the many incidents connected to this memory will always give a boost to my life in all aspects. For me, both Achayan and Ammachy were great people.

My image of Achayan was an angry man in my childhood. Moreover as Achayan and Ammachy used to argue a lot on various things and since I was very fond of Ammachy, I thought Achayan was not a very good person. This image of Achayan gradually changed as I grew up. When I started working on my studies, I got to know Achayan the person as I know him in my present memories. I love and respect him as a person.

Though both of them used to argue a lot, they still used to talk to each other with care and love. Evening prayer was a must in our house and it was usually around 9 pm. Before and after the prayer all of us children used to sit together with our parents for quite a long time and listen to their conversation. We never used to contribute to those conversations but used to listen to their talk. We would get up and go to sleep whenever they had an argument in between the conversation.

After my SSLC, I joined college and was in an hostel about 70 kms from home. It was the first time I was away from home for such a long time. Achayan was very regular in writing letters, one letter every week. He was an excellent letter writer, clear and precise with all information. I remember in one of his letters, he wrote that I should study very hard and that I should get into a professional college. He wrote " Both of your elder brothers could not get into medicine or engineering. I can't send you to these courses by paying money. So if you study well and get admission on merit, I will send you to one of these courses." Luckily I got admission in Engineering and he was very happy to send me.

Achayan was a very outgoing person and took much interest in outdoor activities. He was the club secretary for a long time in Munnar. He was very active in the local church activities. He was also very particular in visiting all his relatives’ and friends’ houses regularly. He continued this after his retirement until he was too old to walk. Because of this genuine friendship and concern, he was a very respected man in his locality.

He never smoked or drank alcohol. But he really enjoyed eating. After I joined the merchant navy, whenever I came home, he always asked about the food on the ship. I would joke about this to my brothers and sisters by telling them the way he used to ask. Now also when we get together, we talk about this in a joking way. He loved his food!

I joined the merchant navy after my engineering. Whoever I came home on my holidays, I used to have long conversations with my father. He had a very good memory and would tell me about all our relatives and his early life in Munnar. I used to ask about his college days, about his relatives, his work experiences. He was very happy to talk about all this. He knew all the connections between the relatives very well. He was one of the best in knowing all the connections. I regret that I did not take any notes then because I have forgotten many of the things he told me.

On the whole Achayan was a good and principled man. He was a broad-minded man with love and concern for others.

Childhood memories of Ammachy are more clear and vivid. I was very fond of her though a little scared too. I went to school when I was four and a half years old. The first day in school itself I decided I would not go the next day. So I hid myself the next day. Ammachy didn't say anything and school was discontinued. After a few days a tuition master came to teach me. That too was for one day because the next day I disappeared. I do not remember Ammachy scolding me for all this. But now when I look back I do not remember anything of the next school year when my studies started. Yet she made sure that I would go to school next year at age five and a half.

Ammachy was a quiet, intelligent and realistic person. She knew what her children were doing and she knew how to deal with it much earlier than a normal person. She dedicated her life to her children and she took it as her duty. Ammachy may not have been as broad minded as Achayan but she was far more sacrificing as far as the family was concerned. She was so observant about us children that when I came from college after about three months, after observing me for 2-3 days, she would accurately ask me what was bothering me or what was making me happy.

Till I finished college, I had more love and respect for Ammachy than Appachen. But when I became more mature, I think I could make out their differences in individuality and character and could love and respect them almost equally. Achayan used to say that there should always be love among brothers and sisters. And he proved that in his life. So whenever I get angry with my brothers and sisters, I remember his words and it encourages me. Ammachy was an honest person. When we were young she taught us not to tell lies and that effect is with us till today, I think.

So though I would never say that my Achayan and Ammachy were faultless, I will always keep them in my memory as sweet and guiding in my life.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

My cousin Renuchechi - Lisa Mathew

Although this blog started off to record memories of my grandparents, it really is open to inclusion of any family memories. With that in mind and also to show my cousin Renu how easy it is to write something down, this post is about her ;-)

My earliest memory of Renuchechi is not really her but her doll's tea set. She had a tiny doll's tea set complete with tea pot, milk jug and cups and saucers set on a cane tray. It was white with a red and blue pattern on it (can't remember what pattern it was but it could've been roses) I guess someone from abroad may have gifted it to her as that kind of thing certainly wasn't available in India to my knowledge. I utterly loved that set and wanted to play with it everytime I went there. Given that I wasn't a quiet child and could've easily broken it, it is to her eternal credit that she always allowed me to play with it. At that time, they lived in a colony belonging to her dad's (Eddychayan) workplace (Indal - Indian Aluminium) and this first memory is from their old flat where this tea set resided in all it's glory in the dining room sideboard.

My only other memory from that flat is the time she and her sister Eluchechi and all their friends put up a play and of course being the piri-pirippi I am, I had to get involved. At one point, we were setting up the make shift stage on the landing of their building. The plan was to take a sheet and shove it in between two opposite doors and then close the doors thus snapping the stage curtain into place. The only snag was that my right index finger was also smashed right into the hinge between the door and the wall. There were a few seconds of numbness where all feeling ceased to exist and then exquisite torture when the door was hastily opened and the blood came surging back into the squashed finger. I don't remember much more about it but I think we went to the doc and he wrapped it up. Unfortunately the nail bed was damaged and to this day, I have a weird fingernail on that finger that always causes a bit of trouble at the nail salon.

I don't remember much about Eluchechi as a kid except that she had what seemed like TONS of friends and was usually out with them. There were always tales of Lucky and others but I could never tell them apart and so they all blurred into one in my mind.

It was a fun place for us to go to and we went there every year as kids when we were in Kerala for the summer holidays. I looked forward to exploring their latest flat/ house as they often moved around within that area. Each house was essentially the same space but with a different configuration. It was fun figuring it out, although now I don't remember any of the others, except the last one.

Sudhu reminded me of how they never had a powercut in the colony which was quite a miracle in Kerala (and still is, by all accounts) Eddychayan explained that Aluminium had to be molten all the time (or something like that) so that plant ran 24/7 and they all worked shifts and the eclectricity never ran out.

I remember lying on Lillyammachi's latest bedsheet acquisition and being lulled into sleep by the heavy monsoon rains drumming on the asbestos covering of the garage. I think one year when Eddychayan had a Fiat car, it wouldn't start so we had to push it out of the garage before he could drop us to the station but memory plays tricks so I'm not sure if that really happened...

Renuchechi was fab at her studies and I think she has collected an impressive 3 master's degrees. I remember once when we visited, the grown ups were still talking, she tucked us into bed and then went into the back bedroom to study, in this cosy big cane chair and I remember wondering why she was studying when she could be talking to the others. Of all the cousins, she was the one who most loved listening to the family stories and would actively collect everyone and encourage them to talk after dinner while she tucked herself in a corner and listened.

Another memory of Renuchechi's which she probably would like to bury forever ;-) is when she went on a cooking class during a break between degrees and learnt how to bake a pizza from scratch, amonst other things. She then made it again at home for some party, unfortunately I think she put twice the yeast in or something and the pizza crust came up like a bun. Fortunately not many people had even seen a pizza in those days so we just wolfed it down.

Renuchechi got married to Roy and went to live in America. Years later, I ended up in New York close to her in New Jersey so I often stayed with them on weekends and then later went back to see them and everyone else in NY every year, although I haven't done that in the last 2 years now so I must go again before Serena (who is totally into books like the rest of us) forgets what I look like! It's nice to know that she is always there to go to and Roy is always welcoming and full of the Malayali tendency to kaliyakku - just like us.

Eddychayan retired and they moved to their own house in Alwaye. I like going there to see them - Lillyammachi always has something acerbic and witty to say about everything (RenuC has inherited that straight talking) and Eddychayan always has a big hug for everyone. I look forward to Lillamma's pacha moru and aetheka appapam and Lillyammachi's experiments with food - most of which are yum! The garden is usually filled with different plants she has transplanted, exchanged or purloined ;-) there are fruits, coconuts, palm fronds et al drying in the backyard or on the terrace, the cat is slinking around, the neighbours are popping in and exclaiming about how much we've grown, Appa and Lillyammachi are gently gossiping in the background and you know there will soon be yummy food on the table. The sheer assurance that it will be the same, time after time, is breathtaking and now that we don't have Appachen and Ammachi's to go to, Lillyammachi's place has become that memory of perfect old fashioned Kerala for me and I love her for keeping it that way.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

A Great Team! - Sudha Mathew

When I look back at holidays spent in Kottayam and remember incidents, I'm not sure if all of them happened in front of me. Did I hear them so many times from Appa that I feel like I was there too?

When I think about trips to see Appachen-Ammachi, especially in the days when Ammachi was up and about, there is immediate recall about waking up in the train to jewel green fields and old ladies with tails. Atleast that's what we called the pleats at the back of the chatta-mundu. All this was such a novelty to the three of us from Bombay. We looked forward to playing games in the train and watching the changing landscapes from the tunnels of the Western Ghats to dry Andhra Pradesh/ Tamil Nadu and finally lush Kerala. Once there, we couldn't wait to play in the river with our cousins from my mom's side, eat a lot of fish and read the many books found in every nook and cranny of the Kanzhikuzhy house.

I remember being scared of Ammachi. She rarely smiled and would get angry if we used too much water to bathe due to the water shortage in summer. Unfortunately her bedroom was right below the bathroom so she knew exactly what was being used. Her bedroom seemed like the lion's den. Till today I have an uneasy feeling when I enter that room...

But there are also memories of Ammachi spending most of her time in the kitchen and all of us sitting down at the dining table to great food. I loved those mealtimes with Appachen at the head of the table and all my uncles talking at once. Nothing fancy was ever seen at my grandmother's table but the food was consistently good Syrian Christian fare.

When she was later bedridden for so many years, I felt sad that Ammachi who was so particular about the way of doing things, had to be in such a helpless state. Though all her nurses were kindly and cheerful, I hoped that I wouldn't have to go through such a fate. She used to be very happy when Appachen sat beside her bed, held her hand and talked about old times. Appa would sometimes make fun saying that Ammachi made eyes at Appachen as they were neighbours before marriage and that's how they got married. Though she couldn't respond to his teasing, you could feel her happiness.

I had gone on a trip from college and was in Coimbatore on the way back when I heard the news of her death from Appa. I burst into loud tears which took me (and Appa and my friends outside the phone booth) by surprise. I'm still not sure why it elicited such a strong response from me.

Both my grandfathers were tall and both grandmothers were short. I still remember wishing that my grandfathers' had more sense and married taller women. Then I would have been taller too but of course I wouldn't have been me ;-)

In complete contrast to my reserve to Ammachi was my relationship to Appachen. Although it was not a close relationship, I was not scared of him at all. He always seemed happy to see us, talked to us and bought us bakery treats for afternoon tea. Such a difference from Appa's stories where Appachen was the stricter parent.

Apppachen seemed to be a very popular person to me because of his steady stream of visitors from four pm onwards. Usually it would be boring, old and male relatives but occasionally it would be a bit more interesting if an old student came and Appachen while trying to place him would start with the student's grandfather's name. Or an old servant relating his tale of woe looking for to wheedle some money out of him.

There was one visitor who I liked - Achanappachen (Ammachi's brother and also the priest at the local church). Though not overtly jolly, he was someone whose smile and manner just made you feel good. Achanappachan and Appachen were also classmates through school and college and used to study together after school at a house opposite Ammachi's family home. Another reason to tease Ammachi!

Other things I recall about Appachen are the huge mound of rice on his plate at mealtimes, the Boys Scouts songs he would sometimes sing - with actions and then the house would almost shake since he was such a big man and the cat Vasu who would sleep on his tummy during Appachen's nap. The cat would go up and down as Appachen's huge tummy also moved up and down with his breathing.

From the stories that I have heard all my life, as parents they must have been a great team, complementing each other's strengths and weaknesses. Appa and his siblings talk about them at all family gatherings with great love and affection and there seems to be no dearth of stories about them. Ammachi was not a very outgoing person, interacting mostly with close relatives whereas Appachen was usually out of the house and knew practically everybody in town. But Ammachi had her pulse on each child's studies and friends and Appachen was the disciplinarian when he was around. This is probably the reason why the family remains close knit till this day and the same values have been passed down to the grandchildren and hopefully beyond.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Remembering My Grandparents - Pravin Mathew

Every year during summer holidays, our family used to hit the ol native place - Kerala. Both sets of grandparents were there. The pattern was pretty much the same - we would first stay with Appa's (Dad) parents (to whom the rest of this piece is dedicated). This was like a pit stop, for a period of about two to three days. After this, we went with Amma (Mom) to her place which was about 6 kms away. So my interaction with Appachan (Grandfather) and Ammachi (Grandmother) was limited. Couple with this the natural shyness of meeting them after a long time, the slight awe of meeting your parent's parents and having hundred other interesting things to do during summer, well I am surprised I remember anything at all.

If you hear the stories Appa and his siblings have to say about their mother, you will think that she was a legend. My earliest memory of Ammachi is me accompanying her after my uncle's wedding. She was dressed in the typical elderly woman's dress of white chatta and mundu. The difference was that she looked so dapper in it. It was a bright day and the white outfit literally sparkled. I can also remember her eyes, twinkling behind her large spectacles. After this, my memories are of her being bedridden. At that time, it seemed that she did not have much of an idea of what was happening around her. She always seemed glad for company so my mom used to ensure that we spent some time with her and told her what was happening with us. Also there were times when a priest from our church would drop in for a visit. They would spend some time with her and conclude with a prayer. She seemed really happy at this time.

Appachan was a tall man, taller than Dad and pretty broad at the chest. When we met up, someone would invariably mention the fact that I was named after Appachan and I would feel pretty kicked about it. I never grew as tall as him, probably because I never had his appetite. During dinner, he used to sit at the head of the table. There would be a mound of rice on his plate, accompanied by little mounds of veggies and meat. I think he was pretty fond of red fish curry or it was served very often then but to this day, I always associate the curry with him.

He seemed to be a very busy man as he was constantly going out for some function or the other. Even when he was at home, somebody would drop by to chat over a cup of tea. I think he was pretty fond of his siesta cause afternoons were quite times and we were shushed and/or threatened if we made any noise. So, we would stay away from his or Ammachi's room. In Appachan's room, there was a big single bed, a desk and a clothes horse which would be burdened with lots of shirts and couple of mundus and lungis. Ergo, it was one of the chosen spots during a game of Sat (kerala version of hide and seek). Talking about mundus, I remember that he used to have a peculiar habit of wearing a belt on top of his mundu. Why, I still don't know.

Towards the end he became forgetful and could not remember our names, which grade we were in etc. In the evenings, when we were playing in the front yard, he would sit on the porch and watch us and the road behind us. He wouldn't say much but would smile benignly when we came close to him. Even in that state, he was a gentleman and to date, people talk about him highly. They always remember him as a strong person whom they could look up to as well as count upon for advice and help.

I am trying to dredge up some memory of Appachan and Ammachi together but I am not able to. It's probably because Ammachi was busy managing the household from her kitchen stronghold while Appachan was out on his numerous visits. I think they got along well though and were pretty much a team though. Aye, it must have been tough to raise Dad and six other kids and they all turned out right. All of them speak very fondly of my grandparents. Whenever two of the siblings get together, the conversation would invariably turn to some quirk of Appachan or a snippet where Ammachi perceptively caught out somebody. It's never spoken but you can just feel their love and regard for their parents. That's what I call a living legacy and I can only hope my kids hold me in the same regard.