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.