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.