My early neighbourhood

This entire street – some 200-300 meters or so long with crisscrossing connecting road and back alleys -along with the three other parallel streets formed our neighbourhood.  On one of the next parallel street lived my mother’s elder cousin sister. Many commoners in this area – like the florist, the postman, some cycle shop owners, the laundry owner, the tailor and the barber – were all politically affiliated to the Indian National Congress and you can call this area a Congress stronghold.  The house where we lived was called a wada (which means a big house) a two storied building which housed some five families on the front side, all of them South Indians; and some two non-Brahmin Maharashtrian families on the back side. On the right side of our house, after some two houses, along the same side of the street, there was another wada – there were many big and small wadas in the street, each one housing many families. A civil contractor lived next to our house, on the left side. Just opposite our house was the criminal lawyer’s house and from the goings in his house, he appeared to have a roaring practice. Adjacent to the criminal lawyer was the dilapidated house of the Tonga owner Saiba. Saiba had lost his wife and was known to be a habitual drunkard. He lived with his only son in that crumbling house. Saiba’s rickety horse carriage and his haggard horse remained always parked before his house.  The father-son duo endlessly kept on shouting and quarreling. The next house was that of a sick elderly person, who lived his wife and son lived.  In the house just after the next, lived a cobbler’s family, cobbler only by birth and descent, who now worked as a Clerk in the Railways.  The railwayman’s house was flanked by another lawyer’s single story large house with some tenants on the first floor. This civil lawyer had a modest clientele and his brother worked in the Defence Accounts with my uncle. Next to the house of civil lawyer, a gardner’sfamily had their shop selling flowers and they had their house behind their shop.  Behind our house there was the house of a moustached Brahmin who had his house and the shop selling coal and burning wood.

I saw that the moustached Brahmin moved around in his khaki shorts, flaunting his RSS sympathies. I learnt that when Mahatma Gandhi was killed at the prayer meeting in New Delhi, Congressmen in the neighbourhood had attacked this Brahmin’s house and attempted to set his place and shop on fire.  He had to leave the area and take up residence elsewhere for some years before he could venture back to his own house and his usual business.  The civil contractor and other Congressmen of the area led the mob.  The mob had also threatened and attacked a neighbouring Brahmin family next door, but not our house. In our neighbourhood noting serious ensued and things soon settled down into their routine grooves.

I used to move around with my grandmother in the neighbourhood, as she went about her work buying vegetable, the provisions for the house and other necessities.  My grandmother was not the one to frequent temples, except when she was in utmost distress. I remember my grandmother telling me that the Gods reside within you, you can pray to Gods in your house and you don’t have to go to temples for this purpose. That people go to temples to gossip and politick rather than pray to Gods was my grandmother’s most uncharitable comment about people frequenting temples. These were quite astonishing statements coming from the grand old lady of our Brahmin family. My grandmother’s elder brother was an eye surgeon of repute in Chidambaram and they belonged to a wealthy family, accruing more wealth; and they were much better placed on the economic scale than my grandfather’s family. However, my grandmother had dropped out of school very early but could read, write and count as she could articulate well in Tamil.  She knew a smattering of Hindi too and she could put in with ease some English words at the most appropriate places in her conversations.  My grandmother’s dropping out of school was perhaps in keeping with the social mores of her times, when boys went to schools and then colleges for higher education and girls remained home.

Just near the vegetable market, which I used to frequent with my grandmother, there was this Photo Studio. When my father, along with his younger brother had returned to this town after demobilization from the British Army, there was a memorable family get-together.  This get-together was memorable for the family, which had reunited after many years, for more reasons than one.  It was the first Deepavali, the festival of lights, after my father’s marriage.  My aunt (my father’s only sister) and her husband and her brother-in-law and his wife from distant Tamilnadu also attended this family reunion.  I learnt later that my father spent a good part of the money he had saved while serving in the British Army during this celebration of the family reunion.  A group photo of this extended family was taken to commemorate the occasion at this Photo Studio. A copy of this group photograph was visibly hung on the wall of our house for a long time; even after it was taken off the wall, it was preserved for a very long time.  It was undoubtedly a very precious part of the family heirloom.  For a long time I could never really fathom the reason for my father’s attachment to this family photograph.  That was the period when my father must have felt a real sense of achievement, when his marriage was being decided, when he was at the peak of his youth and career after a long and arduous struggle since childhood. Little did my father know or realize then what difficult times and trials were ahead of him, though he weathered all his adversities bravely and honestly.  The photograph nevertheless brought up to my father memories of a period he cherished. So I grant it to him that it was natural for him to attach great significance to this family photograph.

I also remember seeing my first photograph, taken when I was just a year and plus old, with me sporting my earrings and a well-ironed shirt and half trouser, taken at the same studio.

On the occasion of my grandfather’s 61st birthday, grandfather and grandmother garlanded and posed for a very special and rare photograph at this studio. This photograph was hanging on the wall of our house for a very long time till it was taken away and put into some album.

So this Photo Studio was associated with all the small and great events in our little family, which lasted till the Studio shut the shop soon after the owner died and his sons did not wish to continue their father’s business.

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