Posted by: gdevi | July 26, 2010

Letter to a Niece

S. M. Nayar, Madhavankutty mammen, Madhav maharaj, Madhu, Mad Uncle was my mother’s oldest brother, my grandmother’s first-born. He left their home when he was 19 to join the Ramakrishna Mission, a Vedanta Monastery. While this hurt my grandmother much, she was even more pained when twenty years later, in his early forties, he left the Ashram to marry Tia, my aunt, a young woman from the Khasi tribe in Meghalaya that he met while he was a Swami at the school there. It was good to have a monk in the family. He wrote about all of this in his book — Ardhaviramam. Beautiful book.

MK mammen was my favorite uncle. He had a very hard life; after he left the Ashram and married Tia, he moved with Tia to her place in the Khasi Hills, and became a school teacher and later principal. They had three children, two of them born with all kinds of congenital health problems, one child dying later, and they lived in poverty, barely making ends meet. His siblings helped him out a lot; his salary was a mere pittance. MK mammen used to leave the harsh northeastern mountain winters of Meghalaya (literally “the abode of clouds”) and come south to Kerala every winter and spend couple of months with us. I awaited his vacations with us with great longing; he was wacky and well-read and sang beautifully. He was a friend to all the kids, all his nephews and nieces.  He was fluent in English, Bengali, Sanskrit, and Malayalam. He sang Bengali bhajans and Tagore songs wondrously.  Just soothed you listening to him.  Appu had recorded him singing several times. He told us unbelievable stories of his life and those of others; some of them truly unbelievable, but they were great stories! He smoked continuously and had breathing problems. I would tell him, Madhavankutty mammen, please don’t smoke so much, I am afraid you might die of lung cancer. He would stand up from where he was sitting, take out his cigarette pack, wink at my mother, and tell me, “Okay, I am going to stop smoking right this minute.” He would even go outside and throw out the cigarettes. But he always sent Appu out to buy another pack for him immediately. He really wanted to try and quit smoking; very cheeky! He never did. I was very close to him and we wrote letters to each other through the years; little vignettes of his life in Mawkdok, Khasi Hills, Meghalaya, plus observations about books, music, movies, family and friends. I was reading through his letters this morning–what is this pile of ancient manuscripts? Krish asked me.  He passed away while I was in grad school; I never got a chance to see him.

Here is a letter from him dated June 30, 1981. I had just graduated from high school and entered the University.




My dear Gayatri,

I was indeed expecting your letter with all the good news. Didn’t surprise me when you gave me the score. Congrats and congrats. May you all succeed in your lives! { (Aside) unlike most of us!}

You have chosen the II group — the first step towards becoming a doctor! It shouldn’t cause you any anxiety for thousands of misfits have made it to the greater glory of the medical profession and to the greater misfortune of their patients. But you’re different, you’re not mediocrity, thank god. To become a doctor, as I see it, is easy. Cut up a few bodies, sever a couple of nerves, break a few bones, handle the heart, the liver or whatever comes in handy, and before you can say “Boo,” there hangs a neat tail behind you for the rest of your long long life. That’s medicine for you!

R’s case is different — and difficult. This chap exercises his brain cells, makes too many demands on them, and they just refuse to oblige the owner. Result — a sort of confusion which is common enough. He’s passing through, for want of a better word, what we call a transition. I dislike the word for all through my life I’ve been passing through transition after transition–and most of the time in transit. About R’s various and varied experiments and preoccupations, I’ve little to say. No need to despair in any case for we do have a couple of loony doctors in the family and they will come to the rescue, if need be. Well, I have my own reservations about all this for the simple reason that none can be called a perfectly NORMAL person. Many are abnormal, some subnormal, a handful supernormal, but none is normal. Perhaps it makes for variety. As a wise chap once remarked, it takes all sorts to make this world. For aught I know, he may be quite right.

Yeah, that chap M. I join you in feeling sorry for the youngster. His pappa, no stranger to us, is a born antinomian with a certain bohemian spirit. Some might whisper that he is the odd one in the nest but I wonder. He has been hugging the bottle too long and too tight. The term Alcoholic has certainly a bad flavour about it but alas! it describes K more or less. I had discussed him with R., the couch doctor, who tells me that little good can be done without the patient’s willing cooperation, which in K’s case, is asking too much. There was a time when I had the feeling that given his IQ and status he would sooner and later realize what he has been doing to himself and to those around him, and would have no truck with Johnny Walker, Hercules, and their ilk. (What names they give to these liquors!) Even now, I haven’t given up all hope because basically, essentially, K. is a very nice and decent chap if a bit sentimental and hypersensitive. Since coaxing, cajoling or persuasion can have little effect on K., there remains only the court of the last Resort: Prayer. Pray for him as we must for ourselves for I suspect there lurk within each of us a thousand toxins to be rid of. Which is why I hate to sit in judgment on the seat of Vikramaditya. I sympathize with most people, pity some, admire a few, but never judge any. O yes, I do feel sad, bad and at times mad when I contemplate this life of ours on this drunkenly reeling planet. A hundred questions raise their heads — questions sans answers. When I am at my wit’s end, I end up leaving everything to Nature, God, Fate or whatever you call it. Then life starts once again running more smoothly like some well-oiled machine which otherwise would have creaked, jolted and crumbled. Life’s like that, says the Digest with a superior grin.

Well, well, I’ve been philosophizing, a foolish thing, for it is bad for one’s digestion. Better be back on to terra firma and live and let live. In the process, be as merry as you can manage. Call it resignation, indifference, defeatism, or even wisdom, it’s up to you.

I’ve not read the title you mention but through the years I have read a great many stories by him and you could count me as a Gallico fan. A writer after my heart. A fellow with feeling, can see goodness, everywhere, and in everything. An incorrigible optimist, I call him.

And now that you have asked, a word about Mawkdok. Like some unattached females (you are excluded), Lady Macbeth put her best foot forward for me when I came here to stay. But, when Mawkdok found out that she had me in her grip, she has come out in her true colors. For days together, she has been hiding behind a white mantle of pure mist, playing the coquette, one might say.  For a change, she sheds copious tears in the form of torrential rains. It too makes much for invisibility. We are blessed with a white darkness during the daytime. The sun, mighty in some respects, is pointless here. After a week’s futile fight with Lady Mawkdok, the sun has gone somewhere. We do not see much of him these days. Clear indication that M is the winner and S is the loser.

Oh, Mawkdok (Palpitating Rock, for that’s what it means)

All thy charms are ended,

You smiled only to deceive;

Is it to hide thy wrinkl’d brow

Thou donnest a mantle as white as snow?

I might address some such verse to M. But do you think the wretch cares?

Our house (legally, Tia’s mom’s) has a name “Rympei Baieit I mei” (Forget it). “The Hearth of My Beloved Mother.” The idea sprang from Tia’s youngest brother’s brain. Frankly it is not to my taste but there it hangs proudly, causing the passerby to purse his lips and raise his brows. Frankly, its a bit comical if you ask me. I know the Beloved Mother rather too well to appreciate the tribute. All the same, the legend hangs outside, roughly handpainted by the genius himself. Another announcement keeps it company–a small crimson board which says “POST OFFICE” — in three languages! It’s a legacy we have inherited from the former tenant — a lady called Urgency (I’m not joking) who is the postmaster or mistress who has vacated the house. The new PO is adjacent to our house but for reasons best known to Urgency she has left her marks behind. Which includes the post box which is precariously perched onto a tottering pole. A pleasing and pretty sight.

Our first term exams are over and we are in the middle of our summer holidays. From the 14th through the 18th of July I will have to be in Shillong. The SCERT have invited me for a seminar-cum-workshop –meant for Math and Science hands. My real interest is in the bit of money they’ll give you when it’s over. Matter of fact, I’ve attended several such seminars and workshops but you can’t say they have improved me. My stay in Shillong will give me a good chance to meet my friends.

Our household help–a strapping girl–left us to better herself in more congenial surroundings. Her name might interest you. Dibility something (the title, I forget). This Debility was a giantess who could work (if she had a mind to) and who could consume tons of rice (even if she had no mind to). In a sense, it’s a loss for us, she was handy (not literally) and useful. She was also attending the school with the ostensible purpose of studying. But then, these girls are what they are and they know what to look for and where. To Devility, Shillong seem to be a paradise. May her meet her maker there, is my heartfelt prayer.

Thampi, transplanted into a Khasi-medium school, has done what could only be expected in the first terminal exam. Naturally, I’m not upset. It will take time (my time, that is) to improve him so that he gets through the Finals some time in late Nov and early Dec.

Mol started attending a school near our house but finds it boring. Still she does inspect the school occasionally.

Susmita is at home keeping her mom company. Sus is growing very very slowly. Though she crossed 4 on the 16th of June (that is Thampi’s birthday too, he has attained the dignity of 9) she can be said to be a child of 2 and no one will be the wiser.

You didn’t say anything about Appu. He must have got through comfortably. Is he now in Cl. X , the year of his ordeal. Tell him to drop a line if he feels like.

I have plans for visiting the south this winter. Alone or with family, That is the Question. It depends. Let us see. This place in winter is ideal for Eskimos but for people from the sunny south it could prove fatal. I have no hesistation in leaving Mawkdok and leaving it to people who thrive in the cold.

Tia is busy with a hundred plans and all of them, you can be sure, will make deep cuts in my purse. Amen to all this, but in good time, I say, when I have won at a lottery the First Prize of 20 lakhs.

Yesterday, after a killing trip to Shillong and back, I threw in the suggestion to some local chaps that if 2000 of us joined together in a cooperative spirit and collected Rs. 50 each it would amount to a lakh of rupees with which we, the people of the villages, could buy a fine bus and travel to Shillong every day in comfort and style. The young chaps smiled in amusement. They thought it a funny idea. What’s so funny about it, that’s what I don’t understand. One of the chaps said that the difficulty lay in the word cooperation. How true, and how eternally true!

Meanwhile wishing you all good health and good cheer.

P.S. This letter, as you can see, is only the first draft. The final copy will soon follow.

Yours affly

Madhavankutty mammen


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