My Mum and her siblings

quiero conocer gente de irlanda All the siblings had jobs to do and grumbling was not entertained. Grumblers were unceremoniously squashed. Most of them attended the local school. Some went on to Kottayam, the nearest town and stayed in the Hostel to study. The elder boys helped in the fields, while the girls helped in the home and kitchen. Some looked after the little ones, cleaning them and feeding them, while others mended and darned the recycled clothes. If anyone played truant or dodged, they were dealt with severely by the siblings, who kept a close watch for any hint of mutiny in the ranks. From the stories told and retold through the years, I am led to believe that the elder siblings assumed the role of law-keepers of discipline as my grandparents grew older. The difference in age between my Mum and her youngest sister was almost 21 years, making her a mother figure to the younger ones. Hand-me-Downs

follow site Clothes were shared, as precious hand-me-downs. They were darned, if necessary and mended to last a long time. They did not have a huge wardrobe, by any standards, but there was enough to go around, because no one stayed the same shape or size too long.

get link Sometimes, the soft, tulle like lining of the banana stem, would be stripped off and tied as a loin cloth, a protective inner garment, covering the anatomy like a modern day “Thong”.

go here The home sewn, unimaginative version of the brassiere was an unflattering bodice, referred to shyly as a “bowdy”. It was not worn to enhance or entice. It was worn as part of “Operation Modesty”, an attempt to squish everything out of sight and lecherous mind. It was in reality, a sleeveless squash-in-place that was worn under the Chatta, a loose fitting half sleeve V-neck shirt top, that women wore over their Mundus or Lungis. These, unlike their colourful, printed counterparts, the Sarongs of the Far East, were thick, white, cotton cloth, wound around the lower part of the body. It was knotted at the waist, with a pleated fan-like part, that covered their slim derrieres. The typical Malayalee female is a V-shape with broad shoulders tapering down to a slim behind. The chatta and mundu when worn well, flatters this shape. Usually, these are worn at home, with a towel slung over the top. When worn outside, the towel is replaced, by a lace trimmed shawl that is tucked in at the waist and pinned to the left shoulder with a brooch. This shawl, was used to cover the head in church. The sophisticated 6 yard sari, was worn by the city folk, that had left the villages. Shoes never posed a problem, as the siblings scaled the countryside, barefoot most of the time. Many of the elder siblings, got their first pair of shoes or sandals, when they went to College or earned their own salaries. My Mum walked barefoot from her home in Kodukulanji to Chengannur, every day to study and pass out as a class topper. I say this with pride, humbled that she was my Mum.

follow url Prayers around the table, had the family singing entire hymns, entirely by heart without hymn books, to parts alto, bass, soprano and tenor. Early dawn in Kerala, broke to family prayers and singing wafting out from the houses to mingle in praise and thanksgiving as a community.

The missing links
One of my mum’s elder brothers Kunjunju, ran away from home at the age of 20. He was sibling No 3 and the eldest for a long while. When he looked around his family, he saw a crowd of hungry kids, scrambling for survival. Things looked very bleak from his point of view and there did not seem to be much hope for change, or for the responsibility that he was forced to shoulder, so early in life. From their track record, chances were that the brood and the responsibility would only continue to grow. Desperate situations call for desperate measures and he opted out.

He just ran away one night.

Many years later, my Velliappachan, traced him to Ceylon. He went and brought his runaway son, by ship, to Madras. Sibling no 3, was not convinced that things had changed very much at home, despite the reassurances that his father gave him.

Or, perhaps he had not told his father that he had left his heart on the plains of Ceylon. No one knows for sure. On the pretext of going to the toilet, he disappeared and was never found again. Astounded, my Velliappachan, found himself suddenly very tired, old and alone. He was shocked that his son did not share his joy at their reunion.

Deeply disappointed, he took the train to Kerala to explain to his grieving wife that he had found their missing son and lost him a second time.
“We have lost him again”
“He doesn’t want to come home “

They had nineteen children. There is no doubt about that. However to a parent, each child is precious, despite every challenge they dish up and no one else could ever take their place.

Some of the siblings, who died as young infants, died of malnutrition or disease. Most of these diseases were water-borne. Health care was poor and medical help unpredictable. One particular infant, I am told, died in an accident. She was taken for a walk one evening, by an older sibling, just after her baptism, when a raging bull charged. In an attempt to jump to the next level in the field, they fell and the baby succumbed to the injuries sustained.

Sibling 9 and 10 were a set of twins, John and Philip. John was a brilliant scholar. My Velliappachan saw him as a mirror image of himself when he was a young man. His son John, was going to excel in Academia, an opportunity that had been denied him, by circumstances beyond his control. John was encouraged to pursue his higher studies. After completing his BA from the American College in Madurai, he returned home with Typhoid, after the final exams.

When my Mum, a practising doctor by then, came home to see her sick brother, she found a shell of the promising young man with a brilliant future, plucking listlessly at his bedclothes as Typhoid patients do at the end, searching for death with their eyes,. There was no Chloramphenicol in those days. There was absolutely no hope. Wiping her tears she comforted her parents as she gently broke the news.

“He has typhoid fever” she said.
“He is very sick,”
“It will be very difficult for him to come out of it”
“We can only pray for a miracle”.

He died a few days later and the family was plunged into grief. A few days after the funeral, the postman called. He gave my Velliappachan an envelope from the College, that announced that my Uncle John had been awarded the Bachelor of Arts degree. Posthumously.

This was one of the first degrees to reach the village Kodukulanji, the village, with the house by the canal near a banyan tree. My Velliappachan’s heart broke twice that week. Once when his son died and then again when the Letter came from the College.

And then there were twelve.

The dreaded Typhoid stalked and ruthlessly claimed the lives of many of the siblings in the pre-Chloramphenicol era. Disease, Death and  Disaster rounded off the survivors, to an even dozen of six girls and six boys, who crossed their fortieth birthday.

My mum was the eldest of the twelve and all the siblings called her “Pengal”, the elder sister. This term is usually used by brothers for an elder sister. As my mum had four brothers in quick succession after her, this name stuck when the sisters arrived later. Over the years, she grew to be more than an elder sister, as she assumed all the duties of a parent, pushing her own life and happiness to one side.

Waking or sleeping, she had only one agenda. She was completely and utterly preoccupied, with the welfare of her siblings and their families. A chronic ear infection in childhood , had left her hearing challenged. The progressive deafness, that became a part of her life and ours, did not dwarf her authority in any way. No one dared defy her. At least, not openly to her face. Her whole life was a mural of devotion, with every conscious moment used to improve the lot of her siblings and their families. She made sure that they were given a fair chance in life, with education and opportunity. Meagre finances helped the elder ones to cross the divide. They did not have to return the money spent on their education, but, they were then prompted to turn right around and help the next one waiting in the wings. What was spent on your education, you had to spend on another.

If they had a family emblem, the motto would have read “Each one help one”.

This, with time, would spill over to touch the lives of her nieces and nephews too. Family responsibility came first, much to the chagrin of some of the in-laws, who joined the family later in marriage. They came from compact family units, more affluent in some cases, where the stresses of living and survival, covered smaller head counts in comparison and where one, generally, looked out for themselves and their own. Certainly not an entire Clan.

Blood is thicker than water

My mum’s muffled world was divided into two hemispheres with her brothers and sisters on one side behind her protective back, and the rest of the world before her. A world she would have taken on at any cost to protect her siblings. I remember how resentful I was of this while I was growing up as an only child. There was no way you could ignore the Siblings. They hovered, they showered and they snitched on you as they watched over you.

“All for your own good,” they said.

They mothered you, they smothered you, they crept out of the woodwork at every family do and birthday and they loved you to death and beyond. They were a part of the lives of all the fifty seven first cousins, of the second generation and we belonged to all twelve of them. It did not matter whose progeny you were. We belonged to ALL of them.

There were some long standing Feuds, between the siblings, with under currents of discontent, when they became adults. Most of these were connected by serial pages of book-keeping and accounts, that rumbled and retched at family gatherings. However, there was one golden rule that they never broke. They could fight among themselves in a fiendish way, if necessary, but the world could not touch any one of them. If the enemy was from outside, all twelve of them would stand in a straight line, arm in arm and shoulder to shoulder, to take on the outsider. Blood ran thicker than water among the Siblings.

A developmental abnormality

There was only event on my mum’s calendar when we lived in Singapore. This was our Indian Holiday, our visits to her family in India. She returned to Singapore only to get ready for the next visit. She had a cupboard in her room where she collected every imaginable thing for the siblings and their families.

If anyone gave us presents it walked unquestioned into the Indian holiday cupboard and shut itself in. This included every single present we ever received for our birthdays, Xmas or New Year, medical samples from her clinic and the promotional freebies from the sales at the department stores.

When we finally packed to go to India, everyone had been accounted for by name and age, including the unborn babies who were arriving that current year, gender withstanding. Everyone had something.

She was the most unselfish human being that I have ever known. She courted thrift only to put something away. For someone else. She would come back to Singapore, after her Indian holiday, a whole lot happier and our bags light and near empty. I grew up with my mother thinking that gifts were never meant to be kept or enjoyed. Gifts, were to be given away and shared. Gifts, were meant to be recycled as precious gifts for others.

“It’s selfish to keep things for yourself,” I was told repeatedly.
“Susie, you must learn to share”
“Gifts are meant to be shared.”

This developmental aberration helped me enter an uncluttered state of Nirvana, later in life, with precious little to dust on shelves, giving away most of the memorabilia that I received or bought, if needed.

The stress of juggling this precarious act, so that no one was re-presented their own gift, must have had its toll. I have been mortified when caught out on a couple of occasions by my friends and my family who joke about it. Some of them, including my daughter, Rekha, gleefully scrawl my name all over my presents, in an obscene fashion, daring me to pass them on.

Love me , Love my Siblings

Growing up, my Mum was too preoccupied with her siblings, to think of her own happiness or to dream of a life, with a family of her own. After she started working, she had many marriage proposals that eventually petered out and stopped coming , when the prospective suitors realised, that she would never leave her siblings. Anyone who married her would acquire her siblings. And their Families as well.

She refused to get married, as the proposals that came, were from young men who would did not want her to continue her support to her family. Once they got married, she and her income as a doctor would, rightfully, belong to her husband and his family. My mother could never turn her back on her family. That would be the same as asking her not to breathe anymore. The man who married her would have to understand that and allow her to look after her family, long after the first flush of romance ended.

One man loved her enough to share her with her siblings. To get to know my Dad, Paramanantham Israel Samuel Baboo , you will need to come on a journey to Senthiambalem , a tiny village in the Tutucorin District in Tamil Nadu

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.