Christ Church and The War Years

During the years before and after World War 11, Christ Church, was the Home Church for all the Indian Anglican Congregations,  the Tamils, the Malayalees , the Telegus and the North Indian Hindustani speaking people, mainly the Punjabis, who fought with the British Army.

My Dad used to conduct services at different times for them, with the help of the lay preachers and the catechists. I think the congregation that he enjoyed the most, was the Punjabi Congregation.  They were the smallest of the congregations, but, if you stood outside and listened to them sing, you would have thought that every pew in the church was occupied and overflowing. They sang at the top of their voices and the praised God with unparalleled enthusiasm.

They would appear for service with their colourful headgear, the Pagadis, drumming on their Dholaks, singing at the top of their voices. No war could get their spirits down, when they came to Church. They sang and they danced as if their lives depended on it. When the British Army left Singapore, the Punjabi congregation dwindled, as most of them left with their contingents, leaving my Dad with the memories of a warm and happy group of Christians that he felt blessed to serve.

My Dad kept the Church and Parsonage open all the time, so that people needing shelter and  food  could walk in at any time, night or day. The British had planted an Anti -Aircraft Gun in the Christ Church compound. They did not think that the Japanese Army would bomb a Church on holy ground.

Mr and Mrs Sam Williams and their daughter, Pearl, lived at the Parsonage with my Dad during the war years, keeping house, for all those who sought refuge in  the Church and the Parsonage.

Sometimes, during fierce shelling, the members of the Congregation would crowd to hide in the trenches, huddling in pathetic groups, often too weary to run. Sometimes they would come in for a hot meal. Sometimes they just came for a touch of home. A word of comfort.  A longing to be near a familiar face. If they had to die in the bombing, what better place to die, than in the church.  The British Anti-Aircraft Gun in the Christ Church Compound, may have given them a false sense of security. With the Silver Cross behind them on the Altar and the Anti-Aircraft Gun in front of the church, on the premises,  what better protection could they have.  So they thought.

There was not much food available those days. The Punjabis of the Hindustani Congregation, were robust agriculturists.  Their green fingers could making rocks sprout.  With their ingenuity,  every square inch available as land, around the Church and the Parsonage was converted into a patch that grew something to eat. This was not for themselves, as they lived in the barracks and had all their rations and meals taken care of. Unselfishly , they tilled and tended the land for all the others in the Congregations who were struggling. The tapioca, a low maintenance hardy plant that grew well,  was a carbohydrate filled comfort food. The banana plant was another low maintenance plant that did well during the war years in the Christ Church compound.

On December the 8th, 1941, a few months after the Dedication of Christ Church, the Japanese Air Force bombed Singapore. World war 11 had reached Singapore.

My Dad used to conduct Holy Communion services every day of his life, wherever he worked. He believed that the congregation should be able to walk into the Church any day of the year to celebrate a birthday, an anniversary. Anything. Some days he was the only one in the Church.  That never stopped him from reading the order of service from start to finish, or from having Holy Communion on his own. Sometimes when he turned around there would be a couple of congregation members who had walked in late. No one ever went away disappointed that the church was closed. Ever.

By February 1942,  the British troops were forced to retreat, as the front line of the Japanese Army  was moving closer to the city as they crossed the Causeway connecting Malaya and Singapore. This placed the Parsonage at 118 Keng Lee Road and the Christ Church at No 1. Dorset Road, on the last line of defence, as street fighting had broken out all over the Newton Circus at one point. On the 11th of February 1942, Christ Church suffered colossal damage from an advancing attack , that lasted almost three days.

The Anti-Aircraft gun, a vital target in the church compound, was bombed and Christ  Church suffered a direct hit when the entire roof of the sanctuary of the Church collapsed and the church caught fire. Mercifully, no one was killed, as no one was inside. That was the one day that my dad had been persuaded not to open the church. My Dad and the congregation wept in huddles around the ruins later that morning.

What a shame!
What a shame! They moaned softly.
Aiyo….Just look at this!
Everything is in shambles!
Tsk…Tsk…Tsk

Their beautiful church, just a few months old, built with blood and sweat, lay as rubble around them.  They gathered  the debris with their trembling hands painfully aware of the unexploded shells that lay treacherously around the church. The candle dampeners at the altar, have tell tale marks of shrapnel, Uncle Jambu tells me.

Restoration of the roof was possible only after the surrender of the Japanese on February 15th 1942 when a sympathetic Hindu gentleman, an anonymous stranger from a different faith , donated a generous amount to replace all the tiles on the roof, in the days when money and resources were hard to come by. The services were conducted near the Font of the church, as the Sanctuary was unusable.

Most of the churches, had been taken over by the Japanese, as warehouses for Artillery and supplies. They were later returned for worship, with the strict instruction that there would be no preaching, of any kind. The Holy communion served, was plain water and dry bread.

The Japanese advanced and the British admitted defeat. Singapore was occupied by The Japanese, from 1942 to 1945, till the war ended with the fateful Bombing of Hiroshima.

One of the first things that the Japanese did, was to install a large machine gun in the Parsonage compound, making it a Garrison for their soldiers. My Dad and all those who had sought refuge in the Parsonage had to be evacuated. They moved to the Lanka Dispensary at No 42. Serangoon Road, for a while till the situation settled. Eventually when the fighting abated , they moved back.

Dr K. P. Pathy, a close friend of my dad ran the Dispensary and lived upstairs with his sons Durai, Mylan, Jambunathan and Boopalan. Uncle Jambu tells me that they slept on the floor in the office and shared meals out of one pot. This bonding in adverse conditions, with bombs exploding around them, was a friendship that survived years and generations, during and after the war years.

The fierce, frequent and often relentless shelling, cost many their lives and limbs in tragic episodes. Many of the Christ Church members, were wounded. Many carried painful shrapnel as souvenirs of the war, well into old age, together with the nightmares that would never leave them. The screams of pain, from their loved ones, dying slowly and painfully, haunted them asleep or awake.

The horrendous aftermath of the bombings, kept my Dad busy burying the dead, often as dismembered remnants of humanity, all the while gathering token pieces of anatomy in crude wooden coffins to be buried, according to Christian rites. Sometimes they had coffins, sometimes they were buried without coffins. He used to dig these graves himself and lower the dead into the silent echoes of a senseless grave. Sometimes he marked their graves with a wooden cross. Sometimes he could not. His graveyard shift seemed endless.

During the Japanese occupation, my Dad was all over the place, as the Japanese Army never stopped him in his cassock, from doing his rounds of the congregations, under his care. The Japanese had taken over the Parsonage, as a Garrison for their soldiers. With time my Dad had become a familiar figure to the Japanese occupants of the Parsonage. They were quite used to him coming and going as he pleased. With his dusty cassock flapping loosely over his bony frame, my Dad cycled fearlessly, on the only mode of transport that he had, a ladies bicycle, through the smoke and grime filled ruins, tending to the sick, the dying and the dead.

As the Padre, he was never denied access anywhere and he even managed to enter the stench filled prisons. At the Changi Jail, he was allowed to meet the  Archdeacon who had consecrated Christ Church and conducted the Dedication Service a short while before the bombing of the Christ Church. The Archdeacon, the Venerable Graham White and his wife were detained as British POWs, in the Changi Prison. They both died in Prison but not before they nurtured a magnificent ministry in the Prison.

When the Incumbent Bishop of Singapore , Rt. Rev J. L. Wilson was interned in Changi Jail, my Dad was appointed The Bishop’s Commissary for Tamil work, in the Diocese of Singapore and Malaya. This meant that my Dad traveled extensively, all over the length and breadth of Malaya, especially to the rubber plantations, where the Tamil migrant Christians worked. This was a link that Christ Church cherished till the Diocese of Singapore and Malaya was divided after the countries attained independance.

My Mum’s maternal uncle, M.M. John, one of my Velliammachy’s brothers, was posted to Singapore, during the war, in the postal services. He was captured like so many other officers were and imprisoned as a POW. He succumbed to injuries and an infection and died in the Changi prison. My Dad claimed his body and together with the Army Chaplain, he buried him at the war cemetery at Kranji.

My dad would repeat these war time stories to me when I was growing up. His eyes would light up and he would appear charged as the adrenaline flowed and he relived the danger and challenges of the Japanese occupation. The days, he lived so very close to death and the perils of a global war.

Though I listened, I doubt if the gravity of the war time perils meant much to a post war child, growing up in peace times, with no fear or hunger to whet the appetite.

I just wish, I had listened better, to tell you more.

Christ Church , Singapore .

mrsamuel
Rev. Canon Paramanantham Israel Samuel Baboo
Founder Vicar of Christ Church, Singapore
18.02.1939—31.12.1972

When Singapore was discovered by Sir Stamford Raffles, in 1819, migrant workers and others, came in from all over the world to populate a tiny cosmopolitan island, where cultures and races met and lived peacefully. Christians, of all denominations , languages  and races, used to worship together.  These services were held in English at the St. Andrews Cathedral, founded in 1830.

Many of these migrants were Tamil speaking and they found praise and worship in  English, unfamiliar, distant and alien.  Understandably, religious worship is more meaningful in one’s own mother tongue, the language you grew up with , at your mother’s knee.

The Tamil migrants were used to hearing the Bible read out in Tamil. They were used to listening to the sermon in Tamil. They missed singing their devotional Keerthanas to Carnatic Ragas.  They were homesick for their homes and their families, as many of the men had ventured out alone, to seek employment in an unknown land. They missed India and they missed the form of worship they were used to in India. Some of them were uncomfortable sitting on benches, as most of them, sat on the floor of their home churches, for services on Sunday.

Most of the migrant Christians felt the same way, including the Chinese speaking members of the congregation. They preferred to worship in their mother tongue.

Eventually, responding to the need of the congregation, St Peter’s Church was dedicated on Stamford Road in 1875. This was the time-share Home church for the Tamil and all the other migrant congregations that grew from the Anglican congregation of St. Andrew’s Cathedral. The Tamil congregation at St. Peter’s Church, was looked after by priests and missionaries posted from India.

Three years after my Mum and Dad were married, my Dad left India in 1939 and sailed to Singapore to serve the Tamil Congregation in Singapore. My Mum was still in India completing her MBBS at the Madras Medical College. The plan was that she would join him later, when she finished her course.

Time share, in one building, the St. Peter’s Church,  was not a comfortable option, as the congregations grew. There was a paucity of slots available for services . Slowly the congregations moved to their own church buildings, where they did not have to share time, or wait in queues, to worship in their mother tongue with the growth of the diocese linguistically.

58,000 square feet had been bought at No 1 Dorset Road, by my Dad’s predecessor, Rev. Canon C.D Gnanamani to build a church for the Tamils Congregation of St. Peter’s Church.

My Dad, was the incumbent Priest in charge of the Anglican Tamil Congregation when the foundation stone for Christ Church was laid at No.1 Dorset Road on St. Luke’s Day, October 18th 1940 , by the Rt. Rev. B.C. Roberts, the Bishop of Singapore and Malaya. This was an absolute act of faith in a world whispering war tones and where there were no resources to build luxury commodities like Churches.

I later learned, that whenever my Dad laid the foundation stone for any new building or extension, there may have been very little in the Bank, or in his pocket, to start the building. He always started in faith and placed his trust and resources to The One who had blessed him in ways that could not be counted or recalled. The money for the construction always flowed as easily as his prayers .

Christ Church was my Dad’s brainchild. He worked tirelessly, to raise funds for the building and he supervised the construction as it came up, brick for brick. On the eve of Palm Sunday, the 5th of April 1941, Christ Church was dedicated by the Archdeacon of Singapore, the Venerable Graham White, who was also the Commissary of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

My Dad, served the Tamil Congregation of Christ Church for 33 years till he retired in 1972 . He was the longest serving priest of Christ Church. Affectionately known as The Pathriar.

Christ Church was his whole life.

 

 

An Irate Cleric Pulls The Chain

When my Dad married my Mum, she was working as a medical practitioner in Tamilnadu, after completing her LMP, The  Licentiate Medical Practitioner, at The Christian Medical College, Vellore. Medical education meanwhile had advanced and the Madras Medical College in Madras, offered a shortened MBBS degree to those with an LMP. My dad, thought that this was an excellent opportunity for my Mum to upgrade her training. They applied to the MMC and my Mum, was accepted and enrolled for the shortened MBBS, at the Madras Medical College. My Dad was going to sponsor her studies on the double digit salary he earned as a village priest.

This formed ripples, as some of my Dad’s peers, felt that he was getting far too ambitious. Some of them, went to the Bishop’s house and wound him up.  They whipped up a froth and complained to the Bishop that Baboo, the young priest posted in Sathur, was having ideas beyond his station. He was actually sending his Doctor wife off to do her further studies, in Madras. If these lofty ideas were not nipped in the bud, it would spread like wildfire and more young clergy would go about doing their own thing. The Diocese would suffer. The work would suffer.

You must put a stop to this, they said. Most men, and the clergy were no different,  preferred to let their wives share the burden of their work, silently,  a few paces behind them.

My Mum and Dad had bought their tickets and had settled down in their train compartment to go to Madras. The train was scheduled to leave in 15 minutes. My Dad who was sitting by the window, looked out and saw the resident Bishop of Madras running, on the platform towards their train, with his white cassock flapping wildly all around him. Running alongside were several priests who kept peering into the compartments, obviously searching for someone.  The Bishop, saw my dad, at the window of the compartment and climbed in with the other priests who had accompanied him to the Railway station.

Huffing and puffing, the Bishop threw himself on the seat next to my Dad. Neither my Dad, nor my Mum had a clue about the unexpected visit from the Bishop. My Mum, thought that he had come to see her off and very respectfully she offered a glass of cold water from their mudpot, the kuja, that traveled with them on long train journeys. The Bishop gulped down the water, that my Mum offered him and started his tirade, wasting no time.

Do get off the train, Baboo, said the Bishop.
It is not necessary for your wife to upgrade her training.
No need at all, young man.
Working wives are a problem, he said fanning himself with the newspaper.
They always cook up ideas and stations beyond their means
Always interfering with the man’s work.
The Diocese is really not interested in them, he proclaimed.
Be a good fellow, he said, and get off the train.
Enough is enough.

He continued to talk about my Mum and her potential to be a nuisance to the Diocese, as if she was not in the compartment, sitting opposite him.

The flashing red signal on the railway crossing was pale, in comparison to the rage, that bubbled up in my normally cool Dad as he stood up to His Holiness, the Lord Bishop.
I will get off the train, my lord Bishop, he said, if you tell me to, my Lord.
My Dad, always sounded like an actor from a Shakespearean play, when he addressed his bosses, the Bishops he worked with.
But I am extremely sorry, that I cannot ask my wife to get off the train, my Lord.
She is not, he gently reminded the Bishop, She is not an employee of the Diocese, I am.

She is free to go on to Madras to do her shortened MB and up-grade her training if she wants to, my Lord.

The compartment meanwhile, came alive and watched the tax free entertainment unfurl, with growing interest. Some of them were sure that my Dad was running off with my Mum. They thought that the Bishop had found out in time and had come to stop them.

They do not look very young, they thought, Maybe she is somebody else’s wife.

In all the excitement that followed , no one noticed that the Guard had blown his whistle and waved the green flag.  The wheels were moving slowly and the train was pulling out of the station. With great presence of mind, the Bishop, jumped up and pulled the red plunger, that activated the emergency brake of the moving train, bringing it to a grinding halt.

Politely and firmly, my Dad stood his ground and disobeyed His Holiness. He got off the train with the Bishop. However, he refused to let my Mum get off the train. The whistle blew and my mum took that fateful journey alone, leaving my Dad behind, on the receding platform, flanked by the officious white cassocks, to face the music and deal with an irate cleric, his mitre and his staff.

My Dad had ruffled senior clerical feathers. As a marked man, he was assigned hardship postings, far from his wife. This did not bother my Dad, in the slightest.  He stood his ground. He was going to see, that his wife finished her shortened MBBS course in MMC, come what may.

Meanwhile, Stephen Neil, the Bishop of the neighbouring Diocese, who was rather fond of my Dad and I suspect secretly admired his spunk, sent word to tell him that Singapore needed a pastor.

Dear Baboo,  the letter read,
They are in need of a resident priest for the Tamil speaking congregation in Singapore. Why don’t you think of taking up this challenge for a year while you wife finishes her studies?
Regards,
+ Stephen

He gently persuaded my Dad to try it for a year, by which time His Neighbouring Holiness, would have retired and the coast would be clear,  for him to return to India. His wife, meanwhile,  would have completed her training in a couple of years.  So, my dad left for Singapore, on a contract for a year.

Little did they know that it would be many turbulent, long years before he would return to India.

Dr. Susie Samuel

dr_susie

I was christened Anne Elizabeth, after both my grandmothers and answered to Susie all my life. Mentally, I have never been an Anne or an Elizabeth, except at St. Margaret’s School, Singapore, when I was Anne Baboo.

My Mum and Dad came from two bordering states in South India.

My Mum, Saramma John, one of nineteen siblings, born and raised in Kodukulanji, Central Travancore, was a medical Doctor, an LMP from the Christian Medical College, Vellore with an MBBS degree from the Madras Medical College.

My Dad, Paramanantham Israel Samuel Baboo, was born and raised by his blind, widowed mother in Senthiambalem, Tirunelveli District, Tamil Nadu. He was the first graduate from his village to study Theology at the Bishop’s College in West Bengal. He retired as an Anglican Canon, after founding and serving the Tamil Congregation of Christ Church, Singapore for 33 years.

When they fell in love and got married my mum was 36 years old and three years older than my Dad. When I, their only child, was born, she was a 46 year old Elderly Primi . A miraculous flash in the pan, I grew up blessed, loved and cherished by two wonderful caring people, I am proud to call my parents.

If you stick around, I will tell you the story of how they were separated for many years, incommunicado, with my Dad away, in a war ravaged Japanese occupied Singapore and with my mum living as a widow in India, lovingly protected by her surviving siblings. My Dad was presumed dead. With the silence of the  passing years, the colours on her saris paled to white and she stopped wearing flowers in her hair, as a Christian widow, at the turn of the Century.

I will also tell you the story of their dramatic reunion after the war, when no one, not even my Mum recognised my Dad on his return. No one except my Dad’s K9 , Sundar, who had, with all the years of waiting for my Dad, grown into a weary, arthritic and indifferent Alsation.  He condescended to move around, only when my Mum went to her Clinic and slept at her feet, till she was ready to go home.  When my Dad returned unexpectedly and unannounced, even as my Mum stared in disbelief,  Sundar came alive, shot out and flung himself at the gaunt, travel weary stranger , welcoming his master back.

And then, if there is time , I will tell you stories of my extended family, my formative years in Christ Church, a cosmopolitan St. Margaret’s School in a Colonial Singapore, the prestigious Christian Medical College in Vellore,  and our legacy, the CMC Alumni friendships, that bind and span across years and continents.

I will also tell you stories about the International group of doctors, from several countries, who trained as a batch at The Institute of Dermatology, St. John’s Hospital, London.

I will tell you stories about my classmate at Med school Narsappa Mathew Samuel, who turned out to be my best friend, before becoming my husband, our adventures and our work in Bhutan, Nepal , Africa, England and India.

Our years as a young family , Rekha and Nitil, Anish and Vidhu and our two grandkids, Ashish and Rohan, neonates I delivered as their mother’s attending Obstetrician, one in a resource challenged Mission Hospital in Simla and the other in a Corporate Hospital in Chennai.

I will tell tell you stories of life, as a multitasking resident doctor, head cook,  bottle washer and dogsbody in a Mission Hospital atop the Himalayas and life as a Consultant Dermatologist in the Corporate Health Care Sector in Chennai.

My life started in one century and spilt over into another, moving across several countries, cultures and cuisines. We might even recipe hop.

We could turn up the jukebox for the music of the 60s and the golden oldies to bring back a memory or two from Elvis The King, to Freddie The Queen. The possibilities are endless, in a Serendipitous Journey

You might find it hard to believe all the living and changes that have been packed into a lifetime, both personally and professionally. Looking back, I am a bit shocked too.

Shocked enough to write it all down, if I can,

I cannot see the stairway , but I have taken this first step in faith,  holding firmly onto the hand of the Almighty God who never ever left my side, even when I wandered around, will-fully lost at times.

Be back soon,

Susie Samuel

The Wedding

weddingpic

Photograph, Courtesy …. Cousins, Pothen C. John (Babychaen) and Lalitha Pothen (Manna) , Benjamin C. John (Reggiemon) and Maye Mary Benjamin (Mayemol)
This photograph was taken a few weeks after my parent’s wedding on 23.04.1936. It has the 12 adult survivors of the 19 Siblings.
Seated 1. L-R…Prebendary Rev. John C. Pothen (Kunjunjootychaen), Esther Mathew (Kunjamma Kochomma), Ponnamma Ann Benjamin (Ponnamma Kochomma), Dr. Benjamin C. John (Thambichaen)
Seated 2. L-R…My Velliappachan, My Dad, My Mum, My Velliammachy, (cousin Sunnychaen in her lap)
Standing  1. L -R….Elizabeth Eapen (Babykochomma), Elizabeth Chacko (Pennammakochomma), Thankamma Verghis (Thankammakochomma), Annamma John, (Kunjamma Kochomma, Chandichaen’s wife), C. Chandy John (Chandichaen, with eldest cousin Kunjumonchaen in his arms)
Standing 2 L-R….C.J.Philip (Kochuttychaen), C. Wilson John (Wilsonchaen),  C. George John ( Joychaen)

In those days , you were expected to present the camera, your most serious face. That’s why they all look so fierce. In reality, they were far from this serious or composed. They were a rumbustious lot.

My Velliappachan met my Annammal Patti and a date was set. My parents, Paramanantham Israel Samuel Baboo and Saramma John, were married on the 23rd of April , 1936 at Christ Church, the CMS church in Kodukulanji, by the Rev. Alammootil Oommen Mammen.

My Annammal Patti, crossed the state line, for the first time in her life, with her friend Ponnamal to attend the Epic wedding in Kodukulanji.

When he married my Mum , his life changed for ever , overnight. The ebullient Cadavanaltharayil Family, adopted him, lock ,stock and barrel and engulfed him with their love. They  surrounded him with a warmth that transformed him. Overnight he inherited a boisterous family with 12 siblings cutting across language and state. He suddenly found himself the revered epicentre of a family that doted on him.  He found a place in their hearts, as Baboo Achen, the man who loved their Pengal enough to share her with them, even after she was married.

Growing up , he had been shunted around relatives, who had taken pity on his blind mother. He was always the outsider, the poor relative, dependent on their largesse, watching in on their happy families, from the periphery. A rather lonely figure, preoccupied with his efforts to study and get above his circumstances. A person who never really had the luxury of spending time , money or energy on enjoying himself.

Suddenly, he realised that he was not looking in on someone else’s family. This was his family .

His Family.

Slowly, he integrated and changed from a sombre young man to a charming young son-in-law, an affable brother-in-law, a loving and loyal husband. The young man, his in-laws had hand picked, to take over, as the head of their family.

There was no looking back after that.

 

The Way To My Dad’s Heart

parents

Paramanantham Israel Samuel Baboo  and  Saramma John

As a young priest , my Dad worked in several small towns in Tamilnadu. I remember Sathur and Ettiyapuram mentioned often. When he was posted to Ettiyapuram, he met a shy Malayalee Lady Doctor, Saramma John, who was posted as the resident Doctor at the Government Clinic.

My Dad, an ordained priest by then, used to cycle around the villages,  visiting the various Parishes, under his care including Ettiyapuram. Every Sunday, he would arrive for the morning service in the local Tamil church. The service would finish around 1 pm, just before Lunch .  The villagers met for a pow-wow and they decided, that my Mum’s house, was the only one equipped to entertain the young priest and requested her to kindly serve him lunch on Sundays , as it would have been quite inhuman, to expect him to pedal off to his next service, in the next village, in the scorching sun , without some lunch .

My Mum’s house, was always full of people, as there was always one, or several of her siblings and / or, their families staying with her, or visiting her, at any point in time. It was a loud and busy household with family, in all ages, shapes and sizes, coming and going all the time. Most of her sisters and sisters-in-law came to her for their confinement, when they became pregnant. Though single, my Mum was well chaperoned at all times. There were at least six other members of the family with her, at any given point of time.

Meal times at her home, were lively and entertaining.  She agreed to look after the visiting Priest, as it would have been no extra trouble, to set another plate at her table. She called him Aiyah when she met him many Sundays ago in Ettiyapuram and she called him Aiyah till the day she died on July the first, 1984. Aiyah is a term of respect, that is used in Tamil to address a priest. Even when she used to get exasperated with him and scold him later in life, my Mum would call my Dad Aiyah.

Little did she know then, that the extra plate she set at the Sunday lunch, in her home, in the village of Ettiyapuram , was going to be a permanent fixture at the head of her Table.

My Mum’s boisterous family, was a warmhearted crowd that welcomed visitors.  Most of the girls, were excellent cooks, who could produce an impressive spread, even at short notice. I can imagine the variety, they would have whipped up, for the visiting priest on Sundays. My Dad, found himself looking forward to the Sunday morning services in Ettiyapuram as time passed. He was not sure, what he looked forward to more. The overflowing Sunday Service at Church or the unfamiliar warmth and hospitality that he enjoyed at the Doctoramma’s house in Ettiyapuram.

Nothing in Life is an accident . My parents meeting was no accident. Nor was it an accident, that my Dad got to know my Mum’s family, as a friendly visitor, they liked and grew to respect. They spoke to him in Malayalam and started calling him Baboo Achen. He had no choice but to learn Malayalam. He learned it so well , that he used to conduct the Malayalam services later in Christ Church,  Singapore, till the Congregation, was posted their own resident pastor, from India.

The younger siblings, were extremely fond of him and they used to wait for him. Sometimes, when my Dad stopped by for lunch, he would find my grandparents, my Velliappachan and my Velliammachy staying with my Mum.  They liked him instinctively and he was a great hit with them, especially with my Velliappachan.

By then, my Velliappachan and my Velliammachy, were beginning to despair that my Mum, was going to spend her entire life looking after the Siblings, without a spare thought for herself.  Many of the Siblings, had got married by then, with several kids of their own. They were sure that at the end , she would be utterly alone.  A lonely Old Maid.

My Mum’s parents watched, as Baboo Achen became a household name. The more they watched, the more they were convinced that Baboo Achen, would be a suitable match for their daughter Saramma and their imagination ran riot, as they went into a matrimonial huddle, with their match making caps.

Neither were spring chickens. Both were adults, working hard at careers of their own. Baboo Achen seemed comfortable with Saramma’s siblings. Saramma and Baboo Achen, seemed happy together. They could have a life of their own and a family of their own. They knew that my Mum’s biological clock was ticking and something had to be done soon.

They went down quickly on their knees, to The One they always went to, when they wanted something fixed. The One who had lead their family through all the ups and downs of life . They prayed about it.  They left it with God, with the occasional nudge.

Love came knocking softly and a confirmed bachelor and a spinster, encouraged by her family agreed to get married, across state and language, much to the delight and relief of both the  families. It was a comfortable acceptance of the inevitable, with no hiccoughs or surprises.

When my Dad broke the news to my grandmother, my Annammal Patti, called her neighbour Ponnamal, her friend and travel companion over, to make plans.

We are going to see my future daughter-in-law, She said excitedly.
Go get the train tickets!
Lets meet her first and then we will tell her who we are, okay?
Not a word before that, Ponnammal
Pick a nice sari for me to wear, Ponnammal

Remember she is meeting me for the first time

The tickets were bought and a delighted Annammal Patti and her friend Ponnamal, boarded the train to go and  see my Mum, at the Govt. Hospital where she was working.

My mum was spared the tea and nibbles routine.

Without disclosing her identity, as her future mother in law, my grandmother, My Annammal Patti, waited in the queue, to meet the Lady Doctor in her room. She was led in and she requested my Mum to repair and reconstruct her pendulous earlobes, a trade mark  of elderly women in South India..

  • In my grandmother’s village, most of the elderly grandmothers  many of them widowed, wore their saris with no blouses and they were known as the Blouse-illa-Pattis, the Grandmothers with no blouses. Chunky gold jewellery hung from both ears. Over a period of time, the weight of the jewellery dragged the earlobe down, widening the ear-hole and pulling the earlobe down to reach the clavicles. Many, got them repaired in later years, as the grandchildren tugged mercilessly at them, as babies often do, injuring the earlobe causing jagged tears.

Please will you repair my earlobes, Doctoramma?  she asked my unsuspecting Mum.

My Mum, did a splendid reconstructive job on both sides. She  excised the redundant part of the earlobe and sutured her way straight to my grandmother’s heart, to remain good friends till the end. After surgery, my Annammal Patti, revealed her true identity and my Mum’s jaw fell to reach her clavicles. She was flabbergasted. She  had thought the sweet old lady was just another patient.

Baboo Achen’s Mother ?

Seriously ?

Confused and thrown off guard, she tried to rewind the consult in her mind’s eye.

Had she been polite ?

Had she created a good impression ?

This was turning out to be a techni -coloured nightmare.

Oh dear God, please let it heal well

Fortunately it healed well. My Mum had passed the test with flying colours.   My Annammal Patti had been so impressed with My Mum, that she had allowed her to repair her earlobes.

Incognito.

 

My Dad

My Dad, belonged to the Vaathriar community of Senthiambalem. Most of these families had simple looms in their homes, on which they wove saris and dhothis that they sold for a paltry sum.

My Annamal Patti, was blind and her livelihood came from half an acre of land that she owned, a little away from her house, that she always referred to as “The Thottam“. Tilling the land with its clay soil was a challenge in the dry, arid village. There were no electric pumps to irrigate the land and water was hand drawn from the well, to water the plants. Whatever they were able to grow from the hardy coconut trees and banana plants, they sold. Cash crops were a disaster and they grew beans, as it survived, in a village where water was scarce.

The meagre returns, that my Annammal Patti made from The Thottam , was all that she had to bring up her two children. It was a struggle from the word go, but she never gave up. My Dad did well at school and she was determined that her son would be allowed to study for as long as he could. The one beacon that lit her sightless world, was her ambition to see my Dad reach his full potential. She knew that he would do well, if given the chance.

The gender slant, was undeniable in the southern states of India. Boys were more important than girls in all things, big and small, at the turn of the century. Unfortunately , my Dad’s life and career  were considered priority and my Aunt Alice, my Athai, played second fiddle in my Annammal Patti’s world. I doubt, if  she was pleased with this preferential treatment. I am sure, that she felt that she could have done as well, or better than my Dad, if she was given the same opportunities. As a teenager, she was taken to Pune, by one of my Annammal Patti’s cousins and she grew up with his children, the cousins in Pune. After she completed her schooling, she  trained with a Pharmacist and eventually set up a Pharmacy in Pune. She turned to be quite an entrepreneur and had 2 Autos on road, making her a financially independent lady. She never got married.

Shortly after my Annammal Patti lost her vision, my Dad was taken, by one of his Uncles, to study in Ambur. When he stayed with his Uncle, he was expected to work for his keep. My Dad used to work in my Uncle’s fields, before and after he went to school. My Dad had an extremely hard life, physically and emotionally while he was growing up. I do not think that it is comfortable to live life, as a poor relative. It is hard to be dependent on largesse and  hand-me-downs , no matter how kind they are, or mean to be.

He was always the poor relative. The only thing, no one can ever take away from him, was his dignity. My Dad was poor, but he was dignified and he was willing to work hard to cross the divide.

Perhaps it was all these circumstances, that made my Dad excel in his studies and fueled him to work hard. In his 20s he walked barefoot, over muddy roads, in rural India, with hardly a few threadbare change of clothes. In his 60s, he drove a Mercedes Benz in Singapore.

He came from humble beginnings and rose with God’s Blessings, hard work and determination to become a self made man , a scholar and the most wonderful human being that I have ever known in my life. I say this with enormous pride, humbled that he was my Dad.

He never forgot his humble beginnings and he never forgot the taste of hunger. When I was growing up, there was one cardinal rule in the Parsonage, that could never be broken. No grumbling at the Table. If I fussed at the table I would be reminded ,very curtly, that there were millions, starving in the world.  We had to finish our plate. Even the bitter, bitter gourd, the Pavakkai had to be eaten with respect.

When I had my own family and my kids used to fuss at the table , I pulled out the There are millions of people starving in the world line from my childhood. Unfortunately,  my cheeky kids grew up with more democracy than I did. I drew a blank, when they suggested that I send the bitter gourd and all the other veggies that they disliked, to the millions starving in the world.

My Dad did extremely well in school in Ambur and received a scholarship to do his BA in the American College in Madurai. When he completed his BA,  he was awarded a scholarship to study Theology at the Bishop’s College in Calcutta. Going to Calcutta from the hamlet Sawyerpuram was as good as going overseas those days.

Senthiambalem, stoically resistant to change and progress, claims immense pride over one of her sons, who ventured out to be her first scholar, a young priest, who completed his B.A. at The American College in Madurai and his B.D. at the Bishops College in Calcutta. The first one from the village to cross the seas, to what was to become Japanese occupied Singapore.

When my Dad died on March 10th 1986, Uncle V.M.Thomas, my Dad’s friend and fellow priest, helped me sort out the library that my Dad had collected with great pride over the years. His books, his cassocks and his vestments were sent to various theological seminaries to be used by young priests in training . I did not want them gathering dust on a shelf, unused. Uncle Thomas, showed me a book that my Dad had been awarded, as the Alexander Prize in Greek at Bishops College, Calcutta on December 17th 1932, by Bishop Peckanham Walsh, who was the Principal at that time. I had no idea that my Dad had studied Greek, or that he had won a prize for Greek.

 My Dad had no airs or graces as he moved on in Life.  He just had the most disarming smile that I have ever seen on any human face. When he smiled , his eyes crinkled and the imposing figure that he cut in the white cassock, he wore all the time, transformed into everyone’s familiar “Pathriar”, Baboo Achen.

He was my hero, my Dad.

My Mum and her siblings

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 as boarders 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 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.

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 Tharavad

 

The twelve months of the year, were divided into the wet, damp months of the monsoons and the dry, hot months of summer. The seven day week, started with a Sunday, when they went to Church and ended on a Saturday, when they got ready to go to Church. Everything started and ended in the Church, the pivot of their lives.

There were no clocks to tell the time. Nature did. The cock and his crow decided when it was morning. The shadows of sunset and the grate of the crickets decided when it was evening. The rest of the hours were occupied by chores, that often bordered on the repetitive and the tedious.

For directions, they went back to the sun. Everyone, knew which side the sun rose and which side the sun set. North and south were easy after that. If your right hand pointed towards Sunrise, your left would point towards Sunset and your Nose would point North.

The homestead, the Tharavad set in a rice field, was a red brick house with an open courtyard in the centre, which looked up at the skies to let in air, sunshine and rain. The sloped roof, held up by wooden rafters, allowed the monsoon rains to beat on the red tiles, before it slid off the edge as a sheet, to splash on the gravel below. A wrap-around verandah ran almost completely around the house, as a thin boundary between the Inside and the Outside.

A wooden staircase started in the dining room and climbed precariously up to disappear into a dark wooden loft, perched on the top of the house, which served as a store. The children loved the rickety steps. It was technically out of bounds, potentially dangerous and it opened up all sorts of exciting possibilities. They would sneak up to play in the loft and sometimes, they would curl up and fall asleep in its cozy warmth, to be rescued only at mealtimes, when the head count found them missing.

The busiest part of the house was the kitchen, a large room at the back overlooking the courtyard where the kids played. Only when the house went to sleep, did the kitchen go quiet. Otherwise, it buzzed with activity, traffic, smells and smoke. There was always a meal to be done and mouths to feed. The kitchen was the hub of the house.

Washing up after a meal, was never a problem, even when the pack count was high, as they usually ate out of bio-degradable banana leaves. After use, these were thrown in a heap outside, for the crows and dogs to shred, before they became compost for the fields. The firewood stove sat on the eastern side of the kitchen, to face the sunshine that flooded in and sanitised the kitchen, as it came alive in the morning.

Near the entrance facing the courtyard, stood a large earthen pitcher on a wooden stool. Every morning, it was filled with buttermilk, watered deliciously thin and flavoured with green curry leaves, pink shallots and amber coloured slivers of ginger. A refreshing cooler, for the dusty family that traipsed back in for lunch and a welcome drink, for the visitors who passed through the little house by the canal, near the banyan tree.

Each household had a labour task force of men and women who worked in the fields to bring in the grain. The landed gentry would have starved, if these mere mortals were not on their payroll. Unfortunately, despite their utility, the labourers were treated as untouchables at best .