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.