Ammamma’s White Saree

There’s a story behind every six yards of love !! This one, my Ammamma’s White Saree, has an immensely painful but proud undertone to it. If you listen carefully, you can hear it sing rhapsodies of saudade ; of love that remains  !!

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Something fateful happened on Sunday, March 9, 1986.

Something that shattered a family and a community into pieces that bleed profusely until today; pieces of broken hearts that make a compassionate whole . Something about a man, a visionary, I’ve never seen but I personify, I’m told. Something about a leader, whose struggle echoes with the ongoing lives of quite a few eminent advocates, politicians, trade unions and bank employees. Something about a benevolent father, whose mere memory brings in tears of pride to my mother’s eyes . Something about an enthusiastic singer and an ardent fun-lover, my uncle, my second father, seems to have taken after. Something about a loving husband, whose loss takes the colour of melancholy my dear grandmother prefers to be draped in. Something about a humanitarian, whose lineage I hold strong being the eldest of his own. Something about a fighter , to whom my forehead bears a striking resemblance.

Something about a simple, humble , beautiful man , who still lives in every kind deed of his near and dear ones , big or small, that goes into making a troubled soul, any troubled soul, live ._MG_1483 copy

 

It was this huge laminated picture in the house , next to the Gods in the “puja room”. A rather grumpy looking man with curly hair,a pair of kind eyes beneath a pair of over-sized thick-framed spectacles and a large forehead always looked back at me through it.
“Amma, who is that ?!”
I was 6 years old , I guess.
“He’s my father !”
She must have hid her tears behind that radiant smile of hers.
“ Where is he ?! “
“ He is no more Pooja. He had a heart attack and passed away when I was a girl.”
“ Oh. Why do you keep him there though ? In the Puja room ?!”
“Because he’s the only God I pray to.”
“ Oh. What’s his name ?! “
A.V.G Nair.
I still remember the pride in the air.
“ What do I call him Amma ?! “
“ You can call him Ammachan ! “

Ever since that day to this , I keep talking to my newly made friend; the grumpy one with curly hair, kind eyes and a huge forehead ,who looks at me through the lamination.

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“Ammamma !! Why do you always wear white ?! Why can’t you wear a nice pink or blue saree too ?! “ , I would fuss to my grandmother , elegantly draped in her white silk saree.
“ I used to wear all that vava ( baby ). I don’t wear those colours anymore ever since Ammachan passed away ! “
“But why Ammamma ?! “
“ I just don’t feel that colourful anymore !”
She would draw her handkerchief and wipe her tears and smile back at me.

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“LOOK !! LOOK !!”
I jumped in the car as we passed the Cherooty Road Junction of Calicut on our way to the beach, pointing at the huge board that read , “ A.V.G. Nair Memorial Hall “.
“Isn’t that Ammachan’s name ?!”
“Yes it is . Ammachan’s colleagues and friends built it as a token of love and respect after his demise “ , Amma told me.
“ Wow. So Ammachan was a great man ?! “
“ Your mother’s going to cry any moment now. Who wants to lay a bet with me ?!” , Dad chuckled .
“The greatest I have ever known “ , Amma said quietly , laughing at dad’s remark.
Dad had won the bet after all.

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Every vacation, my sister and I were packed off to Cochin, Kerala where our dearest grandmother and her helping hands would be eagerly  awaiting us to drive the neighbourhood crazy. And like any other fairy grandmother , my Ammamma was also the kind who fed the glutton little Pradeeps , meat, fish and more of the same. Not to forget the skin and hair care routines with all things natural and organic , right out of a tree or the soil, mixed in milk or tomato puree or beauty oils.  Amidst the culinary nirvana and body rejuvenation spells , Soorya and I would escape into Ammachan’s study , a room filled with books and files , a teak-wood table and a spinning chair that creaks age , a deewan amidst antique wooden chairs , a huge gramophone and records , memories and stories, dying to be told to us grandchildren.
“Ammamma. Whose books are these ?! There are so many in here” , Soorya seemed interested in the multitudes of law books stacked neatly in the various shelves of the dozen cupboards.
“ These were all your Ammachan’s ! “
“ So he was a lawyer ?!”
“One of the finest !!” , M.K.Damodaran Uncle , the then Advocate General of Kerala, one of Ammachan’s colleague and close friend who was was always a warm part of our vacations in Cochin concurred with Ammamma’s proud silence.

“And these awards belong to ?! “ , I enquired trying to count the rusty brass awards stacked atop the cupboards.
“They’re also Ammachan’s ! He was the All India Bank Employees Association’s Vice President . Also the All India Deposit Collector’s Federation’s President . And an active member of the International Labour Organisation. So he would get these awards and mementos time and again.“
Soorya and I looked at each other in disbelief. I looked at the grumpy man with benevolent eyes looking back at me through the large framed photograph , the same one that was there at home . There were dusty files next to it , filled with newspaper articles and cuttings of grandfather’s work in various fields , all punched and tied to the paper-bound folder .

Mom wasn’t exaggerating . He was a great man indeed !!

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Our neighbor recently moved out of the rented house to his own apartment ; Mom, Dad , Soorya & I went to their house-warming function.
Whilst Soorya & I were busy playing with the annoying little children and getting our brains gorged on, Mom and Dad were doing the formal meet and greet with everybody present there .
“ We’re originally from Kannur !” , I over heard an aunty say.
“ Oh, is it ? So is Seema. Her ancestral home is in Kannur as well “, dad replied looking at Mom.
“ Oh !! We’re from the Thalassery side. I don’t know whether you would know the place exactly. A famous landmark would be Akkara Veedu , A.V.G Nair’s house. “
Dad, Soorya and I instantly looked at Mom.
She smiled.
“ I think I have seen your house. I know Akkara Veedu very well. A.V.G Nair is my father ! “ , she laughed .
All the eyes in the room were suddenly on her. She felt nervous , I could tell. But she was used to it . Being A.V.G Nair’s daughter was her favourite avatar. The wound gushed a bit of blood that fell down as tears over her cheeks though her smile lines as we drove back home .

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“ Look at her forehead . It’s just the same; the very same !! “ , they would proudly discover the resemblance I bore to a visionary who had once changed their lives for the better and would bless me with their promising smile and teary eyes and carry on with their humble lives.

“ Amma , everybody used to really love Ammachan is it ?! “
“Oh , you’ve NO idea, Pooja ! “ , his daughter would smile back at hers with glistening eyes.

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My eyes caught on to a familiar book with a red paper-bound cover and a black inked title in Malalyalam my friend was emerged in, in one of our library periods in 5th grade .

“ Hey Arya. What are you reading ?! “
“ Oh it’s this book I found in dad’s shelf. It’s about this humble humanitarian, his life and work. Have you read it ?!” , she handed the book to me. The same book I’d seen in book racks and shelves back at home and in Ammachan’s study in Cochin.
“ Nope. Not yet ! “
“Ah . You must. Dad said he’s made a difference to so many families . I think the Malayalam is a bit too difficult for our understanding though. But the … “
She kept talking while I zoned out into the book’s title.

“Amma ! Arya at school was reading ‘A.V.G. Ormakurippukal’ { Memories of A.V.G } “
“ Really ?! How did she find the biography of Acha ?! “
“ Said she found it in her dad’s library . “
“ Ah . Must’ve been politically connected . This somehow made my day though . “ , Amma smiled.
“Yeah , mine too ! “
I took the copy at home and started reading it .

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“Sir , this is Dr. Seema Pradeep . She’s a renowed dental surgeon practicing in Badagara. That’s her elder daughter, Pooja .“ , a mutual friend introduced Amma and I to the Mayor of Calicut, Mr. Thottathil Raveendran.
“ Hello Doctor . Where are you originally from ?! “
They started off with the quintessential conversation.
“ I’m originally from Thalassery ( Kannur ) , Sir. But I was born and brought up in Cochin . “
“ Ah I see. I do know a few extraordinary advocates in Kannur and Cochin . I don’t know whether you’d be knowing them . A.V.G. Nair and his contemporaries from … “

I looked up at Amma’s smile and her moist eyes .

“A.V.G Nair is her father, Sir “ , Amma’s mutual friend interrupted .
He was taken aback . There was an eerie silence. Folded hands and a grateful smile are usually followed after these occasional discoveries . Amma returned the kind gesture magnanimously.

10 minutes later we drove home and I kept teasing her of how so boastful her pumpkin red face which would burst any moment looked like. We laughed our hearts out !!

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“ Hey Puchu. Don’t you think it’s numbing how Amma & Ammamma still cry when they hear a whisper of Ammachan’s name ? “
“What do you mean Soorya ?!”
“ I mean, it’s been 3 decades almost. I thought we accept death in due course of time and move on. Of course the loss hurts . But how fresh can a wound be ? It’s been a really long time since he left us. I can’t believe they still well up with the very memory !” , Soorya was gloomy from seeing Amma cry at the dinner table because Dad had cracked a political joke on Communists and Amma remembered her days with a celebrated communist leader back in the days, her father .
“ I guess he meant everything in the world to them. It’s not the pain , perhaps. It’s the love !! “
“ How is it even possible to love somebody this much ?! “
I didn’t have an answer to that one. I just didn’t know. Our mother has been the epitome of love for both of us; selfless and unconditional to the core. We’ve always wondered how she could do it all ! How she could love everything ; her self, her husband , her children , her work , her family !

I’ve even asked her once about it to which she replied ,
“ Acha taught me how to love . “
“ How though ?!” , I’d ask.
“ Well , I learnt it all from watching him. And I wanted to be just like him. And before even making a conscious effort , I had started to emulate him. Yeah, that was all. I just wanted to be like him. He was everything !!”
Her voice quivered. I made my ugly faces and got her laughing again before we started talking about something else; my heart , heavier than usual however !

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Akkara Veettil Gopalakrishnan Nair , fondly known as A.V.G. Nair or A.V.G , was an eminent civil rights advocate by profession, an active communist by choice, a humanitarian by calling and during load shedding , a wonderful singer and a music enthusiast.
“ To know and understand commitment and the essence of an ideology being put to practise , one ought to have met A.V.G at least once in his lifetime” , quotes famous social activist and writer , Late Mr. P.T Bhaskara Panicker in his foreword for the biography ,“A.V.G. Ormakurippukal “ , written by Mr.P. Sudhakaran.  A principled man who pledged his life to the then exploited trade unions and bank employees and devoted his time to the welfare and empowerment of the common working class man is how many remember him today as.  All India Bank Employees Association’s ( AIBEA ) Vice President , All India Deposit Collector’s Federation’s ( AIDCF ) President , active member of the International Labour Organisation were few amongst the many roles he has played in his life of merely 52  years.
Apart from devoting his life for the people , he had a family whom he loved unconditionally . His wife N.K Lakshmikutty , retired teacher , daughter Mrs. Seema Pradeep who is a Dental Surgeon at her own 25-year old G.G. Dental Clinic , Calicut, Kerala and and son , Mr. N.K Sanjeev who is currently heading the Research & Development wing of the MNC , Synergy Maritime , Singapore.

It doesn’t end here either. Other than being a celebrated hero to his very own , he has one more role to his credit. The one that I hold dear to all my years of growing up but sadly have no living memory of.

A.V.G. Nair is also my grandfather .

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The following is the phone conversation between Amma and I on Sunday , March 7 , that shall painfully unfold to tell you the story of Ammamma’s white saree .

“ Amma . I know this is going to be tough for you. Get some tissues in hand already . “
Oh please. Stop it now. There’s no way I’m couriering this book to you. I’l just tell you the synopsis of it all and out of my memory “ , she said with a chuckle.

“ Okay. “
I took a deep breath because this is the first time I was intentionally going to make her cry .
“ What is the first word that comes into your head when you think of Ammachan ?! “

Compassion” , she replied .

“ Wow . Really ? I’d asked Sanjumaman the same question and he picked ‘compassion’ as well !!” , I exclaimed .

Well. At least now you can be sure it’s the truth “ , she laughed.

“ Tell me an episode which you very clearly remember ? Something that has had a lasting impact on you .”

Ah. There is one . This time when I was a little girl and I eavesdropped. So I was studying and I could hear Acha scream at someone in his office. From what I remember , he was a bank employee who had just been suspended that evening until further notice because of his carelessness at work . I could make out that he was crying and pleading to him to speak to the bank manager and revoke the suspension . But Acha just wouldn’t because he was wrong here and there was no way he could help him in this case. It was probably the disappointment that made him rage with fury. I was so scared of all that noise. The shouting continued for an hour almost after which Acha came out of the room and called out to Amma . He said ,
‘ Lakshmikutty , how much cash do we have at home ?! ‘ .

‘ We just have the money we kept aside for the children’s books for next year . ‘
‘ Shall we give it to him ?!’ , I remember Acha asking Amma hesitantly .
‘ Do you really want to ?! This is all that we have. What about Seema’s & Sanju’s books ? ‘
‘ I’l find a way. We’l manage saving here and there. This man in my office, he doesn’t even have enough money to buy ration. He’s the only bread-winner of his family of five. He’l be definitely suspended for this month. I don’t have the heart to see him cry like this. He’s a good fellow. Mistakes are just human, aren’t they ?! Let’s give this money to him . “ , they agreed .
He went back and gave him the money . There was no escalated anger anymore. The employee cried again and left after dining with us on being forced by Acha.
This incident somehow always remained in my head . About how selfless, righteous and humble a man can be.

“ You had a financial crunch then, yeah ?! I remember the stories . “ , I said.

Oh God !! You won’t believe it Pooja. We never had enough money. Never ! There was always the pinch and itch of the struggle. Sanju & I would never tell Acha about excursions in class because he would feel bad if there isn’t enough money to spare. Or even new books or clothes for that matter . We were always happy with the old ones . We never had enough money, my child. But I can’t possibly tell you how happy we were . We were the happiest !! We found happiness in the small things , in togetherness , in music , in uplifting each other, in our pet dogs and so many other crucial components that beat the vissicitudes of our lives .
We would always wait for Acha to get done with all his office work . It would get really late , but we would just not have dinner until he joins us at the table.

The house was always filled with his comrades, 15-20 at any given point of time. His colleagues would infact take Sanju & I away from the house during exam times so that we could study in peace.
We would eagerly wait for power cuts too. Because Acha would stop his work and then entertain us with ghazals and melodies from the golden era of songs , those sung by Hemant Kumar , Kishore Kumar and Talat Mahmood . Such a passionate singer with a mesmerizing voice he was.  It used to be the best time of our lives !!

Amma’s voice had begun to bear the brunt of time . I didn’t have to ask her the next question . She continued talking ….

Everything was going great . I had gotten into Calicut Government Dental College and Sanju, into Thrissur Government Engineering College and Amma and Acha were continuing with their honest lives in Cochin.

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It was March 9 , 1986 .

I got a phone call asking me to immediately go home as Dad had a massive cardiac arrest.

I went back to world’s end . It was filled with a thousand people mourning the unexpected demise of their loving comrade and leader and amidst them all , I found my mother and brother , broken . I was only 19.  And .. “
Her voice was trembling over the phone. I sniffed back my grief and interrupted .
“ Okay Amma , don’t talk about that day. What happened after ?! “
She got herself together and continued ,
Time stopped still. So did our worlds. Jimmy, our German Shepherd , coughed blood and died a week later because he just couldn’t deal with the sorrow. Sanju & I were devastated beyond what I can possibly ever articulate .
“ How did Ammamma cope up with Ammachan’s loss, Amma ?! “
She never did !! She couldn’t !!  She was bed-ridden for months and later on developed a skin stress syndrome which she had to battle all the more. It was very difficult for her . It was terrible watching her crumble all the time.
“ What about your expenses ? How did you take care of those ?! “
Ah ! That is a story. Amma only had her meager salary which she got from teaching in a government school. And Acha didn’t have many savings. Most of it had gone to the needy. And everybody knew that he threw kindness and monetary help around abundantly.
The AIBEA thereafter contributed a fund which amounted to Rs 500 each to Sanju & I every year for our living and academic expenses .  Even my marriage with Pradeep for that matter was entirely arranged by the union . Amma was too hurt to even think about my marriage without Achan being around . I don’t think any of us were entirely happy because his absence haunted us every time we smiled.
Anyway , back to the point,  Sanju & I were hardworking and we got into government institutions on merit , our fees weren’t much at all. Hostel fees and mess fees and other important payments would be made with the Rs 500 we had .
We also had a plan. We had to save some money. I remember how I used to go to the library and study or borrow books from seniors but never bought even one on my own. Apart from the plain rice and dal we used to get in the mess, a delicious omelette or an enticing fish fry would cost an additional Rs 5. It was very tempting , but Sanju & I gave up those little things and saved up for an entire year .

The very first year which Achan passed away , the very first year where our mother fought to stay alive , the very first year she embraced the absence of colour as her second skin , that very year , with the money we saved up, we bought her her first white cotton saree .

Amma burst out crying. So did I . It wasn’t the pain. It was the love , indeed !!

Ammamma’s white saree never seemed like it lacked colour ever since. It’s the most brightest , beautiful and bold 6 yards of memories I have treasured. This off white tissue silk one with temple borders she wore on my engagement ceremony with Rushil , picked by Amma herself , is my favourite so far.

I calmed down somehow and mustered up .
“ Go wash your face now . Please be okay ! “
I will I will . Don’t worry . Rushil’s back home ?!
“ No. Not yet ! “
Okay . I’l go attend to my casts now. The technician is going to come any minute.
“ Okay Amma . I’l speak to you later then. Bye. Umma ! “
Bye vava. Umma!

I kept the phone down and tried to look at the word document filled with errors I had typed amidst all the emotional outrage and blurred vision.
( phone rings )

“ Amma ?! “
I just wanted to tell you that you’re so much like him. And that he’s very proud of you !
I gulped my heart down .
“ Atleast we now know why I should be honoured about the curly hair and enormous forehead I have , eh ?! “
We laughed and hung up .

 

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Dearest Ammacha ,

We talk everyday. There’s nothing in particular I’d like to tell you today as it exactly marks 30 years of your numbing absence, except for this quote that I came across online .

“ If a writer falls in love with you, you can never die ! ” .

Your curly hair , grumpy face , kind eyes and statement forehead stole my heart. You will live !! Through my mother’s smile and heart , through my uncle’s zeal and optimism , through my scribbling and rebellious nerve , through my sister’s wit and brain and ofcourse , every single day , every single moment ,  through Ammamma’s timeless white saree .

Love ,
Your eldest grand-daughter.

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PS – Guess what Uncle and Mom wrote behind the placards made for the then upcoming bank employee strike at Trivandrum, Kerala ?!
WE WANT BIRIYANI !

PPS – Amma. I know you’l read this spread over and over and over. Ammachan is SO proud of you, you have no idea !! Stop crying, Amma 🙂 .  Moinkutty loves you 🙂

 

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22 thoughts on “Ammamma’s White Saree

  1. I could relate to your story at a very deep level.My nana(mom’s father),a phenomenal human being passed away when I was very little. So I understand the agony of not being around such a great soul.

    p.s. The saree is so vintage and beautiful.

    Loved this piece.

    Like

  2. Pooja,
    It is always with great enthusiasm I keep waiting for your blog posts. I would like to commend you, for the way you pen down words… It’s like magic. You have always been an inspiration to me and obviously people like me.
    Cheers to many more pieces like this.
    Hugsss.

    Like

  3. Hii Pooja chechi well Im from Thalassery (Kathiroor) too.I really love your writing work.Your doing a wonderful job.Staying here in Mumbai I too miss the Malabari chicken biriyani 😊
    U definitely should taste malabari chicken biriyani speciality of Thalassery on your visit to Thalassery once.
    Lots of love 😘😘

    Like

  4. To loose a person who was an integral part of your life and who was your soul .
    That void will never be filled by anything. Even if the pain goes away we pone for the love that was showered on us.
    This. Post was your best!EST!
    I KNOW I say the same about all the post but ..
    Yea still this came from your heart and it touched the most deep end in my heart.
    PS: YOU ARE HIS GRANDDAUGHTER! OMG!!!!!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I woke up to the morning after you put up this one and read it as I was brushing my teeth and getting ready for work. Absolutely love it. Love the research, and the story bits and the emotion and the pictures. I’ve been loving the blog for a while now and my only complain is that you don’t churn out a new post fast enough!!

    Keep being ridiculously interesting and kindle the fire you’ve got going, girl! 😀 Cheers.

    Ms. Loony

    Like

  6. Hi there. I run a Page on FB called Thalassery – A historical Perspective. I am researching on AVK Nair and while searching for AKkere Veeetil, ran into this particular post which was interesting fodder for me. I would be much obliged if you could share some insights on AVG your grandfather and AVK your grand uncle. I was particularly interested in important dates like date of birth and death and important posts held. If you wish, do write to me at smileykb@gmail.com.

    Like

  7. Hey Pooja I am glad that I came across this. Even I have or rather had an Amachan in my life. He was everything to me. My sister and I were literally brought up by our Amachan and Ammamma. They mean the world to us and we consider them much above our parents. Our entire life revolves around them. Amachan is no more present in our life. Its been three years that he has left us.His absence is strongly felt and there is nota single day that passes by without us remembering him. I still cry for me. TBH I can very much relate to what your mother is going through. My family has become incomplete forever. I recently got married and how much I wished he could be there beside me. I always wish to see him again.. Only once.. So that I could hug him tightly and tell how much he means to me and how much I love him… Thanks for penning down this article.. It kind of personal 🙂

    Like

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