Ayya's Accounts: A Ledger of Hope in Modern India

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Ayya's Accounts explores the life of an ordinary man-orphan, refugee, shopkeeper, and grandfather-during a century of tremendous hope and upheaval. Born in colonial India into a despised caste of former tree climbers, Ayya lost his mother as a child and came of age in a small town in lowland Burma. Forced to flee at the outbreak of World War II, he made a treacherous 1,700-mile journey by foot, boat, bullock cart, and rail back to southern India. Becoming a successful fruit merchant, Ayya educated and eventually settled many of his descendants in the United States. Luck, nerve, subterfuge, and sorrow all have their place along the precarious route of his advancement. Emerging out of tales told to his American grandson, Ayya's Accounts embodies a simple faith-that the story of a place as large and complex as modern India can be told through the life of a single individual.

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1. A Century of Experience

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We were on a train clattering to Madurai seventeen years ago when my grandfather first told me the story of his passage back from Burma to India in 1941. Ayya had come of age in a small town in the lush lowlands north of Rangoon. For nearly a decade, he and his brothers kept a shop there, on the veranda of their house. Then the Second World War reached their town, driving them back to India. One among hundreds of thousands of refugees, Ayya survived a deadly trek through the bamboo jungles of western Burma and landed in the dry, dusty village of his forebears in southern Tamil Nadu. He married, and with patience, thrift, luck, and cunning, he eventually secured a decent life for his family.

I sat beside Ayya on a green vinyl berth as he described all of this, grateful for the cool, dry air of this coach car on the Pandyan Express. It was early June. The unrelenting heat outside was thick, sticky. But there was something else that I could almost feel floating in the air around my grandfather: the absence of Paati, my grandmother.1 It had been just four months since Ayya had lost his wife. And now it seemed, as he spoke, that this loss was cloaked in other losses that he’d seen—the mother who had died when he was a child, the father he’d buried back in Burma, the rubble of their livelihood there. “Who was left to tell me stories?” he asked plaintively, as if, for a moment, the septuagenarian widower was once again that orphaned child.

 

2. In Some Village, Somewhere

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Each morning here in Madurai, I walk for an hour. And as I walk, I count. Say you were as old as me. Stumble over the bumps and dips in the road, and you’d probably fall to the ground like I would. So I hold on to my walking stick as I go. And as that stick keeps beating against the road, I count those beats to myself.

A hundred and ten beats from the house to the end of the road . . . from there to the rice mill, another forty . . . Dr. Bhaskar’s house is three hundred beats away, and from there, until the end of the road, another three hundred beats . . .

This isn’t something I do just to pass the time. There’s a good reason that I count like this: I don’t want to suddenly remember something else, somewhere else, in the life that I’ve lived. Count like this when you walk, and your thoughts won’t drift to anything else.

Pay attention. Don’t trip over a rock. Just keep counting as you walk. And those numbers, those steps—one, two, three—are all that you will see.

 

3. Taj Malabar Hotel, 2005

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Ayya is surrounded by six of his children, most of his daughters-in-law, many of his grandchildren. We’ve come from Madurai, Chennai, Bangalore, Los Angeles, Sunnyvale, Columbus, Vancouver, a family dispersed through the Indo-Anglo-American world, a world brought into being by the colonial powers my grandfather was taught to venerate.

The hotel is opulent, catering to the expectations of overseas Indians. On the table are the remains of a lavish buffet. Ayya’s fingers rest lightly on the edge of a half-eaten plate of yogurt rice. His cheeks are still scarred, darkened, by a recent battle with mouth cancer. He’s learning how to eat once again, now that he can’t wear his dentures at all.

What Ayya says without his teeth is sometimes difficult to understand. But when he does speak, everyone leans in quietly. His words about his struggles seem to give substance and presence to the story of his life. It’s as though we can all see it, Ayya’s story, as though it’s something apart from him, something with a life of its own, lingering in the open space between us, wringing out feelings from each of these faces.

 

4. Things I Didn’t Know I’d Lost

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As a child, I was very mischievous. Amma never scolded us, though; at least I don’t remember her ever scolding me when I did troublesome things.

When I was four or five years old, Appa bought us a milch cow, and Amma was the one who milked it. She would boil some of that milk and set it aside to make buttermilk. When it curdled, she would draw out the buttermilk and churn the butter to make ghee.

If she left that ghee on the ground, flies and ants would come swarming, so she would pour it into a mud pot and hang it up with some rope from the roof of the house. I also liked ghee myself, but she would hang it so high that I couldn’t reach it. So this is what I would do. I’d wait until she wasn’t around and then drag over a bench or something else to climb on. I would get that ghee and pour it onto something to eat.

There were other pots also hanging from the roof, filled with neem oil, castor oil, and sesame oil. Among these four or five pots, there were at least two filled with something that looked like ghee. In the sunlight, they would also melt the same way. Sometimes, I’d take down one of those pots, thinking it was ghee, and mash it into what I was eating. “What’s this, so bitter and terrible!” I remember saying to myself and dumping all of it off my plate. It must have been castor oil or something.

 

5. Pudur, 2012

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The imposing facade of the Hindu Nadar Primary School looms over the small dirt lane. The two entrances to the school open out onto either side of what was once the village’s main bazaar, now quiet, nearly still. Built into the thick whitewashed walls are small alcoves for candles—empty now, they look like ornamental motifs.

The bazaar was once bustling with trade in grain, cloth, and other goods, and there is wealth still evident in the way that the main school building was built in 1920: the peacocks carved into wooden supports for the rafters, the thick pillars flanking one entrance, the elaborate flowers carved into the blue lintels above the many smaller doors.

In this village, like so many others nearby, the school was financed and built by a Nadar community association. These associations relied on the wealth newly accumulated by traders and merchants of the community: in village bazaars like that of Pudur, in the new market towns that began to develop in the late nineteenth century, in the mercantile networks that sent men like Ayya’s father to overseas colonies such as Burma and Malaysia. These associations insisted upon strict codes of collective discipline. This was how they had stewarded the transformation of a disdained community of toddy-tappers into an upwardly mobile population.

 

6. A Decade in Burma

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Burma was where my father left me. I couldn’t imagine what this “Burma” was or how it looked. I didn’t even know that it was a different country. There was a place called Burma, and Appa’s shop was there—that was all I knew. I never asked Appa anything about Burma, when he came back to Pudur, and there was nothing that Appa would ever say. As far as I can remember, not once did he bring back something for us to play with from there.

Burma . . . Until then, I hadn’t even been to Madras or Madurai. People from Pudur sometimes went as pilgrims to the Murugan temple on the seashore, in Tiruchendur, but I hadn’t even been there. I never went far from Pudur. And wherever I went, it was on foot, or by bullock cart: no bus, no train, nothing like that. To Burma, you had to go by ship, but until then, I’d never even seen the sea.

From Pudur, we went to a place called Pandalkudi, a slightly bigger village some seven miles away. For a quarter of a rupee, a bullock cart carried us there with all our things and left us at a stand for horse carriages. From there, it was another eight miles to Aruppukottai. We had to wait there in the sun, beside those carriages, until enough people had drifted by, also wanting to make that trip. Sometimes, this could take all day, and we waited until the afternoon or evening for a horse carriage to Aruppukottai.

 

7. Okpo, 1940

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India, Burma . . . Each seems so distant from the other now—one a tumultuous democracy, the other still a military morass. We live in an era that takes national borders as sacred boundaries, as if simply crossing over is an act replete with peril and potential. We also understand the cultures that these borders enclose as concoctions of a unique flavor or essence, as if these countries were packages stocked side by side on a grocery shelf. But travel wasn’t always policed so strictly. Nor was the commingling of social and cultural worlds.

For centuries, India has had religious, commercial, and political footholds in the lands of Southeast Asia. Think of the tributes paid to the medieval Tamil Chola dynasty by Cambodian and Malaysian kings. Or of the many coastal trading posts established by Muslim merchants from Gujarat. Or of the Buddhist temples of Pagan in central Burma, their walls inscribed with Sanskrit, Pali, and Tamil prayers.

Following a century of piecemeal conquests by the British East India Company, India was taken under the British Crown in 1858. Burma, lying beyond the Andaman Sea, was gradually annexed to British India by the Anglo-Burmese Wars of the nineteenth century. Tens of thousands of Indians migrated there by steamship each year from various eastern ports, doing everything from pulling rickshaws, working in docks and rice mills, trading in rice and other commodities, staffing railways and customs offices, and financing the development of rice paddy cultivation throughout the Irawaddy River delta. Ayya’s father was one of these migrants.

 

8. When the War Came

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We were prosperous. We had good reputations. All kinds of people would come to the shop and ask for things in their own languages, and we would respond in those languages too. We talked to everyone, learned all kinds of things. We didn’t feel like strangers in that country. But then, over time, our relations with the Burmese people began to suffer.

Something happened in 1938. A Muslim man had written a pamphlet criticizing the Buddhist religion. Burmese people were furious. Wherever you looked, they were attacking Indians, beating them up. There were many riots.1 I was never caught in any of these riots myself, but I saw such things happen, even in Okpo.

I was at home one day, watching from a distance, as Burmese villagers approached the edge of the town. They were planning to riot in the town, to attack the shops and rob things. They had almost reached Okpo when policemen lined up to protect the town. Those constables were also Burmese, and so was the sub-inspector in charge of them all.

 

9. Kovilpatti, 1946

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There is an invisible nation within the nation of modern India, one that will never rally under a common flag or celebrate the memory of a common heritage. I mean the multitudes of refugees scattered among the most crowded urban tenements and the loneliest corners of the countryside. Refugees from the cataclysmic tumult of the twentieth century. Refugees from floods, droughts, and other natural disasters of unnecessary gravity. Refugees from the forces of development that impoverish certain regions to fuel the prosperity of others.

These millions of men, women, and children may have much in common, when it comes to their experiences of displacement and neglect. But they are unlikely to see this in each other, due to the lines of social antagonism that led so many of them to flee from so many places. Take the Partition that split an independent subcontinent into two nations in 1947, engulfing millions of families in a spate of violence along the new boundaries between India and Pakistan. Or that other partition of British India in which my grandfather was caught, the geopolitical schemes that consolidated a Burmese state for Burmese people.

 

10. A New Life at Home

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I felt bored and listless within a week of coming back to Pudur. I couldn’t just sit at home. But there was nowhere to pass the time other than the village bazaar. I had an uncle named Gnani Nadar who had a shop in the bazaar. Each day I would go and sit on the steps at the entrance to his shop, just to watch what was happening. This uncle always spoke warmly to me, but he never offered anything to eat or drink—not even a bit of palmyra fruit, not even water.

Gnani Nadar made sesame oil to sell. There was a grinding mill at the Pudur pettai—pay the miller, and he would grind your sesame for you.1 My uncle would buy some sesame, mix it with palm sugar, and grind it at the mill to measure out and sell. He often saw me in front of his shop and noticed how closely I’d been watching him do business. “Maybe he can help out,” he must have thought to himself, because he asked me if I wanted to join him. I was doing nothing at the time, and so I went to work with him.

 

11. Victoria Studio, 1949

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There are photographs meant to capture some moment as it is. Others do something very different—they sketch a life yet to come. That’s what this portrait of Ayya and Paati must have been: a pair of figures mounted high upon a wall within every house they kept, calmly taking in the domestic struggles occurring below, reminding my grandparents of a comfort and peace that might still fall within their reach. An image not of a moment but of its longings.

Ayya still remembers that day at Victoria Studio. The studio was on a small lane near the Meenakshi temple in Madurai. It was full of things that gave the impression of wealth and leisure: costume jewelry, toys, books, carved wooden furniture, porcelain ceramics—things, that is, generally missing from the lives of those who posed here for pictures. The photographer and his assistants would arrange their subjects among these foreign objects, demanding postures of bluffed repose. “Wear this . . . Hold that . . . Stand like this . . . Bend your arms like that . . .”

 

12. Dealing Cloth in a Time of War

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Pudur was just a small village, part of the Ettaiyapuram zamindari estate.1 Because the zamindar himself had died, his mother looked after the affairs of the estate. She had an accountant responsible for collecting taxes from the people who lived there. Pudur’s lands belonged to the zamindar, not to the British government. Even when we bought land there in our own names, we had to pay a land tax to the zamindar’s people.

Close to Pudur was a small town called Nagalapuram. A weekly market took place there every Thursday. Each week, farmers from all the surrounding villages would bundle up their crops in sacks, loading them onto bullock carts to sell. Traders from all those villages would also travel there on bullock carts, bringing their goods to the Thursday market. They would sell what they had and take back what they earned, or use the money to buy what they needed themselves. All the biggest traders at that market were Nadars by caste.

Pudur also had a small weekly market, in the pettai marketplace just outside the village. Four or five bullock carts would come from the south, bringing crops that grew in that area. Sugarcane grew well on that side of the village. There were many coconut groves, and the owners of those groves would load their carts with coconuts to sell. They would bring nongu, palmyra fruit, from the trees that grew on the surrounding lands. One nongu cost just a quarter of an anna back then. They were good to eat, with a fresh, cool taste, though the skin of the nongu was always a little astringent. You could peel off the skin if you wanted, or eat them as they came.

 

13. Dindigul, 1951

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Yes, Indian independence—something else from those years to ponder. But wait a minute. What did he just say? Ten days later? Could he be mistaken? This event that supposedly led an entire country to convulse with joy at the stroke of midnight, how could it have passed unnoticed by my grandfather for so long? This might be less puzzling if Ayya was in a distant and out-of-the-way place, beyond the reach of radios and newspapers. But he says that he was already living and working in Madurai, a city of over 300,000 people at the time, a place that Gandhi himself had addressed several times over the many decades of the independence movement. How could Ayya have missed the very culmination of this struggle?

The look and feel of social phenomena like nationalism depend entirely on where one is looking from. In the years that led up to the moment of India’s independence from Britain, Ayya and his father-in-law were dealing in one of the central symbols of this struggle: handloomed Indian cloth. For nationalist leaders, handloomed cloth was one of the most visible markers of what was at stake in the freedom struggle, the very possibility of making a living in the world without multiplying debts to the industrial mills of Manchester and Lancaster. But for these traders, in villages like Pudur, the same cloth was itself a tool of division and exploitation—a symbol less of letting go than holding tight.

 

14. A Foothold in Madurai

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Pots, plates, we had no such things when we went to Madurai. I had two veshtis and a couple of shirts and vests.1 Chellammal had two or three saris and blouses, the children too a couple of things to wear. Beyond this, we took little with us. Whatever we did have, we left behind in Pudur. Gurusamy’s family was already in Madurai, and when we arrived there, we planned to live and eat together, as a joint family.

East Napalam was a small lane near East Masi Street, in the middle of the town. My brother’s house and shop were side by side on that lane. We stayed with them for the first three months, but Chellammal didn’t like this at all.

Gurusamy’s wife was ill with what they called “hysteria.” She used to love to eat duck curry. She would go to the market to buy some duck and cook it for herself. She’d give us a small bit of what she made, then hide away the rest to eat by herself.

My wife didn’t like this, and she made it known. Then Gurusamy’s wife would say, “You’ve come into my house to insist on this and that?” This was also something that Chellammal didn’t like. “Let’s look for somewhere else to live,” she said. And so we went.

 

15. Gopal Studio, 1953

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Ganesan and Rupavathi are wearing new clothes. Paati bought them for the Diwali festival just a few days back. The photographer has slipped a ring onto the boy’s finger and given the girl a handbag to hold. It’s very hot and bright under the studio lights, as the children wait for the man ducked under the cloth behind his camera.

Rupavathi is eight years old, Ganesan ten. They often fight. She helps her mother with the cooking, setting out and washing the plates, sweeping and washing the floor. Ganesan draws water from the well each morning, buys groceries, and walks the younger kids to school and to the doctor for ointments and shots. They hardly see Ayya, always at the shop.

Born in the village of Pudur, the children and their parents came by bus to the city of Madurai in 1947. They were part of a massive wave of migrants who swelled the population of Tamil Nadu’s cities and towns in the 1940s, more so than in any other decade of the twentieth century. Now these children, like their parents, have to take their experience of the city as a means of education: whom to count as friends, how to keep track of their things.

 

16. A Shop of My Own

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Take a small grain of sand. Think of the mountain that it comes from. Slowly pushed along by rainwater, farther and farther down, until at last it reaches the sea. Some of that sand sometimes remains along the edge of a river. Take some of it. Think about how useful this sand can be, heaped up along both banks of that river.

Whatever trade you take up, it’s always best to begin small then slowly grow. Some try to grow too quickly and stumble, losing everything they had at the start. So many companies have failed like this. They begin with a big establishment, hiring a hundred workers from the start. Machines must be bought; laborers must be managed. But for 1,000 rupees in expenses, what they produce is worth only 500 rupees. Then, to try to sell more, they drop their prices by half. Still, they can’t sell enough. What will they do?

My business was never that big. When I began a shop of my own, I invested just 3,000 rupees. With just that much capital, I raised eight children and educated them all. How much would I have earned, how much would I have spent? How many things would I have bought? Like those small grains of sand, I accumulated all of this bit by bit, one anna at a time.

 

17. Madurai Fruit Merchants Association, 1960

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In India, as elsewhere, the modern city is known as an engine of growth, a vehicle of social and personal transformation. Whether concrete spires or towering plumes of smoke, the city’s products are visible even from a distance. More difficult to see are the innumerable things that fuel these developments—an endless stream of resources drawn from hinterlands near and far, prey to omnivorous and often indiscriminate appetites.

It may sometimes seem as though these mechanisms of extraction work with a brisk and automatic momentum of their own. But overseers, agents, and laborers are needed at every stage to turn natural elements like fruit into commodities. And value is always a mystery, when it comes to the commercial markets and bazaars that put such things into circulation. Prices are fixed through transactions fraught with power, danger, and deceit—even when their parties are clad in pure white clothes and amiable smiles. Like these men, for example.

The year is 1960. These twenty-three men represent the fruit sales commission agents of Madurai. Ayya is standing in the second row, between K. Narayana Gounder and S. P. Ramasamy Pillai. Ayya’s elder brother, M. P. Gurusamy Nadar, is seated in the first row, and beside him, in white slacks, is N. Kannayiram: owner of the Central Theatre on Mela Gopuram Street and one of the wealthiest and most influential merchants in the city.

 

18. Branches in Many Directions

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I can remember how I tormented Amma once for a pencil, back when I was studying in the second grade in Pudur. It was all because she had refused to buy me one. Pencils came from Japan in those days. They didn’t make such things in India, when the British still ruled the country. We each had slates and a black stick to write with, called a palappam.

Amma had gone out one day to collect some water. There were no tanks or wells close to the house, and she had to go all the way to the common well to get whatever water we needed for the house. She was going to the well that day, as she did every day, along the same path that I took to school. And as I was walking to school, I saw her on the path ahead.

I ran behind her, grabbed onto her waist, and began to shout, “I want a pencil! I want a pencil! Buy me one before you go!”

I stopped her right there and wouldn’t let her go any farther, that’s how troublesome I was. I knew she wouldn’t listen to me unless I did this. “I won’t let go, I won’t let go,” I kept saying, grabbing onto her sari. The sari was beginning to come loose. Finally, she couldn’t stand my mischief anymore. She went to a shop to buy me a pencil, before heading again to the well.

 

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