A Smile Like no Other

    by Dr. Sarabjeet Dhody Natesan

    I understood kindness only after I experienced unkindness. I learned very early in life that kindness has a silent code. My parents were kind, loving, and generous. And, hard taskmasters. Refugees from an undivided country into India, they filled our lives with music, books, films and picnics. We were never told what we should or should not do; the only thing that was unaccepted in my childhood was unkindness. From the guiding words of the Granth, being initiated at a very early age into the rituals of cooking community Langars at the local gurudwara, and from the conduct of my father with people who entered his life, an overriding experience of my life was generosity and gentleness.

    Both my parents worked, and I was a latch-key child. I would find my way home, take the key, open the door, quickly run inside leaving the door ajar, fight all the imaginary demons I could on my way to the kitchen, pick up my lunch from the counter and rush back out through the open front door, lock the house to trap the imaginary ghouls inside, and wait outside for the rest of the family to arrive.

    When I was in the sixth standard, my father, working on a project in Bihar, contracted jaundice. He had to take leave from work and return home to rest and recover. This made me immensely happy as he was home when I got back from school. In the couple of hours we spent together we spoke about a lot of things, and I learned a lot from him, literature, theology, simple stories, imaginary characters, religion, faith, life, and kindness. With advanced degrees in English Literature and Sikh Religion, he was liberal in his thoughts and outlook. He made me understand the importance of staying grounded, forgetting and forgiving, and, never taking anything for granted.

    One winter afternoon, I was dispatched to the market to buy sugarcane juice as it helps patients with jaundice. I took the thermos and cycled to the market. In my excitement, I forgot to close the cap properly and spilled the juice just as I reached home. I promptly blamed the fruit juice seller for not having tightened the lid. My father told me then that it was my job to have checked the lid carefully—the juice seller had numerous chores to perform.

    Another time I was given a letter to mail in the morning. It was a letter our house-help Bahadur, had written to his parents. Bahadur had accompanied my father from Bihar to help take care of him on the train journey. Upon reaching Delhi, Bahadur, realized that he was going to be here for two months, became sad and very homesick. I figured that it was just Bahadur’s letter and it would be ok to mail it later. By afternoon when my father discovered that I had not yet mailed the letter, and summoned me to his room. I still remember the soft but upset voice with which he asked me to get the letter to the post office soon. I was also upset and did not understand the hurry and asked him why was the code of our upbringing so tough, why did we have to follow such strict guidelines, and why can’t things wait a bit? And his reply was simple— he simply said, they should not.

    Having seen the angst of post-partition India, the hunger, the distrust, the indifference, this nonchalance was not acceptable to him. He never broke a promise to anyone, let anyone down, and constantly thought about issues from other people’s perspective. He told me to think of Bahadur’s parents, and how happy they would be to receive his letter. And he taught me the positive power of kindness. It was his ability to think sensitively about others, their reactions, and their feelings that managed his conduct.

    His generosity was visible through his eyes and his gentle smile and it was infectious. Our dinner table always accommodated unannounced guests. My mother’s cooking magically expanded to be enough for all at the table, she called it Waheguru’s barkat divine cornucopia; to allow anyone to return from our house without a meal with us was unthinkable to us. One day he gave the sofas from our living room to the office assistant as somebody was going to visit him with an alliance for his daughter. My mother came home to an empty living room and was livid. My father told her that we can always buy a new sofa, but where will the guests at the assistant’s house sit? After she heard the story, my mother called the assistant and gave him the cushions too and told him that the sofa will look better with them.

    It was with this kindness anchoring me that I went to the USA for graduate studies. America taught me much. There, I met Natesan, whom I felt I could instinctively trust. He introduced me to music, sports, food, skiing, malls, the Central Park, and the city that never sleeps. He was content to let me discover things at my pace. His strict and culturally binding upbringing as a Tamilian was in sharp contrast to my Punjabi thoughts, but we managed to make the difference work for us. We had plans of making our life together in the US, but back in India, his parents steadfastly refused to consider me as worthy of their son and worthy of the family.

    His father had one refrain, “You come back to India to discuss your marriage and talk to us face to face. Bring the girl back with you. She will be placed in your maternal grandfather’s custody and we will decide what is to be done.” The fact that I was being referred to as the girl with no agency of her own, to be deposited into somebody’s custody stung me. I told Natesan that he was welcome to do as he pleased but I was going to be in no one’s custody. I had never been treated this way before. And yet, I would be, many times over.

    There was uncompromising resistance from his family despite the many meetings and cajoling. We decided to go ahead and have a court-wedding in New Jersey. The act, no doubt, must have deeply hurt his parents. The news was received with much anger in his home, and it filled me with dread. Eventually, a mature voice from the close family intervened and told Natesan’s parents that they risked losing a son and a daughter-in-law. Following this sobering possibility, we were invited by his parents to come home for a holiday and meet the extended family. The idea was to gently break the shocking news of our marriage to them.

    A small wedding reception had been planned in Tuticorin, about 50 kilometers from Tirunelveli. My parents were sent a half-hearted invitation. Thankfully, my mother’s debilitating and painful arthritis prevented them from travelling to be with us. This was the one time I desperately needed my parents near me, but as the Fates would have it, we were separated by thousands of miles.

    Tuticorin is an important port in the south of India and an important salt-making area. With salt pans running parallel to the beaches, the crystals shimmer and almost blind with their brilliance. Tuticorin is India’s major salt producer. The oysters in the bay give it the sobriquet, Pearl City. The commercially successful community bank, the TamilNadu Mercantile Bank, started by the Nadar community, is also headquartered here. Natesan’s family had begun their business journey as timber merchants in Tuticorin. Their growing business had also made many contributions to the local area by setting up charitable trusts and schools and colleges for girl children. Natesan often spoke of his two Paatis, grandmothers and his lovely childhood memories at his maternal grandmother’s house at Tirunelveli. Despite all my trepidations, I looked forward to finding out more about him and his family.

    We had landed at Delhi’s Palam Airport, and planned to spend a week with my parents and family and then to fly to meet his parents. I was very apprehensive of our very small house, of my father’s opinion of Natesan, and my mother’s inability to converse freely in English. I needn’t have. My father offered Natesan a drink and took an instant liking to him when Natesan happily accepted and offered to fix them for my father. My mother was secretly happy that I was married. By then, the responsibility for planning, and organizing a wedding was out of her physical capacity. Natesan tried to speak to her in Hindi and that was that. This was the only litmus test Natesan had to pass. Once my father introduced him as family, any opposition that the extended family may have had, vanished.

    My first step into Natesan’s home coincided with the onset of Rahu Kaalam, an inauspicious time. His Paati, Palamma, told me that I could either stay out at the threshold for the next one and a half hours, or I could swallow a spoonful of curd as I crossed the threshold. I naturally took the second option, despite the fact that it made no sense.

    It was decided that we would go to the family temple at Tuticorin and pray before the gods to propitiate them (and perhaps ask for forgiveness for the unpardonable act of getting married without their blessings). The colours, the energy, the life, the abundance, the sea, the salt, and the coast teeming with life, improved my spirits and I made peace with the trip even though the unmissable cultural pride and also everyone’s misgivings about me were plentifully evident.

    That evening, the uncle who had prevailed upon Natesan’s parents to accept me into the family, came to visit. He came alone and unannounced, and there was a lot of consternation at home, wondering if he would stay back for dinner. It was a stark contrast to the food-laden hospitality that I had grown up with. I wanted to talk to this uncle, learn more about the family, but it was not to be. It soon became clear to me that I was not in a position to dictate any terms.

    The wedding reception was an exercise in humiliation. We were taken to a run-down and dirty Kalyana Mandapam, a wedding hall. Streamers in shocking pink and deep red adorned the ceiling—perhaps they were leftovers from a previous wedding. The place had inadequate lighting and no effort had been made to brighten or clean it. It was dull, sombre and in sharp contrast to the beauty of the other parts of the temple. I was in a daze.

    At a distance of about 20 feet from the first set of chairs, a makeshift stage had been set up, covered with some nondescript, dirtly, stained carpet. Two big chrome chairs with red plastic covering had been placed upon it. At the back of the stage, the words, Natesh Wed Seema was haphazardly pinned on a tacky Styrofoam board. When I saw my name on the board, all sense of self left me. We sat on the ‘thrones’ and I became acutely aware of eyes on me. And yet, there was no one waiting to come and greet us, bless us. Never had I felt so insignificant. There were only two young boys, who played with me on the stage, plucking flowers from the heavy garland placed around my neck and throwing them back at me; no one else.

    It almost seemed an act of commission, as if the entire population had turned up to see a specimen on display and having seen it, did not know how to react. Natesan tried his best to hide his embarrassment and tried to talk to me from time to time. But at that moment, all I had were the two young boys, who seemed happy to bask in my attention and affection. I sat there on that hideous red throne , an unwilling queen unaccepted in an unwilling kingdom.

    The mortification had actually started much earlier in the day. We had had a very simple court marriage in New Jersey, to which I had worn a mix-and-match Salwar Kurta Indian dress, both upcycled from other outfits. I had wanted, at least, to get a new saree of my choice for this reception; instead, I was requested to wear the one that Prema, Natesan’s mother had, and not waste any more money. I would have loved to wear an old saree had it been given to me with love and affection, but this seemed like a transaction, a bargain they had made.

    My mother, anxious for missing this function and for me, handling such a major change by myself, had send me the old gold earrings with semiprecious stones that she wore on her wedding day. My mother’s earrings were taken to the local jeweller for an appraisal. When the family realized that it was semi-precious stones, I was dolled up in their diamonds and gold.

    Things got worse. I needed help with the saree, unfamiliar as I was to the six-yard confusion, but no help was forthcoming. A water-saturated flower garland was put around my neck and went all the way down to my lap. Someone had placed a huge fan on the stage with an air- cooler. It only added to the humidity and drained me. My hair turned frizzy, my kajal kohl eyeliner ran out of my eyes. Perhaps it was the tears. I was so overwhelmed by the sheer apathy around me.

    When it became clear that no one was going to risk walking up to the stage, it was decided that the we would be paraded down to the people, giving them the opportunity to put a mark of thiruneer, holy ash and kumkumam, vermillion on our foreheads. People were generous with the doses of ash and vermillion and by the end of the evening, my forehead was smeared with both, accentuating the tired, frazzled look. I was desperate for some help and looked around to see if anyone at all would come to my rescue. A few of Natesan’s young cousins were clearly distressed but unsure of how to behave. I had been informed earlier by Palamma that the community was worried about the ideas I may germinate in their children’s minds and hearts, for they did not want anymore love marriages in their families. And, so while the older looked away, the younger stayed away by the implicit order of the elders.

    Late that evening, we were led to the dining hall and served the famed delicacies of Tuticorin. Palamma came and sat next to me, and for such small mercies, I was grateful. She showed me how to unfold the banana leaf and how to wash it before the food is served. She took the trouble of telling me what I was eating. I thought I knew how to eat rice with my fingers, but when the servers poured hot Rasam, it started to flow off the leaf. Palamma quickly taught me how to pick up the leaf at the rim to hold the liquid in. That it took an old lady to recognize my predicament, overwhelmed me. Her sudden kindness now and earlier unkindness confused me. I felt I was drowning and could barely hold my tears. Again, and again, I had to dip as deep as I could into my reserves to steady myself and tell myself that this too shall pass.

    In the middle of this chaotic situation, one of Natesan’s uncles came and sat next to me and asked Natesan to move further away. He spoke to me in English and tried to ease the situation. He sat with me and explained how to fold the beetle leaf to fashion a beeda He told me about its significance; a ‘digestive’ offered at the end of a rather heavy meal. Ordinarily, it is eaten to change the taste of the mouth after a meal and historically a beeda laden with extra kattha (catechu) and chunam (lime) was to send a message to your arch enemy to beware of you. He joked and spoke to me about this and that, and then just as suddenly came to the reason for making this small talk with me: he asked me if Nat and I were married when we had gone to Mexico to renew our visas to travel to India. The question seemed intrusive and uncalled for and the only way I could answer him was to prepare a beeda with extra kattha and chunam and give it to him. He was a man with a good sense of humor and laughed out aloud and told me, ‘I like you!’ Then, just as swiftly, he got up and walked away.

    From Tuticorin, we went to Tirunelveli. Meenaammal and Shankaralingam Nadar, Natesan’s maternal grandparents, had not come to Tuticorin and we were expected to go and visit them and seek their blessings. All the other blessings that we had been asked to seek seemed not coming my way and I was equally sure that I will be subjected to some other form of ‘put me in my place routine’ that had been practiced with consummate ease yet with guile that left me confused and mired in self-doubt; vague smiles, vacant how-are-you, not waiting for an answer; the repeated but utterly non-committal invitations to veet ke wange come home.

    Meenammal was Natesan’s maternal grandmother and the second wife of his grandfather, Sankaralingam Nadar of Tirunelveli. The first wife, unfortunately, had died after giving birth to two daughters and, unlike Natesan’s paternal grandmother, Palamma who lost her husband to Meningitis at a very young age of sixteen years, and never remarried, his maternal grandfather did. With four daughters added to the two, and three sons to the 6, the number of people with children and in the process of having children made the large Tirnurveli house a refuge for all. Natesan described his childhood there as almost heaven on earth, beyond belief. His cousins were of similar ages and numbers that defied any kind of order. Their street also had many other close relatives and friends, who dropped in and out. The resulting known and unknown brood filled the house with the expected chaos, making his childhood remarkable. Palamma was a very strict disciplinarian, while Meenammal—shortened to Meena Aachi, affectionately further shortened to Meenaachi—was a gentle giant in comparison. She had a beautiful smile, which started at her lips and didn’t stop till it reached her eyes. And then stayed there and welcomed you into her heart.

    Having pioneered the matchbox and fireworks industry of India at the turn of the century in the dry and hot Sivakasi, the family was not short of finances. Their ancestral wealth had been put into a new and emerging business; their children had married into equally big and prosperous families. Money was never an issue with them. Yet Achi kept her own kitchen and cooked all the meals herself. She had help, but being the primary cook was what defined her. From religious festivals to cultural functions, from weddings to childbirths, Meenaachi presided over her kitchen like a temple deity, like a matriarch overseeing the wellbeing of her kutumb clan.

    Menaachi was waiting for me at the door as if I was her daughter or granddaughter. She welcomed me with a smile as big as her arms and bigger than her heart. Held my head in her hands, kissed me and apologized for missing the reception at Tuticorin because of her bad knees. I knew no Tamil and Aachi knew no language other than Tamil, yet we spoke, in a language that both understood without any issues. On a tray, she had arranged some flowers and the same holy ash and red powder. She put the flowers on my head and put a small speck of the two powders on my forehead very carefully and then put his palm on my eyes and gently blew the excess powders away. She also gifted me a saree. My first gift from anyone in the family. Suddenly, I felt safe. I felt I was home with my mother. I hugged her and felt a sense of peace envelope me.

    She then took me by my arm and showed me the house and explained how things functioned. The big house was built very traditionally and furnished very simply. The short drive to the front of the house had a beautiful garden and well-manicured flower beds. The cars stopped under a portico and at the entrance was a rectangular room where Thatha grandfather would meet people and conduct his business meetings. On the extreme opposite corner of the room was a door that led to the inner part of the house. Entry into this area was usually only for those who were accorded the status of close family members. As soon as you left the front room, to the left was the dining room, with a jug of water and tumblers for individual use. The many shelves in the room were filled and lined with bottles and bottles of pickles and pudis condiment powders. A staircase leading to the upper rooms on the right was made of solid teak wood, beautifully preserved and immaculately burnished. The corridor in the front lead to the kitchen, its own labyrinth including a cooking area, food preparation area, and pantry, leading in a U-turn to the area opposite the dining room, beyond the teak wood staircase. This was the place where the dishes were washed and dried and carted back to the dining room for the next meal. Opposite the kitchen entrance was the hand-wash area. Beyond that were the bathrooms, four of them set in a neat row, necessitated by the number of people living in the house. There was a separate area at the back for the fleet of cars and also for the cows. Somewhere in the recess of the big house was a big room, assigned for the girls of the house, where the sisters stayed, weaving dreams of their lives. All their children were delivered in the big house under Aachi’s supervision, and she ruled over them with gentle words and a steely determination. The tour of the house instantly grounded me, I realized that Aachi was going out of her way to make me feel accepted and welcome.

    Aachi was not overly religious or deeply spiritual. She was just a very nice person. I never saw her frown and never saw sadness flitter on her face. If and when she was sad, she hid it well, almost like a thief hides a stolen ornament. Her concern was always about you. Have you eaten? Are you tired, do you want to rest? How are your parents? Do you miss home? —and countless other queries that made me feel liked and wanted. There was no trace of make-believe in her. Her love was enveloping and honest. For her grandchildren, her love was their right, it was taken for granted. For me, it was manna and a magic potion. I cherished it and returned it in equal measure. Aachi’s taste in colors and clothes matched mine and I instantly loved the saree that she presented me. When I mentioned this to my mother-in-law, Achi made it a point to send me her old sarees. I loved to wear her old sarees and felt very connected with her. Many times, Aachi also send me a new saree that she particularly liked. She told her daughter that I will enjoy it more than her.

    To give me company the other cousins, some younger and others older than me had been invited to the big house, and the general atmosphere was one of general fun and bonhomie. In the evening, were all sent to the temple at the end of the lane and generally introduced to the place where it all began, the family and the businesses. Aachi’s acceptance acted as the catalyst, I was suddenly a part of the big group and treated with much respect and dignity.

    Aachi did not made a pretense of love—either she gave it or she didn’t. In the large family, hers was the only unconditional love that I felt, and made many trips to Tirunelveli to meet her. Combating old age, she and her husband eventually moved to Sivakasi, to the house of her eldest son and daughter-in-law, who steadfastly refused to engage with me. I was not welcome in their home. But when Aachi’s health began to decline, I put my concern to rest and visited her there too. I figured the agony to the house owner would be greater when I entered her house. When a late-night phone call informed us of Aachi’s imminent passing, Natesan and I took our three daughters, boarded an interstate bus, and reached in time to bid her a final goodbye. However difficult it was for me, it was one place I felt I had to be.

    Going over my father’s papers, I stumbled over a letter that he had written to Sankarlingam Thatha upon hearing of his wife’s demise. My father had the habit of keeping records by inserting a carbon sheet between two blank sheets, thus preserving and documenting his correspondence. Knowing my love for Aachi my father had mentioned her graciousness and the long association and companionship she must have provided to Thatha and how he must be missing her in the autumn of his life. The letter moved me to tears, and I felt my father sitting on his chair, bent over his typewriter, tapping his keys to assemble his thoughts and words. And, when my father lost his protracted fight with cancer, my father-in-law called me three days later, and said, ‘finally your father has died.’

    Kindness and unkindness both come in waves and teach life lessons. I have never left a bottle uncapped and never forgotten to mail a letter. Ever.

    Dr. Sarabjeet Dhody Natesan is an Associate Professor of Economics at the School of Interwoven Arts and Sciences, Krea University. Her teaching interests are focused on Macroeconomics, International Economics, and Public Policy. Her academic researcs intersects economics and public policy implementation. Her current research is on the ‘Bazaars of Post-Partition India’ and ‘The Economics of Religion.’ She is currently working on her first book, ‘Lajpat Nagar 1, Rooted in Memories’. She lives in Chennai with her family by the side of her beloved seashore.

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