N L Naryanan, 1921-2011

June 11, 2011

N L Narayanan, or N Lakshminarayanan, to give him his full name, was my uncle….to be precise, my mother’s younger sister’s husband. He was known to the family as “Ambi” (a dimunitive of “thambi” or younger brother, being, as he was, the youngest of three sons). (My own father, in another Thanjavur variation of this nickname, was “Ambu”….though he was the eldest child!)

(Taken when DnA visited with KTB, July 2010)

I think he was born in the coastal village of Nagapattinam (or perhaps in his maternal grandparents' place, a village that might not have been far from this village)...in the fertile Thanjavur delta of the Kaveri. His parents were Nagaipattinam Sri Nagaraja Iyer and Lakshmi Ammal...I only recollect vague on-the-wall pictures of his father, but I do recall his mother, a stately and beautiful lady. I still do not know his educational qualifications; but I do know that like most educated people of the Brahmin community, he was fluent in both Tamizh and English, and that he was one of that generation to move to the city of Madras (now Chennai) to pursue a school and then a college education. Most of what I know about his early days are from anecdotes that my mother used to tell; it seems he was in the hostel at Loyola College, but he would be served rice separately....top quality rice, grown in the fields his parents owned, brought to Madras, cooked and served especially for him! Our telephone conversations always included an enquiry about what I had cooked that day..."enna shamayal?" (what's the menu?) was, after some joke about Iyengar cooking, permanently amended to "enna thaLigai?" (the Iyengar word for cooking.) His favourites were mostly south Indian brahmin cuisine, but everything had to be just *so* or it would meet with his censure! However, he was very fond of my phulkAs, and if he could not come home, I'd occasionally make some and take them over when I went to visit him. I didn't mind the fact that he enjoyed them with ....fruit jam! One quality that I do know about him was that he was a connoisseur; of Carnatic music, of food, of clothes, and everything else. He grew up in a era when people in the agrahAram (the area around the temple, in a village, where the Brahmin community lived) would spend all night listening to Carnatic music concerts. Particularly, my mother told me, he would listen to a lot of Nagaswaram concerts. I can vouch for the fact that he had a superb voice, an excellent knowledge of Carnatic music, and could have, if he had so wished, outsung the top professional performers of the day. But the family culture was against public performances, and so his prodigious talent was only known to members of the family. I was always scared of singing in front of his titanic knowledge...but never got anything but encouragement from him. Once in a while, he would sing, too....mostly AlApanai of rAgams; he favoured the "heavy" (ghana) rAgams, and I still think his expounding of tOdi or khAmbhOji was masterly. He was one of the permanent members of the Asthika samAjam at Venus Colony, Azhwarpettai, and would not miss any of the concerts there. Rathnam Iyer was one of his close friends. My chitthappA's favourite style of singing was that of Semmangudi Sri Srinivasa Iyer, but his voice was far superior to Semmangudi's! All his working life, he worked for a dyes and chemicals company (which I think had its head office in Mumbai, but I am not sure of this.) It was called Amar Dye-Chem. But for a brief stint in Calcutta, he lived always in Madras....in houses or(finally) in an apartment, in the Mylapore area. My mother and her younger sister were married on the same day, on May 23,1946. My mother told me that it was he who was being considered as a matrimonial alliance for her; but she knew that her younger sister preferred him, and refused to marry him. So another alliance, with a young man who was completing his B.Sc. at Benaras Hindu University, was arranged for her, and my aunt married the person who became my chitthappA (*literally, "small father"... or uncle.) My parents and my aunt and uncle were incredibly close, particularly as my father began his working career at first Nagaipattinam, and then Kumbakonam, at the respective Electric Supply Corporations. In 1948, my parents moved to Calcutta, where they lived till my father retired, and Sharada Chitthi and Ambi Chitthappa lived most of their lives in Madras, first, taking care of her mother, and continuing in the family house, (a huge mansion that is now with Vidya Mandir, in Luz) for many years. I remember my parents giving them a record player, with a record of M S Subbulakshmi's songs from "Meera" (my chitthi was a great fan of MS all her life, and even looked like her when she was young....but MS's music was considered as lacking in "manOdharamam" by the Nagaipattinam crowd.)...for their 25th wedding anniversary. My chitthappA had a very mischievious, and subtle sense of humour; he had all the intelligence of the Brahmins of the Kaveri Delta, and was an expert at "podi vecchu pEsharathu" (talking with a "bite" to the words.) Irony was his trade-mark, and he would also indulge in the kind of earthy humour that would, in my young married days, embarass me, and tickle him to further sallies. Double-entendres to do with sex were frequently uttered, and in those days, I didn't know how to handle them! Over the years, I came to realize that he and chitthi were in a very happy marriage, and they formed an extremely close and loving family unit, to which others were not lightly admitted. But I have never ever received anything but affection and a very loving smile from my chitthappA. "enna, Deepa, eppidi irukkai?" (well, Deepa, how are you?) were the first words, invariably to be followed by some raillery and jokes and affectionate enquiries about everyone else. One of the enduring sights of my chitthappA was of him sitting in his "easy-chair" of cane, with a teak frame; it had very long arm-extensions, but I've never seen him using them, and I still don't know why they were there. That was where he would have his morning coffee, that was where he would peruse the Hindu; I associate that chair permanently with him, through the three residences that I've seen him in. His dress...was, at home, always a white vEshti (dhoti) with, sometimes, a "muNdA banian" (undervest without sleeves.), sometimes not, just a "thuNdu" (small towel) on his chest. If formal visitors were coming, he would wear a shirt. During his office days, of course, he wore trousers and shirts, ties, and socks and shoes; but after his retirement, it was always vEshti-thuNdu. He had a selection of excellent "jarigai vEshti" (veshti adorned with zari or gold lace) for important occasions, and would wear a "jubbA" (kameez) sometimes, with an "anga vasthram" with it, too. He was a handsome man, who suffered from having a lot of warts all over his body, but I always accepted him as he was and never thought twice about them. He had a full head of hair till the day I last saw him, last month. Another thing I'll always associate with him was his dabbA of "amruthAnjan", a pain balm that is still manufactured in the same Mylapore where he spent his life. He was very careful of his health, and even a headache had the power to disturb his routine...so the Amruthanjan was a part and parcel of his daily life. The house where my aunt and uncle lived was a focal point for a lot of relatives, and relatives of relatives. Initially, grain and pulses from the village would arrive in plenty, and taking care of so many people at mealtimes was quite easy, because there were also cooks in the kitchen, and also, at a very early age, one of his cousins, whom I knew only as Meenu Mami, was widowed, and came to take up residence with them. She took responsiblity for almost everything in the household, and I don't think they could have managed without her. Meals were always eaten off plantain leaves or steel plates, from the ground, until the dining-table made an appearance in the eighties or so. Their son, Gurumurthi, was born in 1948, and their daughter, Harini, in 1950. Another son, called Santhanam (for the Santhana Gopala Krishna puja that my aunt used to perform) was born in 1958 (if I remember my dates correctly.) Guru proved to be as great a prodigy in music than his father. He came to live with us in Calcutta, and during that time, my mother fostered his talent, and promoted into a very well-known vocalist. Though he was very proud of Guru's talent, chitthappA never did totally approve of his style of singing, which was based on that of Balamuralikrishna; he said vocal delivery needed more "azhuttham" (depth) than that! Harini was also a good singer, but marriage and the demands of a joint family ensured that she did not pursue the interest too far. However, it was in their home that, when we all came to Madras for the summer holidays, that I was to hear, and love, the best of Tamizh film music, in the glorious days of the Viswanathan-Ramamurthy era.(I almost never saw the movies, didn't like the fat actors and actresses and the melodrama, when I did.... and am seeing many video clips only now!) Of course, chitthappA was rather dismissive of the "modern" music and all those "suggestive" lyrics...it was much later, as my researches into Carnatic music increased, that I realized that the pathams and jAvaLis of Carnatic music were far raunchier than anything the movies could dish out! Through my chitthappA and chitthi, I became acquainted with a large number of extended relatives, but I was never comfortable with the gossip, the extreme interest in others' doings, or their judgemental attitude towards those who were different from them. And yet...the men of the family would visit the Nagoor Dargaah regularly, and all of us would visit the church at Velankanni, too...so I still wonder how this tolerance went hand in hand with the intolerance! However, I have never heard chitthappA, himself, ever utter an intolerant word about others. Along with his job was a family business. supplying brooms and other "et ceteras" to the Railways...a business which became less and less profitable, and petered away altogether. Another business venture was the distribution of drinking water...the timing of this was too early, and the business did not prosper, either. Their family certainly included the "servants", in true feudal manner.From Annamma to Govindan to their descendants, to their "official" driver, Krishnan, to Perumal the rickshaw man(who, after taking Harini to school, even took Harini's daughter, and my own daughter, to school!)the entourage stayed with them all their lives. Each of them had his or her appointed role, and place, in the household, which ran smoothly and efficiently through the several crises that life must have occasioned over the decades. A few years ago, my chitthi died on the 15th of August, and since then, my uncle was very much quieter and sadder. He often spoke of her with such affection and love, and it was very obvious that he was missing her terribly. It's always been wonderful to me to see the great love between this couple...it's been one of the shining, beautiful things in my life. A man who enjoyed every aspect of the life he lived.... whowas happy conforming to the Iyer way of life, and was a good example of a succesful person from that community. Perhaps a month ago, he was diagnosed with lymphoma....but he never had to be told about it, as very soon, his systems started failing, and last afternoon (the 10th of June), having been admitted to the hospital, he passed away.

Why am I moved to write in detail about him, when I have never even written about my own father? I don’t really know…perhaps, sitting here in St.Louis, I have the time and the inclination, too….I hardly ever look back in my life, but this is one occasion that I am doing so.

chitthappA….I know you loved us, and both KM and I loved you a lot. I’m glad we always made it a point to come and visit you whenever we were in Chennai, no matter how briefly…and that I would always call when Semmangudi sang on Arangisai on Madras “A” on All India Radio…..my dearest Ambi chitthappa….rest in peace, and I hope you are with your beloved Sharada, again, now, for all eternity.