Periyamma’s Words

B. Jeyamohan

Illustration by Emma Roulette

Come, go, stop, food, clothes, son, daughter, road, house, sky, earth, night, day—these words came rather easily to her. If I said those words in Tamil, Periyamma would reply with the corresponding English words. It was only when Periyamma jumped to say ‘cat’ before I could say poo- that I realized I was quizzing her in order. So I changed the order. But then Periyamma started saying the English words just by looking at my eyes. So I pointed at different animals and asked what they were. Periyamma said naaipoonaikozhi in Tamil and then translated them—‘dog,’ ‘cat,’ ‘hen.’ It was only after Periyamma had mastered a hundred basic words—she would say them even before I could ask—that I moved on to concepts. That was when all hell broke loose.

Periyamma was not my periy-amma, big-mother, a name usually reserved for one’s maternal aunt. But everybody in our town called her that. Her house, they called the Big House. Situated in the town centre, that bungalow was built by Periyamma’s grandfather Thiruvadiya Pillai a hundred and fifty years ago. The word about town is that when it was built, the glass for the house sailed in from Belgium, the teak came from Burma, the marble from Italy, and the iron from England. The people who came to grind limestone for its walls stayed on permanently in our town, and as a result our town acquired a Lime Street. Our carpenters also moved in during that period. Periyamma’s wedding took place in that bungalow. That was the first time a mottaar came to our town. The newlyweds were paraded about town in that Ford motor car. Periyamma was not to step foot into that car ever again.

It has been forty years since Periyamma’s husband passed away. Her only son Arumugam Pillai had been a lawyer in Madurai, and he died there. His four sons were variously placed in Chennai and Delhi and Calcutta. None of them are alive now. A daughter of the oldest grandson is a doctor in America. She is the only person who has some semblance of a relationship to Periyamma. Periyamma went on living in that town, an ancient relic in the eyes of its fourth-generation inhabitants. In the olden days their family had six thousand acres of land to their name. Over the years, it had shrunk in various ways to a hundred acres. Those hundred acres had been neatly partitioned and sold over thirty years ago. In the end, all that was left over for Periyamma was that house, two acres of land around it, a good sum in the bank, and her jewelry. But that was more than enough for her to live in state.

Ever since my mother could remember, Periyamma lived in that bungalow with three servants, but alone otherwise. Even as the day dawned, she could be found standing in her courtyard and ordering her servants around in a loud voice. Every evening there would be a recitation session from the epics at the little wooden temple in her house. Muthusamy Pulavar would specially come to recite the verses for Periyamma. Earlier, his father used to do the honours. Following this session, there was usually a bhajanai, a vociferous group-singing session with much clapping of hands. Finally, there was the distribution of eats as sacred offering—the savoury sundal, the sweet sarkkarai pongal, bananas, puffed rice. I did not miss a single day of this when I was a kid.

Their house was built on a plinth so high that it rose well above the head of a standing man. There were eight huge steps carved in stone in the front and rear of the house. Once when Periyamma went to the backyard to wash her hands, she got dizzy, fainted, fell, injured herself, and lay in bed for eight months. Her great-granddaughter in America arranged for doctors to visit her regularly. Though she had begun to limp back to health, it was clear that things couldn’t go on as before. That sickbed changed Periyamma’s heart. The woman who had declared that she would never leave her house for all those years prepared herself to go and live in America with her great-granddaughter.

However, the great-granddaughter’s husband was a white American. All four of her children, two boys, two girls, were white. The great-granddaughter did not speak Tamil herself. I had an M.A. in English Literature—obtained through a distance-learning “correspondence” course—and was working in the town as a teacher and office assistant in a small school. The great-granddaughter emailed me, asking me if I could teach Periyamma some basic English. I was the only person from my town who was in touch with her. Buyers were coming with brokers to buy the house and break it up for sale. Arrangements for the visa were being made.

I was given three months. Within the first two months, I was able to teach Periyamma many words. Periyamma was astonished by the fact that the tiny kosu was a terrifying species called a ‘mosquito’ in English. She thought that the utterly feminine madhulampazham in Tamil turned robust and manly when it became ‘pomegranate’ in English. But she liked ‘umbrella’ more than kudai. This was because, lest she forget umbrella, I had told her the story of Cinderella. ‘Banana’ was like a question to her (bana-na?), mango seemed to be a word of welcome (mango!), and potato was like a muttered grumble (potato . . . !). In anticipation of these little puffs of surprise, Periyamma, after an early bath, waited for my arrival at eight o’clock every day, clad in nothing but a plain white saree and stripes of sacred ash on her forehead and her bare, blouseless shoulders.

Her English lessons were turning out to be the greatest delights of her life. This was because Periyamma had never gone to school. She did not know how to read or write even in Tamil. In those days, it was considered disgraceful, almost a sacrilege, for highborn women to learn anything: akin to throwing their doors open, walking out, and standing in front of their houses for all to see. It was only when her husband died and she donned the white saree that she began to listen to recitations of the epics. She now knew the epics well enough to fish out an apt story for any situation. In addition, she created her own stories too. Once she had made up a story and narrated it, it became part of the epics for her; the next time she would say it, she would really believe that it was a story that had flowed down the ages to reach her.

I did not necessarily plan to teach her abstract concepts. However, when Periyamma knew enough words and tried to use them in a sentence, she needed them. “See this naayi . . . dog. We say that it has nanni. What is English for nanni?” she asked. I said, “Obedient.” She knew to add ‘is.’ After dutifully repeating “Dog is obedient,” she asked, “So obedient means nanni, yes?” I said, “Well, no, obedient means panivu— humble, docile.” “Dratted fool! When has this ever been panivu, eh? I call out to it, and it sits just like that for five minutes before it deigns to turn and give me so much as a look . . . you call this animal panivu?”

I looked at Vettumani. She was right. You could see from its movements that Vettumani considered itself a venerable monarch. “Faithful,” I proposed. When I explained what “faithful” meant, “Right. Like you could leave a piece of fish unguarded with this one around. The other day I had some dried fish brought in and before I could take it inside, he had stolen it. He’s a real rogue!” I thought some more and said that perhaps one could use the word ‘domestic.’ “What’s that?” I explained. “Really? Have you gone mad? This one here comes home only to eat . . . ” I had no idea what to say. Could you say ‘thankful’? Are dogs thankful? Or grateful? But do these words describe dogs? I employ those words only in my job application letters.

I was hitting walls everywhere. Finally, I came to a decision. I told her the story from The Odyssey where Ulysses comes home after an epic voyage of twenty years. Ulysses returns, diseased, thin, and frail as a beggar. His best friend, even his beloved wife, fail to recognize him. But his fine dog Argos recognizes him immediately and frenetically wags its tail to welcome him; it dies right there. On seeing that, Ulysses is moved to tears. Everyone realizes that the newcomer is Ulysses. He rejoins his wife and children and regains his kingdom.

Tears were flowing down Periyamma’s cheeks. “That’s fate for you! Even if you slather oil all over yourself and roll on the ground, only the earth that’s meant to stick on to you will stick to you, yes?” Then she continued, “Remember how when the emperor Dharumaru went to heaven, a dog went with him?” In the epic Mahabharata, Dharuman walks up the Himalayan mountains to heaven with his four brothers and wife Paanjaali. Somewhere along the way, a dog joins them. While the others drop to the ground one after another in sheer exhaustion, Dharuman walks on with unflinching determination, not looking back even for an instant. The dog goes with him. They approach the peak. A celestial chariot comes down for them. Dharuman is asked to get into the chariot. Dharuman says that the dog who accompanied him all that way should get into the chariot too. He is told that dogs don’t have heaven. Then I don’t need heaven either, replies Dharuman. I will not abandon a dog that followed me all this way, he says. The dog transforms into Dharmadevan, the god of righteousness, and stands before him. I was just testing your sense of right and wrong, says Dharmadevan, and brings Dharuman’s brothers and Paanjaali back to life, and takes them all, including the dog, to heaven.

Periyamma wiped her tears. “That’s called nanni. That animal had nanni, didn’t it? It went all the way with him, no? It’s not right to leave it behind and go on, yes? That’s why Dharumaru did not abandon it; he is Dharumadevaru himself, isn’t he?” I came back to the word nanni. “I was talking about the feeling Ulysses’ dog had for him,” I said. “Then what about Dharumaru’s feeling for the dog?” she said. Both of us sunk into thought. “Well, his nanni was a reciprocation of its nanni, no?” said Periyamma. I agreed. But can two people reciprocate each other’s thankfulness or faithfulness or obedience? I asked whether we could call it ‘kindness.’ What does it mean, she asked. It is what the two of them showed to each other, back and forth, I said. Periyamma agreed. I said, “Dog is kind.” Periyamma said, “Dharumaru is kind.”

The next day, Periyamma was in high spirits. She pointed me to the kind rooster, the kind crow, the kind servant girl Kunjamma, the kind coconut-man Arunjunai Nadar, and the kind green-turbaned fakir who came to seek alms. It was a cloudy day, there was no sun. There were little drops of rain in the cool air. She asked me whether you could call the skies kind. Maybe, but not too much, I said. I thought about the right word for it and came up with ‘beautiful.’ What does that mean, she asked. Then she asked in a very, very hesitant voice whether she could call the rooster and crow and Kunjamma and Arunjunai Nadar and the fakir ‘beautiful.’ I hesitated even more before saying, “Yes.” Once we had made it to that word, the two of us sat for a while, enveloped in rapture, looking at the dark clouds rimmed with light. Then we came to the conclusion that we could as well call the skies “kind.”

In the next few days, we started understanding many words easily by trading stories. “Hey, what would you call the arul of Thiruchendur Murugan?” asked Periyamma. I did not know whether the Tamil deity Murugan could profess arul in English. So I recounted the story of Jesus turning water into wine. Periyamma cupped her chin in her hands in astonishment, at a loss for words. I called Jesus’s act ‘compassion.’ When I explained what that was, she objected. “Even humans show compassion, no? Look, I was talking about arul.” Then I proposed ‘grace.’ “That’s different. I’m talking about arul. Arul is Murugan’s karunai, no?” Karunai, karunai, karunai, I muttered to myself before settling on ‘mercy.’ “That’s our Yesuvadimai’s daughter’s name! That girl is a nurse, yes?” When I explained what that meant, “You blooming idiot, that’s erakkam. What sort of dratted god-worship you do, I don’t know. See, what the policemen show towards us is erakkam. Condescending pity. What Murugan shows is karunai. That’s what we call arul.”

In a very soft voice, I said, “Love.” Periyamma looked at me suspiciously. I avoided looking at her. “Then what about the lavvu cinema that our Chellammai’s daughter talks about?” she asked. “That’s a different lavvu,” I said. The old woman grew furious. “Stinking carcass! I’ll tan your hide with a broom!” I was almost in tears by now. “There’s another story,” I said. “Okay, tell me.” She seemed to have relented a little. I told her the story of the ascetic Sabari from the Valmiki Ramayanam who wished to offer the tastiest fruits to Raman who comes to her forest; she first bit into each fruit to make sure they were sweet before offering it to him, even though it was now tainted with her saliva. After telling her the story I was a little confused about why I had told her that story in the first place. Both stories are about food, I consoled myself.

Periyamma peered at me with her wizened eyes. I could tell her brain was on overdrive. “But it was the poor to whom he offered wine,” she said. “Yes, Periyamma. But Raman was also a poor man when he came to the forest, no? He would have also been thirsty, yes?” Periyamma accepted that that was true. I went on, “The god Krishnaru also did the same thing, didn’t he? When he went to Paanjaali’s house to eat, there was no food left, but he filled his stomach on a single speck of spinach that was stuck to the vessel!” I said. Periyamma broke into a broad smile. “Yes,” she said. She thought some more and said, “What we offer the gods, they give back to us. Right!”

Immediately I said, “Bond.” “What’s that,” she asked, knitting her brows. “Bandham . . . you know, that thing that binds god with us? Neither can let go of the other, yes?” I said. The old woman beamed. “You are a learned one, child,” she said. So we settled on that word. I was a little relieved when we decided to use that word for everything god-related, from bhakti to worship to bhajanai to prayer to the savoury sundal.

The great-granddaughter Gomathi periodically got in touch with me from America to ask how Periyamma’s education was progressing. “It’s going great, Goms. She’s learning a lot.” “Really?” she asked apprehensively. Then, “Could you also teach her some manners and niceties?” “Sure,” I said, and then diplomatically conveyed that that would cost a bit extra. She didn’t promise anything. “Let’s see.” Periyamma’s visa formalities were getting wrapped up. The trouble was that her name was variously Chellathaayi, Vellakutty, and Kanthimathi Ammal in various documents. In addition, her husband had a sum total of four different names—Eragam Pannaiyar, Azhagiya Nambiyaa Pillai, Vaduga Pillai, Sorimuthu Appu.

I first read up on manners and etiquette on Wikipedia. I came to the understanding that white folks were really somewhat particular about manners. I explained to Periyamma that to have good manners was to be a cultured, sophisticated person. “At this age do you want me to strut about with a silukku saree and a shiny parasol? Go on with you!” she said dismissively. Gently, I told her that it was not silk sarees and parasols that I was talking about. Perhaps I could tell her what constituted good manners, I thought. “First, one should not speak loudly,” I said. “So they make the deaf-mutes gentlemen over there, is it?” she asked. I said that one should always welcome the guests politely. “These are things one knows if they are born in a good family . . . we already have that, don’t we?”

I wasn’t sure what else to say. I felt that manners were nothing more than knowing to say the appropriate English words at the right times. I taught Periyamma eight such words—thanks, very kind of you, please, and so on. Her ‘excuse me’ was only an indistinguishable hiss from her toothless mouth. “How am I ever going to remember all these words? Just teach me one word to say instead of all this,” she said. I thought for a bit and taught her to say the word “Sorry.” If she appended the word to anything she said, that would become good manners. What does it mean, she asked. Sadness, sorrow, I said. “So one should always be sad . . . yes?” she asked bemusedly. “Periyamma, now Seethai was always sad, wasn’t she?”

Periyamma understood everything in an instant. “Seethai . . . now, she was a great lady, wasn’t she? A princess, but what a gentlewoman! How unassuming! She measured her words . . . never wasted them . . . ” she said. “Poor thing, her ill-fated life was what it was.” I jumped to say, “Yes, that’s what I mean. Seethai, she had manners . . . ” before I realized something else. “But the women over there, they are not like Seethai, Periyamma . . . ” I said. “Then? You just said that they were . . . ” “Well, like Seethai. But they do not have karpu like Seethai,” I said pointedly. “Then?” she asked. “They have something else. Like karpu. But a little different.”

“What’s that?” she asked. I could tell that Periyamma’s mind had already tied itself into knots. How do I say it? “Chastity,” I said. I tried crawling closer to the meaning, “Piety.” The meaning did not sit right. “It’s their country’s karpu,” I said. Periyamma’s eyes looked lost. So I reached for a story again. “Like Seethai, they have an epic there too,” I said. “Tell me that first, instead of going around in circles like this . . . ”

I narrated Helen of Troy’s story. Periyamma was appreciative of the fact that she was the daughter of Zeus. “A divine princess!” she remarked, hand on chin. “Periyamma, she was the most beautiful woman in all their stories over there,” I said. “Of course she would be . . . she is an ethereal maiden, isn’t she!” she said. When I came to the part where she gets married to the King of Sparta, Menelaus, I felt a bit apprehensive. I related how she saw Paris, the prince of Troy, and fell in love with him, and how she went away with him to Troy. Periyamma must have been absorbed in the story; she did not seem to object.

I could feel my own excitement rise as I narrated how the Mycenaean kings set out and laid siege on Troy and how the war took place under the leadership of Achilles and Agamemnon. “This Achilleesu is just like our Archunan!” said Periyamma with wonder. Hector’s death was received by Periyamma with tears. “Like how our Karnan died,” she mumbled. When I finally told her about how Troy was won by deception using the Trojan horse, Periyamma sat in silence for some time and then said, “The Pandavas killed Bhismaru by using this Shikhandi fellow, no? War is always like that. ‘He gets things done, the one with good hands; but the one with a ready tongue, wins all the lands,’” she quoted.

Now I felt that I had come to the crux of the matter. “Remember that king who was originally married to her? He brought her back and made her queen again.” Periyamma nodded. “Periyamma, women like these are like our Seethai for them,” I said. She glanced at me. “Not like Seethai, you mad fellow, she’s like Paanjaali. Paanjaali is also a pathini, yes?”

I sighed heavily and relaxed a little. “Your great-granddaughter is like Paanjaali too. Just one less.” “What?” asked Periyamma. “The man she is living with now is her fourth husband. She has four children in total from the first three marriages,” I said. Periyamma said, “She is from over there, isn’t she? Those women marry the men they like and live proudly with honor and happiness.” Resting heavily on her palms, she rose, slowly straightened her back, mumbled the names of her gods, and said, “But we have that here too. Kunthi had six husbands, no?”

To be honest, I was a little disappointed. Periyamma asked again, “What do they call it, their women?” “Karpu,” I said. “You wretch, not that.” “No, no, Periyamma, women and men . . . they have—they each have this thing no? That,” I said. No more words came to my mind. “We say—maleness—the quality of being a man—don’t we? Like that, the quality of being a woman—the femaleness,” I said. “Yes, that’s right. What does the white man call it?” I groped about for a word, and said, “thinking.” “You are always thing-ing,” she brushed aside my hesitant suggestion royally. ‘Think’ sounded to her like thingu—eat. I thought a bit more and said, “Brave.” Even I thought that was an idiotic suggestion. I had an impulse to say ‘virginity,’ but I suppressed it.

“Periyamma, it’s that feeling that makes you say, hey, I’m also a person just like you,” I said. “What the Malayalee fellows call thandredam?” asked Periyamma. I got the right word. Than—edam. My—place. Not quite right. Why place? “My” is enough. I said “Self.” “That’s in the cupboard, no?” she asked. “That’s different. That’s a ‘she-lf.’ This is ‘se-lf.’” “Oh,” said Periyamma, and then slowly said “se-lf” to herself. Then she looked at me. “We should speak softly, yes?” she asked. “Yes.” Periyamma soundlessly moved her lips to say the word. “These young girls, they use a feathery flowery thing to dab paduwer on their cheeks, what’s that?” “That’s a puff!” I said. “Self,” said Periyamma to herself again.

I taught Periyamma English through stories for another six weeks. I could do nothing to dispel Periyamma’s suspicions that the word ‘love’ was somehow inherently perverted. Hence we decided to replace that word with ‘dear.’ The next day, I observed Periyamma changing that to ‘near.’ I did not have time to correct it. The visa had arrived. The lands and the house and been sold. I had to escort Periyamma to obtain her medical insurance papers, her prescriptions, and her medicines.

In the midst of all this madness, I realized to my panic that there was so much more that she did not know, and decided to use a shortcut. A single word for many concepts, I decided. Not necessary, I don’t understand, I don’t know, could all be collapsed into ‘nice’; happy, good, great could all be ‘calm’; that would be easy for her, I reasoned. Anything she did not agree to could be countered with ‘well.’ In another week, we had crammed another forty concepts into twelve words.

It was I who went with Periyamma to the airport at Chennai to see her off. She was travelling all by herself. At the time of parting, she was excited and was trembling gently. When the wheelchair assistant from the airline was about to wheel her away, she called me to her side, and said, “You is bond.” I took her palms in my hands and touched them to my eyes. “You is kind,” I said. She placed her hand on her heart, said “Self,” and departed with a smile.

The same day, I wrote a rather decisive email to Goms and made sure I got paid immediately. I was certain that by next week, I would receive an email from her saying that none of them are able to make head or tail of anything that Periyamma says.

translated from the Tamil by Suchitra Ramachandran