Papakudi Meena

It was a little over noon when the train from Madras pulled into Dadar station in Bombay. It had been a long journey for the weary and grimy travellers, who disembarked with a sense of relief. Some were being received by family and friends, while many more were just making their way out of the station on their own.

Ram looked fearfully out of the train window. This was his first time in Bombay and he had never seen so many people or heard so many languages spoken at one time. He had also never smelt anything like this before—the smell of so many people, sweat, the salty air and his own fear of the unknown. His first instinct was to take the next train back to Madras and then another to his native village in southern Tamil Nadu. That’s when he thought of his family back home and the reason he had come to Bombay—to make a living like countless others before him, and countless others after him.

He took a deep breath, gathered his belongings and resolve, said a prayer to his favourite god Shiva and stepped off the train. He now had to make his way to his cousin Meena’s house in Matunga; Meena’s husband, Raman had promised to help him find a job. But first he needed to get to Meena’s house, which he had been told was not too far from Dadar station.

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The mood was quite festive in the shop. It was the first day of the 10-day Ganpati festival and customers were lining up to collect their pre-booked idols to take home. They would give their names and man at the counter would check against the labels attached to the various idols and hand over the correct one with some flowers and coconut, and a loud “Ganpati Bappa Morya”.

Soon it was our turn to collect the Ganpati idol we had booked.

“Namaskar,” said the man at the counter, “What is your name?”

“Ganapathi”, said Appa (my father).

“Uncle, I asked for your name,” said the man at the counter.

“Ganapathi,” repeated Appa.

“Uncle, I know you have come to collect your Ganpati idol. I want to know the name you have booked it under,” said the man at the counter, a little impatiently now.

“That is what I have been telling you. My name is Ganapathi,” said Appa patiently.

The man at the counter looked a little stunned and then burst out laughing. “Sorry, Uncle. I have never had a Ganapathi come to collect a Ganpati idol.” He handed over our pre-booked idol with the flowers and coconut, and then came out of the counter to touch Appa’s feet and ask for his blessings.

Whenever Appa shares this incident, which happened about 10 years back, with family and friends it always brings forth lots of laughter. And during the Ganpati season, it is a much repeated story. The 2011 Ganpati season is underway now and this year too, the story will be narrated, not by Appa, but by us with a bittersweet tinge. For Appa is no longer here to narrate this incident. He passed away a month ago.

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Pallankuzhi: An inheritance of love

I had been in my first school for just about 10 days or so, when my teacher sent a note home for my mother to meet her. My mother was so worried about the note that she was at my school the next day at the crack of dawn much before the appointed time.

She needn’t have worried. My teacher had only called to rave about my excellent motor skills, my excellent hand-to-eye coordination, and the fact that I could do some simple addition as well as some mental maths. All this at the age of 5 years, 6 months, and some days ! I was apparently way ahead of the rest of my class. Was I some budding genius, she asked my mother hopefully? My mother, after the first reaction of relief, immediately squashed my teacher’s hopes. No, her daughter was no budding genius. She was just a little girl with an inordinate amount of interest in playing Pallankuzhi with her grandmother, which had led to the development of these skills. What is Pallankuzhi, my puzzled teacher asked?

Pallankuzhi game all laid out and ready to play. I inherited this set from my maternal grandmother

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132 steps to Vaikuntha

I was introduced to board games as a child by my maternal paati (grandmother in Tamil), Meenakshi R. She loved them and could spend the whole day playing different games with her grandchildren or whoever was free and willing. I wasn’t always free, but I was always willing :-)

We played games like pallankuzhi (a traditional game played with shells and cowries), ludo, snakes and ladders, etc. If I ever got bored playing the same games, she would quickly improvise games on the floor with some pieces of chalk, some string, and other odds and ends that would magically appear from her cupboard. The games were never just games—they were also stories, anecdotes, strategies, wins and losses, all delivered while playing.

Paati died when I was 8, and after her death, playing board games was never the same again—none of my family members or friends could match her enthusiasm and delight for the games. Besides, with school and other growing up activities, playing board games took a back seat.

I resumed my love affair with board games some years back after a chance visit to The Design Store in Bangalore. Tucked away amongst all their furniture and furnishings and knickknacks, was a shelf displaying traditional games from Kreeda. One of the games was Parama Pada Sopanam. Intrigued by the name, I opened the display pack.

Top: The "boxed" game. Bottom: The box opens to reveal a little cloth pouch containing little wooden counters, two elongated metal dies, and an information booklet (not in picture)

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What’s in a name?

None of us have a say with what we are named as, do we?

It depends entirely on what our parents (or whoever else had a say in this matter) wanted to name us. But sometimes, even the parents (or whoever else had a say in this matter) do not have a choice in choosing their child(ren)’s name(s). For instance, the Tamil Brahmin (a.k.a. TamBrahm) Iyer community from Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu, follows certain pre-ordained rules. You wouldn’t find these rules in any book or magazine, as it is part of the oral traditions of the community passed down from generation to generation.

I make an attempt (albeit a tongue-in-cheek one) here to codify these “scientific”, and quirky, rules on naming children born to the TamBrahms of Tirunelveli district. My qualifications for doing so are due to my being (i) a TamBrahm from Tirunelveli District, and (ii) a recipient of this oral tradition. :-)

Some common TamBrahm names. Designed with the help of Wordle

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Meenakshi’s lamp

When a Tamil Iyer girl gets married, she is given brass and silver lamps, or vilakku as they are known in Tamil, to aid her in the many rituals and ceremonies associated with her being an Iyer wife, an Iyer daughter-in-law, etc. It is a tradition that is followed even today by many Iyer families, the community that I belong to.

When my paternal grandmother Meenakshi N (1910–1989) got married in 1922, she too was given her own brass and silver vilakku. Among the 6–7 vilakku given to her, is the one featured here in this blog post. Nearly 3 feet tall, this bronze vilakku was not bought off the racks in a store, but was specially commissioned and made at her house. That is, the lamp-maker came to Meenakshi N’s father’s house with his implements and made it as per the specifications given to him.

My mind still boggles at how this must have been done and the preparation that would have gone into making the vilakku. To begin with, an auspicious day and time would have been set after consulting the panchangam or the almanac. A coconut would have been broken before the start of the lamp-making process, prayers offered… As for the lamp-making process itself, I wouldn’t even know where to start imagining!

Meenakshi's Lamp

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