Before you begin this, here is a key to family titles:
Mama- My mother’s brother- my uncle
Mami- Wife of my mother’s brother- my aunt
Mausi- My mother’s sister- my aunt
Mausaji- husband of my mother’s sister- my uncle
Nana- grandfather on my mother’s side
Nani- grandmother on my mother’s side
Aachi- grandmother on my father’s side
It’s hard to believe that when we die we only leave one thing truly behind, our home. Yesterday, June 28th I visited the house my Great-Great-Grandfather built in around 1914. It still stands in the middle of the village Aralia North, in Jaffna City, Sri Lanka. His name is written on a plaque on the side of the house, even though the house itself is slowly deteriorating. My Great-Great-Grandfather’s name was Dr. C.S Ratnam, Ratnam meaning precious stone. His daughter would later marry Dr. Navaratnam, his last name means Nine Precious stones, and move to the capital of Sri Lanka, Colombo. The couple would have eight kids, six of who are still alive to this day, one of whom is my own Grandmother Dr. Mangay Yoganathan, the legendary woman who can make a friend in ten seconds, and see through someone in five. Her memory is as sharp as diamond, and her will is stronger than the oldest tree, whose roots are buried deep in the earth. The cloth she is cut from is like a deep heavily embroidered silk sari, with twists and turns, and rich color flooding the fabric that could last centuries. The reason why I compare her family’s line to a sari is because it still stands proudly today, just as her grandfather’s house (Dr. Ratnam’s house) still stands, the house she grew up in still stands as well in Colombo. I had the good fortune of being able to visit it. Currently, my Father’s cousin, Auntie Malathi lives there with her family. Her Mother, my grandmother’s sister, Auntie Sili still lives there as well.
These two ancestral homes still stand with my families name written on them, one metaphorically, and one literally. It’s almost ironic, that the year I am able to see these two homes I am about to lose another.
My Grandmother, the woman I know as Aachi, is the mother of my father and she has always kept a distinct record of her family tree. This trip to Sri Lanka was her way of showing my brother and I where our ancestors came from. It’s always been a little confusing figuring out my father’s family tree, mainly because I had only ever been to Sri Lanka once and most of Aachi’s family has dispersed across the world. Her Brother Uncle Viswan lives in London, while her sister Auntie Saraswati lives in Italy. Her other brother, Uncle Suma lives in Colombo, but he has ties in Australia as well. Auntie Baba lives in Colombo as well, in a different house form Auntie Sili. All of her siblings had children, including the two deceased ones, and all of these children are my father’s cousins, and all of these cousins have gone on to live their lives in various places, some marrying and having their own kids, and some of who are having their own grand kids. It all very intricate and confusing, especially since as we travel across the world my brother and I meet people that are related to us in some shape, fashion, or form due. It’s not very cut and direct when you look at it piece by piece, but when you look at the grand picture you see the masterpiece of it all, as you would with a silk Kangivaram sari.
But as I have said before, I have only just started to look at the whole picture of my father’s ancestry, it has always been my mother’s side that I have been able to see pretty clearly, at least the immediate extended family. My mother was born in a city called Gwalior, in the state of Madhaya Pradesh in India. Gwalior has always been a growing city, and is just a few kilometers from Agra, and about five to ten hours outside of Delhi, the capital of India. The house she grew up in is entitled Bal Mandir, translated into Children’s Temple. This house was a school, at least the house plus a few of the surrounding buildings. The principal of that school was my Grandmother, or as I know her, Nani. Nani and my Nana (my grandfather) moved to Gwalior, and bought Bal Mandir, a three story building in the heart of the city. The address has always been a joke around the family, because the people who grew up in that house, my mother and her three siblings, all have wills of steel, and attitudes to rival the wittiest man.
Nimbal ki Ghot Number Ek. It’s the phrase that I have heard thrown around every time someone makes a dirty joke, or a hilarious moment of a supposedly serious situation. An example of this would be during my Eldest cousin’s wedding. Raji Bhaiya was finally tying the literal knot while my mother was making jokes about every moment of the ceremony, how the priests were taking so damn long just by lecturing about the sanctity of marriage, and the four stages of life. No one in their right mind makes a joke out of a wedding ceremony, not unless you are from Nimbal ki Ghot Number Ek.
Bal Mandir was where my mother grew up with my Mausi (Aunt), and my two Mamas (Uncles). My Nana and Nani raised them to be independent, smart, and loving people, and as they grew older the house remained as a constant. My Mausi married and moved to Indore with my Mausaji (my uncle who is the husband of my Mother’s sister). My two Mama’s also married. Papu Mama (The eldest of the four) married Vinita Mami (my aunt who is the wife of my mother’s brother) and moved to a house called Vhinenaggar. The only two to remain was my mother, and the third oldest, my Bhinu Mama. Bhinu Mama married Sheli Mami, and remained in Bal Mandir.
Now all the while all her siblings were getting married my mother was having the time of her life. She went to college and made friends with her professors, Renu Mausi, and Jhor Uncle, as well as a girl in her class named Sujata Mausi. She obtained her Bachelors, and Masters degree, and was working for her PhD while also learning Kathak and joining an elite Dance Drama group called Kala Samoa. In addition, she joined a poetry group, and helped her parents with their own jobs. Nani was not only a principal but also a scout leader, while Nana was a writer, and Lawyer. They would take her all over for their meetings, and their pilgrimages to temples across India. But as she jumped around like a monkey, Ma would also help out wherever she could. She named each and every one of my cousins, except for the eldest. Each of my cousins who she named has the name starting with A. From oldest to youngest our names are: Pradeep, Anthara, Ananya, Akshara, Akshaya, Abhaya, Anila, Akshat, and Anant. It was in that house where she named all of my cousins, and it was there where the third generation started. We, like our parents would also have nick names: Raji, Bitto, Anu, Roli, Moli, Nanhi, Anni, Guddu, and Aadi. My mother and her siblings in order were named: Deepak, Deepti, Alok, and Tripti. Their nicknames were: Papu, Guddi, Bhinu, and Toonie.
It wasn’t until my mother hit thirty when it would be her turn to also make her own life. The story of my parents meeting is one I call a true love story. My father at this point was about forty-four years old, and a leading professor at Georgia Tech’s Biomedical Engineering Department. He was in Gwalior for a meeting, and presenting one of his research papers. As is custom for many of these meetings, there is often times a cultural presentation done by the college or people hosting the meeting. It just so happened that my mother’s College, KRJ, was hosting the meeting, and she was performing with her dance drama group. My mother was the Main character of the drama entitled Brigneni, a story about a princess huntress. My father was in the audience that night, and he would later see my mother presenting her last paper completing her PhD. My father himself had given a long lecture, which my mother claims is what impressed her most. The two would exchange phone numbers and letters, and every evening on Thursdays, the entire House knew it was when my mother and father would talk. My mother would sit in the outer most room in the house, where the corded phone was located, and since the house was openly designed everybody could hear her. It was those nights that would lead up to my father’s grand gesture on Valentine’s Day. He sent a large bouquet of Fresh Red roses from Delhi to the house, and it was only then when my Nani forced my mother to realize that my father wanted more than just a friendship.
The two would marry in 1996, a year before having me in 1997. My father was asked to live in Bal Mandir for a week or so by my Nani and Nana, before they gave their blessings. He wasn’t allowed to eat meat, or drink alcohol for those days, and he gladly endured it, even though being a Sri Lankan, it must have been difficult. The wedding was held in Gwalior, and a few of my father’s family and friends came including my Aachi, my Auntie Renuka (my father’s sister), Auntie Irhomi (Aachi’s friend), to name a few. It was a traditional Indian wedding, with a Sri Lankan groom, and by the end of it all my Mother moved to Atlanta to live with my Father, and my Aachi.
I grew up visiting India almost every year, living in Bal Mandir for weeks as my Nana would drop off my cousins Akshaya, Akshara, and Abhaya off at school on scooter, as my cousin Akshat and I tagged along. He would then take us to get milk, and fresh vegetables from the market. When we returned Nani would feed us all and we would go to sleep. Some days we would all put Mendhi on our hands, others we’d wake in the middle of the night and listen to the adults talk. Some days we would chase around the cat Billu (male cat). Years later on we would learn that Billu was actually a Billi (Female cat) and we would chase her kittens around as well. It was a happy home, and one I will always cherish, but sadly those memories will always be few, because when I was around four years old, Bhinu Mama past away. To this day I don’t know how he died, some people have suggested foul play, other say he just collapsed on the side of the road. All I know was that he was gone, and four of my cousins didn’t have a father any more. I remember waking up to someone calling in the middle of the night, and watching my mother break down into a fit of tears as my father tried to endlessly console her. She would leave within that week to Gwalior, leaving my father and I in the house. She went back to support the home.
As the years passed, I wouldn’t return to India for few years and by that point my brother had been born. No one in India had met him yet, and my Nani had been begging my mother to come and visit. It was that year that we had finally made a house in Goa, and had asked the family to come and join us. My Nani and Nana were so excited, as Papu Mama, and Vinita Mami brought my cousins Abhaya and Akshat to Goa with them. We would later learn that my Nani had contracted pneumonia and had been hospitalized for a few days then. Suddenly the great reunion had turned into a nightmare. We all hurried back to Gwalior to try and support her, my father speaking with the doctors trying to assess the situation. It was in those weeks I was unable to reconnect with my cousins, and family. It was also the summer I lost my Nani. She died in AIMS hospital in Delhi, with only half a lung. The doctors in the Gwalior hospital had been pumping her with drugs in the ICU, but we never got a clear reading on what was happening to her. I can only remember two of the names of the three doctors, Doctor Single, and Doctor Thakur. My Nana tried to take them to court but it was all moot. The Indian healthcare system is so screwed up that malpractice is so common, that one is unable to see when there is a severe case from all the others. I name these two doctors because I hope that God will one day serve them the punishment they deserve. Pneumonia is fatal, yes, but there is no excuse for sending an old woman with half a lung on a five to ten hour journey to a better hospital, without telling our family. It especially wasn’t alright when they did not let us move her earlier on, when they claimed they could help her but only ended up killing her.
I wouldn’t return to India for another Four years and within that time, my fatherless cousins would also lose their mother, Sheli Mami, to anemia. They were orphans, and my Papu Mama and Vinita Mami would move back into Bal Mandir and adopt them as their own kids. Their only daughter, Anthara would become their older sister, and eventually the house would once more be a home.
Years later and I am eighteen, my brother is nine, Raji Bhaiya is twenty-nine, and was married in February, Bitto Didi is about twenty six and is pregnant with her first child, Anu Didi is twenty four and working in Delhi, Roli and her twin Moli are twenty and are finishing up their last year in university, Nanhi is nineteen just starting her college career, and Guddu is eighteen almost ready to start his own adventure. We finally thought things were coming together, with Bhaiya married, Bitto Didi pregnant, Anu Didi with her job, Roli and Moli about to graduate, Nanhi starting her second year in college, and me and Gudhu entering college. We were and still are in stressful periods of our lives, and despite the distance, we still have an idea who is doing what and where.
No one expected it, that the downfall of our ancestral home would come so quick. I, at least, had believed that one of the four cousins living there would inherit the house, and would raise their kids there, and I would continue to visit and show my own kids where their Great Grandparents started their marriage, and where their grandparents grew up, and where their aunts and uncles, and parents had slept, and played, and loved one another. Currently those future hopes and dreams are gone, and I don’t think they will ever play out, because the one person that was keeping that House as a Home is gone. On June 23rd, 2016 my mother’s eldest brother, my uncle, the adoptive father of my four cousins: Akshara, Akshaya, Abhaya, and Akshat, and father to my cousin Anthara past away from a 3 day heart attack. Like all the other deaths in our family his also could have been avoidable.
Without my Mamaji, my cousins have lost yet another person who they saw as their father. Without him, my Nanaji has no one to truly look after him in Bal Mandir. Without him, there is no one to make us feel like we are at home when we visit Gwalior.
I didn’t know my Mamaji as well as I would have liked. I know of the stories of my mother and her siblings and how they would all hangout after school with their friends in Bal Mandir, they would eat snacks, do homework, clean the house, and watch TV until their entire vision turned yellow. But I also knew him as an intellectual. This past summer of 2015 I sat in a car with him, my mother, my brother, and my cousins Akshara and Abhaya. He had come to pick us up at the airport in Delhi, and drove us to Gwalior. During that journey he took us to see the Taj Mahal in Agra, showed us an apartment he stayed in Delhi, bought us fruits to eat, and also had long discussions with me and my mother about India’s history. He played the Tabla when he was younger, and still knew many of the taals and bhols as he grew older. He had done so many different jobs in his life, working in different factories, and opening his own factories. He could cook awesome Terhi, though it was a tad spicey, and he could joke around with his siblings like every other member of Bal Mandir. He was the only man I could ever really call Mamaji, or uncle, as my father has no brothers, and Bhinu mama died when I was so young. He worked his hardest to give my four cousins everything they needed in life, while also teaching them a lesson that my own mother has taught me. It’s something that I believe the entire Varma family has passed down through their generations. We Varmas never change who we are, we grow into better versions of our former selves.
I dedicate these five pages of my knowledge on my family history and ancestral homes to my Late Papu Mamaji, Deepak Varma, the man who kept our ancestral house a Home. I don’t know what will become of Bal Mandir, but without him and all the other members that we have lost in these past years the house no longer feels like a Home. It’s walls may still whisper the memories of happy times of shared laughter between siblings and friends, Thursday night phone calls, crazy cats, shelling of peas between cousins, dancing on the roof in the rain, tasty cooking in the kitchen, and shooting dogs with BB guns in the morning. But those walls also whisper of the arguments, and stresses of surviving in an expanding India, as well as the deaths of our loved ones.
Some day I hope to take my kids back to that home, maybe it will still be ours, but most likely not, but I hope to tell them the stories of that house, and what it’s walls could tell us if they spoke. I also hope to stay connected with my family there, but again that is still uncertain. My uncle was truly the one keep us all together and for that I will always remember and love him.
May you find eternal peace Papu Mama
Love your Niece,
Anni (Anila Priyadarshini Yoganathan)