If you are of a certain age and you spent time reading Indian newspapers, you most likely came across R.K. Laxman’s “The Common Man.” This character in the comic strip “You Said It” began his run in The Times of India in 1951; he served for over half a century as a lens into independent India, as experienced by the “ordinary” Indian. This elderly, balding, Common Man, with bulbous nose, slight paunch, and bemused eyes announcing his arrival, gave witness to minor events of the day, as well as the political and social changes that shaped modern Indian life. As a satirist, Laxman gently poked fun at the high and mighty, while his Common Man held out hope for decency in the midst of daily challenges, and aspirations in the face of setbacks.
When I first saw the cover of Ayya’s Accounts, a scholarly and love-infused memoir by a grandson and his grandfather, I immediately thought of Laxman’s Common Man, and then I thought of my own father, whom I’ve always thought of as an exceptional man. Ayya, the grandfather who is the subject of the book, is photographed in stride and in situ—in the middle of a South Indian setting. The photo could just as easily be a cartoon of Laxman’s Common Man stepping around a pot hole in Mumbai’s streets or a snapshot of my father going for his daily walk in Morgan Hill.
This model of literary anthropology, co-authored by Anand Pandian and M.P. Mariappan, is not only their story, it is also our collective Indian story, and my own familial story. While we are not the Gandhis and the Nehrus that historians write about, this fine book gives evidence to the claim that our ordinary voices need to be heard.
As suggested in the book’s subtitle, the story that Pandian and Mariappan share with the reader is “a ledger of hope in modern India.” This hope—“a quality essential to the momentum of these times, to the immense and unimaginable movement of modern lives”—is Mariappan’s and it comes to be Pandian’s. Anthropologists have floated phrases such as “Sanskritization,” “Westernization,” and “Modernization” to explicate this movement; but perhaps there is no better word than “hope” to appreciate the progress made by the Mariappan/Pandian family, coming from the downtrodden Shanar/Nadar caste of “tree climbers” who traded in palm toddy, and rising to respect in professions such as medicine, information technology, and academia.
A careful reading of Ayya’s Accounts enables one to extend this hope to India as a whole; an empathetic reading encourages one to internalize the hope within one’s own family. This is not the false hope peddled by Bollywood or Tollywood’s dream-weavers, but rather the hard-earned hope of men like Pandian’s grandfather (whom he refers to as “father”) who toiled for decades as a fruit merchant, and the hope of my father who worked multiple jobs to send his children and grandchildren to college. (It is also the hope of women like my mother who worked alongside my father to raise a prodigious progeny, but Pandian and Mariappan’s book has a distinctly patriarchal feel.).
Mariappan is the Ayya (Tamil for father) of the book’s title, and the book is his account of what took place in his life—a life lived in Indian spaces such as British-colonized Burma and post-Independent Madurai, as well as the far-flung South Asian diaspora. Pandian, an anthropologist at Johns Hopkins University, suggests that “account” has layered meanings:“Any account, whether a business ledger or a story to tell, is far more than a recounting of something that has already happened. An account is also an invitation to nurture a relationship—a way of making unfamiliar persons and things familiar to each other, a trail of transactions through a world of experience, an image of a possible world in common.”
In interwoven chapters, Pandian’s anthropologist voice (triggered by modestly interesting photographic artifacts) helpfully shares the backdrop of change and continuity during his grandfather’s nine decades.
The general ledger that Pandian takes into account is that of social, political, and economic forces that impact the ordinary man, privileging one group over another. Even the upper-case Partition of India and Pakistan is considered in the context of the “other partition of British India in which [his] grandfather was caught, the geopolitical schemes that consolidated a Burmese state for Burmese people.”
But it is Mariappan’s voice that holds together the more substantial narrative; Ayya’s accounts truly carry the book. “I’m just an ordinary man. My children know me, and the friends I made through the business know me. The other traders who bought my goods also know me. Those who sent me goods also know me—they know something about my principles, my character … There must be a thousand things to compare life to. In business, we give and we take … When someone trades with me, he becomes my customer. He comes to me for whatever he needs, and we develop a relationship.”
Throughout his life of “give and take,” Ayya kept a mental calculator running. Gifted in the art of arithmetic as a child, he discovered that he had an innate ability to see patterns of profit, eventually becoming a middle-man in the fruit business, giving to and taking from wholesalers, and giving to and taking from small-time retailers. Over the years, his instinct for price-inflation, credit-giving, and trust-building enabled him to educate his children, including two sons and a son-in-law who eventually practiced medicine abroad. Even Ayya’s recounting with pride his family’s accomplishments reads like an inventory of goods:
“Gnanam, like Ganesan, went off to America. Senthi completed an MA in Tamil and joined me in the shop. Raji … married one of Ganesan’s classmates; they also went and settled in America … Kannan got an M.Tech. degree at the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi.
Each time he moved from one software company to another, his salary would increase ten times over.”
There is a charm to this deeply pragmatic worldview; indeed, this reader has sought to emulate Ayya’s disciplined counting of steps while walking as a form of mindful focus on the here and now. But rationalism displaces life’s losses that must be felt, not merely calculated.
For Ayya, these losses might include people whom he knew in Burma and lost their lives when they were forced to walk through jungles to India as refugees; but the debit side of the ledger would certainly include the loss of his daughter—Rupavathi, who died an early death under mysterious circumstances and Chellammal, his wife of five decades who succumbed to breast cancer. While one can never judge another person’s response to the passing away of a loved one, Ayya’s stoic acceptance of Chellammal’s death (“What would come had come”) is heartbreaking, given the central role she played in keeping the family whole.
Indeed, had his Paati (grandmother) survived, Pandian would have had a marvelous sequel to Ayya’s Accounts: Paati’s Accountability. For by all accounts, it was Chellamal who raised her and Ayya’s children and held them accountable to higher learning. Without advanced education, the Mariappan/Pandian family’s upward mobility would have been constrained in an India which herself has inspired an uneven growth trajectory for all her billion-plus children.
Like Laxman’s wisp of a cartoon character, Pandian’s Ayya makes it possible to believe that the common can be uncommon. In the hands of this gifted writer, the eyes of this careful observer, and the ears of this persistent listener, an uncommon ordinariness itself becomes extraordinary. Indeed, Anand Pandian’s loving dialogue with his Ayya is inspiration to all of us to listen, observe, and take note of our family histories. The little stories of our parents and grandparents are very much a part of the grand narrative of tradition and modernity.
For the extraordinary cultural inheritance RCO received from his grandparents: Bai, Dadosa, Bhau, and Babaji.