My mother is dead and my father and I are in Madras. We are staying in my father’s brother’s house, trying to recuperate, if one can ever recuperate from the loss of a mother or a wife.
My uncle and aunt are doing everything they can to make us feel comfortable, but I feel numb and strange. Everything is different. My uncle’s house is very tastefully decorated with small brass statues in the living room, a comfortable white sofa set and Tanjore paintings on the wall. But my thoughts go back always to my mother.
With my maternal grandmother and my mother dead now, all the stories my mother told me that her mother told her are with me alone. There is this feeling of being the guardian, the preserver of my ancestor’s history. Not names, dates of birth and death, but anecdotes, glimpses into what made them who they are and their collective wisdom that shape in some part who I am today.
One evening I recall my mother’s story of the Statue Man, as she called him, her grandmother’s grandfather, whose statue is in the Senate building in Madras. I had never seen this statue. So, next morning, while I am sitting at the dining table drinking the decoction coffee my uncle has prepared, I tell my father that I want to see the Statue Man.
My uncle agrees immediately.
The morning is fresh and cool when we arrive at the Senate building. I can hear the crows cawing occasionally but otherwise it is silent. The gates are closed but for the first time I look at the black stone statue of S. Subramania Iyer. He is sitting holding a book in one hand. In the statue he appears middle-aged and is wearing a turban typical of that era. He looks composed, staring back at me, his granddaughter’s great granddaughter.
I have an intense wish to be hugged and comforted by him. I wish I could tell him everything that has happened to our family since he left. I am sure he would want to know.
I look at the statue, keep my lips closed, but communicate my thoughts.
“For my father and aunt you are stone, but I am blood of your blood. You were the only father figure my great grandmother had known.
Her father, your son, kept another woman (a prostitute I am told, or was it a devadasi?) in the house and your daughter-in-law, my great great grandmother had the courage in those days not to accept that life. This was a time when husbands were all-dominant and a woman was mere chattel in her husband’s service.
Your daughter-in-law came to you for shelter and you took her in and brought up my great grandmother. I know you did the right thing giving shelter to your daughter-in-law and granddaughter but what thoughts crossed your mind about your son’s behavior?
I wonder what my great grandmother Nagalakshmi’s life would have been like if you had not given her shelter? How many people would have agreed with you going against your own son like you did?
By your actions, you taught my great grandmother to have confidence and to do the right thing no matter how much it hurt. How different would the story have been if you had not acted like you did?”
When we arrive back in Besant Nagar to my uncle’s house, I question my father on what he knows about my forefather. My father tells me that S. Subramania Iyer was born in 1842 and died in the 1920s. He came from a humble family, lived a simple life, and through hard work became the Chief Justice of the Madras High Court. He was the first Indian to hold this high honor under the British. He was also the President of the Indian National Congress for one year.
Later, I Google his name: Sir S. Subramania Iyer and reading through the first few pages of hits I glean that he was one of the seventeen founding members of the Indian National Congress and that Gandhi wrote a letter to him in 1919. When he felt his health was failing he quit from the judgeship even though the Chief Justice told him he could do a less active job. My grandmother’s grandfather told him that he would either do his best or not do the job at all, even though this meant 400 Pounds less in his annual pension—a huge amount, bound to make a difference.
I recall my mother telling me that her great great grandfather had been knighted by the British, but when he became disillusioned with the British Imperialist rule in India, he had given up the title.
My mother’s death has stirred me to know more about her past, where she came from, where I come from. The only piece I can touch is a Burmese ruby bracelet (from an udyanam (waistband)) that the Statue Man gave his great granddaughter on her wedding, which has now been left to me. Rubies, blood red, they now mean much more, this antique piece of jewelry. I never thought of it this way before but now I can believe that the rubies are as red as the blood we shared, handed down from one generation to the next. The big uncut center diamond, clear and brilliant and reflective of my ancestor’s quiet dignity and guiding light.
Thank you, Statue Man, for showing me where I come from.
Roopa Ramamoorthi is a biotech scientist working in global health, and a poet. Her essays, poetry and short stories have been published in various venues including a perspective piece on NPR, an essay in the book “She is Such a Geek,” in India Currents, Berkeley Daily Planet, Khabar and Konch.