Ayya's Accounts by Anand Pandian, M. P. Mariappan, and Veena Das - Read Online
Ayya's Accounts
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Ayya’s Accounts explores the life of an ordinary man—orphan, refugee, shopkeeper, and grandfather—during a century of tremendous hope and upheaval. Born in colonial India into a despised caste of former tree climbers, Ayya lost his mother as a child and came of age in a small town in lowland Burma. Forced to flee at the outbreak of World War II, he made a treacherous 1,700-mile journey by foot, boat, bullock cart, and rail back to southern India. Becoming a successful fruit merchant, Ayya educated and eventually settled many of his descendants in the United States. Luck, nerve, subterfuge, and sorrow all have their place along the precarious route of his advancement. Emerging out of tales told to his American grandson, Ayya’s Accounts embodies a simple faith—that the story of a place as large and complex as modern India can be told through the life of a single individual.

Published: Indiana University Press on
ISBN: 9780253012661
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Ayya's Accounts - Anand Pandian

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This book grows out of conversations with my grandfather. I was born and raised in the United States. He has spent most of his life in India and Burma. The chapters pass back and forth between my voice and his, between his recollections of his life as a merchant and my reflections on his life as a grandson and an anthropologist. Although my grandfather has long had many languages within reach—some Hindi, Telugu, Burmese, English—the two of us have always spoken in Tamil, his native language.

Tamil is a diglossic language, with tremendous differences of feeling, implication, and solemnity between its written and spoken registers. My grandfather has always been a man of plain words and sparing expressions, a thrifty merchant with little interest in ornamentation of any kind. Nevertheless, there is a stark beauty to his stories.

In the original Tamil edition of this book, published by Kalachuvadu Publications in 2012, we sought to convey the modest elegance of my grandfather’s language by relying on his own verbal idioms and the spoken quality of his vernacular Madurai dialect. With this English edition, based on my translation of his words, I have tried to maintain some sense of the colloquial personality of his speech.

What I know of Tamil was learned in bits and pieces over many years. Every word in Tamil has ever so many meanings, my grandfather has often said to me. With this translation, I have tried to keep this idea in mind, working out the various meanings and implications that a single word may bear in diverse circumstances, while also striving, at the same time, to relay something of the simple clarity of my grandfather’s voice.

What I mean to say is this: the person speaking here about his own life is not exactly him. Nor am I still the one who began, some time ago, to listen closely to his words. This is what happens when you do anthropology. In fact, this is what happens whenever you really listen to someone else. Your experience is no longer your own.

Anand Pandian

Baltimore, Md.

November 2013

Note: This symbol, , marks each passage between Ayya’s voice and mine.



India and Burma, 1941



We were on a train clattering to Madurai seventeen years ago when my grandfather first told me the story of his passage back from Burma to India in 1941. Ayya had come of age in a small town in the lush lowlands north of Rangoon. For nearly a decade, he and his brothers kept a shop there, on the veranda of their house. Then the Second World War reached their town, driving them back to India. One among hundreds of thousands of refugees, Ayya survived a deadly trek through the bamboo jungles of western Burma and landed in the dry, dusty village of his forebears in southern Tamil Nadu. He married, and with patience, thrift, luck, and cunning, he eventually secured a decent life for his family.

I sat beside Ayya on a green vinyl berth as he described all of this, grateful for the cool, dry air of this coach car on the Pandyan Express. It was early June. The unrelenting heat outside was thick, sticky. But there was something else that I could almost feel floating in the air around my grandfather: the absence of Paati, my grandmother.¹ It had been just four months since Ayya had lost his wife. And now it seemed, as he spoke, that this loss was cloaked in other losses that he’d seen—the mother who had died when he was a child, the father he’d buried back in Burma, the rubble of their livelihood there. Who was left to tell me stories? he asked plaintively, as if, for a moment, the septuagenarian widower was once again that orphaned child.

I also missed my grandmother and the raucous tales that she could tell. I’d grown up in New York and Los Angeles. Every year or two, we would see Ayya and Paati for a few weeks at a time. I don’t remember Ayya being a very avid or captivating storyteller in those years. In fact, he was rather quiet. Most of what I knew about him came from the stories that others would tell about his life: his ceaseless toils, the hardships he had survived, and the responsibility that all of us had inherited to struggle in turn. Ayya was never one to call attention to himself. But at a certain moment late in life, perhaps when he began to feel the tremors of his own mortality, my grandfather found that he had a lot to tell. And I happened to be there to listen.

This was something that began as an accident, my presence beside my grandfather as he reflected on his life. But then, over time, listening to him became more of a habit. For most of his years, he had made a living by dealing in fruit. As his eldest grandson, and an anthropologist, I learned to make my living by dealing in the stories of others like him. I began to travel often from the United States to India, spending many years with farmers, activists, writers, and filmmakers in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu, where my grandfather lived. On these many trips, I would always pass in and out of Ayya’s company. And slowly, I began to see how deeply my pursuit of this vocation had been shaped by my sense of his history.

Most of us have had grandparents or other elders murmuring from the corners of our lives, sharing tales that are sometimes riveting, sometimes simply tedious. The lessons of their experience may go heeded or unheeded by those who follow them. But with Ayya, I found that I couldn’t shake the sense of a deep and insistent debt.

Something about this debt was very personal. My grandfather’s life had taken a precarious route, nothing like the stiff railroad tracks that led us to Madurai that night or the steady beat of our passage over them. What if his journey had suddenly ground to an unexpected halt? What would I have become, if anything at all?

But there was also something else that I began to see by listening to my grandfather, a lesson in the formidable reach of historical perspective. There he was, a small man seated beside me in a musty railway compartment, passing the time with stories that stretched far beyond the south Indian countryside we were traversing, chronicling events that I could barely recall from the pages of my American school textbooks. Where on his person could he have kept this immensity, this vast world of his experience?

No life is as small as it might first appear from a distance. Extraordinary tales may be found in the most unlikely places. This book grows out of a simple faith—the idea that you can tell the story of a place as large and complex as modern India through the life of a single individual, through the life of someone like my grandfather, Ayya.

The year is 2014. Nearly a century has passed since Ayya’s birth in 1919. He has sipped water from open wells, roadside gullies, plastic bottles, and pots of yesterday’s rice. He’s been spurned in rural India for belonging to a despised caste of tree climbers and celebrated in New York City for being the father of an Indian physician. He has grandchildren who teach in elementary schools, design telecommunications hardware, and exhibit artworks all over Europe. He’s mistaken airplanes for vultures, run from Japanese bombers, sent a son to the Indian Air Force, and flown between Chennai and Los Angeles at least ten times. He has survived the plague and prostate cancer. He’s traded in paper, saris, matchboxes, limes, and pomegranates. He has lost a daughter under mysterious circumstances, seen many things that he never dreamed were possible, and quietly buried countless wishes unknown to anyone else.

What could the peculiar quirks of such a life tell us about modern India? What does such experience have to do with India now? Everyone knows that many things in India are changing very quickly. We see books about India Becoming, documentaries on an India Rising, political slogans that seek to celebrate an India Shining. Everything seems to be happening at once, as though a slumbering giant has finally awakened.

This image, of a stirring behemoth, is a familiar one. This is something that we have been told for a long time: that India is an old land, that India has long refused to change, that only now has India finally arrived at the threshold of something radically new, radically different. There are good reasons, however, to distrust such a story.

Think back to a century ago, 1913: how much of that India would be recognizable now? King George V of England was the emperor of India. Mohandas K. Gandhi hadn’t yet returned to India from distant Natal, South Africa, where he was working with Indian coal miners and railway laborers. There were nearly 200,000 acres of land sown with opium in India, much of which was meant for official export to China. Lines extending for 2,725 miles conveyed fewer than 4 million words that year through the chief means of long-distance communication, the telegraph. There were about 10,000 men and fewer than 300 women enrolled in the colleges and universities of the Madras Presidency in southern India. The town of Madurai had a recorded population of 134,130 individuals, less than one-tenth of what it numbers now a century later.

How to tell the story of what has happened since in India? The nationalist struggle for independence from Britain. The violence exercised in the name of social and religious solidarity. The forceful remaking of cities and the countryside in the name of development. The rise of a free-market economy and a consumer society. The emergence of vibrant diasporic communities overseas. These are massive currents of change, which can be surveyed from a distance for their patterns and directions. But there are other aspects of their texture that can be grasped only through a more intimate mode of inquiry.

Large places often have their stories told through the lives of exemplary individuals. Think of Gandhi, for example, widely portrayed as the very soul of India. Then there are those ways of imagining such places themselves in personal or biographical terms. Recall this famous description of India from Jawaharlal Nehru’s 1946 Discovery of India:

Shameful and repellent she is occasionally, perverse and obstinate, sometimes even a little hysteric, this lady with a past. But she is very lovable and none of her children can forget her wherever they go or whatever strange fate befalls them. For she is part of them in her greatness as well as her failings, and they are mirrored in those deep eyes of hers that have seen so much of life’s passion and joy and folly and looked down into wisdom’s well.

The rescue of a distressed damsel was no doubt on the mind of this imprisoned nationalist leader, who would go on to serve as the first prime minister of an independent India. Striking, however, are all the shades and nuances that Nehru teases out of this portrait of an individual.

Such narratives make sense only because of the unity they attribute to the experience of their subjects. Either implicitly or explicity, these stories rely upon the idea of an overarching trajectory, the movement of a wider arc of possibility and defeat. The trajectory of modern India has been sketched in various ways: as a journey into freedom, as a climb into prosperity, even as a dark descent into chaos. Regardless of the direction that is assigned to India by such stories, what we often find is an idealization of the course—like those railway tracks, once again.

Most tales of modern India these days are epic accounts of victory and defeat. There are the industrial titans who tug on our admirations and jealousies, and the anguished paupers who elicit sympathy and disdain. There is no doubt something riveting in the trials and triumphs of exceptional figures. But perhaps there is also something to learn from those who have lived between these poles, those who saw big things happen and caught just some of their momentum, those who found modest success in a life of trouble, chance, nerve, and ruse.

Here is the story of M. P. Mariappan, whose letters to Shillong, New York, Lucknow, and Nashville were stamped for decades with a double-lined oval that curved around his small place in the world:

Limes and Fruits Commission Agent

208-A North Masi St.

Madurai 625001


It’s a story about those parents, schoolchildren, shopkeepers, and refugees whose interwoven fates make up the landscape of contemporary India. It’s also a story about all the rest of us who found our own way along the paths they laid.

Here he is now, seated on a rickety wooden bench, getting ready for his morning walk. We’re in the foyer of a modest, sandy brown bungalow in Anna Nagar, Madurai, built in 1983.² Ayya is wearing black shorts and an old blue T-shirt. He’s mostly bald, except for wispy tufts of white above his eyes and behind his head, and the thick curls of hair on his arms. He looks small and stout as he pulls on a pair of loose white socks, which bunch up below his thin calves. These sagging socks speak to his lifelong habits of thrift, while the scar on his forehead still marks a childhood accident nearly ninety years back. A century of history, a century of experience, all remaining with him still, lingering in every space and moment of his life.

Carefully stepping into a well-worn pair of black walking shoes, the rubber grip of his walking stick in hand, Ayya leaves the house. A tin board hung from the metal grillwork outside details, somewhat mysteriously, the qualifications of a man who moved to New York City in 1972: Dr. M. Ganesa Pandian, MD, FRCP (Canada) (Cardiology), AB (USA), FACA—my father, his firstborn child, living in America like half of Ayya’s children and most of his grandchildren, like the families of so many others in this middle-class urban neighborhood.

Striding over the fresh white kolam pattern that my aunt has applied to the ground in the gathering light of dawn, Ayya steps beyond the rusty gate of the courtyard. For the next hour, he will slowly trace and retrace a route through the smaller lanes of Anna Nagar. The morning begins quietly but builds quickly to a din of bustling traffic as children are rushed by bicycle, car, scooter, and auto rickshaw to a nearby school. He must be careful about these vehicles and the many potholes in the roads, but also about the traps that his own mind may set. Memories come as sudden distractions, making it difficult to see such dangers along his path.

Madurai is widely known as a temple city, the massive Meenakshi Amman temple complex across the river drawing pilgrims and tourists from all over India and around the globe. But Anna Nagar tells more about the city as a regional commercial capital, a bustling market for licit and illicit goods alike. Settled in its lanes are jewelers, lawyers, developers, doctors, and other merchants like Ayya. Many of their houses are built like fortresses, their gleaming faces of steel, glass, and cement towering coldly over the leafy roads of the neighborhood.

Beside these places, Ayya’s house looks dated, weathered, even a bit run-down. But he’s always been frugal with money, especially when it comes to ornamental niceties. Back at home after his walk, he has his breakfast at a peeling blue Formica table in the kitchen. He spends the rest of the morning in a padded black armchair in the living room, paging through the morning paper. Watching after him is my grandmother, Paati, looking down from a large, gold-painted frame hung high upon the wall. Between her steady gaze and the stream of events recorded in the newspaper, public and private life come together in this room.

A voice calls at the door, and the washerman interrupts his reading. Ayya is eager to tally up all the goods that the man has brought back. Sheets, pillowcases, towels, and shirts are each divided into individual piles and then added up. Ayya’s slippered foot taps quietly in his chair as the dhobi calls out these numbers, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 . . . It’s as if the beat of the count lives within his own body, an unconscious rhythm of goods accumulating one by one. There is a pillowcase missing this morning, and Ayya feigns anger. Then he laughs and pays the man what is due. He looks for some old film songs on the television before lying down for a rest.

Ayya sleeps lightly and uneasily. There are too many memories, images, thoughts, and questions clamoring for attention behind his closed eyes. He was never one to keep journals, diaries, or other such reflections on the events of his life. He maintained ledgers of his business transactions and committed everything else to memory, consciously recalling the details of each day so often that he needed no written reminders. These habits pursue him now, even as he sleeps. He dreams of fruit brokers, unpaid debts, and truckloads of limes tallied one by one.

Look at some of the things scattered around Ayya as he rests: photographs of grandchildren dispersed throughout India and America; an image of the Shwedagon Pagoda’s golden spire rising over Rangoon; a framed portrait of the Grandfather of the Year beaming with a plump Hawaiian pineapple in 1990; a magnet clinging to the steel green face of a bureau, showing a mouse, dog, and two cats playing jazz around a piano.

Bits of paper, plastic, and metal, fragile tokens of testimony and reminiscence, but also elements with which to conjure the wonder of an ordinary life in extraordinary times. Vast worlds lie buried within the smallest details of such a life.

Whenever we meet, there’s something that Ayya always does. He reaches out with both of his hands to clasp my arms, just below my shoulders. I can feel his fingertips, pressing strongly into the slender bands of muscle, as if they’re testing the resistance that they meet there, measuring the strength gathered around my bones.

Sometimes, a faint pulse of worry flickers through my mind, as I wonder whether he’s judged me too weak. But if he’s ever felt anything like this, it never shows in his eyes, which are always warm as he looks up and smiles.

His hands remain wrapped around my arms. His elbows are locked to fix a space between us. The seconds tick by. It feels like I’m some fond thing finally back in his hands, something whose condition can only be assessed slowly, and from the right kind of distance. A lifelong Indian trader, appraising his American grandson.

But let me admit this too—after some years of thinking and working as an anthropologist, I am also appraising him. My habits of appraisal depend, perhaps, on a different kind of distance, one that matches up what the person before me says and does with things that others like him have said and done. He’s never just my grandfather. There’s always some larger picture of human possibility that I tend to look for, composed of others I’ve met, others I’ve read about.

I know this kind of thinking is dangerous. You can lose sight of that person standing right there before you. This kind of thinking has to be done with care.

Early in 2012, I flew from Baltimore to Madurai to spend a few days with Ayya. Adi! he said, again and again, asking me to hit his own arms as hard as I could, to feel for myself how firm they still were. I did as he said, but quite gingerly and anxiously. Everyone was worried about him. He hadn’t been able to eat lately, and when he walked, my aunt reported, he was leaning heavily over his walking stick for support.

I had traveled from America just to work with him on this book project, to go over notes, drafts, transcripts, and pending doubts and questions I still had about his life. But half the space in my bag was taken up with things meant simply to preserve this life: a giant bag of Raisin Bran, a bottle of moisturizing cream for cracking skin, a tub of sugarless Citrucel powder to aid his digestion. A sense of dread pooled in my stomach as I waited for the plane to take off.

When I got to Madurai, though, this feeling quickly passed. For Ayya, life went on. I could see that there was a thread carrying each moment of his life over into the next, act to act, conversation to conversation. It was no more than a feeling, the feeling of momentum that we sometimes call hope. Hope is something very small, so quiet and subtle, and yet it seemed, for Ayya, to make all the difference. There was always something more to live for.

In the last few years, this book project has also found a small place in Ayya’s life. It began in bits and pieces scattered over the course of many years, dialogues we had here and there in the various places where our lives intersected: Chennai and Bangalore, Oakland and Los Angeles, even Burma where