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DIFFICULT JOURNEY

A Comma in a Sentence: Extraordinary Change in an Ordinary Family Over Six Generations By R. Gopalakrishnan, Rupa, Rs 295

Few families in the country maintain genealogical records in detail going back two centuries and six generations, more so if they are a land owning Tamil Brahmin clan from a nondescript village in the Tanjore district of south India. The author’s great-great grandfather, Ranganathan, was born in the village of Vilakkudi in 1824; R. Gopalakrishnan (picture), understandably, has very little factual narrative to offer about him or his son, Ooshi Veera Raghavan. Instead he, perhaps correctly, visualized how, as Iyengar Brahmins, their activities revolved around the temple nearby, totally insulated from the outside world. However, this was a period when significant changes were sweeping across India — there was the great Madras famine of 1877, the founding of the Indian National Congress in 1855, the introduction of steam powered engines and the launch of the Indian Postal Service. The central theme of the book is how the family coped with this transformation.

The story is related by a ‘sutradhar’ who dispassionately discusses the caste system in the erstwhile Madras Presidency and how the Brahmin hegemony was brought down by the Justice Party leader, Periyar E.V. Ramaswamy Naicker. The latter propagated the principle of self-respect and the eradication of the caste system. He also actively supported women’s rights and preached atheism in order to marginalize the Brahmin community. There was thus an exodus of educated Brahmins from the Presidency. Ironically, his anti-caste movement resulted in a different, though less visible, form of ‘casteism’ among non-Brahmins, and failed to bring about the equality he had visualized. In the midst of this turmoil, three youngsters from the Ranganathan family — the author’s father, Rajam, and two cousins — ventured out of state with the blessings of their elders, and landed in Calcutta, an alien city where jobs would be easier to find.

The story of Rajam is particularly compelling as he had to overcome a mild polio affliction and his father’s protective instincts to migrate from his agrarian, ritual-bound village to distant Calcutta, where even without a proper grasp of English he started out as a stenographer. He studied hard enough to become an accountant before securing senior roles in corporate firms. Rajam’s children studied in the city’s best schools and colleges. Gopalakrishnan himself graduated from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, and went on to hold top posts at Hindustan Lever and Tata Sons.

The ‘sutradhar’ tradition allows the story-teller to digress from the main theme; this is how we come to know that Varanasi is the only point where the Ganges flows from the south to the north, an anomaly in an otherwise straight course. We also learn that the Vadagalai Iyengars, the author’s sect, have a genetic similarity to the inhabitants of Faisalabad in Pakistan. What we miss is a peek into a few intimate moments the author must have spent with his remarkable father, whom he holds in very high esteem. A feature of the narrative I particularly liked was the much-touted “progress” in the social context, which is rightly defined as “holding onto the core values and letting go of the frills, accoutrements and symbolism.”

A comma in a sentence is commonly used to indicate a slight pause and may seem to be an insignificant mark of punctuation, much like one family’s journey among millions undertaken during the time, but if the sutradhar relates the right story well, it becomes an indispensable part of the country’s laboured journey through difficult years, something one would never find in history books.