A Ledger of Hope in Modern India
Publication Year: 2014
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 by: Indiana University Press
Title Page, Frontispiece, Copyright, Dedication, Quotes
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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...
1. A Century of Experience
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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...
2. In Some Village, Somewhere
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Where I was born, when I was born, I have no idea. I have seven children, and each of them celebrates my birthday on a different day. One son wishes me on one day. Then comes another day, and some other daughter-in-law has birthday wishes. I don’t remember any of these days. “Happy birthday, Ayya!” they say, but I just blink. No one’s ever told me when I was born, or where I was born...
3. Taj Malabar Hotel, 2005
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Ayya is surrounded by six of his children, most of his daughters-in-law, many of his grandchildren. We’ve come from Madurai, Chennai, Bangalore, Los Angeles, Sunnyvale, Columbus, Vancouver, a family dispersed through the Indo-Anglo-American world, a world brought into being by the colonial powers my grandfather was taught to venerate...
4. Things I Didn't Know I'd Lost
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As a child, I was very mischievous. Amma never scolded us,
though; at least I don’t remember her ever scolding me when I did
When I was four or five years old, Appa bought us a milch cow, and Amma was the one who milked it. She would boil some of that milk and set it aside to make buttermilk. When it curdled, she would draw out the buttermilk and churn the butter to make ghee...
5. Pudur, 2012
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The imposing facade of the Hindu Nadar Primary School looms over the small dirt lane. The two entrances to the school open out onto either side of what was once the village’s main bazaar, now quiet, nearly still. Built into the thick whitewashed walls are small alcoves for candles—empty now, they look like ornamental motifs...
6. A Decade in Burma
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Burma was where my father left me. I couldn’t imagine what this “Burma” was or how it looked. I didn’t even know that it was a different country. There was a place called Burma, and Appa’s shop was there—that was all I knew. I never asked Appa anything about Burma, when he came back to Pudur, and there was nothing that Appa would ever say. As far as I can remember, not once did he bring back something for us to play with from there...
7. Okpo, 1940
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India, Burma . . . Each seems so distant from the other now—one a tumultuous democracy, the other still a military morass. We live in an era that takes national borders as sacred boundaries, as if simply crossing over is an act replete with peril and potential. We also understand the cultures that these borders enclose as concoctions of a unique flavor or essence, as if these countries were packages stocked side by side on a grocery shelf...
8. When the War Came
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We were prosperous. We had good reputations. All kinds of people would come to the shop and ask for things in their own languages, and we would respond in those languages too. We talked to everyone, learned all kinds of things. We didn’t feel like strangers in that country. But then, over time, our relations with the Burmese people began to suffer...
9. Kovilpatti, 1946
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There is an invisible nation within the nation of modern India, one that will never rally under a common flag or celebrate the memory of a common heritage. I mean the multitudes of refugees scattered among the most crowded urban tenements and the loneliest corners of the countryside. Refugees from the cataclysmic tumult of the twentieth century...
10. A New Life at Home
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I felt bored and listless within a week of coming back to Pudur. I couldn’t just sit at home. But there was nowhere to pass the time other than the village bazaar. I had an uncle named Gnani Nadar who had a shop in the bazaar. Each day I would go and sit on the steps at the entrance to his shop, just to watch what was happening. This uncle always spoke warmly to me, but he never offered anything to eat or drink—not even a bit of palmyra fruit, not even water...
11. Victoria Studio, 1949
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There are photographs meant to capture some moment as it is. Others do something very different—they sketch a life yet to come. That’s what this portrait of Ayya and Paati must have been: a pair of figures mounted high upon a wall within every house they kept, calmly taking in the domestic struggles occurring below, reminding my grandparents of a comfort and peace that might still fall within their reach. An image not of a moment but of its longings...
12. Dealing Cloth in a Time of War
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Pudur was just a small village, part of the Ettaiyapuram zamindari estate.1 Because the zamindar himself had died, his mother looked after the affairs of the estate. She had an accountant responsible for collecting taxes from the people who lived there. Pudur’s lands belonged to the zamindar, not to the British government. Even when we bought land there in our own names, we had to pay a land tax to the zamindar’s people...
13. Dindigul, 1951
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Yes, Indian independence—something else from those years to ponder. But wait a minute. What did he just say? Ten days later? Could he be mistaken? This event that supposedly led an entire country to convulse with joy at the stroke of midnight, how could it have passed unnoticed by my grandfather for so long? This might be less puzzling if Ayya was in a distant and out-of-the- way place, beyond the reach of radios and newspapers...
14. A Foothold in Madurai
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Pots, plates, we had no such things when we went to Madurai. I had two veshtis and a couple of shirts and vests.1 Chellammal had two or three saris and blouses, the children too a couple of things to wear. Beyond this, we took little with us. Whatever we did have, we left behind in Pudur. Gurusamy’s family was already in Madurai, and when we arrived there, we planned to live and eat together, as a joint family...
15. Gopal Studio, 1953
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Ganesan and Rupavathi are wearing new clothes. Paati bought them for the Diwali festival just a few days back. The photographer has slipped a ring onto the boy’s finger and given the girl a handbag to hold. It’s very hot and bright under the studio lights, as the children wait for the man ducked under the cloth behind his camera...
16. A Shop of My Own
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Take a small grain of sand. Think of the mountain that it comes from. Slowly pushed along by rainwater, farther and farther down, until at last it reaches the sea. Some of that sand sometimes remains along the edge of a river. Take some of it. Think about how useful this sand can be, heaped up along both banks of that river...
17. Madurai Fruit Merchants Association, 1960
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In India, as elsewhere, the modern city is known as an engine of growth, a vehicle of social and personal transformation. Whether concrete spires or towering plumes of smoke, the city’s products are visible even from a distance. More difficult to see are the innumerable things that fuel these developments—an endless stream of resources drawn from hinterlands near and far, prey to omnivorous and often indiscriminate appetites...
18. Branches in Many Directions
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I can remember how I tormented Amma once for a pencil, back when I was studying in the second grade in Pudur. It was all because she had refused to buy me one. Pencils came from Japan in those days. They didn’t make such things in India, when the British still ruled the country. We each had slates and a black stick to write with, called a palappam...
19. Norwalk, 1974
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There are more than 20 million people of Indian descent living now beyond the bounds of the Indian subcontinent. In the colonial era, this diaspora followed the tracks of the British Empire. Indentured laborers worked plantations and mines in the Caribbean and South Africa. Traders pursued commerce in Singapore and East Africa...
20. Between Madurai and America
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I came from Pudur to Madurai in 1947. I’ve lived in this city ever since. We’ve rented so many houses here over the years. First, we lived on a small lane near Muni Street. We paid just ten rupees each month for that house. In 1953, we moved to Lakshmipuram and lived there for sixteen years, until Rupavathi died. “We’ve lost a daughter,” her mother kept saying. “Let’s clear out and find somewhere else to live.”...
21. Madurai, 1992
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Ayya and Paati, together with their children and grandchildren, landed in the mythical heart of modern life, that sweeping cloud of possibility that we call the middle class. It was in the 1990s that this social presence came into its own in India, when a liberalization of the Indian economy propelled a boom in the circulation of consumer goods and the rise of a population dedicated to having them...
22. What Comes Will Come
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Time keeps passing, quickly. I may not be around for much
longer. As I get older, small troubles of various kinds will come. Take
them lightly, and they will surely grow into bigger problems. And if
this happens, I will have to face what comes.
I’m ninety-four years old. Anything can happen at any time. And if it does, I can’t keep crying, “It’s come, it’s come!” What comes will come. This isn’t a matter of fate, as people often say—that’s just a superstition. We must experience what comes. That is all...
23. Oakland, 1997
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There is so much that my grandmother could have said and done to enrich this book, were she still here. It would have been hers, just as much as Ayya’s. Paati’s powers of description were extraordinary. Even a simple complaint about medicine could swell into an extravagant picture of tablets slipping down the gullet like grains of rice...
24. Burma, Once Again
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When I was a young child still in Pudur, Appa would often
go to Burma, while we stayed behind in that village. I didn’t know
anything about Burma at the time. I never thought that I would go
there myself. All I knew was that village.
I never wanted to go anywhere else. I couldn’t imagine a future, what kind of person I wanted to become. “In the future, I’m going to have this kind life for myself . . . I’ll do this . . . I’ll accomplish that . . .”—I never had dreams of this kind. And even if I did think of such things, who would make them happen for me?...
25. Okpo, 2002
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Ayya has been tense today, his voice erupting in frustration as we follow him through the town of Okpo. He can’t remember very much Burmese and needs our relatives here to query, translate, and explain. There was the fire that swept through the whole town in 1986. There are the many new buildings that came up afterward. And memory itself is an unreliable guide...
26. Giving and Taking
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was born in some small village, somewhere. I went to
Burma, never thinking that I’d come back to India. If the Second
World War hadn’t happened, I would have remained in Burma. I
would have lived as a Burmese man with other Burmese people.
Who knows, I might have even married a Burmese woman.
There was no one to teach me discipline in those days. Amma left us when I was a small boy. I was still young when Appa died. My brothers never told me firmly that I had to do one thing and not another. There was no one around to say such things to me. And even if they had been there, I would never have listened...
27. Listening to My Grandfather
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Some time ago, I had a dream about my grandfather. What happened was very simple. In the dream, I’m in Madurai again. I’m telling some people that I have just a little more work to do. Ayya is also listening. “I need to go to just two more villages,” I say. And then Ayya says, excitedly, “I’ve also been to those places!”...
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This book was born through the joint labors of an aging grandfather and his grandson, an anthropologist, bursting with curiosity about what a life such as that of his grandfather Ayya might mean, and for whom it might be written. Ayya in Tamil means “father”—an appellation that stuck to the protagonist of this story when his little grandson addressed him thus by mimicking his own father’s term for him. Thus, the title already hints that the voice of the grandson is not only that of the adult anthropologist but also that of the child...
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About the Authors
Page Count: 232
Illustrations: 17 b&w illus., 1 map
Publication Year: 2014