- A Small Place in the World
Anand Pandian and M. P. Mariappan
Indiana University Press
232 Pages; Print, $24.00
In the early 1930s, a boy named M. P. Mariappan, “born in some small village, somewhere” around 1919, traveled with his brothers Mutharasu and Gurusamy from the village of Pudur in Tirunelveli district Tamil Nadu, to a Burmese town called Okpo. To get to Okpo, they took a bullock cart to Pandalkudi; then, they traveled by horse carriage to Aruppukottai, took a bus to Madurai, and a train to Madras, before traveling by ship—ordinary class, for sixteen and a quarter rupees—to Rangoon.
Some eighty years later, Mariappan’s grandson, the Bronx-born anthropologist Anand Pandian, would board a plane from Maryland to Madurai, carrying Citrucel powder and Raisin Bran for a man who grew up eating hand-ground millet pounded into paste. Ayya’s Accounts records this intergenerational journey from bullock cart to airplane through an intimate “kind of accounting”: stories of “kodukkal-vaangal,” or give-and-take, between a family and its nations, a fruit-dealing grandfather and his story-dealing grandson, and the trades to which each has turned to support the lives and hopes of those living and those to come.
In Okpo, Mariappan worked in his father’s provisions store, wrapping Chinese and Javanese goods in English-language newspapers from New York. There, he internalized the values of “patience, thrift, luck, and cunning” that propelled him through a decade in Burma, a perilous return to India during World War II, and a career as a fruit merchant in Madurai, trading in limes from Dindigul, pineapples from Kodaikanal, and apples from Australia and the United States. Along the way, India gained independence, and in the spirit of Nehruvian nationalist developmentalism, Mariappan and his wife, Chellamal, dreamed that their eight children, too, would “do something important with their lives.”
Today, Mariappan is the patriarch of a sprawling, successful family with footholds around the world. The cabinet in his modest bungalow in Anna Nagar, Madurai, is full of unopened shirts and slippers from America, gifts brought by his far-flung children on too-brief visits home. Their itineraries abroad testify to the making of the diasporic “Indo-Anglo-American world” in the twentieth century. By that same token, they reveal the deeply cemented historical debts and legacies that belie the creation myths of a global India in the twenty first.
None feel these debts more keenly than Pandian, Mariappan’s eldest son’s eldest son. Ayya’s Accounts unfolds in twenty-seven chapters that alternate between Pandian’s narrative voice and his Ayya’s (“Ayya” means father in Tamil), translated from Tamil by Pandian himself. The book, thus reads both as a thematically-structured conversation (chapters like “Burma, Once Again” and “Okpo, 2002” recount the same event—Mariappan’s first and only return to Burma after having fled in 1941—from Mariappan’s and Pandian’s perspectives, respectively) and an anthropological commentary on one man’s life story.
Ayya’s Accounts takes up a tradition of South Asian American creative nonfiction that negotiates the inherited responsibilities of migration, diasporic belonging, and ethnic avowal, like Shailja Patel’s performance-text Migritude (2010) and the historical memoir, Leaving India: My Family’s Journey from [End Page 10] Five Villages to Five Continents (2009), in which Minal Hajratwala recounts stories of her ancestors who, like Mariappan, took “one step out of India” and “made the next possible” for generations to come.
There is also precedence for this kind of narrative experimentation within the field of American anthropology itself, which has long grappled with the ethics and epistemology of the encounter with the other—whether native subjects “elsewhere” or familiar ones “here.” I am not only referring to the genre-play of anthropologists like Zora Neale Hurston and Kirin Narayan, but also to works that specifically thematize and formally register the encounter between an anthropologist and an individual “informant” who is anything but. In Translated Woman: Crossing the Border with Esperanza’s Story (1993), Cuban-American anthropologist Ruth Behar explores the moral mutuality in her relationship with a...