Home Memoirs Leaving Karachi – III

Leaving Karachi – III

Leaving Karachi – III
Illustration by Ansellia Kulikku

Narayan missed his father, who had stayed behind in Karachi and had no way to send word to his family. He heard from his uncle that the Japanese had not surrendered. In Europe, however, the Soviets had defeated the German troops and littered Stalingrad with corpses. It was only a matter of time.

By Sheila Sundar

The southern village of Kallidaikurchi was cushioned by family. After arriving from Karachi, Narayan, his mother, his two sisters, and his brother moved into his mother’s uncle’s house. Like all Brahmin homes, theirs was in the shadow of the village temple. Narayan would wake to the movement of Brahmin families tending to the altars. He was not the eldest cousin, but he was the eldest male, which both extended and truncated his adolescence, freeing him from the domestic or financial responsibility of adulthood but allowing him its full liberty. At night, he sat alone at his Grandmother Meenakshi Patti’s feet, a coveted place that only he was ever granted.

His family enrolled him in a Tamil-medium school, but the curved onslaught of letters made him dizzy. Some mornings he skipped school entirely, walking to the river or the surrounding rice paddies to watch farmers pound at the dirt, the men’s backs slick as though they’d been oiled.

One afternoon, he visited his ancestral village of Adaichani, 10 kilometers north of Kallidaikurchi. Similar to Kallidaikurchi, it had a landscape of temple flanked by its agraharam—the Brahmin quarter of a South Indian village—and the village boundaries marked by its rice paddies. Returning from the village cricket field, past the rice paddies, he saw that the men kept earthen vessels of water beside them as they worked. The farmers didn’t acknowledge him as he pushed past the brush that separated the paddy fields from the main road. “I’m thirsty,” he told a group of men. They looked at each other wordlessly, but didn’t offer him a drink. “I’d like some water,” he repeated. He picked up the vessel, holding the cool rim an inch from his lips and pouring the water down his throat.

The following night, back in Kallidaikurchi, he told his grandmother about the drink of water.

She sat up, agitated in a way he had never seen. “You should not have done that.”

“I was hot,” he said. “And they kept it in a vessel.” At home they rarely drank their water chilled, as the ice chest was used for storing milk and cream. But water from the vessel, even resting on the hot earth, was better than anything he could have retrieved from the chest.

“You shouldn’t touch their water,” she said.

“He only seemed bothered because he didn’t want to share his water.”

“Then that is reason alone.”


Meenakshi Patti was normally generous with knowledge and family lore. Like the fire lit outside the temple, her store of information seemed to grow the more she fed it with stories told to her eldest grandson. Shortly after their arrival, he had touched the folds of her belly and asked why it sagged in this way. She had explained the nine pregnancies it had carried and the pain of pushing each child from her body. On the subject of the water she simply said, “Leave people to their customs.”

Narayan’s pride over the interaction was tinged with shame. The men did not have the authority to refuse him their water. In the village, without the direct authorial presence of the British, his family and the agraharam’s other Brahmin residents stood in their place, exercising the same full authority the British did when they confined him to the front row of the theater and sent his family away from their home.

Life in the agraharam was deeply ritualistic. Two rows of houses, occupied by Brahmin families, faced the temple. Women woke in the morning to mix cow dung and water to spray outside the houses and decorate the front steps with kolam. On certain days, Narayan would watch the temple deity being pulled through the village by a chariot, so the people of the agraharam could pay homage to it with coconuts and flowers. Prayers were interrupted only for one occasion; when a person died in any house facing the street, all temple worship was postponed until the body was removed.

After morning prayers, poor Brahmin boys from the village would go door-to-door, cupping a small vessel that they filled with boiled rice from each of the agraharam’s residents. Each family would drop a few spoons of cooked rice into their vessels, until the mound of grains peered over the top.

“Why do we feed them?” Narayan asked his aunt.

She ignored him. She was less talkative than Meenakshi Patti, consumed by service to home and temple, which left little room for analysis and discussion. She had swept the front step clean and applied the decorative kolam outside the front door. She studied it for any imperfections, then returned to the house.

“Why do we feed them?” Narayan asked his grandmother that night.

“It’s our duty,” she said. “It’s what Brahmins do.”

But there were others in the village who did not approach the door. A man his father’s age would deliver baskets of rice each week, harvested in the village paddy field. On those mornings, as Narayan’s sister Kamala retrieved the rice from the man’s basket, their aunt would untie a few paise from the knot in her sari and drop them to the ground. He had witnessed a similar scene during his visit to Adaichani, confirming that the practice was not limited to his home, but stretched at least the ten kilometers between villages. Narayan watched the coins rattle and settle as his aunt walked inside. Sometimes they would fall in a neat pile at his feet, and other times they would roll unpredictably in divergent directions, a final gesture of dismissal as his aunt turned away.

“She throws the money,” Narayan told Meenakshi Paati. The memory would stay with him, of poor Brahmin boys collecting their alms while other men’s pay was thrown into the dirt, revealing the same indifference with which his grandfather spit the juice from his betel nut, grinding the red splatter into the earth with his walking stick.

“It isn’t kind,” his grandmother allowed. “But we have our customs.”


The news reports were slow, and Narayan missed the consistency with which BBC Radio and his father’s visits with friends provided a stream of updates on the war. More simply, he missed his father, who had stayed behind in Karachi and had no way to send word to his family. Narayan heard from his uncle that the Japanese had not surrendered. In Europe, however, the Soviets had defeated the German troops and littered Stalingrad with corpses. It was only a matter of time.

In the mornings, when his grandfather was home, the house was quiet, even as it shook with the urgency of tending to his needs. Some mornings, Meenakshi Paati packed a box of food for her husband, and there was a relief in knowing that he would be gone for the night. She would tuck inside the box a stack of chapattis, fresh fruit, jars of pickle, and heavy tubs of cream and yogurt. His grandfather sat on the floor while hands and feet swirled about him. His dhoti was spotless, tied Panjakacham-style, the folds crisp and cradling his legs. He was preoccupied with his betel nut, sitting cross-legged on the floor with a silver box containing leaves. He would pull out a single leaf, rub a towel against it to remove any excess moisture, and tuck in the layer of lime, then betel nuts, then tobacco. His fingers rolled the leaf neatly and deftly, barely looking up as Meenakshi’s basket reached its capacity.

He rode a horse-drawn carriage, and his regal bearing made Narayan proud. He had never considered the work his grandfather did, but as he watched his paati slide the box of food beside him and the driver crack the whip, he considered the magnitude of his grandfather’s stature in this hot and limited town.

Despite the grandeur of the carriage, Narayan soon learned that it never went far. According to his cousin, their grandfather kept a small house, just beyond the Brahmin enclave of the village.

“What does he do there?” Narayan asked.

“He has a woman,” his cousin said. But he didn’t explain the purpose of this woman, what they did together that required an overnight stay or necessitated a basket of food. It was years before Narayan traced his grandfather’s relationship back to the roots of the tradition, in which Brahmin men had license to pursue relationships on their own terms with women outside the agraharam.

The woman’s name was Vellamma. Years later, at his funeral, she discreetly joined the procession, branched off to the river bed, shaved her head, and returned home as a widow.

Meenakshi Patti had expected Vellamma to attend the funeral. She had known of their relationship, sanctioned his nights in Vellamma’s home, and packed the boxes of food for the children that Vellamma and her husband made together. After her death, Narayan and his cousin traveled to her village and sat on the floor across from an aunt and two cousins, taking in the immensity of the social divide along with the single shared force in their family lives. He had witnessed his grandmother’s powerlessness against his grandfather’s demands, and he could scarcely imagine the constraints placed on Vellamma.

Years later, when Karachi and Kallidaikurchi were distant memories, Narayan would reflect on what he learned as he watched the British move through his city and his grandfather’s carriage pull away from the agraharam. Power was not contained in a single act, and demonstrations of it were often unremarkable. It was the way one lifted a finger, stood, and demanded something wordlessly and with silent expectation. (Continues)


Sheila Sundar is currently at work on her first novel, set in South India in the 1960s. Her writing has appeared in The Rumpus, The New York Times, The Bookends Review, and elsewhere.

Courtesy: Guernica, an online magazine on global arts and politics.

Click here for Part-I, Part-II