the lawyer writer

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Sunday, May 01, 2005


Sivram is here. Sivram is my grandfather's youngest brother, about 73, and an unstoppable talker. He's currently telling stories about how his father's father was murdered and then his father was so disgusted by the behavior of his father's uncles, that he just...well, I'm not sure who we're talking about. The geneology is somewhat dizzying back there. But it's nice to hear him talk.

When my grandfather turned 81, we had an enormous religious ceremony in Madras to signify him seeing his 1000th moon. That meant lots and lots of family--and you can't call them "uncle" and "auntie" either. Chittapa means mother's younger brother; Chitti means mother's younger brother; Periamma means mother's older sister, Periappa means mother's older brother, and it just goes on and on and on. The effort it took to keep all the names and titles straight was staggering, because my grandfather had eight brothers and my grandmother had six sisters and a brother and they all had plenty of kids.

I soon realized that when it came to my grandfather's generation, I spent all my time with the grandfathers but not the grandmothers. The grandmothers gossiped and ran the ceremony and were concerned about my impending marriage and ancestry. All fun, but the grandfathers got to hang out on the porch and get into heated arguments about philosophy and science and lectured me silly when I asked smart-mouth questions. Up until then, I always thought that there was this big thick line between my relatives in India and my relatives from elsewhere, but talking to my grandfathers, I realized there was a lot I didn't know.

Sivram--firebrand, inventor, hellraiser--got into fights and married an American in the 1950's. Along the way he got his PhD in chemistry (on scholarship) and became a Professor Emeritus at some university in Nebraska. Now retired, he lives in a mobile home and conducts scientific experiments in his den and goes on safari. Khanna didn't live long enough to get married, but if he had, he would have married Meenaskshi in an arranged marriage. Since he died, she married Vichu, the youngest, instead. He got a PhD in chemistry and moved his family to Germany, where he still lives. Cheenu was philosophical, stubborn and independent. He married a German woman--also in the 1950's--and went to live in Louisiana, where he became a professor of microbiology. Cheenu liked to get his brothers all stirred up and fighting, and then would sit back like some kind of satisfied, troublemaking Buddha. Jairam refused to go through with his arranged marriage and married a girl he loved instead--a girl who, incidentally, was one of his students at the university he taught at. He got kicked out of the family for a while for that.

And Doray? Doray, my grandfather, had no higher degrees. He worked in the railroad and put all of his younger brothers through college and their PhD's, watching them get sophisticated and adventuresome and settle all over the world. My grandfather was the head of the family--not just his own, with my grandmother, but of the families of his brothers. He was strict and hardy and funny as hell, the kind of guy who, when he got knocked down by a scooter while walking to the store, dusted himself off and kept walking. (He was 78 at the time). He believed in simplicity and duty; he was the one who taught me to do right by your family, no matter what.

As he talks, it seems clear that Sivram Chittappa still likes to think of himself as a devilish young man. Though not all my grandfathers are around anymore, listening to his stories makes me really realize the hubris of youth. We think we invented adventure and and rebellion and idealism, but it's actually been in our blood for a long time...


Anonymous Ollie said...

Yes, but was their hair blue ?

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Anonymous Terry Jacks said...

Not ALL my grandfathers?
Just how many do you have ?
Great reading!!

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