Blog post by Kumar Ganesan
“Sundaram mama vandachu…yenge Sundaram mama chollu?”
“Sundaram mama has come…tell me where is he?” I screamed with delight as soon I entered my home back from my tuition class.
My mother was taken by surprise as to how I knew that Sundaram Mama was home. He was not anywhere in the living room, nor could one hear his voice. After enjoying mom’s kerai molagutal for lunch, he had insisted on taking an afternoon nap, something he usually avoided doing.
“Yepdi kandupidichai, mama vandade?”
“How did you know that mama is home?” asked my mother.
“Mama odu orange pai…tepoy mela…”
“Mama’s orange bag…on the tepoy” I said confidently, knowing for sure that that was an easy giveaway.
“Its not orange konde…it’s saffron as seen in India’s national flag” said a booming voice. It was Sundaram mama who came out of the bedroom in to the living room. Dressed in a white khadi kurta and an saffron khadi mundu, Sundaram mama looked every bit like Sri Sri Ravi Shankar…a spiritual guru whose photographs were plastered in our home. His long black hair could give any woman a complex. The luster of his mane was such, that he could have easily become a hair model.
But what completed his personality was his orange khadi bag, a kind of a shabnam bag that was apparently in rage during the 70s-80s. Almost every journalist worth his salt found debating the perils of emergency and the return of Gandhi raj would be seen having one. I was in my teens and too much into my very own world to have known about journalists and their shabnam bags, but for me this orange bag belonged to Sundaram Mama. It personified him and no one else. Also his pai…(what we all called a bag in Tamil) was a treasure-trove of gifts and the kind of things he pulled out of it was legendary.
At any given visit to our home he would pull out at least six varieties of prasadam each from a famous temple, followed by small packets of vibhudi and chandanam which would be his archanas for the good health of my mom, my dad’s promotion and the bright future of me and my brother. Once a year when he would arrive from his Sabrimala ritual he would have a bowl full of aravana payasam. Then of course would be the Tirupathi ladoo and the Wadakkanchery ney appam, which would come our way during the year.
His orange pai not only had prasadam and archanas of famous temples but little treats that delighted us to no end. Little packets of Kalkandu (Rock Sugar), orange mittai, the eternal childhood favourite of us kids of the 80s, and jeera goli, a kind of tangy digestive churan type goli that he would distribute after our meals. Apart from these there were things that effectively addressed emergencies. Stuff like Castor Oil, which would be given away whenever some one in the visiting family suffered from constipation, Kav Cheradu, a black thread blessed by local priests from our ancestral temples that protected children from the evil eye and packets of Poonal, (our sacred thread) just in case the modern household who were long done away with the scared thread needed to be seen at their traditional best during a religious function or an important ritual.
At any given time, his orange pai would be full of stuff that were meant to be distributed amongst the family he was visiting and his personal belongings were limited to a pair of mundus, kutras, underclothes and bathroom towels. His logic was simple. His average stay at any house did not exceed two days and two sets sufficed his requirements. He had the habit of washing his clothes and drying them every day, whether at the house of the friends or relatives he frequented, the temple ashrams where he stayed and even in trains that he took to explore the length and breadth of the country.
Sundaram mama was our National Geography and Fox Life Channel put together. He would describe the Ganga aarti in Benares in a manner that brought us up close and personal along the banks of Ganges while sitting in the courtyard of our house. Every visit I remember were filled with stories of people he met at various places, the nude sadhu at prayag…the arrogant Nambudiri at vadakkunnathan temple in Kerala, the foreigner in search of salvation at the Osho Ashram. On an average he would be travelling at least 6-8 months in a year and accompanying him faithfully would be his orange…sorry saffron Pai.
At one of his visits home, he narrated the tale of how a Frenchman was impressed with his take on dharma and moksha and gifted him a Hotwheel minature car, something that was akin to gold in our childhood. When I asked him where it was and if I could have it, he promptly pulled it out of his saffron pai and gave it to me. My mom reprimanded me for asking him for the toy and he said, “ I originally thought I will give it to Shanti, but will that day ever come? Konde you take it”. For the first time I felt a pain in his otherwise booming and energetic voice.
Long after mama left, I asked my mom about Shanti and she told me the story of mama’s life. Sundaram Mama was the eldest of my mother’s brothers who was married to Padma and the family lived in Erode. Mama at that time worked for a PSU Bank. Shanti was born just a few months after me, and that too after quite a few years of trying for a child. The wish for a child had seen mama and mami travelling from one temple to another along the length and breadth of India and their penance was finally rewarded in form of a daughter.
Mama and his family was happy and doing fine till one day after mama got back from his annual pilgrimage to Sabrimala. He declared that he had heard the Lord’s call to serve him and that he would have to leave everything and be at his feet at the temple. Padma Mami was shocked and very soon relatives were
summoned from both sides. My mom, and my other mamas tried to reason with Sundaram mama but he was adamant with his wish. Padma Mami’s brothers were annoyed that such an alliance was even proposed for their sister and blamed my mom for it. They then decided that Mami and Shanti would move with them to Palakad and that Mama will have to forget them forever.
Mama left Erode in 1974 and stayed at Shabrimalai for almost 6 years at a stretch. He used to drop postcards from there describing the lord, mama’s karma and end every letter asking for forgiveness from everyone. Then in the mid of 1984, he began his mission of travelling around the country moving from one temple to another in quest for answers to questions only he knew. He used to frequently visit my mom at least thrice a year, but his stay in our place never exceeded more than two days.
Time passed by, I grew up, got married and settled down abroad and in about two years from the time I moved out, my mom gave me the news of Shanti’s wedding in Mumbai. Her mama found an eligible mate for her from Mumbai who worked for a foreign bank. Their only wish was that the wedding happened in Mumbai. For Mami and her brothers this was a good deal since most of their relatives too could travel to Mumbai conveniently than reaching Palakad. I asked my mom whether Sundaram Mama knew and she answered in negative.
I asked for the whereabouts of Sundaram Mama and she told me that he was now old and confined mostly to Sabrimala. His health did not permit him to travel. I had asked my mom for his number, saying that I longed to speak to him. She grudgingly obliged and reminded me, “Don’t say a word on Shanti’s wedding, I don’t want problems from Padma mami or for that matter Shanti herself. They are very bitter about Sundaram and will never forgive him.”
I called mama that very night. We spoke for barely 10 minutes. His voice was tiring at the other end. I couldn’t help but tell him about his daughter’s wedding in Mumbai. He was happy to hear that, his voice choked as he spoke. He instructed me to be there and then call him to describe how it all went. I could sense his predicament and assured him that I will do so.
Shanti’s wedding took place at the Kocchu Guruvayur Temple hall in Matunga. Most members of our family attended it and everyone had a great time. Being from the bride’s side it was my duty to ensure that everyone was well fed. I enjoyed serving people at the saddi and while I was busy at my role I heard a feeble voice that said,
“Inge elai onaga porudu…yaar adu konjum rasam tarengala?”
“ The banana leaf will dry up soon, will someone kindly pour some rasam?”
I looked at the man. Aged face, sunken cheeks, long tresses of grey hair. Intuitively I reached to him with a bucket of rasam and poured over the rice on his leaf. He asked for some rasam to be poured in his hand and drank it with relish and went on to finish his meal”.
That evening I told my mom that Sundaram mama had come for the marriage and had lunch. She was shocked and dismissed my claim as a figment of my imagination. “If he was there someone amongst us would have recognized him, Don’t start your tales here” she rebuked. But I insisted that I was speaking the truth.
“Evalo naal ka apram yepdi kandupidchay Sundaram mama ve?”
“After so many years, how did you recognize Sundaram Mama?” she asked.
“Mama odu Orange Pai”
“Mama’s Orange bag”, said I.
If only he corrected me then saying that it was saffron and not orange.