My Tribute To S.K.Iyer

23 years ago, my grand father – S. Krishnaswamy Iyer – passed away. It was towards the end of March 1985. My 10th grade Board Exams were in full-swing. He died on the eve of my Science exam. For some strange reason, that’s how I’ll always remember him.

My Math exam was over in the morning & thatha (grandpa) was “quizzing” me out to see if I had any chances of getting 110 out of 100 (yeah, you read that right). No, I had made a mistake & could only score 97 (bang on). “Why do you make so many mistakes?” he wondered. “I just made 1!” I bristled. “That’s one too many” he retorted. He was of the firm opinion that if only I tried harder, I’ll inherit Albert Einstein’s crown πŸ™‚ Much to his grief, I had too many new-fangled “artsy-fartsy” interests.

He was our maternal grandpa. We called him “Madurai Thatha” to differentiate him from our paternal grandpa Venkatarama Iyer (“Arcot Thatha”). We lived in Thanjavur at that time. Madurai Thatha & Patti (grandma) had “immigrated” to Thanjavur to be close to us & they visited often.

Patti was a fun-loving, adventurous, happy go-lucky woman who loved the unknown. Thatha was a tight-lipped, disciplined, highly introverted man & was deeply suspicious of anything new. Patti broke into songs extempore, often making them up on the fly. Once in a blue moon, thatha sang devotional songs exclusively to Lord Shiva. Patti gossiped, cracked jokes & was very popular. Thatha was intense and – well, dreaded or avoided.

An unlikely couple, they were deeply attached to each other & shared a few traits: bold as brass & tough as nails. They thought only sissified gentry whined about pain. To this day, in our family, pain-bearing is practiced as an art form. Mom had a uterine biopsy done – without anaesthesia. I hardly ever take novocaine for dental procedures. If you curl your toes & arch your back in a certain way resolutely, most pains become bearable.

See, my maternal grandparents needed all the pain-bearing capacity they could muster. They came from poor, hard-scrabble families & worked very hard to earn a living. Sometimes, they had to go without food – so that their 4 children could eat. This is all the more sad because my grandpa was a Magistrate – not a manual laborer who had to eke out a living. Surmounting all these odds, they were very happy. Probably because of this early struggle – my mother always makes enough food for a small army. Even a scintilla of doubt on whether she’ll run out of food – is unbearable for her.

Thatha looked very different from the other Brahmin men in Thanjavur. He had a translucent peaches & cream complexion, gray eyes, an almost M.C.Escher-ish huge forehead (“sun-shade” forehead – I have a slightly abridged version, BTW), a long & narrow face (“Tumbler” face – I have it too!) & a huge nose roughly the size & shape of Saudi Arabia (Good grief! I have it too). In the pre-independence days, people called him “The White Indian”. He hailed from Calicut, Kerala – that’s where Vasco da Gama landed. I’ve read that they “really admired” Malayali women. You put 2 & 2 together πŸ˜‰ Some day, I’ll look for my “Lisbon Cousins”! My mother will have conniption fits if she reads this, though.

He was an honest magistrate. Even in those days, honesty didn’t make much business sense. He was a stickler for discipline & took a principled stance on everything. He made no exceptions & expected none. If someone made a mistake, however small, the proscribed action will be taken. He was a walking rule-book. He was affectionately & fearfully given the moniker, “Gedudpidi Krishnaswamy” (Rigorous Krishnaswamy). Nothing & nobody scared him. Not even attempts made on his life.

I wonder if Gedupidi (as he was called) knew the meaning of fear. As far as I’ve heard, he was fearless. To him, all were equal before the eyes of the law. Some of his judgments crippled the local mafia – and for the next few weeks, he needed a body-guard. For hit-men with guns, knives & sickles had been dispatched to “take care” of him & settle accounts.

Of course, piddly things like attempts on his life only strengthened his resolve. In the 1940s, there was a severe short-supply of rice & wheat. The government ruled that nobody could invite more than 50 guests to their wedding party. A scion of Annamalai Chettiar (whose family still owns most of Chennai!) got married – Thatha & his team counted the number of used dinner plates in the venue! And coolly arrested Chettiar – probably one of the richest men in India at that time – and threw him behind bars, for flouting the law. To his full credit, Chettiar didn’t resist his arrest & lauded my thatha for his honesty.

Reading “The Hindu” out loud was thatha’s prescription for attaining fluency & command of English. He’ll call me everyday & ask me to read the headlines to him – Oh, I was fuming. How utterly dorky. And I’ve never had problems with English. (Hindi though was a different matter.) The Hindu. And oh, “Wren & Martin” for grammar. My father, a professor of English who specialized in ELT (English Language Teaching) looked askance at Wren & Martin, an outdated book. “Grammarian’s Funeral!” – he used to mumble.

“What is this?” grumbled thatha, when he looked at my paint box. “Art!! Painting never pays the bills. Why don’t you read “Jane Eyre”?” My father pounced on him – “Mama (Father-in-law), Priya already reads more than what’s good for her. She’s read Jane Eyre already! I don’t want her to be a mad scientist or an absent-minded professor”. Thatha looked at his son-in-law sadly – “You are a professor, so you know best. This child here (Child! I was 10 at that time) has more capacity. We can push her more”. Dad scowled & muttered – “For Christ’s sake! Can’t my daughter dabble with art? She’s way too geeky already”. I was deeply saddened – nobody thought I was kewl.

Thatha used to drive us all mad with his notions on punctuality. If he had to catch a train at 6 PM, he’ll be at the station at 4 PM! Once our doctor made the grave mistake of giving thatha an appointment at 7 AM. In those days, doctors converted the front-room of their house to a clinic. What do you know, thatha arrived promptly at 5 AM πŸ™‚ The doctor had to wake up, let his “guest” in & go back to bed, grumbling all the time. Thatha didn’t mind waiting for 2 hours for an appointment. But going late! That would be totally unthinkable. Worse than death.

He had modern views on women’s emancipation. He insisted on all his daughters getting at least a Master’s degree – this in the 1950s. He also ensured that they had a job – nay, career! None of them quit their jobs to get married or have kids. In the 1930s (when patti became a blushing bride), women seldom spoke to men or made eye contact with them. And thatha’s many male friends & colleagues paid visits everyday. Thatha hated women who were shrinking violets. Much to his relief, patti conducted herself with the decorum befitting a magistrate’s wife. She had cleared 8th grade – an amazing feat in those days – and could hold her own among his male friends & chat intelligently on various topics.

Thatha insisted on discipline & self-control. Alien topics for my brother πŸ˜‰ Oh Lord, how he tested thatha’s patience. My brother never used the stairs to get to the next floor, if he could help it. There was always an opportune pipe, a sun-shade, a tree, a window – a foot-hold of some sort. I think he finally mastered the art of using the stairs when he was well on his 30s – when lumbar pain descended, that is. He was the only person that could make thatha tear his hair, gesticulate wildly & holler. Well, my brother had that effect on everyone.

“Why do you allow him to misbehave?” – thatha will ask mom, foaming with anger. Allow! What did he mean – its not like my brother was begging my mom for permission! My brother made a face at thatha & chanted “Thatha, Kotha, Growth of a plant!”. It was just a nonsense phrase, but thatha’s face turned purple whenever he heard that refrain.

And now, here was my brother in the garden. He was carving on our Mango tree – “S.K. Iyer, a good soul passed away today”. I had my science exam the next day.

I was 15 years old. I’d never seen anyone – leave alone a family member – die before my eyes. Tender mercies – I won’t describe how he died or how we ascertained he was no more. One of his admirers brought a garland for his funeral – and the cloying smell of flowers – especially roses filled the air. It took me 6 months to come to terms with flowers, particularly roses.


  1. Quote

    Priya..I went through all emotions while reading this. You have an excellent narrative skills. May be you should write a book ( and mention my name in the foreword πŸ™‚


  2. Quote

    Vamsi – Thanks for your comment & kind words.

    If I do write a book, why just stop with the foreword – I’ll also mention you in the afterword, table of contents & bibliography sections πŸ™‚ For you have to be the publisher πŸ˜€

  3. Quote
    Sridhar N.K said February 8, 2008, 11:37 am:


    The piece evokes lot of emotions (not akin to a tear-jerker, but in a fun way). It also makes me think of my grand parents. To this day I remember and recant events and stories of my Patti being a free-spirited person and for her culinary skills (unmatched in my mind and tongue) and my thatha for his discipline and courage. I was at a similar age (16) when I lost my Patti. Of course, you would have been 30 by then πŸ™‚

    Would be interesting to know what made you write this now?

  4. Quote

    NK – Thanks for your comment.

    I was 30 when you were 16?? Hey – you are 2 years older than me, remember that, old man πŸ˜‰

    Now that we’ve moved into our new flat, I was going thru the things kept in storage so far. Among them was my thatha’s Manai – a raised plank where he sat for Sandhya Vandhanam. I wanted something that belonged to him, so I kept that & his writing table. And oh, a tin box where he kept mantles for lamps. No one would know what a mantle is these days πŸ™‚ I haven’t seen one either, but it seems to be some spare part of kerosene lamps.

    Perhaps seeing all that, made me write this post? Sort of a cathartic release I guess.

  5. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said February 8, 2008, 12:07 pm:

    Nice post Priya. It is an eclectic mix of emotions. And as NK says, it tugs at the my own emotions for my grand parents.

  6. Quote

    Sukumar – Thanks for your comment.

    One of these days, you should write about what a gourmet your grandpa Ramiah Shastri was. That would be an interesting read.

  7. Quote

    Priya I really dont have words to say….But a great write up…

    But on the lighter …I agree with Vamsi that u need to write a book…(I had raised this issue inCh1 and u promised to write one ;))

  8. Quote

    Karthik – Thanks for your comment & kind words.

    I promised to write a book?! What have I done? πŸ™ Ok, will an “address book” count? Mine’s pretty full as it is, zo..perhaps we can publish it?

    Just kidding πŸ™‚

  9. Quote

    Excellent piece of writing, makes everyone remember their favorite thatha or patti. I also second Vamsi’s and karthik’s thought, i really felt like reading a book. But i think u should write a lot of short stories and compile it into one book, we are open if you want share your royalty money:-)

  10. Quote
    Ramesh Ramaswamy said February 8, 2008, 7:26 pm:


    Nice post. Some places I felt like I was watching malgudi days πŸ™‚ Your writing style is awesome but I noticed a typo!! How could you be 15 in year 1984? Did you meant 51 πŸ™‚ πŸ™‚

    – Ramesh

  11. Quote

    Sujatha – Thanks for your comment.

    Yeah, publishing my short stories will be a good idea. No, sharing royalty $$ will be a bad idea πŸ˜‰

  12. Quote

    Ramesh – Thanks for your comment.

    51 in 1984?? Thank God, you didn’t say I was 51 in 1984 BC. With friends like you….I don’t need enemies πŸ˜€

    Just kidding πŸ˜€

  13. Quote

    Priya – What a nostalgic post. Thatha and patti always evoke such wonderful memories. I too have so many stories of them. In fact I had written one in my blog.

    Great piece of writing.

  14. Quote

    Archana – Thanks for your comment & kind words.

    Yes, thatha & patti always have a special place in our hearts. I’ve stopped going to the “Chitra Festival” in Madurai after my patti died. She went to that festival every year, but never got bored. We had more fun watching her unadulterated joy, than in watching the proceedings of the festival.

    Somehow, even if I go to the festival now, it won’t be the same again.

  15. Quote

    Nice nostalgic piece Priya. As many have said, it certainly brings back memories of my childhood and times with my grand parents.

    Even now, whenever I visit Chennai, my maternal grand mother who is 85 years old, never misses an opportunity to make Kozhukattai for me. At a young age, due to a botched operation, my grandmother lost the ability to stretch all the fingers in one of her hands. What amazes me to this day is the fact that I have never seen her complain about it once nor has she used that as an excuse to not be able to perform any task. My maternal grand father instilled the concept of discipline in us though in a gentle way.

    There you go, you got me started on this nostalgia trip.


  16. Quote

    Ganesh – Thanks for your comment.

    Your grandmom must be an amazing person. I like people who move on cheerfully, regardless of the obstacles they face. It takes a lot of character & courage to do what she does.

  17. Quote

    Brilliant Post Priya. Makes me feel sad that both my thatha’s passed away before i was born and i never had an opportunity to know them.
    Excellently narrated. I dont want my name in the foreword of the book which i hope u will write. just give me an autographed copy!! πŸ˜‰

  18. Quote

    Revathi – Thanks for your comment.

    Sure, I’ll autograph as many copies as you want – since that means you’ll actually buy my book πŸ˜€ Oh, happiness πŸ˜€

  19. Quote

    Hi – Nice post about Thatha. Loved it! I felt bad when I read this post that I have not been with Thatha for long. I was too young to know about him.

    Why dont you write about Patti – it’s her b’day on 20th March (right???)? Nevertheless, again a HILARILOG from you.

  20. Quote

    Rupi – thanks for your comment.

    Yeah, yeah, yeah – you are too young & I’m too old. Rub it in!

    I’m very poor in remembering birthdays, anniversaries etc – I can barely remember my own. So, if you say patti was born on March 20 – I’ll take your word for it πŸ™‚ Thanks for your suggestion. Let me put my thinking cap on & see what I can write about patti. More like, how to make that likeable rogue of a woman sound dignified & grandma-like πŸ˜€

  21. Quote

    No offence meant, I was in my kindergarten when he passed away… As chitha says we are always “X YEARS YOUNG”.

    Yepp write about Patti, she deserves an applaud for her courage, and yes it’s her b’day is on 03/20.

  22. Quote

    Rupi – Hmm. You have a point. I can pretend to feel young πŸ˜‰ Not that I’ll fool anyone πŸ˜†

  23. Quote

    Very touching post priya.. Makes me recall, how my grandfather (still living) often used to tell his sufferings on how he struggled to save money to raise his children.. my patti, died when my father was studying 7th, and after that my grandfather did not marry again.. he raised his two daughters and sent the only son to diploma in civil, where he failed his first year.. (its my father πŸ™‚ ).. my grandfather got angry, and put him in to strenous work of digging well in our farm which he undertook at that time.. my grandfather’s sister, was more affectionate towards my father, and on seeing his palms reddened, vowed to my grandfather that if he did not send my father to studies, she will do it on her own.. then he gave in and again joined my father in Diploma first year, and after that, my father completed his studies successfully..

    Priya.. your grandfather’s honesty is what i have heard of many of the brahmins.. from your description, i recall our anniyan hero..
    Can i conclude that the older generation (particularly the brahmins) were honest, straightforward, religious, and afraid to do mistake?

    Its really a qualified subject to study, why & how, there was so much of difference when compared with the present generation..

    Three weeks before, i visited a slum area, along with a brahmin friend.. (he is very liberal & went there to visit his painter’s house..) .. there we found there was some problem in managing temple funds, and the middle aged women, pured in all their anguish to my friend.. I giving what they said as it is.. “Etha irunthaalum, oru nyaya dharmam venangala?.. avanga panra aniyayatha, antha aatha paathukuva”.. its my practical experience, how even an illiterate amply speaks out, and questions when some thing wrong happened..
    What happened to the present generation, who is remaining as just a witness to so much of injustices, by their side?

    Definitely, what your thatha possessed was the noblest qualities, that we should have inherited in right spirit.. where we failed? how we afforded to lose all these values? And why did not we learn all those, considering that most of the people were honest 50 years before?

    (sorry… i am becoming emotional.. )

  24. Quote

    Senthil – Thanks for your comment & kind words.

    I’m glad that your father’s aunt had the insight to insist on him getting an education. She sounds like a wonderful person.

    My grandpa reminds you of Anniyan? Wait till you meet me then – I’m Anniyan Squared πŸ˜€ My legs ache from constantly standing up for the law & the truth πŸ˜‰

    Please don’t conclude that all brahmins were honest like my grandfather. I’ve met many upright people from all castes & I’ve met many crooks that were brahmins. Please note that many upper caste people were siding with the British at that time, since they gained financially thru them.

    Yes, things have gone to the dogs, where law & order is concerned. People don’t understand that they have duties – They only think about rights. But in other spheres – such as economic prosperity, awareness, human rights, creativity, education, healthcare – we have improved considerably. We are certainly not where we should be, but we are better off than before.

    We were slumbering for 1000 years. Things have to get worse before they get better. Since we are in a state of severe flux, there are many negative things happening. And not all change is negative.

    On my part, I’ve picked a few battles. I’m trying to do my bit – I’m not changing the world, but I try to make a positive difference to a few lives. It at least reduces my negativity about the whole blooming state of the country.

    So, all considered, I don’t think things were beautiful then & have become very ugly now. 2008 will be the “good old days” in 2028 πŸ™‚

  25. Quote

    Thanks priya.. I have a small request.. Will it be possible for you to trace your hereditary to atleast some 3 levels before.. ie, atleast up to your grandfather’s grandfather πŸ™‚ .. what were they?

    Priya.. i wish you to be anniyan for Dharma & truth.. (some crooked people will enact a foolish law & later abolish it and do you want to stand by that πŸ™‚ .. i will support only those laws that’s not contradictory with dharma )

    I just want to put my alternate views over some points you wrote.. I am afraid, that i may start another comment war πŸ™‚ ..

    /** Please don’t conclude that all brahmins were honest like my grandfather. **/
    As far as i have seen & heard from many sources including my father & grandfather, many brahmins were harsh, rigid.. But their honesty can never be suspected.. probably, a few can be like this, that too the people of this or earlier generation only.

    /** We were slumbering for 1000 years. **/

    Please read about “The Forgotten Empire” .. (
    This was one of the richest empires of the world during 12th century.. the vijayanagara capital extended up to around 450 KMs..
    We were well off, till conquest of britishers..

  26. Quote
    Ravindran Chellappa said February 14, 2008, 3:32 am:

    A real moving post!! I was lost in my thoughts, recollecting how I had a nice time with my maternal grandfather (He passed away when I was 15 years or so!)

  27. Quote

    Ravindran – Thanks for your comment & kind words.

    Yes, grandparents are rather irreplaceable, aren’t they?

  28. Quote
    Ravindran Chellappa said February 14, 2008, 6:47 am:

    True, nothing can replace them!!

  29. Quote
    Ravindran Chellappa said February 14, 2008, 6:47 am:

    True, nothing / none can replace them!!

  30. Quote

    Priya.. Will it be possible to just rewind to few decades more, atleast up to your grandfather’s grandfather?

    What were they? what was their profession? I feel, knowing that data, will reveal, the true picture of the society in the past century ..

    since your thatha was so straight forward, honest, and disciplined, i believe, he should have inherited all these traits from his parents, and so on.. This is possible because of the daily rituals that brahmins followed.. and since this should have been same for all other brahmin families, most of them should have been straight forward, honest, dedicated just like your grandfather.. In Kalam’s Wings of Fire, he would describe how his brahmin teacher inspired him..

    Brahmins might be accused for rigidness, harshness, superior complex.. But their conviction, honesty, fear to do wrong, upholding truth can never be doubted..
    I am really surprised, why you were defaming your own community, just for the sake of that idiotic periyar..

  31. Quote

    Senthil – Periyar is unconnected to this post, so I don’t want to get dragged into that – yet again.

    I’m a brahmin, so I’m supposed to support every brahmin??? What kind of logic is that? And here I was, thinking we should judge people by their action, not by their caste! But you seem to have different thoughts.

    Don’t you think I know better about my relatives than you? You don’t even know their names! You have no idea what they did. Yet, you have decided I’m biased because of Periyar. Perhaps you think you know best. Is that your superiority complex – the ones you accuse intellectuals of having?

    So now, goodness is also transmitted thru genes. How nice. Just call me when you isolate that “brahmin” gene πŸ˜€ Brahmins are honest, uphold truth etc – so, why don’t you love Nehru? He’s a brahmin & hence, should be a paragon of virtue.

    Let me love Nathuram Godse – he killed Gandhi, but who cares? Not you. He was a brahmin, so you think I should support him πŸ˜‰

    I’ll respond to your next comment if its relevant to my post.

  32. Quote

    Priya.. i made my comment on the good will and sacrifice that i saw in many of the brahmins that i came across.. if there is one godse or nehru, there are thousand good people like subramanya bharathi, rajaji, va.u.chidambaram, subramanya siva, tilak, etc, who were all forward thinking and socially conscious..

    Actually, i am very inspired by your description of your thatha.. i wish not to drag that in to discussion here.. if your thatha is alive today, i could have come and met him, by this time πŸ™‚

    (when scientist could isolate “God” gene, is brahmin gene that far away? LOL πŸ™‚ )

  33. Quote


    “Brahmins might be accused for rigidness, harshness, superior complex” These are individual qualities and in good old days, when only brahmins were well-read, went to temples and had all the privilages, these kinda rumours have spread bcoz of envy!!! These are old time rumors, please dont carry these anymore.

    “But their conviction, honesty, fear to do wrong, upholding truth can never be doubted” – Again sorry, not all Brahmins are good.

    A man ditched his 12 day old just born son and his well-read, caring wife just for the sake of dowry. His wife was is her mom’s place for delivery & she was jobless, lived of her parents till she found a job! This man (???) never feared of doing this SINFUL, heartless act…. What would you call him? He is also a BRAHMIN!

    There are good & bad in everything. Do you conclude that all the Brahmins have “superiority complex”(guess there is no such term; “feeling superior” will do)? I have seen people holding top positions being very unassuming/honest and humble.

    To me, our qualities are not inherited, they are neither imbibed in the way we are brought up; depends on us and how do we want to be.

  34. Quote

    Rupika – Please save your breath. Senthil will only cause you more anguish by telling you that “For every such scumbag, there are 1000 more Tilaks”. You can’t reason with people who are unwilling to listen.

    You & me, we’ve lived in agraharams & our families teem with brahmins. But Senthil thinks he knows more about brahmins than us – because he’s read a book & stuff. Oh, he also knows that some great people are/were brahmins πŸ˜‰ Though when I checked last month, V.O.Chidambaram “Pillai” was not a brahmin. You think that changed in Feb 2008? Oh, Whatta fun, huh πŸ˜€

    Let’s talk about the weather. Rather fine for this time of the year, don’t you think? I think the “The Weather Obsession” topic has more connection to my post than Senthil’s pet theme on “How Glorious Was My India”.

  35. Quote

    /** β€œBrahmins might be accused for rigidness, harshness, superior complex” These are individual qualities and in good old days ….**/

    Rupika.. I accept all your points.. πŸ™‚ these rumours might be spread at the height of anti-Brahminist movement.. i just mentioned this line to emphasize the honesty of brahmins..

    And for your example of man ditching his daughter & wife, he is an outcaste, even as per the much maligned manu dharma.. i do not consider them as brahmin..

    I also agree you on the point that many high profile brahmins being humble..

    There are good & bad in everything.. that’s what i also want to tell.. but its extremely unfair, to only quote a certain bad things and blame the entire sect.. i wish, we should have a balanced approach, and since most of the brahmins whom i came across were forward thinking, i had a good will towards them..

    Btw, noble qualities are NOT inherited.. rather, every child learns it from their parents.. although not in terms of genetics, i could conclude, these qualities are inherited culturally..

  36. Quote

    Priya.. although directed at me, i enjoyed your last comment πŸ™‚ .. and i take this as complement from you, as you have stated “Glorious india” as my pet theme.. yes.. it is what i see from history, a glorious India, which served as atchaya patra πŸ™‚ for numerous invaders.. and what made vascadogama make his journey .. and what made britain consider india as the crown of its empire..

  37. Quote

    Senthil – Hmm. It all ties up with Vasco da Gama then. One look at my grandpa & I knew it πŸ˜†

    Just kidding.

  38. Quote

    πŸ™‚ πŸ™

  39. Quote
    Saraswathi said February 15, 2008, 2:26 pm:


    After reading the post for a moment I felt as if you had written about my thatha πŸ˜› (All thatha’s are so similar naa.. πŸ™‚ )

    Good post Priya. I went down my memory lane recollecting my thatha and patti πŸ™‚

  40. Quote

    Saraswathi – Thanks for your comment.

    Yes, all grandparents make a lasting impression on us. And they are irreplaceable.

  41. Quote

    Do we remember this name? πŸ˜‰ loooong time Priya, and am i sorry for not being here more often … lovely post, and i have read it thrice already. You’re my favourite writer. πŸ™‚

  42. Quote

    Neeraj – Thanks for your comment & kind words.

    Totally cool to hear from you.

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