P N Krishnaswamy, 1917-2004

Recently, KP (that’s Kalyan Mohan Shaffer) seemed to look exactly, I said in an email, “like PiNK Mama”

To this, my sambandhi asked, “Who’s PiNK Mama?”…and that brought about this post…

PiNK “Mama” (uncle) is P N Krishnaswamy, Mohan’s dad, whose initial, K, contributes the K in K. Mohan 🙂

I first met my father-in-law to be when he came to “see” me at the Official Bride Inspection. Over the decades, I came to know and respect him a lot.

He’d been born in Tamil Nadu on August 10, 1917, in Pakkam, a tiny village close to Pondicherry. In the days when large families were the norm, he was an only child. The parents were very poor; the father, who himself was an adopted child, was working as a cook.

He was enrolled in a school in a village about 5 miles away..and the young boy had to walk to school every Monday, stay with a relative, and walk back home, the 5 miles on the highway, on Friday evenings. He finished his Matriculation; he showed imself to be a very good pupil, with a good bent for languages (Tamil and English) and excellent in Mathematics….but there was no money to educate him further.

Other details are rather sketchy, but I know that he was sent to the Mayilam temple to teach the young seer of the temple. This was after Amongst his duties, he was to teach the seer English, too. He seems to have shown, in this first job, the sincerity and diligence that always characterized him in all his work.

At this time (early 1930’s) ome recruiting started for the Post and Telegraphs Department. Since he was based in Pondicherry, which was French territory at the time, he had the choice of either applying to the French P&T Department, or the Indian one. He applied for the Indian Post & Telegraphs…but regretted it after he retired in 1976, because the pension for the employees of the French government was nearly ten times that of employees oHf the Indian Government! And because of his long life, he might have truly ended up with a huge pension…but more about that later.

He joined as a sorter in the Railway Mail Service (RMS). This meant being in the postal van of the train, taking “dak” or post, letters, and parcels from the various stations, and sorting the letters into various cubbyholes as we’ve all seen in the historic documentaries! He steadily rose though the ranks, and was an Accounts Officer at the end of his career.

Now that his career was “settled” (for poor people then, as now, a Government job meant great job and financial security) his parents wanted him to get married. He “saw” a few girls, and one anecdote which he related is green in my memory. He had a cycle, and on the way to meeting a prospective girl in her parental home, he fell off the cycle and sustained injuries, and never turned up there at all. But communications were so bad in those days, that he was able to go home and tell his parents that he did go, and that he didn’t like the girl! One of his colleagues, Mr K V Subramanian, had a younger sister of 13, and he agreed to the match. They were married, I think, in 1939, when he was 21, and she 14 . (They never remembered the date of the wedding, or bothered much about it!) The names Rukmani and Krishnaswamy were deemed to be a “divine” match.

I do not think it was a very happy marriage…but they respected many things about each other, and like most marriages of the day, it lasted until my mother-in-law passed away, in 1984. They had six children, but the only daughter died in infancy, and the sons were really widely-spaced in age…the eldest one being born in March 1941, when the mother was 16, and the father 23. The first two sons were born in Rukmani’s parental home in Chidambaram…the eldest was named Natarajan after the presiding deity.

At some point of time, he was posted to Villupuram, and then he received a posting to Jabalpur, which, in those days, was probably equivalent to someone going to the US forty years later. But my mother-in-law was a very intelligent, independent and hard-working woman, and she followed him to Jabalpur, a place of an unknown culture and an unknown language. They had two more sons there, in 1956 and 1958. They then moved to Shillong, where the youngest son was born in 1964…when the mother was 40, and the father a rather advanced (for those years) 47. There was 24 years between the eldest and youngest son…more than the 23-year gap between father and the first son! They later moved to Delhi, and my father-in-law retired when he was posted in Chennai, in 1975, when he turned 58.

Bringing up the children was a real challenge even in those days. But in spite of this, the brothers were admitted to the best schools possible. Mohan,the second son, used to say that there was often no money at the end of the month. The elder boys used to go and collect cowdung and pat it into dried cakes for the kitchen fire. My mother-in-law stitched the clothes for all the younger boys, and all the quilts. Amazingly, for those days, my father-in-law could also cook well and sew on the treadle machine;when my mother-in-law was admitted in the hospital and stayed there for more than a month, he used to cook the food for the family, and send it to the hospital through Mohan, who also took care of his younger siblings while his father was at work. The widowed mother lived with them for many years, until her death. There seems to have been no love lost between the mother-in-law and the daughter-in-law; but there simply was no other option but to live together.

We all loved him a lot, and loved his many quirks, too…chief amongst which was a pronounced hypochondria..which resulted in my having to take him not only to different doctors, but to practitioners of different branches of medicine…homeopathy, allopathy, unani (greek medicine), and ayurveda…none of which ever satisfied him. The funny thing was, when he finally had a real stroke, he just stopped complaining…it was as if he no longer needed to convince us that something was wrong, since it really was!

The sons, each of them, proved to be quite brilliant, academically. One passed out from the Indian Institute of Science, the second stood University first at the University of Shillong, got a B. Tech degree from IIT Madras, and went to IIM Ahmedabad. Brothers no. 4 and 5 studied at the prestigious Jawaharlal Institute of Medicine and Educational Reseach (JIPMER) in Pondicherry, and went to the UK to do their FRCS, which they completed, and then went on to do surgical residencies in the US, where they are now independent surgeons. The youngest studied at REC in Kurkshetra, and went to do his Masters in Canada, where his eldest brother had emigrated after he, too, worked for the P&T for a year or two.

This family was my by-example introduction to non-gender-based work in the family. My father in law,as I said, could cook very well…he sewed on the treadle machine….my mother in law put up a netting on a wooden frame as we had a fly problem in our first kitchen, because the flies were troublesome. They believed in doing things themselves, and did not delegate jobs to anyone else.

My father-in-law was one of the very few men I know, who completely took retirement in his stride. Not for him the angst of being without an occupation, or worrying about decreased pay. He was very pragmatic about his retirment, and spent his time pottering around the garden, or doing mechanical odd jobs around the house. He also tried to teach my youngest brother in law (who was 12 when I got married) but he seemed to have been much more successful in any education with his other sons. However, he instilled in all of them a very strong work ethic, which (along with the fact of there being no daughters to marry off, definitely) resulted in the economic advance of the family.

He used a cycle for a long time,and then bought himself one, and then two, scooters…and when they lived in Pondicherry, each of the medical students would take one of the scooters, and my father in law would take the cycle to do the vegetable and grocery shopping! He could, and did, walk for miles.

In the community where they lived in Pondicherry, my in-laws were very active. I know that my father-in-law came all the way to Chennai to intercede (successfully) for the admission of some young men to the University of Madras. They settled a lot of local disputes…when the local temple had a festival, they took care to distribute the prasad to the non-Hindu families first. My father-in-law was not interested in music, but was well-versed in Tamil literature, and could quote the Thirukkural fluently. He taught himself astrology, and was also an avid student of Homeopathy….and other schools of medicine.

Alas, whether this interest in medicine sparked off the interest in medical symptoms, or it was the other way around, I do not know, but certainly, he was a hypochondriac. This resulted in his seeing many physicians, of many schools of medicine. I still remember his visit to the general practitioner near our home in Bangalore, who was, if anything, a few years younger than he was. The doctor told him, “At our age, some ailments are to be expected!” and my father in law was utterly disgusted! On his prescribing X medicine for elevated blood pressure, he asked the doctor, “But doctor, all my friends are taking Y medication, can I also have that?” The doctor’s rejoinder was, “Do all your friends take the medication on their doctors’ advice, or because their friends are taking it?” That was the last time that particular physician was visited!

However, my father-in-law had his own sense of humour, too. When my mother-in-law once got up from the carrom board (that’s how we spent out leisure time before we bought a TV set!), saying, “I have put on the weight,” (meaning the weight of the pressure cooker in which the evening rice was being made) he twinkled, “Not too much, I don’t want you to become fat!” He would add, as he sprinkled talcum powder on the board for a smoother strike, “Shall I put some on your face, too, Rukku, and make you more beautiful?”

Most amazingly, he also changed some of his basic views. Though he’d wanted dowry when I got married, when it came to my brother-in-law’s wedding, I was able to tell him how the dowry gave most daughters-in-law (including myself) a very strong feeling of hostility; he completely desisted from asking for dowry thereafter, and in fact, when son no.4 got married, he was satisfied with the registration ceremony in London, and was not very particular about having a tradtional Hindu wedding at all. For someone of his generation to change his views like that was, indeed, most unusual and impressive.

Alas, he didn’t get along too well with his youngest son, who had to suffer comparisons to all his elder brothers. One of my father-in-law’s favourite and long-winded stories addressed to son no.5: “It’s twenty years from now. I first go to a huge Electronics company, and ask to meet the owners, and Natarajan and Mohan come out to see me. Then I decide to visit the famous clinic nearby, and ask to see the top doctors there, and Naryanan and Kumar come out to see me. After this, I feel hungry, and decide to have a dosa at the local eatery. I go there and ask to see the fellow who’s grinding the dosa batter, and YOU come along.” In spite of such comparisons, the youngest son grew up loving his elder brothers!

He never did like being poked fun at…but that never prevented all of us from doing so! But he was fond of our daughter (he didn’t have as much interaction with his other grand-daughters as he had with my daughter) and they shared a room in Bangalore when he was with us. I remember that she went for a summer course in magic in Bal Bhavan…she’d come back and refuse to teach me the trick, but would disappear into her room with “Appa-thatha” and tell him the trick at once!

He was excellent with figures, and kept meticulous accounts; he also kept house immaculately even after my mother-in-law passed away, and could lay his hands on anything at any time…something none of us ever learned from him. He was also extremely punctual….another thing that none of us picked up…but very meticulous in his work, and that’s something all his sons have, even today.

He kept excellent health (in spite of all his imaginings), and used to be quite independent even when living in the US…. but suffered a series of strokes, which made him quite immobile and quiscent in his last years, and he passed away on April 4, 2004.

Oh..so many stories and incidents crowd my mind…but this will have to do…”Appa”, or “PiNK Mama” as he was fondly called…here’s my loving salute to you! (Er, I was his favourite daughter-in-law, not because of any inherent goodness in me, but because I was at home, and willing to listen to lots of his anecdotes!)

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