- MEETING THE AWE-INSPIRING VIMALA ATHAI :
Met my Vimala Atthai, a few days ago. She is Appanna Thata’s 89 year old niece – daughter of his second youngest sister, Bala (Balatthai to all the younger Dores).
She is Vimalatthanga to the Dores. She is a year older than Ramanna so that makes her our clan’s oldest living member!
Five photos too.
Suguna / Atthai
I realised last week that it’s been more than two years since I met Vimala Atthai. This is a shame because we live in the same city, Chennai and we have always been good friends. She is also my father’s only living relative from his generation. (I count the Dores as my cousins, not my father’s – though they are that. Those who do not understand this complicated and somewhat inbred relationship, go figure…or go to the family tree in the ToD archives). Most of all, she is a lively and warm person and a great conversationalist.
I called Atthai a couple of days ago. We were both very happy to talk to one another after such a long gap. We fixed a time to meet the very next day. Off I went and there she was, ready with her lovely and welcoming smile.
She has been suffering from a weak heart since 2006. A salt-free diet has made her very thin and frail. Probably because of osteoporosis, a few of her vertebrae have got fused as a result of which her spinal column is bent and painful. She also said that the bones around her left shoulder have ‘dissolved’ – ‘karanji pocchu’ . She gets up from bed only to go to the bathroom and to get a little exercise walking around the house or in good weather, in the spacious garden.
Her daughter, Pattamma, whose home is five minutes away, spends all her spare time with her. Vimala Atthai also has a 24-hour companion and help, a bright and friendly young Tamil girl. A young Bihari boy cooks for them. Atthai’s daugher-in-law Padmini, who divides her time between her son’s home in Philadelphia and her own home in Chennai with Atthai has thoughtfully made all these arrangements.
For all her illness, Vimala Atthai is as spirited and hospitable as ever. She even had tiffin, coffee and a gift bag filled with goodies ready for me (at just a day’s notice – I have no idea how she put it together so quickly). No complaints, none of the cynicism one associates with old age, just brimming with affection and goodwill, with eager questions about my family, my brothers, their families and my Dore cousins – even as she just kept on feeding me with Gokulashtami batshanams.
She asked me about my husband and my boys. When I mentioned that my younger son Nikhil and his wife lived in the US, in Seattle, she said with a big knowing smile, “Oh, Seattle!” I thought she was only being polite.
But she shamed and astounded me by adding, “I know Seattle, it is in the Pacific North…Padmini has a relative there, Dr Ramamurthy, with an American wife… Caroline Ramamurthy she calls herself. They used to have a house facing the ocean – I have visited them! Their daughter is named Kanti Caroline Ramamurthy!”
I was flabbergasted! (‘Pacific North’!!). I hope I have such a keen memory when I am 89, which is how old she is. At 68, I am often unable to remember names of places and people from six months ago.
I took some photos and told Atthai I was going to post the pictures and an account of my visit on the ToD. (Please do notice the photo of the goddess Saraswati in the backdrop in the photo of her and me. She was delighted to see it had figured in the picture).
This prompted her to take out a photocopy of a childhood picture of hers. (She knew exactly where it was among her many papers and folders). It was taken when Atthai was seven years old, in Hyderabad Sind. She added that Ramanna had given her the copy years ago.
She went on to tell me the back story to the snapshot. When it was about to be taken, her mother Balachitti (Appanna’s sister) decided to line her eyes with ‘maii’ (a traditional home made kohl made with castor oil soot). The little Vimala had never worn ‘maii’ before. Her eyes started to sting and tears rolled down her cheeks. Appanna chided his sister and told her to leave the child alone and went on to take the picture. “That is why I look so serious and tearful in the photo!” explained Vimala Atthai, laughing at the memory and her immense love and regard for Appanna.
My father Annaji used to say of my aunt Leela Chitti that she was such a good person that she was worthy of worship in a puja room.
I think the same can be said of Vimala Atthai. Such a zest for life, such unconditional love for people, such courage in the face of serious ill health, such genuine and all-embracing kindness towards everybody is indeed rare.
She has said to convey her love and blessings to all the readers of the ToD, especially the senior Dores. So here you go! Suguna Swamy
THE RETURN OF VIMALATHANGA
(LIVING LEGEND To TOD, OLDEST DORE ALIVE)
By Suguna Swamy
- MORE SNIPPETS FROM VIMALA ATTHAI :
Vimalathanga Part 2
After my last visit to meet her and the last ToD feature, I dropped in on her again with my iPad to show her the article and photos online. She loved it!
She gave me many new interesting tidbits.
- She was born to Balachitti on 25th May 1925 at 7.30 pm. at their home in Singapore. Her father, M. Kuppuswamy Iyer, a linguist, had a job in that polyglot city as an Interpreter in the Police Court. (Balachitti was his second wife as his first wife had died in the course of a fourth childbirth).
- The attending nurse gave Balachitthi a shot of brandy after the birth. She recalled that Balachitti said that she had felt woozy soon afterwards. The orthodox family became very nervous as they feared that her brain had been addled by alcohol: ‘’moolai kalangiduttho ennamo?’! Of course it was no such thing. Just the neat brandy doing its job!
- Atthai had had an older sister, Leela, who fell very ill with double pneumonia at the age of about 18 months. A neighbouring Christian family suggested a diet that involved eggs, for the frail baby but the Brahmin family couldn’t dream of it. Soon after that little Leela died; before Vimala was born. The family felt miserably guilty for years wondering if they had done the wrong thing by not accepting the suggestion of feeding eggs to the baby.
- Leela was said to be a beautiful and smart child. Relatives kept comparing Vimala Atthai to her and found her wanting. I, for one, cannot imagine a child who could have been more charming than our Vimala, she of grace and a sunny temperament!
- In 1929 her father died. He left a legacy of $10,000 for his unmarried son and daughter’s education and weddings. He was against taking or giving dowry so this was for their expenses alone; and for the upkeep of Balchitti and young Vimala. Before he died, he made Vimala Atthai’s kind, loving and generous step brother, Dr N K Sharma promise to take full care of Balachitthi and little Vimala. This gentleman seems to have been a person of great integrity as Atthai says he was as good as his word.
- In 1936, Dr Sharma, an ophthalmic surgeon, had to go to London for higher studies. War clouds were looming so he decided that Balachitti and her daughter would be safer in India. They sailed for Madras and he set up a household for them with a relative in Kodambakkam. Vimala was taught at home by an Iyengar lady till the 2nd form.
- It was her first trip to India. I asked her about her young impressions. She said she just loved travelling in a bullock cart. She also found it curious that men wore earrings (kadukkan)!
- My father Annaji , her much older first cousin, visited Madras around this time. He drove from Pune in his new Wolseley car. (Must have been grand!) Vimala, about 10 years of age, had just passed the 2nd form. Annaji gifted his little cousin a Blackbird pen; and an alarm clock to encourage her to time her studies! He then drove her to the Marina Beach for a treat. A friend joined them there. She recalls wearing a sky blue frock and enjoying the ride and the beach hugely. The friend said in surprise, Why, Subrahmanyam, I didn’t know you had such a big daughter! Annaji laughed and said, She is not my daughter, she is my Chitti’s daughter, my young cousin.
- In 1937 she and Balachitti went to Hyderabad Sind for two months. Rajah Chittappa escorted her and Balachitti back and had her admitted to the Lady Sivaswamy School in Mylapore where she went on to study in the 3rd and 4th form. They stayed in the house of Dr N K Sharma (who by that time had probably returned from London?) in Solayappan Mudali Street in Mylpore. Appanna sent Rs. 60 every month (a generous sum in those days, when rice cost under a rupee per maund) to Balachitti for household maintenance.
- When Vimala Atthai was 14 there was much anxiety that she may not find a suitable bridegroom as she was born with sevvai dosham (i.e.under the malevolent astrological influence of Mars; a Manglik ). When a proposal came from a fine man with the same dosham, V G Krishnamurthy, Appanna and other older members of the family considered it seriously as two such doshams cancelled one another! So they went ahead with the marriage even though VGK was 14 years older than young teenager Vimala. She recalls that Appanna gifted her a beautiful green georgette saree with full zari for the wedding!
Notes on some of the photos