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Published: December 29th 2017
The native son returned home.
My friend Rengasamy finally returned to Madurai for a brief visit after 18 months. His most recent home is Chennai. Madurai is where he served as our student advisor and problem solver back in 1974-75 when 18 American students studied through a program at Madurai University.
But returning to Madurai wasn’t the significant homecoming. Rather, it was his return to his native village to the south.
Rengasamy offered to show me his village, downplaying its virtues by saying that “it’s just a village” and “there’s not much interesting there”—not many people, buildings, or interesting things.
He was wrong. As we approached Pudupatti, a village of about 3300 people, Rengasamy started reminiscing non-stop. He pointed out new and old buildings, temples, meeting places, the house of the man who made the sweets that he enjoyed as a boy. During the next few hours, I glimpsed the workings and history of this place, and the joy of the people welcoming a native son, too long absent from his home.
“I spent my childhood here until about age 12. After that I studied in a Christian school about 12 miles away,” Rengasamy explained. His
father was friends with the parish priest, who convinced him that he should send young Rengasamy to the Christian boarding school, a move which Rengasamy explained was a “turning point” in his life.
We climbed out of our taxi at a long low building. Sathis, the son of Rengasamy’s childhood friend and now the elected president of the village, escorted us around, including this building.
”Here’s where I went to school as a young boy. All these other buildings are new, but there was a well there, and we used to play in this area,” Rengasamy said.
The building, over 100 years old, was still in use, and laborers were working on its walls with cement and bricks. As we entered one of the classrooms, we avoided stepping on the young uniformed students on the floor studying with their teacher. A great commotion ensued, learning slates were abandoned, and 44 pairs of eyes were upon the visitors.
Because the village is so small, everyone seems to know everyone else, and many are related to one another. The teacher, a distant relative of Rengasamy, immediately welcomed him as they traded stories about mutual friends and family. That
scene was to be repeated many times throughout our visit—people seemed to emerge from nowhere, gathering around Rengasamy and re-establishing relationships. They were curious about me also, the Westerner visiting a village far from the big city of Madurai.
Thinking I would catch some candid photos of the children, I quietly asked Sathis if I could take a photo of the students. As I slipped into place for my first shot, it was announced that I wanted a photo of the children, and everyone scrambled into a crowd, pressing me into a corner of the room. Somehow we inserted order into chaos and collected appropriate photographs of the kids, all smiles and bright eyes. They all waved goodbye and enthusiastically wagged their heads as we left the classroom.
Rengasamy’s grandfather built the Perumal temple, which seemed to be an anchor where men hung out, lounging on the platforms at the entrance. Sadly in need of restoration, the statue of Perumal, the deity once housed there, had been moved to the village temple where Karrupahnaswami presides.
The village priest was not available, so Sathis performed puja in his absence. He arranged offerings of fruit, garlands, incense, and a
freshly opened coconut for this powerful village protector. He circled a lit oil lamp in front of Karruppahnaswami as Rengasamy and I prayed. At each of the village temples we visited he repeated this puja.
Sathis offered a garland to me, a token of honor from the village. “But Rengasamy should wear the garland—he’s returned to his village!” I protested. They would have none of my reasoning.
Nearby was a depression with pools of water and many trees. ”There was a big lake behind the temple. Birds came and as a boy I swam and played here.” Rengasamy’s face smiled as he recalled those times. He later showed me a tree from which the children swung out over the water and dropped into the lake.
Once a year the village elders designated a day to catch fish from the lake. Men, women, and children would gather, casting nets in the lake and entering the water for the fish gathering.
The “kothalamadi,” or village center hall, is an outdoor area shaded by a big tree, where village meetings take place. Sometimes 200 people gather here to discuss problems that affect the village.
A small temple nearby
is used for bhajans, or songs of praise. Another nearby temple houses the ancestor deities. Although bearing no human features, the three small, rather unremarkable statues are the important ancestors for Rengasamy’s particular group in the village, the “gali valu,” which are Telugu words that mean”air people.” There are five other similar groups, which are somewhat like clans.
Rengasamy seemed to feel the most moved here, prostrating himself on the ground and paying his respects to his ancestors
Although the village is in the Tamil-speaking state of Tamil Nadu, his ancestors migrated to the area some 7-8 generations previous from the northern part of Andra Pradesh, where people speak Telugu. Most of the villagers are native Telugu speakers. Telugu was Rengasamy’s first language, spoken in his home. He learned Tamil when he attended school, where Tamil is used for instruction. Even now he speaks Telugu in his home, and raised his two children to speak it.
“A small part of the village population were native Tamil speakers, but even they learned to speak Telugu and converse with our people in that language,” he said.
We strolled down a block-paved street for the “air people,” where his
uncle built a rather grand house, and where Rengasamy’s grandfather built his family home. No one has lived in his childhood home for years. An impenetrable padlock secured the door and shutters blocked the windows. We could not enter. Rengasamy explained that his grandfather secured Burmese teak for interior pilasters some 90 years ago from Chettiar friends, known for their trading connections to Burma and other countries. Burmese teak wood was a rare thing in a village house of that era.
Large pilasters supported a roof over the front door. I could imagine young Rengasamy dashing in and out of the structure, calling to his friends eagerly awaiting him outside. The quiet street would have been a perfect place for youngsters to run free, as neighbors were all relatives and/or close friends, and there would have been no traffic save for the occasional hand-pulled cart or bicycle.
Today shade trees overhanging the street usher the occupants to their homes. A bent woman, cataracts clouding her eyes, grabbed Rengasamy’s hand. One of the few villagers remaining from his generation, she explained that her son had left and was killed in an accident, and now there was no one to
care for her. Other women emerged from their homes, smiling, then berating Rengasamy, all of the them talking at once. “Your house is here and you don’t come. Why don’t you look after the house. It lies idle. You should come back for the village festival.” Rengasamy turned to me and interpreted, seeming a bit overwhelmed. He explained to them that he now lives in Chennai with his son and it was difficult to return.
Our visit continued to a temple outside the village, important for a particular group of Chettiars who come from many areas to visit once a year. Many deities are housed here. One in particular was the source of anxiety for Rengasamy and other children in the village.
”Don’t go to that place because Kudalpudingi Rakshasi is there!” Rengasamy’s mother warned him. The name translates to “intestine-removing devil.” The children were convinced the devil would eat their intestines, so they avoided that place. He is depicted pulling the intestines out of a prostrate person and eating them. Even today, the gruesome intestine-eating part of the statue is covered up to save people from becoming disturbed at the sight. However, I saw him uncovered, and
I can testify that Rengasamy did not flinch. Nor did I.
Finally we paid our respects to a temple on the edge of a lake. This is the place for Ayyanar, the powerful deity who guards the boundaries of Rengasamy’s village. Though a small temple, Ayyanar is respected and honored for his protective powers. Outside the temple wall is a very small statue, just for the women who pray for babies. Farther away from the temple is another statue, which was traditionally used by people who were without caste. Rengasamy was not sure if it was still used.
At this natural conclusion of our village visit, I told Sathis that I would like to make a small donation to the school. He immediately phoned the teacher, who determined that my donation would be enough to buy each student a pencil box. Rengasamy commented that had he known about my donation plans, they would have made a big show out of it, and the children would have been able to thank me. I assume there would have been even more photos and fanfare.
No thanks, I thought, I should not be in the limelight. This was in fact
Rengasamy’s day—a return to his birthplace and revisit of his childhood days. I am so grateful he shared it with me!
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