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Alphabet Soup


They had laid him in the middle of the house on enormous blocks of ice that were melting slowly – the water crawling across the room, under the wailers perched around the body, towards me. I was convinced I would die if I came into contact with the water, and kept pulling back, back, back and into the room where they stored the sewing machines. My feet trembled as I sat on a stool and fiddled with one of the machines, no one asking me to stop breaking needles. Waiting.

The wailing went up a bit, and I stepped out to peek. The water had formed small pools all over the room now, no area was safe anymore. An undertaker and an under-undertaker had come in, and were starting to lift up the body. . The undertaker was at the head, his assistant at the foot. The foot was lifted up first, and the lifter slowly moved right, swiveling the corpse on the ice. The undertaker now got into the act: he held the shoulder and lifted up the corpse and then started to walk backwards. A foot back, maybe two. The body creaked, the undertakers paused. And then, a loud noise – a hybrid belch-hiccup – came out of the body. The wailers stopped, startled. I was terrified and jumped over a couple of pools to go stand near my mom.

After that it was a blur: they loaded him into a cart, and I followed it all the way to the crematorium, plagued by fear, where they laid him on a pile of wood and dried dung and poured a little bit of kerosene and set him aflame.

When I think of my grandfather, the first image that springs to my mind is that noise. Not that I don't remember the other things: the height, the gruffness of tone and the stubble: unlikely ingredients for a tender man. He wasn't the usual fawning grandfather – he granted us our space, but let it be known that he liked having us around.

There are a lot of things to remember, but the image of his dead body and the strange noise overwhelms them all.

But I won't write about it, because my dad tells me it isn't all that strange. Instead, I'll write about how my grandfather named his kids, because that is certainly unusual.

Every Indian family has a designated form-filler. This is the person people go to when they need help filling a form – any form – ration card applications, forms to apply to schools, job applications, forms that plead with magistrates to show mercy on loan defaulters. This is the person that knows the language of forms, the “nils,” “as-aboves” and “not applicables.”

In our family, my dad – ex-bureaucrat, patient proof reader, class topper in English (he kept reminding us) – fit the bill just right. He fit it so right that occasionally other families bowed to his superior skills and outsourced important forms to him. If you are the sort that doesn't mind the odd bad pun, I'll tell you that he is the father of all fillers.

And thus it wasn't a surprise when dad told me that a cousin of mine had approached him with a “passport problem.” “More specifically,” my dad told me, laying an undue amount of stress on certain, “he asked me for help on a certain question in the form.”

“Yeah,” my mom interjected, “ask him what has gotten into him after retirement.”

“Which certain question? What has gotten into you after retirement?”

To cut a long conversation short, the cousin had asked for help with a question on the passport application that asked him to “expand his father's initials.” [1]

I can't really say it any other way: My grandfather was a stud. In addition to spawning at least thirteen kids (a tiring task in itself), he actually pulled off the astonishing feat of bringing all of them up on a public bus driver's income.

A stud deserves some slack, and no one should bear any grudges against him for bungling a little bit with his bookkeeping – thirteen kids can be hard to keep track of. When it was time to admit one of the kids to school, grandpa would walk them to the admissions officer. After some conversation about bus schedules and rising petrol prices, the admissions officer would whip out a form and start asking some questions. My dad, unfortunately, wasn't around to help then.

Name? That was easy. Next question please. Initials? This question confused grandpa considerably, because his family had a tradition to maintain: they actually used two initials – one for the dad's name and another one for the city of birth. He'd think about it for a minute (I think), but most of the time he didn't remember how he'd named his previous child. Did he name her after his village? Or his adopted town? Or maybe he had broken tradition and used just one letter… or. This was very confusing. When all his kids had grown up and were in school, grandpa might have been surprised to know that there were three sets of initials floating around his family. P.R. G.R. Just plain R. But grandpa was too busy making ends meet to care.

It might be of interest to note that the kids also had completely random birth dates – my aunt insists she is younger than her documents show, and the date she claims to have been born and the one on her documents are perfectly uncorrelated. Neither month, nor day, nor year match.

Which is why my cousin's question was not as trivial as it sounds. His dad had a P.R in front of his name. “What does the P stand for,” he wanted to know.

“Public Relations,” I told my dad. He chided me on joking about a serious situation, and proceeded with the narration.

“Palakkad is what the P stands for,” my dad told the cousin. “That's where your grandma is from.”

“Thanks, but I don't think that's true.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Because grandpa himself had a P in front of his name, and I think that's why he added a P to my dad's name. And I don't think that P stands for Palakkad because Grandpa's family has no Kerala connection.”

“Hmm.. think you might have a point. Let me find out.”

My dad was excited about this passport question. Prior to this momentous question, the sternest test of his form filling career was when someone asked him to fill out an application form that was entirely in Hindi. He had passed the test with ease by directing the asker to the Hindi teacher that lived down the street. But this, this was different. Almost like sleuthing. He started making enquiries. ( By the way, this explains the “What has gotten into him after retirement?” question). I find past tense very hard to write, so I will switch over here. If you are so inclined, please convert the paragraphs that follow into past perfect tense and mail it to me.

My grandpa died old, so contemporaries are hard to find. Especially sane ones. Dad went around the small town, flitting from house to house, asking the older people what his father-in-law's initials stood for. Blank stares. What were his initials again? I don't know English, I can't hear well. My daughter-in-law treats me badly, how 'bout yours? How is America? We should get together sometime for coffee. You look fairer these days.

After about a week, my dad changed tack. He assumed that the P should probably stand for grandpa's ancestral village, and so he went around the small town, flitting from house to house, asking the older people where his father-in-law's family came from. Blank stares. I don't know English, I can't hear well. My daughter-in-law treats me very badly, how 'bout yours? How is America? We should get together sometime for coffee. Do you use a fairness cream?

Frustration, thoughts of quitting, an urge to ask cousin to write Palakkad there and be done with it. But urges were resisted.

Like it happens usually, the answer came from an unexpected source. It wasn't that dramatic (plus my calling card was running out, so I asked him to hurry up and get to the end), but apparently an old guy that my dad met on the street later that week answered his question for him. (“I didn't think he'd be able to answer because he looked too young to know.” Quotes proverb on judging books). The grandparents of the old guy who looked too young to know had grown up in the same village as grandpa's family. “In fact,” the old man said, “your father-in-law's family members even led the village panchayat for sometime.”

After a lot of questions, dad was convinced enough to travel to the place in place in question, and after some more sleuthing he got hold of a few records from the village panchayat that convinced him beyond doubt. He knew what the P stood for.

Loud laughter at this point on the phone. Not from our end. Story continues amidst chortles.

A phone call is made. The cousin comes on line.

“I know what the P stands for.”

“Really, what?”

“Pannimadai.” Which in Tamil means Pig-Sluice. Or something like that, but it was undisputedly pig-something.

Panni madai? That's funny. So, what is it really?.”

“I am serious. Pannimadai is the answer you were looking for. I even read a ledger that proved it.”

“This means… um, on a passport they might put, eh, my dad's expanded name after mine, and when I go to the US..”


“Thanks, but I think I'll go with Palakkad.”

“I figured.”

Rumor has it that said cousin has filled many more forms after this incident. He must've changed his form-filler, because he doesn't ask dad anymore.

[1] In Tamil Nadu, people have no surnames. We make do with initials – the son of A Oaf would be called O Imp, and O Imp's daughter would call herself I Suck. Which is all well, for rarely are Tamil names as concise as Oaf or Imp and we could do without the extra letters a surname would add.

[2] Residents of Pannimadai are requested to please excuse the author. He is the great grandson of your Nattamai, by the way, so cut him some slack.

[3] Let it be said that the author is known to be delusional, so it is questionable if said events really happened in his life in said sequence.

[4] Inspired by Tilo's post on M.S.Subbulakshmi, grandmothers and cousins.