Ayya's Accounts: A Ledger of Hope in Modern India

Ayya's Accounts: A Ledger of Hope in Modern India

by Anand Pandian, M. P. Mariappan
     
 

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Ayya’s Accounts explores the life of an ordinary man—orphan, refugee, shopkeeper, and grandfather—during a century of tremendous hope and upheaval. Born in colonial India into a despised caste of former tree climbers, Ayya lost his mother as a child and came of age in a small town in lowland Burma. Forced to flee at the outbreak of World War II, he

Overview

Ayya’s Accounts explores the life of an ordinary man—orphan, refugee, shopkeeper, and grandfather—during a century of tremendous hope and upheaval. Born in colonial India into a despised caste of former tree climbers, Ayya lost his mother as a child and came of age in a small town in lowland Burma. Forced to flee at the outbreak of World War II, he made a treacherous 1,700-mile journey by foot, boat, bullock cart, and rail back to southern India. Becoming a successful fruit merchant, Ayya educated and eventually settled many of his descendants in the United States. Luck, nerve, subterfuge, and sorrow all have their place along the precarious route of his advancement. Emerging out of tales told to his American grandson, Ayya’s Accounts embodies a simple faith—that the story of a place as large and complex as modern India can be told through the life of a single individual.

Editorial Reviews

Michael D. Jackson

"Anand Pandian’s spellbinding memoir of his grandfather is at once a labor of love and a reckoning with life. Despite differences of location, language, and vocation, grandson and grandfather share such deep affinities that Pandian confesses to feeling indebted to Ayya for his own life. Not only do 'all of us come to life in a sea of stories,' but it proves possible to read a nation’s history between the lines of this biography. At the same time, Pandian’s sensitive and luminous narrative demonstrates the power of a literary sensibility to broaden our ethnographic horizons and broach new philosophical questions in anthropology." —Michael D. Jackson, author of The Wherewithal of Life: Ethics, Migration, and the Question of Wellbeing

Robert Desjarlais

"One senses here something quite rare: the clearly delineated emergence of a person's life, thoughts, and relations through the course of a lifetime. And it surely helps that the author is a gifted writer. By the time I came to the end of the text, I felt like I had come to know Ayya in an intimate way, and I was grateful for that span of related knowing." —Robert Desjarlais, author of Sensory Biographies: Lives and Deaths among Nepal's Yolmo Buddhists

NPR Weekend Edition - Scott Simon

"I suspect they'll never make a movie about M.P. Mariappan, but no one deemed a superhero by the movies has had a more interesting life with such extraordinary sweep. He was born in 1919 in British Colonial India... He drank milk from mud pots. He fled for his life during World War II, walking a treacherous 1,700 mile route from Burma to southern India. He sold fruit. He suffered the death of a daughter. He survived both an old world illness, the plague, and a new world one, prostate cancer. And now many of his grandchildren have grown up to be teachers, engineers and other professionals living in the U.S. as well as India." —Scott Simon, NPR Weekend Edition

From the Publisher

"Ayya’s youth in an impoverished family in rural Tamil Nadu in the 1920s becomes not just the story of an individual in Pandian’s hands, but rather a window onto an entire historical tapestry." —Los Angeles Review of Books

"Ayya’s Accounts makes for pretty gripping reading, even for people who have never read this kind of first-person anthropology before." —The Aerogram

"Ayya’s Accounts is at once a mesmerising memoir of an ordinary man’s life and an anthropologist’s revealing examination of the astounding changes experienced by persons and families over a century of tremendous hope and upheaval in modern India.... Ayya tells his tale to his first-born grandson, an anthropology professor in the USA, Anand Pandian. Pandian beautifully re-crafts the tale, while interlacing it with pithy interludes of anthropological insight. The result is an inventive text impossible to put down." —Sarah Lamb, South Asia

"Ayya’s Accounts is a gem of a book: fluid, accessible, moving, instructive, compact. It is a book with the word 'hope' in its title and this means a lot. Ayya’s Accounts shows readers a globalized world that is not dehumanized. If I were teaching 'Introduction to Anthropology,' I would assign this book right at the beginning." —Ann Grodzins Gold, Journal of Anthropological Research

"Overall, this is a beautifully written, deeply engaging book. Theory – such as it is present at all – is worn lightly, insights emerging gently through an engagement with Ayya’s stories, rather than imposed to make sense of the whole." —James Staples, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

"The... work, accessible rather than academic, is only deceptively simple—because, in sketching an ordinary man’s passage over a lifetime, from tradition to modernity, it also charts a country’s century-long journey. This is where the anthropologist’s skill comes in handy. Pandian, who spent a lot of time in India, has been able to absorb Ayya’s experiences and make them seem universal." —Khabar

"Pandian and Mariappan underscore how provincial India, which once represented the past, can also ultimately become the telos of the future." —American Book Review

"Spanning India, Burma (Myanmar), and America, this is an absorbing exploration of one man's life." —Library Journal

"I suspect they'll never make a movie about M.P. Mariappan, but no one deemed a superhero by the movies has had a more interesting life with such extraordinary sweep. He was born in 1919 in British Colonial India... He drank milk from mud pots. He fled for his life during World War II, walking a treacherous 1,700 mile route from Burma to southern India. He sold fruit. He suffered the death of a daughter. He survived both an old world illness, the plague, and a new world one, prostate cancer. And now many of his grandchildren have grown up to be teachers, engineers and other professionals living in the U.S. as well as India." —Scott Simon, NPR Weekend Edition

"Written elegantly, translated eloquently, Ayya’s Accounts is an absorbing read. Pandian’s conviction that the history of modern India might be read through an individual is proven through this book: following Ayya, his times and his extended family we learn of many vital issues in South Asian history, culture and diaspora. This promises to also be a good book for classroom adoption, appealing to the imaginations of students at all levels and grounding larger abstractions in vividly lived, emotionally resonant particulars." —Kirin Narayan, Postcolonial Studies

Khabar

"The... work, accessible rather than academic, is only deceptively simple—because, in sketching an ordinary man’s passage over a lifetime, from tradition to modernity, it also charts a country’s century-long journey. This is where the anthropologist’s skill comes in handy. Pandian, who spent a lot of time in India, has been able to absorb Ayya’s experiences and make them seem universal." —Khabar

Library Journal
04/01/2014
Cowritten by Pandian (anthropology, Johns Hopkins; Crooked Stalks: Cultivating Virtue in South India) with his nonagenarian grandfather, Mariappan ("Ayya"), this Horatio Alger-like book chronicles Ayya's life (b. 1919). It was originally penned and published in Tamil in 2012 and is now offered here in English. Mariappan rose from birth in an impoverished Nadar family (traditionally a caste of tree climbers) to become a respected fruit merchant. He helped raise eight children, some of whom became physicians in the United States. Mariappan migrated to Burma to help run his father's provisions store; his father died when Mariappan was 15. Eventually, in the aftermath of the Japanese invasion of Burma during World War II, Mariappan was forced to flee back to India. Pandian rightfully celebrates his grandfather's achievements and his determination to educate his children, but it would have been compelling to know if they were able to benefit from India's postindependence quota-based affirmative action and caste networks. VERDICT Spanning India, Burma (Myanmar), and America, this is an absorbing exploration of one man's life. There is some repetition, but the book turns many a stereotype about status on its head. For readers interested in South Asia and the South Asian diaspora.—Ravi Shenoy, Naperville, IL

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780253012500
Publisher:
Indiana University Press
Publication date:
03/17/2014
Pages:
232
Product dimensions:
1.80(w) x 2.80(h) x 0.50(d)

Read an Excerpt

Ayya's Accounts

A Ledger of Hope in Modern India


By Anand Pandian, M. P. Mariappan

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2014 Anand Pandian
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-01266-1



CHAPTER 1

A CENTURY OF EXPERIENCE


We were on a train clattering to Madurai seventeen years ago when my grandfather first told me the story of his passage back from Burma to India in 1941. Ayya had come of age in a small town in the lush lowlands north of Rangoon. For nearly a decade, he and his brothers kept a shop there, on the veranda of their house. Then the Second World War reached their town, driving them back to India. One among hundreds of thousands of refugees, Ayya survived a deadly trek through the bamboo jungles of western Burma and landed in the dry, dusty village of his forebears in southern Tamil Nadu. He married, and with patience, thrift, luck, and cunning, he eventually secured a decent life for his family.

I sat beside Ayya on a green vinyl berth as he described all of this, grateful for the cool, dry air of this coach car on the Pandyan Express. It was early June. The unrelenting heat outside was thick, sticky. But there was something else that I could almost feel floating in the air around my grandfather: the absence of Paati, my grandmother. It had been just four months since Ayya had lost his wife. And now it seemed, as he spoke, that this loss was cloaked in other losses that he'd seen—the mother who had died when he was a child, the father he'd buried back in Burma, the rubble of their livelihood there. "Who was left to tell me stories?" he asked plaintively, as if, for a moment, the septuagenarian widower was once again that orphaned child.

I also missed my grandmother and the raucous tales that she could tell. I'd grown up in New York and Los Angeles. Every year or two, we would see Ayya and Paati for a few weeks at a time. I don't remember Ayya being a very avid or captivating storyteller in those years. In fact, he was rather quiet. Most of what I knew about him came from the stories that others would tell about his life: his ceaseless toils, the hardships he had survived, and the responsibility that all of us had inherited to struggle in turn. Ayya was never one to call attention to himself. But at a certain moment late in life, perhaps when he began to feel the tremors of his own mortality, my grandfather found that he had a lot to tell. And I happened to be there to listen.

This was something that began as an accident, my presence beside my grandfather as he reflected on his life. But then, over time, listening to him became more of a habit. For most of his years, he had made a living by dealing in fruit. As his eldest grandson, and an anthropologist, I learned to make my living by dealing in the stories of others like him. I began to travel often from the United States to India, spending many years with farmers, activists, writers, and filmmakers in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu, where my grandfather lived. On these many trips, I would always pass in and out of Ayya's company. And slowly, I began to see how deeply my pursuit of this vocation had been shaped by my sense of his history.

Most of us have had grandparents or other elders murmuring from the corners of our lives, sharing tales that are sometimes riveting, sometimes simply tedious. The lessons of their experience may go heeded or unheeded by those who follow them. But with Ayya, I found that I couldn't shake the sense of a deep and insistent debt.

Something about this debt was very personal. My grandfather's life had taken a precarious route, nothing like the stiff railroad tracks that led us to Madurai that night or the steady beat of our passage over them. What if his journey had suddenly ground to an unexpected halt? What would I have become, if anything at all?

But there was also something else that I began to see by listening to my grandfather, a lesson in the formidable reach of historical perspective. There he was, a small man seated beside me in a musty railway compartment, passing the time with stories that stretched far beyond the south Indian countryside we were traversing, chronicling events that I could barely recall from the pages of my American school textbooks. Where on his person could he have kept this immensity, this vast world of his experience?

No life is as small as it might first appear from a distance. Extraordinary tales may be found in the most unlikely places. This book grows out of a simple faith—the idea that you can tell the story of a place as large and complex as modern India through the life of a single individual, through the life of someone like my grandfather, Ayya.


The year is 2014. Nearly a century has passed since Ayya's birth in 1919. He has sipped water from open wells, roadside gullies, plastic bottles, and pots of yesterday's rice. He's been spurned in rural India for belonging to a despised caste of tree climbers and celebrated in New York City for being the father of an Indian physician. He has grandchildren who teach in elementary schools, design telecommunications hardware, and exhibit artworks all over Europe. He's mistaken airplanes for vultures, run from Japanese bombers, sent a son to the Indian Air Force, and flown between Chennai and Los Angeles at least ten times. He has survived the plague and prostate cancer. He's traded in paper, saris, matchboxes, limes, and pomegranates. He has lost a daughter under mysterious circumstances, seen many things that he never dreamed were possible, and quietly buried countless wishes unknown to anyone else.

What could the peculiar quirks of such a life tell us about modern India? What does such experience have to do with India now? Everyone knows that many things in India are changing very quickly. We see books about India Becoming, documentaries on an India Rising, political slogans that seek to celebrate an "India Shining." Everything seems to be happening at once, as though a slumbering giant has finally awakened.

This image, of a stirring behemoth, is a familiar one. This is something that we have been told for a long time: that India is an old land, that India has long refused to change, that only now has India finally arrived at the threshold of something radically new, radically different. There are good reasons, however, to distrust such a story.

Think back to a century ago, 1913: how much of that India would be recognizable now? King George V of England was the emperor of India. Mohandas K. Gandhi hadn't yet returned to India from distant Natal, South Africa, where he was working with Indian coal miners and railway laborers. There were nearly 200,000 acres of land sown with opium in India, much of which was meant for official export to China. Lines extending for 2,725 miles conveyed fewer than 4 million words that year through the chief means of long-distance communication, the telegraph. There were about 10,000 men and fewer than 300 women enrolled in the colleges and universities of the Madras Presidency in southern India. The town of Madurai had a recorded population of 134,130 individuals, less than one-tenth of what it numbers now a century later.

How to tell the story of what has happened since in India? The nationalist struggle for independence from Britain. The violence exercised in the name of social and religious solidarity. The forceful remaking of cities and the countryside in the name of development. The rise of a free-market economy and a consumer society. The emergence of vibrant diasporic communities overseas. These are massive currents of change, which can be surveyed from a distance for their patterns and directions. But there are other aspects of their texture that can be grasped only through a more intimate mode of inquiry.

Large places often have their stories told through the lives of exemplary individuals. Think of Gandhi, for example, widely portrayed as the very soul of India. Then there are those ways of imagining such places themselves in personal or biographical terms. Recall this famous description of India from Jawaharlal Nehru's 1946 Discovery of India:

Shameful and repellent she is occasionally, perverse and obstinate, sometimes even a little hysteric, this lady with a past. But she is very lovable and none of her children can forget her wherever they go or whatever strange fate befalls them. For she is part of them in her greatness as well as her failings, and they are mirrored in those deep eyes of hers that have seen so much of life's passion and joy and folly and looked down into wisdom's well.


The rescue of a distressed damsel was no doubt on the mind of this imprisoned nationalist leader, who would go on to serve as the first prime minister of an independent India. Striking, however, are all the shades and nuances that Nehru teases out of this portrait of an individual.

Such narratives make sense only because of the unity they attribute to the experience of their subjects. Either implicitly or explicity, these stories rely upon the idea of an overarching trajectory, the movement of a wider arc of possibility and defeat. The trajectory of modern India has been sketched in various ways: as a journey into freedom, as a climb into prosperity, even as a dark descent into chaos. Regardless of the direction that is assigned to India by such stories, what we often find is an idealization of the course—like those railway tracks, once again.

Most tales of modern India these days are epic accounts of victory and defeat. There are the industrial titans who tug on our admirations and jealousies, and the anguished paupers who elicit sympathy and disdain. There is no doubt something riveting in the trials and triumphs of exceptional figures. But perhaps there is also something to learn from those who have lived between these poles, those who saw big things happen and caught just some of their momentum, those who found modest success in a life of trouble, chance, nerve, and ruse.

Here is the story of M. P. Mariappan, whose letters to Shillong, New York, Lucknow, and Nashville were stamped for decades with a double-lined oval that curved around his small place in the world:

Limes and Fruits Commission Agent
208-A North Masi St.
Madurai 625001
INDIA


It's a story about those parents, schoolchildren, shopkeepers, and refugees whose interwoven fates make up the landscape of contemporary India. It's also a story about all the rest of us who found our own way along the paths they laid.


Here he is now, seated on a rickety wooden bench, getting ready for his morning walk. We're in the foyer of a modest, sandy brown bungalow in Anna Nagar, Madurai, built in 1983. Ayya is wearing black shorts and an old blue T-shirt. He's mostly bald, except for wispy tufts of white above his eyes and behind his head, and the thick curls of hair on his arms. He looks small and stout as he pulls on a pair of loose white socks, which bunch up below his thin calves. These sagging socks speak to his lifelong habits of thrift, while the scar on his forehead still marks a childhood accident nearly ninety years back. A century of history, a century of experience, all remaining with him still, lingering in every space and moment of his life.

Carefully stepping into a well-worn pair of black walking shoes, the rubber grip of his walking stick in hand, Ayya leaves the house. A tin board hung from the metal grillwork outside details, somewhat mysteriously, the qualifications of a man who moved to New York City in 1972: Dr. M. Ganesa Pandian, MD, FRCP (Canada) (Cardiology), AB (USA), FACA—my father, his firstborn child, living in America like half of Ayya's children and most of his grandchildren, like the families of so many others in this middle-class urban neighborhood.

Striding over the fresh white kolam pattern that my aunt has applied to the ground in the gathering light of dawn, Ayya steps beyond the rusty gate of the courtyard. For the next hour, he will slowly trace and retrace a route through the smaller lanes of Anna Nagar. The morning begins quietly but builds quickly to a din of bustling traffic as children are rushed by bicycle, car, scooter, and auto rickshaw to a nearby school. He must be careful about these vehicles and the many potholes in the roads, but also about the traps that his own mind may set. Memories come as sudden distractions, making it difficult to see such dangers along his path.

Madurai is widely known as a temple city, the massive Meenakshi Amman temple complex across the river drawing pilgrims and tourists from all over India and around the globe. But Anna Nagar tells more about the city as a regional commercial capital, a bustling market for licit and illicit goods alike. Settled in its lanes are jewelers, lawyers, developers, doctors, and other merchants like Ayya. Many of their houses are built like fortresses, their gleaming faces of steel, glass, and cement towering coldly over the leafy roads of the neighborhood.

Beside these places, Ayya's house looks dated, weathered, even a bit rundown. But he's always been frugal with money, especially when it comes to ornamental niceties. Back at home after his walk, he has his breakfast at a peeling blue Formica table in the kitchen. He spends the rest of the morning in a padded black armchair in the living room, paging through the morning paper. Watching after him is my grandmother, Paati, looking down from a large, gold-painted frame hung high upon the wall. Between her steady gaze and the stream of events recorded in the newspaper, public and private life come together in this room.

A voice calls at the door, and the washerman interrupts his reading. Ayya is eager to tally up all the goods that the man has brought back. Sheets, pillowcases, towels, and shirts are each divided into individual piles and then added up. Ayya's slippered foot taps quietly in his chair as the dhobi calls out these numbers, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 ... It's as if the beat of the count lives within his own body, an unconscious rhythm of goods accumulating one by one. There is a pillowcase missing this morning, and Ayya feigns anger. Then he laughs and pays the man what is due. He looks for some old film songs on the television before lying down for a rest.

Ayya sleeps lightly and uneasily. There are too many memories, images, thoughts, and questions clamoring for attention behind his closed eyes. He was never one to keep journals, diaries, or other such reflections on the events of his life. He maintained ledgers of his business transactions and committed everything else to memory, consciously recalling the details of each day so often that he needed no written reminders. These habits pursue him now, even as he sleeps. He dreams of fruit brokers, unpaid debts, and truckloads of limes tallied one by one.

Look at some of the things scattered around Ayya as he rests: photographs of grandchildren dispersed throughout India and America; an image of the Shwedagon Pagoda's golden spire rising over Rangoon; a framed portrait of the "Grandfather of the Year" beaming with a plump Hawaiian pineapple in 1990; a magnet clinging to the steel green face of a bureau, showing a mouse, dog, and two cats playing jazz around a piano.

Bits of paper, plastic, and metal, fragile tokens of testimony and reminiscence, but also elements with which to conjure the wonder of an ordinary life in extraordinary times. Vast worlds lie buried within the smallest details of such a life.


Whenever we meet, there's something that Ayya always does. He reaches out with both of his hands to clasp my arms, just below my shoulders. I can feel his fingertips, pressing strongly into the slender bands of muscle, as if they're testing the resistance that they meet there, measuring the strength gathered around my bones.

Sometimes, a faint pulse of worry flickers through my mind, as I wonder whether he's judged me too weak. But if he's ever felt anything like this, it never shows in his eyes, which are always warm as he looks up and smiles.

His hands remain wrapped around my arms. His elbows are locked to fix a space between us. The seconds tick by. It feels like I'm some fond thing finally back in his hands, something whose condition can only be assessed slowly, and from the right kind of distance. A lifelong Indian trader, appraising his American grandson.

But let me admit this too—after some years of thinking and working as an anthropologist, I am also appraising him. My habits of appraisal depend, perhaps, on a different kind of distance, one that matches up what the person before me says and does with things that others like him have said and done. He's never just my grandfather. There's always some larger picture of human possibility that I tend to look for, composed of others I've met, others I've read about.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Ayya's Accounts by Anand Pandian, M. P. Mariappan. Copyright © 2014 Anand Pandian. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Anand Pandian is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Johns Hopkins University. He is author of Crooked Stalks: Cultivating Virtue in South India, co-editor of Ethical Life in South Asia (IUP, 2011) and Race, Nature, and the Politics of Difference, and a contributor to Everyday Life in South Asia (IUP, 2010).

M. P. Mariappan (1919-2014) was a retired fruit merchant living in the south Indian city of Madurai at the time he co-authored Ayya's Accounts.

Veena Das is Krieger-Eisenhower Professor of Anthropology at Johns Hopkins University. Her many books include Critical Events: An Anthropological Perspective on Contemporary India and Life and Words: Violence and the Descent into the Ordinary.

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