My Childhood Days at Coimbatore
By C. I. Sivasubramanian
Age: 95, Retired Director, Ministry of Commerce, Govt. of India
Foreword by Venkat
It is a blessing indeed to publish the first article here, received from my maternal uncle as the first guest author. ‘Chinna Mama’ as we call him in family is an adorable, humble man and a role model in so many ways.
Nothing could be a better inspiration to learning and upskilling than his enthusiasm to complete a graduate and post graduate degree at the age of 93! Sharing his story published in a newspaper.
Enjoy his beautiful recollection of his childhood and school days with various sweet, humorous, touching and curious incidents. His writing also gives a rich glimpse into the life in India in those times.
My Childhood Days at Coimbatore
I was born in Coimbatore town in 1926 and brought up in the adjacent Sugarcane Breeding Station, popularly known as SBS, where my father worked. We lived in a Government quarter which was quite spacious with a front yard.
We were a 20 and odd families in the Estate, drawn from different States professing different religions but we were a cohesive family, did not know the difference between one religion from the other or one State from another. All of us lived amicably.
There was no school, no electricity, no telephone in the vicinity in those days. We children were admitted to a school in a nearby village and used to walk to the school. It had only two teachers of which one was the Headmaster, both occupied the same hall. All the classes (I think it had only four classes then) were held in the same hall. I still remember we had to recite ‘Eintham George namathu mannar’ every morning’. (For those who are not aware, we were still under the subjugation of the British Raj and George V was the King of Britain and therefore the king of India too.)
At this stage I want to tell you a few incidents that took place when I was in that primary school:
One day it was breezy and cool when I went to school along with my friends. We were going by the canal, built artificially to water the cocoanut and sapota trees lining the street. My thoughts were on the school only when suddenly a long snake appeared before me with its hood high. I was frightened and fell down, with folded hands. I don’t know if it was out of fear or reverence –it was a ‘cobra’. I have seen cobras visiting our house and driven away without harming them. I have a strong feeling the serpent went its away after seeing my folded hands on the ground. We in the family and several other families in the vicinity would not harm cobras.
We lived in two different quarters, one after another. Our neighbour in the first quarter was Mr Subbarao, Botany Assistant in the Station.
Mr. Subbarao’s wife was friendly with my mother and they used to exchange goodies between the two houses. She was a young bride then and the couple had engaged a cook, by name Nanjundan. He used to play with the children around and one day suggested that he would show us a trick. He swallowed a one-rupee coin – actually he pretended to swallow but the coin went inside! He had to be taken to a nearby dispensary to take the coin out. He was severely reprimanded by Mr. Subbarao.
One day when I was playing with a boy in front of his house he suggested that we throw a stone on the next car passing by the road. There was actually only one car around in that place and that belonged to the Sugarcane Expert, the top brass of the station. He did come by and I promptly threw the stone at the car. My friend meanwhile disappeared! The Sugarcane Expert called my father and told him of the incident and my father reprimanded me severely. How clever the boy was! He quietly slipped away from the scene leaving me the lone person to be accused.
One of the boys we played with was the son of the Officer next to the Sugarcane Expert. He was from Punjab and had difficulty mixing with the Tamil population. I remember the day when I along with some friends visited his bungalow. We called the boy ‘Kaka’ as his mother would call him. We didn’t know it was a nickname. His mother corrected us saying his name was Manohar and we should call him by that name only. His brother Bushan Dutt was in College with me and he used to come to College with the Punjabi salwar kameez, a strange combination at that time and in that part of the country.
We had a ‘Koyya’ (Guava) tree in front of our house with a fruit hanging on it. It was growing bigger and bigger and we were waiting for the day when it would grow so big when we would pluck it. Yes, we waited and waited when one day it was gone! Man or animal had plucked it away. We had no compound wall and anyone could have come in and gone with the fruit.
Mr. Husseini was a heavy smoker but a thorough gentleman. His two nephews who studied in Madras used to visit Coimbatore on vacations and used to join us in our pranks.
Nawaz Khan was a peon. He used to visit our house to take office keys or to deliver them. He never entered the house as was the custom then. Whatever was required he got it done from the doorstep itself. He had not passed the matriculation exam but was keen to learn. My father appreciated this quality in him and began to teach shorthand to him. He was invited into the office room, allowed to sit in front of him and was taught the art. He was a good learner. A few years later, long after my father retired from service, I learnt that he had been promoted to the clerical cadre and was doing well. He was eternally grateful to my father for his promotion.
It looked that passing matriculation was not an absolute requirement for recruitment to Government service then. Mr. Thomas who was the Assistant Sugarcane Expert, a gazetted appointment, was not a matriculate. Though he did not possess any academic qualification the top brass was happy with his work and recommended him to the title of Rao Saheb.
When I was 9 or so I was shifted from SBS to my Grandfather’s house in Coimbatore for schooling.
It was a day in summer. My elder brother was on vacation from College. He took me to the Goshan Park, a huge park with radio announcements and music playing on the loudspeaker. We went through the entire park and ultimately landed in a pool of water, water that was just one foot deep. I played merrily in the tank when suddenly I went down into a hole! I was going down and down and something seemed to pull me down. I thought my time was up and I was taken to hell or heaven, God knows which. I did my prayers and lo behold something struck my hands. I was hitting the tank floor and I was stuck there. I was still alive! I shouted to my brother ‘Anna’ ‘Anna’; and my brother turned immediately and lifted me up. All this happened in a matter of seconds but to me in hallucination it took hours! If he had not lifted me up then I would not be here writing this!
The studies were going on smoothly, but I was more interested in sports than studies. Every year in elementary school, and subsequently in High School too, I got some prize or the other in sports events.
My sports career began with events in the backyard of the house of my cousin Gowri Shankar. He used to conduct some small sports events like long jump, High Jump, distance running, etc. in the backyard of his house. I came first in all and got a coloured pencil as a prize, the first prize I ever got!
While in the Elementary School I got prizes every year. Once I was denied the prize. The sports teacher felt that prizes should not go to one person only and decided to give the prize to the second runner. I was disappointed. But the teacher came to our class the next day and gave me a consolation prize.
My elder brother went to study in the Madras Christian College. There was a big difference in age between us. He was 9 years older and we used to treat him as a father figure. Whenever he returned from Madras, as Chennai was known then, he used to bring goodies for us which we thoroughly enjoyed. He came by the Blue Mountain Express which was plying between Madras and Coimbatore. When he returned to Madras we all used to go to the railway station and bid him farewell. My sister Lakshmi, a young baby then who used to accompany us heard the coal-driven engine sound ‘gup, gup, gup’ and called our brother ‘gup’ Anna!
Meanwhile I learnt cycling. My brother had a cycle and I took it out. It was not full-fledged cycling in the sense I did not sit on the seat but extended my one leg across under the bar and pedalled. I could go fairly fast. One fine day during the ‘Avani avitam’ I took the cycle and showed my prowess on the Coimbatore streets. I was wearing a ‘pattu veshti’ as was required on a festival day. I was doing pretty well for the first hour or so but then I seemed to have lost concentration. There was a party going to a temple and they spread all over the road. I rang the bell furiously but they would not give me way. I found a little gap on one side and rushed to that place. Precisely at that point of time a young girl in the party ran to that gap and I crashed into her. The party took my cycle away and would not allow me to take it in spite of my pleading that it was not my fault. But somehow they let me go. I came home and quietly sat in the chair in the front veranda without informing any one of the incident. My father noticed the red stain on the pattu veshti, however much I tried to hide it, and I was caught! I had to spill the beans!
When I returned from Coimbatore to SBS to pursue my studies in the High School, I was a ball boy in the badminton court. They played with a soft woollen ball. 5 players on one side. When they were short of hands boys like us were taken in. I was initiated to badminton like this. We had no knowledge that popular badminton was played with shuttle cock. We used to have tournaments when players from other states used to participate. The elders were nice and friendly and freely mixed with us. In those days my brother was known as Ambi and all our neighbours used to call him by that name. He was quite popular in their circle.
My mother used to send me on small errands here and there, occasionally to Singanallur, a village 5 miles away. I enjoyed cycling and was very happy to go on errands.
Perur is a ‘Sivasthalam’ close to Coimbatore town. There was a short cut from the Sugarcane Station and our Father used to take us via the sugarcane fields to attend the Arudhra darsanam and other festivals.
One day my friends, all of them slightly older than me, persuaded me to accompany them for swimming. The tank authorities would not allow me to get into the tank saying that I was not 16 yet and needed permission from my parent saying that he would be responsible if anything untoward happened to me. I was not sure if my father would agree to write such a letter. I approached him when he was in a good mood one day and expressed my anxiety. He seemed to hesitate for a moment but seeing my anxiety in my eyes he wrote the letter. How would I enter the water without any previous experience? Friends tied a dry ‘Suraikkai’ (Bottle gourd) on my back and asked me to try. They assured me I would not sink as the Suraikkai would keep me afloat. I tried short distances of 5 to 10 feet. The next day friends tied a rope on my waist and asked me to swim keeping one end on the edge of the tank. I swam some more distance around the tank but keeping close to the steps where I could rest. The third day they just threw me in the water and urged me to swim. I did swim! From then on I have had no problem in swimming. I have taught my grandchildren to swim.
It is exhilarating to reminisce over my good old childhood days. I am sure you all will like my story.
C. I. Sivasubramanian