Thursday, May 19, 2011

MD Narayana Iyer: Chapter 1

Appa, MD Narayana Iyer, or MD as he was known to his friends, was born in Manjappara, a small village near Palghat in Kerala. The family was strictly middle-class and quite orthodox. Several members of the family were musicians and so it was assumed that MD would also follow suit. But, when MD was young, it became evident that he had a slight speech impediment (he used to stammer) and so a career as a musician was ruled out (vocal music was the norm and instrumental music a rarity). There were no schools in Manjappara and the nearest school was about nine miles away. So MD started schooling only when he was about nine, old enough to stay away from his parents, and old enough to stay with a family near the school. I was told his aunt used to walk the nine miles and back every Wednesday and Saturday to give him an oil bath, because oil baths were mandatory for boys on Wednesdays and Saturdays (Rohan and Vishwanath, take note!). Being the first son after two daughters, he was the apple of his parents’ eye. His younger brother was born five years later.

MD was an excellent student and finished his schooling with flying colours. He then joined Maharaja’s College at Ernakulam and passed his BA in Mathematics with first class and went on to study engineering at Guindy Engineering College in Madras. In those days, going to Madras for higher studies was a big event and his aunt wanted to go with him to Madras and set up a home for him there, to make sure he had proper food and had his oil baths regularly! But MD managed to convince her that it was not a practical suggestion.

After graduating from Guindy, he joined the Cochin government service. Apa was married to a girl, Bhagirathi, who was chosen by his parents, as was the custom then. The couple had three children. The first, a boy, Kalyanakrishnan (N.K. Krishnan, as he came to be known later), whose pet name was Manikutty; the second, a daughter, Padmavathy, affectionately known as Ankichi, and then after a long gap, another son, Dharmarajan, called Dharmu.

Life was going fairly smoothly form MD and his family. MD’s two older sisters were married to brilliant lawyers, the older one to TN Anantarama Iyer of Thrissur, and the younger one to TA Sesha Iyer of Kozhikode. Both Anantarama Iyer and Sesha Iyer were very fond of MD and had a great influence on him. MD was very fond of and very close to his younger brother Ramakrishnan (Rasu), who was five years younger than him.

When Manikutty was young, it became apparent that he was an extraordinarily bright child. He topped the class in every subject and became the darling of all his teachers, in spite of a mischievous temperament. When he was in the fourth standard, there was a competitive examination for the whole of Cochin State and Manikutty stood first, winning a gold medal. He walked through all the streets of Ernakulam sporting the medal!

In those days (1920s and 30s) if the boy was brilliant, there was only one choice of career for him (the obvious choice) and that was the Indian Civil Service or ICS. So Appa decided that Manikutty would be an ICS officer. This meant a major financial outlay and was not easy for a Cochin government servant, with no ancestral property to fall back on. But Appa was a very frugal person and started saving for his son’s education from a very early age.

Like many a fond parent, MD also had, in his heart of hears, a favourite child, and that was Ankichi. In the 1920s, nobody paid any attention to their daughters’ education. Girls attended school only up to 4th of 5th standard. The only real lessons they had were in cooking. Women cooked and the men ate, that was the accepted order of the day. As far as their daughters were concerned, the parents’ only aim was to get them married off.

But Appa was different. He paid as much attention to Ankichi’s education as he did to his sons’. He insisted on Ankichi passing the SSLC examinations and she was probably one of the first Brahmin girls to do so in Cochin State. Appa, hailing from a family of musicians, had Ankichi well trained in music as well. He hoped that Ankichi would marry an ICS officer, when fate intervened.

Friday, May 6, 2011

An Extraordinary Life: M.D. Narayana Iyer


All his perfections were so rare,
The wit of men could not declare
Which single virtue or which grace,
Above all the rest had its place

Some time back, my granddaughter Aditi and I were having a discussion about the people who had the maximum impact on our lives. That conversation made me decide to write about the person who had the maximum impact on me, a person whose life was a profile in stoic courage, who faced adversities head on, and emerged a winner - an astonishing saga of grit and determination. His life can serve as a lesson for the future generation. This is not a chronological sequence of events. In trying to showcase the essence of the person, I have narrated events which bring out his infinite capacity to delve into his vast reserves of inner strength to help him swim against the tide.

* * *

At one corner of a large compound, a little girl of about four was playing by herself. She heard the familiar horn of the car. She left everything as it was and ran to the front of the house. An elderly gentleman had just alighted from the car. He was tall, with aristocratic features and ramrod-erect posture. The little girl rushed up to him. The elderly gentleman threw the girl up in the air, pretended to lose his grip on her, and caught her in the last second, grandfather and granddaughter rolling with laughter. This was a daily routine, until one day the old man’s wife shouted at him, “You are no longer young, she is getting heavier, you will break your back one day - stop this!”

A thirteen year old girl has written an especially good essay and grandfather showed it to every visitor to the house. “My granddaughter wrote this.” I could go on and on - I was the young girl, of course.

Only much later in life did I realize the significance of these actions. My grandfather did not want me to feel the absence of a father!

To be continued...