Sujatha Bagal

Stories and essays on food, travel, culture.


My memories of Pedda Chacha (a combination of Telugu and Hindi, literally meaning “big uncle”), my father’s oldest brother, range from extremely dim to non-existent. Even those dim recollections may have had their origin in old black and white photographs that I’ve seen over and over, after a time the photographs themselves morphing into memories.

I’ll call him Chacha here.

Chacha in London, 1958

Chacha was in the Indian Air Force, a flight sergeant and a photographer. From all accounts, a dashing guy with a brilliant mind and a deep love and affection for his widowed mother and nine brothers and sisters.

Yesterday, my father gave me a letter dated September 27, 1960 that Chacha had written in response to one that my father must have written a few days earlier. At the time he wrote the letter, Chacha was at a military hospital in Kanpur, recovering from a heart attack that he had suffered when he landed at Delhi’s Palam airport after a training stint in London.

I reproduce the letter below. But before that, a quick peek behind the curtains.

Chacha’s wife and four children lived in Thiruvunnamalai along with Bombay Chacha (an uncle who lived in Bombay for a long time, obviously!), who was in the Indian Railways and Avva, my grandmother. My father was in Coimbatore, having just started his career with a bank that he would work in until he retired more than 35 years later. My grandfather, a school teacher, had passed away in the mid-40s, penniless.

Avva’s greatest fear, my father says, was that her children would grow up without direction, that the world would know them as “fatherless children”, the children of a widow. So she more than compensated. She brought up her children with an iron hand and a ferocious love. As far as the children were concerned, their world revolved around their mother, fiercly protective of her as she was of them.

The family stuck together against tremendous odds, foresaking cushy lives in relatives’ houses so they would not be obligated to anybody. The older brothers were intensely aware of their role in the family, foresaking higher studies so they could start earning money for the bare necessities. With their support, my father, the youngest of the lot, the tenth child, went to college and got his degree.

Chacha’s family learnt of the heart attack only days later, when a telegram arrived at their doorstep. But there was no money to pay for the trip. Bombay Chacha managed to rustle up two train tickets for Avva and Peddamma, Chacha’s wife, to travel from Thiruvunnamalai to Kanpur.

So the two women embarked on the long train journey with a promise from Bombay Chacha that he would somehow arrange for the money by the time they reached Kanpur. And he did. Along the way, a Ticket Collector handed Avva some cash from Bombay Chacha.

Avva and Peddamma stayed with Chacha until he recovered and was discharged, and they all returned home to Thiruvunnamalai.


Dear _,

Thank you for your letter. I got it only this morning and am very happy to hear all the news about you, particularly, the trend of your thoughts towards life – God bless you.

I am being discharged from hospital and I will go to the camp for a few days to get cleared. I am coming home for good and I am going to be a burden on you people. I am not sure about the details of my pension yet, but I am sure it won’t be less than Rs. 60 per month. Anyway, it will be enough for rice at least at the present rates and of course with a bit of luck and God’s grace I may be able to earn some money. I am not very ambitious and I must learn to be satisfied.

Well __, it is a shame that you have not got your bedding attended to. It is I think more important than your clothes, at least it is as important. So get a decent pillow, pillow covers (4 at least), at least 4 bedsheets and a good blanket. I think you should accord the highest priority to the same.

It is nice to see that you have teamed up with a good set – if a chap’s idea of relaxation from busy duties is a visit to the temple there cannot be anything wrong with him. Don’t you think so? My compliments to all those good souls and may God bless them all! I suppose they are all bachelors in fact and of course it will be foolish to expect them to be in thought also! What?

I will be home any time now. With love and good wishes,

Yours affec’ly,


P.S. Don’t worry about the radio for the present. I may bring one with me.

I imagine Chacha sitting in his hospital bed propped up by a pillow or two, a blanket draped over his legs. His bed one in a row of beds in a long, sunlit, dormitory-like room. His fountain pen ready, poised over light blue paper 11cm wide, 18cms long. I imagine him trying to organize his thoughts to respond to his brother, 20 years younger, living alone, away from family for the first time as he embarks on a new career. I also imagine him trying to wrap his mind around the fact that he himself is at the end of his career with the Air Force.

Giving solace, seeking solace. Giving encouragement, seeking reassurance. But trying to keep it all lighthearted.



This entry was posted on September 15, 2005 by in Blog, Personal Essays and tagged .
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