In 1943, as the Japanese bombed the Port of Calcutta and Gandhi fasted in a Delhi prison to protest his detention, a young man in the seaside town of Nagapattinam borrowed money from a friend, leased a tent, and exhibited a film that launched his fortunes. The film, Sivakavi, starred M. K. Thyagaraja, an early superstar of Tamil talkies and an accomplished Carnatic singer, whose voice and presence propelled the film’s success across Tamil-speaking South India. The film ran for six months, garnering for the young entrepreneur who showed the film the sobriquet Sivakavi Subramaniam. This man was my paternal grandfather, but his children and grandchildren, even family friends, called him Anna, older brother, because his younger sister and many half-sisters lived with him, and that’s what they called him.
Eventually, the tent became a single-screen cinema hall, doors propped open to quell the stifling heat, allowing the sounds of filmic life and life outside to mingle uninhibitedly, promiscuously, thought and image and sound unbound from screen and street. One day, in my teens, I climbed up into the projection room to marvel at the reels of film, munching chili-dusted popcorn while pretending I had been cast in a Tamil remake of Cinema Paradiso.
After my father finished his Ph.D. at Kent State University (lured there by the university’s intense international recruitment efforts in the wake of the infamous shooting of students protesting Nixon’s bombing of Cambodia), he found a job teaching information systems—I always just told people that my dad taught “computers,” because who knew what an information system was anyway?—at a small university in the southeast corner of Wisconsin. We lived in the adjoining town of Racine, home of S.C. Johnson (maker of “Off!” bug spray), J.I. Case (known for their flambeau red tractors) and Horlicks (popularizer of malted milk powder, marketed as a health food for the young, the old and the infirm, and the most purchased packaged drink in India other than water).
Anna was thrilled by our move to Racine, but neither for the tractors nor the malted milk. In Nagapattinam, my grandfather had been a committed local philanthropist and member of the Rotary Club, an international organization that had spread from the American Midwest to encompass a global network of businessmen committed to service. Coincidentally, back in 1868, Racine had also served as the birthplace of Paul Harris, founder of the first Rotary Club.
In the last decade of Anna’s life, he came to stay with my family in Racine. I remember sitting on the front porch with him while he spoke to me about Rotary. Mid-telling, he would abruptly stop, and then start again from the beginning, with almost the same words, as if some mysterious force had hit pause, rewind and play, seemingly unaware that he had already told me the same story. Around the third rendition, I would pretend that my mother was calling me and excuse myself, lacking as I was in the appropriate amount of filial piety.
I tried to speak to my parents about Anna’s repetitions. Armed with knowledge about Alzheimer’s—from where? certainly television and movies, but also, everyday talk at school and on the bus—I informed my parents that I was quite certain that my grandfather had Alzheimer’s. They were quite uninterested in my diagnosis; they certainly hadn’t noticed anything, he seemed fine to them. At the time, I thought, this was simply another instance of the immigrant refusal to recognize mental illness, a refusal tied to a stigmatization that even then, before my first anthropology course, I knew to gloss as cultural.
My grandfather, an Iyer Brahman, had lived in a large old house in Nagapattinam. Towards the end of his days, most of the family had moved to the big city, Chennai. His wife, my patti, had passed away before I was born, from diabetes. She had never gotten old, she just died. But Anna’s eldest son and his wife, along with four of their daughters (a fifth daughter had been adopted by my grandfather’s third son and his wife), remained in the big house. The first daughter was married off properly, but the second eloped with the son of a man who sold fishing equipment, a non-Brahman, for which she was disowned.
When in India, I would go to meet her surreptitiously in the small home where she lived with her husband and their young son. She cried, she wanted to return to the family. When I asked her sisters how they could abide by her exile, they harshly criticized her behavior. Crocodile tears, they said. She had jeopardized the reputation of the family and placed the possibility of her younger sisters’ marriages in peril. What kind of love was that? Who would marry into a family in which a daughter would do such a thing, a bad family? Despite all this, at least one of her sisters, the one who had shown me the way to her home, visited regularly. Her mother spoke to her on the phone when her father was out of the house. Her father, in fact, was on the board of the local school that her son attended; ironically, perhaps deliberately, he was frequently in the same room as his grandson. Formal disownment was simultaneously undercut and maintained in myriad ways.
With all things, Anna was the ultimate authority and arbiter. I spoke passionately—righteously—to my grandfather about this situation. Why disown her, I asked? Surely, caste-based discrimination was wrong. He agreed: certainly, in the future, people will think like this. But not now.
I was furious, I was righteous, I yelled. Anna was undoubtedly perplexed by his teenage American-born grandson fuming in garbled Tamil about the oppression of caste. My righteousness, no doubt, was propelled by a sense of the fragility and expendability of kinship ties, how easily they could be severed. In other words: if her, why not me? In anger, I vowed never to speak to him again.
Eventually, the second daughter was re-incorporated into the family. Having inherited Anna’s business sense, she carried on his entrepreneurial legacy by buying and selling highway construction contracts and becoming a lynchpin in the local network of Pepsi distribution, among other ventures. After a long time, Anna, and the entire family, had finally adjusted.
And then, the fifth and youngest daughter eloped, marrying the son of a local money-lender. The second daughter, formerly disowned and now re-incorporated, heaped scorn on her youngest sister’s decision. I was taken aback. But you did the same thing, I said. How can you criticize her? Shouldn’t you oppose her estrangement from the family, fight for her cause?
The second daughter was unmoved. Didn’t my sister see the mistake I made? Has she forgotten how much I suffered? How much I hurt our family? Why then would she make the same mistake?
I was chastised. The one who I had righteously defended was no longer a defender of her own righteousness, but a penitent insider to the ways of normative, caste-based kinship. The future where these kinds of things wouldn’t matter, the future predicted by Anna, had yet to arrive.
When Anna passed away, the old cinema hall, rendered obsolete by the rise of the multiplex, was inherited by his four sons (but not his four daughters) and promptly put on the chopping block. My father decided not to fly to India for the funeral ceremonies. He’s dead, he told me, not a lot of good I can do now, is there?
Bharat Jayram Venkat is an assistant professor at UCLA’s Institute for Society and Genetics. His recent publications include “Marriage and other Shams” (Public Books, 2019), “Of Cures and Curses: Toward a Critique of Curative Reason” (Public Culture, 2018), and “Scenes of Commitment” (Cultural Anthropology, 2017). His forthcoming book, “At the Limits of Cure,” was awarded the Joseph W. Elder Prize in the Indian Social Sciences and offers an anthropological history of the idea of cure through a study of tuberculosis in India.
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