© 2024 Milwaukee Public Media is a service of UW-Milwaukee's College of Letters & Science
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

A Century Of History In The Life Of An Ordinary Indian


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm 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 into a despised caste of people known tree climbers. 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. Anand Pandian, who is an associate professor of anthropology at the Johns Hopkins University, has listened to his grandfather and tells his story now in his new book, "Ayya's Accounts: A Ledger of Hope in Modern India." It's published by the Indiana University Press. And Anand Pandian joins us in our studios. Thanks so much for being with us.

ANAND PANDIAN: It's a pleasure to be here. Thank you.

SIMON: When did you begin to grasp what an extraordinary life your grandfather, whom you call Ayya, has had? And did they strike you as almost incomprehensible to someone living in 21st-century America?

PANDIAN: Well, I think all of us struggle at some level with reconciling the here and now with what lies beyond it. And this is most especially the case when we think of people like our own grandparents who have lived so long before we even appeared on the scene. And even more so the case with someone like my own grandfather, who not only was in India and pursuing a life in India that I had very little sense of as a fruit merchant, so different from my physician father, but also as someone who had spent his childhood in Burma and had literally walked and pursued a very, very complicated and treacherous journey back to India from Burma during the second world war. These are things that one didn't even have very much access to through the history books that we're reading in school.

SIMON: The section on that 1,700 mile track is relatively short, but it's absolutely searing. And it begins in a bullock cart.

PANDIAN: That's right.

SIMON: Well, tell us about it if you could.

PANDIAN: At that time in the 1930s, that - you had the development of this tension between the Indians who had migrated there and the Burmese who were already there. And in the midst of all of that, we had other tensions that were simmering at a global level, and which eventuated in the second world war. My grandfather was living in 1941 in a town called Okpo, 108 kilometers north of Rangoon. He was running a small grocery shop, essentially.

And when he and his family there began to get news of the Japanese incursion into Burma, what eventually happened was my own grandfather and his brother joined about - somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 other men, women and children who took a particularly treacherous route through the Arakan Mountains in western Burma - a route that was along - that unfolded along a military road through thick jungle, a route along which some 10,000 to 50,000 of those people who passed that way actually died. And he talks of their bullock cart literally running over - the wheels of their cart literally running over the bodies of those who had fallen along the way, of having to cook and eat and sleep beside the dead bodies piled up along that path.

SIMON: I think a lot of Americans might begin to contemplate living through an experience like that and thinking OK, if I survive, though, I could spend the rest of my life just recuperating. But that is when the rest of your grandfather's life began.

PANDIAN: It's quite extraordinary to think that my grandfather is a man who is nearly 95 years old, and this journey of which I speak took place in his early 20s. So the vast majority of his life, what the pieces that he had to pull together and put back together, were all things that happened in the wake of that journey - his return to that small village where he spent a lot of his childhood, his marrying my grandmother, their movement to a growing market town in South India, their children and the circuitous routes their own child took to wind up in the United States and other distant places. One of the most extraordinary things about my grandfather's story, for me, is the simple sweep of what we can see when we pay attention to the minutia of the life of someone such as him.

SIMON: Let me ask you about a couple of pictures in the book, which we'll do our best to describe.


SIMON: This is a picture taken in 1949 of your grandparents.


SIMON: They look prosperous, accomplished and utterly tired. It's a very much official-looking portrait...


SIMON: ...Wearing a - I think it's a - wearing nice borrowed clothes I gather, right, that the photographer had hanging.

PANDIAN: Absolutely.

SIMON: So where did this find them in life?

PANDIAN: That was a time that postwar era in India when you had a tremendous amount of aspiration for development in the air. Nehru was the first Prime Minister of independent India. And there was a sense in the air of the chance for a collective progress that many, many different kinds of people who came from different backgrounds could actually participate in, could share in. And I think the momentum of that time also swept my own grandparents up. Their condition was precarious.

The jacket that my grandfather was wearing was borrowed. The jewelry that my grandmother is wearing was costume jewelry. I think the prosperity that you see in that image is less about the wealth that they have in hand at that moment and more about that future horizon that they might feel is already coming within their reach.

SIMON: What do you think your grandfather's story might tell us about today's India?

PANDIAN: What I think is so interesting about looking at the life of someone like my grandfather over the course of nearly a century is that you see that there is a kind of ongoing momentum of change that exists throughout his life and that takes him and those alongside him in many different directions. That these patterns of change that we see now in India have been with us for some time and have had a lot to do with the kinds of aspirations that people like my grandparents as well as my own parents grew up with.

Another thing to keep in mind, though, is that though my family has been really lucky in the course of advancement that we've seen, there are many people who have not been so lucky. And I think that one thing that we definitely learned by paying attention to the story of someone like my grandfather is that luck, pure serendipity simply has an enormous amount to do as well with who makes it and who doesn't.

SIMON: Anand Pandian of the Johns Hopkins University. His new book, "Ayya's Accounts: A Ledger of Hope in Modern India" from the Indiana University Press. Thanks so much for being with us.

PANDIAN: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.