A June Fortnight in India (Part 3 of 3): Tamil Nadu

In Part 1 of this story of my two-week trip to India last month, my wife, youngest son, and I visited my wife’s home city of Pune, celebrating her parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. In Part 2 we traveled to Kerala, my mother-in-law’s home state. In this third and final post, we finish our week in the south of India.

From Kerala we drove east to Tamil Nadu, my father-in-law’s home state. As I mentioned in the previous post, going from one state in India to another – in this case, from Kerala to Tamil Nadu – means encountering a new language, history, and culture. Traveling through the southern third of Tamil Nadu we saw simpler, more remote homes and villages than in Kerala and more obvious signs of poverty. But appearances can be deceiving – Tamil culture is rich and ancient. For centuries Tamils have contributed to philosophy, science, mathematics, religion, literature, poetry, and the arts. Recently a Tamil chess grandmaster was world champion for six years. And Tamil is one of the oldest living languages in the world.

Although we were on a quest to visit the places of my father-in-law’s youth, we did play tourist for a bit in Tamil Nadu as we detoured south to Kanyakumari, the southernmost point of India. I had often looked at this spot on the map – such a distinct location at the very end of the subcontinent – and wondered what it would be like to actually stand there. My family in India kindly indulged this whim and we spent an evening, night, and morning there.

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The southernmost point in India has an edge-of the-world quality that makes you realize you’ve reached the end of a continent.

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At sunrise we could see dozens of these small fishing boats as tiny specks bobbing in the waves far off shore.

In traditional Indian thought a confluence of waters (called a sangam) is a place with great spiritual power. The sangam of the River Ganges is the primary location for this but other places also share in its purifying power. The point at Kanyakumari is considered the sangam of three major seas: the Bay of Bengal, the Indian Ocean, and the Arabian Sea. I’m not sure if it was the power of the sangam or my obsession with maps and geography, but standing there did have an effect on me. With water on three sides, unceasing winds, waves crashing on enormous rocks, pilgrims and tourists milling about everywhere – it’s completely captivating!

We arrived in the evening and shared the sunset with hundreds of other people on the beach. We got up early the next morning and saw the sunrise with an equal number of tourists/pilgrims looking across the waters to the east. After breakfast we ferried out to one of the little islands off the point and visited the monument to the guru Vivekananda. There are other temples and sites to see in Kanyakumari but we wanted to get back to our original plan so we headed north.

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In the evening at Kanyakumari, visitors gather on the beach for the sunset…

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… and in the morning for the sunrise at almost the same spot.

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Just off the eastern point at Kanyakumari are a memorial to Hindu monk and teacher Vivekananda (left) and an enormous statue of the Tamil poet-philosopher Thiruvalluvar. Ferries take visitors to both locations, which are less than a kilometer off shore.

Driving north from Kanyakumari the landscape turned flat, brown, and dry with low mountains (or high hills) almost always on the horizon. This area is known for historic Hindu temples shaped like very steep vertical hills rising out of the plains.

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It never rained while we were in Tamil Nadu, but the promise of precipitation always lingered above the mountains to the west.

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This scene is very typical of southern Tamil Nadu and made me think the shape of the abruptly steep hills was inspiration for the design of the temples in this region – or maybe I read that somewhere. 🙂

Just as in Kerala we were on the path of my mother-in-law’s early years, in Tamil Nadu we were seeing the places where my wife’s father grew up and went to school. Within the family, my father-in-law is first and foremost a wonderful husband, father, uncle, grandfather, and generous friend. But to the rest of the world he is a well-known cardiologist, professor, researcher, writer, hospital founder, hospital inspector, retired army colonel, and more. He has seen and done enough that he could write a full and fascinating book. One of most remarkable elements of his life story is that it started out in a tiny village in a remote part of Tamil Nadu state. It seems like a cliche but it truly was through sheer hard work and determination that he overcame the limitations of place, got a good education, and became so successful in a profession that benefits others.

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The railroad stop is one of the greener places at my father-in-law’s village. Even the dog is too hot and sleepy to care that we’re there.

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This gentleman was herding goats in the extreme heat, sun, and thorns on the edge of the village. He was very honored by the request to have his picture taken and proudly primped and posed to prepare for it.

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My son stands with his grandfather in front of the school that his great-grandparents founded and operated in Tamil Nadu. One of the neighbors who helps with the school stands in the background.

My wife’s paternal grandparents were something like missionaries, starting and running a school for children in the village of Vadamalapuram, a humble stop on the railroad in southern Tamil Nadu (about two hours north of where we had been on India’s southern tip). The school was for younger children and provided only a basic education so my father-in-law was sent by his parents to a bigger school in the nearby town of Sankarankovil.

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Children from the village attend the school founded by my wife’s grandparents.

He has told us stories for years about having to walk five miles each way from his village to the school and back every day. I have to confess, part of me somewhat doubted the “five miles each way” and half assumed it was the typical exaggeration of older people trying to impress upon the younger generations the hardships of their day (“We walked through hurricanes and blizzards everyday, uphill both ways”). But that day I saw for myself that the route from his home to his school was truly five miles each way. We re-traced his path on foot for about 100 yards and realized this young boy had been walking through an extremely dry, harsh landscape filled with ankle-high thorn bushes and under the hottest sun I had ever experienced. And this was for grade school!

Here we saw what had been my father-in-law’s childhood home but now is almost in ruins with no one to live there and take care of it. Next door is the little one-room school his parents founded and ran, still operating with a teacher, some helpers, and about 15 adorable young children. With no desks or chairs, the students sit on simple woven mats on the floor. Their crayon drawings and other artwork are hung with pride on lines around the room. My son gave out chocolates we had brought for the occasion. As I took pictures the children ate quietly, very innocently staring at me – I’m sure I looked very alien to them!

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With no desks or chairs, children are very accustomed to working and learning on mats on the floor.

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Under the cool shade of a tree next to the school, a friend in the village prepares a mid-afternoon snack for us.

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My wife’s parents visit the final resting place of her grandparents – a beautiful monument the family placed over their graves.

My wife has shared many stories of how the place once looked under her grandparents’ care: rustic and simple, with green orchards and gardens producing an abundance of fruits and vegetables. Since then extended droughts and the absence of immediate family living on the premises have caused the general decay. The family is now considering ways to develop the property so that the school can provide more services to more children.

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My father-in-law’s family donated the land for this clean, modern, government-run clinic, which was built on the edge of the village and serves hundreds of people a week. We happened to be there during the hottest part of the afternoon when it shuts down for a siesta.

In the small dusty town of Sankarankovil (five miles away, indeed!), we paid a visit to my father-in-law’s elementary school. Not surprisingly, the teachers and staff there were happy to see us and very proud of this alumnus (my father-in-law) who got his start in their school and has done so well in life.

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The entrance to what had been my father-in-law’s elementary school in Sankarankovil.

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As a sign of respect, traditional Indians remove their shoes or sandals before entering a home, church, or even a classroom, in the case of this school. It is a very unique experience to walk into a church barefoot.

We met with the principal of the school, which is now an all-girls government school, and she shared with my family (in Tamil) how things had grown and changed through the years. In the school office other staff and administrators came and went and we were offered the slightly sweet milky hot tea in little paper cups that we had been served everywhere else and that somehow tastes perfect in spite of the intense heat. Then they led us to a large hall for a school assembly – an assembly in which we were the stars of the show!

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As the honored guest, my father-in-law gave the first speech at an assembly in his former elementary school.

The hall was packed with dozens of middle school girls all wearing the same burgundy uniform with white sash and all with the same hair style: long black hair braided in a loop on each side of the face. Though the heat was oven-like it did nothing to dampen the enthusiasm and expectation of these students. They were buzzing, waiting for something wonderful to happen. A television news man was there reporting on the events, handing us a microphone with the TV station’s Tamil logo on it. (“Famous alum returns to town. Brings foreigners with him. Film at eleven!”)

After introducing us, several people gave speeches, honored us with shawls placed around our shoulders, and basically treated us like royalty. Eventually we all had to give speeches and when my turn came I stepped forward and the previously polite, under-control students spontaneously burst into laughter! We were not exactly in a tourist hotspot so I don’t think the locals here see many westerners. In spite of being laughed at, there was something so surreal and amusing about the entire experience that I didn’t feel even a bit nervous. I delivered an impromptu speech about coming from a land of ice and snow and they all need to study hard and anyone of them could become successful like my father-in-law. Since I was the only person not speaking in Tamil, part of me just figured it didn’t matter what I said as long as I smiled while saying it.

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The school’s principal honored each of us individually by placing a shawl around our shoulders while the students applauded enthusiastically.

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A glimpse of the captive audience that greeted us in Sankarankovil.

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After the assembly, the students, in swarms, brought us sheets of white paper and pens to collect our autographs. Surreal but great fun!

At the age of 15 my father-in-law began the next chapter of his life and went off to a boarding school, the Jesuit-run St. Xavier’s College in Palayamkottai, an hour and a half south of his home. The day of our visit to St. Xavier’s we had the great pleasure of reuniting with Fr. Jamels, a beloved friend and diocesan priest who lives only a few miles away. Fr. Jamels studied in Chicago for many years and also has been a long-time friend of my wife and her family from his days studying at the seminary in Pune. Our son in particular was very happy to see the priest who had baptized him and who had spent so much time with our family when he was a toddler.

Fr. Jamels and friends from Chicago started a wonderful organization in Tamil Nadu called LIFT that supports young students who have limited resources but show great promise in completing their education, entering good careers, and supporting their families. The youth of LIFT treated my family to an evening presentation of songs, dances, and speeches. (I missed this, unfortunately, as it was the one day in the trip that the food situation finally gave me stomach problems and I went to bed at 6:00 in the evening.)

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Girls in the LIFT program presented a lovely performance of music, dance, and culture for our family. This took place in the entrance to their building, which happens to make for an excellent stage.

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My father-in-law attended this college for three years from ages 15 to 17 in the mid-1950s.

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A tour of St. Xavier’s college gave us an opportunity to spend time with our long-time friend Fr. Jamels.

Fr. Jamels has friends at St. Xavier’s so he gave us a tour of campus. The college continues to thrive today and was full of students and staff in the first week of classes after a break. As we walked the dry, hot grounds, my father-in-law reminisced, shared stories of climbing the fence at night to go see “English movies” in town, and warmly remembered the Jesuit in charge of discipline who kept a wary but paternal eye on him.

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Fr. Jamels gave us an informative tour of St. Xavier’s campus. Here he is explaining the syncretism in the architecture of the college’s main chapel, combining traditional Hindu, Muslim, and Christian elements.

As we toured the campus we stopped and talked with several professors, who all happened to know Fr. Jamels and who enjoyed sharing news and updates on the college with the family. This was the one stop on our itinerary where we did not have school officials waiting to welcome us. By good fortune, though, we ran into three Jesuits who just happened to be the college’s top three administrators. As they walked out of a building they recognized Fr. Jamels and stopped to talk with us, pleased to meet a respected alumnus of their school.

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A grandson makes for an excellent tech consultant for a grandfather with a new phone.

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Fr. Arul, another friend who had studied in Chicago, joined us at St. Xavier’s as well.

The final stop in this tour was the medical college in Tamil Nadu’s third largest city, hot and historic Madurai. This is where my father-in-law studied medicine, became a doctor, and practiced for the first time. He would go on to bigger and better things (army officer/doctor, specialist in cardiology, professor, founder of hospitals) but we could see in his face and hear in his voice that it meant a lot for him to come back to where his medical vocation truly began.

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A proud alumnus stands in front of the residence hall where he lived as a med student almost 60 years before.

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Greetings at what had once been a primary entrance to Madurai Medical College.

For this visit, again, we were received like VIP’s and top administrators met with my father-in-law and talked with him about his medical career, his time at the college, and how the institution has changed since his day. As we sat in the office waiting for various people to come and greet us we were served the inevitable piping hot milky tea in the little paper cups. Once again it was the perfect luxurious touch in spite of the 90-degree temperatures.

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Seeing photos of medical college administrators from the 1950s sparked stories of the men and women who influenced my father-in-law. And yes, India has been ahead of most of the world for decades in benefitting from women as doctors and college administrators (not to mention prime ministers).

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Walking through one of the residence halls at Madurai Medical College.

One of my first impressions at every stop on this tour of my father-in-law’s schools was the relatively humble conditions at each place. This was true even at St. Xavier’s and Madurai Medical College. As we toured the residence halls at Madurai, my father-in-law noted that many of the external things were the same since his day. Both then and now students had simple living quarters. The same primitive “common loo” that my father-in-law recognized from years past was still in use.  These medical students were not isolated in luxury conditions but shared everything communally in a way so typical of the larger culture.

For two weeks in India, I found myself growing in love and appreciation for my wife and her family. I now understand better how family is her highest priority. I can see more clearly why she values simple, meaningful things and experiences. And how though she is extremely tech-savvy, rarely watches TV but will lose herself for hours in conversation, reading, making music, taking road trips, or just sitting and watching a rainstorm. This is how she was raised and this is how they do things in the places where she is from. My admiration for my mother-in-law and father-in-law also deepened as I witnessed the love of their families and saw the challenges they overcame to be the generous, respected people that they are today. I am grateful to them for their immense love and generosity and to my brother-in-law and his wife and their children who lovingly shared their time and themselves with us on this trip.

Today, a month after our journey, we ran into a good friend of ours at the library who is traveling to her native Kerala tomorrow morning with her family. When I asked where in Kerala they were staying she said, “Trivandrum” – and I knew where that was! Yes, she did give me the English colonial name for the place assuming I wouldn’t recognize the more authentic name of Thiruvananthapuram but that’s okay. I’ve now been through Trivandrum, I’ve stopped and had lunch there; I have a visual of at least a part of the place. And that’s true about many people and places that my wife and her family and our Indian friends have been talking about for years. We missed most of the tourist must-sees but hopefully we have many more trips ahead of us to catch up on those. I’m looking forward to it.


Part 1 of this story was about time in Pune and Maharashtra and Part 2 covered a brief trip to Kerala.



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