Perumal Gounder from Namakkal, Tamilnadu ... he is my favourite father-in-law ... Ooops! ... the only father-in-law. He passed away on 20th Feb 2010 right at the end of the Chinese New Year holidays.
His one step in the "right" direction in the underground pedestrian tunnel at the Kuala Lumpur Railway Station way back in 1991 made my day and was the start of my journey towards marriage. In the age of deep cultural reflections and him being from the hardcore land of India, it was amazing how practical his thinking was.
Wedding photo of Perumal Gounder (right) and Kaliammah
His daughter was walking up to Platform 2 at the station to meet and greet the family, holding hands with the boyfriend whom the family has not approved yet ... that is how he first met me! Both of us were holding hands, chatting and casually walking up the stairs as the trains never come on time and we were early by half an hour. But to our dismay (or blessing) the train was earlier than scheduled on that one day in the last 5 years and the whole family was right there as we emerged 😀
He started talking right away as we met, without too much of a formal introduction, and he went on chatting about the train journey, their snack at Gemas station and the good sleep thereafter. The family has arrived to participate in the graduation ceremony of my wife (then girlfriend) at the University of Malaya. I had a car by then and drove to the railway station with the idea of fetching them to their relative's house, provided there are no smoke and thunder when they meet me for the first time.
For them, I was then a Malayalee who sidetracked their Tamil daughter into a relationship, and a Malayalee was not at all acceptable in the close-knit Gounder* circles.
*Gounders are a clan from Tamilnadu who are very close to their culture and select their sons-in-law from within the clan in arranged marriages. Here I was from outside the clan, and like adding salt to the wound, I was not even of the same state in India. That was a mighty gap that does not fit their checklist.
So what happened at the pedestrian tunnel?
As he continued talking while we descended the steps, my future mother-in-law was fuming mad and that was visible in her gestures. She had told my wife that they will all take a bus to the relative's house and "we do not need to get into the Malayalee's car now ... and why the hell did you bring him to receive us at the station??"
At the base where the tunnel starts there was a left turn (to my car) and a right turn (to the bus station). While the whole family turned right based on the "approved protocol of the day" to take a bus and dump the Malayalee at the tunnel, he continued chatting and followed me to the left. I stopped to tell him,
"They are all going to the bus" ... and my mother-in-law gestured to him to say "we need to go this way" ... while he turned to me and asked, "so where are you going this opposite way?" ...
... and my response "my car is on this side, if you are OK, I can drop all of you, otherwise, the bus station is on the other side"
To my surprise, he turned to his wife (the fuming mother in law) and said "the car is here, we go this way" and continued walking with me with "ah, so where did I leave the story, yes, that time when I came to KL in 1943, I was in Chembong ...." I am sure my mother in law would have had the moment of what-the-xxxx is he doing, we clearly agreed that we are not going to allow this Malayalee guy into our genetic pool, and you are so cool after meeting him for 3 minutes.
That turning point got me talking to him all the way to Klang, lost the way a few times under the pylons and finally found their relative Bengali Karuppiah's house. With his talkative nature, I had half of his biography written on my mind in the first few days itself. For me it was an exciting encounter as ... firstly, I had not had any close encounter with someone who was born and brought up in India, secondly, his memory was so good that each story will have detailed dates, figures and people's names spiced up with the motions of the times.
On the first day when I met him, I understood why Karuppiah of Klang was called "Bengali Karuppiah" .... not because he looks like a Bengali, but because he beat up a Bengali man due to some cow dispute!! On this day also I understood he has very high regard for one Muthu from Singapore which I found out after marriage that Muthu refers to "Muthu Annan" whom my wife had spoken about previously.
By the second day, he owned up "I was completely against you marrying my daughter. It was like a big blow to my status in the Gounder clan. Then I spoke to Muthu and he told me that I should accept it if my daughter is happy with the choice. And by the time I met you, I decided that I am going ahead with the decision" That was a big milestone in my decision of marriage.
As we moved along ...
Each time we met, I was getting an updated version of his village and stories of his childhood as I was beginning to build my image of India. I (and all my family) had never been to India at that time! His narrations were very specific about the "teppa kolam" (small pond) at the village, his adventures of walking off in the middle of the night to see a movie and returning before anyone is awake, and the many attempts he made to get his passport to come to Malaysia (then Malaya).
He was so frank that many in the family fears his stories that may reveal too much of the hidden secrets and mysteries, which I must admit was indeed true and was really fun hearing the occasionally "juicy" truth rather than filtered stories.
We had a good time during the several holidays when he was with us to Cameron Highlands, Singapore, Penang, Kota Tinggi Waterfalls, Lake Gardens and Melaka. Among the trip that he enjoyed the most must be the trip where he went to India and had real fun with his brother-in-law, Ramasamy of Vagurampatti. He spoke of this visit so frequently that I clearly "remember" the stalls where they had drinks, the pond where they had roast duck with idli and the days that they enjoyed each other's company at the office. We were trying to arrange another such visit but the efforts failed. The only trip we could manage last year was one to Singapore where we had a barbecue by the seaside.
My memorable "wedding invitation" trip ...
By the time my first sister in law was getting married, I was a good companion for him to chat with each time we met. So I was assigned to take him on a round trip send my sister-in-law's marriage invitation to some family members and several of his friends.
On that "invitation" trip the travel took us through memory lane as it was to his younger day's region - Chembong, Negeri Sembilan. And indeed he was so elated to go to his original enclave and barge into his friends' houses - while also barging into wrong houses twice - and scolding the lady of the house who opened the door to a stranger!!
Chembong Estate is where he had come and settled into a job when he arrived in Malaya. This is where he had bachelor friends who shared the estate quarters with him, cooked wild boar and enjoyed the night with beer during paydays, rented a car to watch movies in nearby Seremban town and made a maiden trip to Batu Caves in Kuala Lumpur. He was a bachelor with no hooks having fun with no limit (I assume) until my mother in law arrived to tighten his freedom 😐
When we went there to send the wedding invitation, he was like a young boy enjoying the past glories while narrating those events to me.
Going back to the beginning ...
Back in India, when the story of jobs in Malaya was going crazy, he and a group of friends gave their money and details to an agent in the village to apply for the visa. The agent was under police surveillance for some other fraudulent activity, which came to light when the long delay for stamped passports ended with the sight of the agent's house being sealed with police tape! Now the passports are stuck inside the house and the money is as good as gone.
Some villagers probably climbed into the house through the roof and "rescued" the passports which were found to be un-stamped. Now the money is gone and the visa is not in hand. With that, he made a second attempt through another agent and got the visa.
The landing point was Singapore where the stay was with a group of Gounders. The close-knit community had shared accommodation for those who arrive looking for jobs. Staying there are trying to find a job did not yield much result, but his brother (who was years elder to him) took him to Serkam in Melaka. From there he landed a job in Chembong Estate through some known network of people.
Missing a friend ...
Well, it is very nice to have had such a good "friend" in my life and to have heard significantly interesting stories that I would never have heard otherwise. The hours of listening that I did is the greatest memory now that I try to recollect some interesting episodes. Considering the days when the cultural perspectives were strong in the community, his guts to take the controversial decision to allow me to marry his daughter was exemplary. And he stood by the decision without giving in to the pressure from some relatives.
I certainly miss his stories ... most of the stories would have been repeated many times, but each time it would have a few new points and sometimes reveals the secrets of the past.
Part of this content was published as a Facebook Note on 8th March 2010. Reproduced here and expanded to safeguard the content since Facebook (now Meta) has discontinued the Notes feature.