No one like Appa: A Tamil story in translation

Published : May 02, 2024 11:00 IST - 8 MINS READ

Translated from Tamil by Prabha Sridevan. An eccentric father mentors his family, ignoring societal norms. 

Appa was a strange person.

My thatha, my grandfather, said that his strangeness was due to the fact he had left home when he was sixteen and wandered around before returning. But that was not the only reason.

Appa had some qualities no one else had. He loved novelty, he had no inhibitions, he would try anything, unafraid of defeat. Above all, he lived for himself and not for others.

When he was sixteen, Appa had run away from home not taking clothes or cash. He returned after seven years.

Why did he leave home?

Why did he return?

Appa never answered these two questions. Sometimes when we pressed him, he would say: “We must learn many things, and all of them cannot be learnt by staying at home.”

When he returned, he was twenty-three and Thatha was determined to get him married at once. Appa agreed, but subject to some conditions.

“No one must come with me when I go to meet the girl. You can talk to her family only if I like the girl. The marriage must be conducted in a library.”

Thatha was angry and called it idiocy. Appa was firm.

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The family had no option but to agree since they knew how stubborn Appa was. Early one morning, he cycled to the girl’s village alone. The girl’s family was completely taken aback to see him at six o’clock in the morning. They were more amused to see his unkempt beard, three-fourth-sleeved shirt, and veshti.

He asked for a towel and soap. He must have been the first man to ask the family of the prospective bride for such things.

He drew water from the well and had his bath. He came in drying his hair and ate idlis at their place. He then told them about himself.

“I am not working anywhere presently, I don’t intend to work…. There are many things in this world that we must know. We should first learn about them. Isn’t it a shame that we do not know the names of the stars in the sky? I have learnt about them, I am going to test what I have learnt…. Please do not depend on me or expect me to earn for the family.”

The girl’s family were stunned. They had agreed to this alliance only because my grandfather owned lands and a house.

Appa gave Amma a postcard, asking her to post it if she liked him. On the sixth day the card reached Appa with a single word: “No.”

Appa read it again and again.

A girl did not like him. But he liked the girl! So he vowed to make her understand him. He decided to cycle in front of her house.

Amma was very embarrassed that he was cycling in front of her house. Appa, like a trained acrobat, took a pot of water and poured it over himself while cycling. On the third day, early in the morning, Amma peeped out secretly, and he was there, cycling with gusto. When he saw her, he began cycling even faster, and Amma smiled at that.

She liked his stubbornness. While cycling he made a paper bird and let it fly towards her. The tiny paper bird fell at her feet. Amma picked it up and went in quietly.

By the next day Amma had agreed to marry him. But her parents did not agree to celebrate the marriage in the library. So it was conducted in her house. On the morning of the wedding, Appa did something startling—he shaved his head.

Everyone was upset but Amma smiled. Her smile affirmed that she liked his appearance.

The marriage was a simple ceremony. Appa read out what he had written on a paper:

I will not beat my wife.

I will never make a demand for money or property from her family.

I will educate her.

I will have only two children.

I will not ask her to attach my name to hers.

There were ten such statements. No one had ever heard of a bridegroom giving such assurances to the bride’s family. Amma’s relatives made fun of him. But Appa never broke any of his vows.

Two days after the marriage, Appa began teaching Amma to ride a cycle. Appa sat behind Amma as she rode the cycle, and the whole village watched the scene.

Then he ordered that the front door of the house should never be locked. At night it would be shut but not locked. If we ever left town, he would hang a notice in front of the door, but it was not locked with a key.

It was Appa who always made breakfast at home. Amma made lunch. We just had fruits at night. This was the routine.

Appa was the only person who knew every beggar in town by name. On festival days, our house would be full of beggars. Appa gave them new clothes and fed them good food.

He placed two chairs outside the house. Anybody could sit there and read the papers. In fact, he ate his meals seated outside.

“What is there to hide when we eat? Does any beast in this world eat behind closed doors?”

He lit up the stove with energy from sunlight, generated electricity with the cycle dynamo, and he made a simple motor to draw water from the well mechanically. He would use household waste to make fuel. He constructed a floating garden by potting plants in empty powder tins and Amul tins. He even made ornaments from outdated coins.

People thought that what Appa did was madness. But Amma believed he was a wise person who thought independently. She did not stop him from doing anything.

When I was born, his first child, a son, Appa named me Sophia. Everyone on Thatha’s side of the family objected to giving a boy a girl’s name. “Names are neutral,” Appa responded.

He named my sister Solar. In school and other public places, we were teased because of our names. Appa told us firmly that we should ignore it.

As he had vowed, Appa let Amma study what she wished. Amma completed MA degrees in Tamil, history, and English through correspondence courses. Then she began working as a clerk in a cooperative bank.

He asked everyone

living on his street to make one extra dosai or idli every day. Then he collected these and gave them away to those who were hungry. He called this “Dosai Thittam”, or the Dosai Plan.

Once we went to Kanyakumari, riding a bicycle each. This must have been the first time a whole family was seen going for a seven-day vacation on cycles. Wherever we went, we spoke with strangers and stayed with them for the night. We ate whatever they offered.

Later he wanted to admit us into the popular St Xavier School. So he took a sheet with ten questions to the headmaster and asked him to answer them.

“Your son is not the only student in our school. We will take care…”

Appa smiled.

“I must know what the teacher teaches every day. Education is not your job alone, we too share half the responsibility. We will teach our child at home. You and I will teach the children jointly.”

The headmaster was annoyed by his idea.

Appa then enrolled me in the Government Elementary School. In truth it was Appa who taught me. He set apart two hours of his day just for this. He taught us maths and science in an innovative way. He also insisted that we learn new languages, and he taught us Chinese, French, Hindi, and Urdu. He taught us everything—swimming, carpentry, pottery, and so on.

Sometimes he looked like a clown. But Appa never cared much about his looks.

He stayed with us till his fiftieth year. Then he called us one day and said, “I have stayed at home for too long. I think this has been enough. I am leaving.”

No one asked him where he planned to go. He just said, “There is a world outside the house too.”

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It was sad to think of the house without Appa. But he was never one to worry about how others felt about him, their sadness or pain.

One day he went to the provision store to buy sugar and did not come back. Around six in the evening, a sales boy from the store came home and handed over the sugar and the change to us.

Appa had left. We did not know where he went. But we understood that he was moving in the direction that his heart wanted to go.

We did not search for him. We started to live independently like him. On some days, all of a sudden, thoughts of him would rise and burst within. At those times, memories of Appa would swamp us with sorrow.

Tell me, is there anyone else like Appa? 

Selected by Mini Krishnan

Reproduced courtesy of Orient BlackSwan

Illustrations by Siddharth Sengupta

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