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Johns Hopkins anthropologist Anand Pandian writes a memoir about his grandfather

When M.P. Mariappan was born 95 years ago, England's King George V was emperor of India. Mahatma Gandhi hadn't yet taken up India's struggle for independence. Most Indians lived in small, scattered villages instead of in cities.

Mariappan survived plague, the Great Depression, World War II and a 1,700-mile death trek from Burma, where he was living at the time, to his homeland. He became a respected fruit merchant who struggled to educate his eight children, boosting the family decisively from their lowly caste and into the middle class.

Ayya — the word for "father" in the Tamil language — saw his descendants embrace professions such as medicine and computers.

As the Baltimore anthropologist Anand Pandian listened to his grandfather's tales, he realized that the old man's experiences mirrored some of the broader social changes during the past century that reshaped India from a colony of England into an independent economic powerhouse. The result is the new memoir, "Ayya's Accounts," which Pandian co-wrote with his grandfather.

"One thing I've learned as an anthropologist is that no life is as ordinary as it might appear to be from a distance," says Pandian, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins University. (An edited version of his conversation with The Baltimore Sun appears below.)

"There are extraordinary stories of vast scope that are buried in the details of the most ordinary life. The challenge with this book was to see whether we could take my grandfather as a way of thinking about the vast scale of transformation we've seen in India in the last century."

Pandian, 41, was born in New York but has lived in Baltimore since 2007. He'll stop by the Ivy Bookshop Thursday night to discuss the Indian subcontinent's — and his grandfather's — long and perilous journey into modernity.

Tell me about the symbolism of the title. "Ayya's Accounts" can refer to both your grandfather's lifelong habit of memorizing all the debits and credits for his fruit store, but also as a way of describing his experiences.

Well, my grandfather was a merchant, so the title conveys something not only of his profession but of the philosophy that ran through most of his life. Even the idea of "taking stock" implies merchandise on a shelf that has to be assessed and tallied.

One of the great surprises for me was the way that working with numbers had infiltrated every dimension of my grandfather's life. For example, I was wonder-struck when I learned that he counted his steps during his morning walks. But it made perfect sense to him, not only as the embodiment of the accounting he did all his life but also as a very practical way of keeping focused on the present instead of on the past.

You make the point that for Ayya, keeping an exact ledger of debts owed and paid became a moral code.

Even to this day, he's not one to feel indebted to anyone. For instance, we did this book together over four or five years, and he knew I was working very hard to tell this story. During our very last visit in January of 2012, he asked me very modestly if he could write something for the book.

I said, "of course," and he sat down, took out a pad of paper and was completely absorbed for a couple of hours.

It turned out that what he wrote was an account of my life. It was hilarious — my merchant grandfather was balancing the books. I had spent all this time telling his story, and he couldn't owe me that.

I thought it only fitting that he get the last word, so that's where we put what he wrote, in the acknowledgments.

Your family belongs to the Nadar caste. How did being born into such a lowly group affect your grandfather?

The caste my family belongs to were once known as "Shanars." They were associated with the Palmyra palm. Their ancestral occupation was harvesting the sap, which they either boiled down to make country sugar or allowed to ferment to make country liquor.

They weren't untouchable, but because of their association with that defiling substance, alcohol, they were deemed unpure by the higher castes.

My grandfather has stories of being thirsty as a child and wandering from place to place. People in some households were unwilling to let his lips touch their glasses. They asked him to hold out his hands and then poured water directly into his cupped palms.

The caste's status began changing in the 19th century. They organized politically, a lot of them converted to Christianity and they formed schools to educate their children. They got involved in the new market economy, and they gradually became quite a prosperous community of merchants.

People from the community today often don't realize how disgraceful their caste was a century or so ago.

What was the defining experience of your grandfather's life?

In 1942 when my grandfather was 21, the Japanese invaded Burma during World War II. My grandfather and his brother, who were working in Burma at the time, made their way 1,700 miles back to India. Part of the way they went by train and by boat.

The most difficult portion was the 110-mile trek through the mountain walking and by bullock cart. Hundreds of thousands of people attempted the trek, and between 10,000 and 50,000 of them died. My grandfather and his brother were lucky to have had the cart and to have carried the water with them, because those who relied on the streams perished due to waterborne diseases.

My grandfather describes paths littered by bodies, the wheels of the bullock cart churning over the bodies, having to cook and sleep beside the bodies. Part of the way there, an employee who was making the journey with them got sick, and they had to leave him behind.

My grandfather has lived for over 70 years since then, and yet I can still say definitively that what happened in those weeks was the lodestone of his life.

Your grandfather doesn't always come across in these pages as a saint, especially concerning questionable business practices. How did you balance your dual role as grandson and anthropologist?

The fealty I might feel for my grandfather's reputation didn't always sit very well with my responsibility to tell an honest story about life in modern India.

These details that were uncomfortable were things my grandfather and I talked about. We argued sometimes about what to put in and what not to put in. He came to see that regardless of what he had done or had to do, there was something to be learned in the compromises and shortcuts he had to take.

Ultimately, what was most important for him was the lesson of his life.

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

If you go

Author Anand Pandian will discuss "Ayya's Accounts" at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Ivy Bookshop, 6080 Falls Road. Call 410-377-2966 or go to theivybookshop.com.

About the book

"Ayya's Accounts" was released Feb. 24 by Indiana University Press. 232 pages, $24.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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