by Raju Peddada
"What adversity had wrought in our grandfather is infinitely profound; to all the pettiness prosperity has brought about in his descendents."
(Swans - August 29, 2011) Recently, I was looking through some old pictures in the course of developing a photo-essay for a publication. Then abruptly, I happened upon a great B&W picture of my maternal grandfather, Rebbapragada Buchiraju, RBR for short, and my grandmother, taken in front of the Taj Mahal in 1971. Their only visit up north, upon the invitation of my father, who it so happens was the only one who took them out to most of the historical destinations around New Delhi, as well as in the south. In the stately photograph, RBR had that distant look, above the mundane fray, as if in a telegraphic repartee with Shah Jahan, asking him "Were you ever petty and irreverent towards your grandfather...and, how do I get away from these chicken shit descendents?" Shah Jahan, with a sympathetic smile, responded, "...all descendents are certifiable assholes, without any gratitude...nor can we get away from their bullshit...deal with it bro... Oh, by the way, who's that doll next to you?"
As my memory beta-max deck rewound to the late '60s, specific incidents flashed on my emotional screen that brought about a gloomy laconic smile. Particularly, RBR's bone-dry sarcasm, which he unleashed on the hapless victims, that provided no recourse for a face saving comeback. The aesthetics of his sarcasm rendered it into an art form, simply inimitable and profoundly hilarious. He was the Picasso of Sarcasm. Even today, I and my mother rollick in laughter, reminiscing on his sarcastic bombs. The victims could be anybody: his sagacious wife, the clueless descendents, his field hands or the various deserving entities that stirred his ire.
Then, it dawned on me that a hundred years had lapsed since his birth, around 1903. The centennial of his birth had passed on quietly, without any fanfare. How could we forget this larger than life man? Slowly, a faded tapestry of his life, in moving images, like the Bayeux tapestry, unrolled behind my closed eyes. A stern, sinewy, bespectacled man with a walking stick materialized, a wavering mirage, presiding over his domain, through the dusty veil of the decades, as I sat dissolved in melancholy. About an hour later, alone in my library, I came around on my Eames lounger, and found myself sweaty and perturbed. Why?
I will leave the ladies out of this piece, and drag only the "men" to the stage: his two boys, my uncles, and his 12 grandsons (one deceased), from the eight living brothers and sisters. I distinctly remember my cousins, and perhaps even one of my uncles, in the '60s and the '70s refer to RBR as "Bodi" meaning bald, essentially inferring "Bodi pettanam" which translated to "hollow or vacuous authority, a paper tiger of sorts." Despite their condescension, a tiger RBR was, without equivocation. The men, who had draped this appellation on their own progenitor, are the very ones who would wither into dehydrated tucked-tail jackals if they ever had the gumption, to even contemplate carrying RBR's burden. I am certain he was called Bodi in jest and with affection, and in youthful ignorance, indiscretion, irreverence, and belligerence, as a way to assert their own convoluted identity. More often than not, putdowns and reductionist titles are a way of masking our own inadequacies, or admiration.
RBR lived for others, as much as he lived legendarily for himself. An inimitable and an indomitable personality with a relentless drive. He and our angelic grandmother had thirteen children, of which eight are still living. Two brothers and six sisters, ranging in ages from 58 through 86, which meant that he kept siring offspring for most of the 31 years. This was one virile man, with an insatiable appetite for coitus, matched with an equally willing, healthy, and fertile spouse. He was having children when his daughters were birthing their own. The difference between his youngest offspring and his oldest great-grand child is less than ten years! RBR was a big man, and only big men can sustain large families.
Considering what he had accomplished, despite privations, and sporadic cash flow, was a miracle to say the least. Comparatively, If RBR was hewed out of Kevlar, then we, and specifically those who called him Bodi, were woven out of diaphanous gauze, and if he was the Terex Titan, that 320-ton hauler, we were the wheelbarrows, for having carried no real burden at all in our lives, except for our pathetic paychecks to our narcissistic accounts.
RBR's life is a monument to survivalism, overcoming existential mountain ranges, and crossing vicious rivers without paddles, with the large family on his back. What I could never fathom about some cousins was that glib unwarranted conceit, their juvenile condescension, and the utter crassness from their clueless craniums, that had achieved so little, with so much coddling and investment, compared to RBR. In fact, what he had accomplished with a 3rd grade education was simply beyond their cognitive induction and deduction. And, if each burden, each hurdle, each pitfall, each betrayal, each putdown, each death, and every battle he faced could be corralled and presented as an empirical-existential thesis, or a dissertation on survival, RBR would have ten bromidic Masters and Doctor of Philosophy diplomas.
He was the doer, and was a natural actor, who adapted to the audience. More than anything, he possessed nerve, in spades. He was a caretaker, a navigator, a translator, a litigator, a facilitator, a farmer, a counselor, and a negotiator, but more pressingly, he was that prestidigitator, for handling corrosive land issues that seemingly were impossible to handle or negotiate, with an ordinary disposition. His specialty was dealing with land usurpers, who overnight dug up and shifted the land embankments called "gattu" to have more of their neighbor's land by the daybreak. RBR was tailor-made to look after his son-in-law's lands, which were being subjected to such usurpation by the locals. This was exactly why he was asked to come and take over at Ragolapalli. He was a psychological marauder, with an acidic disposition, perfectly suited to tackle the miscreants.
RBR was no paragon of virtue -- that was his wife, but he was the ultimate purveyor and prosecutor of living, beyond anybody's wildest cogitation. He was a man who had never experienced his boyhood, and was thrust into manhood and into the claws of obligations and responsibility after his father's demise, at the ripe old age of 17. What unfolded for this young man in the 1920s was akin to taking the reigns of a race chariot in mid flight, with eight angry horses, plowing life at the pace of a buzz saw. Being the oldest, he managed to get his younger siblings, and later his two oldest daughters, married; then, turnaround and reestablish another homestead miles away, to safeguard his son-in-law's lands. A sacrifice, in any culture, and in any language.
He slogged through life, punching himself out of pernicious situations, for almost 66 years. Still, the most blissful and active part of his life was between 1936 and 1982, in Ragolapalli, as the village officer there, referred to as "Karanam." It was here, during those 46 years, the mirthful and fragrant halcyon days unfolded, as their children, their grandchildren, and their great-grandchildren, all frolicked under their benevolent shade, in celebration of life. Kindness and hospitality were the mottoes of their homestead, for which, he and his wife were known far and wide. None of his descendents today are known beyond their own premises for anything.
I cannot explicate, but marvel at his magical oeuvre, at what he pulled off, at his most active 46 years in Ragolapalli. At a time when dowries were negotiated before the brides were given away, and at a time when his temperamental tobacco crops did not yield much, he managed to marry off all his daughters in style, to good men. Then, host large functions, ceremonies, and celebrations every year for the returning pregnant daughters, with their pending deliveries, along with their husbands and their offspring. All in all, over 20 deliveries took place at their homestead, which included 7 of his own, with 4 having passed away in infancy. The deaths were dealt with, along with the births, in the most solemn and dignified manner. Everyone (usually 10-15 folks) was fed, sheltered, and gifted, none left unfulfilled. It was one large perennial of activity. How he, and they did it, still remains an insoluble mystery.
Tobacco farming was almost like gambling. If the finicky crops failed, there was no cash for the home so they bartered things. RBR took out loans against future crops to pay for marriages and other functions, which was a relentless stress and drain on the funds. Besides all of this, he rode the bicycle for over 15 miles everyday, and represented other farmers, with their documentation, litigation, counseling, and representation at the regional courts in Rajahmundry. Then, above and beyond that, he had the energy to engage in "private" pursuits, which today remains a bone of contention with some. It is not our prerogative to judge him, and if everyone is to be judged, then many things "not being done" by the others are far more abhorrent than what RBR ever did at a personal level. If anybody deserved a "diversion" it was RBR, and I cannot fault him for being that man, just as I adore my grandmother for being more than just a woman.
RBR constantly invested in himself with learning. He also encouraged his girls to read translated literature of the west. During my rare and privileged summer visits to his Ragolapalli homestead, I saw him every evening in a trance over the melodic classical Carnatic music that I also love today. Unfortunately, his responsibilities, and the burdens from his youth, obfuscated his talents, which were numerous, and remained unrealized till his death in 1993. The biggest gift, incidentally, bequeathed to all of us, was his genes, his and his equally brilliant wife's gene pool that percolated all our careered personalities to date.
For all of the legends that permeate around his descendents, even today, RBR remains a mystifying and elusive personality. A benevolent and an indefatigable spirit that blazed the path of action, literally siring a generation of stubborn detractors. Where does this derision emanate from? Was it that the male descendents-detractors couldn't compete with his libido, the figurative and the literal size of his testicles, or his nerve? While all of RBR's alleged flaws may be factual, the effeminate nit-picking and the derision is unwarranted, especially for a man, who had given everything away. I knew why I was vexed. It was the ridiculous condescension on the part of a generation of baldies today that owed their very existence to his sexual prowess; that owed their very lifestyle to the decisions he had made decades ago, and owed all of their misguided brilliance to his genes, but, they as men, are not even close to being his navel lint.
RBR was the paradoxical humane earthmover, the likes of which we will never see again. And those of us who had a chance to behold him in person had experienced something very special. If anyone chose to understand RBR's life experiences: full of conquered mountains; vanquished adversaries; swallowed pain and failures; agricultural vicissitudes; marriages, births and deaths without cash flow; fulfilled responsibilities and lives; and comedies and tragedies, it would be like ingesting the entire combined repertoire of Francois Rabelais, David Hume, Sir Thomas Browne, Friedrich Nietzsche and Shakespeare. Yet, these folks, by their infantile remarks, only reveal their ordinariness. RBR was an extraordinary man, who deserved our filial piety. And, all our collective and bundled hooves wouldn't measure up or fit into RBR's gigantic sandals, let alone walk and carry the burden, like he did.
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About the Author
Raju Peddada is an industrial designer running an eponymous brand, purveyor of ultra luxury furnishings of his own design (see peddada.com). He is also a freelance correspondent/writer for several publications, specializing in commentary, essay, and opinions on architecture, design, photography, books, fashion, society, and culture. Peddada was born in Tallapudi, a small southern town in south India. He's lived in New Delhi and Bombay before migrating to the West Indies and eventually settling in Chicago, Illinois, where he worked in corporate America until he chose to set up his own designing firm. He lives with his family in Des Plaines. (back)