Whats in a name, you say? Well, possibly, quite a bit. It identifies you. There is music in it. That sort of thing. It tells your caste and such things that I don’t care about too, but that’s incidental to me. Although when parents name a child it is occasionally a bit random, I suspect that child as it grows tends to live the life of the name in some ways. People will argue in favour of priests and other such ‘learned’ folk who can point you to certain names that will be beneficial, starting, say, with the letter Pa or Da or whatever. There is also the business of numerology lately. I don’t go in for such truck. Not for me. If it works for you, that’s okay, I will still be your friend, but this stuff is not for me.
Take my name for example, Kenny. When my parents named me Kenny, it was just so it rhymed with my elder sister’s, who was named, perhaps, Benny. I doubt that they pondered too long on it. I bet it was my mom’s idea. Dad would have said ‘hmm’ and that’s all. He did wakeup though when we were admitted to school. He gave us both our last names. As in, he bulldozed out people when they said our last names should be his first name, and, with his tendencies to romanticize the smallest thing, gave us the name of his village as our last names. Mind you, he was not even born in said village. But our family is nevertheless from this village, and he had spent his summer holidays there being an unruly boy. He had fond memories of cows, a tree, a creek, and his grandmother making sweets with tons of ghee in them. It was enough.
After she got married, my sister dutifully adopted her husbands family name as her own, in addition to the automatic conversion of gothram. Me, I have resisted it. Gothram has changed, apparently, but my official last name remains my maiden one. Aghalayam. That’s it. It occurs variously as Aghalaya and Aglaya as well, in some of my relatives names. None of my relatives spell it with the m at the end, like I do, as least to my knowledge. So there is a vague feeling that I am the last surviving person with that last name.
Anyway, this vacation, my primary thing was that this place ought to be visited. Cant be that big a deal to just go there. I mean we are okay, don’t need to drive a truck with full laundry and toilet facilities, necessarily (like SRK in Swades). Just rent a car and go over. Literally two hours out of Mysore. My sister was going to be in Mysore, with the kids. So it was a good occasion for all of us to go. I had been prepping mom and sis for this for nearly a month. They were cool about it, they have gone there once before, and are generally both of them grounded in reality. The living in fictional spaces and getting unnecessarily romantic has been inherited entirely in me from my father. As an unexpected bonus, my husband was there too. He has also been quite enthusiastic about going to this village. So it was good.
Woke up early in the morning and made sandwiches. Had tried unsuccessfully to contact the one relative we thought was still in Aghalayam, the previous night. Then decided to just drive there, walk around and smell the air so to say, eat the sandwiches, and return back. Not being sure of the kids behaviour, we had packed water, juice, biscuits and what not. We all managed to get bathed and ready in time, and when the car (ambassador) showed up, we excitedly got it. Mom refused to go, giving many reasons, principally lack of space.
First stop was Srirangapatna. This is a cute little town nestled near Mysore. It was where Tipu Sultan reigned from, or more famously, where he fought the British. The fort is visible in parts. It is also a Hindu holy place, thanks to the river Cauvery which flows through here, and Sangam, where three branches of the river meet. Oh yeah, most importantly I suppose from Hindu holy place view point, it is claimed that a statue of Lord Ranganatha spontaneously appeared in this place. We paid our respects. Huge imposing statue. He is one of my favourite gods, chilled out, you see. It was lucky that I saw a Garuda and an Adisesha idol together in this temple. My two grandfathers being named after these two gods, I have this association always.
Then we were truly on our way. Except that we did not have proper directions. For the longest time we wondered if the expedition was foolhardy as we did not see any sign boards with Aghalayam or its variants on it. The farmer type dudes on the road did confidently point us ahead, but we were reluctant to trust them. Finally, I found a signpost! Yippee! Aghalaya, land of no sin, 10 km it said. (well it did not say that sin thing, I added it for your, my readers, benefit). We zipped down now, the driver at once enthusiastic. Till then he was acting all funny, what is this expedition into villages, I am a white shirted city person, vibes were emitting from him.
When we reached, we parked, grabbed our bag (in case we found a shady glade to eat our sandwiches in, kids looked hungry), and started walking around. Biggish village. A large Siva temple, a State Bank of Mysore, small shops with the usual stuff. People kept coming and asking us what we wanted, I at least was unable to tell them. What would I say, I want to get a piece of my ancestry into my head? I want to feel like my dad did when he climbed that tree and fell out when he was ten years old? Sister, being the practical one, tried to say that we were looking for a temple. We were promptly pointed to the Siva temple. ‘Oh no, not that one, we said’ Vishnu temple we said. Varaaha we said. An ajji (grandmom) with virtually no teeth came up and tried to problem solve this. We were sort of happy just walking around, but clearly we were treading in their space. Finally, a younger woman cracked it, what we were embarrassed to say. She told her child to show us the street where all the Brahmin houses are, with the small temple at the end. Child, carrying a smaller one, traipsed away with me hot on her tail. Sister and I gave each other looks, Its OK, we could have said it.
Finally, the street. Four to six houses in them. In the traditional, agrahaaram style with the connected verandahs. I looked ahead to the temple tower that gleamed all colourful. I saw him in his dhoti and white beard, reading. I recognized him as the expected relative. He used to visit us often, and talk a lot. I remembered his face. I walked up and tried to tell him who I was, addressing him as uncle, as I always had. His face registered some measure of recognition, he showed us the little statue of Varaaha in his house. This is your god, our god, our house deity, he said. Then he took us to the temple. Eight hundred years old, recently tiled and fixed up a bit thanks to a relative’s generosity. He still did not know us, till sis caught him squarely and told him who we were, starting with our grandfathers home name. Then he was most apologetic, oh ho, Kenny Benny, what a pleasure, what a pleasure. I saw you both as kids last time (not true, I met him five years ago, and he was there at our wedding ten years ago, but what the heck, he is nearly seventy years old). He elaborately told us all about how close he was to our parents, how he always called our mom attige (that’s brothers wife), and how is she, we must give her phone number to him, etc. etc. He rushed about making tea for us, and scolding us for not staying for lunch, and telling us his stories interspersed with trivia about our family.
We saw grandfather’s house (now sold to someone else, the door opening not into the agrahaaram anymore), the well that is common to all the (Brahmin) houses, he gave us coconuts to take back to mom, and we walked around the house through the backyard, used the bathroom, with him fussing about us all the time, and feeling genuinely happy to see us. When he walked us back to the car we met lot of roosters, the kids were amazed to see and hear them live. I did not see the creek, the farm lands that were owned by our family, or the tree dad fell out of. But my heart is full. I can see them in my mind’s eye now. Raju Uncle has taken all our names and stars to put in the family tree, and has promised to pray for us. That little god is perhaps someone I can believe in. My sweat has mingled with that of generations of Aghalayams now. We made a lonely old man sitting barefooted (he refuses to wear chappals now) in his house happy for one morning. It is enough. I know where I am from now.