Monday, July 19, 2010

Interview with my grandfather

          This past week, I conducted two interviews, one with my aunt (my father’s younger brother’s wife), Padma Thyagarajan, on the 11th; and the other, with my mother’s father, Sri Viswanathan Somasundaram, on the 12th. These two interviews brought to light the circumstances surrounding two individuals’ path to higher education and work. Seen together, they were also extremely interesting because of the contrasts of gender and generational change. This post is about my grandfather, my thatha.
          My grandfather, now nearing 78, was a mechanical engineer and worked in steel plants. He was born in Sivaganga, a village close to the town of Madurai, in 1932. He had a strong inclination towards the mathematics and the sciences, and he studied his 2-year PUC in Madurai and completed his Bachelor’s degree in Coimbatore. After a three-year stint in the public sector in Chennai (called Madras then), he took up a job at Durgapur, West Bengal, at the British-owned steel plant which had just been built under the second 5-year plan (http://www.planningcommission.nic.in/aboutus/history/about.htm). He spent until 1980 in Durgapur.
          I asked him whether shifting to Durgapur, more than 1000kms away from Sivaganga, was a difficult decision for him and his family. After all, he was the first member of his family to leave his hometown in search of work (his father and brother worked in Sivaganga for a long time). Apparently, he, and the rest of his family, knew that an engineering student had to leave home for education and work after high school; opportunities were only available in a few places. “Once you choose this engineering…you will have to get out of your moorings,” he stated. So, they were all prepared for this from the beginning. But I kept pressing: even if it was a fait accompli that he would go away, wasn’t it still painful to for them to let you go? I wanted to know if they were categorically supportive. My thatha’s matter-of-fact answer: “They were all supportive, because I was young, and nobody was depending on me, so they…could spare me.”

          I was highly amused. Hopefully I didn’t laugh out loud—the interview tape, at least, has no record of it. The budding ethnologist in me was sure of uncovering stories of pain and fear attendant on separation. The concept of a family ‘sparing’ one of its young members to move away and take part in historic developments like industrialization and migration towards industrial/commerical centres was unexpected, to say the least. My grandfather, who I imagined had left his hometown like a modern hero, well-educated and setting out to earn his living in strange lands, amidst mixed feelings of joy and fear, hope and sorrow, etc., painted me a pastel picture of the same event!
          Of course, if I had pressed him further on the point, he might have given me a more complex picture. Perhaps he still can--one of the advantages of interviewing your own family members is that they can leave comments on your blog with additions or corections! Still, his comment did make me realize that the relationship between family and work manifests in three different ways in an individual's life: constraints, ambitions, and responsibilities. So far, I have been thinking about how familial situations constrain individual's work options/choices and how they shape or further their ambitions. Responsibility/obligation is a new factor for me. It's pretty obvious that people work to support their families, until you bring in the question of which family--the nuclear family or the extended one? Did the move towards a nuclear family come not so much because families were torn apart against their will, but because they could afford to 'spare' some of their young? It also raises the interesting question of who was the agent in bringing about the break-up of joint families--is thatha, the second son of his parents, unique in being being relatively free of responsibilities towards his joint family, or was that the case of many people?
          My family offers only a small sample; I cannot hope to answer that question convincingly. But I do want to do on this blog and through my project is to look at interesting questions that appear from interviews.
I am also thinking about women of my grandfather's and his daughters' generations working: at least in my family, their work was often considered something they did for themselves, rather than to support their family. The next post will be from my chitthi's interview about that topic!
-SK
P.S. Whoops! That one blog-post a day plan did not pan out. These posts take me a little longer to think about than I thought they would. But I will post as often as possible.

3 comments:

Sravan said...

This comment from my grandfather:
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Good job Sravan. I would like to dwell a little more on separation from family and cultural shock.
After graduation in 1954 I joined Madras State Public works Department and worked for a few months. Then I went to Calcutta in West Bengal to join Associated Electrical Industries Ltd as Graduate Trainee. This was on the job training for two years. Moving away from Tamil Society to Bengali Society was a cultural shock for a young man. I could manage with English as common language. It was easy for me to pick up Bengali easily because of my learning Sanskrit in my schooling.
Then I had to write and pass All India Public Service Commission Examination. I was selected for a job in Durgapur Steel Plant that was coming up in the Second Five Year Plan. That was in beginning of 1957. Since the Steel Plant was getting built up from green field stage, I was sent to Tata Steel Industries in Jamshedpur in Bihar for Orientation Training. Since Durgapur Steel Plant was being built by a British Consortium, British Steel Industries undertook on the job training for all engineers selected for D.S.P. I was to go to a steel plant in Irlam,Manchester in the beginning of 1958 for a year.
My family decided to get me married before I left Indian shores! So I married in June 1957. So the pangs of separation and cultural shock were greater when I left for England.
The rest of your observations are ok.
Viswanathan.

July 19, 2010 10:06 PM
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Malini said...

Very interesting writeup Sravan. Looking forward to more of these.

Malini said...

Very interesting writeup Sravan. Looking forward to more of these.