My grandfather, my family jokes, was the “last Britisher in India.” He worked for that most British of industries, a tea brokerage, for nearly all of his life. He drank whisky in strict moderation – one, perhaps, in the evening, no more. He played bridge weekly at the Coonoor Club with my grandmother. He was a Mason.
He was a stoic and internal man when I knew him. He voiced his amusement with a dry “aha.” When my sister and I would tell him “I love you” as children, he’d pet our heads and give us a short “Mmm. Thank you.”
And once as a young student in 1940, he had been arrested for taking part in a student demonstration against the British colonial government.
It’s a story that most of the family had never heard. On the 50th anniversary of Indian independence, August 15, 1997, my grandfather’s company, Forbes & Co., gave him an award for more than 50 years of service, and for being arrested that day as part of the freedom struggle. I was visiting my grandparents then, in Coonoor, the small former British hill station in Tamil Nadu where my grandparents lived.
My grandmother phoned my mother in the United States that evening and told her the story gleefully. My mother had never heard the story before.
Coonoor is a small, misty town in the Nilgiris – the “blue hills” – of Tamil Nadu, where my grandparents spent the latter part of their lives. The hills are cloaked in tea estates. Tea is the primary industry, and the one in which my grandfather spent nearly his entire working life.
Coonoor was a hill station, like nearby Ooty, or Mussoorie in the north, where the British would retire to escape the summer heat for a misty and rainy climate. It’s ideal for growing tea. It’s a place tourists would describe as “quaint” for its still-tangible sense of British influence, for its English-style bungalows and its 19th century English park. My grandparents’ house was named “Fair Rose,” in British style, and featured an eponymous rose garden that my grandmother cultivated and improved.
Like the Gymkhana Club in Ooty or the Bangalore Club and many other still extant British colonial-era clubs across India, the Coonoor Club is one legacy from the colonial period.
In some ways, my grandfather was another.
When I returned to Coonoor after my grandparents’ deaths with my sister, my mother and my aunt, we went to the Coonoor Club, where my grandparents had spent many evenings, to have drinks and remember them. In the club’s entryway I stood and read the engraved wooden plaque that listed the presidents of the club from well before 1947, the date of Independence. I recall the list stretching back to the late 19th century. The names were all British, even after 1947. It took maybe a couple of decades after independence for the first Indian name to appear. Even then, the presidents were only sporadically Indian. My grandfather, as I recall, was president twice.
The family lore my mother told me from a young age about my grandfather was that after his father’s death in 1948, he went to work and supported his six sisters, helping pay their way through medical college. When I knew him, my grandfather was an obsessive worker, unable to enjoy leisure time unless it was preceded by a solid day’s work, often on behalf of family or friends he helped with accounting or other financial tasks. For years after my parents split up, my grandfather continued to manage my father’s accounts in India.
Why had this man, my mother’s father, whose dedication to family duty was so great, been arrested in 1940 in a student protest? The idea of my grandfather marching around with signs pleased my grandmother so much in its incongruity she laughed at the image over dinner after the award ceremony in 1997.
I have always been fascinated by this contradiction: my grandfather as a passionate student, swept into a political revolution, and jailed, like Gandhi, for protest, and then my grandfather as a young professional, working for most of his life for an intensely British company that traded an intensely British product, and becoming a lifelong member of an intensely British institution like the Coonoor Club.
I loved my grandfather deeply for his generosity, his quiet certitude and the intensity with which he approached all the tasks in his life, in his work and for his family. But I didn’t see him often. As a child, we visited Coonoor about every other year, and then after 1997, I didn’t see him for another 10 years.
Despite how I felt about him, he wasn’t demonstrative. He didn’t tell me stories about our family or himself, or about our shared cultural mythology.
My grandmother’s brother was the one who told me martial arts tales about Thacholi Othenan and the woman hero named Unniyarcha, the legendary Kerala martial artists who wore the urumi, a whiplike sword, as a belt and beheaded their opponents with a quickdraw flick of the wrist.
My grandfather left it to others to be family storytellers.
And yet I have always felt a profound connection with him. I knew he was always interested in me, and tried to understand me, although we were so thoroughly separated by age, emotional character, geography and upbringing. He knew the fact of my depression, a constant in my adult life, but I always thought it was alien to my grandfather’s character and understanding. I now realize I was wrong.
I saw him seldom, but I thought about him all the time. My mother told me unnumbered stories about him growing up – about his relentless work ethic, about how he bought her boxing gloves as a girl so she could learn to defend herself like Unniyarcha, about his dry humor that lives on in her brother, my grandfather’s only son. It was a powerful family mythology, and after my parents separated he was a constant presence in my mind, a Platonic ideal of manhood and fatherhood.
I thought that I knew him, but as I discovered that day in 1997, there were layers to him that I did not know.
My family is Christian, and dharma is a Hindu concept. But dharma describes what my grandfather chose. It’s a multivalent concept encompassing religious, social and familial duty, law and truth. I think that after his arrest he rediscovered and rededicated himself to his dharma.
How can I reconcile the people he had been – for one brief moment, a student revolutionary, but never again, and the later man, the last Britisher in India?
Why had he made that transformation?
I was there on the day my grandfather received his award. It was August 15, 1997, the 50th anniversary of Indian Independence. My sister and I had come to India by ourselves that summer, when I was 14, to visit my grandparents. The award was given at the Forbes & Co. offices, in a small packed room with folding chairs for the audience.
The day is hazy in my recollection: a speech, an award, my grandfather appearing vaguely embarrassed and saying little.
We had been at the Coonoor Club earlier that day for an Independence Day celebration, my sister said. Mallika remembers the day much better than I do. (She was asked to lead the national anthem at the club celebration and couldn’t remember all the words.)
“I remember Appacha being called up,” Mallika said, using our family name for my grandfather. “They gave him a freedom fighter award, and it was because he had protested and he had been sent to jail for civil disobedience. So they gave him an award for being a freedom fighter.”
According to my grand aunt Gracy, he was 15 at the time, in Puthencavu in southern Kerala with his mother’s family, a village with a late 18th century church nearby, attending high school.
I don’t remember my grandfather saying much at the ceremony, but my sister reminded me that he gave a speech, one in which she had time to get bored. He didn’t talk about his arrest, but only about Forbes & Co., and the people he’d worked with for more than 50 years.
The award was most likely for years of service to Forbes & Co., with the peculiar addition of the story of the arrest, thrown in possibly because the giver had heard the story and it was Independence Day.
At dinner that night, my grandmother dismissed the arrest as young men “running around waving signs,” Mallika said, though neither of us think it was as irrelevant as my grandmother made it sound.
It made us completely rewrite our impression of our grandfather, to try and cast our minds back to his youth and try to imagine him as a young man in Kerala, impassioned by the fervor of the freedom movement.
My mother said the first she ever heard the story was that day in 1997. My grandfather, characteristically reticent to talk about himself or to ever brag, never mentioned it. I’m not sure my grandmother even knew the story before August 15, 1997, but my mother thinks my grandfather must have told her, maybe years before.
“I remember the story as, he was one of a group of students who was then also one part of a large protest march comprised of many other people,” my mother said.
“If you remember things from the movie Gandhi, the police just came and beat up everybody as a way of discouraging them and chasing them out of there. If they didn’t run, they got pulled into jail,” my mother said of the independence protests.
Is she talking about my grandfather or about the movie?
“Because this was a non-violent movement, nobody ran. They were proud to go to jail,” she said. “They followed Gandhi’s example: if you were in jail, then you were demonstrating what you were standing for.
Sir Richard Attenborough’s movie, Gandhi, starring Ben Kingsley, came out in 1982, the year before I was born. My mother often tells me she first saw it in theaters when she was pregnant with me. Gandhi is a controversial figure in a modern Hindu nationalist India in which many people see him as irrelevant, an anti-Hindu figure or someone with too many Muslim symapthies. He’s simply forgotten by many.
Nathuram Godse, the man who assassinated Gandhi, was a member of the nascent Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a fascist and Hindu nationalist organization that has only gained strength since the moment in 1948 when Godse shot Gandhi three times in the chest.
For people of my mother’s generation, whose parents lived through the independence movement, Gandhi is still Bapu, the father of the nation. The movie gave mythic dimension to the well-known stories of the freedom struggle: the Salt Satyagraha, the march to the sea, to protest the British salt tax. Making homespun clothing, to protest Indian cotton exports sold back to Indians as manufactured clothes at a premium from factories in England. The satyagraha marches, walking fearlessly into the batons of British government police to be beaten.
My mother said my grandmother grew up in a strongly Gandhian household. When I asked my grandmother, who was about 10 years younger than my grandfather, what she remembered of the time around independence, she said that she recalled reading the exploits of the freedom fighters in the newspaper daily, but she also gave me a misty recollection of British efficiency and industry – they gave us the rail system, she said, which is the next thing to saying they made the trains run on time.
Despite Gandhi’s reduction to a remote symbol today in India, it’s hard to overestimate the place he and other freedom activists held in the minds of my grandparents and great grandparents.
About three years ago in Berkeley, California, I took mushrooms with my then-girlfriend. It was the first time either of us had tried a hallucinogenic substance, although I’d read about clinical trials for treating depression with hallucinogens like mushrooms and I was curious about the effect it might have on my thinking.
To describe the four to six hour trip in detail would be pointless. I experienced many of the things that psychedelic users experience: auditory and slight visual hallucinations, the feeling of an expansion of mind…
I remember particularly my girlfriend being enthralled at how boyish I became, and me with how girlish she was. I remember her making popping sounds with her lips and laughing childishly, which was beautiful.
And as it proceeded I felt myself expand until I felt like I was traveling to the very horizon of human existence and my own, and I thought of my grandfather.
I was 29, nearly the age my grandfather had been when he had his first heart attack. By that point he had already helped send his sisters to college and was working for Forbes & Co. He had a second heart attack in 1990, but he managed to survive until age 83.
I experienced this revelation: I was grown. I knew everything there was to know about life and human existence. I knew how people worked, and how the world worked, and how life worked, and how a human lives, loves people, works and dies. I knew everything there was to know that my grandfather knew when he died in 2008.
Then I sailed past that horizon and my temporal life and fell into a deep depression. I looked at her and knew that I would have to let her go at some point, that the difference between us would lead her on, into her own channels, and that what we had was inevitably fated to end.
“My love for you is like an ocean,” I told her. I could feel it.
She too fell into a deep depression towards the end of the trip, she told me later.
“I felt like I would never be happy again,” she said.
I was a little glad, even though I only wanted her ever to be happy, because now she knew what it felt like to be clinically depressed.
Days after the trip, the intense pharmacologically-induced feelings faded and most of the revelations I experienced I knew to be wrong. But I had felt closely akin to my grandfather, and I realized he represented wisdom, knowledge and working manhood to me; that in some way, deep in the back of my head, he represented the apotheosis of what it is to be a man on this earth.
My grandfather, Mathilunkal Abraham Chacko, was born in Puthencavu in 1925, in the region that would eventually become part of the Indian state of Kerala. At that time and until 1956, it was the princely state of Travancore, one of several tributary states that were nominally separate from the rest of India, which was directly ruled by the British. The modern state of Kerala is largely composed of the princely states of Travancore and Cochin.
His father had been the manager of a British-owned rubber plantation, one of Kerala’s primary agricultural products, in Mundakayam. With a family of nine children, his mother took a strong hand in the economy of the household, farming both for family consumption and for sale for extra money.
“She was a great cultivator and agriculturalist,” Gracy told me, “and very good with economics and management.”
My great grandmother grew coconut and rice, buying paddy fields, with hired labor to do the work. She grew rubber trees to sell to build the family fund and in the groves around the family house, cashew trees.
As a young man, my grandfather went to work for Forbes, Ewart & Figgis, a tea brokerage set up by the tea export examiner he worked for as a fresh college graduate.
“All the bright young men in those days wanted to work in British companies,” my mother told me. “It was where the best jobs were.”
He worked for Forbes for the rest of his working life, until he reluctantly retired a few years before he died. As part of his work, he would taste tea from client sellers, determine its quality, set prices for auction, and then run the auction for buyers in the auctioneer’s rapid patter.
The last time I saw him, he took me to the auction house I’d been to as a child. A large digital display had been set up for an electronic auction, with bidders able to sign in and bid remotely. A handful of bidders were actually in the room, assiduously peering down at individual computer screens.
The whole arrangement made my grandfather unhappy – he said it was painfully slow and inefficient, compared to his auctioneering.
Tea played such a pivotal role in the colonial exploitation of India by the British. Before the establishment of the Raj, the East India Company directly ruled much of India, with tea as one of its primary exports.
The last time I saw my grandparents, I made an effort to talk to them about family history as much as possible. My grandfather was too private to tell me much. I think he had a deep aversion to talking about himself.
Mallika and I discussed in depth what it would mean for my grandfather to have been 15 at the time of the arrest, and why that might have affected his thinking.
Protesting that day and being arrested “would have been a very well thought out thing, a good decision, or something he thought was important,” my sister theorized. “That’s why I think it does deserve recognition.”
“He’s so forward looking. He saved his entire life, he never spent on anything of luxury. As soon as his sisters are done with medical school, he’s thinking about his kids, his grandkids and his sisters’ kids,” Mallika said. “What I know of the rest of his life, it’s hard to think that would be different at 15. It had to be something he decided was important enough to risk getting in trouble for.”
In photographs my mother sent me, my grandfather is a handsome young man, dressed in Western clothes. He was more gregarious then, my mother said, with a quick smile, always the center of attention. A photograph of my grandfather at a Rotary Club dinner, perhaps from around 1950, shows him in a white tuxedo and black bowtie, smiling easily.
His close friend, K. J. Herschel, my mother said, always wore Gandhian homespun rather than western clothes. Herschel had been closely involved in freedom struggle activities in Kerala. He had joined the Indian National Congress, the primary organization agitating for self-rule, in 1928, and had been imprisoned for eighteen months as part of the 1940s Quit India movement, during which the British imprisoned thousands of activists.
After independence, Herschel joined civic government in Cochin and the state legislature. His life is one my grandfather might have had, if he had clung to the ideals that had driven him to protest that day in 1940.
My mother suggests that one reason my grandfather never talked about his arrest was that friends of his, like K.J. Herschel, had sacrificed much more for their political activities and had been much more involved in both the freedom struggle and in government afterward.
Mallika argued that we should look at my grandfather as the “first Indian Britisher” rather than the “last Britisher in India.”
“Maybe there’s a point of pride in being the first Indian Britisher,” Mallika said, “of being the president of the Coonoor Club. It’s a quiet protest, I think. It doesn’t seem rebellious, but it is an overthrow.”
We spoke of the contradiction of being arrested for protest and spending your life working for a company founded by a group of Scotsmen.
“Maybe he looked back at the protest and being anti-British as childish,” Mallika said. “Maybe he wasn’t in a position” after his father’s death “to say, ‘fuck the British.’ He had to do what he had to do.”
As I dug into my grandfather’s early life, scouring newspaper archives for any mention of his arrest and reading a whole shelf of books on pre-independence Kerala, Mallika’s thought stayed with me.
The man my grandfather became, the one who helped pay for his sisters’ medical educations and never went to another protest, was shaped irrevocably by his father’s death.
On Easter Sunday, I took New Jersey Transit down the Trenton line to New Brunswick, where Gracy, my grand aunt, lives with her husband, Nayan. She’s my mother’s aunt, my maternal grandfather’s younger sister. Gracy’s daughter Anita picked us all up and we drove the couple of hours down to Merion, outside Philadelphia, for Easter dinner at Gracy’s son Anil’s house.
After dinner I sat Gracy Aunty down and asked about my grandfather. Where had he been arrested? It wasn’t a big deal, she told me. He was in Puthencavu, a small town in Kerala, where he had been going to high school. He was arrested as a student demonstrator, and she wasn’t sure if he even spent the night in jail.
I wanted to know more about my great grandfather. The story I heard, over and over, was that he got depressed, and then later died. I didn’t know how he died, or why.
I finally asked Gracy the question I had never voiced: how had my great grandfather died?
He hung himself from the cashew trees in the groves surrounding her family home in Thiruvalla. Gracy found him there.
My great grandfather, Gracy said, had been a kind and gentle man with a nobility of spirit that he passed on to my grandfather. And my great grandmother, who was economical to a fault, ambitious and driven, and intensely entrepreneurial. She used the family land to grow crops for the family’s subsistence and also crops like rubber and coconut for sale. She bought up foreclosed land at low prices, and bought paddy fields for more income, which could then be worked by hired labor and the crop sold.
She even bought more land and had another house built there for the family.
The British-owned rubber plantation where my great grandfather worked offered forest land for use, if it were cleared and cultivated, and my great grandmother took up that offer and did so. My grandfather, Gracy said, also inherited my great grandmother’s work ethic and her economic sense.
There were nine siblings: six sisters, and three brothers. My grandfather was the second-oldest, and the oldest son. After his father died, my grandfather and his older sister paid for my grand aunt Ruby’s medical college tuition. Then all three of them helped pay for seats for the next three youngest sisters. It was a collaborative and mutually supportive process.
“They could have just married us off,” Gracy Aunty said. But the family philosophy was that the girls should be able to stand on their own, and that made a good education the primary goal.
My great grandfather had been a manager at a British-owned rubber plantation in Mundakayam, Gracy told me and that in 1945 the company sent him to a doctor who said he should be relieved of his managerial responsibilities, essentially forcing him into retirement.
After that, his small pension wasn’t enough to support his large family. And my great grandfather was terribly depressed. He ghosted through the house, aloof, not speaking to anybody, wandering the rooms or sitting in a chair in the corner for hours.
My great grandmother was already managing much of the family’s income from farming, but after my great grandfather lost his job, she took over practically all of the family business.
Was he depressed before he lost his job? I asked Gracy.
He had shown some signs of paranoia, that the laborers on the plantation were stealing goods and that he would be blamed by the British owners.
He stayed depressed for years. A doctor prescribed shock treatments, which were ineffective. Meanwhile, he and my great grandmother had their third son, Bobby, who also eventually became a doctor (as did his three children).
In 1948, Gandhi was assassinated by Nathuram Godse. This sent my great grandfather further into depression and affected him profoundly, Gracy told me.
“He always had a paranoia that people were trying to harm him or his children,” Gracy said. “He always lived in fear.”
After Gandhi’s assassination, she added, he thought the whole country would devolve into chaos.
“There was so much violence and strife,” Gracy said. India and Pakistan had been partitioned in 1947, and the communal violence between Hindus and Muslims that followed had been bloody and brutal, with millions displaced and many estimates of the dead as high as one million.
One morning, her mother sent Gracy, then age 10, and the younger children into the groves surrounding the house to gather nuts fallen from the cashew trees growing there. They dispersed through the trees in different directions, and she raised her eyes from the nuts on the ground to see a pair of legs dangling before her.
At first, she assumed it was a laborer who had come to the family land to commit suicide as an accusation, she told me. When she realized it was her father, she started to scream.
My grandfather came home upon hearing of his father’s death. He was almost 23, already working in Cochin with the export examiner who would eventually set up Forbes & Co., the tea company where he would work the rest of his working life.
The whole family supported each other in grief, Gracy told me, but according to her many in the town treated them badly, ostracizing them and casting aspersions, starting rumors that my great grandmother had killed her husband.
I asked about depression in my family, and Gracy told me that her sister, Susie, suffered from it so badly that at one point she was hospitalized for a period. The way Gracy described Susie’s symptoms – fits and uncontrollable rage – may imply bipolar disorder or something a little afield from clinical depression.
I called my mother on the train home from New Jersey and asked her why she had never told me exactly what had happened to my great grandfather, and that Gracy, who I consider myself very close to, had found her father’s body.
“I told you that!” my mother said.
She never had. I was positive.
My mother said that when I had my second serious depressive episode, in 2003 at UC Berkeley, she had gone with me to see a psychiatrist and told him about our family history with depression.
But I am positive she did not mention the suicide, but simply referenced depression. She mentioned depression on my father’s side, but not that my great grandfather hung himself.
Then she told me a story: when she was a young girl, she used to go to my great grandmother’s house to spend summers. One day, at the Thiruvalla house, at age 9 or 10, she wandered through the family plot up to the road. There was a loud noise, and she said aloud, “What was that?”
“Must be the sound of someone hanging himself,” a passerby told her.
At age 10 she almost certainly hadn’t known how her grandfather (my great grandfather) had died. But she remembered the story long enough to connect it with the truth whenever it was that she learned it.
I called my father and asked him whether he had known about my great grandfather’s suicide.
“I was the one who told you about it!” he said.
“No, you didn’t,” I said. “You told me that when you were preparing to marry my mother your father had heard something about her family, something vague and troubling.”
“Oh,” he said. “I didn’t feel it was my place to tell you the whole story. But I knew. I’m not sure if my father knew or not, but he probably knew the story also.”
Learning about the suicide wasn’t wholly unexpected. Knowing that the details of his death were something of a mystery, and that my great grandfather had been depressed, I had a strong sense that suicide may have been his fate, a sense that grew stronger up until the moment I finally asked Gracy the question directly.
At one point in my 20s, I was afraid of becoming my father, who has had his own emotional struggles that may have had to do with undiagnosed depression, which led to an extended period of stasis and stagnation, not unlike my great grandfather. Back then, I may not have been able to handle the truth about my great grandfather’s suicide. I may have looked at it like a familial fate, as Hemingway apparently did.
Now learning the truth is a revelation and a catharsis. My own depression and periodic suicidal states did not drop from the sky to crush me. Depression has deep roots in my family, and the way I am has some kind of explanation.
And it provides an explanation for my grandfather’s choices. His brief revolutionary moment represents a possible life he never lead, a thread of fate severed when my great grandfather killed himself. Because of my great grandfather’s depression, my grandfather went to work for the family and had to put away childish things, like the risky business of rebellion.
My grand-aunt said that her father was profoundly affected by Gandhi’s assassination.
Knowing what I do about depression, I know that external events do not motivate suicide, but that you can read in the world what you feel about yourself, and the ugly events around you seem to echo your internal state of mind.
In the few years of therapy that I slogged through before returning to UC Berkeley to finish my undergraduate degree, I remember my lowest point, where I felt that Arab Spring protesters being gunned down in Yemen was proof that the world was ugly and doomed. It’s part of the essential narcissism of depression – because you feel as you do, you see in the world the way you feel about yourself.
So I don’t believe that Gandhi’s assassination drove my great grandfather to suicide. But I understand the way that he might have seen in that event external proof of the way he felt inside.
Why was my grandfather there in Puthencavu at a student demonstration on that day in 1940? The better question was why he never took to the streets again, as the freedom struggle heated up, and the British colonial government sent thousands of activists from the Quit India movement like K. J. Herschel to prison.
The answer lies in the parts of my grandfather’s character I found so compelling and admirable – his absolute dedication to his family and his generosity with his time and labor. After his father’s death, that dharma became undeniable.
Despite his English cultural markers, to me his presence at that demonstration leaves no doubt about his Indianness, the freedom that he, like his father, wanted for our nascent country. Ultimately, it does him a disservice to think of him as the “last Britisher in India.”
My great grandfather let his despair about Gandhi’s death and what it could mean for his family destroy him. My grandfather’s reaction to tragic death was to get to work.
In that sense, he was more like his friends in the freedom struggle who went into civic service. But his arena was his family, my mother’s family, rather than the state.
My mystical revelation about my grandfather was closer to the truth than I knew. It’s his response to the tragic destruction of his father’s depression and suicide that formed the manhood I so admired in him. Through his life, his labor – for a British company in a British industry – was transmuted into healing the fundamental wound of his father’s death.
Gautham Thomas was born in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, India, grew up in California and lives in New York City. He has written for the Daily Californian, the Las Vegas Sun, and the Los Angeles Daily Journal.