My grandmothers’ great-grandfather David Ananjann was a legendary figure in Vellamadam, a small town in Alwarthirunagari Taluk, Tuticorin District, Tamil Nadu. David Ananjann was a self-made man; a person who started from scratch and became a huge landowner within the next 50 years through sheer willpower and hard work.
His story starts around the year 1825, when he was born in a village called Nanganeri
in Tirunelveli district, Tamil Nadu. He was just another illterate field hand like the
lakhs of other poor farmers in India. But what made him different was that he strongly
believed in justice and had a sense of fairness. Trouble came to the young man when he stood up for the rights of a fellow worker with his zamindar (landowner). He was swiftly dismissed, his rented land seized and he was given marching orders to leave.
Ananjann, a young man in his early 20s, then left the land of his ancestors to come to the little village of Vellamadam with his wife, daughter and son in tow. His wife, unable to adjust to the change, swiftly succumbed to illness and dies. Shortly afterwards his teenage daughter (*1) whom he had given in marriage to a fellow labourer also died. Ananjann was now left all alone in the world with a young son to care for, virtually penniless and grief-stricken with sorrow.
Ananjann’s love for his wife was so deep that he never again got married. His tombstone in fact reads that he was “a man of virtue” – a startling innovation in itself as in those days it was a wife’s virtue (in not marrying and being “immune to desires”) that got praised or highlighted.
He worked hard and wanted to leave an inheritance for his grandchildren. Something he felt his son Gnanakannu was incapable of. Nevertheless the young man did pass himself off creditably, so much so that his second daughter Anamuthu (his other two girls were Chellam, , Nallamuthu) – named two of her children Gnanmbal and Gnanadoss in memory of her father. This Gnanmbal Sundaram is my grandmother and a fierce, redoubtable doctor, who served for decades with the government; who overcame widowhood; the handicap of providing for four children to finish her M.D. and D.G.O in medicine – but that of course is another tale – to be told another day.
Now I am not sure how much the next half of my ancestor Ananjann’s tale will go down in secular/revisionist India. For the record – I think religion is the root of all evil – and am an avowed atheist. And for the record, I do find Hindu mythology more intriguing and fascinating with its myriad of interweaving tales and its moral ambiguity than Christian mythology with its linear narrative and black and white definitions of morality and heaven and hell.
So here goes…So one night, when my ancestor was sleeping, the Goddess Esaki, whose abode was nearby started haunting him. She was apparently displeased (let’s all politely bear with the story) because Ananjann had heard the gospel first from some Christian missionaries in the Salvation Army. A British missionary by the name of David Cott guided him through his initiation into the new religion. Ananjann with the whole-heartedness of the new convert changed his name to David as that of his mentor and started attending the Salvation Army church in Nagercoil; a church to which many of his great-great-grandchildren still attend to this day.
Now when the Goddess Esaki kept haunting his dreams, he told her, “I have now found the one true god – and I will not be your disciple anymore.” The saddened goddess apparently ceased to pay visits to him after this.
My ancestor linked her departure with the rise in his fortunes. He first started working in the other fields as a “pattan” for kuthagakai in Vellamadam village, Karayankulli. In those days, landowners were atrocious sorts who’d rent out their land to a more enterprising labourer and then that poor man would have to borrow huge sums of money to pay for labourers, equipments, and the inevitable increasing rents the landowner would capriciously impose. But despite having the cards stacked against him, David Ananjann got a reputation for being able to turn even a field of thistle (mullu veli nilathayum) into a fertile paddy outcrop . Ananjann would often quote Genesis chapter 6 that when Issac sowed he got back a 100-fold.
Now our man apart from being a devoted servant of God, was also a canny mortal. There was no bus service back then, so travellers would go from place to place on their bullock carts. Now Anajann built a “pettai” so that both man and beast could shelter there. He also had water pits and pots of buttermilk kept there for those weary with travel. And the next day, when they left he’d have half a cartful of manure to be be sown into the rich alluvial soil of Palayamkottai.
In his later years, when he’d earned as much as he could ever want, apparently his interest in the pettai changed. He no longer viewed it as a source for free natural fertilizer, he started empathising a lot with the wild swings of fortune and the general vulnerability of the human condition. He started offering food, shelter and buttermilk free of cost to anyone who’d come by. In his will, he provisioned for the produce of two fields to go only towards this “annadanam”. A tradition that remains to this day – carried on by his ancestors – though only once a year, unlike the everyday affair it was in David Ananjann’s time.
Adjoining the shelter for travellers, there was another pettai – and the front two rooms of these were always let out to shops to sell their wares. One of his other trade secrets was that he always worked along with his labourers even after he had made his fortune. While mean minded people could think that he did this to spy on his workforce, for him it was because he enjoyed the work and the camaraderie of other workers. For years later, he would tell his grandchildren “work together, the hours grow short; work apart and the day will never seem to end.”
Anajann’s one great wish was to see all of his grandchildren married splendidly. And he did just that. He died at the ripe old age of 101 years, after his daughter Anamuthu got married and he got into tonga to see off the marriage party. A life well lived and with no regrets, except to meet his maker.