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Thadhiginathom: Part 1
- Zakir Hussain
English translation: Dushy Gnanapragasam

July 4, 2020

(Reproduced with permission)

I was born in the village of Thurinjipatti in the Dharmapuri district of Tamil Nadu. A village so remote and obscure but idyllic and blessed with natural resources. Situated on the foothills of Yerkadu, its picturesque beauty seemed straight out of a movie. The village benefitted from the plentiful rainfall on the hills which provided for an abundance of good drinking water in the wells, a constant supply of fish in the canals, bountiful harvests in the fields, and healthy cattle herds to roam.

A majority of the village's residents belonged to the communities of Kounder, scheduled castes, Muslims, and Oriya speaking Boyar. They each had dedicated places of worship and their traditional ways of worshiping. There were not more than a hundred and fifty to two hundred households in the small village. In addition, the Nayakkar community made up a small minority of no more than four or five households.

The villagers lived an amicable life with each other, living within the control and constraints imposed by their village elders. Caste riots and religious hatred that engulfed other villages were not something I had heard of as a child growing up in Thurinjipatti. I grew up not knowing of any discriminatory practices towards any community - such as separate dishware or segregated seating at hotels - that was prevalent in other villages.

The credit for this condition goes to the Dravidian Movement. The positive influence of social reformer "Periyar" E. V. Ramasamy on our village meant my school days were calm and serene. The concept of hierarchy among castes is something I still find alien and preposterous.

Most everyone in the village owned land and farming was the mainstay of their livelihood. It was common to find people working together in each other's fields when time permitted. It was in this backdrop that my paternal grandmother, Saidha Bibi - having been blessed with vast amounts of fertile land and ten children - lived like the monarch of a small kingdom. She was a sight to behold and a sight still etched in my memory. That her seventh son Abdullah married a woman from the Nayakkar community was newsworthy in those days and would have made it to the headlines of the local tabloid, had there been one. Abdullah's bride was Alamelu Manga, a blessed and generous soul. To the best of my knowledge, Abdullah and Alamelu were the only two to have married across community boundaries in that village.

My father was the youngest child to my grandmother. He lost his father when he was just three years old. As if to compensate for that loss, he was smothered by his mother and mothered by his sisters. Having been pampered by so many, it was understandable that he would grow up spoiled and irresponsible. The woman who placed enough trust in him to marry him, bear four sons with him, and then separate from him realizing he cannot be reformed, is my mother Salamath Begum. As I was the eldest son of the pampered youngest child, many uncles and aunts and their numerous children showed keen interest in raising me. My parents allowed me to be raised by my aunt (Periyamma) Alamelu since she did not have any children of her own. Thus, I became the foster child of my uncle (Periyappa) Abdullah.

Alamelu Periyamma showed little, if any, interest in farming. Instead, she prepared and sold pastries and snacks for profit. Though she was married to a Muslim man, she remained a quintessential Vaishnavite woman to her very end. She had the religious symbols of Kolam tattooed on both her hands and her forehead was eternally adorned with Sri Choornam. She frequented temples and was pious in her worship. This bothered many in my grandmother's family, but the love and affection Abdullah showed towards his wife forbade them from ever speaking up. Abdullah would never once interfere with his wife's freedom of religion because it ran against the ideals of the Dravidian movement which he had aligned himself with.

Alamelu's sister carrying me

The Telugu speaking Alamelu Periyamma had a daughter through her younger sister. Her name, ironically enough, was Tamilselvi. Tamilselvi was a dancer. And thus, she became my first guru. The very first song she taught me to dance to was the popular hymn on Lord Kanthan, 'Kanthan Kaaladiyai Vananginaal'. So, I, who started dancing, proclaiming the benefits of worshiping Lord Murugan's feet, have now surrendered at the lotus feet of Lord Sri Krishna.

This is the beginning of the story of how one who was born into the Islamic faith in a remote village of Tamil Nadu became a dancer, a devotee of Lord Sri Krishna, and travelled the world to speak of it.
(June 22, 2020)

To be continued....

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