Ayya's Accounts: A Ledger of Hope in Modern India

Ayya's Accounts: A Ledger of Hope in Modern India

Ayya's Accounts: A Ledger of Hope in Modern India

Ayya's Accounts: A Ledger of Hope in Modern India


Ayya's Accounts explores the life of an ordinary man--orphan, refugee, shopkeeper, and grandfather--during a century of tremendous hope and upheaval. Born in colonial India into a despised caste of former tree climbers, Ayya lost his mother as a child and came of age in a small town in lowland Burma. Forced to flee at the outbreak of World War II, he made a treacherous 1,700-mile journey by foot, boat, bullock cart, and rail back to southern India. Becoming a successful fruit merchant, Ayya educated and eventually settled many of his descendants in the United States. Luck, nerve, subterfuge, and sorrow all have their place along the precarious route of his advancement. Emerging out of tales told to his American grandson, Ayya's Accounts embodies a simple faith--that the story of a place as large and complex as modern India can be told through the life of a single individual.


This book grows out of conversations with my grandfather. I was born and raised in the United States. He has spent most of his life in India and Burma. the chapters pass back and forth between my voice and his, between his recollections of his life as a merchant and my reflections on his life as a grandson and an anthropologist. Although my grandfather has long had many languages within reach—some Hindi, Telugu, Burmese, English— the two of us have always spoken in Tamil, his native language.

Tamil is a diglossic language, with tremendous differences of feeling, implication, and solemnity between its written and spoken registers. My grandfather has always been a man of plain words and sparing expressions, a thrifty merchant with little interest in ornamentation of any kind. Nevertheless, there is a stark beauty to his stories.

In the original Tamil edition of this book, published by Kalachuvadu Pub lications in 2012, we sought to convey the modest elegance of my grandfath er’s language by relying on his own verbal idioms and the spoken quality of his vernacular Madurai dialect. With this English edition, based on my translation of his words, I have tried to maintain some sense of the colloquial personality of his speech.

What I know of Tamil was learned in bits and pieces over many years. “Every word in Tamil has ever so many meanings,” my grandfather has often said to me. With this translation, I have tried to keep this idea in mind, working out the various meanings and implications that a single word may bear in diverse circumstances, while also striving, at the same time, to relay something of the simple clarity of my grandfather’s voice.

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