Sunday, June 16, 2013

Getting personal today

I think Father's Day is the best time to tell you a whole lot about Pulickal Achyutha Menon, my grandfather, and one of our inspirations!
He was a self-made man, as several of his generation are. In the 1930s, after finishing high school, he used to tutor kids from a local wealthy family in our village Kanjiramattom. He used to pass the only newspaper in the village around between some families and got it to a reading club for his friends (that was the beginning of the Village Library and Reading room that exists even today!). One of the members of this local family who was based in Bombay was impressed with his activities and offered to take him there. He got to Mumbai circa 1938, and worked as a help-boy at Richardson Cruddas, an engineering design firm. As he served tea to his bosses, he peeked at the drawings and observed a mismatch of some dimensions in the work. His employers were impressed and offered to pay for his evening classes at the VJTI Mumbai.

This was the beginning of his engineering career. He went on to work for MECON, and in 1954 he was one of the 13 engineers sent to Germany to prepare India's first public sector steel plant in Rourkela. He loved saying that the Indian steel industry was born in his hands and was genuinely so proud of that!
My grandparents, my uncle Rajan and my mother Indu
After he retired in 1973, he decided it was his turn to serve the community around him. So he got into a number of welfare groups in the many places he lived in. When my grandparents moved in with us in Ahmedabad to take care of me (since both my parents had full-time jobs and day-cares were not too common in India at the time) was the first time I saw his activities first-hand. He set up a Malayalam class each Sunday morning, where children from the Malayali community in our neighborhood were taught the alphabet. He felt that if you could not read/write/speak your mother tongue, well then you were illiterate! So yes, I have some amazing memories of being dragged reluctantly on Sundays to learn the alphabet. But now, each time I'm at a bus-stop or restaurant in Kerala, I silently thank him for having taught me my language! 
My grandparents and me (in the 90's of-course, faux-animal print and all!)
He was involved with the rural community around our area when we lived in Ahmedabad,  setting up a school for the village children, sanitation facilities and several such initiatives. Much later on, when he moved to Kerala, he was an active member of the Senior Citizen's forum in our neighborhood. Through this he also did a lot of data collection on the lives and welfare concerns of the elderly in our area.

In my years as a college student in France and when I worked in Delhi I used to spend all my holidays with my grandparents. Most of my days were spent making drawings, taking pictures and reading books on design. Almost on a daily basis he asked me: What is the point of this education? What can you give back to this community, one which has supported you to be who you are now? Does a French/American education in Graphic Design have any relevance to the lives of people in this rural part of Kerala?

At the time Indu and I had not yet started on Kara. And I used to return his question with a pretty blank stare and tell him I made great work that made things look better. He asked me (with an urgency in his voice that was lost on me at the time) on how making things look better actually helped anyone? And then I would usually get irritated, lose my temper and leave the room.

He died a few months before I graduated from Cranbrook in 2009. The last few years of his life were in and out of awareness, and he slowly withdrew into himself. It was in these years that Kara was starting to happen and as I started to write my graduate thesis at Cranbrook I finally had my answer for the "daily question" of design's relevance that my grandpa asked.
So on this beautiful Father's day, as always, I remember and thank my Appupa for having asked me those direct, blunt and sometimes painful questions about relevance. And to have taught me that "comfortable" was not a good feeling, if you ever want to create something meaningful.

xoxo, Chitra

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