Thursday, June 2, 2016

The Most Famous Pregnancy in all of Salem (Salem Bananti)

Krishna Drishta
Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906)
In our extended family, there is a special place for pregnant women and nursing mothers (in Kannada the term used for nursing mothers is "bananti"). When pregnant or nursing, women in our family are paid special attention by all - fathers, mothers, uncles, aunts, brothers, sisters, cousins, in-laws, the cook, the cleaner, the street hawker, et al. They are treated like queens - given special food to eat, new clothes, massages, jewellery, etc. A wish by a pregnant or nursing mother is a command by a higher being, and it has to be implemented post haste. It doesn't matter whether the child is a boy or girl. What matters is that the mother and child are healthy and happy, and stay that way.

My earliest recollection of special treatment, is my mother telling us stories of how she would crave for something (ice cream, mango, peas, etc) when she was pregnant and my father, Anna, would roam the city, sometimes late at night, just to fulfil her wish.

When we made a fuss, or wanted special treatment, Amma and Anna would shake their head slowly and sadly, and say, "We have a Salem Bananti in our home!"

Salem Bananti was the name given to THE most famous pregnant / nursing person in all of Salem district. The one that caused the entire Namakkal household of my paternal grandmother (Ajji) to run around satisfying the needs, and wishes, and whims of one person. This one person was Ajji's cousin, a mere 12 years older than my father and considered the most intelligent in the family.

Thomas Beatie (with his wife and children)
made headlines when he gave birth
 after becoming a transgendered man

Photo: James Ambler / Barcroft USA via Facebook
Salem Bananti's real name was Sheshagiri Rao. A man!  Not a woman. A boy who had been fussed over by every woman in the family and grew up to be a fussy man.  A boy that the family touted as the most intelligent person they had seen (till Anna and his siblings bet his marks and rankings in school). A boy who grew up to become the Post Master of Namakkal Taluka.

Anna does not remember why such a fuss was made of Sheshagiri Rao. All he remembers is that there was always a great fuss about things. Mundane things. Things like the famous South Indian weekly oil bath.

Old Water Heater Design
On the appointed day of the weekly oil bath, the entire family routine would be upset as Salem Bananti's mother would spend extra time picking similar sized wood for the wood-fired cauldron that would heat the water. Then she would find the window thru' which there was uninterrupted sunlight, and make him sit in its path so that she could massage him with oil till his skin shone as it absorbed the heat of the sun with the oil. It is said that his head was thumped with so much oil that oil would drip from his eyes.

Then she would go to the bathroom to draw water for his bath, for only she could determine the right temperature. And when he finished his bath, he would lay on a bed, with his head hanging over the side, a thin malabar towel draped like a tent, covering his hair and a samrani (a wood fired small angeethi), so that his hair would dry fast, preventing him from catching a cold. This is how pregnant and nursing mothers' hair was quickly dried in the old days. On special occasions, his mother would sprinkle sandalwood powder on the samrani so that his hair smelled fragrant!  Salem Bananti got the same treatment till the day he died, for these rituals were passed mother to wife.

It wasn't just the fuss over his bath. If Salem Bananti caught a cold or fever, the entire household came to a standstill, for everyone had to take care of him, from trying out new home remedies, to finding the culprit who caused Sheshagiri Rao to fall ill!

Stag Brand Umbrellas
Still being sold at Ebrahim Currim & Sons
As an adult, Sheshagiri Rao was famous for the umbrellas that never left his side. He  carried around 4 umbrellas - one to protect him from the sun, one from the rain, one from the wind, and one from any weather pattern not covered by the previous three. And these were not simple umbrellas - only Stag umbrellas would do.

When I asked Anna, how Sheshagiri Rao's wife and kids dealt with his extreme fussiness, he said, "They did what was asked of them. It was a man's world those days, and he would get what he wanted, as and when he wanted. Simple."

So now when Anna is "all there" i.e. not hallucinating or disoriented, and he makes a huge fuss, I ask him why he is behaving like Salem Bananti.  He normally smiles at this and we share a laugh at how Sheshagiri Rao's short hair was dried by the heat of a samrani like a pregnant / nursing woman's!

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