I must state at the outset that I do not believe in remembering people solely through their significant accomplishments. There is something artificial about it that I resent. My thatha – the way I referred to my grandpa – was academically a brilliant man, a gold medalist, but quite inept when it came to other practical matters of daily life. My interactions with him exposed these two aspects of his personality. In the afternoon, he would patiently sit by the window for hours, fanning himself in the sultry heat and reading the Hindu in great detail, wanting some tea after his nap, but neither bold enough to ask paatti (grandma) for it nor skilled enough to boil some water and pour himself a cup. Paatti would later make it for him when she found some free time.
My uncles and aunts were quite reverential in the way they interacted with thatha. His status as the patriarch demanded respect, and they willingly gave it to him. It was customary for them to take thatha’s blessings by falling at his feet when he visited them. Unfortunately for me, thatha made an entry into the Posts & Telegraph quarters in Ashok Nagar (my house in Chennai) while I was in the middle of a cricket match. I was at the non-striker’s end when I saw him slowly walk on the road, which was serving as the pitch, leading up to my house. One of the fielders asked him to hurry up, as he was delaying the game. I remained a mute spectator without rushing forward to escort him to our flat on the ground floor. When he looked at me, I merely raised my hand in acknowledgement, but did not drop everything to welcome him to our place. He was taken aback by my despicable behavior. When my mother received him, he complained about the poor reception I had given him and chastised her for raising a son who did not know his manners. I received an earful from my mom, and was deeply ashamed of my behavior that day. My thatha, I learned, might seem genial but was capable of striking back when he felt hurt or insulted.
My grandma was a very affectionate lady, and I loved visiting her during the summer vacations. Grandparents lived in a modest home in Thiruvanmiyur, Chennai, but my paatti had a knack for making it the most spacious and welcoming place of them all. It was also the place where I first began to realize that a married couple can be completely dissimilar and yet make things work, or at least hold it all together. My paatti would cook, manage the servant maids, entertain the visitors and still find time to play cards and chess with her grandchildren. Thatha on the other hand liked to remain aloof and attend to his simple routines. His routine included a long nap during afternoons, and it was hard to imagine that anyone could sleep like that during the middle of the day. Soon after having his lunch, he would spread out the mat on the floor, apply a liberal dose of amrutanjan -- a multipurpose balm with strong odor -- all over his face, take a bath towel and wrap it tightly around his head like a turban, and tune out the world and go to sleep within minutes. My paatti would point at him during his nap and remark, பாரு, இடியே விழுந்தாலும் கூட தெரியாதமாதிரி தூங்கரார் உங்க தாத்தா paaru ma, idiye vizhunthakkuda theriyada mari thungarar unga thatha (look, your grandpa is fast asleep; he wouldn’t know if there were a bolt of thunder right now)! I could perceive more than a tinge of envy in her voice.
One summer afternoon, paatti sent thatha off to a local convenience store to get some juice when many of my cousins and I were visiting her. While we were in the middle of an interesting game of carroms, she offered to serve us some Rasna juice. It was our favorite drink at that time, and all of us readily jumped at her offer. She quietly placed the stainless steel tumbler with the juice next to us as we were absorbed in the game. One of my cousins, after taking a small sip from the tumbler, rushed to the wash basin and spat it all out. “Paatti, I thought you were going to give us Rasna, what is this kashayam?” he queried my grandma. She insisted that it was Rasna, and pulled out the packet that thatha had bought. It was a flavor called Kala Khatta. In Hindi, that literally translated to “black and sour”! We were used to the sweet, colorful, orange and mango flavors, and did not even know that Rasna sold a drink in that other awful flavor. Paatti later explained that when the shopkeeper asked him about the flavor he would like to buy, grandpa didn’t have a clue and asked him to give him the one that was available. The shopkeeper promptly sold him the slowest moving stock. Thatha had been duped, paatti was furious, and we found the whole thing quite ridiculous. For many years after this incident we would recall the episode and have a good laugh over it.
Every once in a while, thatha liked to escape from Thiruvanmiyur and come stay at my place in Ashok Nagar because my parents would always treat him with affection. My paatti could be a little short with him at times. But my mother always extended to him the respect and care that he relished. At my Ashok Nagar house, he liked to sit at my study desk and browse through my textbooks. My desk would be quite messy as I liked to drop the books in a pile after studying. He would patiently arrange them in neat little stacks for me. All the math books and notebooks would be stacked together. There would be another stack for the science books, and another for English. I would thank him for this help, but would then proceed to make a mess of it again in a couple of days. He never scolded me for wasting his efforts, but would again stack them in neat little piles for me. He would ask me about my grades and emphasize on the need to do well at school. His approach towards me was never to be instructional, but to give gentle advice on the importance of academics in one’s life. I admired him for the genuine interest he took in me. His polite tone in urging me to do well at school was quite refreshing as I was more used to the pushy and demanding style of my own parents.
Both my grandparents, especially my thatha, had understood the importance of academics as the primary path available to them for economic progress. Although thatha hailed from a small, rather unknown village called Perungalathur, in Tiruvannamalai district (erstwhile North Arcot district), he was able to impress his parents and teachers with his math and language skills, for they urged him to go to Chennai and complete his higher studies. He came to study at the Pachaiyappa’s College, where he was the topper in Math and Sanskrit and earned a gold medal for each subject. That, surely, was quite an achievement for a lad from the remote town of Perungalathur. I have heard my grandma, my dad, and all my aunts and uncles refer to those gold medals with a sense of pride, but I have never once heard thatha talk about it! He was perhaps the most modest and humble man I have met in my life.
Thatha’s brilliant performance at college earned him a secure job in the Postal Service. But grandparents’ rather large family, with eight children, would push them repeatedly to pawn those gold medals of his and use the borrowed money to run the household. It was up to my grandma, with her sagacity and can-do attitude, to feed the family on grandpa’s meagre income. This was their formula: grandpa would take the exams, get the promotion with a pay increase, and travel to the distant places that his new role sent him, and, in return, he would send the money back home to my grandma for her to scrape a living with her many children. All my aunts and uncles can share numerous stories about the lack of resources and the sacrifices that they had to make during their younger days. Perhaps most tragic of them all was the fact that three of my oldest aunts had to discontinue their studies after the eleventh grade (SSLC) despite being toppers in their school. My thatha’s academic brilliance could not ensure higher education to some of his own studious daughters who had displayed great promise!
It was not thatha's style to use hustle and enterprise to overcome obstacles and find a way; he tended to be philosophical. When my father was transferred to Shillong (a city in the remote northeastern state of Meghalaya), he had no option but to take my mother, my older brother (toddler) and me (an infant) along with him to that forsaken place. Thatha wrote a letter then, telling my parents that when “one is prepared for any eventuality, there can be no disappointments in life.” My mother loved that line, and has used it many a times to keep us in good cheer when situations turned challenging. Thatha was himself posted to Assam, another underdeveloped state in the northeast, after one of his promotions. He might have been prepared for that eventuality, but I am not sure if the rest of the family was ready for it. My father, being the eldest son, became the de facto head of the family and was thrust into making decisions on financial matters and school admissions for his siblings. To this day, my father feels that their family could have done better if only thatha had paid a little more attention to both family and financial planning.
When I was pursuing my engineering degree at Roorkee, a small, sleepy village at the foothills of Himalayas, he wrote me a letter, which I was not expecting. At first I could not tell who had written it to me. My thatha’s handwriting was quite illegible; it looked like a doctor’s prescription scrawl from beginning to end. As I was hunched over that Inland letter -- a blue sheet of paper -- trying intently to decipher what my grandpa was trying to tell me, my roommate asked in a surprised tone if I could read and understand Urdu. When I replied that it was actually English, he came over, took a closer look, shook his head and walked away without being convinced. I did manage to read that letter despite the cramped style. In it, he urged me to make the most of the opportunity that had been accorded to me in the form of an admission into a reputed engineering college. His tone, like the one he had used in Ashok Nagar, was soothing and reassuring. He never attempted to goad me to achieve more by citing his own achievements. It was instead a plea to try and rise to my full potential.
After graduating from Roorkee, I left for the United States to pursue higher studies. I would visit Chennai every once in a while, and make it a point to meet my grandparents during those visits. As always they were happy to see me. My thatha would enquire about the life in the States, and I would try and explain the courses I was studying and the degree that I was pursuing at the university. I could tell that he was happy for me. During one such visit – in December of 2001 – thatha suffered what seemed like a stroke and fell on the floor at the Adyar home, where he was staying with my Aunt Chooda. He had to be rushed to the hospital in an ambulance. When the emergency responders came dressed in their khaki uniform, Neha, Aunt Chooda’s granddaughter, who must have been only two then, explained to the rest of the family that thatha had gotten into some mischief, so the policemen had come to take him away. Even during those dark hours there was some comic relief in the family!
My dad and I, along with my Uncle Santhanam, set out to attend to thatha. I was with him when thatha was put through a battery of medical tests and finally admitted to the General Hospital. He had completely lost his ability to speak, but was conscious enough to respond to the commands. All his children came to his bedside and talked to him while he lay helplessly in that hospital bed. He acknowledged their presence and seemed to appreciate their affection for him. I bid my last farewell to him there at the hospital before returning back to the States. Slowly thatha’s health deteriorated, and after only a few months, he succumbed to the complications from his illness. I was quite pained when I learned that he had suffered a lot during his final days. I have always believed that doctors should prescribe the strongest form of painkillers to patients who are living through their last few days. My thatha, one of the most affable and gentle souls that I have ever known, did not deserve such a death.
I pray for his soul to continue to rest in peace.
I am very happy that we are celebrating thatha’s birth centenary this year. His endearing life surely calls for such a celebration.
1st July 2017
A very young Mukund with his grandparentsand other relatives
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