Madras Thatha

Last year, at an official lunch on a scorching day in Madras, I saw my Big Boss in new light. It is a fleeting, endearing moment from that afternoon that remains imprinted on my mind, while the rest is a blur. Mr. Ravi was retiring as the editor-in-chief of the newspaper and had invited all of us, the staff, for lunch at his house. My interactions with him have been brief and sporadic, but I have heard a lot about him from senior writers in the newspaper, including, of course, my mother. With deep respect for a person also comes fear, so every time I see him, I naturally shrink into a meek and obedient mouse.

That day was no different. Four of us crowded around him engaging in polite conversation when suddenly a bright red-cheeked child, his granddaughter, ran up to him and tugged at his arm. “Let’s go!” she said. He smiled lovingly at her. “Not now,” he replied gently. Unwilling to give up, she pulled both his arms, tugged at his hair, clung from his shoulder, and attempted to climb him as though he were a tree. Finally surrendering to her quiet tantrum, he excused himself from the conversation and left. I continued to watch them both. As he held an ice-cream cup in his palm, she clambered on to his lap, chatting and giggling incessantly. People came and went, greeting him and thanking him, but she was unfazed by all that, for she was the centre of his universe now. She was on her favourite person’s lap and that’s all mattered to her, her mother later told me.

This heartwarming sight of an important man being persuaded by a child to do what she wanted remains so fresh in my mind because I have little memory of my own grandparents. It sticks because it comes from a longing for a relationship that so many of my friends have had and have spoken about, a relationship that is so different from the one between parent and child: grandparents are more lenient, perennially fussing over and spoiling their grandchildren in ways that they would have seldom done with their own children. Drawn into their grandchildren’s world, they often turn into children themselves: eager to learn new things, bewildered by a fast-changing world, and forever indulging. The pages of their rule book disappear when they have to take care of yet another generation: they become more ready to befriend rather than parent. I saw this once when I wore a short wrap around skirt and walked gingerly out of my room during my school days. My father looked most displeased. His mother, on the other hand, thought I looked “romba stylish” and asked me what the dress was called and if it was the fashion now.

My mother’s father, Bangalore thaatha, died before I was born, but my brother shared a special bond with him. My brother is a lot like Bangalore thaatha: head always buried in books, passionate about history and literature, with an unquenchable thirst to know more about the world, short-tempered, always loving. He is lucky because he also knew my mother’s mother, Bangalore paati, who died when I was only a year old. I only know her through photographs (she was beautiful and dressed in a charmingly old-fashioned way in her madisaar) and from conversations with my mother (she was gentle and generous). I hear I was her favourite, though I frankly don’t recall what I did when I was all of one to earn that place.

On my father’s side, I knew both my grandparents, but my memories of Madras paati are more vivid than my memories of thaatha. In fact, I struggled so much to recall any interaction with thaatha that I called up my father, ashamed and sad that I remembered so little, to ask him if he could rake up any memories.

Memories are often vague and disconnected: there are flashes from a lunch here, there is a photograph there, a song here, a conversation there – all of it not adding up to a satisfactory picture of the past. And since crumbs of memory are all that we have left sometimes, we cling on to them, replaying them over and over again in our heads, terrified that those little pieces too will soon fade away leaving us with nothing but heartache.

It is the same with thaatha. I cling on to my memory of him sitting by the window in the Thiruvanmiyur house, for that's all I have. Every time I walked in for a family lunch or to visit thaatha and paati, he would be sitting by that window, sunlight streaming in through the iron rods, fanning himself with a colourful hand fan, his forehead glistening and his hair wispy, while watching dark green buses go by. Sometimes he would be squinting through thick glasses at the newspaper in his hand. He would sit with one leg folded and the other hanging, much like my father sits sometimes. He would ask how I was, how school was, and always sympathized greatly when I had exams coming up. My father tells me that once I returned from school and showed him all my new books, wrapped in glossy brown paper with labels firmly stuck on them. I took out one, then two, then five, then ten. Madras thaatha was at home then, and was horrified that children so young had to work so hard and carry such heavy bags.

My abiding memory of paati is of her in the kitchen cooking for the tens of us who descended there every other Sunday. I remain amazed at how there was always food in that house. Only now, as I sit in Munich cooking every day a small portion of barely edible food for myself and my roommate, that I am able to appreciate the effort that goes into cooking for a house full of family members of all shapes and sizes. She was always in the kitchen, often making some of my favourite dishes: soft gulab jamuns, crunchy appalams. Sometimes thaatha would say something to her and she would tell him off, and we were often awkward spectators to arguments between both of them across the kitchen and living room. Thaatha invariably conceded defeat, for paati was the feistier one. In the afternoons, after a heavy lunch, we would go to an adjoining room to play cards or play card games on the desktop, while thaatha and paati would go to sleep in the next room.

Thaatha was a quiet man, often pensive, an observer of events, while paati was chattier, more a participant, curious about everyone’s whereabouts, and grumpy when asked to sit and not walk around in her later years. When I was young, I was a sporty child, an uncharacteristic trait in this family, I am told. One day when I came home with a few medals, my father, so beaming with pride that all logic took a backseat, asked if my achievement would be featured in the newspaper! He tells me that thaatha was very amused by this.

I wish I could go on, but those are all the crumbs I have. Together they both must have been amazing parents to have brought up so many children under one small roof in poorer times. They were certainly lovely grandparents who indulged us while we ran amok in their house. I only wish that I had also sat on my grandfather’s lap while he fed me ice-cream, but I am too blessed already to wish for more. I am sure though that he must have felt less amused and more proud if he saw me now, as does my father: I do manage to get my name in the newspaper, even if it is not for winning the relay.

1st July 2017

click here to go back