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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Thaathaa, Sowkyama Irukkela?

I feel the chillness of dawn creeping over me. My eyelids scrunch up to preserve the blissful darkness. Somewhere from the depths of my semi-consciousness D K Pattammal puppeteers my reluctant body to move to the melodic composition Kapali... Karunai nilavu pozhi vadanamadiyanoru... My persistent attempts to huddle under the blanket fail repeatedly on account of it being folded and put away. My annoyed self accepts defeat and wakes up to find Thaathaa singing along in his usual head-lolling way that never fails to amuse me.

A Summer vacation tradition: spending a couple of nights at Thaathaa's (maternal grandpa) place even though Thaathaa lived just across town.

Like all Thaathaas I know, he wakes up so early in the morning it actually qualifies as late-at-night. Promptly, he likes to turn off the fan, pull off our sheer cotton blankets (used more for keeping mosquitoes at bay rather than the chill), open out all the windows, turn on All India Radio airing Carnatic music at full blast and start his cleansing ritual noisily before his Pratah Sandhya Vandanam and Surya Namaskaram rituals.

For a long time since I started registering such memories, being in the same town, Thaathaa would visit us several times a week in the evenings. I never bothered to understand why and didn't really attribute any specific reason for his visit other than that is what family was about - you just visited each other as often as you wanted, whenever you wanted, chatted about this and that, and that was that. Love had nothing to do with it, in my mind, at that time.

Riding the bus across town, barefoot, his white veshti folded up to facilitate movement, a black umbrella to shelter from blazing sun rather than any downpour, a little cloth tote bag full of only-he-knows-what, walking ramrod stiff in breakneck pace, he was quite a sight.

It is possible that I extrapolated from my mom's childhood anecdotes about Thaathaa being in the Army, but despite not being one bit interested in the "grown-up" topics he always talked about, I was a bit awed by him when I was little. And, very curious about his activities when he was not at our house (or his, when I go for impromptu visits on the way from school). He always seemed serious and annoyed with a I-dare-you-to-make-me-smile kind of attitude, but my mom assures me that he was quite a jovial young lad until the weight of responsibility (being the eldest of seven children) turned him into a no-nonsense retired Safety Inspector for Southern Railways.

As I grew older, I realized he spent most evenings attending lectures and discourses, and catching up with friends at the local temple, and generally going about town doing other stuff I didn't want to know about. As I got to know him, I noticed that he was not a lazy man, and in fact, in great physical shape as far as I can remember.

He always had a fantastic memory for trivia that I didn't care about - like, so-and-so's uncle's son-in-law's sister's second cousin's full name, bio-data and personal income and investment. How he gets such inside information and why he bothers to remember them, I am not sure... but, that defines him. He likes to know everything about everybody in his own methodical way.

On rare occasions, when I was at the end of my teens, he told me quite a bit about his Guru and his initiation and his expectations and beliefs... am not sure why, and I am sure he thought I was just feigning interest as my face usually remains inscrutable on such occasions, plus the inherent hierarchical respect generally keeps me reticent in his company.

I am glad to have accompanied him to, on rare occasions, some of the discourses around town, nearby temples, and the local Ramakrishna Ashram. I didn't think so at that time and would glare at my mom, desperately trying to find excuses not to go... not because I was not deeply philosophical and introspective, but because I felt terribly awkward being the only non-sexagenarian in such gatherings.

In retrospect, I think it made him feel good about it as much as it made me feel good that he feels good about showing me more meaningful things in life.

I remember one occasion fondly: when he came to visit me in the hostel in a different town in a different state, all the way, with no one else he knew in town to make it a I-was-in-the-neighborhood kind of visit. He came expressly because I was there and he wanted to see how I was doing. At least, that is how I want to remember it. He was quite an instant hit with my friends. Am not sure why they liked him, but my guess is that he was quintessential Thaathaa and the girls were seeing their own in him.

I wrote to him on and off initially when I came overseas to pursue my education. My mom kept me up-to-date about him, and for a while he moved in with my parents and I got to chat with him briefly on the phone. And, over the last dozen plus years, when I've focused on seeking my goals, finding my bearings and making a home of my own far away from my home, my communications with him have gradually dwindled to a strained top-of-my-voice, "Thaathaa, Eppadi Irukkel? Sowkyama?" repeated ad nauseum in the hope that his failing auditory faculties would just kick into action this once...

Gradually, as is inevitable, Old Age is overcoming him. One by one his primary faculties are beginning to fade. More than that, as I gather from my mom, his spirit has started to wither. At 93, he no longer wishes to be burdened by this corporeal existence.

I am not sure why, but, for the last few weeks I have been thinking about him fondly, itching to ask him, "Thaathaa, Sowkyama Irukkela*?"

*Grandpa, Are you fine?

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At 10:25 PM, Blogger Sole said...

Such honest feelings and heartfelt write so well! First time visiting your space. Would definitely come back for more!

At 11:17 PM, Blogger My Kids said...

Hi Sheela,
Your thatha reinds me of my thatha. He passed away 5 months ago at the age of 94. He also had the habit of turning off the fan in the early mornings and turning the lights on.

At 9:59 AM, Blogger Sheela said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 2:29 PM, Blogger Sheela said...

Sole: Welcome, and please do come back. For some reason, I was thinking about thaathaa a lot and had to let it all spill out...

My Kids: So sorry to hear about your thaathaa being no more... and glad to note that our thaathaas seemed alike in some ways...

I guess the age gap when I was younger didn't lend itself to the kind of closeness I feel for him now...

At 8:38 AM, Blogger sathish said...

Sheela, that was a great write-up - straight from the heart.

In our childhood, It is surprising that we never used to associate the constant visits of our close relatives and friends as their way of expressing love. I always thought of it as a chore when I was young. Hopefully, I know better now!

At 11:56 AM, Blogger Dee said...

lovely post Sheela...makes me remember my thatha that I lost 15 years ago...

At 10:54 PM, Blogger VJ said...

beautiful Sheela.
have been reading your blog for sometime but cmmenting for first time !!
I am in complete awe with the amount of stuff you do from crafts to crochet to cook and not to forget work full time !!

At 5:36 AM, Blogger Guruprasad said...

thats a very fond recall about thatha...they are mostly fun with such adoration of "fantastic memory for trivia "...why one shall never know...or maybe its a way of reassuring themselves! at that age, it is quitelonely I guess.

At 9:10 AM, Blogger Sheela said...

Satish: you're so right, hopefully now I know better- for the longest time since I was tall enough to reach the gas stove and turn it on without blowing anything up, it was my job to scuttle off to the kitchen and emerge with a steaming cup of coffee for every guest - maybe that put me off about these frequent impromptu family visits :)

Dee: thank you... thaathaas are a special creation, hard to understand, hard to dislike, imho.

VJ: Welcome! very kind of you to write me a note... would like to hear more from you...

Guruprasad: you know, his memory for trivia bugged me a bit coz he couldn't remember that I was in 5th standard, or that I won the Thirukkural prize or anything!! Funny how his memory worked :)


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