I was always a fussy eater. Mom would try in vain to make me eat another morsel, for I was painfully thin. And I’d throw a tantrum. Then, Thatha would call. “PuTTuma.. come here.” I would joyfully run. “Here, stand in front of me.” And he would feel my tummy attentively and pronounce- “The Idlis you ate are in this corner. BeNNe biscuit is here, in the centre. Hey! This side is empty. I guess you need a little more food.” I thought it was magic.
I’d sit on his lap in the rocking chair in the balcony, counting vehicles, altogether and separately as cars and autos and buses for hours.
That was his favourite activity. A man who lived by himself from morning to evening for years, he never once whined of boredom. He’d watch English movies, lecture unwilling passers-by, read David Baldacci (a tattered copy of Absolute Power was his favourite), write letters to Readers Digest and play Solitaire by himself.
I remember how he made every chore seem grown-up and important, atleast when I was little. I wasn’t allowed to cross the bustling main road to go to the bakery and it seemed such an adult thing to do. The tantalizing horns of vehicles, the parceling of cakes and buns in the bakery and the honour of getting Thatha something that he wanted tempted me no end. But he’d say importantly- “You’re too little to cross the road by yourself.” I waited for years, before he finally told me to go stand on the road and look up at him. I could cross when he gave the signal. Then I had to get stuff from the bakery, stand at the opposite corner and wait for his signal again. At his nod, I gleefully ran back, and felt proud as a fledgling that has just learned to fly. I remember him smiling, leaning over the balcony, nodding with the trace of a smile, knowing the pride I felt in the moment.
His will was indomitable. Which chronic lung-disorder patient wants to try working out on the treadmill? He did. He stood fiercely for free will. The good God may do as he likes, he won’t stop me; his motto seemed to be. He had no qualms finding fault with God. Krishna was a rogue, he’d say.
And how can I forget his love of giving advice to drug- addicts? Having given up smoking and drinking with absolutely no external help, he thought it fair to pass on his experience to those with difficulties doing the same. I don’t remember ever laughing so much as I did when he advised a young relative over the phone on how to get over withdrawal symptoms consisting of nervousness and more importantly, constipation.
He did not have the gift of inherited wealth that he gave me. He worked for every penny, honestly, diligently, passionately. And on the way, he met the elitist, the famous. He enjoyed relating stories of his youth- he loved telling me how much fun it was to drink beer while driving across the country in raging summer with some famous personality or the other.
But here’s why I loved him best- the people he got along with were his barber, the vendor who would get us bottles of pure ghee, the electrician and the oxygen-machine repairman. Confined to bed, he’d pay the barber to come home and do his job. It was quite a ritual. Thatha would sit on a chair in the balcony as he got his hair-cut and chat with the barber. About the house he sold, about his children and his life-principles. And most importantly, his Bypap machine that he needed for 20 hours a day to survive.
He would summon the Tamilian ghee-vendor over the phone every few months. As they had no languages in common, it was sheer entertainment to watch the process of bargaining.
The oxygen repairman would be called every month, for Thatha would invariably fiddle with his machines and wreck some spare part. Then, he would blame the poor chap for providing sub-standard products and ask for a special discount as he was a regular customer. And then slip him an extra large tip. After scolding him for not bringing Thatha any sweets for Deepavali.
The cable fellow, the electrician and the labourers were his buddies. He’d admonish them for drinking and then give them any amount they asked for, with no calculations or any expectations of getting it back.
And it was their mourning that touched my heart. The ‘Ayyo!’ sof the barber who was curious why he was not called for over two months, the honest tears of the ghee vendor who called up, demanding to know why no one had needed ghee in six months, the shock of the repairman who wondered how all the machines were functioning properly for so long, the silence of the male nurse who fought with his family, cancelled commitments, and stayed behind to look after Thatha, and later, who sat with a pale face by the side of the room, talking to no one, just waiting till the body was taken away, and the grief of many others, whose names Thatha had written in a book many months before he died, with the title- ‘People to be Notified upon my Death’. The list of these names were Xeroxed and given to each family member.
He had three prospective people in mind who could perform his funeral rites and their names were written on another piece of paper, along with contact details, and instructions that whoever was able to reach earliest should do it. The last few days, he kept asking everyone in the vicinity if they had eaten, because he knew, if he died, no one could eat till the body was taken away. Who plans his own death like that? Only my Thatha did.
It’s been over a year since he died. And now all that’s left is a wistful smile at memories of him, a few tears shed in love, as he’d wanted, and many, many life-lessons.
Thatha in his typical pose