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The Thunderstorm

Her bright eyes turned to gray;

Of light she’d lost the last ray.

She shook with angry tremors,

Thundered, unheeding  Wind’s murmurs.

Her eyes as lightning, began to blaze

And all appeared to be a haze.

As her anguish turned to fury,

Her sorrow she could not bury.

As the world looked upon her with fear,

She wet the earth with an angry tear.

With terror turned cold the earth

And fires were lit in every hearth.

But in time, away her misery flew,

And her eyes became their normal blue.

As her spirits again did soar,

Everything was normal once more.

 

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.

Image

Thatha in his typical pose

He runs on…

When my dad runs in the park
The sweat pours down his neck
It trickles down his back
And dampens the shirt.

He runs faster than ever
Between pauses of walking
To shoot a momentary glance
At Mom in the outer ring.

Sometimes he loses breath
And pants or puffs
But he runs again
Never losing steam.

He puts younger men
To shame with his pace
As he walks onward
Long after they tire.

Mom, with her penchant
For doing everything best
Tries to outstride him
Of course, in vain.

He passes her once,twice
At thrice she becomes red
If she is not already
With the walking.

When he is almost done
He gives Mom a smile
She glances, smiles
A look of glowing pride

Pride in her husband
In his athletic skill
In his youthful pace
And steadfast jog

At that look, he
Like a 20 year old
Runs faster than ever
Purely to show off.

One Evening

The setting sun seems to have splashed her sari with red, and gifted it the faint glimmer of gold, only to be guessed at, not seen. She smiles in the temple courtyard, a slight curving of lips that is fresh and sweet as a cuckoo’s melody. Her kohl-rimmed eyes sparkle with anticipation.

Vedic chants rise around the fire, in cadence with the rising swirls of smoke.

Her bangles, red as the vermillion mark on her forehead, tinkle as she glances at her watch. She saves a place next to her under the coolness of the ancient banyan tree. The cold wind caresses her thick, plaited hair, wishing it were freed of bondage. The birds fly back to their nests and she sits alone, eyes lowered.

The sun has set. She looks at her watch one last time. When she gets up, the chants have stopped. Only ashes are left of the blazing fire, and her face is smudged with black kohl. 

She walks away, her face as inscrutable as the night sky above.

 

Sentiment

Joys are many, easily wrought
A child, a deer, a book bought
Bright orange, the sound of prayer
They rise, layer upon layer.

Sorrows buried in dark secrets,
Death, lost memories, broken trinkets
Well up in sincere tears
Blue turn the cyclic spheres.

Remembrances, of love and friendship
Strike, hard as a whip,
Dreams tinged with secret hope
Bloom, red, even as I mope.

Fear of the unknown, inevitable 
I lurk alone, unsociable 
True, ’tis dark, dreadful and cold
Yet an experience to make me bold.

A balance scale or neutral man,
Swaying, falling- both do ban.
There’s hardly any difference
Purposeful negation is their preference.

God painted the skies blue and red
And green grass over plains spread
Coloured sentiment, and poetry spouts
Joys, sorrows in alternate bouts.

So I will drown in depths deep
As flowing colours into me seep
For they break the robotic sameness
Of learned unfeelingness.

Melancholy

Empty dreams float in the sky.
Like rainless clouds, they vie
To bury the sun’s cheery hue
And bring forth dismal blue.

Magic was in fleeting kiss,
An endearment- euphoric bliss.
Promises of sky and star
Of enchanting lands afar.

The joy of a trembling hand
Away from a world of reprimand
At the whisper, my cheeks redden
I laugh with wild abandon.

That day has passed, and the year
Easy, convergent paths veer.
Now melancholic thoughts knock
And grey clouds at me mock

As fragile beliefs shatter
They ask-Does it matter?
Love is yet another contusion
In a life of dazed delusion.

Judgement

I have always rebelled against the statement that “I don’t like to be judged.”
I like to be judged. How can I estimate people and choose friends if I don’t judge their actions with my values? I expect no less from others. But I understood about the wrong kind of judgement, a little.

I leap to conclusions about people so easily. And accept friends’ judgements as my own. So I lack empathy. A girl I dismissed as egoistic proved to be nice and friendly. A person whose gait I laughed at has a health problem which causes it. 

I must change. I must be more careful while judging and more tolerant. Tolerance is the key word.

Thatha

 

“Thatha, I adore you.” 
“I dare you”, he’d reply with a loud chuckle at his own joke. Each time.

I knew Thatha most closely when he was ill and ailing; gradually sinking. But if I try to remember, I see flashes.. Of sitting behind him on his scooter. Of him standing on the balcony, sending me to buy him a packet of cigarettes from the shop just below. Of half-heartedly telling him not to smoke, because I’d heard Mom say that to him. Of crying for some reason, cry-baby that I was, and being summoned to his lap. I’d ignore his summons at first and then go mutinously to be asked why I was crying. I’d have to explain and he would solve my problem. Thatha loved solving problems. 

Or fussy as I was about food, I’d say I’d eaten enough. He’d call me and feel a corner of my tummy and exclaim that it was empty and I’d have to fill it up, wouldn’t I? I remember being jealous of my elder sister since I wasn’t allowed to cross the busy street in front of his house to go the bakery, while she could. I remember my sense of achievement when he first let me go to that shop by myself. I remember sitting on his lap on a chair in the balcony and counting the vehicles on the street that passed until an expected visitor arrived.

I remember peeking at the TV while Mom was wiping her tears seeing Kuch Kuch Hota Hain for the umpteenth time. And Thatha walking in and saying the movie was for grownups and I was a little kid. In recent times, he’d call me and tell me a James Bond movie was on TV so I could watch it with him. 

I remember when I needed 100 signatures for a petition to save tigers and I was crying because I didn’t have enough. He sent me downstairs to the road. He called out to people, “My granddaughter is saving tigers. Sign there and help her.”

I remember silently watching everyone cry and whisper when Thatha was put on ventilator 8 years ago and the doctors said chances were low. I remember everyone broken down as his hands turned blue and carbon level in his body rose. He was very calm and got a slip of paper, gave my aunt the power of attorney and called people to sign as witnesses.

When told he would be put into ICU, he asked to see my sister and me. We rushed to the hospital. With slurred speech, he asked why she hadn’t kept kunkuma and pinched her forehead. He’d always tell us, “Your grandmother would always have a big round bindi on her forehead. See?”, pointing at her photo. “I have kept one too”. He would peer dramatically to convey how tiny my bindi was. 

He smoked and drank for 55 years. And gave it up when he realised one more cigarette would kill him. He kept bottles of rum stashed away, just to see if he could resist the temptation. He did. He’d keep count. Anytime, he could tell how many years, months and days it had been since he smoked.

“How will you know unless you try?” was his refrain. When unable to walk to another room without help, he tried working out on the treadmill.  He loved narrating anecdotes of when he was young. 

He loved politics. Bed-ridden, he’d call out and I would sigh. He’s dictate letters to the Prime Minister, Chief Minister, Governor, Newspaper Editor and anyone else, and give them his advice on how to run the city, state or country. All his letters began with- “I am a 78 (or 79 or recently 80) man who needs 20 hours Oxygen and Bypap machine in a day.” He loved giving advice. Pointing to his chest, he’d swell with self-importance and say- “The suggestion is mine; decision is yours”. 

I don’t have a clear picture of hale and hearty Thatha. Since 8 years, his face was always covered by an uncomfortable mask and tubes of oxygen in his nose. Cigarettes killed him. Over the months, his lungs stopped working. His legs were swollen- his kidneys gave up on him. There was probably a stomach tumour; no tests could be done. They’d cause respiratory distress. His BP fluctuated. But he was more vibrantly alive than anyone I’ve known. 

The last time he was in hospital, I remember holding his hand. He signalled- I won’t last. Of course you will, I said. He had given a feeble smile. And he did last. It seemed he always would.

I’ve always thought death was peaceful. I didn’t know suffering is this ugly. There are no words ugly enough to describe how horrible it was. Hours and days and months of excruciating pain, getting worse by the day. Sleepless nights, making gestures asking us all to go sleep. While he had the strength to read, a small bulb next to his bed and a book in his hand. Then that too gone. Cries of pain. Calling out to Mom, Dad. Saying he couldn’t take it anymore. Then the next morning, dictating letters to Readers’ Digest. He never did win the sweepstakes after all. 

 

 

What’s the most important thing you’ve learnt Thatha? To help others.

If a few people gather and shed a few tears when I’m gone, I would have lived well. That’s what he had said. And they did. 

Somehow, I’m just not able to get the final picture out of my head. Thatha peaceful, after endless suffering, with mouth half-open and not breathing anymore. No life in him anymore. His strength and iron will to live gone with him. A frail, diseased body was all left. 

Somehow I’d always thought he’d outlive us all.