Umm Oviya + Nilah = Mother of Oviya + Nilah. Because in the Arab world a woman is first addressed as bint X (daughter of X) and then once she has a son (Y) she is Umm Y. I am not sexist, so don't mind surrendering my identity to my daughters.
On a recent flight from Beirut, there was an impeccably dressed young woman, late teens or 20 at the most, who was flying into Doha to visit her uncle. It’s her first flight. And she is excited. She has dressed up for the occasion. Her phone camera at the ready. If I were a nicer person I would have offered to swap my window seat. Instead I offered to film the landing and take off.
She smiled through a confusing seatbelt buckle, and played around with the inflight entertainment.
I am closing in on 49. And I realise that those exciting firsts are far and few between. Apart from a new city or country, there are few other firsts that brings joy.
This year especially had more than a few unwanted firsts.
The first time I pondered the ‘peri-menopausal’ word.
The first time I was admitted to a hospital without a baby to take home at the end of my stay.
First time someone my age with black dyed hair thought I was as old as his mum. [Asshole got away with a stinky stare… ]
First time you leave home without a hug or a kiss.
The first time you keep big joys close to your heart because for the first time you don’t know whom to share it with.
My firsts these days are a reminder of my age and gender and my hair and my saggy bits.
My firsts are now about estrangements and being alone, about coming to an uncomfortable truce with my body.
All those glorious firsts that I failed to mark or celebrate enough… I crave a redo of some of them.
The people you hoped to have your many firsts with start dwindling, life takes a detour, plans that were not laid but were assumed go off course.
Then a few days after Beirut I was on another journey, and another and another…
In the midst of all that, a DHL packet lands home – my first Master’s certificate, with an unexpected distinction.
The firsts maybe far and few between, but I continue to live like I don’t have many left.
In between all the flights and drives, I grabbed hours and minutes of joy wherever I was.
Middle of a conference, on the road between interviews, in strange countries and stranger terrains, sharing confidences with people I’ve never met and may never again.
Some firsts were reckless and risky, be it a trek I was unfit for but still ventured on to meet gorillas, or putting my trust in people without enough evidence to merit it.
2022 like my life in general has been incredible — spectacularly fulfilling and exciting, even when strangling doubts threatened to take over. Especially then.
Why we mark a year as a milestone, I don’t know. But it gives pause to take stock. I don’t have any expectations of the years to come; just that the adventures continue and my inhibitions are held at bay. And as I noted at the end of the pandemic year, so I will now too. This daughter of no expectations will persist
The light bulb has conked. I go to change it and see the date of its installation inscribed on it. In 2009 these bulbs were relatively new and expensive. He was probably assessing his return on investment. For a house that’s aged and not quite shipshape, there are all kinds of technology and tools lying around. Not all of them in use. But all of them, at the time of purchase, would have been considered an indulgence, even wasteful. He could never resist any kind of technology or innovation. Solar heaters, induction stoves, computers, flow chart stencils, power drills, emergency lamps, smartphones, juicers – years before these became household staples – they were tested in our home. And never discarded. They pile up in the strangest of places – under the bed, inside cupboards, in the loft, on the sunshades – years after they’ve ceased to be useful or functional, almost as if he hoped it could be put to use again.
That was also a personal motto, his war cry. Not to acquire wealth. But to be useful and productive. And sometime in the last couple of years, he decided he no longer was.
For a man who loved his technology, he could also be sceptical of conventional medicine, so much so, he refused to get vaccinated during the pandemic.
On 20 January, after two days in the Covid ICU, cared for by his favourite doctor, he passed away.
The next day, his four daughters conducted his last rites. An atheist all his life, it was a bare minimum ceremony – Tamil incantations, a farewell from his immediate family, and the ashes immersed in his favourite Marina beach, floating away in the general direction of where he was born 89 years ago. And just like that the truth of the incantations from merely hours before hit home.
“This life you’ve lived is a lie, this death is the only truth.”
Wait, not quite…
There are after all many truths.
A few we know from our own lives – his daughters, wife, siblings, family, friends, colleagues. Oral histories, and stories recounted by others that gave a glimpse of his life as a boy born in Rangoon, Burma (Yangon, Myanmar), who came to India as a refugee in his teens in the 1940s, already the main carer for his mother and siblings. Stories with too many gaps as he rarely ever shared snippets of his life, though on a holiday to Calcutta he did take me to the house on Rash Behari Avenue he lived in on arriving from Burma.
Then there are papers – mountains and mountains of them, both personal and professional.
The birth certificates, wedding invites and wedding certificates of all his daughters; my marriage approval under the special marriages act; a diary from the year I was born with his jottings of books he has read, phrases he liked, quotes he loved, along with his reflections on it; a handwritten will of a dear friend who was like his sister; a diary (in Tamil, in the most elegant handwriting and expressive language) that belonged to his teenaged sister who has been dead for nearly seven decades; meticulously maintained household accounts in the annual diaries from various banks; a glowing letter of recommendation from his professor in 1955… and so much more that we are yet to peruse.
The massive stack of papers that is his life’s work is even more overwhelming.
There are milestones and markers of careers spanning different vocations and different periods of his life. The many degrees and diplomas he held are a testimony to his almost manic need to keep learning, to be relevant. He enrolled in one of the earliest batches of NIIT in 1990 to study computers (and pushed me to enrol a year later) because he was very curious about this new shiny tech. All this while holding a demanding full-time job, and pursuing his law degree in the evening, in preparation for his career after retirement. He was in his mid to late 50s then. I was studying for my school finals, and the vast difference in how we approached our studies was often a point of contention. I wanted to do well enough to avoid repeating the grade. He wanted to excel.
Manuals on homoeopathy, teak boxes holding empty bottles that once held the tiny white pills he swore by. Loads of books, quite a few very expensive editions including dictionaries (some of which I remember being allowed to use, very carefully) are from that part of his life that always remained a passion and a hobby. Literature. He could quote from memory most of the works of the Bard of Avon, even made a pilgrimage to his birthplace, fulfilling a lifelong dream. He was the most thrilled when my firstborn chose to study literature – even as many others worried that it may not serve well for a career. But for him, to pursue literature was a luxury and a privilege.
There are documents, journals and files from his close to four decades as a banker and a union leader. Documents that we did not fully comprehend the value of until the messages started pouring in – the various rights he fought for and managed to win. He retired as a banker in January of 1993 and trotted right into his next career. To practice labour law with the very lawyers who had represented his unions for many decades.
Almost three decades of another meaningful vocation, much of it pro-bono work. There is a musty room (his office) in my childhood home packed with books and case files, with barely room for a person to manoeuvre, and in those mounds of documents are parts of his life we will once again never fully understand. The office started falling into disrepair and neglect in 2020. He knew little else but work, and until the pandemic hit was still meeting clients, appearing in court, and was rather inflexibly dedicated to his work. When that ended, parts of him did too.
There are many truths to a person’s life, and not all of it is about them alone.
Truths are, after all, the confluence of experiences and facts, emotions and reactions. His best friends were an integral part of his life – friendships spanning 60 years. Only two of the inseparable gang of four now remain. I mourn for them too. They and my mother are probably the only ones who could claim to know him (and almost everything about him) well.
My Appa, like most over-achieving men, was generous (to a fault), complex, flawed, difficult and most strikingly brilliant. He could wax eloquent on a staggering range of subjects – from theology, politics, Dravidian ideology, law, science and human rights to literature, yoga, alternative medicine, technology and rationalism. He read as much to learn as to disagree with cocky confidence. His four daughters imbibed and inherited his best and his worst – a keen sense of right and wrong, an interest in social justice, a fierce independence… and stubbornness that borders on arrogance that sees us through tough times even as it lands us in trouble just as often. Everything about him we bristled against is reflected starkly in each of us, and for that I am forever grateful.
He was a troublemaker (mostly) in the best sense of the word. Eager to fix things that are not always broken, but also to fix things that most of us would turn a blind eye to. He opened up expensive gizmos to see what made it tick, would strip down the electric wiring or the plumbing pipes at home that required repair, hammering nails and trying out all kind of home improvement… many a childhood memory was of him asking one of us to hold the ladder, handover the plier, fix a fuse.
He would take on projects of people with just as much vigour. Pushing the peon to study for his bachelors or asking the nurses, at the hospital he was admitted in some years ago, to stage a strike and demand better wages… unmindful that the doctors may well decide to stop his treatment!
He was contradictory if nothing else – both a man of his time and a man well ahead of it. He took great pleasure in riling up those who were orthodox and religious, never missing an opportunity to shock them in many ways. He had his moments of sexism, but he would take the most forward of stands as well, not stopping us from choices that many of his generation would have objected to – be it inter-caste/religious marriages or our preferred careers. Not all of his children enjoyed the same freedoms. I was a little more privileged than the rest. My sisters are 13, 9 and 6 years older to me… each one challenged him and pushed the limits, and when it was my time to rebel, I didn’t have to.
He and I were opposites in many ways – he would be up before dawn and done with his yoga and walk around day break, and I preferred waking up as late as possible and restrict my exercise to walk to the kitchen or fridge. A difference that was the reason for many bitter fights. However, when it comes to theological and social ideologies, our beliefs were probably closely aligned.
So it was strange to then be asked to do the rituals for a man who had no belief in them (and to his everlasting credit, never interfered in his wife’s religiosity).
I circumambulated him three times, lit the karpooram (camphor) before he was assigned to ashes, later gathering his remains by hand placing it in the unfired urn, holding the urn gently in my lap on the drive to the beach from the crematorium and finally dipping the pot with his ashes and bones in the ocean… it hit me then that that’s the closest I’ve been to him in years.
We were too alike to be friends. Fortunately, also so alike that we were wont to hold each other in good esteem. Some months ago, when something I wrote appeared in The Hindu, he kept a copy and showed it to all his friends, as he used to every time a byline appeared in The Indian Express when I was starting my career as a reporter in the 1990s. He never spoke a word of it to me… then or recently. As always, tacit when it came to expressing his emotions.
How do you pay respect to someone you owe much of your personality and beliefs to? How would he have wanted us to grieve him or celebrate him? I did it the only way I knew, and probably the only way he would have understood too.
In the last couple of days of his life, when we knew he was running out of time, and then after he passed, between the tasks and rituals that must be done, I stole blocks of time to study, write, review and complete my MA dissertation (on human rights). Minutes after I submitted it, I was thinking of what next to study and how else I could make myself useful. I guess that’s the only tribute this daughter can think of.
How old was I? 4 or 5? That Burma teapoy and the plastic doll still remain in my Amma’s home. The cane chairs are long gone. My cousin barely in the frame, my constant childhood playmate, I meet now only on occasion. In that glass case is a replica of some fort — Trichy or Tiruchendur, I don’t recall. It was gifted to my father at a conference. The panchaloham vase must be somewhere gathering dust. The red oxide floor remains, chipped and aged. The photographer once a trusted family friend is now banished from our life.
And there I am, in focus. A dress sewn by my Amma. My hair oiled, tamed and tied into small ponytails, most probably by Anjalai – my caretaker, my protector, my safe space when home was becoming less so.
There I am, captured in a frame, as I hold one of the many conversations with my closest friend. It wasn’t until many years later that I realised that the doll was sitting on a potty. As a child I just thought he was sitting on a moda, bare-bummed.
So here I am, some 40+ years later, looking at the little me.
Did she know that the viewfinder saw a prey not a child?
Did she know that just a few years later the hands wielding the camera would move on to her. Groping, pinching, rubbing, scarring her heart and mind, instilling fear and shame…
I look at that photo, and all I can feel is the angst of the years that would follow.
I wish I could recall as quickly the more pleasant memories, because they existed in parallel – choosing the fabric for the dress, being measured by my Amma, playing choppu with the cousins (one of whom is in the frame), long conversations with my bare-bottomed friend, my athai’s tender hugs and loud smacking kisses on the cheek, Anjalai patiently feeding me a meal, watching Rajni films on Sunday evenings with my cousins on their B&W TV.
Those are memories I must remember to remember, and sometimes question.
Because, that little one in the frame had her childhood tainted and stolen…
Coloured paper left over from the school year (or if we had enough money, new sheets from a neighbourhood market); branches of a coconut frond stripped or sticks stolen from the household broom; homemade glue… all of this in plain sight more or less.
Then came the sly work. In the narrow dingy space between the neighbour’s home and ours. Glass bangles from my place and old bottles from the trash crushed to powder. Rice or maida (stolen from one of ours homes) and water in an old Dalda can over a crude fire. A spool of thread strung, several times over, between the external plumbing pipe that connected the kitchens on every floor at home, and the window bar of the neighbour’s home.
The pain came before the pleasure. Applying manja on the thread with bare hands, leaving behind fine cuts on our tender hands that stung for days. As the manja thread dried crisp in the Madras heat, the paper was cut to shape and size, the curved stick holding the breadth, the straight one holding the length. A long colourful tail designed from leftover bits.
Resident and visiting cousins, friends from the colony ~ all little boys except me and on occasions another girl cousin. The girls were tasked with the decorations, the stealing of glass bangles, the distracting of parents. Then up the ladder to the mottai maadi on the 3rd floor, in the hot Madras afternoons, when the adults at home napped.
One little boy held the spool, one reined the manja thread, and a third jumped high giving the kite lift. Then as the lone boy flew the kite, the rest of us gave direction. Several more kites took to the skies. Other groups of cousins and friends from other streets. Other little girls standing by without protest?
Today, a few decades after my own summers on the periphery of kite flying, I watched this boy. He threw me a cursory glance before struggling to give his store-bought kite a lift.