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).

03 January 1933 — 20 January 2022

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.

Rest in peace Appa.

The home that need built and love shaped

The house has many doors. Almost as if there were an infinite supply of wood and not enough bricks. The ground floor can be accessed from five different rooms — one in the front, two on the side and two at the back.

A narrow flight of stairs branches into two, providing two different accesses to the first floor. One at the front and one at the back.

Up another narrow flight of stairs from there, there is a small terrace and four doors leading to the five rooms. Inexplicably, one of the doors gives access to the bathroom from the outside.

In the narrow buffer between house and compound wall motorcycles and potted plants jostle for space.

There are two gates, where one would have sufficed, providing entrance to the house from the street. 

All this is not to say this is a mansion. It is a very modest house, on a tiny plot of land, framed by two coconut palms and very little by way of a garden, but every free space had a plant or a sapling, the moringa and papaya trees, and nithyamalli creeping up over the gate and the sunshade.

Every single room in the house connected to two other rooms at the minimum. Sometimes even three. On the walls with no doors windows flourished.

At the peak of its occupancy this haphazard building housed four different families, 22 people little and big, and four active kitchens vying with each other to offer delicacies at every meal (my Amma’s was the best), but just one telephone (at my home) and one television (at my uncle’s) and lots of gossip all around. It hosted a few funerals, some engagement parties, countless gatherings, a handful of bride-viewings, several births and one marriage (my own).

But it didn’t start off that way. 

It was a little less chaotic and better planned as a dwelling when 46 years ago my parents and grandparents moved in with four young girls  – my three sisters and aunt. I was still the embryonic hope of a boy, resting inside my heavily pregnant mother. This house was primarily her dream, to own the roof she lived under, as her husband was almost averse to wealth-accumulation.

In the beginning, it had a ground floor with two columns of three rooms each and a second storey with a scattering of rooms, not one of which had a designated purpose – including the kitchen that shape-shifted based on the residents.  

The rooms were tiny, it could either take a comfortable-sized cot or a proper almirah. So if the almirah was too big, the cot had to be tiny, or be done away with altogether and replaced with coir mats.

As the family grew, and with it the expenses, the single income had to be supplemented with rent, so rooms were added, new doorways incorporated, and an extra floor built. When I left home and our pet had to be moved out of my room, a small kennel was built for him near the well and the hand pump.

In my rented apartment now I hesitate to even drive a tiny nail into the wall, and I think often of what went through my parents’ mind to constantly tear down walls or put new ones in, and none of that to enhance the appearance of the house but merely to make it accommodate more. 

More people. More aspirations. Just more of whatever was needed that month, that year…

That house, with more doors than rooms, has never been without people or bolted up. It carries some bitter memories, as all homes do. But more importantly it carries freedom, warmth, and an unbridled ambition of the numbers it can accommodate.

And the kitchen in its tiniest avatar, when the house was at its modest, always had enough to feed surprise guests of whom there was a steady stream. From relatives and friends of relatives, to cousins from far away towns coming to Madras to study, and all the buddies we accumulated over the years… those badly planned rooms hold many secrets and laughs and tears, securely held by doors made of wood so flimsy that one shove could break the bolts. Those doors were never meant to keep people out, just to protect us from the vagaries of Madras weather, the nesting sparrows (which still would sneak in) and the stray cats.

Over the decades the house had gained a few monickers, only one of which endures. Like No 10, this home is simply called 83 by all who know and love the place.

Affluence over the years meant that some of the changes were better planned. The sit-out added to the first floor about 18 years ago, for my mother, has now been taken over by my 87-year-old father who can’t go down as frequently to his office. Yes, part of the ground floor now has a new purpose – his law offices. Another little balcony, off the tiniest and busiest room of the house, was built last year so my 80-year-old mother can still sit outside, enjoy the cool neem shade courtesy a tree next door, watch the street, chat with the neighbours, admire her plants and haggle with the street vendors as she dangled the basket tied to a long rope. 

There are just six people in the house now. My ageing parents and the tenants below who are almost family. There are too many doors and too few people to mind it, so many of these often remain absent-mindedly ajar through the night. The creaky doors await the arrival of guests…  it’s been five months.

It was a house that need (and my father) built, and a home that love (and my Amma) shaped.

Edited: Last visit home I realised there is a fifth door on the ground floor, edited to reflect that.

The One in Which I Am Moving, But Not Moving Back.

You are moving back? Are you going back home?

I am not. But that isn’t completely true.

I don’t know how to give an honest answer to these questions.

The place I am moving to is not one I am familiar with any more. It is not home either.

Every time I go ‘back’, it’s a little bit more unfamiliar, a little bit more indecipherable. I seem to fit in a little bit less less with every landing. A little bit more acclimatised with every take-off.

Yet, there’s no conflict in my mind or heart about moving to India after 17 years of living in Qatar. It seems the right thing to do, to expose my daughters, especially the teen, to another way of living. Pleasures and challenges that would be very different from what Qatar offered us.

Doesn’t that make India home? Then why doesn’t it seem so?

I am frequently asked if Qatar is home after 17 years.

Not in the least (this is one reason why). It’s a place I am comfortable in and find myself defending fiercely against ill-informed assumptions. It is not home either. And I don’t think Qatar wants to be the home for it hundreds of thousands of foreign residents. At best it wants to be a  comfortable transit house. At worst…

So then, home?

It is where my children are. And where I have access to MY people. Sometimes it is a messaging app. Home is in that rip-roaring laugh of a friend. A hug so tight it squeezes out all the melancholic thoughts. It’s watching my 7-year-old caress my 76-year-old mum’s wrinkled neck. Home is often in three simple words over an international call: “Are you alright?” Home is in all those moments, in all those memories. It is not a physical space.

Just because I don’t feel at home in any one place, doesn’t mean I feel estranged.

I started writing this post at an airport terminal… The closest to feeling a sense of belonging, I’ve now realised, is in spaces such as this. Departure terminals. Be it at airports or rail stations or bus stops.

When you know you’ve left, but have not arrived yet. In that suspended physical space of myriad possibilities I feel truly at home.

PS: Check out my instagram account @vanishforever for some #LongKissGoodBye posts on Qatar. This is not my good bye post, that will come in due time.


1. Where are you moving to?


2. When are you moving?

End April, early May

3. Why are you moving now?

Because O is going into high school, and if not now, then when?

4. That means you are going away for good?

(This question always throws me off a bit) I will still be in and out of Qatar for a few months longer, as the man continues here for a bit and I still have ongoing projects/work here.

5. Will I miss Qatar?

As much as Qatar would miss me.

The unbearable burden of privilege [MAID ON CALL]

Six months ago our menagerie grew to five. Our life got more comfortable. Waking up to a neat home, beds made, hot meals for the asking, children cared for… and yet, I feel burdened.

Y is an adult who chose to travel thousands of miles to a strange land. What I grapple with daily is that it wasn’t necessarily an educated choice. All she had to go by was one Skype conversation, and a contract that I printed off my home computer.

R & I would forever be haunted by the look on her face as we received her at the airport. He saw her first, as he had to go meet the immigration official at the Maha lounge to ‘claim’ his ward.

She walked five steps behind him, holding onto her black handbag, and approached the group of us waiting for her at Costa’s–me, the kids, friends who travelled to Doha on the same flight.

Wide-eyed after a long flight, transfers included, quite clearly afraid of what and who awaits her.

Over the next six weeks she was trained by our part-time help of seven years and honorary matron of the family, K. We were all getting used to each other. That seems a long time ago.

Now, we are used to having someone at home all the time. We are ever-conscious of how much smoother the functioning of our home is, and are grateful for it.

But it doesn’t escape me that we wield an unfair control over Y.

That’s the nature of her assignment as a migrant domestic worker.

In the absence of a law that protects them, it falls on the presumed goodness of her ‘sponsor’–in her case R & me–to treat her well, and the way we would wish to be treated.

How she lives, what she eats, how she is treated, whom she can speak to, her access to her family, access to help or care, what she can wear… all of this is probably easier to quantify.

What about not being in control of her mobility? Not being in control of with whom and how she socialises? How she chooses to spend her weekends? What about being 30, single and abstinent? What about the freedoms we have to consider deeply and often deny, because of where we live?

So, yes, her life (like the rest of her ilk) in Qatar being a good one hinges on the goodness of her employer. The goodness of people, however, is a fickle thing to depend on; personal motivations will likely trump humanitarian action.

My egalitarian attitude towards Y is at least in part motivated by my need to reduce the burden of guilt–for being a link in this chain of exploitation. To feel better about who I am.

I will continue to make gestures to ease my conscience; find justifications for my actions; and excuses for my inaction.

I We (all of you included) will pull out every logical argument in our heads to say we are not like them (them who exploit, those others)… we will grow used to the comfort, we will learn to set the burden aside, we will secretly hope the status quo remains as our life is easier for it, we will always have ‘those others’ whom we will judge harshly; consequently and conveniently we will judge ourselves kindly.

The surprise that wasn’t, yet was

Be warned! This is a mommy-pride post.

It’s the cutest surprise party I could have asked for. Mainly because, the party itself was no surprise. It’s been in the making for over 3 months, and was held last evening a month after the original schedule.

It was a ‘late’ birthday surprise for me and N (by 1 month and by 4 days respectively).

The party-throwers were O my first born, and her bestie S (who O befriended when they were just 3). Their friend Z was the designated DJ. To do the driving around, R was roped in. My cuz and his wife were the delivery boy/girl.

And so came about the funnest birthday party I’ve had.

It was no surprise because O can’t keep a secret from me; also they needed my help to download songs for which they were to dance, and my permission for the many sleepovers that were required for the practice.

So I did think I knew it all… and that I would pretend to be surprised all the same.

I was banished to the bedroom from 1-5.30 p.m. when the first guests arrived. They even got Nilah ready.

It wouldn’t suffice to say that I was totally stunned by the amazing planning the two 10-year-olds managed. I WAS surprised.

From costumes, the stopgap green room (mismatched sheets over the cupboard), the menu (some of which they made themselves), the decoration for O’s room, that was converted to a stage… and the invite. I wish I could share the invite… Pictures of me, of Nilah, of both of us, and the whole family, with the sweetest post scripts and captions, all put together on smilebox, and sent out to my friends (most of whom did manage to land up).

The dances, the little skit, and how they even managed to ignore the two pesky brats who were getting in their way.

Is this how smoking pot feels? Light, floaty, happy, and at the same time your heart is so heavy and crunched up, you feel you can’t quite breathe?

I didn’t get a chance to hug O (and S) tight enough to thank them, because they managed to use the good mood of all 4 parents on the scene to sneak off to another sleepover.

I am so grateful for the people in my life. So GRATEFUL.

And here are some pics. Not of great quality, as taken on the mobile and the room was ill-lit.