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.
Rest in peace Appa.