My earliest recollection of my grandfather (paternal) is one of sitting on his lap, as he would patiently read to me stories from resplendantly colored books, with lot of animated characters in them. More often than not, they were all stories of Gods, demigods, their progenies – describing various adventures and pastimes. My mom, often says that the only way I could be pacified and refrained from throwing a tantrum or controlled from the innumerable mischiefs would be to make me sit in front of God, or else read to me stories of Gods. My mom and grandmom being busy with the household chores, that job was obviously left to my grandfather. He would seat me on his lap and explain to me the various actions, or narrate stories very animatedly if the book did not have many pictures in it. If I developed a love for books and spiritualism, he was the root cause for it.
Thatha was a very calm person. I have rarely seen him lose his cool. Almost 6 ft in height, his was a lean structure, but strong nevertheless. Always clad in a white dhoti, pure cotton shirt-full arm, and a towel hung on his shoulders. The years of toil was written all over his brow and tanned face. I would often times compare my complexion with him – placing my tiny hands on top of his, I’d remark on the color wondering why I was so fair and he on the other hand was dark. He would jokingly remark that I was the prince Chandrahaasa (moon complexioned). The story of the Prince Chandrahaasa was hence my favorite. My elder brother being the first born was obviously given birth to in my maternal grandparents house. Hence, it was insisted that I be delivered in my paternal grandparents house. This in a way, gave me an advantage with my paternal grandparents, while my brother enjoyed the privy status on my maternal grandparents side. If it wasn’t the story telling time, the other best moment of my being with thatha was the pooja time. He would seat me on his lap, and place the shiva linga from its pouch on his body, onto my small hands. As it glistened in my hand, I would watch it washed with milk, curd, honey, bananas, and water. The primary attraction being that I was allowed to eat all of it at the end. Then he would gently place the Shiva Linga on his palm, smear it with sacred ash, place a few flowers on top of it, and close his eyes chanting the Shiva mantra. I would close my eyes too, and move my lips animatedly as he did. Whenever my grandmother or mother would object to it, fearing that I may topple off the Shiva linga and may bring about some ill, he would rubbish it all aside saying that Shiva would enjoy being thrown about by an innocent kid. That formed my initial foray into the world of spiritualism. If anything, my grandfather had taught me not to fear God, but to love him.
After I grew up, my grandparents moved back to their village. I had thrown quite a tantrum, and had to be taken to the village for a few days to be pacified. Then onwards, I would wait eagerly for the summer & dasara vacations, when I could again go back to the village. In the village, I saw a totally different thatha. He was the respected one in the village. People would come to him to be adviced about the planetary positions, or to get their letters read/written, or sometimes to catch up on the news or current affairs. But mostly, it would be to hear him talk on spirituality. During all those moments, he made it a point to make me sit beside him, keeping me engaged with some roasted groundnuts or other delicacies. He was amongst the earliest to get educated from that village and hence was highly revered. If it wasn’t at our house, then it would be in the huge grove of Kaaverappa, or else the ancient Shiva temple in the middle of the village, that his discussions flourished. Kaverappa’s grove was my favorite of all the three. One had to go to the outskirts of the village, and it was indeed a huge grove. Kaverappajja was an old friend of thatha, and would love to have us kids over. He would thrust into our hands ripe sapotas, or bananas, or tender coconut water, and let us walk all around the grove – ofcourse under the supervision of the servants. Me and my brother would always love to go to the huge well in the middle of the grove. It had a pump house close by, which the servants had convinced us was a haunted house, and we would love to hear the pump go on, and wonder whether the devil was having a bad stomach that day. There were moments, when it scared the living day lights out of us, and sent us running back to thatha and hide behind him – while he oblivious to our super-natural predicaments continued to talk about the affairs of the modern world.
I had told earlier that I have seldom seen my thatha ever get angry. One evening in the village, I sat playing in the mud street with the neighboring boys. It was evening, and time for the cattle to return to the house. Thatha stood at the doorway, and called me in, asking me to wash up. I stayed back lingering around, playing marbles, and before I could realize a whole herd of bullocks came rushing by. The herd was being driven back to their pegs. Oblivious to the melee, I had forgotten to move aside, but fortunately did not get trampled. The bullocks inspite of the rush, did not harm me. The moment, the herd had passed across, thatha had jumped down and the next thing I knew was that he had slapped me tightly on my cheeks. My head reeled, and I had to hold onto him to steady myself. My grandmother came rushing by, and immediately took me into her arms, volubly admonishing thatha for being so brutal. I was inconsolable that whole night. For 2 days, I had refused to go near him, till eventually a pack of lemon peppermints had won me over. One of the most vivid memories of my thatha was when I had fallen off of a huge stone slide in a park near our house in Bangalore. He would take me there everyday for his evening walks (when in Bangalore), and let me play at the various equipments placed there. There was a rude gash in my forehead, that has now become a faint mark. But that day, as blood gushed out of the cut, I remember him holding his turban on the wound, as it soaked in warm blood, and running madly on the way to the hospital closeby.
Thatha loved to go on long walks, and always took me along with him. The farthest I remember was when he travelled from Hessarghatta – the village where he had settled down to Kakolu, another village nearby where he was born and had his ancestral property as well as some relatives. We went by the famed Protima Bedi’s Nrityagram, past the Hessarghatta reservoir, the poultry & duck farm, and the buffalo farm. All this while, as was his habit, he would mount me on his shoulders. My brother and me would take turns and he would narrate to us stories that ran endlessly. As I sat on top of his shoulders, clutching his bright white hairs in my hand for fear of falling off, I would wonder if his store house of stories would ever get exhausted. He ofcourse would narrate to me the story of Chandrahaasa umpteen number of times, with such fascination that it sounded as good as new each time!
Growing up takes away a lot of innocence vested in those childhood days. As I grew, I found more pleasure in the company of my friends, and books. Thatha was always there, but it was not the same. His memory had started to fail, and so had his strength. All hell broke lose when my grandmother passed away suddenly. It was the first major death in the family since the time I had matured enough to understand death. Perhaps, the loss was so sudden and so severe, I had cried inconsolably for hours together. But my thatha, had even lost the ability to recognize that his wife, after more than 60 years of companionship, was not there anymore. Alzheimer’s disease was slowly sucking away on his life breath.
Thatha was later brought to our house to be taken care of. He was a totally different person than the one registered in my memory. For he no longer walked, but sat stone-like on a chair. He had to be bathed, fed, and cleaned up. There were occassions when he would without his knowledge fall down from his chair, hurt his forehead badly enough to bleed. My hand to this day shudders as I think of the day I had held it pressed against his forehead to prevent the blood as it gushed out, while my mom put together the first-aid for him. With hands, that I used to compare the complexions, I would lead him for his meager walk that he effected from his bed to the portico outside. There seated on his chair, I would feed him, as he would mechanically chew on the food. There were occassions when he would address me as his father, or savior or God, and fold his hands. These were moments, when I wished I did not have the ego that prevented me from crying. Perhaps, it was my parents who were even more affected by the whole situation. Even so, my mom. She used to be at home alone, and had to fend for thatha. My father would’ve bathed him on some days, but other days she had to take care of him, and I would help her often. All through this ordeal, the one question that she constantly posed to God in the pooja room was, “Of all the people, why him?” She wasn’t sorry for herself. But she felt it was a grave injustice that a pious and noble soul like thatha should’ve had to suffer so much. But was thatha really aware of his state? On evenings, as the cool wind blew across his expressionless face, I would sit and narrate to him stories, that he had once upon a time narrated to pacify my tantrums. Somewhere during those days, the child inside me, had eventually grown up to tend the needs of the child inside him. I felt I should learn something from this, and contribute in someway to alleviate the suffering of such people/families.
One october morning, in the wee hours, my father woke me up. “Bring out the bed from the other room, and make it neat.” he said. Even in the lingering slumber, I knew what it meant. After I had made his bed, me and my father tenderly placed the body of my thatha on it. With peace writ large on his face, as if, in making me realize how impossible it is to repay the debts of love shown, his work on this earth was over, he had passed away. The body was bathed, subjected to the religious ceremonies, and carried to Kakolu – the village where he was born. There in the field that he had toiled, he was laid to rest next to my grandmother. I had a fleeting glance at him, as I offered my share of respects and poured the sand in. Soon after, heavens sent in their showers. “He was a great man for us villagers. A saint. It is good omen – this rain. His aatma has ascended to the heavens.” – a villager, possibly one of his friends remarked. The man in me was relieved that thatha’s pains and tribulations on the earth had ended, I had realized and come to terms with the inevitable. I did not shed a single tear. But somewhere deep, there were the faint cries of a child making ruckus, longing for those walks, the cool shade of the Shiva temple, Kaaverappa’s grove, the comfort of the lap, and the story of a fair complexioned prince……………
Before signing off: The YogaKshema rehabilitation center that we have started since about 4 years now (about which I’ll be writing in the coming days) has been catering to the needs of inmates of old age homes as well as those of survivors of chronic illnesses and their caregivers. I know my thatha would’ve approved of it. But on an after thought, I feel it a great tragedy for any society, that its younger generation should look upon their seniors as a burden that can be easily put to the shoulders of other organizations. In our short sight, we seem to be forgetting that those were the very shoulders which once bore our weight on them, or were the wombs which once nested us in them.