Tuesday, April 2, 2013

One sweetipie short

Last Thursday, I lost my Mama-Thatha. My mother's late mother's brother passed away. Sounds like the kind of relative about whose death one politely says, "I'm sorry to hear" while swiftly moving on to more important things.

Then why are the tears waiting around every corner?

As the body of my 94 year old Mama-Thatha lay on the floor of their living-room, those who loved him gathered slowly through the morning. We sometimes gazed upon him, sometimes sat quietly. Sooner or later, everyone was in a conversation with other relatives that began with shared memories and went on to other things. In death as in life, he sought no special attention for himself, this 'Mama without an ego' as someone put it.

Ramamurthy Mama was the fifth of the six children my great-grandparents had. When his oldest sister died and his mother took on everyday childcare, he and his brothers were at their disposal--sometimes big brothers, sometimes uncles, sometimes tutors, sometimes cheerleaders. With them around, the sisters (as my mother and her siblings are called) learnt to sing in satsangs, become part of stage performances, join prabhat-pheris... the works. When we were growing up, there was the world and there were the four magical Mamas, each gifted in his own way and each along with his respective Mami (like deities and consorts) the epitome of love and affection. We did not miss our grandparents who died very, very young.

Ramamurthy Mama was a most self-effacing person. All his stories were about other people. When we visited, he told us of everyone else's achievements, showing photos and letters. His large eyes would open wide, and he would visibly swell with pride. If he spotted anything about us or our work in the newspaper, he would call (all of them do, they are very sweet!). He was a strong supporter of Prajnya's work and would call me 'Gender' ("Is that Gender?" "May I speak to Gender?" I can hear his sometimes shrill voice right now!) because we worked on gender issues.

As with all self-effacing people, we did not talk much about him while he was alive. But now the stories are tumbling out. Let me share some.

My mother remembers that he was a passionate and particular gardener. He had flowers and vegetables growing all around their Rangoon home. She and her sister, then small girls, would pilfer these during the day when he was at his college, to play-cook. As time came for him to return, they would sweep away the ruins and hide. He would inevitably notice and sternly ask, "Who plucked the leaves from this plant?"

Mama's reminiscences included the stage experiences of all his nieces, and he continued to remind them until their last visits. In turn, they are remembering what a gifted percussionist he was--keeping rhythm with anything and everything. His son has that so we might guess, but what we could not know from his own stories, is that he crafted and painted the sets of every stage production. Always writing himself into a back-stage part, indispensable and invisible.

Amma remembers Ramamurthy Mama's strong sense of family responsibility; he would walk all the way from the suburbs to his college in Rangoon because his father had so many people to support, that he wanted to save him the bus-fare. All their uncles were like that, giving up their education half-way, taking up jobs, contributing to provide for their nieces. And not just the Mamas, my mother's Chitti and her husband also did the same. In ordinary circumstances, I wouldn't even write all this--it's too precious, this legacy of loving and caring, to expose to the outsider's gaze--but today I want to because our lives are becoming smaller and smaller and no one has time for other people, or for stories any more.

We should have grown up cravenly grateful. We didn't. We grew up adoring these people, feeling their affection radiate and surround us. That, to me, is their uniqueness. They never once let any of us feel how much they had done 'for' us; nor do their children. They never once said, "Their parents left all these children behind, poor things, and we had to provide for them." It was true but it was never the point with these amazing people.

In 1969, my great-grandfather lay dying in Willingdon Hospital in Delhi. The whole clan gathered on the lawns everyday that February. My cousin and I were four (I turned five in that time). We played with everyone who had actually come to bid him farewell. There was unspeakable grief but no pall of gloom that we could discern.

Ramamurthy Mama was a student in my school at the Willingdon lawns. My favourite subject to teach was Arithmetic. I would assign 'sums' and he was supposed to solve them--wrong. My greatest pleasure was in putting crosses against the sums (what does that tell you about the pedagogy to which I had already been exposed?), and writing stern comments. Infinite patience, infinite indulgence--that's what I experienced. The indulgence continued long after those Willingdon days--I would send him assignments on Inland Letter Cards and he would return them with wrong answers. I would send corrections, comments and more homework. This continued for a long time. I wish I had some of those letters. This correspondence is part of family legend.

The irony, I must tell you, is that he was really, really, really good at Mathematics--another thing he felt no need to assert.

Over the years, we met infrequently. Mama's transfers and our rare family holidays never took us to the same places. When they moved to Delhi and I started going there often, I got to know Ramamurthy Mama and Lakshmi Mami again, this time without Arithmetic homework as a medium. Since our move to Chennai, we have seen them more often.

Mama did a lot of volunteer work for the Ramakrishna Mission, wherever he lived. He was a very devout person and there must scarcely be one Hindu pilgrimage centre that he and Lakshmi Mami have not visited at least once. I can imagine god wanting the relief of meeting these sweet souls again and again. The word that keeps coming back to my sister and me as we reminisce about him is "Sweetipie." Such a sweet person. SUCH a sweet person.

One of the amazing things about this Mama is that he is the peer of whoever is visiting. When I visit, he is my peer, my buddy, talks about my interests, has the same sense of humour. When his nieces visit, he is their contemporary, remembering and asking after the things that are important to them. He is once more their chief supporter and benefactor, the person who remembers their childhood songs and antics (sometimes even the ones that embarrass them!). Only a few years older, he is parent, uncle, brother, buddy. When my niece visits, he is a singing archive of long-forgotten children's songs.

All of us know him as the raconteur of old family history. With him gone, our family memory is diminished. Will we now learn to listen carefully and memorise or document those stories?

I should tell you that he can sing any song--sometimes with the original lyrics and more often with crazy lyrics that perfectly match the metre and rhyme-scheme of the original but bear no relation to them. I am smiling as I write this, remembering all the laughter and music associated with visiting him. Ironically, when I looked for a photo of him to post, I couldn't find a single one in which he didn't look stern and serious. But that's not how I think of him at all.

Like all of his life, this blogpost is also not about him. It's about me. It's about all of us. And how much we will miss him. On that sofa at family functions, delighted to talk to everyone who stops by. At home when we visit. Visiting us at the end of a morning walk. His big eyes all lit up and his smiling face and his fingers drumming to the song-in-his-head (all of them, all of us do this) and his loving presence.

Everything I write is inadequate. Ramamurthy Mama's death has also reminded me of what I learnt when my father died--that a life well-lived is a life full of love and full of giving to others. The love in that room on Thursday was palpable; it was his presence, his gift. The world is now one sweetipie short.

And I am so grateful to have known such a person in this lifetime.