Tall Stork Remembers

Aug 10, 2005

Early morning gathering at my grandmother’s house today. It is the second anniversary of my grandfather, RSR Thatha’s passing. And it’s tradition for the family to meet on such days to remember the person with love and gratitude. There is a garlanded photograph of Thatha surrounded by flowers from all our gardens. We all come in and sit down for a few moments and sing the Hanuman Chalisa that my grandmother loved so well (year after year we still sing it, so earnestly and still so terribly off-key). I can hear Thatha laughing at us a little (he had a great laugh- a slow chuckle that was always a little unexpected and made you smile. He had such a wonderful sense of humor). After the singing, breakfast was served and Dr Natchiar and the Munsons fell into remembering old times. And then the memories- swiftipping over into each other- kind of like a shining row of dominoes. So many things to remember. Big and small. After a person is gone you remember them in mosaic. Assorted pieces salvaged from the past and fit together to conjure up the whole.

He always dressed in white khadi. Spotless stiffstarched shirts and perfectly ironed dhotis. On his dressing table a small comb, Old Spice aftershave and familiar white flower pattern on the tall, pink bottle of Pond’s talcum powder. A few years after we first moved back from the States he would sometimes need help fastening his shirt buttons, and strapping on his watch. The Parkinson’s had set in badly enough by then that he was no longer able to sign papers or eat with his fingers, but he managed to carry his limitations with a grace and dignity that as a child I didn’t fully appreciate. To me in those years he was the gruff, twinkle-eyed, soft-hearted backdrop to my grandmother, Janaky Awwa– that sharp-tongued, wide whirlwind of Love in Action who touched our lives in unmistakable ways that will remain with us always.

My family is full of people who embody extraordinary qualities in abundance. Dedication, loyalty, perseverance, courage, selflessness, sincerity, truthfulness– I could go on– because these are truly uncommon individuals who carry within them an abundance of the virtues so many of us spend a lifetime cultivating…my grandfather though, had one quality far in excess of the others, and I remember being aware of this at a very young age. RSR Thatha had Tolerance. He had such a quiet way of accepting your failings and shortcomings, your struggling points of difference and your muddled mistakes. In a family of Half-Divine-Dictators with a penchant for Perfection, RSR Thatha was a kind of solace- or at least that it what he seemed to me. He gave you more room than the rest to be- human.

When Aravind was a struggling 11 bed clinic with a handful of brothers and sisters working punishing hours to make ends meet and realize a beautiful dream, RSR Thatha was a young husband and father- a man who’d grown up in a village and began his studies to be a lawyer but for health reasons later switched over to running a successful construction company. He was married to Dr V’s eldest sister and had three daughters and a son. He wasn’t directly a part of the founding team of Aravind- they were the pillars. But even pillars need support. And that’s what he and his wife provided for them. Right-next-door. Metaphorically and literally.

It was RSR Thatha who quietly made those difficult years easier by taking their children into his home, and while it was Janaky Awwa who really raised them, it was Thatha who provided the means to do so and gave them the little treats that mean so much when you are a child. Thatha who toook them on long walks that would end at the Pandyan Hotel where they would order up ghee roast dosas (the ultimate delicacy), it was Thatha who took them for car rides and train trips and Thatha who arranged all the vacations their parents couldn’t afford. The falls of Courtallam and the hills of Kodaikanal– and when a seven year old cousin of my mother’s mournfully observed that in His Whole Long Life he had never once been on a plane, RSR Thatha arranged that very month to have him fly with him to Delhi (or was it Madras?– it doesn’t matter), it was RSR Thatha the family would turn to when money was short and there were laborers who needed to be paid, and it was RSR Thatha who Viji Auntie during her interview for I Vision talked of through a mist of grateful tears– RSR Thatha who put his car (the only one in the family at the time) at the disposal of a young doctor pregnant with her second child who woke at 5 in the morning to start operating and through the course of the day worked in three separate clinics in different parts of the city often not getting home until ten at night. And it is only now that I am beginning to better understand the beauty of the role he played in the founding years of Aravind. In small ways he soothed the initial sting of sacrifice that pervaded those years. I don’t think there’s any way to measure the contribution of that kind of compassion. or the constant, quiet, caring that he provided for the small, struggling young team of eye doctors led by a silver-haired visionary who took it for granted that everyone couldwouldshould work as hard as he did to restore sight to the blind.

I look back now and see RSR Thatha always a little in the background. Always with amusement lurking in the corner of his eyes. A combination of self-effacing humility and slysharp good-humour. He loved to tease us. Me especially, for my scatterbrained ways, my clumsiness and unusual-for-a-girl-here height. Netta Kokku (Tall Stork) his affectionate nickname for me (especially funny because my parents are both small of build, I get my height– along with all my odd angles directly from him.)

I remember his patience through so many of my rough patches growing up. The quiet way he would take my side, defend or make excuses for me. He had such a generous capacity for letting people be who they were– and for supporting them on their way– as I grew up I began to realize how truly rare that quality is in the world. RSR Thatha was such a source of strength– not in any big, dramatic way but in so many, many small ones.

He suffered a great deal in the last years of his life. Especially after my grandmother passed away. The tremors in his hands and feet grew so violent that he could no longer do anything of his own accord. He couldn’t walk, eat, bathe, turn in bed or dress himself. Speech too became painfully difficult. His days consisted largely of sitting (slouched over a little because he couldn’t hold himself straight) in a white and red cane chair on the front verandah, watching the trees, the sky, the road– waiting for one of us to come home.

It’s hard to think of the frustration and daily struggles he went through– hard to put in words what I cannot even begin to imagine. I don’t know how to express it– or the beauty of the caring, gratitude, love and patience of all the family who did their best to ease those struggles and return by way of simple presence some part of what he gave all of us in different ways.

There is a sadness that stays when you lose people like that. But a sadness that softens with time and gives way to so many smiles that make their way to the surface of your memory. Because it’s always the Good stuff that’s forever. And it’s true what they say– no one you’ve ever really loved can ever really die.

Even now Thatha lurks in unexpected corners. When someone says to me “Now where did you get your height from?” or when I walk through the beautiful temple he used to visit each Saturday (while he still could), or when I sometimes look down and recognize in my hands the flat rectangularity of his wrists or in my arms the double twist of his elbow-joints, then I suddenly see my grandfather.

The tall thin twinkleyed whitekhadi kindhearted unsteady column of him.

And in those swift moments I understand how we carry them with us. The near and dear who will never be so far away that you can’t hear the rippletease in a familiar voice saying “Where’s that Netta Kokku?” Who will never be so lost that you can’t find them in a hundred times a hundred kindnesses that live on in you and reminding you of debts you can’t possibly repay but will try to anyway.


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