Author Archives: Pavithra K. Mehta

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.


Stream of Thought

She was sitting very still next to a silver stream and when she looked into it she saw her reflection. Clear eyes looked into clear eyes. And she wondered suddenly whether, when she rose and left, the memory of that face– her face– would still remain in the water. In a secret way she hoped it would. And she wondered then how many other faces had stopped at this silver stream to see themselves in its depths. And suddenly the face in the stream spoke up in a voice that was familiar because it was her own voice— only somehow like the stream—silvery.

And the voice said, “The stream cannot hold me forever because it is a stream and streams do not know the meaning of holding on and they do not know the meaning of forever.”

And she listened to this in some surprise (because you see she was a little unaccustomed to being addressed by her reflection) but when she had got over her surprise she nodded and said in a matter-of-fact kind of way, “ Yes you’re right. Silly me,” and she rose and walked away from the stream without a backward glance—which is why she did not see her reflection smiling after her.


Expiration Date

I found Fame in the cupboard–

Between baking soda and salt,

Her seal was yet unbroken,

Her Expiration Date at fault–

Or was it me?

 

Did I neglect this purchase

And let its worth grow stale?

Did I forfeit grand applause

While–opening the mail?

Tending traceless other tasks

Forgetting to put on my masks–

Has Golden Chance set sail?

 

If so I’ll gladly take the blame

And let this be my claim to fame—

I’d rather bake a cake — or two–

Than chase a Name.


Alchemy by Hawk

There are encounters that leave you sloshing and unsettled– like a very full glass of pond water on a rickety table that has been jostled. A moment before you were self-contained, now your inner being is flustered and expressive — full of erratic movement you do not intend.

The jostler has long since vanished but you are still unquiet within. Across the stadium of your stomach a loosed stampede of bat wings, bull horns and hapless ballerinas. The sensation is not painful–nor is it pleasant. In such times it can be useful to recognize that you are a woman of independent means — financing this residual tempest with the hard cash of memory and the loose change of muddled emotion. There are better investments to be made. By far.

It is not easily arranged, but after such encounters if one can persuade a hawk to fly low overhead as one walks a narrow residential street, one might experience what feels akin to a comprehensive internal reset. A refreshment of being the equivalent of one thousand nights of dreamless sleep. Of that instant you are no longer a container of whirling sediment and liquid agitation, but a glass filled and stilled, quietly brimming with the crystal cold headwaters of a mountain spring. It will happen with a rapidity that defies explanation.

You remember the upward glance, and the preverbal register of a remarkable wingspan, a copper colored velocity, a grace that splits the sky like day time lightning. Electric and unbound. You do not recall the perturbation being poured out of you like stale tea from a teapot. The conversion is work that locates itself outside clock time. What has transpired is not so much substitution as it is alchemy– by hawk. The transformation of a base and volatile substance (your inner landscape) to one that is– at least temporarily– golden and inert.

It helps if the hawk calls out to you repeatedly while circling high overhead. Her voice commands the sky, corrals your wayward tendencies. Her wheeling, invisible calligraphy blots out any lingering reasons for dismay, any last recollections of dissatisfaction. And you are seized by an intimation of grandeur, a power vast and sweet and gloriously indifferent to our cramped labels of good and bad, a freedom so complete it does not require approval– or even understanding, and an awareness so piercing and acute, so borderless and far-reaching it leaves you with a paradoxical sense of how small you are—and how utterly seen.

If you are in a position to pull on cosmic strings and orchestrate this process further, it would serve you well to recruit between one hundred and one hundred and fifty additional hawks. Have them soar across your line of sight in ones and twos and threes and sometimes sevens over the next week. Have them perch unusually low and in view. Have them spur you to google “Unusual number of hawks in neighborhood this summer,” and accustom you to looking up frequently (because who wants to miss sighting a hawk?) Until their presence is undeniable, their message unmistakable.

Then let the hawks fly into your dreams, and with their alternating rhythms of muscular wing flap and spiraling suspension, begin to shape a shadowy sense of what it means to house an immense perspective, what it means to travel fearlessly between this terrestrial realm and the blue beyond, what it means to combine vigilance, with elegance and self-possession, what it means to expend effort, then effortlessly release, what it means to abandon petty stories, swoop down instead on what is essential, revolutionary– grasp it talon tight. And not let go.


Agapanthus

I never notice agapanthus before she blooms. This lack of awareness allows for yearly ambush. A blue bombardment, like so many miniature firecracker displays in freeze frame, they seize the sidewalks, fully formed– their delicate globes fashioned from white or  lavender bluebell blossoms, balancing perfectly on very tall stems. Agapanthus rises above it all, as sublime beings do, transcending a close-to-the-ground commotion, a happy hubbub of green leaves. The perfect spheres of their heads seem poised to take leave of their lithe bodies, as if at any moment they might elegantly decapitate themselves, lift off lightly, a synchronized indigo flock of crystal balls. 

Ethereal guardians of summer gardens, parks and parking lots. Undiscriminating. I’ve even known them to stand gorgeously outside the dry cleaners, lending an air of nobility and charm to an otherwise nondescript neighborhood. Agapanthus from agape. The flower of love. 

The ancient Greeks knew there are at least as many kinds of love as there are directions on the Earth. There is eros for instance, love that flies on a trickster deity’s arrow tip, generating all manner of mischief and delight. And there is philia, love like a hearthfire that draws minds close around the warming glow of friendship. But agape is love that drops your jaw, makes you stand agaping. 

Agape is love without reservation. Monsoon love, juggernaut love, love that cannot be staunched like a wound or undone like a hairdo. Love that cannot be pulled like a plug, diverted like traffic, dammed like a river because its beginningless quality is suffused without end in everything. Agape is the Infinite’s love for the finite — and vice versa. 

Does the symmetry of that astound you? Then we are a pair. Our unsuspected birthright– to stand on this small ledge of life and love on equal footing with Eternity. Why were we not properly informed? And who will answer for the sins of omission?

But wait– Look! Summer’s chariot hurtles across the sky. Purple bobble headed flowers recite old poems with perfect enunciation in scriptless tongues. The seasons are a floral tradition, an oral tradition, perennial and precise. They whisper in our ears a thousand times a thousand times a day withholding nothing.

But am I paying attention? —

Are you?

Agapanthus

Agapanthus, Botanical illustration by Mally Francis


The Framed Infinite

I believe windows are celebrated in direct proportion to the degree one is conscious of circumscription. For those who live a seemingly free range existence, oblivious of external limits, the window’s presence and function is assumed. Simultaneously looked through– and overlooked. Unregistered as the pattern of curtains in a neighbor’s home, or the direction of the thieving wind that rifles casually through the hillside untouchable by man made laws. 

Windows exist to be looked through yes, but they are not meant to be overlooked. Being transparent is not the same thing as being insignificant. In this way windows are related to the invisible. 

Put another way: if you do not have a meaningful relationship with windows, then it is possible, that you have some difficulty perceiving grace.

For those whose days are contained, and conscious, the window is as impossible to overlook as a peacock or a comet. It is a portal, a bridge, an altar and avenue whose significance is vital and imperative to life. 

A window is the infinite, framed in a rectangle of glass, granting depth, mystery and the possibility of exploration to actors who play daily in very small, forgotten theaters. 

Patients in hospital beds understand the silent sustenance of windows. So do prisoners. And largely housebound creatures with vast interior lives — like dogs, cats, very young humans, very old ones–and Emily Dickinson. 

It must be mentioned here that for optimal results windows must not be overzealously substituted for walls. A residence where all walls double as windows soon grows tedious and disconcerting. A reverse prison. Celebrities and goldfish understand this better than most. 

It is sometimes necessary to explain to denizens of the modern world, that television is not the same thing as a window. Neither is the internet. They bear certain overt similarities yes — but overt similarity is a very low bar for most things. A table and a panther are similar in that they both have four legs. But you cannot interchange them without attracting notice and untoward consequences.

If you find it absolutely necessary to draw comparisons, then a window is more like a book or a boat than a television or a computer screen. Should the occasion demand it you may swap one for the other without hesitation or catastrophic result.


How Do You Live In Your Days?

Do you live in your days like a forgotten ticket stub in someone’s jacket? As if the show were behind you? As if you went out one evening to watch your life, and decided halfway through that it wasn’t worth the price of admission.

Other things more interesting stole your attention, even though we’ve been told and told that all that glitters is not gold, we are so easily seduced by sparkle and the kind of food that fills our mouths but not our stomachs and never our souls.

How we gorge on the insubstantial, and substitute the vibrant, risky, full-bodied occupation of life with a weak-kneed, lukewarm stupor.

Do you live in your days like an unmarked bottle in the back of the fridge? A bottle that has been there so long that no one remembers what’s in it. Do you live in your days like a lone sock in the drawer whose match disappeared in the wash weeks or years ago.

Think. Think hard. What shape are you holding and in what container are you held? Those are not questions to be asked or answered lightly.

Live like the roar in the cave of the lion’s throat. Live like the mustard seed that is dropped into hot oil — ready to explode its flavor into everything. Like the wick in a candle. Flickering. Fierce. Alive.