My grandpa’s younger brother did not have any grandchildren of his own. While in her late 20s, his daughter – his only child - had made the decision to stay unmarried. She chose to lead a life that was completely dedicated to social activism and writing. Conversations about her marriage were minimal. After a while, they ceased to exist. As far as typical father-daughter interactions in middle class India were concerned, this was as far from the norm as Chennai (my hometown, in India) is from Chicago. After all, this is the land of arranged marriages. But CT never cared much about societal norms. CT – that was short for Chinna Thatha which, in my native language, refers to a grandfather’s younger brother. CT is the kind of nickname that a kid will coin right before filing for creative bankruptcy. I was that kid. But somehow, miraculously, he found it cute and so, the name stuck.
CT was a short man. In small part due to genetics and in no small part due to his lovely wife’s delectable cooking, he was a tad overweight. A lightly starched cotton shirt and a neatly ironed dhoti (a traditional Indian garment) comprised his preferred attire. He applied coconut oil to bring some discipline to the thick shocks of hair that he was blessed with. His ranch house in Chennai was built in the 1960s. I especially loved the pillars near the threshold. It was not an ostentatious home and was beautiful precisely for that reason. The warmth and glow of the home came not just from the large open windows. There was an inexplicable coziness in the off-white, worn-out sofa. CT and his home were not dissimilar to one another. Both derived their richness from their simplicity. Both gave you the feeling that you were a welcome addition to their existence just by virtue of being in their vicinity. Both belonged to an earlier era, yet had aged gracefully, exuding a sense of stability and unfussy perfection.
CT was 44 years older than me. It is a fact – not an opinion, mind you – that I was his favorite among the kids in our extended family! Cricket - the sport, not the insect – was the durable glue that cemented our bond. Both of us loved the game. He got me to be not only passionate about the sport but also think about it deeply. He would occasionally give me some nuggets of wisdom around leadership and teamwork based on his vast knowledge of the game. But since I adored the sport and its players, it never came across as didactic. Plus he was a fabulous raconteur, telling stories with the right mix of facts and spice. One of his favorite stories was that of an Indian cricket team captain who refused to kowtow to the authorities and fought for his team over the miniscule salaries that were paid to the players. The captain paid the price for his recalcitrance and lost his place in the team while the other players got a discernible hike in pay. CT would say that the panjandrums who felt victorious destroying the captain’s career had actually lost a bigger battle. It was years later that I could understand why this story resonated with him. CT had quit his fledgling career as a lawyer because he could not stand the corruption and dishonesty that ran rampant in his practice. He decided that the fight was not worth it because the system would not accommodate the values that he stood for. He later had a fulfilling career as a marketer for an alloy manufacturer.
Acceptance. As I think of the one word that I would associate most with CT, it is ‘acceptance’ that scrolls across my mind in font size 72, especially as it relates to his attitude towards his daughter. His unshakable belief was that freedom was not something that he had to give my Aunt. Rather, within the bounds of conscientiousness, he believed that she owned her freedom of thought, choice and expression and he saw it as his duty to not impinge on that. My Aunt’s choices, be it the decision to stay single, have communist leanings or espouse atheism were all unconventional for the mores of the society around her. But CT respected every one of her choices wholeheartedly. He was a deeply pious Brahmin (a subsect of Hindus) but he proudly announced to me one day that my Aunt’s latest book was her best work yet. The book’s title – Towards a Non-Brahmin Millennium. This, coming from a person that spent 45 minutes every morning in his prayer room, was remarkable. The acceptance of the space that he believed was his daughter’s stemmed from a quiet assurance about his own space. That, I believe, was empowerment of a special kind. If I grow up to be half as thoughtful a parent to my son, then I am sure that CT will be happy with my parenting abilities.
On Saturday, January 22, 2005, he stepped out of his house and suddenly collapsed, never to get up. He had had a fatal cardiac arrest. He was 67. Just about the only comforting thought that I have about CT’s rather sudden death is the fact that he did not undergo any suffering. It was an abrupt end to a meaningful chapter in my life. But as we all know, the themes of a book often get established in important chapters.