Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Realistic Fantasy: A retro review of Shankar's Indian (1996)

As a 90s kid growing up in Chennai, it was impossible to not notice the humungous splash that Director Shankar was creating with his initial films.  Gentleman (1993) and Kadhalan (1994) were poles apart in terms of content – I dare say, quality too. (The latter is one of my least favorite films of Shankar.)  But with the level of grandeur, be it in action, song sequences or just the canvas overall, Shankar was creating a unique brand for himself.  It was in his third film where Shankar truly fired on all cylinders.  Indian, which I reckon as his best film till date, is not only a magnificent spectacle which made for a terrific theatre experience but also one of the best scripts ever written in service of commercial cinema. 

A common aspect of Gentleman and Indian was the vigilante being hunted down by a committed officer.  But where Charan Raj was a bit of a cinematic caricature, Nedumudi Venu is superb.  Aided by Nasser’s voice, Venu is dignity personified.  If you notice in lesser films, the intelligence of these officers never truly comes out.  Even in a well-made film like Ramana, the investigating officers were made to look like fools in order to make the Yugi Sethu character shine.  Whereas here, Venu’s character is the law-enforcing counterpoint to the violent brand of justice meted out by the Indian Thatha character, essayed, of course, with great style and conviction by Kamal Hassan.  Nowhere is this brought out better than the scene where Venu says that he, as a person, is an admirer of Indian Thatha but as a CBI officer, he is and will always be honesty personified.  The scenes where he goes from “meticulous” to “meticulous, old man” to “meticulous, old terrorist” are among the finest investigation scenes in Tamil cinema.  It is thanks to the sparkling intelligence of these sequences that the film acquires its seriousness amidst the commercial additions.

The key difference between his earlier films like Indian and Muthalvan versus his most recent works was that he and writer Sujatha brought a lot of painstaking detailing to what were inherently scenes straight out of a fantasy.  Take the TV station scene for instance.  How a septuagenarian could break into a TV studio, film a murder and manage to get it telecast is, if you think about it, nonsensical.  But the amount of details that are packed, the explanation given around the Philippines-based telecaster all point to one admirable trait – Shankar did not want the audience to feel that their intelligence was insulted.  It was as if he set out to demonstrate that if at all an elderly gentleman were to go about making a razor-sharp (!) statement and telecast it during Oliyum OLiyum time, this is probably how he would do it!

Of the two flashbacks in the film, the Kasthuri portions are short but impactful.  The actress too turns in a fine performance.  But it is in the freedom fighter flashback where the magical mix of great writing and top-notch production values happens.  Jeeva’s cinematography in the black and white scenes is masterful, especially the professionally shot war scene.  The sets, the costumes, the purposeful use of graphics are all epic in nature.  I love the little moment when Senapathi (a follower of Subhas Chandra Bose) shoots a puppet and later apologizes for it.  It is a character-defining moment that shines light on the depth of his patriotic fervor.  AR Rahman's "Kappal Yeri Poyaachu" in the flashback is a marvel. (The film, incidentally, also has one of his best background scores.)

Indian is not a perfect film by any means.  Shankar’s early films had some disgusting ‘male gaze’ scenes like the introduction of Manisha Koirala here.  His characterization of the women in his films have rarely left an impact.  The two heroines here are little more than eye candy.  Only Sukanya has a meaty role.  But even her character is subject to the gratuitous sensationalism in the riots scene. (Sukanya recollected in an interview that she had serious issues with how the sequence was shot.)  Shankar’s weakness in writing romantic scenes is evident here too.  He tries to obscure that weakness by making the scenes comic.  But as a result, Manisha pleading with the senior Kamal to spare his son resonates purely because of Sujatha’s great dialogue, not due to her characterization or their romance.  As an aside, that scene is one where Sujatha’s pen is sharper than Indian Thatha’s knife, especially the lines, “avanuku valika koodathu-nu meesai-ya ezhandha Senapathi inaiki avana ezhaka mudivu pannittan.  Unna vida enaku thaan ma ezhappu jaasthi.” 

Weaknesses aside, Indian remains an instance of a grand spectacle where style doesn’t trump substance.  The trailer of Indian-2 doesn’t look nearly as fresh or exciting as the original was.  But let us hope that even if the film doesn’t live up to the exalted standards of the original, that it doesn’t diminish its legacy.  Because Shankar’s films may have gotten bigger and grander in terms of visuals and graphics.  But it was in Indian where the expensive and exclusive fabric of the production was truly the by-product of a yarn that was ‘meticulously’ spun by its writing team.


Monday, January 29, 2024

Sapta Sagaradache Ello - My reflections on the two films (Side A and Side B)

I have been a movie buff for a long time.  And I have a pretty good memory of the initial impressions that films created on me when I was young.  And how over time, the same films spoke differently to me.  Even with classics, it would be the same product, of course.  Still the same motion picture of stunning beauty.  Just that the beholder changed, with age, maturity (I can only hope!) and experiences.  Not that good films become bad or vice versa.  They just seem different.  My critical style has evolved too, I feel.  I am not a film critic who looks at a film with a pure, non-judgemental eye, just looking to evaluate the worth of the craft and judge the film solely on the basis of whether the film did justice to the chosen content.  I am just an aspiring writer who likes to write with honesty about what a film did to me, be it making me smile, laugh, cry or just making me ponder.  As I think of Hemanth Rao’s two-film series, “Sapta Sagaradache Ello,” I have a plethora of thoughts and emotions.

First things first.  The films are supremely well-made.  Hemanth Rao’s handling of the actors and his staging of scenes, be it the dreamy moments at the beach, the raging conflicts (both physical and otherwise) or the tender moments, are all reflective of a director who is absolutely surefooted.  The trio of lead actors - Rakshit Shetty, Rukmini Vasanth and Chaithra Achar - all have moments where they bring their characters to life, tearing asunder the screen and leaping into our subconscious.  The three of them have mobile faces that revel in the minutiae of expression.  It would be unfair to pick a favorite, for the three of them are very different as actors.  Rakshit is endowed with a pair of eyes that allow him to convey pain without a single word uttered.  Rukmini is fantastic during the quieter moments where she has to project the character’s quiet strength, yet leave us with no doubt on how she feels about life forcing her to satisfice.  Chaithra is fantastic at delivering her lines, packing them with searing emotion. (There is a scene where she burns down something precious to the Rakshit character.  The way Chaithra expresses her anger, anguish and helplessness all at once, is brilliant.)  

Side A, as a film, worked better for me than did Side B.  The best kind of dramas are the ones where you get the feeling that the film just wrote itself.  The character’s actions just drive the plot with inexorable momentum.  In Manu (Rakshit) and Priya (Rukmini), we have a pair of lovers whom we root for from the get go.  Every act of betrayal by the people they trust almost hurt us on a visceral level.  We go from a light sense of unease to absolute desperation by the end, hoping for them to reunite.  Even as the conclusion of Side A left us stunned speechless, we still anticipated Side B to see what kind of redemption, if there was one, was in store for them.  Even if they did not marry each other, could they somehow find peace with their new normal, after Manu steps out of prison?

Side B is as well acted as Side A, if not better.  Chaithra Achar as Surabhi, has the best of the roles and she turns in an incredibly honest performance as someone who lets the beats of her heart drown out all the rational words that her mind is trying to speak.  To its credit, the film does full justice to the Surabhi character.  And it shows how brutally unfair Manu is to her.  Surabhi’s piercing lines, as she tries to guess Manu’s true motivations and her indignant tirade are all delivered with fiery passion.  In doing so, the director ensures that not for a moment do we even remotely excuse Manu’s behavior towards her.  

But that sense of a character’s actions feeling authentic to them, felt missing in the way Manu tries to create an impact on Priya’s life, but without being transparent about it.  As this part of the plot of Side B unfolded, I felt a bit distant.  Instead of being willingly sucked into - like I was in Side A - Manu’s chosen path to redemption and peace, I found myself observing from an arm’s length, the path he took.  I am not a fan of characters following others without their knowledge, under the pretense of doing them good.  Even the word “pretense” feels unfair because all Manu is trying to do is to somehow regain for Priya and for himself all that he lost in his years in prison.  Even aside my prejudice and bias, just given how familiar we became with Manu in Side A, the road that he takes does not seem like a completely natural extension of the character.  The invisible writing of Side A seemed missing here.  The plot points and twists now seemed a little less organic and more deliberate.    

The climax of Side B though feels just right on many levels.  The desperation, as Manu searches for Surabhi, ensures that the acts of violence do not come across as gratuitous.  The action sequence is tense because we feel like no one is invincible and the stakes are incredibly high.  For the scene to shift from raw action to tender poetry is not a transition that is easy to pull off.  But director Hemanth manages it supremely well.  And by the time the film ended, I felt nearly as drained as I was at the end of Side A. 

In Side B, I may not have felt as swept away by the wave of emotion as I did in Side A.  But as a two-film series, "Sapta Sagaradache Ello" is akin to a ship that takes you through incredibly choppy waters, creating a purposefully intense experience.  You might not always be aligned with the path that it takes.  But it is also a journey that you willingly undertake since you know that the captain and his crew know exactly how to navigate through the storms and bring you safely home.

Thursday, December 21, 2023

Peace it Together

“The truth is, something about you makes me feel calm, or more centered or something.  And I could use that.”

These lines were uttered by Anne Hathaway to Robert de Niro in the delightful movie, “The Intern.”  The scene in which this exchange takes place is actually a rather casual one where Hathaway acknowledges the steadying influence of her “intern.”  But revisiting this scene recently made me pause and reflect on the significance and relevance of the sentiment expressed.  


I am 42 years old.  If I were to create a word cloud on what I sought as, say a 22-year old, words such as ‘excitement’ and ‘happiness’ would probably appear in font size 72.  The rush of adrenaline felt when I sped away in my first car, only to receive a traffic ticket from a genial cop, was probably symptomatic of the rush of blood of youth in general.  We all needed someone to slow us down!  When we would talk about someone we had a crush on, we would use terms like, “oh, my heart skips a beat.”  Poor thing that little heart, we taxed it to…our heart’s content!  I was, by and large, responsible. (Those who have known me for a long time - please note, as you snicker, that I wrote, “by and large”!) So, I really do not have any regrets about that phase of life.  But things change.


Flash forward to the present, I know that as I go through the ups and downs of adulthood, the quest is more for peace, inwardly felt, outwardly expressed.  I have realized that I can have more control over peace than I can about happiness.  But at least for me, I have to work towards it.  As a non-believer, I am reliant on what is within and around me for that peace.  Upon introspection, I could narrow down two things that can make or break that inner balance that I seek.  The first is, giving ourselves the time and space to travel inward.  And the second is, carefully choosing, thoughtfully nurturing and fiercely protecting our circle of trust.  These two elements are not mutually exclusive.  But they are distinctive enough to warrant separate mention.


I firmly believe that it is vitally important to invest in our physical and mental health.  As we grow older, as responsibilities increase, we need to be able to be in a physical shape and mental state to weather more storms than we did during the relatively shielded existence of our younger days.  In order for us to be able to fulfill our responsibilities, be it personally or professionally, we truly need to be able to have strength of the mind and of the body.  To do so, it is imperative that we focus on the things that keep our physical and mental health in check.  This may vary from working out in the gym to going on a long drive, listening to melodious music.  The means don't matter, the end does.  Because if we let our mind atrophy and our shoulders droop, how can we be a shoulder for someone to lean on?  Many a time, our self-preservation becomes a casualty in our desire to keep checking the never-ending to-do lists of our life.  If this doesn’t get checked off, neither can other items be.


And the second contributor to our peace is a carefully chosen circle of trust.  As we grow older, we must ask ourselves the tough question whether we are spending time with and on the ones who have a positive or at least a neutral impact on our level of peace.  If that is not the case, it is best to shield ourselves from the people who have a negative impact on us.  The boundaries of our circle of trust cannot be so rigid that that immutability paralyzes us psychologically.  We will, over time, have to be keenly aware of whom we trust our emotions with and who has stopped earning that trust.  We need to be aware that the ones within our circle are the ones that may not necessarily make us skip a beat.  Instead, they do the far more difficult job of actually ensuring that our hearts beat at a steady cadence.  We must identify these people, treasure them, make them feel our gratitude and pay their generosity forward.  


At the same time, we have to force ourselves to have a very detached view towards anyone outside of that circle.  That detachment helps in cases where a certain amount of exposure to them is unavoidable due to societal or professional obligations. In order to safeguard ourselves, we have to be doubly careful to not let anyone outside of our coveted circle feel like they have the privilege to hurt us.  I remember telling a former colleague about creating a mock ballot for kids at the time of elections, to teach them the concept of voting.  He wrote to them, “Choose wisely, kids.”  That advice extends to adults too.  If we don’t choose, we lose.


Now, at 42, I know exactly the words that will be conspicuous in that word cloud that describes what I seek. It may not be as exciting or adventurous as the one from 20 years ago.  But the knowledge that I can, through my actions, have more control over it than the things that I sought in my younger days, is an immensely comforting, calming thought.  And just like Anne Hathaway in “The Intern”, I could use that!


Saturday, October 28, 2023

Hearing the unspoken word

It was heartbreaking to watch director Vikraman’s interview today.  The filmmaker who once churned out blockbusters on a yearly basis, spoke with great pain - and one must say, with immense grace - about the plight of his wife.  A dancer, she has been bedridden for five years.  As a result, Vikraman took the decision to stay away from films or film union activities to be by his wife’s side.  What was especially poignant was how he spoke about the distress with such equanimity.  As was the case with his films, his words were filled with hope for a better tomorrow.  But amidst this deeply moving conversation, one set of questions and Vikraman’s answers made me pause.  It was the portion on the Tamil film fraternity.


When the anchor asked him if people in the film world had reached out to him to offer support, he mentioned a few names.  But you could see that the majority of the actors that he had worked with have not made him feel supported.  Vikraman tried his best to be tactful and sensitive.  But if you observe closely, you could feel his pain.  He did not complain or sound resentful.  It was just impossible though, to look past the apparent lack of care and concern from an industry that he had been such an important part of.  Again, my intention is to not berate anyone in particular.  I shall not engage in an exercise to take names.  Because my intent is to go beyond the actual stars and directors to talk about something deeper.  And that is the notion of reaching out.


The busyness of our lives is the reason that we mostly cite for not reaching out.  But I am firmly convinced that we can make time for the things that we want.  We make the mistake of assuming that the depth and meaning of every conversation are directly proportional to the time that it will take out of our schedule.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  We only have to revisit in our mind those brief exchanges, on Whatsapp or the phone, to realize how someone’s words or gestures gave us a respite from our woes.  


The other reason (excuse?) that I often hear is, “I wasn’t sure if you would be okay if I inquired about you.”  If we break it down, there are just three scenarios here.  One is, we had no idea that someone is going through a tough phase.  Two is, we are not sure.  And three, we know with absolute certainty that they are beset by some issue, personal or professional.  The three scenarios have something in common.  None of these scenarios prevents us from asking a simple question, “Are you doing okay?”  Worst case, the other person might not be ready to open up.  And that is fine.  In the deeply thought-provoking book, “Option B”, authors Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant make a distinction between the golden rule of relationships and the platinum rule of grief.  The golden rule is, treat others how you want to be treated.  The platinum rule is, when someone is going through trying times, treat others how they want to be treated.  So, if someone is not reciprocating your gesture of extending a hand to them, let them be.  The knowledge that you care will, in most cases, make them open up to you eventually.  But in my book, to not ask is to not care.


I have been the recipient of great generosity and deep thoughtfulness from people in my little world who give me the impression that I matter.  It is not something that I take for granted.  For I have had relationships where I thought that I ceased to matter.  I may be right.  I may be wrong.  But a sustained feeling of my unspoken words not being heard made me feel like the pain in my spoken words would not matter either.  But that is okay.  As we grow older, we learn.  We get better at spotting who ignores, who hears, who listens with their ears and who cares with their heart.  And it is so vitally important that we look inward to ensure that we can do our bit to make someone’s day brighter, smile wider and their burdens lighter.  That is exactly what I hope the film fraternity does for Vikraman and his family.  That is what I hope all of us do for one another.  That is when the positivity and goodness of Vikraman’s films will be recreated in the real world.


Wednesday, September 27, 2023

The heartbreak of 1996

 We just refused to believe that it could go any other way.  You really have to blame Sachin Tendulkar.  We genuinely believed that through his individual brilliance, India could win the 1996 cricket world cup.  He never said so.  He just made us believe so.  With him, he carried the hopes of a billion fans.  Even before he had taken the world by (sand)storm in 1998, he still made us think that one individual alone could take the team to victory.  Not that we had a dearth of talent really.  Be it dependable batters like Mohammad Azharuddin and Navjot Sidhu, clean strikers of the ball like Ajay Jadeja and star bowlers like Anil Kumble and Javagal Srinath, the team was no slouch.  But back then, two things were scarce in that team.  It was not talent, it was self-belief.  And it was leadership.  Sure, there was a piece of batting or bowling magic here or there.  But when it truly mattered, few rose to the challenge like the way Sachin did.  That it was entirely unfair to him was something that we fans realized only when he had others like Virender Sehwag and Rahul Dravid lessen his burden in the second half of his career.  But let’s stay in 1996.


The teams were divided into two groups of six each.  India were in a group with Sri Lanka, Australia, West Indies, Zimbabwe and Kenya.  The warning signs were there in the group stage itself.  We lost to Sri Lanka and Australia in a manner that exposed the team’s shortcomings brutally.  Mind you, Sachin scored an incandescent century against the Lankans and a brilliant 90 against the Aussies.  But the bowlers were leaking runs like cracked buckets.  The batsmen were all looking patchy.  As scores of anecdotes from players over the years confirm that in Azhar, we had a captain whose strategic abilities, enterprise and leadership were things that existed solely in our imagination.  Azhar was struggling for runs himself.  And just seemed incapable of trying anything out-of-the-box or even a tad different. (I am not counting the lame attempt to bowl Anil Kumble in the first 15 overs.) 


I might sound harsh when talking about Azhar.  But you only have to observe the power of the leaders in previous cups, especially Imran Khan.  He had led the Pakistan team from out of nowhere to lift the cup in 1992.  A consummate leader is an inspiration, a strategist, a tactician and someone who leads the way.  Azhar in 1996 was none of this.  But similar to 1992, we all saw a glimpse of what could happen when we cohered as a team, in the match against Pakistan.  Unlike 1992, Sachin did not even make a significant contribution. (A scratchy 31 off 59.) But it all came together for a magical day.  Sidhu’s anchor, Jadeja’s spark, Venkatesh Prasad’s gall.  It was all heady (but as we were to discover later, transient).  It was always a wonder to me why this team only rarely came together this powerfully and confidently.  We won a high-octane quarter-final versus Pakistan with Sachin hardly contributing anything.  Why was this an exception?  Why did we fans have to resign to the capriciousness of this team?  I have only questions, no easy answers.


The highlight:


I remember the heartbreak of the semi-final like it is happening in front of my eyes now!  People mention Aravinda de Silva’s dazzling counterattack.  Sure, it left us stunned.  But when he was dismissed, SL was only 85/4.  We just watched in silent horror as their middle-order calmly and coolly took them to 251.  Did we try anything different?  Couldn’t Srinath have been brought back for a quick burst instead of Jadeja bowling 5 expensive overs? (Srinath only completed 7 of his 10 overs.) Why the conservatism in going with an Ashish Kapoor who was tidy but rarely penetrative instead of Venkatapathi Raju who was a more attacking option?  Sure, the SL side had plenty of left-handers but Raju was no slouch versus southpaws. (Remember him tying Brian Lara in knots in 1994?)  And the batting that fell like a stack of dominoes after Sachin got out was, in retrospect, no big surprise.  How often in the 1990s did we really win when he did not take us all the way?  All of these painful recollections make Virat Kohli’s words post the 2011 win even sweeter - “He has lifted the burden of the nation for 21 years.  It is time we carried him on our shoulders.”  


The heartbreak:


As we go back in time, sure, many world cup wins have been on the back of glittering individual performances.  But if you observe keenly, the team coming together was what well and truly took the teams over the finish line.  Sure, Wasim Akram’s magic deliveries swung the match Pakistan’s way in 1992.  But what would he have had to bowl with if not for Imran Khan, Javed Miandad and Inzamam ul Haq, not to mention his own batting.  In the 1996 final, Aravinda de Silva turned in an all-round performance for the ages.  But remember that they were led by a man - Arjuna Ranatunga -  who was willing to go any lengths to defend his bowler who had been accused of throwing.  How can we measure the impact that such leadership has on a team’s spirit?  In that final, remember that with Ranatunga expertly marshaling them, the other spinners choked the Aussies too.  Remember that Asanka Gurusinha played a superb supporting knock of 65 to help Aravinda stabilize the innings.  Many of us recollect Sanath Jayasurya and Romesh Kaluwitharana’s pyrotechnics in the 1996 world cup.  But remember that both of them failed with the bat in the semi-final and final.  And yet SL won.  


As I think about my own journey as an Indian cricket fan, I am filled with gratitude for a leader like MS Dhoni, batsmen like Yuvraj Singh and bowlers like Zaheer Khan who, through their sustained individual brilliance, also coalesced as a team, to win the world cup that Sachin wanted so badly.  You might wonder why is it that for all my talk about the team being of paramount importance that my happiness of 2011 is associated with Sachin, when there were so many other heroes.  It is because it was Sachin who made us hope against hope in the 1990s that India would win as long as he was there.  It is because we 90s cricket fans fell in love with Sachin before we fell in love with India as a team.  We knew but just didn’t realize that cricket is a sport of 11 players a side, not one champion and ten others.  That for a team to practically rest on one shoulder was grave injustice to the man carrying the burden.  That is why we see the 2011 world cup win as a sort of tribute to Sachin.  But as I reflect on 1996 now, with the benefit of time and maturity, I can be a bit gracious and admit that the best team, not the best individual, won the 1996 world cup.  And that team was Sri Lanka.  It could not have gone any other way.


Monday, September 4, 2023

Intermission

 “We expect such people to be around.” 

Those were the succinct words of a friend when I shared how tough it was to swallow the untimely, premature passing on of my Aunt.  That pithy response summarized what I had been struggling to verbalize.  It made me dwell on the rather uncomfortable idea of mortality.  As I clawed my way back from a rather downbeat state of mind, the fact that I am 42 and ‘middle aged’ made me feel more introspective and less anxious.  Arguably a result of my being an Indian movie buff, my thoughts centered on the notion of interval - or its slightly more sophisticated-sounding synonym, intermission.


I began to think less about the longevity of my journey or that of my near and dear.  Instead, I began to reflect on, in movie parlance again, the ‘first half’ of my life.  This blog post is too limited and too public a platform for me to compile all the highs and lows of the life that I have lived till now.  But there is one recurring theme in my life that I wish to shed light on.  And that is a sense of belonging. 


To look one in the eye and make them feel like they matter is a trait in people that I am truly grateful for.  As I think of the closest members in my family, the most respected mentors in my life (both personal and professional), the dearest friends who are a family of their own, one common trait that I observe is that they know exactly how and when to give me a sense that I matter.  Whenever I crumble, they don’t piece me together.  Instead, they stand by me, empowering me to stitch myself again. They are the ones that let my stream of tears flow while being acutely aware that the handful of droplets are actually symptomatic of a flood of emotion that they are refusing to let me get submerged in.  That the apparent weightlessness of the tears is inversely proportional to the weight of emotion that is being lifted off me. They are the ones that celebrate my successes in a way where I know that their appreciation is genuine, sans jealousy or resentment.  They are the ones that proffer sincere, timely advice whenever I err, constantly looking to make me strive to be the best version of myself.  


As heady as I feel about all these wonderful folks, I am readily aware that what I just captured is just about receiving.  Receiving love, receiving concern, receiving advice.  As I look at the 'first half' in an honest manner, I feel like I have received more than I have given.  No, that is not a falsely modest statement, I assure you.  I sincerely feel like the second half of my life should be about fostering a sense of belonging.  Enabling people like I was empowered in the first half.  Loving people in the selfless, giving ways in which I was and am loved.  Sharing perspectives with people in a manner where they feel like I am sitting beside them, not preaching from a lofty pedestal.


As I think about genuine, selfless people like my Aunt who are no more, I realize that they are still “around” even after they are gone.  That is their legacy.  In the second half of my life, I would like to ensure that I give my loved ones the feeling that I am always “around”, enveloping them in the warm manner in which I have been protected all along.  That way, the ‘reviewer’ - be it God or one’s own conscience - looks at the picture and gives a verdict that both halves were coherent, feel-good and meaningful!


Tuesday, July 25, 2023

"Whatever it is you wish for": A tribute to Padma Athai (1961-2023)

‘Bommathai’ - that is what I apparently used to call my Aunt Padma when I was a toddler.  I honestly don’t remember much of that phase.  But if I were to take a guess, Padma Athai probably relished the mispronunciation of her name as much as she enjoyed our interactions when I spoke to her as an adult in well-enunciated thamizh.  The guess would not be too inaccurate, for Athai always believed in letting people be, as long as they were within the bounds of honesty and propriety.  As I replay the vignettes of my shared moments with her through the years, the thing that strikes me is how she was, at every stage of my life, genuinely interested in learning about what made me happy in that phase.  And how she was ever so gentle in expressing love, care and concern.


Rewind to June 1994.  She was living in the US and was visiting India with her family. (A loving husband and two adorable kids.  The kids were adorable and affectionate back then.  They are adorable, affectionate and responsible role models now.)  I lived in Chennai with my parents at that time.  I was eagerly looking forward to spending time with them, especially my little cousins.  And during that trip, while I bonded fabulously with her son, the younger one refused to come anywhere near me!  What was worse for me was that the little one was extremely fond of our neighbors!  I was genuinely upset about it.  Padma Athai could have dubbed me childish or at least teased me gently.  And that would not have been wrong per se.  But as a recent favorite quote (attributed to Atul Chitnis) of mine goes, “You are never remembered for doing what is expected of you.”  Athai actually sat me down and explained that sometimes little kids - her daughter was just 3 ½ at that time! - behave in ways that are not going to appear reasonable to older people.  She assured me that my cousin would definitely bond with me over time.  And that did happen, even if not during that trip!  Years later, we used to joke about how my cousin gave preferential treatment to our neighbor.  But as I reflect on Athai a little more, I see that she just let me be the 13-year old kid I was, while subtly making me see reason.


Athai, at a family wedding in 2010


In 1998, when my parents and I moved to the US, I had more opportunities to visit and spend time with her.  Another distinct memory that I have is of my maternal grandma from India calling us at Athai's home.  Athai immediately told my Mother, “Manni, please tell Maami that you will call her right back from our number.”  Kids of this generation will not quite comprehend what was so special about that gesture.  But back in 1998, there were no free Whatsapp calls or Facetime.  International calls to and from India were expensive.  But Athai was spontaneous, generous and above all, unfussy about her spontaneity and generosity.  She was a giver in the most understated, casual manner.  


Athai was someone who derived happiness from the joy and success of others.  I remember when I did well during my undergrad and graduate years, Athai’s notes of appreciation for any of my achievements, regardless of significance, would drip with genuineness.  I could feel the genuineness not just in her exquisite choice of words or in the sweetness of her voice.  Beyond all that, it came from the purity of her thought which is extremely hard to concretize but equally hard to miss if you care to look for it.  I just re-listened to her voice note for my birthday this year where she wished me “the very, very best of health, peace of mind, happiness and whatever it is you wish for.”  The “whatever it is you wish for” seems to perfectly exemplify who she was as a person.  What mattered to her was whether we achieved happiness on our terms.  She probably thought it was too presumptuous of her to assume that she knew exactly what made me happy.  


As wonderful as she was at expressing genuine elation devoid of filters, biases, prejudices or jealousy, Athai was also extremely empathetic towards people when they were going through a low phase.  She would expertly walk the tightrope walk, not being pushy or inquisitive, yet expressing her support in no uncertain terms.  10 years ago, I had to undergo a back surgery.  She wrote me a mail as soon as she learned about it from my grandmother.  In her note, she wished me well.  While asking about the nature of the surgery, she prefaced her question with, “Hope I am not being intrusive if I ask you.”  As my Aunt, she could have just asked me about the operation.  But no, she seemed so instinctively respectful of people’s spaces and choices.  Knowing her, she would have been perfectly okay had I chosen to not divulge the details of my surgery.


Another trait that I instantly associate with her is humility.  An accomplished CPA, she never really spoke, unless asked, of the achievements of hers or her family.  Before I had traveled to the US with my Mom in 1991, my Dad told me that Athai had cracked a tough exam and had scored "85%."  During the trip, I duly congratulated her.  She was probably surprised that I even knew about it.  She smiled and asked, "Yaaru, Murali sonnaana?  84 thaan, 85 illa!"  The reason I remember this detail 32 years later is because I was struck by the humility of her response.  But then, that was who she was right through her life.  Honest, humble and focused on her loved ones, not the self.

The last time I saw Athai was at a family wedding last year.  I had not really been in a position to attend the wedding since things were hectic at work.  But I attended since my Uncle urged me to attend and surprise everyone.  It was so wonderful to see her after a long time.  The care, the concern, the kindness were all intact as always. (Not that I expected it to be any different.) I just did not know that my goodbye at the end of the trip would be the last time I bid farewell in person.  I suppose that I have to be grateful for the fact that my Uncle's prodding meant that I got the opportunity to see her one last time.  Mysterious are the vagaries of fate and the ways of this world, I suppose.

Athai - you told me that I could get 'whatever it is I wished for.' 

I wish that you are in a better place, sans any of the physical pain that you had to endure recently. 

I wish for Uncle and the kids to have the strength to lead life with their strong, indelible memories of you. 

I wish for the light of your spirit to glow brightly in our hearts for the rest of our lives. 

I wish this world would be a kinder place to pure, noble souls like you who deserved to live much longer lives. 

Above all, I just wish you were here, Bommathai.  I will miss you.