Monday, July 30, 2018

Student Teachers

This is an inevitability - I am going to sound much older than I am.  But indulge me for a few moments.  It seems like yesterday that I stepped into a convenience store to buy Alpenliebe chocolates for Krishna.  And now the fellow is a second year student at the prestigious Stanley Medical College in Chennai.  Along the way, he achieved the little task of being the best student of his graduating high school class.

It seems like day-before-yesterday when I sat at the dining table of Radhika Aunty’s house when Krishna’s older sister Samyu decided that she would comport herself as an obedient, studious 3-year old.  She sat on one of the chairs and doodled her way to glory while I tried to convince myself that Aunty was teaching physics and not the language spoken in Greece.  A few minutes into the class, Samyu gently whispered something in her Mum’s ear.  Even gentler was the way Aunty then requested me to write a little less vigorously because I had been shaking the table too hard as a result.  Little Samyu probably wondered if an earthquake was in progress.  A couple of years back when I visited the kid in Germany (where she is studying), she took me to a local eatery for dinner.  I ate slowly, moving my utensils very carefully - the table seemed quite sturdy and immovable.  After all, history doesn’t repeat itself every time.

As I reflect on people that have inspired me deeply and abidingly, I see that I have gravitated towards people older than I am.  People who have seen lady luck turn her back on them only for their grace and equanimity to almost force Ms. Luck to regret her initial decision, and return to them with a sheepish, apologetic grin.  Other ‘inspirations’ have been eminences grises in their fields, excelling as individual contributors but also possessing a certain magnetism to attract and sustain their followers.  Samyu, Krishna and their ilk fall into a third group, whom I’d like to call student teachers.  By virtue of exhibiting certain traits that truly belie their age, they practice the best form of teaching – doing.  Let me explain.

One of the traits these youngsters possess is unconscious assurance.  Relaxed assurance in oneself is a tremendously liberating gift.  It allows one to love their loved ones in a complete manner and in a professional setting, gives them a laser sharp focus on their goals, while not robbing them off a competitive edge.  Whenever I have congratulated them on any stellar accomplishment, there is a certain joy in their voice at being acknowledged.  But in that voice is also an innate humility about their success.  All of this without an ounce of false modesty.  The air of quiet dignity that they exude while making great strides in their academic lives will stand them in great stead as they grow older.  Given how rare this trait can be, it is bound to make their older cousins continue to wax eloquent in blog posts!   

Besides being grounded, the way they stay close to their roots is another quality that makes me glow with pride.  I have seen Samyu and a couple of other kids her age all leave their homeland to study in a foreign nation.  They rightfully enjoy their independence, travel when their schedules permit and in general, immerse themselves in the culture that they find themselves in.  (As a quick aside, during my trip to Germany, it was sheer pleasure to see Samyu give the cabbie directions in German.  He understood her too!)  But they seem to subconsciously know that ‘modern’ is a way of thinking that extends much deeper than the trivialities of fashion choices or partying.  Let me hasten to add that I am not trying to dismiss trifle pleasures – I am just trying to applaud the depth of thinking that these perfectly balanced youth seem to possess.  The way they guard their core while broadening their exposure in multitude of ways, certainly inspires my awe.

Over time, they will realize that due to the strength afforded by their roots and their willingness to daringly branch into new areas that they will not only strike a picture of stability but also be deemed as a provider of a secure shade to their near and dear.  That the children of my guru are ‘teachers’ in their own right is one of the sweetest ironies of my life.  That taste of pride is bound to be sweeter than even those root canal-inducing indulgences manufactured by Alpenliebe!

Monday, July 16, 2018

A letter of supplication

Dear Shoba,

It has been close to two years since I have seen you.  Yet I am engulfed by a strange feeling – as much as I miss your sunny presence, I don’t feel the distance that has separated us irreversibly.  Is it possible that I wake up every day striving to internalize the spirit that personified you?  There are times that I know that I am failing to live up to the Himalayan standards of character or unable to plumb the oceanic depths of generosity and unconditional affection that you immersed your loved ones in.  But you know, I am okay with putting effort into things that you came to you effortlessly.  I mean, how did you know to put yourself in a newly-wed daughter-in-law’s shoes?  And tell me that my apologizing to my wife when I was in the wrong would mean a lot to her.  How did you manage to convey that in just a simple, well-worded line during your first outing with her?  You didn’t sound like you had prepared that line!  Okay, please don’t tell me that that’s why you are you!  I get it, Ms. Modesty.  I am just asking for a little help here!

In a conversation with your friend Anush, I was telling him about how yoga is an effective way to rid oneself off toxins and how that was helping me be more centered and love my loved ones deeper and in a balanced manner.  He smiled and replied, “Shoba never needed yoga because there were no toxins in her.”  I agree with him partially.  But you will be happy to know that I continue to practice yoga every day.  I do put my yoga mat in front of the photograph of yours that is in my prayer room.  As I focus on the rhythms of my breathing, the scents of nostalgia sweep across me.  The fully functional clock seems to be hopelessly inaccurate. 

In the last week of Sep 2016 - it was the ‘last’ week in more ways than one – you were probably wondering in that hospital room where you were preparing for a one-way journey, how the apple of your eye, your lovable daughter, was going to live life with only one parent.  Before I write anything about her, let me share with you what her Dad wrote to me:

"Yes, like every other person, she too cried initially and asked the WHY questions.  But what, I believe, she did with an innocence of a child, is sacrificed her unhappiness for her mother’s happiness.  When she understood that her mother is supremely happy and completely healthy in Heaven now and that she would have continued to suffer if she had survived, she displayed true unselfish love. She stopped focusing on her grief, her loss, her more difficult future and just focused on a wonderful vision of a healthy bright mother in Heaven.  Her happiness for her mother she so loved diminished her own unhappiness."

Am I surprised?  Not really – she is your daughter.  I used to wonder how despite all your health issues you never lost that radiant smile, your willingness to derive happiness from that of others.  I now understand why everyone thought that your eyes were so beautiful – they were a pair of lenses that you used to focus on others.  You smile was perceived as genuine because it went all the way to your eyes – I can never forget the way you received me at the Chennai airport.  Tears rolled out of those same eyes unstoppably when I bid goodbye to you at the end of the trip.  I recently watched a speech by Martin Crowe, one of my favorite cricketers.  He uttered a line to a fellow cricketer which I would like to steal for you – “I thank you for your emotion.”  I know that you were not a fan of the word, “thanks.”  But how else am I supposed to acknowledge the rarity of your purity?  Your daughter at 13 is already showing the same signs of genuineness and generosity.  You did good, Chithi. (I know you would have loved to hear the word ‘Chithi’ a little more; I thought that that was too formal, sorry!)

There was a moment at the Express Mall in Chennai where your little angel behaved just like you.  Actually the whole visit reminded me of you.  She called me a couple of hours before the visit and asked, “Would it be okay if I bring a friend along?”  Just like you, right – I remember you asking your friend Gomes to come with you for a 'family' vacation to Yercaud in 1985.  Yes, I get it – Gomes was family for you.  Similarity #2 – she played air hockey with her friend at the arcade at the mall.  Her friend lost and looked a tad upset.  Immediately, she went and consoled her friend stating that she played very well too.  Trust me, I never had this grace when I defeated a friend at cricket.  (You knew that, didn’t you!)  What was truly amazing to me was that the trip to the mall was to cheer her up following the unthinkable events at the hospital that October.  She had lost her mother a few days prior and yet she didn’t want her friend to feel bad?  I suppose the apple didn’t fall far from the tree.  In May, when Thathama decided to join you, I tried to take a leaf out of your daughter dearest’s book – Thathamma had suffered quite a bit this year ever since her heart attack on Jan 1.  Maybe it was time for her suffering to end.  If as a 37-year old, I had that thought about my 81-year old grandma, it was due to a 12-year old who had that selfless thought about a 49-year old mother.  I reckon that the ability to teach and inspire by doing, by being, clearly runs in the family.  As I said, you did good, my dear.

I wish I could have agreed with Anush fully.  I wish that the physical toxins had the heart to bow down to the purity of your heart and say, “I lose.”  Shame on them for taking you away from us so early.  But I shall continue to pray to you to give me:

Clarity of vision to focus on my loved ones even when I have pain in my eyelids…
Generosity of thought to brim with pride when someone else’s cup of joy overflows…
Kindness of heart that prevents me from causing indelible wounds to others…
Strength of character that nurses my wounds with the balm of forgiveness…
And finally, the willingness to pardon God for making me bereft of your luminous presence for the rest of my life...
But I assure you that within the heart flickers your bright spirit...

I miss you a lot, my friend, my sister, my mother.
With all the love that you gave me,

Tuesday, July 3, 2018


Chauffeur.  I was 18 the first time that I had heard this word.  I had been chatting with an American friend at a driving class in Memphis during my summer break after my college freshman year.  I had lived in India till I had completed high school.  Back home, we used the term 'driver' to refer to a chauffeur.  So, during the course of the conversation, I kept referring to “our driver in India,” much to the amusement of my friend.  I was referring to Solaiappan.

Solai had been part of my maternal grandparents’ household since the early 1970s.  My grandpa was a banker but was also a small-scale industrialist, who owned a small factory that manufactured silencers and battery caps.  In my early years, the ‘factory’ was a shed right opposite our house.  Solai, who had been groomed by grandpa to be a jack-of-all-trades was, at that time, both the senior most employee of that factory as well as the ‘driver’ of the household.  He was very fond of me but would not hesitate to call me out when I was being a brat - that happened quite often!  He would bark at me for wearing soiled clothes and dirty shoes in the car.  I would argue that it was impossible to be impeccably dressed in the sweltering heat after playing cricket in the middle of the day (and in the middle of the road, I might add). 

After watching the Wimbledon finals in 1989, I decided that I would beat Boris Becker when I got the chance.  I never had a middle name but if I had one as an eight-year old, it would have been chutzpah.  My father either appreciated my confidence or indulged his only child or both, but there I was attending tennis classes at Stella Maris. (Yes, it’s a women’s college but there was a tennis court there where classes were held for boys and girls.)  After returning from school, I would pick up my racket, change into a t-shirt and shorts and dash off to the shed, asking Solai to drop me at class.  He would invariably say, “Wait.  I need to finish a few more pieces,” to which I would respond, “Aiyyo Solai, vandhu pannaa piece yenna thaenjaa poidum?!  Tennis-ku late aagardhu.” (For non-Tamil speaking readers, I apologize.  A direct translation is impossible.  Just know that I prioritized tennis over silencers even though the latter helped pay the bills!)  So, in a huff, he would pick up his wallet, driver’s license and listen with understandable annoyance while I would proffer advice on how to drive fast on crowded Alwarpet roads.  I would also, just to needle him, add that if he quit his smoking habit, he would have more time to work on silencer pieces.  

Solai revered and adored my grandfather.  My entire family was overjoyed when he decided to get married in the late 80s.  I vividly remember the time he invited our family to meet his bride-to-be.  It was touching to see the arrangements he had made ahead of the visit.  He apparently insisted that my grandpa be the person to hand him the thaali (an auspicious thread that the groom ties around the bride’s neck) at his wedding, an honor that is typically bestowed to someone that the couple respects deeply.  (Solai and his wife were blessed with two kids and continue to lead a happy married life.) 

But as much as he respected my grandpa, he was extremely candid with him too.  So, like a teacher complaining to a parent about a recalcitrant kid, Solai told him that he wanted to concentrate solely on the factory and asked him to employ the services of a driver whose responsibility was just that.  Solai, in my presence, told my grandpa that the trips to school, my friends’ places and tennis courts were all taking a toll on him.  This was before the time that I drove my bicycle beyond the neighborhood.  Never known to be subtle, my grandpa matched Solai for bluntness– he said to me, “Ramu, unaala thaan Solai vandi oatta maaten-nu sollaran!” (Ram, it’s your fault that Solai wants to quit driving.)  If you thought that I started sobbing, then you are…as wrong as us Kamal fans that thought that Anbe Sivam would be a commercial hit!  I coolly replied, “Yes, Thatha.  A new driver would be good for me too!  Let Solai concentrate on the factory!”  To this day, Solai and I pull each other’s leg about the restoration of his work-life balance back then!  I would also like to think that he was the only thing that stood between me and my Wimbledon trophy. (Come to think of it, delusion could be another apt middle name.)

When my grandpa passed on in ’94, Solai was as inconsolable as some of our family members.  Not surprising because Solai was family.  But, as the pessimists say, all good things come to an end.  So it did with Solai.  A couple of years after my grandfather's death, he quit his job following an unfortunate rift.  I would like to think that had my grandpa been alive, he would have never allowed Solai to quit.  Truth to be told, I didn’t think much about it at the time.  I was just glad that Solai continued to be a part of every major life event of the family, happy or sad.  As delighted as I was when he attended my wedding, I was equally moved to see him at my grandma’s funeral this May.  He inquired, with immense affection, about me and my family, while sharing his memories of my grandmother.  And true to character, he said that I never bothered to invite him for my wedding.  When I gently reminded him that he did indeed attend my wedding, he promptly retorted, "It was Amma (referring to my grandma) that invited me, not you!"  In a strange way, the funeral felt quite complete when I witnessed Solai be one of the people that carried my grandma’s paadai (a stretcher, with bamboo stems, carrying the departed) out of the house.  It was just nice to see that he was part of her final journey.

As I look back at my childhood days, I am glad that Solai was an integral part of it.  In the US, we live a comfortable middle-class lifestyle.  We do all the cooking, cleaning, driving and so on.  In a sense, it is wonderful that chauffeurs and maid services are a bit of a luxury that not everyone can afford.  Some of them that I have met in the US lead much more comfortable lives than our domestic helpers back home.  But most Indian kids that grow up in the US will never experience the warm, extended family vibes that trustworthy household staff provided some of us that grew up in India.  Solai might have quit driving because of me.  But thanks to his presence at my grandma’s funeral, he surely did drive me on a rather nostalgic trip down the alleys of Alwarpet!