Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Louder than words

The more I reflect on people that inspire me, the stronger my conviction that I am but an amalgam of all the perspectives that I have gained.  Perspectives shape choices that we make which, in turn, are a large part of who we are.  But there is a difference between inspiration and parroting.  Given the richness and diversity of perspective that I have access to – thanks to people, books and yes, even films - my job is akin to that of a film director who is given a script by a scriptwriter.  My job is to be alert, capture the essence of what I receive and distill it through my own sensibilities.  

As I think deeper about the people that I look up to, a trifecta of traits come to mind – quiet assurance, decisive action and understated focus on people around them.  I probably listed that in reverse.  Because they never lose focus on their near and dear, they spring into action at the right times and do so with an understatement that merits much spotlight but invariably evades it.  Let me now ensure that at least a few spotlights don’t miss their target!  Without further ado, as directors holler at the beginning of a shot, “action!”

Episode #1 - My Chinna Paati (whom I affectionately call, CP; I have written about her husband in this blog) recently turned 80.  As I was reminiscing about her and my childhood days, one memory stood out.  I was in 8th grade when my grandpa passed away unexpectedly at the relatively young age of 61.  The entire family was in a state of shock, a state from which recovery was not going to happen within a week.  But within a week was when my final exams were going to begin.  In order to earn a certificate called the Merit Card, we had to score at or above 60% in every test and exam and appear for every exam at the scheduled date and time.  Up until then, I had had a decent academic year.  And as my immediate family was reeling under the effects of the tragedy, my CP took it upon herself to coach me for the week leading up to and during the week of the exams.  Amidst the wailing and the priests who were working with my family on the rituals, she would gently usher me into my study room and “revise” every subject.  And when I did indeed get the certificate months later, I knew that I had no reason to gloat over it.  Because the person that truly made it happen never made a fuss about it.

Episode #2 - 2006 is not a year of which I have many fond memories.  The year ended quite well but I did experience considerable pain in the first half of it.  I was in a rather depressed state following a setback.  My paternal Aunt, who lived in the same area, unhesitatingly asked me to move in with them until I resolved my situation.  I have always been very close to her and so, in a way, I should not be surprised at her generosity.  But the fact that my Uncle too extended the same warmth, affection and courtesy without batting an eyelid, is something for which I am truly grateful.  The fact that they had an infant to take care of, makes it even more remarkable.  For the next three months, not only did they give me a secure roof to stay under but also nurtured me through my highs and lows.  If not for them, there is a strong chance that I might have sunk into a depressive phase.  Despite the timeliness of their gesture, in these fourteen years, I have not heard my Aunt or Uncle mention this period even once.  And when I do, they just smile and dismiss it off as “not a big deal at all.”  And on that rare occasion, I vehemently disagree with them!

Episode #3 - Another Aunt of mine did something for me back in 2018 that was seemingly intangible but priceless as far as I was concerned.  My maternal grandma had suffered a major heart attack on New Year’s.  She had been in a critical condition for weeks and returned home in a much-compromised state and remained bed-ridden for the next few months.  My parents had been in India for the first few weeks following the hospitalization.  And it was in March that I had planned a weeklong trip to India.  During my trip to India, my Aunt told me that she had prayed everyday for my grandma’s health.  No surprises there, knowing my Aunt.  But what truly warmed my heart was her following line – “I would pray everyday that she should definitely survive until you come because I know you would have never gotten closure if something untoward had happened prior to your arrival.”  The specificity and thoughtfulness of my Aunt’s prayer taught me that piety is enormously touching when it is personalized.  I may not be a believer but I certainly believe in the divinity of genuine human emotion.

I can write about many more people whose actions have spoken volumes of their character and the abiding impact they have made on me as a person.  For now, on the eve of Thanksgiving, I shall give my thanks to these people specifically.  I do so with the knowledge that they represent the values for which many other inspirations of mine stand.  On that note, as Directors like to say, “that’s a wrap!” 

Happy Thanksgiving!

Sunday, November 8, 2020

95 years young: A tribute to my grandaunt

When I learned that my grandaunt passed away today, the first question I posed was whether she died peacefully, painlessly.  She did.  I was glad.  Padma Mami breathed her last, aged 95, in her home in Chennai.  I have, of course, known her all my life.  You know how certain memories, when revisited through the mind’s eye, appear fresh and different from what we may have actually experienced when the events happened.  One of my early memories of Mami that left a lasting impression was a phase in 1992.  I was 11.  She had lost her husband to cancer.  I remember visiting her place with my grandma.  As the two were commiserating with one another, I don’t think I did much other than silently observe the two of them taking turns consoling one another.  One had lost her husband, the other her brother.  What I remember of that phase was how she gradually rebuilt herself, after a loss that was irreversible.  Her steely spirit wrapped the bandage of determination that gradually obscured the wounds of her broken heart.  The impish smile and the twinkle in the eye returned, slowly but surely.

I had always addressed her, “Mami” (aunt).  That was just because I had observed my parents, my Aunt and their cousins address her that way.  I just followed suit.  She never bothered to correct me or tell me that I must call her, “Paati” (grandma).  I suppose I should have only been surprised had she objected!  She was far too casual for that.  She possessed an innate knack of breaking down the barriers- some real, others imagined – that can separate people of different generations.  I think I know why.  It is because she listened as attentively as she spoke engagingly.  She was interested in things that meant something to me, be it marketing, cricket or the movies!  She kept abreast of changing tastes and trends without feeling compelled to shake up the elements of her core.  She was too sagacious to make that kind of a false choice.  And I admired her for that. 

In the past few years, when my grandma and two of her sisters all went through the unspeakable tragedy of losing a child each, Padma Mami stood by them like a rock.  She knew that being by their side was more important than saying anything profound, to nurse them through their grieving.  Looking back at the interactions that they had with one another, I see that their wisdom routinely manifested itself in action, not words.  And that is something that people in my generation can truly learn from.  In our eagerness to advertise our lives on the plethora of available social media, we sometimes forget to pause.  To think more deeply of the actions and gestures that could matter more than images or words that we dish out like candy.  Whenever I feel tempted to say, “they don’t make them like them anymore” I stop myself.  That is because I feel it behooves me to internalize and pass on what I have learned and observed of these wise young souls.

Every time I have gone to India in the past two decades (since I moved to the US), I have made it a point to visit and spend quality time with Padma Mami.  Not every meeting might have been filled with nuggets of wisdom or advice.  But through observation of her freeness of spirit, warmth of emotion and quiet self-assurance despite the inevitability of infirmity, I have invariably walked away from those meetups with a smile, a sense that all is well with the world.  Now that Mami has left us to reunite her husband after 28 years, it is time for me to celebrate her life and the values I remember her by.  As my idol Randy Pausch once said, “We don’t beat the Grim Reaper by living longer; we beat the reaper by living well and living fully.”  Padma Mami – you did a damn fine job of giving the Grim Reaper a one-two punch.  May your soul rest in peace and bless all of us.