Sunday, September 25, 2022

The curious case of a time machine

Sep 22 was a tough day.  It is always painful when a ‘birthday’ gets converted into an ‘birth anniversary.’  But the pain is especially tough to bear when the person in question exited the world prematurely.  Such was the case with my dear friend and brother, Ramadhyani Narayanan – Dhyans, to me - who had passed on in 2020, aged just 40.  Not that we ever forget the departed souls.  But days such as Dhyans’ birthday or the day he passed on are tough reminders of a reality that, whether we choose to acknowledge, is…real.  I can look away.  I can even shut my eyes.  But as much as I wish for the gift to rewind to the moment before his death and prevent it, no, the clock doesn’t move in reverse.  Instead, I feel locked in a curiously designed time machine where the body is in the present, but the mind is in the past.  It is a time machine in which I feel suffocated and claustrophobic because of the uneasy dichotomy between the pleasantness of the shared past and harshness of the lonely present.  Have you been there?  Have you felt that?  Is there anything that can be done about it?  Let’s explore.

One of the best lines from Shankar’s Muthalvan is one uttered by Arjun’s father.  He wistfully says, “Life-la mattum our rewind button irundha evlo nalla irukum.” (“It will be ideal if life too, had a rewind button.”)  Minutes later, he loses his life in a ghastly bomb blast.  In deep anguish, that is one of the lines that instantly comes to Arjun’s mind.  It is a powerful scene, packed with genuine sentiment.  Let’s come up with an alternate version of that line – “It will be ideal if life too, had a fast-forward button.”  I say that because there is a sense of dread when a birth (or a death) anniversary of a loved one approaches.  On that day, our mind is brimming with thoughts and memories, almost waiting for the clock to turn to the next day so that the pain eases a little.  In the past few years when I have lost my Aunt (49) and friend (40) to premature deaths, I have realized that there is no benefit to be had from flinching from the thought of entering that uncomfortable time machine.  Is there an alternative?

Yes, there is.  Firstly, we must willingly get into that time machine.  And more importantly, we need to look around to see who is grieving as much as or more than us.  And make sure that we strap them into their seat belts before we get on.  Because it is vitally important to take a genuine assessment of the people who are hit the hardest.  And make sure that we humbly acknowledge what we owe to them versus what we can expect in terms of commiseration and consolation. 

We must engineer the time machine to not just have two modes – past and present – but also a third one, the future.  In other words, we need to concretize our grief in a manner where we eye the future and find ways to make the departed soul live on.  I remember when director Vasanth visited my grandma the first Diwali after my Aunt had passed on, he said to her, “I know that you will not be celebrating Diwali.  But why don’t you make her favorite dish?”  My grandma was immensely touched by his gesture. (So was I.)  Last year, Dhyans’ brother and I instituted an annual award for excellence in Math to celebrate the life of Dhyans who was a natural at Math.  These are but a couple of examples.  Your memories of your loved ones may be very different, leading to gestures that are unique, special, and deeply fulfilling to you. 

At the end of the day, the process of grieving is intensely personal.  One size does not fit all.  But my sincere opinion is that failing to acknowledge the pain, especially when it is amplified on certain days, is not a way to deal with it.  By looking at these days as opportunities to willingly pause to reflect, rejoice and recollect can be a surprisingly rewarding experience.  By investing our efforts in meaningful thoughts or gestures that pay a tribute to the ones who are no longer with us, we can make sure that the time machine also enables us to look at the future.  A future where we make our loved ones live on.  When we have taken mortality – at least in spirit - out of a supreme power’s hands, we not only empower ourselves but also the ones who are grieving the most.  Consequently, the ride in the time machine will feel uplifting, not suffocating and comfortable, not claustrophobic.    

Sunday, September 4, 2022

His steps were measured: A tribute to my paternal grandfather

The avid movie buff that I am, let us start with a film analogy.  There are certain classic films that bear repeat viewing.  On the first viewing, we might have walked away with a satisfied, even heady, feeling of having watched a supremely well-made film.  But it is on repeat viewings that we might get to appreciate the nuances and the understated details that we may have missed on the first viewing.  Raghavan Thatha, my paternal grandfather, would have turned 100 on September 23, 2022, had he been alive.  It has been more 15 years since he passed on.  Although I loved him dearly and admired him a lot while he was alive, it is as I age and as I introspect that I begin to see - to continue with my movie analogy - the full picture.

Five of Thatha’s six children, except for my father, were in the US when he and Paati moved to the US in 1989.  I was 8 years old then.  My memories of him from the late 80s are mostly of his lovely ranch house in Anna Nagar in Chennai.  It was a lovely home, one that I was fortunate enough to live in for a few years.  Everything about the house was graceful, understated, uncomplicated and strikingly elegant.  Much like its owner.  There was one large room that stretched from the entrance of the house and extended all the way to the kitchen in the back.  There was just a large wooden shelf that divided the living room and the dining room.  (Since Thatha disallowed food on the sofa, I always prayed that the TV commentators for cricket matches would be as vivid and descriptive as the ones on radio!)  The bedrooms were each to the right of the long room.  I used to study in Thatha's room.  Never once had I ever felt either disturbance or interference from him.  He just let me be.  I don’t think I appreciated that as much as I do now that I am an adult myself.

Another routine that Thatha and I shared back then was a Sunday trip to the Gymkhana club where he had been a longtime member.  The club had a swimming pool whose main attraction were the diving boards.  Everything about my dive was graceless, overstated, complicated and embarrassingly inelegant!  I don’t think I ever dove headfirst into the water.  It was always a jump, a thud, a splash, and a mess.  The only saving grace was that I never jumped onto anyone.  Amidst all this, Thatha would simply sit on a chair beside the pool and converse with my mother.  And when I was done, he would ask if I wanted to have a snack or chocolate milk. (For the record, I never said, “No” to anyone in matters of food or sweetened beverages.) 

By the time I came to the US in 1991 for an 18-day summer vacation with my Mom, he had lived in the US for nearly two years.  In retrospect, it is amazing how well he adjusted to life in the US.  He was 69 then.  He had gotten a drivers license and drove comfortably.  In fact, when my Aunt (who lived in Charlottesville back then) went to work, it was Thatha who drove us around, acting in a manner that confirmed that he had taken to the new place and the new style of living like a duck to water.  One of my fondest memories of that trip was the drive from New Jersey to Buffalo with my Chithappa, Chithi, Mom, Paati and Thatha.  I sat on Thatha's lap for quite a large portion of the drive, working out the Math problems that my Chithappa had tasked me with.  Thatha would help at times.  But he would invariably urge me to work it out myself.  And he would only help when I really needed it.  I think that gesture was symptomatic of the man himself.  He was an enabler who wanted to teach you how to fish, not catch the fish for you.  

After I had moved to the US, I got the opportunity to spend more quality time with him.  I feel immensely lucky that he was able to attend my graduation ceremony in 2002.  During my job search, Thatha would mail me job openings, sending me an encouraging note along with it.  When I landed a job, he wished me luck and urged me to have a good work ethic.  He firmly believed in being there as a reassuring presence.  His wisdom, as is the case with all those wise old people, manifested itself in action, not words. 

Another incident from 2002 that is impossible for me to forget is one related to his 80th birthday celebration.  I was peeved about something – completely unrelated to him – and had told my parents that I would not be attending the function.  Even though people tried to pacify me, I was quite adamant.  I had sent an e-mail to Thatha a few weeks leading up to the celebration that I would not be making it to the function.  In response, he did not try to emotionally manipulate me or force me.  He simply wrote that he hoped that something would change and that I would make it.  But that he would understand if I didn’t.  A few weeks later, the hotheaded me had cooled off and I had decided to attend the function.  I sent him another e-mail telling him that I would make it, after all.  In his reply- which I so wish that I had saved – he wrote me a long note stating how happy he was.  And that he was absolutely sure that I would attend.  As I reflect on how he behaved back then, I know that in him, I have someone whom I must emulate in more ways than one.  The grace was not just restricted to his dapper manner of dressing.

No write-up about Thatha will be complete without a mention of his style.  Whether it was a formal, professional attire or a traditional Indian outfit, Thatha’s style of dressing was impeccable.  The suits, the neatly ironed shirts, the white dhotis were all a delight to see.  And his English - both written and spoken - was stupendous.  He once requested me to type an e-mail on his behalf.  That was the first time that I had heard the word, "brethren!"  Listening to him spell it out for me was quite an experience!  There was a time in my 20s when I had issues with acne on my face and decided to switch to an electric razor.  He was the one that taught me how to use it.  After seeing his elaborate manner of preparing himself, I quipped, “Thatha, ipdi naan shave panna lunchtime ku than office poga mudiyum!” (“It will be lunch by the time I reach work if I shave this elaborately!)  He smiled and responded, “You can do it your way.  I just showed you the proper way!”  Just pausing to reread that line makes me appreciate his attitude even more. 

In his later years, we created new routines such as a Saturday morning visit to The Waffle House whenever we met up in Memphis.  When he and Paati were in my Aunt’s house in southern California in 2005, he and I used to go out every Saturday, sometimes to a restaurant, sometimes to a movie, sometimes both!  On one occasion, he came to my apartment.  I made him tea, hoping that he would like it.  I suppose it had not come out too well, for he simply said, “Sooda irukku!” (“It is hot”) When the temperature is the only thing mentioned, I guess something went awry!  All I remember are the twinkle in his eye and the gentle smile which made me accept his mischievous comment smilingly!

In his final years, he had slowed down in a deliberate manner.  The steps that were always measured were now literally so.  The gingerly manner of walking was as precautionary as it was a result of advancing age.  He was in control even when his body was starting to show signs of not supporting his mind ably enough.  He had sustained a back injury a few months before his end came.  When I last saw him in Memphis, he had to use a walking stick.  Yet when we went out to dinner, the innate energy and enthusiasm surfaced.  When his end came, it was in a manner that felt abrupt, given how healthy he had been till then.  But to not see him suffer in infirmity meant that we could truly celebrate the life that he had lived for 84 glorious years.

I wish he had been alive to celebrate his 100th birthday.  But since that was not to be, I at least wanted to use his centennial birth anniversary as an opportunity to pause and pay tribute to a man who was a lot deeper than one absorbed and appreciated at a superficial glance.  After all, well-made films are timeless regardless of when they are taken out of theaters.  Likewise, special human beings are immortal, regardless of when they leave this earth.  

Happy birthday, Thatha!