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.