Dear Madras Thatha,
I know I want to write to you, but I don’t know where to begin and where to end. So, I’m just going to go with the flow.
Let me begin by telling you that I can never eat a mango without thinking of you. It was you who made me fall in love with the fruit of the Gods, whenever the cousins and I visited you during the summer holidays. You had your own unique style of cutting the fruit – you would remove the peel in one continuous, fluid motion, and make a long strip of peel fall to the ground, while we, the kids, used to watch you in awe. This was much akin to us using a sharpener to get one, long curly peel of wood from a pencil in school. Then, you would hold the entire peeled mango in one of your huge hands and cut it length- and breadth-wise, throughout. Then, wonder of wonders, you would give the mango a light flick with the knife and tiny, kiddie-bite-sized pieces of the fruit would fall into the plate you would have kept below. You would then proceed to give us a dramatic flourish, much like a magician after performing one of his popular tricks. You would show us the seed: there would always be next to nothing of the flesh on it. No wastage, all goodness in the plate.
It is funny, isn’t it, the things that the mind remembers from summers of long, long, long ago? I also still remember the way you used to dice vegetables for curry super-finely every morning. No one could beat you in that feat. Mama could take one look at the sambar or curry during dinner, and promptly figure out if you hadn’t cut the vegetables for the cooking one morning.
I remember how, after Mama got a job in Hyderabad and you shifted there, you would take me to see the buffaloes being milked a short distance away from where you lived, in the summer holidays. You never forgot to pick up some cow’s milk for me, too, because I always insisted that ‘buffalo milk smelled of buffaloes, even after being thoroughly heated.’ It was a treat for me, watching those huge animals being milked. This gave me something interesting to do, and the family got a half-hour’s peace without my constant cribbing about being bored at home.
I remember you bringing back little newspaper-wrapped packages of this and that, whenever you would step out of home without me in Hyderabad. One day, it would be 100 grams of the freshest of ompudi, another day it would be 100 grams of the pakoda from the nearby shop that I loved to no end. If I put on extra kilos during my holidays, Thatha, not that I needed any, it was largely because of you and Patti.
You used to get The Hindu home every day, and I fell in love with its weekend supplement for kids, Young World, during another such summer holiday visit. It was The Times of India back home at Ahmedabad for us, and I couldn’t bear the thought of not reading Young World again. So, you religiously posted the Young World supplement to me every weekend, in a large white envelope. I wonder why I never thought of asking Appa to buy the supplement for me instead! I guess all of us preferred you sending it to me – we got a chance to communicate that way. I would get all excited the minute I spotted the envelope with your beautiful handwriting on it.
Your handwriting was picture-perfect, Thatha. You never wrote with anything other than a fountain pen all your life, and inculcated in me too a love for the elegant thing. You taught me to experiment with different shades of ink – you used everything from Royal Blue- to green- to pink-coloured ink to write your letters. I used to do the same with my letters to you, except that I largely used ball-point pens.
You never tired of telling me and the cousins stories of your employment with the railways, back in the days of the Britishers. You would tell us of how that person got you addicted to the raw tobacco that you always had in your pocket, and how this person used to praise your work, and how you got someone transferred to another location. Your stories were always full of wit and drama, and we never got bored of hearing them.
Later, when each of us, your grandchildren, got married and visited with our respective spouses, you would show them a group photograph of you and your colleagues when you were, I think, about 25, and ask them to identify you. Every single time we visited. All of us would humour you. You were surprised when my husband identified you correctly on our first visit to your place, immediately after our wedding. How could he not, Thatha? Your big, Mickey Mouse ears always gave you away!
You see, you clearly gave me a cartload of memories!
One thing I don’t remember sharing with you – I was too young to remember – is you taking me to the Tambaram Railway Station to watch the trains going by, when I was a child of four or five. Amma has told me enough stories about this, though. You used to sing me songs made up by you exclusively for your grandchildren, tell us about the world, tell us made-up stuff and make me laugh till my sides hurt, and make me open my mouth agape in awe. I would, more often than not, fall asleep as soon as I hit the bed on those days of fun with you, giving much-needed relief to Amma!
Mama and Patti and you lived a long time in Madras, then shifted to Hyderabad, and later shifted back to Madras. It was Madras you loved, and Madras you wanted to live in forever. And you did live in Madras most of your lifetime. You and Madras were so closely associated, you always remained ‘Madras Thatha’ for all of us grandchildren.
You couldn’t make it to my wedding, and our visits to Chennai were very limited after that. Whenever the husband and I visited, though, you wanted us to sit around you and talk. No going out anywhere. Now I understand why you wanted that. You were home-bound, and you wanted us to give you a sense of the world, right? Exactly the way you did for the children in the family, when we were young. I don’t know how well we fared in bringing to you a piece of the world, though. I am glad I decided to spend some time with you and Patti exclusively, this January. Something told me I should, then.
You passed away peacefully last month, after a short trip to Bangalore that you insisted on, in spite of being extremely weak. Everyone asked you why you wanted to take the strain, but you wanted to. You left us immediately after that trip, as soon as you reached Chennai. Did your gut instinct tell you to meet me, the husband and Amma one last time, Thatha? That will always remain a puzzle to me. But, you know what, your visit is still so fresh in my mind that I am finding it difficult to believe that you are no more. The same is the case with my husband. We still feel we will walk in home some day to find you sitting in that typical legs-crossed posture of yours, sipping on some filter coffee or picking on a vadai, something that you loved to bits.
All said and done, Thatha, you lived a well-rounded life till the ripe old age of 95. I am glad you went the peaceful way you did. I am happy for the beautiful memories you gave me. I am glad you were a part of my life so long.
I hope you are in peace wherever you are, spreading your charm, wit and stories around, and bringing smiles to faces.
Loads of love.