Friday, December 25, 2015

Four Years of Christmas


The day is exactly the same.

I remember a line from a 'Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants' novel by Ann Brashares that always stuck with me - "At Christmastime the world had celebrated birth and Bee had remembered a death".

It could have been that day. So much has happened, everything is different and yet, this moment is exactly the same.

It’s automatic. Maybe it’s the winter stillness. The coolness in the air. The faint music from a distance, notes and voices lingering in the air, their echo holding the silence moments after they’ve begun. Until this morning, the anticipation of festivals and celebrations of other people, smiling and counting down just like everyone else, and inside counting down to something else too. And then the actual day, when I wake up, silent and calm, the turbulence ended. A tear or two fall, but less than they have been in the past few days. As it was that day, four years ago.

Four years now. I don't think anyone really remembers. And I remember the defining moments of that day, of that previous night, of the nights that followed. The agony. But also, the people. The strength and warm arms of friends and family. Those moments changed my relationship with people forever, completely transformed the way I feel about certain people, the fondness and gratitude towards them, irrespective of the fact that they are in my life today or not.

I remember B’s ex-girlfriend who came in with a friend. And how the two of them stayed with us the whole night around the sofa positioned in front of the front door. How she lay down beside me as I lay in the darkness, over Nanin’s place in bed, trying to absorb the remnants of his last living being, his skin, his hair, his warmth, his smell now already disappearing. She cried with me in that semi-darkness, this girl whom I didn’t really know so well, and whose association was dependent on my loyalty to B. But she was comfortingly there, there with me. And I think we both fell asleep for a while. I can’t remember how I could fall asleep. Her friend was with Mum and my aunt in the drawing room, strong and silently protective.

The doors had to be open all night. And there were fears. There were unsavoury elements in that night, familiar strangers and dangers to my family, now reduced to two. There was Nanin in an ice box, looking like he was asleep. Completely healed and normal, like nothing had happened in the last five months. He looked like he was breathing. We all thought so. His hair grey-white, his shirt and lungi white, his skin ever so “white” like all my friends used to say about his complexion, the complexion that caused a lot of envy among his friends and relatives, when his own looks were something that never really mattered to him, this man who was often proclaimed “the handsomest man in Madras”.

There was my father, the man I called “Baby”, more than Nanin. He would never speak again. I would never hear his voice again. I would a few months later, one day, call my eldest Uncle and hear the similarity in their voices and break down.

There were the other Uncles and Aunties, the ones I hadn’t seen in months or years. They were there, gentle reminders of the childhood I was losing, gentle reminders that I was still someone's child. Someone nudged me to change out of my T-shirt and tracks. The tracks I had been wearing as armour, as if to strengthen my toughness during duty doctor calls on 3 different hospital stays, on pharmacy runs and in my mode of fierce protector.

I would never wear those tracks again. Or the T-shirt. Or the kurta that I changed into for the pre-funeral ceremonies in the morning. In the driveway where he would lie. The driveway which he built. Where photographs were taken of him walking me up and down as an infant, my short, stubby legs wrapped around his at-that-time rotund stomach, both of us freshly bathed, brown hair combed back and straight, faces scrubbed, twins across generations maybe.

This was his house. The product of his imagination and his sweat and toil as a professional ENT specialist and surgeon. All this belonged to him and he was being prepared to leave it.

He had already left. He was gone before anyone else came in. He was gone after he, by chance, watched a snippet of himself on an old Telugu film on TV and pointed it out to Mum, after he asked Mum to feed him pesarettu and pindi by hand, after he had pointed to the angels, the Divine presence surrounding him the next morning, Christmas morning, after he smiled and squeezed my hand one last time. He was gone before they took him to the hospital, me rushing in our car with Mum right behind that ambulance with the redundant oxygen tank. Gone as they wheeled him on to the wrong floor in that nursing home bedecked with halfhearted Christmas decorations, as I screamed at them for wasting time, as his nurse handed his watch to me for the last time, as my gentle and oldest cousin asked me to leave the room so as not to witness them pumping his heart, as I stepped outside reluctantly to my sobbing mother and we knew that it was this time, actually over. And we knew it was time to let go. And the one reason it was necessary is because his suffering, and it was suffering, was over.

And as expected, we would be in for a lot with the events that were to follow. And yet, strangely and by Divine Grace and God’s angels in our friends, we were guided through, as if an invisible boat through the torment. I remember sweet Jhinks’s vulnerable face as she helplessly stood, similarly clad in tracks and T-shirt that Sunday morning, wondering what to do. Her ever-generous and thoughtful parents swiftly sent flasks of tea and food even before we realised that we were not supposed to cook in the house. Same with M Aunty who was a powerhouse in a petite form. Who was firm and unrelenting in her bringing of homecooked food and loyal advice, but most of all, her solid presence throughout those days. There was B who was going through his own troubles, and yet stolidly pulled through Oscar nominated movies with me on DVD during the days much after, escaping with me to someone else's stories. There was Swe and Burie during the hospital days of X-Rays and tests, Burie whom Nanin had grown so fond of, this brilliant, hardworking boy who probably reminded him of his early medicine days. There were my aunt and uncle, loving and peacefully accompanying during the mundanities that followed, there with us during that peculiar New Year's. There were Nat and her parents. Of course, there was Tabi's parents, dearest Uncle no longer with us, my second father too gone this May, after one long last phone conversation, which somehow felt like the last even though I didn't want to believe it. 

And there's my beautiful Mum, who's back in Madras, keeping up her end of the tradition alone, whom I miss being with today. I yearn to talk about him to her, release some of the emotional memories, relive those specific spaces - the mosaic floors, the dining table, the cane verandah chairs, the diamond-shaped window bars- in our place, his place which I have been traversing in my mind. But when I speak to her, she reminds me about life to be lived. She herself as a person reminds me of the fact that life is to be lived and celebrated. Love isn't to be mourned, she tells me. Celebrate him, because he was not the wallowing kind. When I think about Christmas and how complex it has become for me now, she tells me it isn't. It's simple. Nanin left on a day when the world was in prayer, when there was holy music. So, this Santa Claus of my childhood tells me that Christmas has been made even more special as much as Nanin's Day adds beauty to Christmas. And there's my dear Alby whose face reminds me of the spirit of Christmas today as he willingly leaves out his sock to be filled with Santa's goodies. And who playfully, secretly fills Santa's sock in return. He reminds me of the love. In his eyes I'm reminded of the words from the song that I used for Nanin's obituary, the words of the flamenco tune that he sang and we sang together, etched in my memory:
"Love will not die, gypsy..."

And I think about the beautiful play (if I say so myself) that we created, embellished by Nanin's portrait as part of the set, travelling with us all over the country and some of the world, helping me tell my story, our story and now everyone's story. 

It's 1:16pm this 25th December. It would have been the time, though I don't remember how the hours passed so fast that day.

I close my eyes and I see tall, glittering Christmas trees, glowing like the one K has WhatsApped me of his Bombay house. I see snowy, bedecked New York, hear Christmas carols and want to taste hot chocolate. I open my eyes and think of my mother's smile (thanking God every moment that she is safe and well today, having braved the Madras rains). I think of yesterday, when I watched my brother-in-law walking with his infant son perched on his stomach, how bittersweet tears pooled up as I showed him pictures of another new father 27 years ago, who walked in such a similar fashion.

I think of the all the love I am grateful for. I think of the day ahead. I think I want to celebrate it with my Alby.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Three Years Only. Yet a Lifetime Away.

The sadness can still engulf, drowning you as it will in your own tears.
But there is calm down below.
There is peace, knowing it was a smooth and peaceful transition for the one you lost to the Unknown.
There is life, that goes on, its glorious ups and its 180 turns and its downs, the downs you thought you were done with it since the Big One.
There is peace.

And you still want to talk. You want to share how it happened. Where you were, where everyone else was, what you were thinking, how you knew but still didn't want to believe it.

And the night before was Christmas Eve. A night, as most nights of my life, where you heard echoes and distant choruses of choirs, unconsciously picking out the tunes in your mind of 'Silent Night', 'Hark Now Hear the Angels Sing', 'Joy to the World'. A chilly, peaceful, almost-holy night in Chennai. The last night.

And then it was Christmas day. Which did not mean much to a mostly-non religious, but deeply spiritual man. A man. He was more than a man - he is a presence, a background score to my life, a landscape in my mind. He can't be gone because I can see him dismiss things with his large, long-fingered fair hand. I can feel his silky silver hair as I would brush it in the last days. I can hear his voice belting 'Hava Nagilah', along with Harry Belafonte, their voices merging until now I can hear him in the recording.

But what gives me most peace is knowing he is not him anymore. He is beyond. He is so much more than his songs and his myriad life stories and his opinions and his body, so much more than his body. I know, deep within, he is more than happy with my life right now, he is content to see me Learning - stumbling, struggling, succeeding. He is free from even me.

That gives me peace.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Two Years

It’s going to be two years.
The weather is exactly the same – or at least feels like it. The spaces have been inhabited. The places that reminded are now revisited, unconsciously gotten over. The songs are still sung, almost always with the vain hope that an additional, unforgettable, and now forever unheard voice will join in. The tears in sleep are still shed. The dreams of a life continued are still woken up to. The conversations are still had but now they are prayers; prayers rooted in the faith that there is strength emanating from above beyond what could have ever been humanly possible.
I still go back to my father’s often unspoken values and principles to guide me in life – in my career choices, in my respect, love and protection for my mother, in my belief in unconditional love through its lowest and highest points, in my intuition, and in my conviction to be myself and that is, the best version of myself, and also to let go sometimes, because even the strongest and bravest man I know was not afraid to be vulnerable, not afraid to be a child and want to be taken care of, not afraid to show his heartbreak and his heart’s triumphs.
And of course, the memory of that day is preserved – a “gloomy Sunday”, like the song he used to listen to. But a day that must be remembered, because that day defined the end of an earthly relationship and the beginning of one that transcends.
And Shinie Antony wrote this piece that touches on the memory of such a day, and the days that preceded it and the beginning of the altered state of introspection that all those who face loss begin to live with. Grief is a dark place, an unwanted visit. It eventually becomes a place of love and faith. It is in a way, a continuance of the lost person’s life, as their presence in us will carry on as long as we live. Loss brings questions. But it also brings realness – we know that we are alive because we have loved and lost. And we must be proud of the bravery we possess in daring to live on.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Kun Faya Kun

'Kun Faya Kun'
Film: Rockstar (2011)
Music: A.R. Rahman

This blog was named after a song that I listened to a lot during the last few months of my father's life. The song made tears fall even at that time, not just because his name appears in it but because of its aching sweetness and its longing for surrender to God.

I try not to venture into commentary on religion and/or spirituality even among friends, leave alone on an internet platform. But I guess my thoughts would naturally pervade my writing and be expressed unconsciously. Religion is personal and one can never be completely subjective about it. Atheism and agnoticism is also a lens of subjectivity, in my opinion. But then again, I'd rather refrain from commenting on an aspect of human life that is so connected with death, a philosophy that is so powerfully individualistic and collective at the same time, a choice or way of life that is so outwardly projected, and yet so deep, deep within, a blanket that secures, an anchor that grounds, wings that liberate, a choice of brand for a soul-feeling that can and never should be explained...

"Ranga Reza, rang mera tann, mera mann
lene rangayee chahe tann, chahe tann"

The song talks about a lot, delivered in true A.R. Rahman Sufi manner, not perfect, but purely devotional and ambient in its sweeping embrace of the bittersweet nature of human existence and the desperate need to become one with God, or lost in the divine.

In the song, Mohit Chauhan sings to Irshad Kamil's lyrics
"...Kar de mujhe mujhse hi riha"

That line appeals to the spiritual side of me. I love myself. Life is beautiful but we want more, don't we? Or is it just when we're sad and lost and bereaved?

I will restrain myself from asking the usual questions that plague me - where do we go when we are not we anymore? Why do we seek that?

We celebrate the life of those gone, rewinding and reviewing their memories but do we realise that they are not them anymore? Ranga Reza is my father to me, but he is beyond that now. He is so much more.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

A Year Hence

It's been a year. A favourite food offering was made. Photographs were wiped and garlanded. A date, based on the lunar year, was set for the religious ceremony. A very heartfelt ad was put in the paper, one that quoted Frankie Laine's 'Flamenco' ("Dance, gypsy, dance, gypsy/Laugh and romance, gypsy. Dance, gypsy, dance, gypsy/Break every rule/Fly, gypsy, cry, gypsy/LOVE WILL NOT DIE, GYPSY/Now that you've captured the heart of a fool").

We didn't know what to do further.

Religion, however you personally choose to profess it, endows the bereaved with traditional duties and customs, ostensibly for the purpose of adhering to tradition but I believe that it is secretly intended to distract the bereaved from the grief and also to give them the freedom from participation in activities/events that might cause them to miss the deceased even more. Religious tradition expects you to do something in memory - to do it feels necessary but it does not of course feel completely satisfactory.

So I played his songs extra loudly. That helped a bit. But it didn't feel right. It felt like how they have Rajnikanth music specials on his birthday. How do you celebrate and grieve at the same time for someone whose absence is so conspicuous, still a little raw and whose true spirit was so free from rigid ideologies, unwaveringly seeking only what was fair and true? He would laugh at the acts that try to distort the truth and present some warped sense of reality. For him, the truth however unpretty, however complicated, was the only thing worth living for. Hypocritical, wishy-washy behaviour was something he saw through at once, even if it was in his favour. For him, his heart ruled and he followed it, unfailingly, as much as a man of science could. So when I felt a twinge of hurt at an action that attempted to do exactly the above, I decided to do just what my father would have done - laugh. Because when you know the truth and when the truth is love, you have nothing to feel hurt about. If there's anything my father has taught me, it's to be truthful and about to be strong, cement-footed about it.

In a year, life can throw beautiful miracles your way. It can heal you by keeping you so busy, so absorbed, so productive that you push the pain to the back of your mind. That helps. But of course, in the dark, sometimes at night, it sears and aches because of the forced vacancy, the closed door that you cannot open, a fated date that you cannot reverse.

And you dread the date coming around again, because you don't want to confront it. It would seal the time since so specifically that it increases the vast canyon that separates you from that person you had so close and who seems to have just slipped out beyond reach. I always felt that past the one year mark, I would be so further away from his life, that his living memory would fade and I forgot what it felt like to hold his hand. There would be tears but less specific. I would rather crave him to question my movements, to miss me when I travel, to be there so that we could have major life decision conversations and even arguments. I would want him to scare the person I chose to marry and to finally agree. I would never want someone to do that for me, not even another family member. I wish that he, specifically, him as a person, would be there to do that because I am not able to imagine right now how he would react to such circumstances. When he was ill, I was so wrapped up in his health, his suffering, the fear that I would not have much time with him that I treasured our daily moments together and never had the luxury of taking my father for granted, as most people would do. My parents' love raised and lifted me in such a way that I never felt the typical teenage stirrings of rebellion or the need to let loose. Of course, I was lucky that they never suppressed or restricted me but I knew what his expectations of me as a human being were and I always felt responsible to that. So, in my moments of weakness and rage at life's order of things, I sometimes feel so resentful that my father being a father of a 24 year old girl is something that I will never have the privilege of experiencing.

But I do have faith in the protection he has left me, both earthly and metaphysical. I can only imagine what they would react to the prayers and offerings being done (knowing my father, he would say "Bah, humbug!") I believe that he is a part of all the good things that happen and I believe that he can, with his invisible, mysterious force, alleviate the bad. People say that he is always there, everywhere but I'd rather he were elsewhere, looking down, all-knowing and all-understanding but somewhere much better than the restrictive, physically-bound, potholed streets of Chennai, just for my sake. Of course, he will always be my guardian and confidant but I know, just know, that whatever form he is in, it would be much expanded and much powerful.

Because love is powerful. And love does not die.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Goodness Me

(Photo courtesy: )
A lot of us talk about Bucket Lists, about places we'd like to see before we die, about things we'd like to tick off as Done instead of To-Do. My father actually did check off a lot of items, although I do admit that his wishes didn't involve swimming across the Godavari or learning how to play the drums for 'Sing, Sing, Swing'. His wants and needs were simple-he had a list of songs he wanted, a couple of movies he wanted to watch and he wanted to meet 100 Good People before he passed on.

We had a 'picnic' one night when he was sick, munching very slowly on a few Corn Puffs and watching 'Mary Poppins'. We also watched 'Jungle Book'-the first movie I've ever watched in my life (when I was four) and the last movie he ever watched in his (when he was seventy four). We got most of the music on his carefully compiled list, even finding the one song from the film 'Sombrero' where Cyd Charisse dances in a tropical storm. We even wrote our long overdue letter to Harry Belafonte where my father insisted on comparing calypso to Tamil folk songs, particularly one song which we both loved called 'Thandanae' by N.S. Krishnan and T.A. Mathuram (film unknown. Can anyone fill me in on this? It's a catamaran song where the fisherman plaintitively sings to God '...Thana thandanae....Innika kaalaiilae yendhirichu kanji thani illaame....', "...When I woke up this morning without watered-out rice to eat...") We read a lot of cricket reporting, some choice spiritual books, some Madras nostalgia articles, a lot and a lot of jokes.

But what strikes me as different from my father's list is that it was not as self-centred as mine would be. I don't mean that he included charity on his list. It's just that my to-do list would involve my acquiring certain skills or doing something professionally productive with my life. His list included a desire to meet 'Good' People, however relative that term can be and that definitely tells me something about his character.

We didn't keep track, my father, mother and I. The process took several years. But each time a guest, a family friend, a distant relative came and left, my father would turn to my mother and say, "That's another Good Person I met...___ (insert random number here) more to go". He probably didn't keep track either but that wasn't what mattered. The people did-and their goodness. They were old college or school classmates out of touch for years or regularly in contact, distant cousins from his village in Andhra (particularly one very kind Uncle who came all the way and spent my father's last two birthdays with him), colleagues from the various hospitals he worked in. The People who comprised the list were diverse-of different religions, languages, backgrounds but they all had love in their hearts. And whether I knew them well or had met them for two minutes at the door, there was always something about them I would like without knowing they were the supposed Good People. They always had a kindness, a decency about them and it was usually detectable.

Nowadays, being Good has fallen low as a priority for what parents want their children to be. When kids are naughty and disturb guests or make noise, parents call them 'badmaash' and comment exasperatedly on their kids' naughtiness. But secretly they appreciate the individualistic nature of the child. Who can blame the parent? In a world where we are taught that we must ask for more, where we must create a strong personality to survive, a parent would naturally wish his/her child to be as forceful as can be. A quiet kid is a sign of lack of go-getterness.

People in general are not sure what good really means either. Being skinny, being wealthy, being successful, being attractive, being popular-these are the virtues of our generation. Be nice and be left behind. Being aggressive is equated with being powerful. But life isn't a boxing match. Why do you think God made flowers then?

My father was somehow, usually always on target about a person's character. Not surprisingly, most of my closest friends are people he knew would stick through. And how he could talk to them for hours!

My father diligently followed the old school report-card approach to judging my success at school and college. I must say (as modestly as I can) that I didn't disappoint, winning the gold medal both at the UG and PG levels and topping my school in English and Accountancy (and getting 87-not failing!- in Maths) in the 12th Boards. But he always maintained that his happiest achievement for me was my being awarded the C. Subramanian Excellence in Character Award when I was in the 9th standard. He made me feel like a good person by believing in my inherent goodness. I can credit him as being the reason why I always put myself in someone else's shoes before reacting. I can point to him for the reason I cannot lie (when I accidentally revealed a private family issue to an acquaintance and felt exceedingly guilty about it, he actually wept to my mother, stating that he knew that it was because I was too honest). When my friends took me to clubs when I was in college (of course no drinking or smoking for me, you know why. Not because he told me not to but because I always considered his opinion) I said I liked to go because I love to dance and he looked at me in despair - "You must learn a classical dance then...." and no, he didn't say Bharatnatyam like any other good Indian father, " the Flamenco, Rumba, Tango...and also not that mixed up non-traditional thing they call Salsa".

My father was the kind of doctor who could tell a person's sickness by just looking at them-once he looked at a friend of mine and stated that she suffered from such and such problem and he was accurate. He hated to prescribe unnecessary tests for patients when he could directly diagnose the problem because he knew that some patients didn't really require them and that they could not afford them. His honesty reached awkward levels when he was blunt with people- he wasn't very good with diplomacy (Tact is something I learnt from my mother!) and while my mother and I cringed, I knew that he was the last of a rare species of people who prize the cleanliness of one's heart over the grandeur of one's home, of people who cannot pretend to like someone for the sake of society, of people who collect friends based on love and simplicity, of Good People.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Heartbreak Hotel

Grieving isn't a process. It doesn't have expiry dates, it doesn't have stages. Sure, the shock, almost-physical pain, numbness, unfamiliarity, absence becomes less striking with time. But there are other things that don't really go away. And there are some things that you don't want to go away-such as memory, routine. You play the same TV shows, you keep bringing up the person's name in conversation as if they still exist on this human plane and still enjoy the same movies and say the same inappropriate things in public and are still unabashedly vocal about their opinions on the Indian cricket team and certain cricketers in particular. As if they still exist in this man-made world with its man-made laws and institutions and games and needs and wants.

My father would have loved the article on Mariachi music that I just read in this month's Reader's Digest. I get that familiar ache over my left eyebrow that I've gotten used to in the past few months-the sign of tears about to fall. I was so used to reading him tidbits of things over the past few months-there, I'm still stuck in the six month time frame of his illness when in fact it ended over three months ago. He's out of it. But I still dream about trying to get him better. In my dreams, he's sick and I have hope that he will get better, that I somehow can make him get better. But when I wake up, he's gone and he is better. I don't know which is better.

Heartbreak isn't for lovers alone. Heartbreak is something I confused disappointment with. Heartbreak is when your emotional heart truly breaks, melts, rips, burns, what have you. It's when you know that a situation is irreversible and it hurts in the worst way-knowing that you have to live the rest of your god knows-how long life with regret, guilt, a fading memory and worst of all, the missingness. And it's strange because you welcome the feeling. It's proof that there is something there and not emptiness. You don't really want the feeling to be gone because what does a feeling weigh against this gigantic, huge void? A feeling's just a feeling. Whereas a person who was part of your life, such a major part of your life, almost your life itself is no longer there, can no longer see and hear and read the same things you do. The feeling about that reality is like an unpretty feather on top of a heavy iron-wrought ball of lead.

It gets better. What is 'it'? It is how you cope. How you deal. That does get better. And you think about the happy things. How much better it really could be out there. How we're all going to be 'out there' sooner or later. And until then, we just live it like we're supposed to.