|Muthacha, busy brewing tea in the kitchen.|
The beginning of August this year took my grandpa away, leaving an irreplaceable gap in my life. Of course, death is but inevitable, but only when it strikes, do you realize how fragile life is.
Muthacha, as I've always called him, had always been rather active for his age (he was 89 when he passed away); constantly keeping himself busy with something or the other. With age, he became more and more delicate; he began to shuffle instead of walk, and the slightest variation in his daily food habits would cause him tummy upsets. But these things would often take care of itself in a day or two, and we simply attributed it to his age. Indeed, the only time he ever stayed in a hospital was the period leading to the last days of his life.
It still pains me to talk about him in the past tense. Why is it so difficult to say the final goodbye, despite knowing that that day will surely arrive? As a child, every time I returned to Bahrain or Dubai after spending the summer at home, I would tell my aunt (with whom Muthacha lived) to take good care of him. In my simple heart, it was just to reassure myself that Achema would be there, if anything happened. I never stated what 'if' stood for, although in the back of my mind, it was clear that it referred to D day.
As I grew up, I found myself drifting away; I couldn't go home to India quite as often, and even when we did go back, I busied myself with books, catching up with cousins, gossiping with my aunt, traveling around, and shopping. Of course, I did spend time with Muthacha; I would talk a while with him, about college and career plans, about life in Singapore and Dubai, and then Appa would start talking about his childhood back in the tea estates of Valparai. One thing would lead to another, and everybody would be talking, except Muthacha, who would have gently fallen asleep in his chair, his mouth open.
I think I had always assumed he would be there. I wish I had called him more often when I was a student at NUS (Oh yes, I have graduated! I should write about that, but that would be a different post altogether!) I used to call him for my birthday and his, before exams to get his blessings, and then occasionally, whenever I missed him and felt like talking to him. I do wish I had made it a point to call him every weekend. Each time I called, he would say, 'Aaah, it's Sruthi mol. Ethra naal aayi ninte shabdam ketite!' How long has it been since I've listened to you speaking! And I would think to myself, didn't I just call him last month? I hadn't realized that the only thing I could give my dear grandpa was a phone call, and even if I had just called him a week ago, it wouldn't cost much to call him again. How I wish I hadn't been so callous! I don't want to think of myself as an indifferent or uncaring child (and I hope to goodness I wasn't one), but I would give anything to be able to talk to him now. So strange this life is; we realize the worth of someone only when they're gone.
Muthacha succumbed to his illness on 1st August. We all rushed to the hospital, and there he was, lying on the hospital bed, his mouth gently open. It was almost as if he had just fallen asleep. It took me a long time to come to terms with it; even today, my mind wanders to Muthacha and inevitably, to death. Is Muthacha with us, guiding and watching over us, in some inexplicable way ? I would like to think so! What really happens after life is snapped out of the body? I suppose I shall never know. As my favourite writer Ruskin Bond says, 'Such is the sweet mystery of life!'
After Muthacha passed away, the family mourned for 14 days, during which visits to temples or houses of outsiders were forbidden. Funnily, this did not apply either to Amma or me (neither did it apply to the other daughters-in-law and their children). Ours is traditionally a matrilineal society, and a child belongs to her mother's house; accordingly, a death in the father's house does not 'pollute' them, and there is no mourning period. On the 15th day, we all took a trip to Ivar Madom, a sacred spot on the Bharathapuzha River in Kerala. It is believed that the Pandavas, grieved by the death of their loved ones in the Kurukshetra War, visited this place and took a dip in the river in order to atone for their sins. We reached early in the morning, just as the sun was rising, and then began the elaborate and lengthy rituals. Dips in the water, numerous slokas, prayers that the soul should rest in peace. After an hour or so, the priest asked my uncle, Muthacha's eldest son, to don a pair of sandals and take seven steps forward. He said it was a symbolic representation of a Kasi yatra, a pilgrimage to Kasi, where the soul could now rest in peace. Then, my uncle took seven steps backward, symbolizing his return to the world, after leaving the soul in Kasi. A few more dips in the river, and the pot containing my grandpa's ashes was let afloat.
Several other families had also arrived to perform the final rites for their loved ones; we noticed that someone had let afloat several medical reports and X-rays, along with the ashes. And that was it. Everybody, everything, boils down to this. A pot of ashes. And many cherished memories.
|Summer of 2010. A moment that I'll cherish as long as I live.|
What is there to remind me of my dearest grandpa? A few photographs, an Agatha Christie book I had asked him to write in for me (I inherited my love for books from Appa, who in turn, inherited it from him), a tiny collection of quotes by Swami Chinmayananda that he gifted me, a pirated copy of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire which I bought off the streets and asked him to gift me, a mug that stated 'You're good at so many things, but you're best at being my grandpa!' That mug was the last thing I took home for Muthacha, and he was ecstatic when he saw it... and of course, lots of memories. Me sitting beside him and stroking his hair, Muthacha talking about his army days in Malaysia and his memories of the Second World War and the British Raj, me asking him to hold on to me as he slowly shuffled his way through the house, how he used to make tea every day without fail, how even at the hospital he blessed me and beamed at my graduation photos, how he scribbled he was proud of me since he couldn't talk through the tubes, how he would sit on the edge of his bed and recite Skanda Sashti Kavacham every evening, how he would call us for aarati at the end of prayers, how he clutched my hand at the hospital and whispered 'Don't go!', how he would stand in front of the house waving goodbye...
Everything seems to remind me of him. I miss you terribly, Muthacha. Life is never quite the same without you.
'If tears could build a stairway
and memories a lane,
I would walk right up to heaven.
and bring you back again.'