“Onnu chelladi nee, vere joli onnum illa avalku,” was always followed by the typical chuckle, when any of his daughters or granddaughters wished him a happy birthday. Last year, when I called him, to wish him, he coughed a lot after laughing. Little did I know that the cough was followed by a splatter of blood. Little did I know that July 1, 2013 would be the last time I would hear him say the sentence that made me laugh despite the seeming rebuke, from the man who could make anyone laugh.
Laughter was his signature. The house resounded with his laughter. After a pretty nondescript journey from Coimbatore to Ernakulam, and a backbreaking journey from Ernakulam to Thoppumpady, a mini hurdle- dodging walk from the road to his house, we would be greeted by a tall, frail man in a sofa. A salaam, followed by a loving slap on the back, and a “Engene undayirnnu bus yatra? Mindaathe train eduthoode?” followed by the wonderful laugh, would just make all those aches and pains that sprouted up thanks to the Kochi roads, disappear.
He taught me many things. He first taught me to deal with loss. When my dad passed away, he took my tiny, six- year old hands in his large, warm ones and taught me love and acceptance. He showed me how to be brave, and take life by the horns. He became my new hero.
At his ‘shop’, I learned what it was to have the love and respect of your colleagues. The friendly banter, the easy problem solving, and of course, the same jokes followed by the laughter, became my first picture of a workplace. I’m yet to find one like that. When the bags of rice where unloaded from the merchant boat to the humble wharf, I imagined he was a king, with his own shipyard. Well, in my eyes, he was.
Years passed, I grew up; out of my childish dreams, into new ones. He introduced me to literature. In a very enchanting way, he told me a story, and at the end of it, revealed to me that it was written by Tolstoy. I was hooked. Later, in college, I would talk to him about Dickens and Hardy, and he, in his simple manner, would give me perspectives I had never thought of. He would read and reread every little scrap of writing in my books, appreciate every little thing, and be tremendously proud of me. Basheer, the author I can’t get enough of, was introduced to me one rainy evening, while we sat in the Fort Kochi verandah, looking at the goats being herded home. Of course, Pathummayude Aadu remains one of my favorites.
Ikaka, Di and I will never forget the summers at Fort Kochi. The only word that comes to mind is “mangoes.” The careful planning, the evenings spent with him, the tidbits of information, the secrets we exchanged, and, of course, the laughter while we plucked mangoes that held more promise than all the dates of Arabia, the concentration while peeling the mangoes, the love with which he fed each of us with his own hands, the stories that accompanied the ritual that mango- eating was- nothing was the same this summer.
He took so much pride in everything his grandchildren did. Every little accolade was a big deal to him. He would have the time and patience to listen to each one of us, though all of us vied for his attention at the same time. He imparted advice, not in the boring baritone of some elder, but with a laugh, in a manner that did not offend us. He had dreams, but he kept them aside for all of us.
He was a master at simple living. Thrifty, he was not. Satisfied, he was. In many ways, he had more wealth than many men. He had a wonderful family that doted on him, he spread cheer, and nobody who met him went away without sharing a laugh or a joke. His anecdotes were not all that funny, but his laughter and his enthusiasm made them seem like the craziest, wildest, most funnily bizarre tales in the world.
Memories of him are like a mosaic. Everything seems to jump at me from different corners of my mind. And all of them are glued together with the sound of his laughter.
Today, it is difficult to think Upapa is not with us anymore. It is tough to remember that he is not a phone call away. Accepting that he is not going to be there with a smile when we go to his house, seems impossible. Every space in that house seems barren without him. The sound of his laughter was what made that house, home.
It’s almost a year since that midnight trip to Ernakulam, that long wait outside the ICU, the multiple declarations of death, the prayers, tears and that final goodbye.
Why does it feel like he is still here? Why do his jokes about the Sahib who ate the jackfruit seed, the other “foolish Sahib” jokes, the “backside”, the misunderstood telegram, the fallen dentures, and so many others come to mind every time I am close to tears? Why does every thought of him bring a smile? Why does it seem like he is there, every time I need him?
Probably because, like he said to a seven year old, “People we love, never die. They just become (guardian) angels. HAHAHAHAHAHA....” :)