Between the time I wrote my last piece and now I have lost my maternal uncle “Mama” as he is fondly called. When I met him in February I had not realized that his end was near or that I would not get to meet him again. He had then asked me to read a few pages of handwritten accounts of his life. The writing was somewhat illegible and I had to ask for clarification many a time but one thing was clear. Mama wanted the younger generation of grand and great grandchildren to know about “Vembathy House”. I promised to come again at leisure and sit by his side with a laptop and type out what he had written. He then asked me to pen down whatever I remembered about life in Gobi and gave me - as reference - xerox copies of the accounts given by his brothers and nephews in law about life in my mami’s maternal home. How I wish mama could have lived a little longer and read about the affection we have for him. To put it the other way I wish I had come up with this piece early enough for him to read it. But what is life without its lapses? We never seem to think - even in our wildest dreams - ever that our loved ones would leave us. The regret is mine to be.
Krishnamurthy Mama was my mother’s youngest sibling and only brother. The story goes that my grandparents had lost two sons earlier and the family was naturally fiercely protective of the health of the only surviving son. My own mother would tell me often that she would give him a thorough ‘oil bath’ on Wednesdays and Saturdays and if he skipped a day for some reason she’d worry herself to tears imagining that he would fall sick on account of that. All five sisters pampered him as much as they could.
My earliest memory of mama - apart from a hazy mental picture of his wedding - is the trip we made to Bombay by car. My dad had been transferred to Bombay and we had to wait for a month to be allotted accommodation before joining him. Mama, accompanied by a driver, drove us to Bombay from Gobi.
One thing we all remember about mama is his amazing sense of humor without malice. My sister and me would have fights and his famous question would be “Are you both fighting or biting each other”? He’d often be late and would have to rush to board a bus or train and a worried mami would be anxiously waiting for him at the gate. All he would say to her would be “Be calm. Can you make the train move faster by walking to and fro inside the compartment”? He would diffuse all tension in a minute. I cannot recall a single incident when he’d raise his voice to discipline us as children. Vembathy house would, in those days, be teeming with grandchildren. There would be quarrels among the children. Grandkids would run wild in its premises. Friends would join and together we’d have a few perched on the guava tree and others hiding under my grandfather’s table. Thatha was a practicing advocate and his clients would add to the melee. Mama normally returned from his farmland in the evening to a noisy house with his father raising his voice a pitch higher than the children to address his clients but he would never ask the children to stop playing or direct their friends to return home. Vembathy House was an inclusive one - tolerance and patience were qualities one imbibed naturally from its ambience.
My own father died when my younger brothers were 3 and 5 years of age and my mother relocated to her maternal home. My brothers have no memories of my father but mama adequately compensated for a father figure in their lives. It was a common sight to see them perch on his shoulders or roll over his tummy. Mama normally brought home deep fried items from a famous Sheshaiyyar’s hotel in town and my brothers would open the packet even before his own children could but I don’t remember mama or mami bearing a grudge or admonishing them for it. The same tolerant behavior was carried forward by his children and one never heard them complain about or grudge our presence in the house. To be fair I must add that my mother’s sisters were equally kind and no one questioned my thatha’s decision to support our family. What struck out was that even after his father’s death mama continued to support us and my mother continued to depend on him till the youngest of my brothers took up a job in Bombay.
I got married and relocated to Jamshedpur. Mama came to drop me off at Jamshedpur after the birth of my first born daughter who was just three months old. My daughter being the first grandchild, my husband and in laws had wanted me to come earlier and were upset with me for taking longer than the two months stipulated by them to return with the child. The atmosphere in the house was charged. It was one occasion when I heard my mama talk tough.
“ She is young and inexperienced” he said to my mother in law, “but we aren’t. Aren’t we supposed to take charge of the situation and deal with it appropriately? It is the duty of elders in a joint family to diffuse tension between the young couple instead of blowing it up to disproportionate levels. The child is just three months old and is always going to be part of your family. How does it matter if she took a couple of weeks longer to return? There ought to be do no more discussion regarding this matter. It is pointless”.
His words had a magical effect and I realized that he had doubled up for a father whom I had lost ten years back. I also realized that while mama was kind hearted and gentle he could also take charge of the situation and act tough without damaging the cause. He later told me in jest that he had the experience of dealing with five brothers in law - each one with a different temperament - so he was well trained early in life!
Above other things Mama stands tall due to his interaction with his wife and children. He had often faced financial crises when crops failed and management farming became more and more difficult. But he never let on that times were difficult and even the genuine demands of his family were hard to fulfill. Nor did we ever hear how he managed to tide over the lean patches in his life. He never vented his frustration by taking it out on his family. He looked after his ailing wife for seventeen long years without a frown on his face which is way beyond the capability of any human being.
Mama loved carnatic music. It was not unusual for him to pick up the day’s newspaper and relax with his favorite numbers playing in the background at ten in the night. Very often he would fall asleep but the moment someone switched off the tape recorder or transistor he’d wake up and put it on again. He was a great fan of the legendary R. K. Narayan and had a collection of books written by him. He’d encourage me to read his books at a time when I was in the Mills and Boon stage and had not learned to appreciate R. K. Narayan’s writing. Art Buchwald was another favorite.
Wherever he went Mama would do a survey of the local market. He picked items, that I didn’t even know were available, from Jamshedpur market. He would have loved to travel around the world and make a trip to the moon too if it were possible.
This piece can go on and on without an end. After all however much I try to end it I seem to have more to add. We were twenty one grandchildren in Vembathy House. Four were his own and the rest were nieces and nephews. I cannot recall an instance when Mama and mami treated any of us differently. The same affection was extended to our spouses and children. My cousin recently put on a recorded version of my daughters singing as pre teenagers during one of their visits to his place. Having heard that I planned to visit them Mama had asked his daughter to look for the audio tape and keep it ready for me. I was moved to tears. After all how much affection can a person have. He had his own grandchildren on whom he could shower his affection and yet he had more to spare for our children too. It is this selfless love that links us to Mama and his family. There is something genuine and honest in our relationship with him. Words fail to adequately describe the emotions and affection that we have for him.
They say that one can choose friends not family. I was lucky to have been brought up among good people and to carry forward a part of the family’s gene pool. I was lucky to have an uncle who was an adorable human being with a great sense of humor, who wanted to live life like a king but was also one who accepted life’s blows with grace. Patience and perseverance, love, kindness and tolerance, these were valuable lessons we learnt from him. He may have had his shortcomings but they did not impact others in any way. There were times when I felt that future visits to Gobi will not be the same without Mama to welcome us. But I also feel that I would feel connected and sense his presence in Vembathy House even without him being there. The last time I visited Gobi I took the keys from my cousin and spent about 15 minutes in the empty house that I grew up in. The house in which I got married and left for Jamshedpur. I felt a sense of comfort - a connection to my childhood - that is hard to describe. The years that have gone by did not seem important. The vibes that I received were positive. So deep in my heart I wish to hold on to that connection and carry forward the culture that I was lucky to inherit.
I have written this piece from my perspective. I am sure others have more to share. Like my older brother fondly remembers the time when Mama escorted him to St. Josephs’s College, Tiruchy for admission or a cousin who recalled the time when Mama quietly reimbursed the mess bill amount and added a little extra as pocket money when he approached him saying that the amount had been stolen. Each of us have fond memories that link us to mama and I am sure we all would agree that he was a pampered and beloved brother, a wonderful father, a loving uncle, a compatible life partner to his wife and a great human being.