An Obituary to My Father: A bone not burnt

He was the gentlest of men, the sweetest of men, the kindest and most loving, that I was lucky to have as a father. He is no more and I will have to live with that 

Mohan Rao Delhi 

My father, BVR Rao, was an unusual man, a kind man, with an infinite capacity to share warmth and love. He died peacefully at home on July 12, 2012, surrounded by his loved ones. My sister, mother, and I had earlier decided not to hospitalise him, to save him further indignities. He was 93 and deserved to die with love.

Long years of anti-hypertensive medication had left him not only with the sequelae of minor strokes, but more significantly, of Parkinsonism. So, while medicines kept him alive, they also killed him. He had not been able to eat for about six months, suffered those heartbreaking bouts of coughing, as his muscles failed and a scared body reacted with instinct lest it choke. It was not my father, but his body taking over, and failing. He was given liquidised food, but even that was often daunting. For about a month, he had been unable to talk. But, on the morning of July 11, my sister, Usha, called to say he was having problems with liquids too. She said, “You have just been here and spent time with him. But maybe you would like to come down for your
own sake?” 

The family doctor had been called — this was a privilege that they had. He said we could consider hospitalisation and the introduction of a feeding tube. My sister, mother and I agreed against that. He was in no condition to say anything.

In the evening, my mother called to say I should not go over, he was better. He had always rallied around in the past.

With July 11 being World Population Day, I was on a panel discussion on TV that he watched. But he was dozing, I later heard.

Early next morning, around 3am, his breathing was not easy and Nishad, my second son, who stays with them, was called. He held him down, turned him to the side, and all the Complan he had been fed the previous night came out and he slept peacefully. Was he there? Nishad says yes, but I don’t know and will never know. Alamelu, his caregiver, says he was there the previous evening as he held her hand and squeezed it. Her son, Ramesha, says my father responded to him by looking at him when he yelled at him to speak.

On the 12th morning, my mother called to say I had better go down. I reached Bengaluru at 8 pm. As I was waiting in the bus at the airport, Nishad called to say that Bapa was no more. He had died at 7:30.  My heart died. And, on the bus, I could not cry. I looked out instead and wondered who had brought in these date palm trees, they were the same at all airports around the country. The incongruity of date palms in Bengaluru! I wanted to cry because all of us couldn’t be here: Githa, Rishab and I.

I called Githa and Rishab in Delhi. Their hearts were broken, too; Nishad had called them. Rishab, my elder son, who claimed he had, and indeed did have, a special relationship with his grandfather, was upset, but he had just been to Bengaluru, and was recovering from dengue fever, which he had picked up there. Githa was inconsolable: I do not believe there is any other father-in-law and daughter-in-law relationship so filled with love and admiration. My father’s admiration of Githa was matched by her love for him. We agreed she should come later after I returned to Delhi. I had to get back to deal with MPhil and PhD submissions.

I reached home to find a house full of people, all my father’s loved ones. Bapa looked so peaceful, so handsome, in fact, dignified in death. This, despite the cotton in his nostrils and the band around his jaw. I have no idea who did this and why. His eyes were not fully closed, his eyebrows untrimmed. But he showed no signs of the pain and indignities he suffered the last few years as his body increasingly folded up, despite himself.

My mother sat dignifiedly. They had been married for 68 years. For almost all these years he had listened to her on almost everything.

So Nishad, myself, Usha and my mother — I had never seen her weeping before — sat with him as immediate family. Alamelu soon joined us in grief and we then moved him out of his bedroom, where he had died. Murali, my fantastic brother-in- law, was out making arrangements for a refrigerated coffin for the night, and for the cremation.

I kissed Bapa’s forehead repeatedly, for myself, for Githa, Rishab and Nishad. I had never kissed him when he was alive. I am certain he knew how much I loved him. It did not need to be s by statements of the obvious. In fact, he had surprisingly done an American, talking to me on the phone before he went in for surgery two years earlier, saying, “Thank you for being a friend.” I couldn’t believe it, but he said it.

I howl as I write this, but write this I must, although I don’t know why.

This family pujari was delighted when he went on his first visit to the US. There were no shudras there, he said. The US was pure. My father scoffed, but this is a political position of vast numbers of upper caste Indians in the US, many of whom support the most regressive agenda of the Hindutva here, many, I suspect in my own family

My memories are a bit vague even this early. For grief clogs things, never clarifies. Nishad was there to pick me up when the bus dropped me, at Madhavan Park, and he hugged me and I cried. He was giving packets of food to people who were there, friends and relatives. He was there, most astonishingly, stroking his grandmother and his aunt. Nishad held them with love and care, and what seemed certitude. This was astonishing because we were a family that did not normally touch each other, hug or kiss.

Since Bapa died at night, no crematorium was open. But we booked him for the electric crematorium at Banashankari. This was done through an NGO I knew nothing about, and am grateful they exist. Gautam, a relative, knew about them and did the necessary calling up of people. The NGO apparently offered a pujari, but my brother-in-law, Murali, demurred. We had absolutely no religious ceremonies, but a dignified period when his hundreds of relatives trooped by to pay respects. In the air-conditioned coffin, gracefully covered with garlands, he seemed at peace, a gentle, loving peace.

And, this is astonishing, no idiotic aunt suggested a pujari, or a ritual. I am deeply grateful for that. One idiotic aunt and her children and foreign grandchildren made us shudras to be shunned when they organised a religious ceremony in their home soon after, and were very anxious I should not go. My sister, of course, could. Thus does patriarchy and Brahminism speak at all points?

My cousin, recently becoming a citizen of the US, getting her daughter married here in India to an American Madhva Brahmin from Bengaluru, an arranged marriage, did not come home to invite my mother and me as she did my sister. Where lies humanity with such people? What sort of religion is this? These are the people who dote on NR Narayan Murthy, Nandan Nilekani and Devi Shetty, who seamlessly stitch Brahmanism with the US, and often ever its murderous foreign policies, while maintaining invented traditions.   

We had heard of horror stories of pujaris and extortion at the crematorium, but everything went off very quickly, as the oven swallowed him.

We collected Bapa’s ashes in the afternoon in a small earthen pot, named and numbered. And early next morning went to immerse them in the Kaveri at Srirangapatna. There are two ghats at Srirangapatna, one with pujaris and the other without. We chose the latter. But patriarchy again lingered, insidious, overwhelming, inescapable, for I did not think quickly. Neither did my sister or brother-in-law. We should have immersed the ashes together, Usha and I, but somehow I did it. The water was cool, utterly friendly. It was a beautiful river, life-giving, and at this spot achingly beautiful. I found a piece of bone, a clavicle, I thought, unburnt, that I wished to keep. I ached with sorrow and love for my father, I looked back at Usha and she said, “Let it go, that is not Bapa, and the fish are waiting.” I saw her wisdom, while the fish quivered in place. They had no need for ashes or indeed Bapa’s bones that would travel and decay and join life once again. These fish now did not live on bones; they lived on popcorn.

I wanted to shriek and howl, but I sniffled instead. Harisha, Alamelu’s elder son, who had driven us, wondered if the cold Kaveri water had given me a cold. But we were in Srirangapatna, and I suggested we visit the Melkote temples which none of us had been to. So we went there, because there are extraordinary stories there about an idol of an Islamic goddess. These stories are an extraordinary mélange of myth and history, and indeed dark possibilities of hope. But I understand now we polluted the temples.

 

My father was an extraordinary man because he was not aggressive and therefore not macho. He genuinely loved people, got along wonderfully with most, although he was sceptical of poseurs. His genius was his love for family, his capacity for sharing love beyond his family. When young, I was rather perplexed: why had he turned in to his family, as if the world did not exist? And I wanted this world changed. I raged against it.

After a nap she played tennis in her nine-yard sari. I heard that people on Bull Temple Road would set time by her going to play tennis. And they noticed she played tennis with jasmines around the bun she put her hair into, complete with a net

He loved meat, especially mutton. But my mother would not allow this to be cooked in the house. My classmate in Bangalore Medical College, a Palestinian from Jordan, who loved my father, suggested he get a non-vegetarian wife. Sumieh Said Abu Quartumieh, my friend, often stayed with us during exams. Sumieh was a heavy sleeper and never heard alarms, often reacting violently to the poor clock. So she came home to study because my father used an alarm for himself, made tea, and then attempted to wake her up to study at 4 or 5am, as she wanted, often unsuccessfully. I did not attempt that because I stayed awake studying and went to bed in the early morning. He was then in his sixties, but we thought this was what normal fathers did. We did not see how extraordinary what he was doing was, and it was. 

When Pushpamala, my artist friend, dropped in once and said she could not drink alcohol, he offered her wine “as an enzyme, dear”, and they got along very well indeed. Pushpa would drop by for enzyme with him, and us, of course. He loved my friend, Javid. Above all, he loved my cousins, Ratan, Suman and Gowri, who are also good friends.

But I wondered how he was here, with a magnificent inheritance of involvement, of social commitments, of the fights for justice, frittering it away. My grandfather, Justice Vasudeva Murthy, was a seeker of both beauty and truth that did not come from religion alone. He was a member of the Servants of India Society, of the Theosophical Society, of the Indian Institute of World Culture — which inherited his magnificent collection of books. He could quote the Bible, the Bhagavat Gita and Shakespeare on any issue: all lawyers, he said, should be able to quote from these at any moment. He introduced me to books, plants and western music: he took me to concerts at the Max Mueller Bhavan regularly. We read Sanskrit together with the teacher, Venkatesha Iyengar, who farted a lot, lifting one bum to do so gracefully, even as he fell asleep. My grandfather assured me this was a fate that awaited us all: old age.

We read Kumarasambhava and Abhigyana Shakuntala, although I was hopeless. I could remember verses with ease, admire their rhythms, but they did not speak to me. Similarly, I responded instinctively to western classical music, loving it, but never understood its structure and idiom. I called him Judgi Tata and loved him desperately. Judgi Tata told me we should also read Shakespeare together, but that he had not found a good teacher. I wish he had.

He smelled of home-made butter, and as he drove me to a concert, in his magnificent petha, he would talk constantly of this and that. Of music and plants and how the driver should drive. He would frequently make a ditty of this. I loved sitting on his lap during a concert, and later, older, getting a chair to myself next to him. My grandmother, sadly, did not allow such intimacies. Her name for me was Nuisance.

Judgi Tata was suffering a dreadful case of herpes zoster, with unbearable pain. He committed suicide, and we never knew why. This was not discussed. Silences, of course, do not create history, nor healing, nor understanding. If nothing else, modernism has taught us we have the right to talk and be heard, but this seems not to apply to families. Families freeze in silence.

 

My paternal grandmother, Indira Bai, was fair, short, blue-eyed. As was my maternal, light-eyed and fair, as Brahmins of Maharashtrian origin tend to be. I wondered about Portuguese blood. But Indira Bai inspired command and fear, everyone was scared of her. I liked annoying Dodamma as a child, to get back at her in petty ways. Talking on the phone, for example, when she was hearing a cricket commentary, was a mortal sin. Maybe that is one reason I loathe cricket.

He had surprisingly done an American, talking to me on the phone before he went in for surgery two years earlier, saying, 'Thank you for being a friend.' I couldn't believe it, but he said it.

She had her car and driver and was very busy with the Family Planning Association of India, the Bharat Scouts and Guides (for which proto-fascistic organisation she would dress up in a uniform sari!), the Mahila Seva Samaj, the Ashkta Poshaka Sabha. the Anatha Shishu Nivasa and other such initiatives in the mornings. After a nap she played tennis in her nine-yard sari. I heard that people on Bull Temple Road would set time by her going to play tennis. And they noticed she played tennis with jasmines around the bun she put her hair into, complete with a net.

Her obsession was cricket. She had a sort of notebook printed where she could keep track of each Test, as it happened. So she sat at the radio, listening to commentaries on AIR, marking off runs scored, who bowled, and so on. This was when she could not travel, but she earlier travelled from city to city, to watch
cricket Tests.

She met Githa when Githa was 19 and advised her to never learn cooking. She said if a woman knows cooking she will be asked to cook, and condemned to it. Hardly schooled, married at 13, she could read and write four languages. And, unlike her husband, she read trash, romantic novels, Women’s Realm and Ananda Vikatan. Her Kannada was a strangely Tamilised one, that I only heard again recently in Coimbatore. A stickler for time, I remember her turning away her sister who arrived late to see her. I seem to have inherited this, unfortunately.

I remember a meeting at my beautiful old Basavanagudi house, home of my grandparents, when my grandmother, and, I suspect, Lady Raman, met angrily. They were agitated as they had received a letter in Hindi from FPAI, New Delhi. With no irony, they drafted a reply in Tamil.

I also remember a huge number of women turning up at an informal meeting at her home on the death of Jawaharlal Nehru. Where will the country go, they mourned.

As she aged, we got along very well indeed, for she was the most rational person on earth. She had told me she had no use for religion and wanted no religious ceremonies performed at her death. But, of course, that was not possible, because my mother and her sister-in-law wanted them.

We had a family pujari with many children, who ate a lot and was astonishingly thin. He was the only one prepared to come to my grandfather’s house, given my grandfather’s transgressions, his joining the Theosophical Society for one. After my grandfather’s suicide, I remember hearing, my father called the swami of some mutt who offered to come home to perform a prayashaschitta, a bolimaga, a bastard.

But my mother and her sister-in-law wouldn’t hear of it. My father and his brother listened to their wives.

This family pujari — I should not say so now — was delighted when he went on his first visit to the USA. There were no shudras there, he said. The US was pure. My father scoffed, but this is a political position of vast numbers of upper caste Indians in the US, many of whom support the most regressive agenda of the Hindutva here. Many, I suspect, in my own family.

 

Bapa had had enough of work in an MNC very early when his first Bells palsy struck. He did the terrible, by taking early retirement, but then he was never financially savvy. He would go along with whatever just as long as there was no noise and conflict. So he lived his long retired years, poring over The Hindu, enjoying his drink with his brothers and sister and his brothers-in-law, whom he absolutely loved. There were the card parties, a table for rummy and one for bridge, followed by dinner where every couple brought along one dish. But, over time, people died. And, as he stopped reading, The Hindu was something he had to have with him, a talisman. He did not much care for TV, and, like me, he needed someone to explain what was going on when watching a movie, and my mother was often impatient. A former state hockey player, he did not keep track of hockey but tennis. He admired Roger Federer’s dance and genius.

My parents were married for 68 years, devoted years, loving years. They believed marriage was not about mad love and sex but commitment and growing old together, lessons we have, sadly, not learnt

Above all, family. My parents were married for 68 years, devoted years, loving years. They believed marriage was not about mad love and sex but commitment and growing old together, lessons we have, sadly,
not learnt.

I remember my mother telling me about yet another cousin getting divorced some years back, “You lot went and got married to all sorts of people, we got used to that. Now you are getting divorced. We will have to get used to that too.”

They believed that every parent must support his or her child in whatever the child wanted to do. They were not happy I wanted to do medicine, especially because a now prominent uncle of mine, I heard, suggested I be sent to IIT, Kanpur, where he reigned. Another distant uncle, but terribly close to the family, who later became the Director General of Police in Karnataka, I heard, told my parents I should be sent off to Kanpur, if they did not want to see me shot as a Naxalite.

They supported my decision to do medicine, although they were then not happy. My classmates, male or female, could come home any time, indeed, even spend the night. Sumieh cooked meat for my father and my mother was upset. It was soon sorted out: she would cook
in her hostel room — where of course, cooking was not allowed — and bring some for my father. We had loud and marvelous dance parties in the terrace, surrounded by trees: 85, Gandhi Bazaar had 27 huge trees in its compound, nine coconut trees, but also magnificent jacaranda and cassia and a grove of bamboos near the two garages. After I turned 21, I was allowed to bring beer home.

After my residency in Manipal, when I wanted to leave medicine, they were shocked, but supportive in that I was “cracked and did whatever”. So they wondered what I did in Mitraniketan in Kerala where I worked for two years, and loved Alina Cattani when they met her. Sadly, they never met Hildegard, my dear friend and colleague there. They only understood me through Githa during my travels, academic and otherwise. My father was distressed when he heard my book would be out. Surely, that was Githa’s territory and I should not compete. This was conveyed elegantly, but not stated.

My father doted on his sister and younger brothers and Seshu, in particular, his youngest sibling, born when my father was 18. A tragedy apparently, according to Judgi Tata, paraphrasing someone. This goes, the first was welcome, the second was alright, the third was an accident and the fourth a tragedy. So my father was welcome, Kitty, his younger brother, was alright, Malathi, his sister, was an accident, and Seshu, his youngest brother, a tragedy. Bapa frequently called me Seshu in his later years, and that infuriated me. When I heard him call Rishab Mohan, I understood it was about love spilling over, from my uncle, to me, to my son.

The neo-liberal years were particularly bad for them, as for most old people living on interest from fixed deposits, as their income shrank and they did not want to accept money from their children, although soon they had to. We did not talk about it. Seshu and Lynne have supported my parents by their generous gifts over the years to Nanjiah and Alamelu who have looked after them with care.

Over the years my parents have had many of our friends stay with them, generous with hospitality and warmth. Ellen Driscoll, a remarkable American artist, stayed with them briefly on her way to Hampi. Ellen wrote that she met more people in their house in the two days she was there than she would meet in six months at hers, people dropping in, people stopping by. Ellen wrote to me that she remembered my parents’ “lovely Bangalore home and the radiant warmth of their
hospitality and kindness to me. It was so clear to me that your home there provided a heartbeat, a nerve centre for so many people…I feel lucky to have
known him.”

Pushpamala wrote, “He was the sweetest of men” and I agree. As do a host of people touched by him. He was the gentlest of men, the sweetest of men, the kindest and most loving, that I was lucky to have as a father. He is no more and I will have to live with that.  

The writer is Professor,Centre of Social Medicine and Community Health, JNU, New Delhi

 

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: OCTOBER 2012