Monday, January 27, 2014

The man of many words

When I started out this blog, I wanted it not to be personal at all. I meant to write more about "ideas" than "emotions"; thoughts more than feelings. Of course, as time went by, a few personal posts crept in surreptitiously, but that was more inadvertent than intentional. Today, however, I want to make an exception and write about someone who had an almost life-changing influence on me. I want to make the exception for 3 reasons- first, like Wynand says "All love is making exception." and I loved this person too much. But more importantly, I might argue he is one of the biggest reasons this blog exists. In fact, he is the single most important reason I write (and read as much as I do).
Knowing him to be the simple man that he was, for some time I wondered if it would be appropriate to write about him (initially it sounded a little exhibitionist to me). But I decided to go ahead and make the exception because I always remember him as a wizard with words, as the man who introduced me to the magic of language, and it seems fitting that I use words as a tribute to him now.

The person I refer to here is my thaatha (grandfather, in Tamil, and I speak of my maternal grandfather here.) He passed away yesterday at the age of 96 (in 3 months he would have been 97).
He was a writer and an editor, who participated in India's struggle for independence, and in general a great person who, I like to believe, lived a full life. I do not want to go into the details of his achievements, partly because this article gives a good summary, but more because I feel they do not convey the real "him". (As I mentioned to some of my friends, reading that article only made me feel the way Harry Potter felt at Dumbledore's funeral. I hear the great phrases people use to describe him, but I can only remember the simple jokes he cracked even when he was terribly sick and bedridden. And like Harry does, every time I look at a book or correct a typo, I will remember him.)
Arguably, the real "anyone" is a notion each of us has based on "our" interactions with the person,  and is ironically subjective! So, let me rephrase and say I just want to write about what "I" knew of him, with no concern of whether it is indeed the truest report of reality, whatever that might mean.

My first few memories of life definitely include my thaatha picking out books for me to read. Starting with cartoon books for children and then the Oz series (he owned the entire collection), to O.Henry and "The twenty seventh wife" (a book about the origins of Mormonism and the last one he gave me)- half the books I ever read were recommended by him. Saying he was a voracious reader is like saying Stephen Hawking is a Physics PhD! He continued to ask me about what I was reading every single time I met him (except the last, when he was very sick and unable to talk much), and if it was something he hadn't read yet- a very rare occurrence- he would ask me what it was about and how good it was. His thirst for knowledge and books, even at the age of 95, leaves me mind-blown.

I remember his meticulousness and sense of organization- from the way he would cover books and write "From R.A.P. thaatha to Suchithra" on them before gifting them, to the way he kept his table in complete order even in his 90's- something I clearly did not inherit! I also remember his perfectionism taking a different form- that of the perennial editor- even when he was sick, he would correct typos on the books he was reading. He had also been the first person to criticize my writing- teaching me how a few words could express the same thing as many, but much better. Not just concise, but precise. His choice of words would be exactly that- something that I find awe-inspiring given that he never went to college and was the epitome of the self-made man!
And when a four line poem I sent to a children's magazine got published, the smile on his face spoke pages about the joy he felt- not just concise, but precise. In fact, every time I showed him something I wrote that got published somewhere, however small, he would highlight it and bookmark it- making the little girl feel like the best writer in the world.

If others had not told me about his work, I would probably have thought of him as "a simple Bharathiar researcher" tap-tapping away at his typewriter (which I was completely fascinated by!). I can only guess he took pride in his work, because I have never seen him exhibit anything but the utmost humility. In one of his last interviews to a Tamil magazine (a year ago), when asked if he thought his work had received the recognition it deserved, he just said "We did not work for recognition then. The work I did was its own reward and what I did was nothing in the face of the sacrifices so many great men before us have made". While it might sound cliched to someone who did not know him, to me it only reiterates the self-effacing modesty that glowed in him. I know it was genuine, because amidst all that he told me when I was a kid, he never spoke of himself unless specifically asked. Once, during a time in high school when I was reading a lot of Advaita, I saw him reading something on Vishishtadvaita and asked him what he thought about that branch of philosophy. With his usual unassuming manner, he just said "These are works of geniuses and what I know is so little I cannot dare to comment on it yet!" (Though many of the Advaita texts are very abstruse, he actually had extensive knowledge in that area- just that he would always be extremely humble about it!)

He did tell me a lot of other things though- anecdotes, jokes about the US in the 40's, and many lovely stories which he would narrate with so much animation that a kid could not but listen. I wish I had recorded them then- they would make wonderful bedtime tales for generations to come.
These were not just the routine ones from mythology or fairy tale books- there were some peculiar stories which I never heard anywhere else! Then there were the times we saw Snow-white on the "view-master" a kind-of stereoscope from previous decades, and the time he gave me a set of star charts and instruments to identify constellations with (thus sowing seeds for the eternal star-gazer in me!). He also had a bunch of sing-along routines, and little games- things we shall fondly remember him by.

But more than any of this, the connection I felt with him was in letters. Words. Books. It was to some extent an unspoken connection- he would simply talk about how good a book was when he saw me reading it or give me one when I entered his room. It is hard to explain the depth of kinship two people can feel by reading a great piece of literature- but I can tell this bond went beyond blood or genes, forged by the melody of ink and the smell of paper. I shall remember him with every book I pick from a store, with every line of poetry I appreciate, because this was not the bond with a man who gave a fish, but with a man who taught me to fish instead.

In fact, even when I felt the utmost sorrow at his loss, I could hear him say I should learn from this as well- that every event is but an opportunity to learn and inch closer to perfection. And so, even though I am consumed by the love that only a starry-eyed granddaughter can harbor for her dearest grandparent, I bid him a goodbye trying not to regret all that I forgot to ask him, all that I forgot to say, but trying to remember all that I should learn from his life; for he was more than just a grandparent to me- he was one of my first best friends. And ever one of my best teachers.

I will sorely miss you thaatha; and though I have tried my best, I cannot find the words to express completely what I feel right now... So let me just promise you I will try to ensure that the values you lived and taught shall live on...

R.I.P. R.A.P.!


  1. Touching! Inspirational! Heartfelt! Very beautifully written.... the way you write I am sure is in some way a close reflection to him and by going backwards one can only imagine what a great writer and person he himself must have been. I sincerely believe that he shall rest in peace in the knowledge that he has passed on his values to many including yourself. God Bless

    1. Thank you! He was indeed a great writer and I only count myself lucky for having the chance to interact with him as closely as I did..

  2. Dear Suchithra, Very nicely written.- mohan mama

  3. Dear Suchitra, Very well written - mohan mama

  4. Hi Suchitra, Nicely woven expression clearly depicts the love and affection you have with your thatha. And I could see an inherent mentorship you have been getting from your thatha.It is a great writing and I see a good author in making.

    Suresh Pani


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