My younger son Vineet used to call him Story Thatha, so much he loved the stories that his thatha told. The best thing was that Appa loved telling stories to the children, just as much as they loved listening to them.
It is his birth Centenary today, and when I sat to write about him, it was this attribute of his that first came to mind. Another thing that came to mind unbidden was the image of his doing puja, and reading the Ramayan which were daily rituals. It was an elaborate puja, but his prayers began early in the morning. He would tip-toe around the house reciting shlokas, careful not to wake up Amma, who being an insomniac slept very late and woke up much later than him. He would keep everything ready for making coffee, but would wait for her – to just boil the milk and mix it with the decoction. He liked it that way!
Appa was a great reader. In fact, we have inherited the reading genes from him. So much was his love for the written word, that he would read anything that he could lay his hands on. From story books, to newspapers, to books on spirituality and even my college course books! (He had retired when I was in my second year at college). Why just those, he would painstakingly smooth out the bits of paper that the grocery came wrapped in those days and read the news in them too. Little wonder then, that he could hold forth on any subject – be it politics, cricket, philosophy or sundry other topics – with a contemporary or someone a quarter his age!
In his later years, having lost vision in one eye and suffering from severe vision problems in the other, he still continued reading – painfully and slowly, but reading, nevertheless. It was his very life-breath.
Appa was for the most part, on the periphery of my life when I was growing up, often living away from the family due to his transfers and perhaps also because I was the youngest and too many years separated us. Mother was the constant and the one who took the major decisions involving us. Or so it seemed to a young me. It was much later, during my late teens that I came to understand how they both worked in tandem, always consulting each other and what looked like my mother’s decision was in fact, a well discussed matter between the two. She just front-ended it.
Though I never saw eye-to-eye with him on many matters, especially during my teens, I had a secret admiration for many of his qualities. I have detailed in one of my posts, how I used to argue with him on the futility of his ritualistic pujas and parayanams, and how he patiently replied me, never once losing his temper or belittling my arguments.
Having worked in the Telegraph department of the P&T, (Remember those pink papers called telegrams?), he retired as a Class II Officer. He was not rich by any standards, especially since we didn’t own land or a house. But he always talked of abundance – even when he had just a couple of rupees on him. I have never ever heard him say, ‘There is no money,’ when we worried about him being short of money.
He would say, ‘Nirayya irukku!’ (there is a lot). This large-heartedness explained how my parents managed, not only to take care of our family, but also help others on either side of the family, who had less than us. And they did it quietly.
Maybe I should I tell you about how he served mostly in northern cities of India, but never managed to master Hindi. He merrily bumbled along in broken Hindi making hilarious goof-ups but never a mistake at work, where he dealt with Hindi-speaking staff.
…and tell you about how he drove me nuts with his explanation of Hindi film songs.There is an old song of Lata that goes, qaid mein hai bulbul (bulbul in captivity), which he merrily sang as, kazhudha mele bulbul (bulbul on a donkey!!!), for that is how HE heard it! He would guess the songs written by Anand Bakshi, based on the lyrics, which often played on the words hum-tum in the mukhda. It is another matter that AB wrote a zillion songs in the 70s and 9 out 10 times, Appa would be right. This irritated me even more! I can castigate myself now as a grouch with no sense of humour, but for a smug teen, it used to be so exasperating!
And oh, I told you about his reading habits, didn’t I? Well I used to read a lot of thrillers and suspense novels in those days and he naturally read them too. And you know what he did? He would read the first few chapters and then turn to the last couple of chapters. The reason? ‘When you know who the killer is, or what happened to the hero/heroine, you can relax and enjoy the book. There is no heart-pounding suspense!’ Today, when I find I can’t stand any kind of suspense, I am amused at the genes I have inherited from him!
I can think of a lot many of his great qualities and amusing/aggravating anecdotes, but this post is about what he is best remembered by his grandchildren for – his story-telling abilities. Appa knew all the puranas, legends, mythological stories and upakathas of the Ramayana and Mahabharata that are often not so well known. Whenever there was a family gathering, be it some celebration as when my third sister had got married or when we congregated at our parents’ place during summer holidays, he would be contracted to keep the kids engaged and out of mischief with his stories.
As is understandable when several children get together, things were bound to get unruly and too noisy. When the adults couldn’t take the racket anymore, one of them would shout, “Thatha is going to tell a story.” It worked like magic! Like the mice that followed the Piper, all the kids would troop to where he was, jostling with each other to find that vantage seat near him, with the younger ones requisitioning a place on his lap. In return for keeping them engaged, he was plied with cups of coffee from time to time!
He had a way of telling the tales, which were replete with general knowledge tidbits, dispensed to suit the age of the audience. If the kids were too young, he would make the stories interesting and identifiable for them. For instance, while narrating the exploits of the vanar sena in Ramayana, he would say such things as, ‘the vanar brushed his teeth…’ and before he could complete the sentence, a little one would pipe up, ‘Thatha, thatha, I brush my teeth twice every day,’ and then father would digress to talk about the importance of oral hygiene with the kids, who would add their own ideas and comments – making for a lively discussion.
He also jazzed up the stories with the mention of tasty eats and goodies, based on the smells coming from the kitchen. For instance, the vanar-sena took breaks to munch on murukkus and barfis, as they built the bridge to cross over to Lanka. The younger of the vanars were made to drink milk and Bournvita or Horlicks by their mothers! Hanuman was of course the favourite of all the kids, just as much as he was the ishta devata for Appa, along with Lord Rama. If it was the Mahabharata he was narrating, then Bhima made all those delectable dishes while he was the cook at King Virata’s court.
My younger one was the greatest fan of his Thatha and his stories among all his cousins. When he was about 12 or so, he got the brilliant idea of getting the stories recorded. Those were the days when CDs had not become popular, and even computers were not so commonplace. So father got the stories recorded on cassettes, on an old tape recorded, with Mother assisting him in the job. They lived in Pune with the younger of my elder brothers in those days. Since Appa didn’t have a live audience, (as my two nieces were in school when he recorded them during the day), he pretended to be telling the stories to one of the children, calling out to them by name, as if they were there in person. I remember one story, where he tells Vineet, ‘Note down any doubts you have in a letter and send me. I will clarify them. Or we can discuss when you come next’, — all said to a boy who was thousands of miles away!
I never knew Appa could play act too! 🙂
He methodically recorded the stories, in a punishing schedule. Mother told us how he would sit for hours and tell the stories insistent to complete one more cassette, if she suggested that he stop and continue the next day. All this he did in the last year of his life. It was as if he knew his end was near and he wanted to complete the project before it was too late.
Some years ago, when the cousins (his grandchildren) had a get-together, they each got as gift, a set of his stories, duly digitized by me and edited by the third of my elder sisters. I am sure it is the cherished possession of each one of them today. It has afforded me the comfort of listening to his voice at many times when I have felt bereft. Thank you Appa!
Today, on his Birth Centenary, I bow to his memory and thank him for the great legacy he has left behind.
All Pics Copyright of Zephyr