Times are so dull and difficult that I wrote yesterday’s blog update on my grandfather more as a pick-me-up. I was however overwhelmed by the flood of response, many asking me for part 2. And so here goes…
To Thatha, education was paramount. He scrounged and saved on his meagre salary as a railway doctor and ensured that all his children qualified well. I think somewhere deep inside him he was not comfortable with his having been a Licentiate of Medical Practice and not an MBBS like his idol and friend Dr Narasimha Iyer the orthopaedic, was. The family was not well to do and he had to get a job double quick and he managed with the LMP. And, as he readily admitted – he had been playful while at school. The headmaster had failed him in English and so in revenge he had an obituary for the man printed in the local newspaper. “It was good fun to sit opposite his house and watch people roll up with wreaths and glum faces. I could ill afford this but I still did it. Luckily I was not caught.”
And so his children had to have the best. And then when it came to their marriages too he sifted and sieved, making sure that all five spouses were prize catches. When it came to matchmaking, he came up tops.
And he rejoiced when he saw his children doing well. Calcutta was in some ways a culmination of his hopes for at least his eldest children – his son was now a senior man in the railways and his son-in-law a senior man in banking. Both would rise even higher but Thatha was not around to see that. Anyway, he rejoiced and relaxed in Calcutta.
Immediately on arrival his keen ear detected some Marathi Natya Sangeet emanating from the opposite flat to where we lived. He rang their bell and when the lady of the house opened the door, introduced himself and said that he loved that genre of music. That was that. He was invited in, asked to stay for tea during which the two discussed everyone from Bal Gandharva to the just then released Smita Patil’s Bhumika. Thereafter he disappeared practically every day to Mrs Pathankar’s flat for tea and Natya Sangeet. It would have taken dad an entire lifetime to know his neighbours.
As for Carnatic Music – he had listened to them all live -Ariyakkudi, Musiri, GN, Semmangudi, Vasanthakokilam, MS, MLV, DKP, Brinda, Muktha…the list was long. It was he who first filled into my receptive ears some interesting tales about many of the stars. And about Devika Rani, Himanshu Rai,Nalini Jaywant (his favourite), Miss Kanan Bala and Miss Gohar, not to forget Sulochana aka Ruby Myers. The last began life as a telephone operator he often said. He always approved of Anglo Indian lady secretaries – “Such command over the language child. Unbeatable efficiency.” And my mom remembered with much amusement, they all referred to him as Doctor darling, sometimes screaming out his name in the throes of labour.
For some reason Calcutta spoke to Thatha’s soul – he loved the huge British-era buildings, the tramways, the maidan and above all the culture of the place. “Such a Raj apologist,” my father would faintly sneer, he being a hard-bitten socialist at heart. But he was happy to see the old man enjoying himself.
And so, Thatha, my cousin and I, went to see several museums in Calcutta. We went to the GPO where Thatha’s elder brother had once been Post Master General and his name was still there on a roll of honour. Our visit to Victoria Memorial was memorable for it taught me a lesson. We saw all that there was to see on the ground floor and then we had to go up the stairs to the first level. Thatha we realised, had to stay down, given his heart. But the old man kept gazing up at the dome around which was a series of panels depicting key episodes from Queen Victoria’s life. And, the first floor had a prize collection of Daniell lithographs that the he really would enjoy.
There was a lift – an ancient contraption that was more a cage and operated by an attendant who was probably a direct recruit of Lord Curzon’s. But it was for official use only. An aunt who came along thought we could bribe the attendant but he firmly resisted her blandishments. And so we trudged up rather sadly only to see the lift groaning and creaking and eventually depositing a beaming Thatha on the first floor. How had this miracle happened?
“It was nothing child. I went off to the Director’s office and said I was 75 and had a weak heart and that the lady being like my daughter could surely help me reach the first floor. She was kind enough to oblige.” We had a great time thereafter. Lesson – never feel shy about asking for help. They will at most refuse. I am yet to master this.
His visit to the Birla Academy of Art and Culture on Southern Avenue was even more memorable. They had put up a display of several of Rodin’s sculptures, all of them specially flown in from wherever they usually roosted. It was a great show – remember in that pre-Internet age the closest you got to artworks such as the Thinker was a smudged photo in some newspaper.
Anyway, there we were, cousin, Thatha and I. For some reason, the display left us cold. There was only so much you could admire in the Burghers of Calais, the Thinker, The Kiss and the Walking Man. Thatha decided to liven things up.
“An advanced case of arthritis,” he pronounced in a soft voice which nevertheless carried around the hall. My cousin and I wondered as to what this man was diagnosing but he was actually gazing at one of the Burghers of Calais. And then having beckoned us to come over he pointed – “see child, how his toes are twisted. Must have suffered agonies.”
There was a titter behind and on turning around we found a Bengali lady laughing at what Thatha had just said. And so the old man took off from there.
Another of the Burghers had venereal disease very clearly – you just needed to see the bridge of his nose. “Way back in the 1940s child, when I was posted to Goa, I have treated plenty of such cases. That place was then known for 3 Ps – Portuguese, Pigs and Prostitutes, and all three came for treatment.” Two others had joined the Bengali lady and were grinning widely.
The Walking Man had evidently been operated for appendicitis or hernia for there was a long scar. And the Thinker was constipated – you could see him straining. As for The Kiss, she was making a mistake – sitting like that could be dangerous for the male. Anyway on and on it went, Thatha’s followers increasing steadily. By the end of it he was the star of the museum.
This irreverence was second nature to him. They were once screening the MS-GNB starter Sakuntalai on DD and he walked in just as MS languorously lay down – “Aha – Dushyanta has impregnated her and left? Morning sickness has set in I can see,” he said much to the delight of us young ‘uns while his elder sister, Athaipatti, thundered, “Cheenu!” and asked him to shut up. That amused us even more. Imagine someone being old enough to call Thatha Cheenu!
My last memory of him dates to 1983. I had joined Engineering in Delhi and he was delighted. He wrote me a letter from Madras, in his beautiful handwriting advising me on how to weather ragging, and enjoy my college days. It was full of cheer. A few months later, he was gone – there was only so much fun his heart could stand.