“Life is for the living.
Death is for the dead.
Let life be like music.
And death a note unsaid.”
It seems forever ago that Mum corrected me amidst a prayer where I had been praying for my uncle to get cured soon. Get better, she said, pray for him to get better. I did not understand then. I was a tad too young to understand the grim meaning of terminal. Then they told me. They did always have a policy of not sugarcoating anything, of being blunt about everything, despite the fact that I was all of four or five and could have lived without knowing it for a few more years. So it was that I came to think of him as the man who would die soon.
He did not. In fact, he was a living miracle for years, from the day he was diagnosed with brain tumour back in the 1960s to the early 2000s. The valiant soldier that he was, he trudged on, through the dusty streets of Vellore and through the sterilised corridors of the Christian Medical College there, through Ayurveda and Homeopathy, through multiple surgeries and horrid side-effects. Until an ill-advised, ill-fated surgery in Coimbatore in 2004, he was as vividly alive and active as any man could be. Then came paralysis, slowly, and disintegration, and when he passed away in 2011, scarcely any of us could identify him as the man he had been once.
He was excellent at mathematics. And an utter failure at languages. He had dreams of marriage and children and riches. The greediness and wistfulness in his eyes when he saw my parents together, or when he saw young, well-to-do families in the church, was hard to look upon.
I was an only child until my brother came along. Uncle was my playmate, of sorts. He had it in him to be as childish as any child could be. Petty grudges? Check. Cheating at board games? Check. Pigtail pulling? Check. Jealousy? Check. He taught me chess and I am still convinced he taught me the wrong rules. He taught me ludo and thaayam and a hundred other board games. He could swear like a sailor.
He was very orthodox. Religious. He was not the man you went to if you had female emancipation in mind. It was not his fault. It was and it is merely the reflection in individuals of society’s views on what is and what isn’t acceptable. I think we might have clashed if he saw what I do now. He would not have understood it. He believed that girls ought to be pretty, silent and compliant. He loved my mother, perhaps because of her gentle nature and aversion to arguments. He loved one of my cousins for the same reason. He believed in a chauvinistic society. It was what society and family had taught him. He did not know what to make of me on most days. He settled for teaching me board games.
He liked birthdays. And weddings. He was all for celebrating life grandly, now that I think of it. The more pomp and splendour, the better. He used to gift my brother and I cakes on our birthdays. He would always remember. In fact, he was the only one who would always remember. He would take the bus to my parent’s home carrying the cake and savouries and take the pains to make sure that the fried savouries had not crumbled and that the cake was not crushed.
By virtue of being the eldest in the family, I saw more of his suffering than my cousins or brother did. It was difficult. Each time, after he came from Vellore, I would need a few moments to not react when I saw his head shaved bald and ugly stitches marring the skin there. He was very self-conscious about all that. I learnt, very early on, not to react. His disease and the nature of it was not something we spoke of.
Tenacious. He was that. He was always good at winning from corners. Regardless of how bad his position was, he would manage to stage yet another comeback. He did that with his education. He did that with his profession. He did that with multiple surgeries where prognoses had always been bad. He did that while stealing a game away from right under my nose just as I had been about to snatch victory.
He liked authority. He took delight in seeing my exam answer papers and then taking me to task for the mistakes inside. I would blow up then. I have always been touchy about others poking their noses into my business. A well-meaning family member would then take me aside, remind me of think of his illness and I would return, apologise and let him rail at me for my many crimes in that answer paper.
Family. We treated him as if he was made of glass. And we gave up a lot for him. Papa let go countless opportunities for job advancement because he would always drop everything and rush to his brother’s side each time Uncle was taken ill. Mum sacrificed more, because in marrying Papa she married a family that was revolving around Uncle. I cannot recall my parents being present at any of my school functions because they were always called away to be at my uncle’s side. In fact, in 2004, I was giving my SSLC board examinations and I had nobody to take me to the exam centre because Uncle had been ill again. I used to be very angry at that, because it often seemed to me that my parents were giving up more while the rest of the family just stood by uncaring and went about their regular frivolities as if this did not matter. I was angry on my parents’ behalf. I was angry on my behalf. I was angry on my uncle’s behalf. Well, it does not matter now.
Those who cared for him had him as their life’s first priority until he left us, be that his mother or my father. In a way, because my father’s love for him, he had become first priority in our lives too, for my mother, for my brother and for me. So when I heard news of his passing last May, just as I was preparing to leave for my higher studies, I was numbed. Yes, he had been faring poorly. Yes, there had been not much hope of revival after that surgery in 2004 and his slow descent into paralysis. Still, I had not thought it possible that one loved so fiercely would be snatched away just like that, and harder to accept was the fact that he had not fought his way out this time, as he had done almost every day since he was diagnosed when he was four years old. Strange as it is to express it so, it remains the fact that he was the glue which had held us together as a family. Too many matters, trivial and serious both, have come between extended family members and I, not the least of which had been their pettiness and unwillingness when it came to sacrificing something for Uncle’s sake. Yet the only hold they had, the only words which Mum could use to coax me into visiting, was a simple reminder of how Uncle, despite his state, would still recognise my brother and I, and wouldn’t it be cruel not to visit? I don’t think he recognised anyone towards the end, but one hoped.
They have a ceremony for the first death anniversary next week, I hear. While I have no wish to partake in a ceremony where more attention would be paid to somebody’s new jewellery than to a dead man’s memory, I wish I could be with my parents and my brother on that day. I can’t have that, so I have this instead.
Let my words waft to you and cloak you with the scent of memories frosted in my heart. May they also carry to you my promise to live vibrantly and fearlessly, to pay no heed to those who say that it is futile and that it is the end, and to never, never stop dreaming of more.