Fifteen years after my grandfather died, I sit down to think of something that was him in essence, as it were. To my surprise, I cannot. Who is the man who was my Thatha, my own Thatha? What did he mean to me? These years later, I don't know.
He came to me filtered through so much, in so many pronounced standards achieved, barriers overcome. The first from his backward-caste deep southern Tamil Nadu community to earn an education. The stint as Collector of Customs in Bombay, still remembered by respectful old-timer peers. The patriarch in his house in Madras after early retirement. Always the wise and consulted elder statesman, to the state authorities as to his extended family. The tough yet indulgent father and grandfather, fair yet sometimes irrationally biased, forward-thinking yet tradition-bound and, as Madras so often seems to be, feudal.
I heard all that about Thatha. Some of it, I sometimes saw for myself. But today when I dig for my own, my very personal, image of him, I find it hard.
Instead, there are the small memories. Like this one.
The first time I visited after Patti died. As always, he greeted me on the verandah with his sturdy bear-hug. Pulled back and there were tears in his eyes, a tremor in his voice. Pointing to the chair she always sat in, he asked in despair: "Should she not have been there?" How odd, I remember thinking, that it has taken me till now, all these years, till well after Patti died, to realize what she was to him. How easily I had simply assumed that love, or something akin to it that blooms in a long marriage, was not a thing I might find between my grandparents. Here was Thatha, visibly broken by her departure.
And on those Madras holidays, he was invariably generous, unfailingly thoughtful. The films, the icecreams, the trips to Marina Beach, the books from the British Council, the evenings sitting together to listen to his stories, even the fidgety times he recited Sanskrit to us. Thatha found time for it all.
I don't know what a typical grandfather is supposed to be like, so whether Thatha was one. But he was my Thatha. Nor do I have relentlessly rosy memories of him. Because that wasn't Thatha. Strong and always larger than life, I suspect he might have scorned rosy. And fifteen years later, that seems to me a fine way to remember him.