My grandfather, Dr. Puthu, passed away from a heart attack, preceded by continuous coughing in his last days. He was 84, and I was about 20.
My mother and I took a flight from Bombay to Bangalore, to the cottage in Vasant Nagar.
Ever since my grandfather had retired, 27 years earlier, from being an army doctor in Burma, my grandmother and he had opted to settle in Bangalore. He opened a small private medical practice in a far and busy locality, called Malleshwaram.
He would ride out there every morning on his scooter, in a clean, half-sleeved shirt and trousers. His jacket billowed out, making him look like a fat superhero. He never forgot to wear a helmet.
Dr Bhaskara Puthu spoke to anyone who would listen, about his Burma-days. He could not forget the life he had had there, in the proud ranks of the Burmese army. I listened to many such stories, especially in his later years when he repeated them, either forgetting he’d told them already or just to relive that life, now unreachable except in memory.
They were the stuff of legends… About walking for days from Burma across to India during World War 2 when the Japanese attacked Burma. He would tell us how people fell dead about him as he trudged, because everyone was starving and only the really hardy survived. About being posted in freezing Sumprabaum, a remote place on the China border, where my mother was born. The midwife-nurse came riding on an elephant to help with the birthing. Later he was Superintendent of a mental hospital in Rangoon that had sprawling gardens, staff and a huge dog called Raja. My grandmother played tennis in a white saree with other senior army officers’ wives. One day their naughty second daughter went bottoms up on a bottle of antiseptic spirit. The talkative girl silently passed out. Grandfather was summoned from his game of tennis, and with the quickness of a man of action, he revived and healed her.
I knew him only much later, in his Bangalore days. He would polish his scooter and his shoes to shining, and taught me how. He was fastidious about keeping each object in the cottage in its right place. When he washed his hands before a meal he took a whole five minutes to scrub. When he called out my name once a week in the morning, I would try to hide in the farthest corners of the garden. Nothing could save me however, from the nailclipper he wielded. He cut my nails to the quick despite protests and wincing, just like he got his own hair razored in a Spartan crew cut.
He had died in a hospital and was brought home for a few hours before the hearse came. They placed him on the living room floor on a mat. Neighbours and friends came to see him and to meet my grandmother. They all knew him as Doctor Uncle or Puthu maama, respected and beloved to myriad people that the rest of the family hardly recognised. He had treated many, like the mechanic, Sundaram, his shy wife and small snotty-nosed children. I was always jealous of the familiarity and joy with which other children greeted my grandfather.
When we were children, my sister and I spent our whole summer and winter vacations every year in No. 37, 2nd Cross, Vasant Nagar. Grandfather would return from his clinic at 6:30pm, shouting for everyone to clear the way to the toilet. There was none at his clinic on the thoroughfare in Malleshwaram. He never complained, only informed us that his ”bladder is bursting,” as he parked his scooter. My sister and I helped him heave it onto its stand, pulling with all our might at the spare tyre that served as backrest to the passenger seat, so he could park the scooter quickly and make off to the toilet. We would sigh with relief when he came back smiling.
For all the years we spent each vacation in Bangalore with our grandparents, my tiny, pretty mother only came to her parents for very few days. She would deliver us to them on the Brindavan Express which left Chennai at 6am and got us to Bangalore by 2pm, by then sick of us squabbling for the window seat, starving for grandma’s lunch but more for the first sight of our stocky smiling grandfather on the station platform when the train drew into Cantonment Station, Bangalore. And then the growly ride in his round, dark green Standard Ten car. By the time we took that ride, my sister and I were silent, excited little faces at the open back windows, looking for a glimpse of our many local friends. The Standard Ten was my grandfather’s pride, maintained with great care for the three or four times a year he drove it. Maintained by him and the mechanic Sundaram who would put aside all his work to attend to it at a single call from “Doctor”.
My mother stayed a few days at the beginning of the holidays and maybe three or four days when she came to take us back to Chennai, to our father and to school on the afternoon Brindavan Express. She was devoted to her father. They would quietly discuss the details of small repairs or renovations in the house or planting in the garden. Like her father, my mother was meticulous and thorough at household tasks. Even in the fewdays that her busy married life allowed her at her father’s home, she would fix the pump set, seal leaky taps, and clean out the garage cupboards. She was like him meticulous, yet quiet, a shadow to his talkative, Burma-days-Storyteller. They were close.
I did not realise how close until he passed away. When his body lay on the living room floor and my sister, calling from her college in the U.S. asked me to clip a few locks of his hair as a keepsake for her, and I giggled low and horrified at the thought of taking a pair of scissors to his sticky scalp, so many people milling around his body…
My mother knelt beside him, leaning close. She stroked the back of his doctor hands, small and efficient like hers, that rested on his still chest. She was saying goodbye, telling him that the coughing that had troubled him constantly, would not bother him any more.
For me it was farewell to a life lived passionately, values sure and strong – of doctor, disciplined armyman, fastidious householder and loving grandpa.
Nothing lasted. After he passed away, even the house in which nothing was ever left broken, ever out of place even, was sold, demolished, and never properly rebuilt by the strangers who bought it. My mother had initiated the sale, prompted by anxiety over how to fairly divide his legacy between his children and grandchildren.
Both Burma-days and Bangalore-days in the way we had lived them, were over.
My mother told me later in her laboured, soft-spoken way, that he had been the only person she could ever count on to unquestioningly stand by her. To love her. When she lost him, she felt that she had lost her mooring. She has gone on to be brave through countless circumstances, alone.
Today at 41, as my life rides some rough waters, I think that her courage and his story are the lighthouse I could steer a course by.