I am glad that birds don’t remind me of people. I wouldn’t enjoy the catharsis. There are two exceptions though. One is the Small Blue Kingfisher, which stirs up the love I have for my niece. The other – Spotted Owlets – that remind me of my maternal grandfather – Mr Clarence Motha. Unknowingly, he has been the most influential person in my life. At one point, we had not exchanged a word for nearly 10 years. We even barely even saw other.
Like Leo Tolstoy once said, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”. What is happiness anyway? Normalcy? No thanks.
Those in the family who were younger than grandpa, and related by blood, have always referred to him as Methaiapa (literally translated as “upstairs father”). His children had coined that name when they were young. The room upstairs was his favourite haunting ground. A church of his quietude. He was always in there. Reading, writing and keeping himself busy. He hardly ever came down. Unless the situation demanded his presence.
Methaipa is a published writer and poet (in two languages). He was a professor and scholar at Loyola university for almost half a century, and a mentor to many senior journalists from south India. He is now 89 years old, more nimble-footed and quick-witted than anyone I know.
My sister and I loved to spend summer vacations at our grandparents’ house. They were our neighbours. But it was like a different planet. There was a humongous water tank right by the side of the hall corridor. I never knew what its purpose was but it was fun to watch mustard seeds pop open in the water. There were two toilets. One looked like it was made for a Stanley Kubrick film; it took about 2 minutes to reach the commode from the door. The other was in the backyard, facing a wildly-grown garden.
There was a storage room tucked away that always excited me. I found things in there that had me prancing about like a character from Aesop’s Fables. One time I stumbled upon a glass tumbler with an attached straw. The glass felt like it was half-full. Methaipa’s room was thick with the air of surrealism, and smell of old books. He often sat crookedly on a wooden chair, and wrote. I used to look at him, and wonder if it would drive him insane if he didn’t.
At night, he read stories by Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Allen Poe to us. He prefaced the ritual by carrying a mock lantern and wearing a shawl over his head, sneaking through the curtains. He claimed, with panache, that it was story-time. Then the Kulfi man would ring thrice to bring us out. We would soon all wear cold milk mustaches and laugh about it.
Sometime during my primary school days, there was a loud argument. A silly one between adults. Things were said. It led to us being separated from our grandparents. There was to be strictly no communication between us. Everyone had agreed it was for the best. We, children, were kept in the dark for long but we had to follow their orders.
It lasted for about a decade. During the early 2000s, old wounds finally faded away, and our immediate families reconnected. Somewhere in-between, started writing. It was my way of staying connected to him.
I can’t say it has been perfect since the resolution. It has been fun though. Whenever we meet, Methaipa and I secretly poke fun at everyone else in the family. Or we talk about the decline of society. And how people watch too much television. It’s a barrel of laughs and a lot of reassurance.
Two years ago I got excited and self-published a poetry book. And I made only one copy. It was a collection of my poems dedicated to him. With artwork by a dear friend / wonderfully-talented artist/poet/filmmaker.
I posted this today because I miss my Spotted Owlets. And Methaipa too.
An excerpt from
Along with Youth by Ernest Hemingway
“A porcupine skin, stiff with bad tanning,
it must have ended somewhere.
Stuffed horned owl, pompous,
yellow eyed; chuck-wills-widow on
a biased twig sooted with dust.
Piles of old magazines,
drawers of boy’s letters
and the line of love,
they must have ended somewhere”
(Photographs – Ponneri, Kanchipuram and Chennai)