Lately, my maternal grandfather – Mr. Clarence Motha – has started to bear a slight resemblance to Spotted Owlets. Especially, the curving slope on his cranium. These days, it looks smooth and swollen, like the skull of an elderly owlet.
My grandfather is 91 years old. His health has been deteriorating of late. He has been referring to this phase of his life as the “sunset years”. Bed-ridden for most of the day, his body and mind are crumbling. All that seems left of him is a ghostly reminder of someone I once knew.
When it is time, I hope he finds the inner strength to let go of the life that he had led for close to a century. Because I don’t want him to suffer much longer. Despite not having exchanged a word for about 10 years, he has always been a driving force in my life.
Methaiappa (loosely translated as “father who lives upstairs”), as we always knew him as, grew up in pre-Independence India. He was as eccentric as he was witty and intelligent. He had a deep-rooted passion for language. A self-taught writer, he pursued a career as a professor and scholar. For almost half a century, he taught a variety of subjects at the Loyola University in Chennai. During that time, he also trained talented journalists and writers from all over the city. Some of them turned out to be prominent figures. Today, they credit him for having shaped not only the way they write, but the manner in which perceive the world around them.
My sister and I used to spend many of our childhood summer vacations with him. During the day, he would hardly ever leave his study room. There was a wooden table that always smelled of fresh vegetables. Books of all shapes and sizes were neatly arranged on it. Stacked up, for personal growth, pride, and posterity. He often sat crookedly on a wooden chair and he would either read for hours or write his heart out – as his eyes twinkled madly. He wouldn’t notice me even if I stood by the door.
When he wasn’t there, I would go flip through the yellowing pages. One time, I saw a copy of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphoses. Later, I had asked him what it was about and I remember, vividly, that he had told me it was a story of someone who was a stranger in his own house.
During night-time, we had a happy family ritual. After dinner, grandma would start to draw the rusty-brown curtains in the sleeping area. My sister and I, along with our little cousins, would pretend it was time to hit the sack. Then, Methaiappa – wearing a shawl over his head – would peak through the folds of the curtains. Instantly, we knew that a bedtime story-was-a-coming. Theatrically, he would recite chilling tales from the books of Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Allen Poe. It was a cerebral and emotional roller-coaster ride.
The ritual only ended when the Kulfi ice cream vendor found his way into our hearts by thumbing his bicycle bell. We would stand outside the front door and giggle at each other’s cold milk mustaches.
When I was 9 years old, I overheard a loud argument over the phone. I remember it vividly. Things were said. We ended up being separated from our grandparents. The adults were clear that there was to be strictly no communication. They had agreed with each other that it was for the best. The silent feud lasted for more than a decade.
Soon after the split, I had nurtured a love for writing. I could never be sure if my grandfather had been the sole inspiration behind it. That may have made for a better narrative. But my memory continues to fail me. The speech impediment I had back then was a huge motivator too. But, I recall being disappointed and unhappy that he wasn’t around to tell me what he thought about my writing.
Sometimes, I would bite my fingernails and wonder whether he would have been proud of me, as the world’s smallest violin played in the background.
During the early 2000s, my parents told me – one fine day – that things were back to normal between the families. It turned out that old wounds were healed. I never asked them about the details. I was excited about reconnecting with Methaiappa.
For the next 15 or so years, I hardly ever visited him. Not nearly as much as he would have wanted me to. Or I assumed that I would have. Even though, he has always lived only a few minutes away from wherever I was. I could have easily spent more time with him. We only met about 8-10 times a year during family functions and festival dinners. And it wasn’t that I had a busy work or social schedule. There was no awkwardness of having been disconnected for so long. No leftover drama or bickering.
In fact, I still could relate to him more than I could with anyone else, related by blood or through language. Every time we had a conversation, we would laugh at how barmy and aloof we appeared to the rest of the family.
Apart from the essays I used to publish during my brief stint as a music columnist for a newspaper, he hadn’t read anything else I had written. I had barely ever published outside my line of work, so I never had the opportunity to show off my writing skills to him. So, in 2014, in a fit of vanity, I printed a book of my poems as a tribute to him, with artwork created by a dear and talented friend. I made only a single copy. I went on a Saturday afternoon to give it to him. He read a few of the poems and said many nice things about them. It didn’t feel like a dramatic moment between an erstwhile teacher and a wayward student. It just felt good.
Since January 2017, his health has been growing from bad to worse. Having had some frightening falls, he has been bed-ridden. I heard about it when I was hospitalized. Two weeks ago, my sister called me up and told me that I ought to visit him. Because he may not be around much longer.
When my condition improved, I went over to his house. And it was depressing to see him in that state; wrinkled, wounded and weak. But despite it, he was able to wax nostalgic about some of his favorite memories. He also thanked my sister and me many times for showing up. I felt uncomfortable because I knew that I could have done a lot more.
I hope that Methaiappa fades gently into the night whenever he wants to. I reckon that as the cliche goes, a small part of me will go away with him. But isn’t that the loveliest part of letting go of someone? To give a part of us to someone without any chance of getting it back? In fact, I am pretty sure that it is why I wrote this. I can pretend that it is a tribute to the sort of grandfather he was. But I think it is more about the grandson that I wish I wasn’t.
All I want to do now is pat him on his Spotted Owlet scalp and ruffle the feathers that remain. And tell him that he has been the single-most influential person in my life.
Thank you, Methaiappa, for everything.
(Photographs: Vedanthangal, Ponneri and Mahabalipuram)