Updated: February 11, 2018 1:03:29 pm
‘My Dear Motasha’. That’s how I began every letter to him. Each ended with the same post-script: a skeleton doodle and the words: “Smoking is injurious to health”. When he came visiting from Kerala, the smell of his beedi wafted in with him. Each time he lit it, I tried to stub it off with my tiny palm. I was afraid it would kill him. I wish I could reassure the school child that he would go on to live a long, healthy life. Right up to 2017. Then, a few days after he celebrated his 89th birthday, as gleeful as a child, he died. A death as unobtrusive as his life.
I strongly believe that my daily bedtime prayers, which started when I was little, had held him back. “Shalini de motashane aaoo vertal le; long, happy, and healthy life indaavane.” (That was my Bombay-bred pidginised Malayalam for, “Let Shalini’s [maternal] grandpa never fall sick, let him have a long, happy, healthy life.”) Over the years, despite my growing agnosticism, I kept the believer in me alive for the sake of his long life. Until very recently, when there came a time I told myself that my Motasha needs to go. After all, he had lived a terribly lonely life, without my grandma in that huge ancestral house in Kerala — an imposing house of wood, redolent of Arabian jasmine flowers and rain-soaked earth, where fireflies flitted about in the darkest of nights to the tune of chirping crickets and frogs and snakes thrived in the hibiscus-lined pond in the backyard. Thirty years of loneliness, to be precise, since cancer prematurely claimed her life. Yet, I knew he loved her deeply till his last breath, always referring to her name with the prefix “ende”__ “Ende Chandriga” (My Chandrika).
In the recesses of my childhood memories, his annual visit home was a glimmer of joy. Hand in hand, my Motasha and I sauntered every evening to that second-hand bookstore next to the Hanuman temple. There, he waited patiently as I browsed through the dog-eared yellowed books, each sold for one rupee. With a stack tucked inside a plastic bag, we would set out on our long walk back home. By night, I refused to yield to sleep until he recounted one of his many fantastical folklores. There was the story of Chautalakaali (the Malayali version of Cinderella), of a miserly Chettiar, and many others. The stories were retold a thousand times over but listening to him narrate them was always thrilling.
I realised much later that his own life stories, told to me much later as a grown-up, were far more fascinating. It helped me piece together the puzzle of my own life. Of how I turned out to be so different from everyone in my family, a difference so unbridgeable that I remained, mostly, a lonely child. Not everyone, it turned out. I was my Motasha’s Shalu mole, as he fondly called me. Long before he retired and resettled to Kerala, my Motasha was a mill worker and trade union leader at the National Rayon Corporation in Ambivli. Those were the days when Bombay and its peripheral regions were a textile hub and the labour movement was still strong. He told me tales of how he led workers’ agitations for better pay, bonus, and the right to paid holidays. And secured it. When the company responded to the agitations with a lock-down, he went months without a salary, unable to fend for his three children, but refused to back down even when the management offered to cut him a good deal. I listened, eyes wide open, to how he once bravely stood between the workers and the company manager, when he got a tip-off about the workers’ ploy to murder their employer. Being the union leader, he ended up being wrongly accused of an attempt to murder and was arrested. Eventually, he was let off after the workers stood by him. My favourite, though, was the story about his encounter with political stalwart and former Tamil Nadu chief minister K Kamraj. One day, my Motasha’s Chennai-based brother, who was close to Kamraj, called him up asking him to receive the veteran Congress leader scheduled to visit his textile mill township. Motasha recalls with a proud smile how he welcomed Kamraj with hostile placards and slogans, instead, workers in tow, demanding labour rights.
Best of Express Premium
He doted on me, egged me on to pursue knowledge above everything else, but he was also my most unsparing critic. He skimmed the newspaper for my byline daily during his brief visits home. “Looks like you have done no work yesterday,” he chided me each time he failed to spot any. Right up to his last days, even after his failing eyesight made it difficult for him to read the newspapers, he watched news bulletins multiple times a day. Coming from an extended family with whom I have been at loggerheads politically, discussing everything from the beef ban to the Trump presidency with my Motasha was nothing less than life-affirming.
I was in Delhi that fateful night when dad called me to say that Motasha is no more. He had died peacefully, slumped down on the floor right after he brushed his dentures and put them back on. The very first night after I kissed his forehead and bid him a final goodbye, I had a pleasantly surreal dream. It was the present, the present when I no longer have to take frequent long walks to buy a book and instead order it online. The only walk I take is to a park or a café where I sit and read the book, alone in a crowd. As I was about to leave home, with a book in hand, Motasha said that he will come along. I plan to go to a café so as to read uninterrupted, I told him. That’s fine, he said, he will just sit beside me.
And so we set off, Motasha and I, hand in hand, on our long walk together. I felt a strange calm when I woke up the next morning. I knew that my dear Motasha, wherever he is, will always be there for his Shalu mole.
🗞 Subscribe Now: Get Express Premium to access our in-depth reporting, explainers and opinions 🗞️
- The Indian Express website has been rated GREEN for its credibility and trustworthiness by Newsguard, a global service that rates news sources for their journalistic standards.