‘Bhai’, for me, has always been dad, not brother. Part of a joint family where he was the eldest of three brothers, he was mota bhai (elder brother in Gujarati) and my mother mota bhabhi — not just to his younger siblings, but all of us children too. We addressed our grandparents as “mummy” and “papa”, just the way Bhai and his brothers did.
Now as I sit outside a hospital ICU — where he has landed after his metabolic parameters went haywire — I am trying my best to summon all my memories of Bhai in his heyday. Trying hard not to think of him as the 81-year-old on the other side of the ICU door, in a state of stupor, with irregular heartbeats and incessant coughing due to aspiration.
Doctors counsel relatives of patients every morning and, depending on the severity of the condition, it’s often the more composed among them who is apprised of the situation. Yes, they were doing their best and there were chances of recovery but there is always a downside and some what-ifs that remain unanswered. My siblings and I would take turns to appear for these sessions, little realising that I would break down so fast on reaching home.
Bhai. The way he held my gold medal at the university convocation or the times he proudly prodded me with a “kya, journalist madam” in front of relatives, or that one instance when I sobbed bitterly as he refused to let me travel to another city for work.
Many of these memories, treasured ones, are from the Saturday evenings that meant dressing up to meet my boyfriend who would soon be my husband. Despite all that my mother did to desperately talk me out of my inter-faith match, it was the glowering look on Bhai’s face that remains stuck in my mind. As I would walk out of the door for the appointed date with my boyfriend, there he would be, sitting on the rocking chair, grim-faced and bespectacled, hiding behind the folds of a newspaper, trying hard not to say anything.
Of course, now, several years later, our Saturdays are incomplete without a mandatory visit to the parents during which Bhai and his son-in-law spend hours in mindless chatter — who was the better James Bond, Roger Moore or Sean Connery, of old Pune when Liberty Cinema (theatre) and West End Cinema were vibrant, or simply where you could find the best khaman dhoklas in Pune.
And God forbid, if we missed even a single visit, there would be several follow-up calls asking, nay demanding, why we hadn’t made time to call on them.
At the old family house, the regular gatherings, laced with banter and good food, rarely ended without a card game of Seven of Hearts (Badaam Saat). Mota Bhabhi would initiate the game and Bhai and other would happily join in.
There are countless other memories. Of Bhai the dentist, who insisted on wearing white clothes and who would loudly express his displeasure if his laundry wasn’t delivered on time with his freshly ironed whites. Of him scrubbing his favourite red scooter, a daily chore, before setting off with Mota Bhabhi for the morning visit to the temple.
Despite Mota Bhabhi being all ready for the temple visit, much to her chagrin, he would make it a point to press the horn at 8 am and shout, “Arre, sambhlej ke (are you listening)?”
Now it’s a weary Mota Bhabhi’s turn to nudge a hand that has lost count of the innumerable needle pricks and say, “Mota Bhai, sambhloj ke? Uto, chalo ghare (Mota Bhai, are you listening? Get up, let’s go home).”
It has been a fortnight. And Bhai is still behind that ICU door.