Pinnavasal Sundaresan Kailasam (what long majestic names people used to have in the old days!) or PSK as he was usually known, was my favourite grandparent. Short and compact physically, he was a towering personality. Thatha was a typical Arien - warm-hearted, generous, energetic, witty, humorous, affectionate, with a fiery temper that subsided as soon as it had flared up. He also had a gorgeous smile, and to date, remains one of the most attractive people I have ever encountered. (What is it about some people that makes them very attractive in spite of not being classically handsome? A topic for another day!).
A cost accountant, he started his career in the Ministry of Finance and later worked his way up to the top of the ladder in many companies, his work taking him to New Delhi, Dehradun, Kochi, Chennai, and Dubai before family issues forced him into early retirement.
The logical numbers machine was complemented beautifully by the creative gene. Thatha had a masterly command over both English and Tamil and wrote more than fifty short stories and novels, many appearing in well-known Tamil magazines. My father says that given a few more years of good health and if not for the distractions of career and family, he could have become one of the best Tamil writers of his time. I like to think of his writing and creativity gene traveling through me to my children, and often think about how proud he would have been of his great-grandchildren.
We were good friends, united by a shared love of books and reading and writing. I stayed with my grandparents for a couple of years in high school and he was the de-facto presence at parent-teacher meetings, stylishly driving his imported-from-Dubai Italian Fiat. In the early 1990s, a foreign car on the streets of Chennai was a wonder indeed, and many are the days when I would imperiously shoo off excited schoolmates pressing their grimy faces against the windows when the car was parked outside my school. One embarrassing incident during the time involved a group of us teenagers getting into trouble with our school Principal and Thatha arriving in state to discuss matters with the higher authorities, and bail me out of trouble.
He was an insomniac. Reading late into the night, he would insist I keep him company as I studied or did my homework. As I finished up and started gathering up my books, he would plaintively ask - “Done so soon? Why don’t you stay for some more time?”
“Thatha, I have to wake up for school tomorrow!”, I would wail!
When he was diagnosed with cancer, I was in the final year of college. I well remember those harrowing times when I would be commandeered to babysit my twin toddler cousins while the adults were busy with caregiving responsibilities. In the final days of his life, and in a matter of weeks, this once -active and always slender 65 year old had frighteningly shrunk into a bundle of bones. On one such afternoon, I was watching over the kids who were playing in the sick-room. I realized that Thatha was awake. Too weak to raise himself, he watched the twins for a few minutes. To my horror, a tear slowly trickled down his cheek. In that instant, I realized what he was thinking. He would never see these grandchildren grow up. Our eyes met. We remained mute, but in that unspoken moment, inarticulate angry thoughts bubbled up inside me. I was shattered by the unreasonableness, the pointlessness of life, in a way that has not happened since. That was the only day I cried for him.
He passed away a few days later and I remember my mother asking me, a little petulantly - “Did you not cry for Thatha?” But I remained dry-eyed. How could I understand then, as I understand now, that sometimes grief can be deeply felt and experienced even without tears being shed?
He bequeathed to me his love of the written word, and he introduced me to my favourite writer of all time, who used to be his favourite writer. Even today I cannot pick up a Nevil Shute book and not think of the person who first told me about No Highway and Trustee from the Toolroom, or who helped me pick The Far Pavilions, a book I devoured cover to cover while in my teens. We were regular correspondents when we lived in different cities (and countries) and one of the highlights of my childhood was receiving his letters, sheet after sheet covered in his frankly appalling handwriting. For a time, I even saved all the letters in a file named “Letters from a grandfather to his granddaughter” imitating Pandit Nehru’s book “Letters from a father to his daughter”.
Nostalgia is like an elastic band. It stretches to accommodate loneliness, angst, heartbreak, and even happiness. Sometimes it settles on one, light as a feather, almost invisible and undetectable; at other times, settling like unyielding stone in the crevices of one’s heart. As I relent into a nostalgic haze, I realize that grandparents give us a rare and beautiful gift. They show us their most delightful side, their wisdom, their patience, and their bountiful unconditional love. A side that their children, sons-in-law, and daughters-in-law, may not see that often (or at all)!
Thatha was cheated out of a long and who knows, productive life. But, over the years, I know I am mourning not for him but selfishly, for myself, and for what I was cheated out of. We were great friends, but we would have surely grown to be better ones.
He was a wonderful mimic and would have me in splits while imitating random people or putting on an atrocious British accent. My daughter and he would have got along like a house on fire. In her, I see that same wacky sense of humour, an irreverence that makes for opportunely witty and sarcastic comments.
He would have been thrilled to read my writing, and I would have been excited to read his books and stories and discuss them with him. And I can just see him beaming with pride when my daughter’s story gets published in a magazine!
Isn't it fortunate that time is so forgiving? After people pass on, it ensures we remember them at their very best, healthiest, and happiest; after all, why remember anyone any other way?