Remembering Appa

It’s been altogether a different last three weeks to a month. My father passed away on Feb. 21, 2012. His last few months were far from pleasant, and so we really believe the family line that “while we will no doubt miss him, we are relieved that his suffering came to an end.”  That sentence captures the essence of the event – the tension between the head and the heart.

I hope to reflect on this tension in the near future, but for now I would like to remember the man who I was very close to, especially over the last decade or so. Anybody who knew him would agree that at his core he was a kind, good, and decent man. And he was well rewarded with a wonderful life – not without problems, not without missteps – but yet a wonderful life. I was always proud that he was my father.

After working for Binnys and Caltex, in 1970 he and a couple of his colleagues pioneered the polythene woven sacks industry in India (he was the Secretary, the first one I think, of the still functioning All India Flat Tape Manufacturers Association). In a world of guile and cynicism at times his inherent decency translated into a naivety, for which he paid a price. Or maybe it wasn’t naivety – he simply was willing to pay the price that goodness demands. Or maybe he didn’t see it as paying a price. Whatever it was, work and his colleagues were no longer fun, and a combination of having made enough, and having had enough made him stop ‘working’.  He retired at about 54, and turned his life to family and bridge, maybe not in that order.

When we were growing up, he was more or less a hands-off parent. He did the required minimum and kept out of the way. I am not sure that he really knew how well or badly we were doing in our academics or other extra-curricular activities. The responsibility of seeing the principal when one of us kids messed up, or making sure that we got our school uniforms, or signing report cards fell to my mother. On that last one we were lucky, since Amma’s signature was so much easier to reproduce than his, a signature which can best be described as a scribble which no one could forge.

The above description should not be interpreted to mean he did not do stuff with the family. He cared deeply for Amma and his children, and did plenty with us. This included long road trips, cricket matches (including the First Test match played in Bangalore – India vs. Clive Lloyd’s W. Indies), playing cards, tombola at the Bangalore and Century Clubs and eating out. Eating out most often was either at one of the Clubs, Woodlands or MTR. These are worth mentioning because he rarely ate at any of these places (except for Rasa Vadai and Bagala Bath at Century) – he just accompanied us. He liked his Dosai-molagapodi every night, and that is what he would have at home after we returned with our bellies full. Yes, he would take us out to eat, and would sit at the head of the table without eating, but making sure that the rest of us were doing justice to the gastronomic outing.  Strange, but…

This was simply an example of his sense of dharma – his duty. He did many things because that was the way things should be. I am not sure what determined the directions his dharmic compass commanded that he travel, but there was something authentic about his adherence to these commandments. I can say this with some confidence, because often what he did was inconvenient and uncomfortable. He did not expect others to follow his sense of dharma, though I think he was disappointed at times when he thought people dropped the ball.

He was generous and did not expect anything in return. He was responsible for funding the educational aspirations of many folks – some related, others unknown. He rarely spoke about these acts of generosity, and in fact went so far as to wear a ‘turn the other cheek’ attitude when some of them were simply ungrateful. One such case was a young man who got into the IIT Madras in 1973 but came from a family which was poor enough that they could not even afford the dorm fees (if memory serves me right, the young man did well enough to qualify for academic scholarships which met his tuition). My father was staying at the house of his friends Rajam and Albert Sargunar in Chennai. Rajam Aunty knew this young man and she told my father that it was a pity that the Church would not help him since he wasn’t Christian. My father asked the young man to come and meet him, and after hearing his life story, simply said that as long as he studied well and maintained good grades he did not have to worry about his fees. After first doing a shastanga namaskaram to my dad, the young man assured my father that he would repay the amount once he finished his studies and started working. My father simply told him that there was no need to repay the money. Simply do for a couple of people what I’ve done for you, was his request. I have no idea whether this now not so young man fulfilled my father’s request. After finishing at IIT, he emigrated to the U.S. and simply didn’t keep in touch! I remember saying something not so pleasant about this fellow, and while I do not remember my father’s exact words, it was on the lines of, “Stop it. We don’t know why he didn’t keep in touch!”

He rarely doled out advice, but what he told me about his attitude to money is worth repeating. Money is like a servant – very helpful if you have it. Respect it, and use it carefully and you will be happy. Abuse it and become too dependent on it, and it will hurt you. Fortunately he never had bad financial times – just great, good or decent ones. And it didn’t matter what the times were, his attitude to money and consumption was exactly the same – he led a comfortable life without flashing his wealth.

While all of this is well and good, what made him happiest was playing Bridge (for a touching tribute to him see http://games.groups.yahoo.com/group/indianbridgecontacts/message/3324 written by Manoj, someone whom Appa was very fond of).  He won many a national title in India, including the Holkar Trophy, the Guru Dutt, and the Ruia. He represented India in the World Bridge Olympiad, was the non-playing captain and coach of the Indian Women’s team, and worked to promote Bridge at the state (Karnataka) and national level.  He was a senior office bearer in the state and national bridge federations, and he was particularly proud of bringing international bridge to India. He organized (and represented India as a member of the team) India’s first international bridge tournament – the 1981 Bridge Federation of Asia and Middle East Tournament (the winner of which represented the Zone at the Bermuda Bowl).  India lost to Pakistan in the finals (the famous bridge player Zia Mahmood was on the Pakistani team, and that team came second in the Bermuda Bowl) in what from an Indian perspective was a tough loss snatched from the jaws of victory. I think about four hours after that difficult defeat as a player, the organizer Krishnan was hosting all those who had come to Bangalore at a party in his house. I never thought about it then (I was 18), but looking back it was amazing how he was a generous and gracious host having just missed out on playing at the Bermuda Bowl. And to my mother’s credit, it was one swell party.

We had the good fortune to celebrate his life on the occasion of his Sadabhishekham (approximately 80th birthday, when one has lived long enough to see a thousand full moons) on July 4, 2010. It was a glorious event where plenty of his near and dear ones came to celebrate his and Amma’s life. Shortly afterward his already weak body became weaker and the last two years were simply difficult.

While we will no doubt miss him, we are relieved that his suffering came to an end. I already miss him in ways I did not imagine I would.  I would have never guessed that I would write a piece like this about my father. Hopefully I will get to the piece on the tension between the heart and the head that such an event precipitates. That’s a piece I could always see myself writing.

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