Monday, December 12, 2011

The Passing of a Generation

My grand-uncle (paternal grandfather's brother) passed away at 2:10 am today morning. Since I am myself almost 50, this isn't at all surprising. Yet, it is a passing away to grieve about. He has been the pater familias for longer than I have lived. As the 9th of 10 children (7 brothers and 3 sisters), he was the last torch-bearer of his generation. His passing marks a passing of baton acrosss generations in the family. All his siblings have lived up to ripe ages, 65 upwards. Even in this family, this grand-uncle was unusually long-lived – he was 101 years, 5 months and 19 days when he passed away. The only one in his family to come anywhere close was his mother, my great-grandmother, who passed away at 99.

Longevity, continued good health and sharp mental acuity even at age 101 were remarkable aspects of his life; but more remarkable was the fact that he lived life in exemplary fashion. He was well-off by the standards of his time; but never really rich, but yet, he commanded a “following” among his friends and family that could not be explained fully. His house has been an open house for the extended family for well over 5 decades. I have always felt closer to him than any of my other grand-uncles, because I lost my grandfather when I was 6 years old; I remember seeing him only about twice or thrice.

I remember hazily his recounting of his experience in the 1944 Mumbai docks blast, where a ship berthed in Bombay (as it was then known) Harbour blew up – I recall his telling me (along with a few of my wide-eyed cousins) that one of his office colleagues had a huge bar of pure gold land with an almighty thud in his living room balcony, a few kilometres away from the docks. That story was quite riveting – almost like an eye-witness account. I must have been, perhaps, 5 or 6 years old at the time. I later read a story in an old Readers' Digest magazine issue about that incident that lent great credence to that story. On second thoughts, I can say that RD became more credible in my mind because of this article, rather than the other way around. So strong was his influence on my mind. A few years later, RD thereafter really shaped my eclectic reading interests – I became addicted to reading and would read no less than 15-20 issues of the magazine every three months (by picking up old copies from raddiwalas) for several years. The only other relative who shaped my reading habits was my late uncle, Chaitanya D Haldipur.

Among my earliest memories were attending my grand-uncle's 60th birthday celebrations, in 1970. We went by BEST Bus No.85 from Shivaji Park (a 12-15 minute walk from our home, then) to Tardeo, where it stopped just by the gate of the building where he stayed. There were so many people that I was a happily anonymous 8-year old having the run of their vast (so it seemed to my eyes then) apartment that day. I had a close look at a bouquet of 60 red roses sent by his office colleagues (he must have retired from service that day (I now guess) in a wicker basket, covered with crinkling cellophane probably the first time I had seen a bouquet.

For a few decades, he did a great deal of social work in our community, and I gathered that he was as liked as he was disliked, for his forthright views and actions, though I was never very aware of what he did. All I know is that for a few years, he was the full-time Manager of our community's Math at Shirali in Karnataka State, where he was credited with quite a lot of reforms, that resulted in the Math becoming financially self-sustained and less dependent on donations from the community. After that, I gathered that he was one of the founder-trustees of the Shree Trust, which set up a Math in Karla, between Mumbai and Pune.

My grand-uncle was headstrong, but managed a remarkable partnership of marriage that lasted exactly 75 years, with my my grand-aunt, who passed away just 6 months ago. As long as she was alive, he complained and chafed because his immediate family would not allow him to go out of the home by himself. Read this in the context of the fact that he had won a WIAA safe driving award many decades ago, and till he was past 92, he drove himself around in the Mumbai traffic. For this, he became some kind of a hero in the eyes of the extended family and his friends and well-wishers, but his immediate family would be on tenterhooks whenever he made off with the car riding over every objection raised by them. The family eventually decided to end these “escapades” by selling off the car. All this time, he looked perhaps 20 years younger than he actually was!

Indeed, an anecdote is shared by many in our family circles about one of his visits to Shirali, when he was around 85. He travelled alone by bus to Bhatkal (the nearest town where the bus stopped), where a car was to pick him up. The car driver was told to look out for an 85-year-old man travelling alone, and instructed to take special care of him. AtmaBappa got down from the bus, not looking much over 60 at that time. He could not see any car or placard-waving driver waiting for him, so after waiting a few minutes, he took a taxi and went to Shirali on his own, while the driver waited in vain, looking out for a frail-looking 85-year-old !

When he was 100, when I once visited him, he was spiritedly holding forth when suddenly, in the middle of a sentence, he asked me, “Where is Revati?” Only when I assured him that she was in the bedroom, talking to my wife, did he continue. It was a remarkable bond. He was physically fitter than she was, throughout their life together. Revatipachhi, as I called her (meaning Aunt Revati in Konkani, my mother-tongue) was the complete opposite – she was cool and frail; AtmaBappa (Uncle Atma) was mercurial, oozing health and energy. She was about 5 ft tall; he was almost 6 ft tall. She could barely be heard; his resonant baritone voice boomed across three thick walls of his home for over 50 years. They became the longest living couple in India as reckoned by sum total of their ages (using dates of birth as recorded in their passports). I like to think that they both lived so long because they both did not want to be the first among them to die, leaving the other alone.

While he stayed independent till the very end, he appreciated the lifetime of dedication of his daughter-in-law, Rekha, to her family. Rekha has been the one strong, steady feature in their domesitc life. At one time, there were four residents in that home, and three of them were unable to walk without support. Rekha took care of their every need selflessly. On his 99th Birthday, he announced to me in Rekha's presence that from now on, Rekha is the Boss of the House. He then told me sotto voce, that he was only saying it now, but that has been the case for quite a few years already!

When Revatipachhi passed away 6 months ago, something was snuffed out of AtmaBappa's life. While earlier, he was impatient with everyone because they restricted him and did not allow him to go around without a walker (which he was forced to use after a hip bone fracture when he was 99), now he had fallen silent. The last time I met him while he was up and about, which was probably a month ago, for the first time in my memory, he almost looked his age. He seemed lost, as if in some distant thoughts. It now took him 12-15 minutes to walk in tiny steps using a walker, from the living room divan to the dining table. But yet, he refused to be touched or assisted by anyone. He insisted on walking on his own, his streak of independence undulled by the ravages of Time.

His 101st birthday (just a month after his wife passed away) was a quiet, normal day, in June this year. I went to greet him. I touched his feet, and no sooner had I said, Many Happy Returns, he said in his usual stentorian tone, “No! Don't say Returns! I don't want to see another Birthday!”. I returned home with a slight feeling of despondency. At 99, he refused to undergo cataract surgery in one eye, saying,”What do I need better eyesight for? What will I see?” That seemed like his usual pragmatic self. But this was different – I had seen a person waiting to die.

The end came, for all practical purposes, about 2 weeks ago, when he got up to walk when nobody was around him, for a few seconds, and fell to the ground, with his head hitting the ground hard. The resultant blood clot and brain swelling pushed him into a coma, from which he never really came out. Doctors were amazed to see that his vital parameters were all perfect till the very end. They actually expected him to emerge from his comatose state soon. But that was not to be. After 2 weeks in the hospital, they brought him home. His wife had insisted that she not be admitted to a hospital, because she wanted to die at home. He probably wanted the same – because, within 24 hours of his returning home, he breathed his last.

Atmaram Ganpatrao Haldipur, RIP.

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