March 12, 2023

Today our Appa, Alladi Ramabrahma Sheshagiri would have turned 100. Three years ago, he went to join Amma who had left eight years earlier.  From 2012 to 2020 , Appa’s presence in our life (Big Brother Subri and I)  became the greatest treasure we could have-  When Thulasi, our Amma died in 2012 and Big Brother Bunty followed her a few months later, we began grasping at tenuously held memories of them, for we could no longer pester Amma with questions which were always answered with a little story about a much-loved relative, our grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins.

         “What was the color of Paati’s  wedding sari?” the niece, Harini , asked her grandfather   in the early days of life without Amma, when we were all gathered to grieve together. She had set me off a feverish, fervent exercise , to retrieve every memory of Amma from every source- Subri,  sister-in-law Nalini, myself. And Appa, who had spent 57 years with her, and therefore knew her better than she perhaps knew herself.

         My deepest regret about Amma will always be that I didn’t spend enough time with her as I grew older, and perhaps made her unhappy about it too. But she never let on, and now I was left feeling a bit guilty, and a great deal of ruing that I hadn’t gathered enough memories of her to cherish .

         If Amma’s was an abrasive affection, Appa’s tender love was a salve to it. It was Amma’s enduring lament that Appa’s image (and popularity) as a gentle soul, a fount of knowledge, charming wit , and legendary humor came at great cost-  to her!

         Between them, Appa and Amma have left us “simply rich”- growing up as we did  in boundless love, laughter, and humor, learning to smile blithely in the face of adversity , as if it was our friend.

         They must have arranged it between themselves- Appa to remain with us for eight years more, so that we could fill our hearts with memories of them, until they became a  part of ourselves, and we never felt their absence.

         For eight years, Appa was the raconteur regaling us with stories – his own childhood that could well be the inspiration for Swami and Friends”  life with his father M.Ramabrahma the taciturn Anglophile, Ramabrahma, once the Headmaster of Sardar’s High School Belgaum, who lived by the clock, and always noted the time he did anything.

         I asked him the questions I forgot to ask Amma- about their wedding, and their life together first in Mangalore and then in Bangalore. He told me about her cobalt blue kanjivaram saree and  of the day he went with our aunt, Dr Kokila  aka Kutti, his eldest sister, to buy the wedding saris for his bride, whom he would wed on July 20, 1955, in Nellore.

         There are memories that I made on my own, watching Appa and Amma growing old together. Amma , was often angry, and petulant and even disparaging of Appa’s choices and preferences. Sometimes, it seemed to me that Amma reserved an extra dose of meanness for him when she  laughed at his expense, and I felt torn – should I laugh with her or  show solidarity with Appa by not smiling.

Appa himself  never let it bother him, I think. Come to think of it, I don’t remember when  I last saw Appa being “officially” angry, about anything. It was the sole preserve of  impatient, intolerant Amma, whose impatience, and intolerance, I have to admit, dissipated as quickly as it erupted, and her whacky, often wicked sense of humor took over.

Then  I grew up and came to realize that they were still together,  carrying on their strange, one-sided arguments conducted by Amma, interspersed with  Amma’s demands for help with the crossword, her giggles over Appa’s pooja which she found very funny- he’s saying the shlokas hesitantly, as if he doesn’t want to disturb the gods, she’d say. 

 I  often found myself snapping at Amma or Appa with impatience  and immediately regretting it. We would all sulk a little, laugh a little in a conciliatory manner, or  let the moment pass while I’d look rueful, and then ask for coffee, and everything became “normal” again .

Subri and I recently remembered a sweet, tender ritual which Appa conducted every morning, schooldays, and weekends- we’d wake up and go, bleary-eyed to the bathroom to find three toothbrushes , lined up on the ledge with a fresh blob of toothpaste, ready for us to brush.

When summer holidays came, and we invariably got shunted to Nellore or Madras , Appa would forget we were not there, and since we would have forgotten to pack our toothbrush in the excitement of the upcoming train journey, he would squeeze the paste on them. It would be left to Amma to scrape off the dried paste and fling them into the waste bin.

How grateful I am for these wonderful eight years spent in Appa’s company! I learnt a lot about Amma, and Appa. I learnt a great deal about myself too, which made me more tolerant, and less angry (I probably get that from Amma) and I think I filled with much more inner peace ( that must be from Appa)

I admit, though I retain just a smidgeon of exasperation that was very necessary to living with Appa and made for a deeper understanding of why  Amma was the way she was with Appa.

It was in June 2015. Appa and I had been to Biligiriranga temple, and it had been a steep clamber up the steps, but Appa managed, and so did I. On the way back we stopped at the Gaganachukki and Barachukki falls. As we were heading to the watch tower to view the Barachukki falls rumble down a short way before flowing mightily by, there was a sudden downpour that became a slight, steady drizzle.

I was tired, and the glimpse of Barachukki from the car was enough for me. But Appa stepped out smartly and headed for the tower. I followed, with much grumbling and whining. We made it up on to the tower, and I soon forgot to be grouchy.

And then came the Amma Moment- the A-Z Crossword dictionary I ordered arrived. It was Father’s Day, and I rashly resolved to make it a day of no cross word at Appa . It wasn’t long before the questions came .

Is hatch a henhouse? Can you make this photo come on the iPad? Can we order a bigger soft ball for Baby Nidhi from A-6? Can you wash that toy kadugolu and give it to Nidhi to play with? … and so on.

He then got out his iPad,  and began to watch 19030’s hottie Shanta Apte singing Longfellow’s A Psalm of Life in the movie Duniya Na Maaney

His questions, I now realize were really answers looking for questions, so that he can tell us a story, retrieve a memory and time-travel to a gentler past.

         It has been a strange three years- of  feeling Appa’s absence and his presence. We speak of him every day, We remember his fussy annoying ways, and laugh at ourselves for giving in to his fuss about things was the easiest way to please him and be happy ourselves.   I wake up some days in the morning,  expecting Appa to peep in and enquire, “  shall I brush my teeth?” , which meant he was ready for his morning coffee.

         Sometimes the remembered fragrance of Mysore Sandal soap which he picked as his own bathing bar when he was 14,   tickles the nose and the picture of Appa emerging fragrant and fresh from his bath flashes before the eyes.

         I can see him happily instructing me, for the hundredth  time, to temper the thayir sadam just so- with mustard and urad dal and chili, and watch the oil spread like a red-gold blush on the whiteness of curd rice.  

We remember his moments of anecdotage

         Appa never went into his dotage, but he slipped occasionally into anecdotage. . “Lets play Thutt antha Heli” he said one day, referring to a quiz show on TV. He was the quizmaster, and the question was  “What is the other name for Bhaja Govindam?”

I said, “I don’t know.” 

Appa : it’s called Moha Mudhgara, so I need to take back a book from you “

(The rules of the quiz show was that right answers got you a book and wrong answers cost you a book.

I can now never forget Moha Mudhgara

Subri’s anecdote

Subri and Appa were once watching a recitation of Bhagavad Gita on TV.
Subri heard the words Yogakshemam Vahamyaham, and exclaimed “ I never knew LIC existed in ancient times!!”
To which Appa replied,  “ Yes but the premium was very high. Complete surrender was the only option.”

Yogakshemam Vahamyaham meaning Your Welfare Is Our Resonsibility, is the l motto of LIC

      Our cousin Sheeli, whose birthday falls three says after Appa’s, remembered him when was in his  “youthful eighties” he became more interesting as he added a year to his life- He was a “true sanyasi” – a man of few wants and many necessities.  

         And five years ago, on his 95th  birthday, Sheeli sent greetings to Appa-smart, patient, tolerant, humorous,  voracious reader with razor sharp memory . She also admired him for two qualities- he never blew his own trumpet, and he never spoke ill of others!

         Indeed. I am certain he carried all the knowledge there is in the world in his wise old head.  I’m grateful for so many conversations we had about everything-  Ramayana, our family, our grandfathers, and his grandfather Alladi Mahadeva Sastry and his legacy, his boyhood in Belgaum, his Amma whom I have never seen.

We have learnt from our Appa the art of being forever a child at heart. Did we also learn that to celebrate his presence is to never feel his absence?