My dad’s last act of defiance was by way of written instructions to my brother. He was on assisted breathing, and was unable to talk. The instructions were clear: ‘No traditional hindu rituals. Body to be donated for research’.
On the 31st of December, 2014, we bid farewell to a maverick, a true renaissance man and a free thinker. He was my dad. For the next few days, the phone rang off the hook. Colleagues who had worked with him 30 years back. Friends from College. The driver he had 30 years back. People loved him, and loved his genuine desire to help others.
His rebellion started early in life. A particular target of his was hindu rituals. An early act of defiance was his refusal to undergo ‘poonal’ or the sacred thread ceremony for brahmins. My dad’s father was not one who accustomed to anyone – much less his sons – standing upto him. But my dad was clear and resolute: he yielded when his dad agreed that he could bypass other customs (including the ‘kundi’ which is the traditional way of shaving the hair of brahmins).
This is not to say he was not religious – he always distinguished between his beliefs and the rituals surrounding the belief. He was a fervent believer in Lord Venkateswara, and tried to make it to tirupati as often has he could. In his later years, that became too difficult, so he resorted to finding a religious loophole. He visited the Uppiliappan temple in Kumbakonam, near his native Thanjavur. Uppiliappan is the elder brother of Lord Venkateswara, so he reasoned that the Lord would be happy that he was paying respects to his elder brother.
The village where he grew up did not meet his needs to explore the world. He ended up at DMET, a marine engineering college, and got onboard a ship to see the world. On a trip back, he had his eye on my mom, someone he had known for a long time. He went straight to my mom’s dad, and asked if he could marry her. Sacrilege. Marriage was the decision of the parents, with the kids playing minor roles in it (“minor”. Heh. He would’ve liked that pun). But he prevailed and convinced his father-in-law to be. The down side was he knew his days on the sea were numbered.
He went on to becoming a landlubber. My parents moved to Rishikesh, at the foot of the himalayas. His restless nature got the better of him after a few years, and they hoofed it again to Bombay, then Surat, then Orissa, then West Bengal.. everywhere but his native south.
He loved everything he worked on. He was deeply devoted to his craft, though his craft changed over time. He loved the notion of computers making him more productive. 1983 was a gamechanger to him. He purchased the first IBM compatible PC, then released for the first time in India (HCL Busybee PC, two 5 1/4″ floppy drives). His purchase of the computer caused waves of consternation. The labor unions in the plant started agitating because the ‘computer machine’ was going to take over their jobs. In reality, all it did was spreadsheets and word processing (remember wordstar?)
His devotion to his family and his belief in his sons were out of the ordinary. This expressed itself in little ways sometimes, and really large bets sometimes. Thinking back, some of the things he did were just crazy. Like sending his second son – me – to the US for graduate studies – by taking a loan against his hard earned retirement fund. What would’ve happened if I were unable to make the best use of this opportunity? Looking back, I’m slightly horrified at the chance he took. He gambled his future to support my aspirations. (Maybe he never had the doubts in me that I had in myself)
His integrity shone like a beacon. In a society where slipping money under the table is par for the course, he refused steadfastly to accept any or give any, and lived with the consequences of doing that. He lived his life with single minded integrity. My brother reminisced that the only time he had seen tears in my dad’s eyes was when the Dean of a college demanded a job for his son in order to allow admission into the college. My dad refused, of course. It made him really sad to see corrupt educators. What would students learn?
He loved a good joke, and had a stable of standard ones. When I would visit him, we’d spend hours swapping jokes. In the hospital, I told him one last one: An American, an Englishman and an Indian had to cross a desert. They were allowed to take one thing with them on their trip. The American chose a 12 pack of ice cold beer of course. ‘When it gets hot, I’ll just chug it’. The englishman chose a large watermelon. ‘Nothing like a watermelon to cool you down, old chap!’. The indian, much to the puzzlement of the others, showed up with a car door. He explained ‘When it gets hot, I can roll down the window’.
He was too sick to smile. He gave me a thumbs up sign.
His inability to discipline us was a delight to his three sons. Once he did get mad and raised his voice, asked us to turn to the wall to administer corporal punishment. That consisted of using a ping pong paddle to tap us lightly on our backs. We giggled all the way through the punishment.
He smoked. Smoking in his generation was a rite of passage. We made lots of attempts to get him to quit. None of it worked till one summer I returned from the US with a 6 month supply of nicotine patches. At the age of 60, with 30 years of chain smoking under his belt, he quit. And then on he despised smoking (and often, smokers too). We like to think it added 20 years to his life.
His favorite gizmo was an iPad that I gifted him a few years back. The device stunned him. He treasured it. When he got somewhat better after his stroke, his first demand was for his beloved ipad. The easiest way for me to show my affection for him was to feed his gizmo fascination.
He wrote constantly. he started a family newsletter in the days prior to the internet, and mailed it out to the diaspora. He wrote a book of limericks. He published a monthly quality newsletter. At the age of 79, he was still working and active, often flying twice a month to various location, in his role as a quality consultant and ISO process auditor. We tried to get him to slow down, but his reaction was ‘Do you want me to keep doing what I love or not?’ He had my brother send out the last quality newsletter while he was in the hospital. He acted as an editor of the local newspaper. gratis. He loved what he did, and loved that he made a difference to others. He lived a full, happy life with varied experiences. He lived on his own terms and to his own standards. He marched to the beat of his own drummer.
Farewell, Appa. I can only hope to be half as great as you, and I would feel quite satisfied with that outcome.