Remembering an uncle who meant so much…

My earliest memories of him are of Cadbury’s chocolates lying on shelves hidden behind curtains, his whistling of popular tunes, his incessant ringing of the doorbell, and his unmistakable penchant for dressing up well. My sister, older to me by almost a decade, remembers having gone out with him to see Ben-Hur when she was hardly in her teens, and of him gifting her presents at regular intervals, one blue frock picked up on her birthday from a roadside retailer in Ballygunge still vivid in her memory. He was our favourite uncle, father figure in later years to many, somebody who exuded authority and charisma – indeed, one of those chosen ones. He was daring, belying his fairly slight appearance. Stories of him taking on a belligerent kabuliwala (remember that moving short story by Rabindranath Tagore?) in the Calcutta of the 1950s have been narrated with bated breath. And of such stuff are legends made.

Neithlath Ramachandra Menon, N.R. Menon, or N.R. as many knew him, passed away yesterday morning after a long-drawn and remarkable battle with Alzheimer’s. Until the disease struck him a few years ago, none in our family had probably ever known what the most common form of dementia was like. He was always forgetful, those who knew him closely would even joke about it, some considered it as fanciful, some didn’t. The day he struggled to get back home in his car was when it dawned on his family, that there was certainly some kind of a problem. Irritability and aggression are some of the symptoms of the disease and as days passed, these came to the fore. My aunt bore most of the brunt but, sadly, she lost another battle – against kidney failure. It was into his own arms she collapsed and fell even as she was climbing up the stairs in her own home in Palakkad… her sudden death led him into a sort of abyss from which he really found no escape. But like the hero he was in real life to all of us, he battled on relentless…

As long as my aunt was alive she was there to cushion his aggressive spirit. Daughters, after all, have limitations, although my two cousin sisters showed they were more than equal to the task. Alzheimer’s in a person who was headstrong, always a leader, had people in his command, can be a terrible thing. It proved so in his case. He would, in the initial stages, be desperate to get out of the house, enter homes, spend sleepless nights foraging – not for food – but for bank account and post office statements… worried to death that people were out to cheat and steal his money. Such activity would go on well past midnight, indeed any hour, he had lost all relevance for time. Despite it all, he would still hold on to your hand firmly, not willing to let go till you nodded to what he seemed to be saying, because most of it was unintelligible. A year or so ago, when I visited him in his home in Kochi, he would come out of his room every few minutes in the dead of night and ask me why I was sleeping alone… the following afternoon, he sat next to me on the sofa, not willing to rest till I had finished with the newspapers. So much for old time’s sake!

It’s when you come face to face with a disease as daunting as Alzheimer’s that you feel humbled; you get to understand life in its varied hues so much better, you realise that wealth and flamboyance (and he was a flamboyant man…) in the end do not really mean anything. Hardly two pounds of flesh and a few bones… and even that doesn’t count because it’s the soul that lives forever, the body is just a vehicle.

Would my uncle ever have thought in his prime that Alzheimer’s would clasp him ever so tightly? Why, even ordinary folks like me would like to think that old age is a mirage and that we will remain young and robust forever. Little do we realise that in life’s unseen and mysterious eddies, all of us lie buried… and we have to plop into the river when the time comes. It’s what we have accomplished that matters… that sets the stage for a future life, be it in another planet or Vaikuntha if you like….

Today, as we grieve for the loss of somebody who stood out like a beacon of hope for many in the family, a leader among men, a care-giver, who, as his elder daughter said so aptly, never bore any ill-will or rancour or bitterness towards anyone, it’s also a time to celebrate… for him having gained mukti or final deliverance, and for touching so many hearts that it is difficult to come to terms with his absence. He must be up there somewhere with my aunt who he loved dearly and for whom did everything he possibly could to please (he took her out almost every evening, even if it was window shopping, and that is not as easy as it sounds). They were indeed a ‘made for each other’ couple who lived up to the billing.

My memories go back to Calcutta once again, when he took me once to Mohan’s in New Market and bought for me a delectable pair of shirts and trousers, the time he took me to the Strand and the Maidan, the time he spared to come to the Bangalore Cantonment Station when I was visiting the Garden City for the first time in the early 1980s, all those walks on MG and Brigade Roads with my aunt and cousins in tow, his way with banquet managers in hotels such as the resplendent Amber in Calcutta (he was a connoisseur of food)... not to forget the night when he arrived past midnight (in the early 1970s) with a doctor after my dad had his first heart attack, the other days when he took him for check-ups to the doctor… it’s a fairly long list and my sister can fill in for the many blanks I have left.

Although it appeared he died ever so alone, it wasn't really the case. He was surrounded (suffused on occasions) by love and the struggle of his loved ones. It was only that the abyss of Alzheimer’s had drawn his conscious mind away from his home to somewhere far, far away and even then, as much as many of us got the strong feeling (and we were probably right), his thoughts must have continued to have had a strong focus on his family that he loved so much and cared for. Even as he would have loved to reach out and touch and feel the hands of people he loved, Alzheimer’s scored and created a vast gap between reality and the obscure. But we were all there to cushion him on his journey to the heavens. 

As telephones rang incessantly and words were exchanged, it was clear he wasn’t alone – no, not any longer. My mother’s (she is older to him by a few years) intermittent sobs betrayed her emotions. After all, she had mothered him for several years in Calcutta before he got married and in her own words, took greater care of him than she did her husband. And all those memories of old continue to flash by in her mind’s eye. There were others who cried, including myself. But soon a greater power enveloped us, assuring that his spirit would continue to guide us in the days and weeks and months ahead... let his soul rest in peace...

PS: I would probably have never moved to Madras if it were not for N.R. He was heading operations in the south for the pesticide company he had served all through in Calcutta and my mother felt he would place me suitably either in his firm or elsewhere. Nothing of the sort happened and, as it turned out, only for my good. Because I learned to stand on my own feet and fight my battles alone. Probably he wished the same thing but was loathe to be open about it. There is also something called 'fate'. It was perhaps not a coincidence that he died on Chithra Pournami, on a day when the moon shone the brightest and biggest in a long time. And today is BuddhaPoornima... somehow it seems he is already up there, shining as bright as Sirius in the night sky.


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