Sunday, August 30, 2009

A Tribute To My Father-in-law

Today marks the third year of my beloved father-in-law's passing away. I am assailed by a myriad of memories, thinking of him in ways that only a fond child would. I used to call him "Appa" (Dad), but he was more than that to me, having touched my life in a very remarkable way. I still find it difficult to reconcile with his loss, for he had always seemed so larger than life, the patriarch of the family who ruled over everyone with that unmistakable combination of love and sternness and pride and geniality. Death was something I never associated with Appa and it broke my heart when he died, just as it did my husband's, his first-born child.

I must confess, my father-in-law and I did not start off on good terms.I was the outsider and a Christian at that, who had dared to fall in love with his beloved son, the apple of his eye (excuse the cliche) for whom he had great dreams and aspirations. He had hoped his son would marry a well-heeled Hindu girl, preferably one that he and his wife chose, but there I was, ready to throw a monkey wrench in the works. Let me just say that what got off to a rocky start blossomed and mellowed into a relationship of mutual love and admiration in no time at all.

Appa was hugely proud of who I was and he respected and admired me for my education, profession, and a whole host of other things. We clashed ideologically on many grounds, but he admired the fact that I was able to hold on my own and would not be cowed down by his stand on any matter whatsoever. I was able to sit with him and have an informed conversation on varied topics, both global and local. I could as easily discuss with him the genocide in Rwanda or the state of the economy as I could the local municipal elections, and he was very proud of my ability to do that. I remember how taken aback he was when during a blackout I asked him what a brownout was, and he was very surprised that I even knew about it. He explained it to me very clearly in lay man terms. I could sense the pride in his voice when he introduced me to others. "This is my daughter-in-law. She's a professor of English at Lady Doak College," he would go. I also remember how he was there in attendance at my graduation, and my husband's as well. I was there for my M.Phil. degree in English, and my husband for his M.B.A., and the University premises were under Appa's jurisdiction at that time. Besides, the Governor of the State was the chief guest at the graduation ceremony, so the entire Electricity Board was in attendance at the affair. Need I say that Appa was beaming with pride at our accomplishment and kept introducing me and my husband to his entire staff!

Appa was an electrical engineer by profession who wielded a lot of clout, both political and otherwise, while he was in service. There were other engineers in the Electricity Board, but Engineer Paranjothi was clearly by far greater among his equals.His influence was extraordinary, his contacts ranged from the lowliest to the mightiest, and his dedication to his job was unrivaled till the very end. He was very knowledgeable about his field, having moved up steadily through the ranks, and his willingness to use his influence to help others was legendary. My Aunt would walk into his office for any kind of help related to power supply in her huge compound, and she would brag to people that she need not worry because her niece's father-in-law was the electrical engineer in the area. Having my own father-in-law as the ADE came with its own perks. When I was getting ready to go to work and there was a power cut, it would annoy me no end, and I would call him right away, "Don't worry, ma. It's just a changeover. Your supply will be restored within minutes," he would say. Or he would forewarn me about a power cut so I could manage things at home efficiently.

My husband always used to tell me about all the valuable life lessons he had learned from his Dad and how his father had helped him hone all his soft skills. He was a pro at public relations and inculcated in my husband the truth that every single person is important, no matter what their stature in life. He was a "people person" till the very end and he takes all the credit for having turned his son, my husband, into one as well. Another important thing we learned from him was about the importance of giving feedback to one's superiors. "Never assume that your boss knows what you have done. Always make it a point to inform him about what you have accomplished," he would say, an advice I still remember to this day. For our turn, my husband and I keep reminding our son of all these lessons that we learned from Appa.

Appa always treated me in a very special manner. It was ironic how quickly I turned into the favored one, and he would show it in such an obvious way, much to the annoyance of the others in the family, and to my embarrassment! However, I must admit that at times I did enjoy his attention and preferential treatment!!! Whenever we traveled out of town, Appa would have boiled and filtered water brought for him in a canteen, and of all the family members, I would be the only one allowed to drink from his canteen. "Olivia is like me, she just can't drink water from unknown sources, or she might get sick," he would say, and this would irritate the others around us. When I visited his house and he was having his coffee, he would yell to my mother-in-law in the kitchen, "Olivia is here. Indira, bring her some coffee!" and my mother-in-law would patiently answer, "Oh, she doesn't drink coffee, you know." And this would happen every single time I went over to their house! Or when we visited the ancestral village where there was just one portable fan available, he would invite me to sit next to him so I wouldn't sweat in the humidity and heat. If he spotted so much as a drop of sweat on my brow, he would hand over his towel for me to wipe it off... and this from a man who was so finicky about cleanliness and wouldn't let anyone touch his towel! As was the custom, as the patriarch of the family, he got to eat first with the other men during festivals and celebrations, but I would be the only female he would invite to sit with him for the meal, and countless were such occasions! Or when everyone else sat cross-legged on the floor for the traditional meal, I would be sitting at the table with him. His excuse? "Olivia is like me. She's used to sitting at the table and cannot be inconvenienced by sitting on the floor!" The only other person in the family for whom he had an overwhelming affection was his younger sister, the only girl in his family. He always doted on his sister, and the whole house would be agog with his infectious excitement whenever she paid him a visit!

My father-in-law respected my family a lot. He had great regard for my father whom he considered an intelligent, well-read man. My brothers he treated with the utmost courtesy and considered them intellectuals in their own right. When my father died of complications from diabetes and kidney failure, my father-in-law was terribly rattled, because he was a diabetic himself. He took the greatest care with his diet and exercise regimen, but who can stop time and the toll it takes on one's body?!? Appa's health started deteriorating gradually...after a series of hospitalizations, my husband decided it was time to pay him a visit. My father-in-law pulled through on that occasion, and was discharged from the hospital, but when my husband left to come home, he knew that was the last time he would ever be seeing his Dad alive. He said Appa insisted on walking out of the house to see him off, and till the car turned around the street corner, he was standing there waving goodbye! Unfortunately for all of us, two months later was an irreversible deterioration, and all I was able to do was talk to Appa, both of us crying over the phone, me with the knowledge that he was dying, and he with the sadness that I was so far away and he wasn't able to see me. My son got to speak to him as well, and I was choked as he and his grandpa sobbed over the phone."Is Thaathaa (Grandpa) going to die, Ma?"... I didn't have an answer. We were hoping the doctors could do something to save Appa, but all was in vain. My beloved father-in-law passed away this day three years ago.

My bond with my father-in-law was as strong as my husband's to him. I never expected anything from Appa other than his affection and he was very much aware of that and loved me all the more. I made sure I loved him for who he was. He had his own failings just as any human being has, but his love for us overrode all those failings, I must say! We all miss him every single day, and I especially think of all his kindnesses and loving gestures towards me. From disapproval to inclusion and wholehearted love was an incredible journey for me with Appa and I shall always cherish him in my heart. True to the Hindu philosophy of an after-life, they always say that the soul returns to earth and hovers around the ones it loves, and I have no doubt in my mind at all that Appa's soul is here with us, his benevolent presence felt in our midst, day in and day out. 

Rest in eternal peace, Appa! We love you very much! 

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Do Only Cats Have Nine Lives?!?

Who said only cats had nine lives?!? The living example who seems to have disproved this oft and time again is none other than Ernie "Punch" McLean, BC's illustrious hockey coaching legend and member of the BC Hockey Hall of Fame. The 77-year old was out inspecting property in the northern wilderness of BC south of the Yukon border when he went missing. It so happened that after coaching other hockey greats like Wayne "The Great One" Gretzky and numerous others who went on to stardom, prospecting for gold in British Columbia's wildernesses had become another of Ernie's passions , and it was during one of those jaunts that he failed to return.

Do not forget that this was the man who crawled out of a plane crash suffering the loss of an eye and two teeth, plus a broken shoulder bone, and walked out of the bush alive. Throw in a few car accidents, plus surviving a 240 volt shock from a faulty control panel, and you know this 77-year old was too much of a survivor to be written off. The mountainous area where he was working on a gold claim was rugged terrain that was not easily accessible and could be searched only by all-terrain vehicles, and by air. With a massive search and rescue operation launched, BC waited with bated breath.

With no food, no satellite phone or GPS, and with just the clothes on his back, Ernie walked out of the wilderness after four days and was spotted on a horse trail by a helicopter pilot. It looks like Ernie had been surveying the area with his geologist and having parted ways with him, promising to return to camp by evening, he had fallen down a ravine and become disoriented. He had climbed back up out of the ravine on the opposite side and had started walking in the wrong direction. Using the sun for direction and guidance the next day, he had walked 12 hours each day till nightfall till he was found. Greatly relieved on hearing the news of his being alive, his wife promptly promised to smack him on the head when she saw him!!!

Stories like Ernie's inspire me a lot and make me think of the resilience of the human mind and the indomitable courage one can exhibit while facing insurmountable odds. Just two weeks shy of his 78th birthday, Ernie had the will and the determination to walk out alive of yet another ordeal. His memorable quote is that he "was not lost, but just went missing!" Ernie has promised to rest for a few weeks and be back out there in the wilderness again, doing what he loves the most - working on gold claims! Who said only cats had nine lives?!?

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Metro Vancouver's Newest Canada Line

Amidst a great deal of hoopla, hullabaloo, and fanfare, Metro Vancouver's latest pride, the Canada Line was inaugurated day before yesterday. The $ 2 billion Canada Line is the newest sky train line connecting the downtown core of Vancouver to the Vancouver International Airport in Richmond. The ambitious project had been in the making since 2005, much to the chagrin of business owners along its route and the indignation of countless others who were inconvenienced by its construction. Anyways, as a true Vancouverite, I was quite happy that all's well that ends well!

Well, Monday, August 17th was D-day and the public was invited to ride it for free from 1 PM to 9 PM. Besides the Premier of B.C. declaring it open,there was excitement galore at each station (16 in all) - concerts, entertainment for children, free cake, pizza, etc., etc. I must admit the excitement was a little infectious, so I asked the kid,"Shall we go for a ride on the Canada Line?" Came the quick retort,"Why would you want to ride on a train?" Translation: "Are you out of your mind?" I mumbled something lamely and went about my work.

Came the husband who turned on the 12 o'clock news and there was the excitement all over again! Probably, the husband didn't want to dampen my schoolgirl-like enthusiasm, so he said, "Hey, wanna go for a ride?" When the kid was asked to get ready, his next question was,"Don't you go to work by train everyday?" Translation: " Get a life, people!" Well, this time, the Dad and I together mumbled,"You know what, this is such a historic moment. We must be proud to be a part of history, blah...blah...blah."

Anyways, to cut the story short, we did make it to Richmond by car, hoping to take the new and improved sky train from there to Vancouver, and then return the same way. We parked 6 blocks away at a place the husband was familiar with, and when we were three blocks from the train station, we noticed a lot of people and activity on the streets. "Is there a street festival going on in Richmond?" I enquired, wondering how on earth I could have missed that. The kid just rolled his eyes. Translation:" It's not just you guys who are lame, but there's a million others out here as well!"

It so happened that 80,000 other people had the same brilliant idea as mine to be a part of history! We also heard people talk of their having been in line for well over 2 hours. It wasn't just being able to get on to a train, but one couldn't return by the same had to get off and wait another 2 hours to get on to a different train, just so everyone could ride the Canada Line. There was no speaking after that...we did an about turn and marched right back to our car. I sensed a straightening of the shoulder and a swagger in the kid's walk. Translation: "I told you so!"

The husband bought us icecream from the drive through at McDonald's. We licked our icecream cones in silence and returned home. Lessons learned:1) listen to the kid...he's (always?) right. Nah...I'll go with "mostly right." 2) Don't think you have a great will a million others!
3) Don't try to be a part of history.

I live in New Westminster, in a heritage area where all the street signs boast,"Historic Brow of the Hill." I guess that's about all how I can be a part of history!!!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Friend, philosopher, guide, father

(Note: This piece about my father was first published on December 4, 1997, in the San Jose Mercury News, when I was living in California. I would like to reproduce it here because it complements my previous blog about my Mom.)

When I was a little girl, my father seemed to me the tallest, strongest, most handsome man on the face of the Earth. Daddy could beat a dozen men single-handedly in a fight, could scale mammoth mountains, swim across oceans and conquer the stars - or so I thought. But as I grew up, I came to realize that Dad wasn't Superman after all, in the physical sense, but he was indeed an intellectual colossus, a caring and sensitive man, my friend, my philosopher, my guide.

It is no exaggeration to say my father was a self-taught man. He had never entered the portals of a college, but he was so widely read and well-informed that he could put an academic to shame. Reading was his passion, his way of life. He spent a considerable amount of his income on buying books, had an extensive personal library on a wide range of subjects, and above all, he encouraged me to read. My fondest childhood memory is of my Dad lounging in his easy chair with his eyes closed, and I, his youngest child (just 6 years old at that time) sitting beside him and reading an article aloud from
Reader's Digest. I remember pronouncing the 'p' in "psychology" when I encountered the word for the first time and my father correcting my pronunciation. Countless were the number of hours I used to read aloud to my father and that was motivation enough for me to get hooked on reading.

Another favorite memory is of my lying with my parents on the terrace of our house under a star-studded sky and my father pointing out to me the different stars shining in the velvet night. There was Hesperus, here was Orion or the Seven Sisters, the hunter, and so on, and I would try to make out different shapes in the constellation that my childish fancy would lead me to. Dad would talk to me about black holes and supernova and the aurora borealis and other such celestial phenomena, and would have me spellbound about the possibilities of extraterrestrial life.

The first elocution contest I participated in was when I was in the first grade and the topic was "My Ambition In Life." Typical of all kids, I told my Dad I wanted to be a doctor and he wrote for me a speech that I memorized. Oh boy, wasn't I thrilled when I walked away with the first prize! There was no looking back thereafter - I would run to my father for opinions and ideas, be it an essay competition or a speech contest or a recitation contest, and I would follow him like a puppy around the house, jotting down everything he said. I recall very vividly the time he dictated a speech on "Thrift" from inside the bathroom. There I was, standing outside the door and writing in my notebook: "Thrift, as Samuel Smiles put it, began with civilization. It began when men found it necessary to provide for tomorrow." That was how the speech began, and I still remember the lines after almost a quarter of a century. Need I tell you that I walked away with the first prize that time too!

Then there were the times my father used to encourage me to memorize poems and recite them. Robert Southey's "The Cataract of Lodore" was an all-time hit, with its plethora of '
-ing' verbs describing the waterfall at Lodore. My Dad opened up for me the magical world of books. Contrary to my childhood ambition of becoming a doctor, I chose to major in English Language and Literature. I did my father proud by graduating with top honors, and have been an English professor in a college for the past 12 years.

Retrospect...reminiscences...recollections - what a hive of memories I have become! My father died of kidney failure four years back, and the day after the funeral, there I was in my undergraduate class, teaching John Donne's "Death, Be Not Proud." It sounded rather ironic and bizarre at that time, but now it appears an appropriate defiance of death. My father may have passed away, but he lives on in the nostalgic memories of his beloved daughter.

My only regret is that my 2-year old son never got to know his wonderful grandpa. He will never hear the tales of the great explorers and adventurers while seated on his grandpa's lap, and he will never have the privilege of meeting his mother's friend, philosopher and guide - her father! To him, Grandpa Samuel is just a picture on the wall, and on warm summer nights, when he and his mother gaze into the starry sky, Grandpa is there amid the stars, having transcended the barriers of time into eternity.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Mummy ... In Memoriam!

In all honesty, while growing up, I was never that close to my Mom. I was always Daddy's little girl and Mummy was merely a presence, whose connection to my life I took for granted just because she was my mother and nothing more. Little did I realize how she had influenced me oh so subtly through the inexorable passage of time. My feelings for Mummy changed when I became a mother myself, and these random thoughts in my very first blog are in honor of Mercy Samuel, my beloved mother, who passed away in February of this year.

My mother was an educator who retired as the head teacher of a high school. She also happened to have a love for Shakespeare, and having read
Twelfth Night while she was carrying me, her youngest child, it was no wonder then that I was promptly named after Shakespeare's heroine, something quite unheard of in the part of the world where I grew up! Mummy was defined by her deep-seated religious convictions, and every single day started and ended with a prayer, right till the very end of her life. My earliest recollection is of my mother singing a hymn at dawn each day while we children were drifting in and out of sleep, her soft, melodious voice signaling to us that daybreak was near. Family prayers were a daily occurrence and weekly church attendance was a given in those days. When I was two years old, Mummy taught me how to say grace before a meal, something I continue to say till this very day. "Dear Jesus," the prayer goes, "thank you for this food. Bless all that I eat and strengthen me. Amen." Need I say that this is what my son says now as well!?!

I was my mother's fifth child and she used to tell me how God had listened to her prayers and given me, after her fourth baby, a girl, had died under tragic circumstances. She used to say I was the result of her penance and pleading to God on her knees, after a number of miscarriages she had suffered. Religion, as my mother taught it, was OK with me, but as a child, I used to be annoyed when she called me home for prayers while I was playing with my friends on the street. "Oliviaaaaaa...," she would call out, and the other kids would go, "Your mother's calling...Time for prayer!" Everyone living on our street knew that without a doubt!

I studied in the same school that my mother was head teacher of, and I was one of the students in the very first batch that graduated from it. In all my years at school, never once did I go to my mother asking her to speak to my teacher because I hadn't done my homework or hadn't brought a textbook. Mummy would never like it, I knew. I had to be responsible for myself, I was told, and I did my best to excel in everything and make my mother proud. In fact, I steered clear of her at school and never went anywhere near her office or classroom. When I got the first rank in class and showed my progress report to her at home, her comment would be, "It's no surprise to me that you got the first rank. The real surprise would be if you didn't get it." This was her way of appreciating me, of showing how much faith she had in me. But of course, on a rare occasion or two, I've heard her brag to an aunt or an uncle, "Unlike other mothers, I never have to tell my daughter to study. She does an exemplary job on her own!"

My mother was such a conscientious person who never called in sick to work or took a day off. None that I knew of! The same was true when I ranked first at university in my undergraduate program and received the gold medal from the Governor of my state... Mummy promptly went to work even on that day, much to my disappointment. The teachers at her school were outraged..."Mrs. Samuel, how could you do such a thing? Why did you come to school? Shouldn't you have attended your daughter's graduation?..." they went, and it was only then that my mother realized her mistake and recognized how disappointed I must have been. She did come home and apologize to me. It's another story that I went on to get a gold medal in my graduate program and yet another one in my pre-doctoral program, and Mummy was there on both occasions, cheering me from the stands!

Mummy had a heartfelt love for nature. The year that she spent with me in California opened her up to the natural wonders and beauty of this part of the hemisphere. She showed a childlike delight in the mountains and the woods and the lakes and the ocean and the trees and the flowers, and exclaimed how nature was proof of the existence of God. My husband would smile at her exuberance and every year he made it a point to buy her calendars with pictures of natural wonders and bewitching scenery for her to hang on her walls.

Well, sadly enough, my mother fell prey to the dreaded Alzheimer's disease, and it was a pity seeing her retreat into the labyrinths of her own mind. Gone was the person I knew as my mother, this independent, headstrong, fearless woman. She was gradually becoming a stranger to us as we were to her. All it took was one fell stroke that fateful Monday morning when my eldest brother discovered her on the floor of her bedroom. Bereft of speech and movement and the ability to swallow, she was admitted to the hospital. I was the last person she recognized with clarity when I flew from Vancouver to visit her, and she clung on to my hand with her one good hand. The next day my second brother arrived from London, and she was able to recognize him, with difficulty this time. She drifted in and out of consciousness and my prayer to God was to take her without further suffering. The agony lasted 5 long months, months of hopelessness and anguish and helplessness and despair and a whole host of other emotions. My mother is now at peace, and as I mourn her passing and reflect on the good times I had with her, I am truly thankful she was my mother.

Mummy, I love you!!!