Wanting to write is a good thing. What sets that off is not necessarily a good thing. Today, it’s a lot of sadness. The last of the old frontier men in the family is gone. Yes, I would like to call them that. He was one of the best, actually. All of them led very simple lives. KMP Menon’s was filled with grace and dignity amidst some trial and tribulation. When a teacher goes on to become every student’s best friend, you know that’s an exceptional man we are talking about. Almost every post sent in by his students in the wake of his passing away calls him that. Soft, gentle, grace and dignified are words that come to my mind whenever I’ve met him too. My dad’s older brother, my earliest memory of him is a wedding in the family when I was four or five and his voice when he was helping me with an airplane toy. And strangely after that when I was fifteen only. He and his wife and his two daughters were transiting through Chennai en route to Kerala from Punjab which is where he taught and was at the helm of affairs and earned the respect of so many students who are all mostly in the armed forces today. I remember this meeting because of this strange respect my dad had for him. My dad was always the more boisterous one in a nice way and it was very different to see him talk to his older brother and he was treating him just like that. I could sense the fondness and respect coming through. He was like that with his brother’s wife also and I could sense that affection and respect he had for her too. The girls were very quiet and were mostly sitting in the verandah outside the house reading a book each. They were there only for a day and were off to Kerala by train in the evening.
My uncle was cool and composed and left an impression on me and also left really late for the train and made it too. That’s how he is always whereas dad would have been at the station an hour before departure time, is what I heard my mom tell me later and so many other people after that. Never one to get flustered, very last minute, not too much planning, working on an impulse, on a whim, that was him, all the time. And that sounds just like how I am today and have been always. And I’m mentioning that because I’ve heard that too from everybody in the family and his daughters, my cousins. That I look like him, talk like him and will look like him when I’m much older too. That’s sort of ingrained in me from the time I heard my grandmother say that as early as when I was twenty, two decades ago. That intrigued me and played on my mind every single time I met him. They would tell me about his bath before dinner always and I was like that and continued being like that. Even small things like the way my hands moved when I spoke, the way I walked, my twitching of the fingers, my eyes, they were all pointed out to me saying ‘just like your uncle’, all the time. The way he combed his hair, keeping it wet after a wash or bath and then combing and setting his hair, I did the same thing too. It was always pointed out to me. It made me want to meet him and observe him all the time. I remember when my wife met my uncle for the first time even before we got married she pointed the same thing out to me. “That’s how you’ll look when you become older”, she said. That sealed it for me.
He always spoke so well. I remember him correcting my English once. The word was susceptible and it’s usage in “susceptible to change” till I was 21 always bothered me. That was until he set that right for me. On the road, while we were walking to this restaurant in Ottapalam to eat along with my cousins. He didn’t embarrass me, not at all. It was like being in class with your favourite teacher. That’s almost an oxymoron. Anyway, his English was impeccable, both with him and dad too. Absolutely Impeccable. And there was this zest for life, this need for fun and booze whenever they got together, throwing away all their worries about the next day and over the year that’s passed. Dad was unfazed by anything and was no holds barred and my uncle was polite and respectful with a little smirk around his lips all the time at the humour, thoroughly enjoying himself and having a lot of fun. I suspect he never liked his liquor unlike my dad and their brother-in law. I always thought he was just nursing a drink for the longest time ever always. Lots of conversation around a dinner table at Ottapalam in Kerala about their college days at MCC and how my uncle and his best friend who very soon after college went on become his brother-in-law had legendary tales about them and my dad would narrate these with that glint in his eyes. My dad joined the same college, earning respect straight away for being KMP Menon’s brother, looking up to these men and later in life too. I’ve been fascinated by stories of their romantic escapades with popular women of their times and very impressed with a particular episode involving a leading heroine of the 60’s. Really very impressed. Knowing my dad, I could fathom how he might have been in college and with my mother. With my uncle, I wanted to know more and especially whenever I met him. They were so different from each other and yet they were similar in style with this panache about them. The whole concept of brothers fascinated me just by seeing them together and that’s why wholeheartedly I plunged into this bonding with my own cousin brothers when I got the chance and have never shied away from a chance to be with them. We were also the younger generation, the current frontier so to speak and I would and have and will follow them blindly. This is inspired by the Menon brothers, both of them KMP Menon’s that too. My dad at some point in his life left out the menon and I suddenly realize that I must follow suit. I look for this bonding amongst my sons too, the three of them.
Anyway, my uncle and I, we got around to talking much more once the mobile phone crept into his life. He would call and we would speak. Somewhere there would be this concern for dad and he would ask me if he was doing fine and if he was taking it easy on the bottle. I would keep telling him to come and spend a few days with us in Chennai and he did. A few days. And I clearly remember the respect dad had for him combined with the slightly formal brother talk. I loved listening to them talk to each other. He was very appreciative of my work even though he was not an avid filmgoer and would apologize for not watching my films but would know all details. Every detail actually. Legend has it that he would watch the newsreel at the cinemas and head out before the movie played. He had a wry sense of humour and that little wanting to laugh out loud but will never ever kind of smirk always. My mom and he, both being teachers, would strike up an interesting conversation always. And I was all ears, always. He always had great regard for her. They were like good friends always. She really liked him as a person. She always had good things only to say about him. I’ve heard about my uncle more from her than anybody else. He loved the boys and especially Arya, being the first-born and he spent more time with him. He always sat down to talk to the kids, even as recently as last year when we had met him for my grandmothers hundredth birthday. And I will always remember their voices. Dad’s and uncle’s. Such Men. Strong men but weak in heart when it came to their families and loved ones. They’d do anything for them. And their voices again. Over the phone. And in person too of course. There was a quality about their voices. Their diction. Their choice of words. Unparalleled.
The only thing I know I am a pole apart from my uncle is his painting. I can’t draw a straight line, not even a proper crooked one and he paints like a dream. Easy and straight from life. His daughter has told me and written so much about the smell of all the paint and painting oils while growing up in their house. Beautiful. I would have liked that. I can’t paint but I love a painting and admire somebody who can. It’s also like coffee for me. I don’t like to drink coffee but I can really write sitting in a coffee shop with the smell of a fresh brew. I love that. We have one at home done by him, kept very carefully by dad till he was around and now by us. Lots of phone calls between us and I’ve met him once a year over the past decade. We’ve always gone to his house whenever in Kerala and spent a few hours with him and his beautiful and wonderful wife. They’ve made my wife feel so loved and comfortable always. I love that simple and yet beautiful house of his that he quietly put together along with his family. Such a tiny space but still such spacious rooms and elegant. Like him. He wanted me to preside over a function at a club in Ottapalam and I went only for him. I didn’t believe that I was anybody to preside over a function but he apparently did and gave me an introduction in front of an audience that clearly made me feel special. He would introduce me to everybody very proudly and I clearly heard him say ‘ well, he is like my son’ in Malayalam, his arm around me and I remember looking at him for a couple of seconds, smiling.
When dad was unwell, we went on a road trip to Ottapalam. It was just dad and myself. And we were so well looked after by my uncle and his family. He was so sad to see my dad unwell like that but there was also hope in him that he’d get through. He was so positive about dad and couldn’t believe it when I told him that dad’s days were numbered like the doctors said. We went in the new Audi and my uncle was so happy to know that I had bought it for dad. I asked him to take the car for a drive and he did. Everybody was so tense, his girls, but he was so good at the wheel. And I know how much these men love their cars and they’ve been in such beautiful machines when they were younger. Dad was happy too that his brother got to drive the Audi.
Seven years ago and a few months after that road trip, I clearly remember my uncle sitting around my father’s body for hours together in silence. That moved me more than anything else. Dad was the younger brother. My uncle was with me right through till the end. And I remember he said ‘ It shouldn’t have been Prabha first’. Not many people would say that even if they didn’t mean it and I know he did. Prabhakrishnan or Prabha is my father and Padmanabhan is my uncle. And he’s always called us afterwards and asked if mom was okay and if we are all doing fine. I remember interacting with him post dad’s passing away about all the folk from MCC who had called and sent their condolences. He seemed to know all of dad’s friends. And would always mention the time he and his wife, my aunt, spent with my dad and mom at Calicut before we were born. I longed to hear more. I long to hear more.
One year ago, when my grandmother passed away, I was with my Uncle accompanying her on her last journey through the towns of Kerala to the crematorium. He sat in that van holding on and I kept looking at him. He carried her weight on his shoulder and I shared some of that with him and he performed the last rites with utmost reverence. He was sad and I knew he played out his entire life with her amidst the last rites There was some melodrama from some other lesser important people but he was all calm and classy, a picture of grace and poise. Stuff that real men are made of. We got a moment. I touched his shoulder. He smiled at me. He said “she was a good lady, she lived a good life, saw everything early in life, including Prabha”. Boy, I had to desperately hold on from joining the list of the other men indulging in the melodrama there. And I longed to hear more. But just like him I’m also a man of few words apparently.
I spoke to him over the phone three weeks ago. He sounded good. That’s not what I heard later though. But he sounded very good over the phone. His daughter tells me later that he makes such an effort to sound normal over the phone but he is really unwell. Wow, I thought. Amazing that is. No wallowing or crying for sympathy. And he spoke so well again. He sounded really happy to hear from me. I said I would come and see him soon. He said ‘ It’s providence that I’m here in Bangalore on the way back from Punjab and fell unwell, if it was Ottapalam these facilities wouldn’t have been there and it would have been difficult”. I loved the usage of the word ‘providence’. And he was positive as always. He spoke about the reunion in Punjab at the school and was so appreciative of his students and about how well they looked after him and “so many of them in the army”, he said. He asked about the kids and mom and was so gentlemanly as always on the phone.
The wife and kids along with my sister and they all dote on him went to Bangalore while I was filming in Chennai to meet him. They spent an hour with him. My son Arya was upset a little bit on seeing him in bed because it reminded him of how my father was just before he passed away. I was very sure he’d come out of this and be around much longer. He refused to be hospitalized further, refused the additional aid of machines. I thought true grit. Really. I decided to pay him a visit but unfortunately pushed it by another day. I was driving in to Bangalore to meet him and my cousin had said it’s better to be home around five in the evening, which is when he’s sort of good to talk to. I had reached early and was grabbing some lunch outside when his older daughter from New Jersey sent me a text saying’ he’s gone’. I couldn’t believe what I was reading. But you don’t say something like that unless somebody’s gone. I am always heading into these, traveling into these, driving into these moments. When dad passed away, I was traveling and had to head back to that. When my wife’s mother passed away, I was making a dash for it from Kerala knowing she’s critical and I got the news. I’m never around. Maybe it’s the way to be for me. I don’t know. It’s not important now.
But I was there as almost a son to him after he passed away. His immediate family was around him and it was sad and yet there was so much quiet and dignity all around. My aunt described in detail all that he’d said and done over the past week. He knew, she said. He had said ‘last days’. He didn’t want the machines and had wanted to be in peace. He talked about going to his mother. Most beautiful, he talked to his older daughter on the phone and kissed her goodbye just moments before passing away. I don’t know how she handled that. But it’s beautiful. His younger daughter was with him, by his side. Se didn’t want to let him go. His wife too. Who would anyway? And apparently he had a smile. Must have been that trademark smirk on the corner of his lips. I didn’t like to see him, no more, like that. That’s me. What to do? I went away for the night.
In the morning, I went on that final journey of his. There were two Audi q7’s right behind him. Nice I thought. He would have liked that. And right till the end, all around, there was a lot of calm and grace and dignity and all that you’d associate with the man and something that’s never there in these places. His son-in-law did the honors and I got to touch him last seconds before he went away.
I’m back here in Chennai and somehow he’s in my head. He’s made me want to put something down in spite of a bad back and ‘something’s gone wrong’ fingers. And this has happened in one solid flow with no stopping to think and write.
My heart goes out to his wife and daughters who are about him like nobody I’ve seen before. I believe they are strong and very qualified in life just being his daughters. His grandchildren will miss him. He adored them and I’ve seen him talking to them, treating them like adults even when they were kids and often telling his daughters to let them be. The family will miss him. Oh yes, we will. He was the head of the family everybody looked up to. He will always be the teacher. I can vouch for that. I’ve learnt from him too.
And I believe I’m special to him because he was ammaama for everybody else but Valiachan only for me. Well my sisters too but still, me.