Sunday, April 1, 2018

My Gentle, Artistic and Kind Father, Venkanna

My first memories of my father Paruvu Venkanna were hazy - because he was mostly at work. He was a senior government officer, an engineer in charge of a few districts, and was housed in huge government bungalows normally, with several servants at his disposal (including cooks, drivers, tailors even), cars and all the trappings of a senior government officer in a district. Those familiar with such lives will vouch for this - one lives like a small royalty especially in districts.
The Seiko watch on his hand
But Dad was not born into this kind of royalty. Born on April 1, 1924, he hailed from a small village called Polamuru in Penumantra mandalam, Tanuku taluka, West Godavari district, the rice bowl of Andhra Pradesh. His parents Ramaiah and Nagamma, were from the humblest of origins - Ramaiah traded in cattle I hear (and was a Grama Panchayat member) while Nagamma worked in the fields as farm labour. It was Nagamma's mother Chandramma who realised that their lives would always be compromised if they worked in the fields and told her daughter Nagamma that she would bring up her eldest son - Venkanna. So pretty early in his life, Dad was separated from his parents. Chandramma had him admitted in a primary school in Kavitam and Polamuru villages, high school at Taylor High School, Narsapur and Intermediate at PR College, Kakinada. He had three younger siblings, a sister Sampathi (who incidentally was my mother's senior at teacher training school), followed by Ramaswamy, a doctor, and Ramakrishna, a man who enjoyed life. Today only Sampathi aunty remains.

Dad ploughed on with his academics and fared pretty well it appears because he got admission in the Guindy Engineering College, Madras. His friends from the Guindy College of Engineering say they never saw another who was as carefree as him - he would spend all his time singing songs, smoking cigarettes and acing exams. They said he smoked a packet a day. And one fine day he just gave up and never touched another cigarette again. I think he must have had an iron will, a strong sense, and once he made up his mind, that was it. Funnily I never heard him sing at home, nor even hum. Maybe home was one of those places where he could not be himself later on. Perhaps it reminded him of burdens and not of his carefree nature. He was a bit of a maverick. I think I would have got along well with him as a friend. Anyway, Dad became the first graduate, the first engineer in his family and joined the government service in the Government of Madras as Supervisor, Highways. This was 1948. Chandramma was right, if not for her foresight, he might be working in the fields too. 

But Dad was an idealist and a romantic. In his student days they say he formed a youth association and would gather youngsters at the village around whenever he visited home and teach them right up to midnight so they can also do something with their lives. I 1944 he apparently gathered a bunch of youth form his association to attend a meeting by Dr Ambedkar at Palakollu. He would put himself aside for others as was reflected in his financial state.

Dad was fully committed to his work. I think he loved his subject - Civil Engineering. His career went like this - joined the Government of Madras as Supervisor, Highways in June 1948, promoted as Assistant Engineer, Highways (Govt of Madras and Andhra Pradesh) in March 1951, promoted as Executive Engineer, Highways (Govt of Andhra Pradesh) in April 1961, promoted as Superintending Engineer, Roads and Buildings in October 1970 and finally promoted as Chief Engineer National Highways in May 1979. His biggest achievement - executing the construction of the bridge across river Godavari at Bhadrachalam, from foundation to opening of traffic, a 80 feet tall structure in a deep gorge. (During the construction he helped Prince Mukkaram Jah, son of the Nizam of Hyderabad cross the river - there's a letter from the Prince's office to him to that effect, thanking him.) And then, we remember his 2 month trip to Japan in 1967 for training on construction of expressways at the Japanese Expressways Construction Corporation. Many items from that Japan trip are still around in our homes - 3 d photos, figurines of Japanese women in kimonos, a musical kimono clad lady, fans etc. When my nephew Ajay went to Japan and got some of those memorabilia, it was a deja vu moment for us.

Dad's big moment - Far left as the young engineer who built the Bhadrachalam bridge, Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan cutting the ribbon
I grew up believing that life would always be like this - in the lap of luxury - along with six siblings, four older sisters and one younger brother - basking perennially in the love of our homemaker mother and being served. Father coming home at the end of his day was reason for some excitement, most times after the sun had set. Mostly because he bought something along with him. Comics, magazines, food. These were traits that I never picked up from him. I always show up empty-handed.

He was not the kind who would play with us on his knee or hug and kiss us and all that stuff but he was a gentle and kind man who never lost his patience. I know I tried his patience for most of my life with him but he kept his cool till the end. Morning times where when he would put his favorite chair in some spot of sunlight and read the papers and perhaps drank his tea or coffee - (I don't know what his preferred beverage was). Then people would come to see him sometimes. And then the hustle and bustle of the day would catch up and he would go his way and we would go ours. His was a life with drivers and others rushing him about in official cars and he rarely got time to be with us so at times he would offer to drive us to school and we would like that - mostly because my brother would have delayed us by then and we would miss the bus. (He never used the government car for personal use, nor even the official driver.)

The thing I remember him doing most at home was reading. He read all kinds of books. He even enjoyed reading comics as much as we did - sometimes fighting to read them before us. I remember he loved reading Lucky Luke - he was fascinated with the idea that a horse could talk. His book collection was vast - PG Wodehouse, Chase, Robbins, Will Durant, Gibbons, Chesterton...there were hundreds of books and more coming every other day. (When we lost a huge chest of books because the termites ate them while shifting from Eluru, it was heartbreaking even for me who was probably eight or ten year old then) Magazines and books - The Illustrated Weekly, Blitz, Readers Digest and the Digest's big volume about the world filled our house. Much of my early reading was shaped by the Digest and its Drama in Real Life, Life's Like That, Word Power and the Famous Fives and other stories. And when we came to Hyderabad he enrolled in the Colony's Best Library in Sanjeeva Reddy Nagar which had a wonderful collection of books. He happily encouraged reading and bought books without a murmur. But I had to fight to get sporting kits from him.
A neatly composed letter by Dad that I discovered- self explanatory 
Dad wrote beautifully, had lovely handwriting and our leave letters would go like 'he cannot attend class today because he contracted influenza'. I did not understand what influenza meant for many years and I am sure my teachers in Warangal were at a loss to understand as well. But he was no fake Anglophile, he just did a good job of what he knew well. Surrounded by books, we could all take one and disappear into some nook or cranny of those large bungalows and lose ourselves. Of course it never occurred to me where he picked such a fine taste for books and reading from because his parents were illiterate.

Another childhood influence on me that I am extremely grateful to him was Dad's huge collection of music. As I know he had more than 200 vinyl records easily - LPs, EPs and a fine Phillips record player. He also bought a huge Philips radio which was as big as a bus and in later years he bought a Philips cassette player with a single speaker. (That way he would easily fall in the Innovators group in the Law of Diffusion - the kind who would buy an iphone on day one.) He loved his songs. His two favorite songs were 'Dil Dhoondta Hai' from Mausam (I always thought he looked a bit like Sanjeev Kumar) and a Telugu song 'Joru meedunnavu tummeda' a melodious composition. He bought two of the second mentioned - having smashed the first in a fit of anger - one can imagine how much stress he must have been under to do that because I have never seen him lose his temper ever except that time. (Not even when he was in a meeting at home and I smashed a cricket ball through the glass window and the glass pieces lay in smithereens all around him and his guest and even in his lap. When I went sheepishly, he quietly picked off the glass pieces from his lap, picked up the ball and gave it back to me without a word.) There were records of the Ventures, Hugo Montenegro, Kishore, Mukesh, films, Telugu, Hindi, English. One crazy record of P.B. Srinivas singing English songs - one titled 'After landing on the Mars..'. Now when I think of it I think he spent all his money buying books, music and treating us to experiences. I heard Talat Mahmood's 'Jalte hai..', Rafi's 'Saari Khushiyaan hai..' (my anthem song) and so many others from his collection.

He loved watching the occasional movie too. I remember watching 'Towering Inferno' with him when I was a fifth standard student. It was an incident that gives an insight into the person he was. My friends family was going, so I asked him permission to go with them for the morning show. He refused saying that it was an adult movie and I will get scared and all that. And then he went and booked tickets for the whole family for the second show. Made no sense but that was Dad. I don't remember him taking us to many movies - he was busy with work - Mom however would take me to some Hindi movies. Where they picked up a taste in Hindi from I don't know and never asked. They did not speak or write but they patronised the movies and songs.
Somewhere in Japan circa 1967 - 2 month training on Expressways part of the Colombo Plan
He liked driving his cars though I suspect he did not drive very well. But he would insist and I remember me getting worried because the car would slip and slide etc. Some trips with him that I remember are to Nagarjuna Sagar, one to Bangalore where we had an accident on the way back, one to Tirupati and Madras. That was about it. Wonder why I feel like I travelled a lot.

An early memory, I must have been three or four then was of Dad driving his Landmaster car down the bridge in Khammam. We needed to take a U Turn after getting down the bridge and Dad yanked the steering so hard it came off in his hand. I guess we landed in a ditch. We were safe and sound but it was undoubtedly scary. I vaguely remember that. Another famous car incident with him was when we went to Tirupati and the car brakes failed. Luckily he was not at the wheel. (He did walk up all the way with Mom and he was so devoted to her in that sense - because she struggled to make it up.) My eldest sister tells me how he once braved a cyclone with trees falling off and gales blowing and drove through some crazy weather and somehow made it alive. Our car tales continued with a car breakdown at Miyapur, empty fuel tanks, punctured tyres. Never a dull moment with Dad especially when he had a car around. After the Landmaster he bought an Ambassador which was probably the best car we owned and then after he retired he suddenly downgraded himself to a four door Herald which we sold off soon after he died. Come to think of it he was never a bike man - always a car man. Wow!

Dad loved his occasional glass of whisky, which I don't think he held very well. In his later years he enjoyed the solitary drink, some reading, some music and retired for the day. He was not too concerned about our studies - there were six of us anyway and long as we did not get too much out of line he would not interfere. I don't think he was much of a foodie, do not remember him especially enjoying his food - though I remember Mom was a foodie and she would take me on her culinary adventures. Another thing I never saw Dad do was run or do any physical activity except for walking or at times spot jogging - he never ran, never played a sport, never threw a ball. At best he probably played cards. (My sisters though correct me and tell me he would enjoy playing badminton at the clubs, his cousins tell em he would play kabaddi as a student.) My mom was brilliant at cards, I am sure he would lose all his money at cards. But he would walk - miles and miles and miles.

Eluru Diaries
An early memory of Dad was when it was Mom's birthday in Eluru (1970 or so). I must have been five or so and we were in Eluru. He got an inspired idea that all of us make a card for her. He got a plywood plank that he used as rest to write on - and gave us all sketch pens and we each drew something to wish her a Happy Birthday - which he wrote with a flourish. I drew a skinny car! That was one of the few family projects we did. There was a picture somewhere, let me find it.

Eluru was a time when I was about five so I have clearer memories of that time. The first memory was the house Dad bought - Mom said she had to bug the hell out of him to apply for a loan and buy the house which later saved us from financial straits. It was a lovely house on Sreenathuni veedhi in Ashok Nagar, old fashioned, large space, a backyard with trees including a guava and a chikoo tree, a small skylight (must have been Dad's idea), red oxide flooring with a blue border which was brilliant for me to play with my toy cars. We travelled a bit to Vijayawada those days and I remember seeing a huge MRF ad with a strong man lifting a tyre.

The Hospital Incident
Another time in Eluru, he took me and my brother along with him to the hospital for some routine check up. We had no business there but we went along. The Superintendent gave him a penicillin injection and stepped out for a moment. Before our 5 year old and 2 year old eyes, he started frothing at the mouth and he turned blue and fell unconscious in his chair. Luckily the Super returned quickly, realised there had been a reaction, and carted him off to revive him. In that seemingly huge hospital, me and my brother wandered about, crying most probably, until someone saw us and rescued us. Of course Dad would have died then - but he came back home to tell us the tale and laugh about it in his normal way.

Losing wallet in Adyar
It was perhaps in Eluru that we did the famous Madras trip. We saw the Adyar park and the famous banyan tree and it was there that he lost his wallet. Dad, I realised later, had this uncanny knack of losing whatever money he had in his wallet - the incidents are too many to enumerate and certainly not funny. Once he lost his wallet in Mumbai and because he had no money, pawned the Seiko watch he always wore till he died, probably bought in Japan, and got back. He shared a strained relationship with money but in retrospect, he did live like a king.

In Madras, we went to some film studio and met Ravi Kondala Rao - a character artiste. Little did we know then that my brother would one day turn a successful producer and director and a Nandi award winner to boot (for Ashta Chamma). I found the film shooting boring and focused all my attention in bugging my parents to buy me a cricket bat which Dad bought with lots of reluctance. Ok, his having lost the money might have put some cap on our plans and we returned safely. But then again we knew, with Dad, there would be drama around the corner. Be it in losing money or with cars or hospitals.

Kurnool Days
My next major memory of Dad and me was when we moved to Kurnool. Dad was busy with his work. I managed to injure myself while jumping over a bamboo fence - a nail caught my thigh and tore it open. It was a big and ugly bleeding flesh would and needed stitches. Mom handled the crisis well and got me stitched up and when Dad finally came in the evening, he was furious. Maybe he had a bad day or something and maybe Mom forced him to come home but he took me on a drive, and I could feel the anger. He bought me a magazine or a book. I felt unhappy because I thought he would be sympathetic. Now looking back, I also think he abhorred all forms of violence - blood, injuries. He was never around when all these incidents happened and Mom, who had enough steel to handle pretty much anything handled several such crises by herself. It was in Kurnool that he also started taking me along with him on his daily night walks to the bazaar and I would trudge behind him - now I also sense I must have slowed him down tremendously in my dreamy wanderings. He would buy me the odd Chandamama magazine for children.
One of his later pics - Osmania University?
The second incident in Kurnool was the trip to Bangalore which went well except that our car was chased by a cop for breaking a red light and on the way home we got involved in an accident that we were lucky to survive. However, a young boy, who caused the accident by running across the highway got badly injured and Dad carried the bleeding young boy in a bus to the Kurnool hospital (the boy died though). Noble as his act was, he perhaps did not realise that he left his family at the mercy of the locals - wife and six kids. We survived that mob as well. Next day when we saw the car we wondered how we survived. Looking back I can see that Dad was not made for good times. His vacations were full of drama and loss. He was better off at work.

Warangal Musings
Warangal was a lovely time. Dad was pretty much more relaxed. He got my oldest sister Aswini married and it was a grand wedding - the likes of which none of us ever had. We all had a wonderful time in the nawabi house with a huge garden. I would go on more walks with Dad here, even went on a tour with him and loved the treatment and the food. While he did his work, I would play or read my books.

Kept meticulous accounts!

Once I decided to buy a football. One of those mad things that gets into your head. Dad was equally adamant that he would not buy it for me. That day I was not to be denied. I brought down the house. When he said he would not buy it, I broke my kiddy bank and made him buy it with my money. It was the first big conflict we had. I remember going to his office and buying chikki from the petrol bunk next to his office. So nice was the chikki that I figured a way to find the combination to my kiddy bank and took out enough to buy chikki once in a while. One of my early insights that given the right incentive, the human brain is capable of finding all sorts of answers.

In one incident, Dad was dropping us to our school St. Gabriel's in Kazipet. We were going along comfortably when we spotted a couple of our friends in the bus stop. We asked Dad to stop and the kind hearted man that he was, he did. What we did not realise was that the rowdy bunch jumped into the car and it was fortunate that they did not throw us out of the car. Despite their bad behavior Dad did not throw them out of the car - maybe he did not know how to handle the situation - and we went fully laden with ten or twelve rowdy boys crammed into the Ambassador car. Horrid fellows. If I was in his position I would have thrown them out - but then I am not Dad!
Guindy College perhaps - last right middle row
Once I remember one forlorn young man who came to see him early one morning. I was playing outside and the man met Dad and left. Dad went inside and in a while the man came and gave me a letter which he asked me to pass on to father. I kept the letter in my pocket and continued playing. When Dad emerged I gave him the letter. He quickly read it and was shocked. 'Where is he?' he asked and sent someone to look for the man. Apparently he wanted a job and he threatened to kill himself if Dad did not help him. Knowing Dad, he would have helped.

Move to Hyderabad, 1975 ish
When he finally got an offer to move to Hyderabad, we kicked up a ruckus. I loved my school St. Gabriel's and with my co-protestor Ram, did all kinds of protests. Sentimental letters, strikes, crying, not eating etc. But he took me along to Hyderabad. I liked the look of HPS with its large grounds but he said no. Then he got me admitted in All Saints which was a sister school of St. Gabriels. I approved of the school - I could see boys playing cricket in the school ground and that was enough.

All Saints and Lal Bahadur stadium
I asked my father to enroll me in the stadium's table tennis coaching program. He bought me a TT bat and I went every day very religiously and soon became one of the better players. In fact, I was in contention for the doubles team and a day before the tournament, I somehow broke my bat. I did not have the heart to ask him again - his views on me and my sporting interests were quite clear. He thought it was a waste of time and money. Or so I thought. I gave up my big tournament because I could not ask him for another bat. That ended my TT aspirations.

All the cricket bats I bought then were through my mother. My cricket bats would be cherished and when we moved, for years I searched for the ghosts of my cricket bats in the lofts. Many times when I could not ask him I made do with pieces of wood.

Dad clearly did not approve of my cricketing pursuits. Mom did. When I finally got selected to play for the school team I went with Mom to buy my gear - a pair of shoes and a sweater and got some whites stitched at the famous Sreekala Tailors at Ameepet. I am sure Dad must have been suspicious of this though it was a big thing to be selected for All Saints, a school with a strong cricket culture. I did well enough and my name appeared in the newspapers once in a while which was a huge high. I never heard him say anything about that though. And then came a big chance to play for the state Under 15. I went to the state camp. In retrospect, I had a performance in the league that should have warranted me as an automatic selection, but for some reason I was ignored constantly. I was not given the application form as well - just a blank sheet. I went home and decided not to go to the camp anymore (bad attitude). Surprisingly Dad got a call from some kind soul in the Hyderabad Cricket Association asking why I was not attending the camp. Dad was surprised and asked me why I stopped going to the camp. I told him there was some unfairness and that I felt I deserved to be in the main 15 and not as a standby.  Dad did something he never ever did - he spoke to his friend Dr D. Ramakrshnaiah, and I remember the words because I was in the room 'I do not want any favour, but just ensure that no injustice is done.' Thankfully one of the selected (and undeserving) boys fell sick. I was included in the 15. I played a crucial role in Hyderabad winning the cup and was selected to play for South Zone! Totally vindicated.

When I was boarding the train to go to Calcutta to play the South Zone games with seven of my mates - Vidyuth and Masood among them - I was surprised to see Dad come to the railway station to see me off. He gave me a couple of hundreds, possibly the last two in his pocket, gruffly told me to take care and went off. I felt then that he loved me too - till then I always felt he hated me for taking away my Mom's affections. There was a cyclone in Calcutta then and he made one of his friends come to the ground and meet me and assure me that all was well. I was fast growing up - that year in my tenth we also went to a one month South Zone cricket camp at Bangalore under Mr Baig. It was a camp I can never forget. When I returned I felt grown up.

As I passed tenth and went to Intermediate I also realised that Dad had retired. This new life seemed to weigh heavily on him and he looked quite burdened. It must have suddenly struck him that there were five children at home and he needed to provide. He took up a job at a private company and well, worked like he normally does. I remember him taking the bus - he must have really worried about the money surely then. He would be increasingly stressed out.

In a rare incident, he told me once not to make bad friends - perhaps referring to Mohan who would not fit anyone's description of a good friend. Mohan would be out doing all the things good boys should not be doing and well he was my best friend. Dad once caught me reading a Harold Robbins from his collection and threw that book away with all such books, putting an early end to my adult reading. He took up the post of President of the colony and did a good job. And once he lectured me unfairly that I should not be making overtures at his boss's daughters - about class differences etc. The fact was that she was making overtures if any. And I did not believe in any class differences.

The odd day he would take us out to eat at the Kamat Hotel near Birla Mandir and we would all eat the same - masala dosa and a slab of chocolate ice cream which was heavenly. We would go as a family to the industrial exhibition and well eat and buy stuff and I remember he bought a poster of a lake and mountains which he hung on the wall. He always had good taste - nothing tacky. He would turn up with some trinket at home - some fancy thing on the road. One day he bought a transparent looking scale and I asked him if it was flexible. He immediately bent it and it snapped. 'It is not,' he said. Our days would be heavenly when on occasion he would go to Blue Diamond restaurant and would return with chicken fried rice and crispy fried chicken. I cannot describe how heavenly that smell and taste was. To us, Dad was the epitome of all things polished and foreign and posh. He never talked about biryani and other common place stuff like that.

But the days and months were dragging him down. "He always wanted to go back to the village and settle down," said my mom. "He was such an impractical man, a dreamer. What was he planning to do with all of you?" The fact that life had suddenly become hard, that it had betrayed him was incomprehensible to him and as reality slowly leaked into him, his resolve and will died. He was too sensitive and out of touch for the world.

In later years I found he enjoyed some outings. The Sunderams were one such. I remember once when we visited them late in the night he told Dr Sunderam 'I get a strange kind of peace when I visit your house'. He enjoyed going to my eldest sisters house in BHEL which was a lovely township. In his later years, I felt he grew disillusioned with life and had little support. One of my most poignant memories of him is waking up late at night and seeing him standing in front of the huge Balaji photo on the wall and praying. In that one moment, I could sense how helpless he must have been feeling - he had already retired and had 5 kids -three unmarried girls all studying and two boys both not yet into graduation. I cannot forget that sight. I slunk back into my room without drinking water. I knew I was not helping by my wayward ways and playing cricket which he did not approve of.

When I was to join Intermediate I told Dad I wanted to do Arts and then pursue a course in Literature. He dragged me by the hand and got me admitted to MPC in St. Alphonsos' Junior College. Though it was an academics focused college, it allowed me to play and in my second year I played all forms of cricket for Hyderabad - Under 19, Under 22, South zone Under 22, Under 25 after a brilliant season. So going from there I had no academic illusions.

I had no interest in joining engineering but he really hoped I would. He had me join a coaching class which I attended but understood nothing of. I really had no intention of doing engineering and did not care what rank I got. But I was crushed when I heard he went to JNTU to find out my rank (awful rank) and at the end of a hard and tiresome day, and a tiresome life, it must have been so tough to jostle through those crowds to find my hopeless rank. My Dad, who had seen such a fine and high life, who would not ask a favour to meet his doctor friend and instead wait for hours for our turn, pushing and struggling to see my number at the bottom of the pile! I could only imagine how it must have affected him but he showed no sign of it on his face. He told me I could write again next year.

Next day he took me to Nizam College and we paid the fees. He was to go to office then, by bus, and I was to return home. I said good bye to my father, older and tired, but shorn of the dignity and respect he deserved, something which he had lost in his own eyes. I stopped to say hello to my friends from MCC and Dad walked on in his inimitable style.

That evening I watched a movie with Mohan and returned home at 9 to find a policeman outside. He showed me a scrap of paper with Dad's name on it. He said there had been an accident and he was taken to Gandhi Hospital. My heart sank - I know that feeling well - it did a couple more times in my life after that. I told my mom that it was a minor accident and went to Gandhi with Mohan. We searched and searched and finally found him, laid out on the floor, a barber shaving his injured head with one half of a blade. His shirt was torn a bit, he was unconscious and his face was swollen a bit. More than anything else it was the sight of him on the ground - he would have repaired this very government building in his position in R&B. The gentle, kind, soft man who never raised his voice at anyone, who never pushed himself ahead, who was erudite and gifted, finally lay on the ground in a government hospital - he would have had many such built in the districts. Mom came at midnight and so did the others and there was an operation on his fractured skull. It rained like I do not remember it raining and as they wheeled him into the ICU well past midnight I thought he would be telling us jokes about the experience in the next afternoon. At 6 in the morning they declared my father dead. The skies opened out like I never saw them open out before. I felt that the roof had been lifted out over my head and that I was suddenly exposed to the world. I could not cry. I still had to tell my mother.

A fortnight later I got admission to Osmania Engineering College's Civil Engineering Department on sports quota. He would have laughed at the irony of it.

What Others Told Us of Him
His friends and people who knew him briefly always told us of how funny and jovial he was. Of how he used to sing and regale everyone. We did not see much of that side. He was considered very honest and very helpful to all whom he could. In fact, the first word they used to describe him was honest. They would recount how he gave up cigarettes in one moment. He was terrible with money and I heard he would often end up borrowing money from his own servants at the end of the month. He was very humble - maybe a little too humble for this world. He had terrible friends - something he warned me about. He invested some money with a couple of his friends and he never saw that again - perhaps his retirement money. He had a great sense of humour and laughed easily. He had artistic hands and fingers. He tread the world lightly, as if he did not want to burden it with his weight.

And he worked very hard and was a good engineer. One of his crowning moments in his career was being the engineer in charge of the building of the Bhadrachalam bridge. There is a picture of him with Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan who was the Chief Guest at the inauguration of the bridge. Chief Minister Kasu Brahmananda Reddy and a few dignitaries and a young Dad in a corner, but certainly in a pride of place. When I shared the picture with my friend Chitra Viraraghavan who is the great-granddaughter of Dr. Radhakrishnan, it was an interesting moment for all of us. Chitra and her equally gifted and wonderful husband and writer, grandson of another literary great Devulapalli Krishnashastri, are my good friends and it was they who egged me on to develop 'This Way Is Easier Dad' into a book.

My need to know more
I wished I had known him better. I wished I had him to talk about things. When my mother was down with cancer and I would take her to her chemotherapy cycles, we used to spend hours in the hospital and I would ask her. She told me how my father never saved any money until the time he was 45 or so and was in fact in debt. (She had no clue about finances and planning.) He hated the idea of borrowing money to build a house. He had this idea of going back to his village after he retired.

Seeing his attitude to money (which I seem to have inherited in full measure) a friend of his advised my mother - he told her of how father did not seem to think that he had six small children, how there were places like banks, about deposits and how one could save money. A practical and intelligent woman Mom quickly started putting away some money, made him borrow a government loan and buy a house in Eluru first and later on, build a small one in Hyderabad. She told me how he got angry over some trivial issue with her and sold off his Ambassador, by far his best car and downgraded himself to the Herald (for all you know building the small house perhaps). Maybe he was unhappy with her for tying him down to the city.
Must have been a good speaker too - looks comfortable!

For years I hoped to meet his friends and ask them about him but I did not. Recently I went to Rajamundry for a wedding and me and Ram visited Dad's 88 year old sister Sampathi aunty. She is clear of thought and told us what she remembered. He was the first born - in 1924. His grandmother Chandramma, a strong lady, however, decided that the only way out of this labour was to study and took him away and made him join a school in another village. He grew up with some strangers by himself and studied. Then he went to Guindy College of Engineering and on to a fine career as an Engineer and as a human being.

'I think he would play some kabaddi when he came home,' she said. 'Sometimes he would sing songs. His father in law, my mother's father was a teacher in a school and he proposed the alliance to the young engineer and he accepted it happily. He educated his two younger brothers one of whom Dr. Ramaswamy became a doctor and the other Ramakrishna got a government job. He got his sister married to an old classmate of his, a teacher.

'The landlords offered to build him a pucca house after he became an engineer but he refused saying he would build one on his own,' said my aunt. Years later, when he built the house where we live in now, our neighbour was the same landlord. Education had equalled things out mostly. 'He loved eating tegalu, pootharekulu, sunnundalu and maybe prawns curry,' said my aunt. I don't trust her memory fully but it is quite likely. "He would visit us during holidays and would go away after, so we did not see him much. And anyway he was much older to us," she said.

In Acknowledgement on his birthday
I feel good to have the genes of my Dad coursing through me. Hundreds showed up after he died for his funeral on a rainy day which was unusual for someone not in service. Someone who did not have any money or power. But he did seem to have a greater power - of love. People felt they owed him something. His old drivers, servants, juniors, colleagues - all showed up just as his friends did. He must have helped many. He must have loved many. He was loved by many.

I think of what he achieved in his lifetime - from where he moved to where - in years of isolation and what he made of himself from a less than zero start. His family was illiterate, no money, no exposure and I look at what he made of himself I am amazed. He gave us a life of luxury on a platter and never made us aware of what he had gone through. I feel like my contribution, especially in contrast to his, is so small that I wonder if he would be pleased with my choices and my outcomes. (Mom would surely have been.) But I suspect that he would have been secretly proud of me, for my mad decisions and my struggles, though outwardly he would have wished me an easy life. Inwardly he would have approved. That's what I feel.

I wonder what he would be like if he was around now. Perhaps he would be walking around the colony, looking in wonder at many small things, reading, and well-doing something dramatic. He would have enjoyed the funny shows on television, enjoyed picking his mobile out and perhaps breaking it while trying some new idea on it. For my Dad then, for teaching me to live honestly (as much as I can) and to love fearlessly, (again as much as I can) and to struggle on quietly (as much as I can). For teaching me the joys of reading, of listening to music, of laughing at a good joke, of being gentle with life.

And mostly, for the gift of my life.


Anonymous said...

Nice to know about the man Hari, Thanks for sharing. Very vivid and poignant.


girija said...

Wonderful ,wonderful. You have written down such wonderful, loving anecdotes about a loving, gentle man. So heart touching. I felt as if I was with you whole reading. So visually powerful it is. Thank you, Hari for sharing this. No doubt that You know him enough to last you a life time. Loved this post.

Harimohan said...

Thanks Sreenath. I wish I had known him some more. This was an attempt to capture his essence through what I know.

Harimohan said...

Thanks Girija. Happy to hear your thoughts. I wish I'd known more of him - and what I pieced together now makes me want to know so even more about him.