Last week, I made half my staff cry with this story (unintentionally of course) – an adaptation of something I wrote 6 years ago when my grandfather passed away. I guess some emotions stay buried, but as it is the 6th anniversary of his passing, I figured I would share it on here:
In April 1984, when we returned to India from Canada, we moved into my grandparent’s home in Vasant Vihar. My earliest memories of the 90 year-old phenomenon that was Papa (otherwise known as Triloki Nath Saraf) are blurred, few and far between.
All I remember from my early childhood is that he was hell-bent on me becoming a doctor and getting an arranged marriage, both of which he changed his mind about later. I, in turn, would tease him by telling him I wanted to become a dentist instead and he would mock outrage and laugh with me.
I was fortunate to grow up with him, and my fiery grandmother Bhabi. I’m not sure why we call them Papa and Bhabi, but the entire family does and has for as long as I’ve known them. The two of them fought like cats and dogs, but the rare moments of intimacy, when they both finally agreed on something, were more beautiful than any sappy love story.
When I think of him, there are random episodes that come to mind. I remember a visit to India International Center for lunch where he warned me not to spill my coffee, right before spilling his own coffee all over the table. It was one of his favorite stories to tell anyone who would listen. I remember a story told of him trying to silence my brother Arjun and I and some of our cousins by pressing mute on the remote control because we were running around the family room laughing and generally making a racket.
Papa, a communist as a student, became a civil servant after college. Although his lifestyle in his early days was modest, he worked hard, and with integrity to educate his four sons and give them the opportunities he hadn’t had.
He was a huge champion of education and believed it provided abundant opportunities to better yourself and your situation. With time and success he joined the UN and was posted both in Rome and in New York before retiring back to Delhi.
He spoke at my High School History class during my presentation of India’s role in the non-alignment movement. Truth be told, I never really understood the topic, nor do I to this day, but Papa was amazing. After I had stumbled through a few overhead projection sheets, he held the whole class captive with his talk, packed with information but engaging with personal anecdotes. I remember this being one of the only glimpses I ever had into Papa as a professional.
We all knew he loved to read, he loved to talk about what he read and he loved most of all to tell stories of his past. It didn’t matter if he’d told us fifteen times already, he still told it with all the energy and excitement as if he was telling us for the very first time. He could talk for hours on end about his days as a communist, the British times, raising his four sons, his early married life – anything at all.
When I moved to University I was inaugurated into a new family tradition. No one arriving at D-8/2 Vasant Vihar could show up without a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label. I got very funny looks from the Duty Free Cashiers at New Delhi Airport every time I scooped one up.
I remember a family holiday in Singapore, where he was so enthusiastic about the idea of stocking up that tried to make each of us carry 1-2 bottles so he could buy at least 7-10 bottles of scotch. Thankfully he was restrained…and I know now where my obsessive-compulsive tendencies come from. In fact that explains almost every member of our family.
Papa was adorably rigid in his schedules, including his daily glass of Johnny Walker. His meal times were set, his tea time was set (5pm in the family room) and every once in a while when he got excited he would go out (or later on send for) half a dozen samosas that we would dip in ketchup and hot sauce and have with our tea.
Papa, the ultimate foodie, from some point in middle-age, decided that he only had a few years left in life, so he might as well eat everything. Samosas, cakes, cookies, any decadent culinary delight and Papa was on board, in spite of what any of the doctors said.
He was endearingly dramatic till the end, constantly reminding us that him time was running out, and that we should appreciate these last few days with him as much as we could. He once forced a doctor to give him an estimate of how long he had. The doctor didn’t want to give an estimate, but Papa bullied him into it and he finally said something to the extent of “for another two years, you’ll be fine.”
This was all Papa needed to champion his cause. For the next two years all we heard was that he had two years left. Although in those moments we groaned and moaned, these are actually among my favorite memories of him.
When I entered adulthood, Papa (his dreams of me become a doctor long forgotten), began encouraging me to write. He always pushed me to be a writer, and in fact it was the year he passed away that I quit my job to pursue writing – and I am convinced that he (known for his mischief), was in some way responsible.
With time my visits became fewer and far between, thanks to limited vacation time. During these visits the changes in his physical health became more apparent. It was harder for him to speak, harder for him to move around and he required nurse care 24 hours a day.
On January 6 2009, 5 minutes after the clock struck 12 on the day of my birthday, Papa called me from the house phone. I immediately thought my father had told him to call me, but he had not. Papa mumbled incoherently for some time then muttered something about his voice being ok now. I assured him it was fine.
He mumbled incoherently some more before saying something about getting his mouth cleaned. Then more mumbling till true to form, he finally hung up without properly ending the conversation. This 1 minute and 20 seconds was my good-bye from Papa.
I don’t know whether he knew somehow or somewhere that it was his time, but there is no other logical explanation for his calling me at 1:30 in the afternoon from the house phone. He wouldn’t have even known my cell phone number in Canada. Whatever the explanation, I’m glad I had that chance to say good-bye even if I did not realize that that’s what it was at the time.
Four days later I got a message in the middle of the night. Papa was gone.
Papa was a powerful personality in life, up until the very end, he was so frustratingly stubborn but all the more loveable for it, and his intelligence and intellectual capabilities far surpassed anyone I know. Though, like everyone else, I am very sad to have lost Papa, I am happier to have known and loved him, to have been able to grow up with him, and be witness to all of his loveable quirks.
There was never going to be a day I would be ready to say good-bye to him, but that time was inevitable and I’m content to know that he went peacefully. After all that is all you could want for someone you love.