When I look back upon my childhood, I see that it sparkled with a fine collection of aunts and uncles (most not related by ties of blood) My father was a teacher in a residential school (Lawrence, Lovedale), and all teachers lived on the campus along with their broods like one large, extended family. It is only natural that we adopted some of his close friends for our very own aunts and uncles as well.
“Isn’t she such an inspiration?” said my friend, as we waved to Athai (meaning Father’s sister) one night about thirty years ago. “Poor thing has had such a tough life.” Athai seemed happy enough to me, I thought to myself, why was her life tough? Seeing my puzzled expression, my friend, who was older, taller and wiser (she still is), took it upon herself to enlighten me.
That evening, she told me how Athai was a very well off young lady when she lost her husband unexpectedly. She realized later that she not only lost her husband, but her fortunes as well. Suddenly, she found herself rudderless. She told me how Athai took up the job as matron in her children’s school, and how she had rebuilt her life with dignity and perseverance. She had gone on to raise her three children as a single mother through those hard times.
I never looked at Athai the same way again.
They say children have an innocence that is hard to define, and I understand now what that means. I had known Mrs Ramachandran my whole life spanning less than a decade without stopping to think about her past life: her life beyond being matron to hundreds of children, the person who managed the kitchens and Athai to all of us. In all of these roles, she was gracious, loving and giving. It was as if she had simply sprung into being the same beautiful way in which I interacted with her everyday. Her grey hair framing her round face with a ready smile that dimpled her cheeks.
When I stopped to think of it, I realized that she must have been a stunning beauty in her youth.
It was then that I started asking Athai about her life. She would share bits and pieces of some incidents here and there and I was happy to listen whenever she did. She came home in the evenings some days with her friends and we always looked forward to seeing her if only for a few minutes.
One day, I opened the door looking despondent. She asked me what the matter was, ever ready to deal with the intensity of teenage turmoil.
“This is one of the reasons I don’t like jewelry!” I said as I finished telling her about how I lost one of my gold earrings on the playground. I was feeling miserable.
With her characteristic humor, and knowing how much I balked at wearing jewelry, she teased me that I might find myself married to a husband in a remote village, where every woman wore six chains, twelve bangles, sagging earrings, a nose-ring, and that I would have to get into a bullock cart decked up in my finery, in order to take a phone call from my sister on market day. I laughed, feeling better already.
Then, she said, “You should be careful with your belongings, but you must not become attached to them.”
Every bit that Athai shared of her life was beyond inspirational, it was motivating. I sat mesmerized by how without her ever realizing, she weaved her grief, misfortunes, perseverance and joy together as one beautiful tapestry through which her personality shone through. I loved every interaction with her, the attentive companionship she gave, and her unfailing good humor.
Last week, Athai passed away at the age of 88. I wished I lived in a remote village and had to wait till market day to receive the sad news of her passing. But WhatsApp is relentless and swift. The network packets encrypted and decrypted the message the same way it packaged every inane joke and forwarded message: “Athai passed away. “ it said blankly.
Don’t cry that it is over, smile because it happened. – Dr Seuss.
I dragged my children along for a walk that evening. Fresh air always makes it easier for me to think happy thoughts, and I knew the walk would help me celebrate Athai’s life. I do not know whether my children will remember the evening, but for me, it was important. It is a tiny piece of Athai that I wish to share with my dear ones.
I know Athai would have liked to know my little ones. In her heart, there was always place for love.
Dear Athai – may you rest in peace and thank you for everything.