Remembering Appa…

Social media can make you nostalgic. It can land you on pages of people who used to be a regular feature in your life, but now have disappeared just because you have geographically moved away from them. They are people who are not great friends or relatives, but merely acquaintances with whom you were associated in the passing.

One such click landed me on his page. Call it stalking or lurking, the photos there evoked faint memories of the person. But more importantly it brought to fore the memories of his father, a man who was fondly referred to as Appa. Now Appa was no relation of any kind. But in the sepia toned photographs of these passing acquaintances, Appa was the color photograph. He stood out, and gave us some lasting memories, which I cherish even today.

Appa was the husband of my mother’s aunt’s friend. My mother’s aunt, my grandmother you can say, used to go to college together with his wife, who was later always referred to as Madam.  Madam apparently had a crush on Appa in those days, and somehow persuaded him to marry her. The differences couldn’t have been more contrast. Appa, tall, handsome, European looking (and as far I remember him, with blonde hair). Madam, diminutive, dark-skinned beauty with very sharp features. How did I know this? Well, on one visit to Appa’s house in Pune, I saw the black and white photograph, taken right after their wedding, on a metallic frame. It was not imprinted on paper, but on a rectangle piece of metal, both looking very young, but Appa, seeming distinguished even then. Later Madam told me that photograph was taken by her father, who in those days was a photographer, and knew about the latest technology of those times. This gene skipped a generation, but expressed itself in their youngest son, who not only was an ace photographer, but also an interior designer. But I am digressing.

Appa and Madam moved to Mumbai in the early 1960s, to a suburb called Goregaon. In those days, when Churchgate to Dadar was all there was to Mumbai, Goregaon was a jungle, so farther away, that no one ventured there after 5 PM. Madam recollects hearing noises of wild animals, as she would wait with her three children for Appa to return from work. There have been tales when Appa missed the last train, and was stranded, and there was no way Madam would have known about it, because there were no telephones.

My first memory of Appa though, is when we attended their first son’s wedding. I still have a photograph of my father carrying me, and that was when the mole on his(my father’s) nose was missing). So that photograph became a sort of benchmark in time for the pre-mole and post-mole days. But I am digressing again.

Appa is sometime later known to ask me, Hello Rukku, how are you? (in English), and I had replied with a Fine, Thank You (again in English). Appa was suitably impressed, and that would be the way he greeted me later for the rest of his life. And that was the thread that binded us so firmly together – our love for the English language. I later came to know that Appa was a BA in Literature, hence his love for all things English.

We would regularly see Appa and Madam, in Mumbai – most of these ocassions would be the birthday parties of their grand daughters. But ironically, Appa became a regular fixture in our lives, after he left Mumbai. He could not get along well with the new daughters-in-law, and decided to move to Pune. But bank work, at times boredom, health issues, or simply a longing to visit his granddaughters would make him visit Mumbai from time to time. The first thing on such visits then, would be the telephone call to our house.

Chhotu, mi aaloy‘ (Chhotu – he and many others called my mother that – I have come), he would say. That usually meant he would come over for the evening dinner. Appa was really fond of my mother’s amti (a sweet and sour dal dish, usually made in Marathi homes). He would come wearing his trademark red cardigan, carrying small gaavran mangoes in summer, and a box of amrakhand (a mango yogurt sweet dish) when the mangoes were scarce, but never empty handed. When Madam accompanied him to Mumbai, she too would come along. But there were many evenings when Appa came alone.

I and my brother would always look forward to these visits. We did not have cable television in our house when I was in school (and it went kaput for a long time and was not repaired as board exams were looming), and such visits were definitely a source of our entertainment. For Appa had a wicked sense of humour, and was rather unapologetic about the scandalous remarks he made (something he also passed onto each son), much to Madam’s exasperation. He would regale us with tales about the British Raj (to which he was partial), about working in the government, the old Goregaon, his farm and childhood in (Ahmed)Nagar. He was the youngest son, born after six or seven daughters, belonging to a wealthy farmer family, which saw a decline in their fortunes as the land was sold piece by piece.

In the later years, his tales often became repetitive, but nevertheless we still sat and listened to them with rapt attention. As Appa grew older with age, his complaints about health and his children’s treatment of him would figure in the conversations. Then my mother and father would try and console him. In those times he only had “Don’t treat your parents like my children treat me” advice for us (me and my brother). Another of his laments was “Chhotu, mhatarpan vait” (old age is bad), and would advocate that all old people be rounded up and be sent off to the borders – so that they can atleast serve the country in some way rather than live out a useless existence. Those words were rather chilling, for they reflected how depressed and fed up he had become with the solitary old age existence.

His visits would end late into the night – sometimes well beyond 11 pm. All of us would walk him to the gates, help him into an auto and see him off. He would part with the words ‘aata mi kahi faar diwas jagat nahi‘ (I won’t live long). But within a few months, we would get the customary call that he is back in the city.

Then there was his favourite anecdote on dying. It seems, he would flirt with the women of the colony, and ask them if they would be sad when he would be gone (meaning after he had passed away). Now perhaps it might have been okay to be asked this once. But Appa asked it once too often. So the Pune (a city aptly known for ‘kimal shabdat, kamal apman’ – minimum words, maximum insult/humiliation) ladies decided to give him a fitting reply, and would answer cheekily “Appa, adhi mara” (Appa, you die first , then we’ll see!!!).

Appa was also fed up with the state the country was in, post independence, and would lament how it had gone from bad to worse. “Dukrancha desh zalay” (‘It has become a country of pigs’), he would say from time to time, and implore us to leave the country. When I first visited UK, and then Stratford-upon-Avon (Shakespeare’s birth place), I knew that Appa would have been delighted, and was perhaps smiling from above. For it was his dream to go off to England and marry an English dowager (Madam not withstanding).

Today it strikes me that he was the first one to address me as Rukku, and he would have been quite proud of the fact that I write well (in English), and I and my brother no longer live in India – heeding his words.

Of course, while we always loved Appa, there were others who could barely tolerate him. One such person was my mother’s aunt (the same grandmother who was Madam’s friend). For you see, she knew that Appa had mis-treated Madam early in the marriage, and had in fact, left her and their first born to fend for themselves for a while. For that she had never forgiven Appa (even if his own wife had), and refused to speak to him. She did try to influence our opinion of him, but we only knew the man who visited us from time to time, carrying Amrakhand boxes (we tried hinting that we hated the Amrakhand, but he wouldn’t take the hint), struggling to somehow live alone in a small box of a flat in Pune (he and his wife had built three bungalows in Goregaon in their life time). So Appa only received our love, warmth, and trace bits of pity – his past forgotten and where it should be – in the past.

When Appa passed away, we never exactly knew, but it was sometime after we left Mumbai and lost all contact with him. He had almost gone deaf, so phone calls were very few and in between. I remember visiting him once in 2009, and was appalled at how Appa and Madam lived their lives – filthy, littered house, unwashed dishes, reeking of decay, two old lives, struggling to get on with their existence. I had almost bolted from there, never to return. Not even in my mind. Until Facebook brought all those memories back – rushing.


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