He would always wait at the veranda. He’d welcome me with a grin, a tight hug and back rub. He had strong hands.
He would then immediately go about organizing chappals for me and ask me what I wanted to eat. He made rajma and kaleji like no one else can. He was in his 80s, yet sprightly enough.
Even in his fading days, when he could barely speak or move, he didn’t complain. I don’t remember him asking for anything ever except for when he asked ma to send me over. He had fallen and broken his hip. I had gone immediately.
This time he was not waiting outside. He was lying in bed, his body swollen. I touched his feet and said ‘pranam Kaku’. No response. I put my hand on his forehead and waited.
He opened his eyes a little and mumbled, “Sona beta, aa gaye? Kya khaiyyega?”
Fighting tears, I said, “kaleji banao.”
He replied, “Lekin haath nahi utthh raha hai.” He couldn’t lift his hands. He couldn’t move at all.
Nature was at work with savage abandon. I prayed desperately for his early liberation.
As I sat by his bed with my hand on his forehead, with no courage to look at his wrecked frame, sorrow stirred myriad memories.
The Bicycle Ride
One evening of at least three and a half decades before kept coming back with cinema-like lucidity – the kind that suffuses your sensorium.
Kaku worked in a college in Patna and had taken me along on his cycle for the Annual Day function. I sat in front, on the rod, as was typical those days, clutching the handle with all my might and squirming strategically over the bumpy byways to keep my derrière in equilibrium.
In all, it was a delicate balancing act for both the cyclist and the cargo, an act performed every day a million times with nonchalance in this curious country of ours.
We are a nation of remarkably resilient derrières.
Kaku looked natty in his starched ‘bush-shirt’ and trousers, and a faded old watch which needed manual winding. I was little, perhaps 7 or 8, and he looked exceedingly proud showing me around that evening and making sure I was well-fed.
Kaku, whose name was Ramdas Sahu, had been adopted by my grandfather, who also helped him get a job in the college.
He grew on the family and, by the time I had materialised, had acquired a status which was an unconventional mix of commanding and serving. Visitors were often confounded. Uncle? Butler? Caretaker?
He expressed his opinion freely and treated my mother as his daughter-in-law. He called her ‘Dulhin’ and advised her on domestic matters, the recurring one being the saree ‘falls’ (borders) destroyed on a weekly basis by Laxman ji, the amiable washerman who was used to humouring his way past disgruntled patrons.
Kaku was a reluctant patriarch to Laxman ji, to Nazrool Miyan who had taught my father and then me how to drive, and to the entire orbit of our neighbours, uncles and aunts, cousins and friends. In small towns in those years, that was practically half the township.
Yet, despite all our effort, we could not get him to sit with us at the dining table. He preferred his cane modha, or something much lower, a two-inch tall wooden peedha, bunched up in his typical chequered blue lungi and white baniyan.
Family and Other Animals
Kaku’s conduct with Chachi, his wife and my nanny, had appeared mostly bureaucratic. At times the starchiness gave way to a lecture from Chachi which Kaku set aside as ambient noise. That led to the lecture getting more ornamental, and so it went. Partners are capable of creating the most peculiar rhythms.
His conduct towards the animals he had inherited, and some of the part-time ladies who came for cleaning, was entirely different, and perhaps the reason Chachi was predominantly of a righteously indignant disposition.
Kaku had adopted a baby parrot he had rescued from under a mango tree, and had been adopted by the Spitz-Pomeranian pup someone had gifted me. Mithu the parrot and Jhummi the dog took very little time sorting out the rules of engagement.
In fact, it took only a few minutes. Jhummi kept rattling Mithu’s cage. Incensed, Mithu bit him on the nose. Since, then, whenever Kaku opened the cage, Mithu ambled superciliously towards Kaku, clambered up his arm and then perched over his shoulder. Jhummi ambled suspiciously away from both to sulk in a safe faraway corner.
Kaku didn’t intervene in this intense interpersonal interspecies dynamic.
Kaku fed them with his hands, coaxing and cajoling and sharing the day’s chatter. Whosoever he was with, he was the nurturer, always just giving.
I never heard him complain, except perhaps once.
When I was living in the US, we had got him over. He had assimilated the adventure like a curious child. The only time he had been petulant was when I had not let him get into the swimming pool. He was past 70 and it was cold.
“I used to swim across the Ganga, and you think a little pool will be a problem,” he had protested.
I made up to him later with a barbecue in his honour. He had insisted on cooking but I had persisted in not letting him.
While we were seeing off the guests, he had quietly got busy cleaning up. Quintessential Kaku.
The Last Entry
As I sat there by his bed, watching with awe how his younger brother Kamdas Kaku tended to him, I wondered if I could have perhaps been less preoccupied all those career years and taken better care of him.
I was glad that at least I was there to see him off.
Kaku set sail a few days after I arrived, taking with him my only concept of home, and leaving behind a note I discovered a few days later. That was 2012.
He kept a weekly diary, a repurposed mini phone book, in which he wrote his financial accounts as well as the latest significant updates – most of them entries about his travels to his village, and the rain and harvest there.
The harvest was important to me too. A good one meant that he’d return with chana ka saag cooked in earthen pots over a wooden fire.
On September 10, 2010, he had written a letter to Jhummi. The handwriting is wobbly, arduous.
His note starts with, and I translate from his Hindi, “Dear Jhummi, stay happy.”
He then goes on to apologise to her for having travelled. He asks her: “You were fine when I had once gone to the US, then why did you become so forlorn when I had taken a trip of just a few days more recently?”
Given his age and ailment then, I wonder how long it had taken him to write those two pages.
I still have that tiny frayed diary with me. It has been eight years.
Kaku ends by apologising to her for not being around more, for not being there when she had died.
That was his posthumous letter. This is mine.
Stay happy, Kaku. I too wonder if I could have spent more time with you.
You were, after all, home. My only home.