Sunder and our Family
–Ratna, Mani and Smriti
My memories of Sundar stretch over several cities. I met him first at the government flat in Andrews Ganj where he provided inputs for a group of us on current Hindi film songs. This was a little before the time that Raji reprogrammed her schedule to teach abroad and moved away from their gorgeous Hudco address. We shared so many memorable meals in that house and Sunder it was who introduced us to liqueur in violin-shaped glass bottles and opened that redoubtable bottle of scotch called Kuch Nahin.
Kaushik was all grown up at this time while both my children were small. Siddhartha was born the week before Raji left for England, and both Sunder and Raji had been incorporated as relatives. While Raji was away Sunder would occasionally drop by for some home cooked South Indian food that would turn into a long evening punctuated by his stentorian voice and his enthusiasm for people and things. I still use the Corelle dinner plates that he carried back for me from Washington to New Delhi in days long before the malls opened up all over the place on the Indian subcontinent.
Our son Siddhartha had a tousled head of curly hair which inspired Sunder to call him muttakose talayan ( cabbage head) which remained an endearing nickname for a very long time. Siddhartha’s. response when I told him of Sunder uncle being no more was : “I can’t believe he will not be there to call me muttakose talayan any more.”
The children remember fondly the trip he took us on to Ranikhet and the boat rides at Nainital and Naukuchiyatal and the chocolate biscuits he shared with us during our stay at Oxford, when we visited in 2006.
I visited Jaipur with Sunder and Raji in 2011 when we attended the Jaipur literary festival while they were staying at Gurgaon. We drove by car to Jaipur and attended the festival sitting in on various talks and readings and discussion panels and trying out new foods. We had lunch at Nataraj Lodge, a delightful eatery serving traditional Rajasthani thali that I had stumbled upon on a previous visit. The visit to the Jaipur festival also included a wonderful detour to Shekhawati and several painted forts. Inside an old fort, Raji and I bargained over beautiful singing bowls and Sunder stood by amicably and indulgently as we continued to rummage amongst the quaint bric a brac. Sunder ordered Kali daal and hot tandoori roti with great gusto at a newly- assembled fort in Shekhawati where we stopped over for one night.
A very gregarious host, Sunder was always in his element when it was a question of travel, food or conversation and our lives enmeshed and were enriched by this. Sometimes, I think if one were asked to identify the most remarkable part of being human in our times, it is possibly the fact that although we have travelled enormous distances from kinship groups, we have developed the ability to forge new links and close ties with friends we have made in our little lifetimes. The interstices of both memory and affection draw sustenance from such relationships. That significantly was the space all of us shared with Sunder, who was for me a very dear mentor and friend’s husband. Sunder engaged with Smriti and Siddhartha, and was an endearing and indulgent uncle, making up for all their absent uncles. With Mani the conversations wove themselves around the law and tax and accounting and it was with Mani that Sunder had a long conversation on the last afternoon of his life. Mani put him on speaker and his energetic voice filled the room as he told us about his brief illness and diagnosis and how he was recovering from surgery. When the sms arrived the next morning, telling us that Sunder was no more, it was almost impossible to believe in its truth as Sunder’s vibrant voice from the previous afternoon still resonated inside our heads.
Our world has definitely shrunk with your absence Sunder. We hold on tenaciously however to the precious memories that you nurtured with your inimitable energy and buoyant laughter.
Memories of Sunder
A loud booming “Mani lets have a drink together I say” was a very frequent desire of the enthusiastic Sundar over the years that I interacted with him. It was impossible to say no or not to look forward to those select moments when we would pour a drink and chat about various matters including tax assessments of my dear friend Sundar and his immediate family. Raji would more often than not support what I was saying in tax issues and poor Sundar would draw himself up and look a little distraught at the proceedings. It was almost as if he felt betrayed by his dear wife’s shift of loyalty albeit momentary and on a subject where my knowledge was perhaps better than his. I used to sit back and “enjoy” their “war” over which were the relevant papers and who had not filed them properly in the designated files.
We had several such moments and meals together at our place or theirs. Even our children were quite attached to Sundar and after some time were not in the least intimidated by the volume of his queries. They chattered happily with him and the soft spoken Raji . . . she was soft spoken enough to more than balance or equalise the volume of the family as a whole! We stayed put in our residence while they moved from Andrews Ganj to the greener Hudco Place where the first mall of Delhii Ansal Plaza came up so many years ago. Sundar would even entertain at times while Raji was busy educating western minds in the great beyond.
An evening with Raji and Sundar had become so much a part of our lives that we forgot the old adage “Change is certain”. Sundar retired as all bureaucrats must after doing his gallant bit for the nation with his last stint being in the Pay Commission where he toiled to pass on benefits to all sections of Government employees.
The family shifted to Bangalore. Sundar now became more of a telephone friend, However he would always take out time on the way to the airport if nothing else to have the proverbial drink if he ever visited Delhi on some work. I would always try to call him and wish him on his birthday in May. Sundar used to travel a lot with Raji and over the years personal interaction was replaced by fond memories.
I saw a missed call from his number on my phone a few months ago. I dialled back only to hear him tell me in a not so stentorian voice about his surgery and that his brother was looking after him. He told me that he did not know who had called me but that he had been wanting to talk to me. A few hours later I got a call from a mutual family friend which completed the old adage “Death is certain”. I could not believe what I heard. But for me that missed call has been and perhaps always will be the one I remember with mixed feelings all my life. I am so glad I was able to speak to him before he went to the netherworld.
I will miss him on this May 17th and would still want to call and wish him. Just to tell him that he was a wonderful down- to- earth good human being who spread warmth and happiness and cheer while he was around. Sundar and the family will be in my prayers often.
Dear Raji Maami,
I have been sitting on this email for a while now because I am still at a loss for words and I have been feeling that anything I say will not suffice. It’s yesterday that I discovered that Sunder in English means to separate or part and since I read this word last night, I have just had this strange feeling that is almost impossible to describe. I apologise for not reaching out and writing to you sooner. It was selfish but every draft I have tried to compose just felt inadequate.
Every time I think of Sunder Uncle, I think of someone whose presence just felt ubiquitous. I have to just think of him to hear his voice in the background calling Siddhartha a Mutakos Talayen or urging us in his own brusque no- nonsense manner to delve a little deeper into what we were studying and what the problems were. I still remember our trip to the hills with him and when we visited you at Oxford. It’s unfortunate that in the last couple of years I didn’t have the privilege of sitting with him and chatting with him as an adult about policy and bureaucratic insights which I’m sure he would have many.
Not to sound erudite or philosphical but I feel it’s impossible to get over the loss of someone who is so dear and close to our hearts. The passage of time I guess just helps us move to do other things, while carrying the person and everything he brought to us along.
I hope you are okay Mami. Lots of love to you and I apologise again for not writing sooner.
[Ratna and Mani are among our dearest Delhi friends. As happened all the time, those who started off as my colleagues and friends quickly became Sunder’s as well. Over the years, Ratna, Mani and the children became family. I could not resist including Smriti’s email to me (above) written just after Sunder’s passing. This is the little girl we had seen growing up over twenty years! I am glad I called Mani on Sunder’s phone on that last day, even if inadvertently, so that they spoke at the end].