Eulogy for My Father
-Kaushik Sunder Rajan
(Spoken on July 29, 2014, Sunder’s 13th day memorial event)
Nothing could have prepared me for the pain of cremating my father.
But I speak of him tonight not just as my father, but as my friend.
There are many full and pleasant memories I have of appa. I remember him coming home from work every day when I was four. When he rang the doorbell, I had to be the one to open the door. if anyone else did, I would throw a tantrum. Mudalai aakanam, I would scream. Meaning, literally, that the past must be made – that time must go back, so that he could ring the bell again for me to open – only then would all be right again. I remember the evening of his first big break. I was five. That evening I did not wait for him to ring the doorbell, but met him at the top of the steps that led up to our first-floor flat. He didn’t even wait to get upstairs, and told me with great excitement that he had been transferred to Washington. I heard it first, even before amma did. I remember wondering what Washington was, and concluded that it had something to do with the ropes on which one hangs the laundry out to dry. It was the only washing related thing that I knew. I remember the two and a half years in Washington as being the time of his life, in terms of both work and play. We had a stereo system that was his most prized possession, and he would record the rock and pop of the 1970s and early 80s from the radio station onto cassettes. They were meticulously labeled, in his impeccable handwriting, that was more precise and unwavering than any typeset. Over the two and a half years we were there, he had taped over 20 volumes of the music of that time. the tapes remained with him for decades, even after he stopped listening to them and they stopped making tape recorders.
I remember him dropping me off at oxford, my first time away from home. He stayed at hollywell manor for a few days, a tiny attic room with a sloping roof, where he couldn’t get up from bed without hitting his head on the ceiling, while I settled myself into my little room in college. I remember the only time he gave me advice on what I should do with my life. when I got admission of the waitlist to a PhD program in Science, Technology and Society and MIT, he strongly urged me to go. At the time, I had already accepted an offer from Berkeley, and was deeply looking forward to going there, but appa felt that I should accept this late offer from MIT instead. appa rarely pushed me in one direction or the other – this was the only time he had ever told me what I should do with my life – and so i took his words seriously. This was a vulnerable and insecure time for me, since I was changing fields – moving out of the sciences and into the social sciences, which I knew nothing about – and somehow appa understood those feelings enough to step in and point me in the right direction. It wasn’t an order, but guidance, when I most needed it; and it turned out to be the best decision I made in my life. I remember his pride when I graduated from MIT. How at the dinner afterwards, with my family and my teachers, he got up to make a speech. It was absolutely not the conventional thing to do, and I was blushing from head to toe. But his pride was so complete, his joy was so unalloyed, his words kept flowing, and within minutes it was clear to everyone at the table that what mattered at that moment was not convention, just the love of a father for his son at a special moment in his life.
I remember so many fragments from the past decade since completing my PhD – a time when we had the joy and pleasure of spending time together in many different parts of the world, partly due to my parents’ own dual existence in India and the UK or the US, and partly due to their love of traveling. There was poignancy to this time as well, because I could start seeing my parents aging, seeing how adulthood meant the shift from a time when you rely on your parents to one when they start relying upon you, realizing starkly the inevitability of their impending mortality. Except that I always hoped and expected that mortality to be in the future, to be infinitely deferred. One of the things that I did realize these past few years – and I am so glad that I did – was that time spent with my parents was not to be taken for granted, but to be constantly cherished.
The significant memories of Appa are not just about the big events or milestones that we shared or celebrated. They were also about the little things – about the quirks that amma and naira and I would tease; about the ritual moments of intimacy that he constantly created and thrived upon. And so – I remember his passionate commitment to his work, which in my childhood did not involve understanding what he did, but rather involved an image of him slouched over his Olympus typewriter, his most constant companion. He had never learned how to type, and so would only use one finger. But he typed quickly and flawlessly, brows furrowed in concentration, banging each key hard like a hammer hitting a nail. I remember how over the years he got into the habit of waking amma up with her first cup of tea every morning. He took great pride in his tea – sometimes making a more conventional concoction with ginger and cardamom, at other times coming up with more elaborate schemes, such as shaving the peel of an orange to lend the tea a citrus flavor; and yet other times simply throwing in the tea bag, while making sure there was just the right amount of milk. He liked his efforts to be appreciated – if amma went even a single morning without praising his tea, he would immediately ask – enna, tea patti onnum cholaliye? [how come you haven’t said anything about the tea?]. for him, this need for affirmation was no more than his constant need for affection, which he dispensed as freely as he received. I remember him every once in a while, for no reason at all, just standing there, his arms open, telling amma and me – “oru hug kodu” [give me a hug]; then clasping us both in a bear hug, saying “neenga rindu perum yen rindu kangal” [the two of you are my two eyes]. I remember his banters with naira, the way he would feign elaborate self-pity when she teased or bullied him, all the while swelling with happiness and fondness at being the object of her attention and care.
I remember his social sleeping; how he would nod off in the midst of a conversation around him, sometimes even producing loud snores in the midst of pleasant chatter or heated debate. And yet if he was being spoken about, his lips would curl in a smile even as he slept – he could snore and smile, sleep and listen, all at the same time. I remember how he liked to be gently stroked, and how he would shamelessly demand back rubs and massages from babu mama and from me. He liked having the back of his head patted. His hair there was so thick and so soft, like a bed of moss; and on being patted thus, he would go into a catatonic state, with a self-satisfied smile, like a cat having its ears scratched. I remember his bushy eyebrows, his flat ears with long earlobes, the bump on his index finger that came from years of clutching his pen too tight. I remember how even as he slept, he would keep his brows furrowed, and how he could sleep while clutching a book tightly in his hands, not letting his grip go even a little. I remember the frenzied precision with which he would pack and repack, and pack again, before traveling anywhere.
I remember going into his bedroom every night he was in town with me and staring at him for just a minute, making sure he was breathing – a habit of ritual anxiety developed over the years, an indication of just what a precious and fragile thing he was to me. When we stayed up with his body two weeks ago, he looked just like he was asleep, his mouth was turned up in a slight smile, but however long I looked, his chest refused to heave, as it had done so reassuringly all those nights I would go in to check on him.
There was a simple elegance to appa, but also great depth and complexity. He was a booming, confident presence, yet without a trace of pride, arrogance or self-righteousness. He had a fierce personality, yet was incredibly gentle. He would never get angry, yet he was sensitive and could get easily hurt. But in my mind, his three most enduring qualities were his curiosity, his humility and his gregariousness.
Appa’s curiosity allowed him to make the broadest range of friends and know the most eclectic range of things. I remember him in conversation with a famous South African poet and freedom fighter, acquiring an in-depth knowledge of the wines of that country; and later that week, getting the life story of the night-watchman who let him in to Amma’s office after hours. In the early 1980s, he asked a taxi driver in New York so many questions that the cabbie, suitably impressed, took him on a night tour of harlem to show him the neighborhood that he originally came from. In the early 1990s, he had conversations lasting many hours with an immunologist friend at the NIH in Washington, asking what this friend said were some of the smartest questions he had heard. Such curiosity was not merely an indulgence; it enabled him to do his work with relish. He has often been spoken of as a perfectionist when it came to work. but along with the precision that comes with perfectionism was this spirit of curiosity, which allowed him to learn the intricacies of economic cost-benefit analysis or the relative merits of boeings vis-à-vis airbuses. It was his curiosity that allowed him to be a bureaucrat and a romantic simultaneously and without contradiction.
What can one say about his humility? Even though he ended his career as a very senior civil servant, reaching the peak of his profession, he took even greater pride in my achievements and amma’s. He was her biggest cheerleader, virtually forcing her to apply to a job in oxford, following her around the world on her assignments, befriending her colleagues and her students, filing her tax returns, buying her groceries. Through amma, I know many feminists – herself included, perhaps myself as well – and we all take strong normative positions about how gender relations should be. but Appa embodied an ethos of feminism, not as political ideology, but as a mode of relating with his family and with the world, in a spirit of constant grace, good cheer and, most of all, humility. As one of Amma’s friends, a leading feminist scholar based in New York, told her upon his passing: “Sunder was one of us”.
And his gregariousness. Appa filled a room. He thrived in social situations. Siddharth uncle’s daughter Tarunya said it best in a note she wrote me a few days ago, when she said that no one else had the capacity to make uncle laugh the way Appa did. Appa had this capacity to make everyone laugh – the closest of friends, but also strangers and mere acquaintances – not because he was a comedian, but simply because he was always full of joy, always had something cheerful to say, and because he was such a strong presence while also being just so cute. One could not help being happy in his presence; he radiated good energy.
It is hard to speak of the last few days. they happened so quickly. Just two months ago, naira and I took him to the Preakness stakes in Baltimore to celebrate his 70th birthday. He always enjoyed a day at the horse races, even though he went rarely, and had a blast on this day. We spent the two days in Baltimore in the company of a number of close friends, and it was amongst the most special weekends we have spent together as a family. I could not have imagined that we would be losing him within a couple of months, that the cells in his body were already virulently, malignantly and lethally out of control.
I was convinced that the biopsy results would turn out negative, that the thickening of his stomach wall that the ultrasound had shown would be a function of some kind of generalized food allergy, not cancer. I was wrong, and I had to break the news to him – not a phone call I had ever imagined making. But he took it in a completely matter of fact manner, packed his bags, and came with amma to madras at a day’s notice for his surgery. There, over the next two weeks, I witnessed amazing courage and grace. But also a touching fragility. The day before his
operation, just before amma relieved me to spend the night with him in his hospital room, I asked him if he was feeling scared. Simply, without any affect, he nodded. I told him that every time he got scared, he should think of me, because I am here, and I will give him strength. He smiled, and nodded again. I kissed him gently on the forehead and stroked his cheek. He asked me to sit on the bed, reached for my hand, and squeezed it. then the nurse came in, and he started asking her a hundred questions, and I left.
I would like to think I gave him some strength over the next week. he did not act like a patient. He chatted and questioned the nurses; got annoyed with his physiotherapist, whom he called a “useless fellow”; never saw his pulmonologist, who did not deign to check up on him even once even though he was known to have weak lungs; did his breathing exercises with some difficulty and even more grumbling; and on the Wednesday, the day before he passed away, walked with me in the terrace garden outside his hospital room, his robes billowing in the wind like Marilyn Monroe. On the morning that he died, his surgeon asked him if he had any complaints, and he replied: “yes doctor, my son isn’t shaving. Please could you get him to shave? How can he be a professor and be unshaven like this?” This was the courage of a man who had just had his stomach removed; who in the space of two weeks had his life and physiology turned upside down. But also of a man who, I had learned just two days previously, had a cancer far more advanced than we had expected or feared. I hadn’t told him the results of the biopsy on the stomach that had been removed, though I am sure he could read the depth of my worry on my face.
I do not ever want to relive the hour that he went into terminal decline; but I will always be glad that miraculously, amma and I and his mother were all there with him, that he recognized us before he went. I will be glad that amma and I were on either side as his pulse dwindled and stopped, holding on to each of his hands – avaruddaiya rindu kangal, his two eyes, there until the end with him.
I want to end with a few lines from Faiz Ahmed Faiz, and show you a couple of photographs. The lines, which I feel reflect appa’s character and presence, are as follows:
Phir nazar mein phool mehke, Dil mein phir shamain jali’n,
Phir tassawur ne liya uss bazmm mein jaane ka naam.
Again the eye fills with the scent of flowers, again the heart is lit with a leaping flame;
Imagination exults, and hesitating no longer, rejoins this happy company again.
The first set of photos I want to show you was from appa’s visit to Chicago a couple of years ago. Appa liked to have dessert after every meal; naira refused to allow him dessert unless he ate his vegetables. One day, in a huff, he said “okay, don’t give me any dessert, I’ll make my own”, and decided to microwave a banana and eat it, as his dessert and as a symbolic gesture of defiance. This sequence of photos shows the consequences of this decision.
The next and last photo speaks to faiz’s lines. It is one of the last I took of appa. His eyes were one of his defining features: at once sharp, radiant, deep. As I see it, I realize that whether I gave him strength or not during his surgery, he has given me the strength to endure his passing. Because as I look into these eyes, I realize that I will always mourn him, but also that I will always celebrate him.
Appa. Sunder. Raju. Shundal. Q. I look forward to the day that I join you in the expanses of the ocean where you have now gone to play, and you will greet me with a smile, and a booming, resounding “how now!”. but until then, I hope I can live up to being half the person to others that you have been to me.
Your passing has rendered me incomplete.