God knows, at times, the most we do for some people is a fleeting smile and the most we do for the world around is a fleeting glance. How true it is when they say don’t forget to stop and smell the roses!
One dark rainy night many years ago when my sister and I were little school going kids a tiny white kitten strayed into our grounds in Pondicherry. It kept going meow; the sometimes feeble, sometimes shrill cry of a scared kitten. He took her in and gave her some milk for the night and did not shoo her away. She went on to stay for around eighteen years, transforming and lighting up all our lives forever. Tabby, of course, had made both our homes her home! They live next door, he, my mother’s uncle, who we used to called uncle, amai and their children Sapna and Rajesh. There is no dividing compound wall between our homes.
‘Going next door’ would be heard at least once a day in both the homes – Memories of evenings spent playing pillars (it was something similar to musical chair; just that we used the pillars in the verandah, existing and imaginary), cards, carrom or just listening to the older folks chatting up – Weekends would see Raghumaman and Premachi and Sheeba and Sheeja too!
How bustling and filled with fun and laughter it used to be. And the New Year parties where a few more families would join in. It almost always used to be held in either of our homes. He was always game in that quiet sort of way. He was also a very good cook. He would cook up that extra special starter usually for the dads as an accompaniment for the drinks. He would without fail offer them first to us to sample!
Changes happen. Slowly we move out of our homes and Pondicherry for jobs, some in search of independence, some moving away after marriage. My visits now trickle down to the occasional weekends when I get back home for a break. And my visits ‘next door’ mostly revolve around talks of how it is in the new city, the job and how I spend time there.
He had taken up gardening post his retirement. And what a passionate gardener he turned out to be! Thinking about it, it was quite natural for him, he owned a bit of land in Wayanad, Kerala, where he grew pepper and other crops. Back to the garden in Pondicherry. Here it was not all neat rows or pruned plants as in most home gardens, imagine the opposite! Wild looking creepers with exotic flowers, trees, masses of different foliage, stretches of cacti, tiny patches of vegetables and fruit trees – a custard apple too! On one of those visits he offered me a sample of homemade wine. He had made it from a homegrown fruit, I vaguely remember it as being a rose apple tree and it was delicious! This would inspire me enough to try out winemaking later on my own. Much more recently I was told he’d become ‘crazy enough’ to plant ‘eendh’, a palm with edible fruit that takes some twenty odd years to reach maturity and can spread to 6 feet and more in width and that much or more in height. I now get to know that it is a wild palm that is found in some regions of the Nilgiri Biosphere reserve and ‘eendh’ as we know it is the Irula term for it. Yeah it is there growing between our homes! I would love to see it fruit some day.
My occasional visits continue. It becomes less and less frequent the past couple of years as I end up visiting Pondicherry just once every 6 months or so. The last time I visit he was looking a little down. He had had a stroke and was just recovering. This time when I visit I fall sick and I skip going next door. Hence my memory is of amai, glowing and smiling who came over to see me as soon as she’d heard I’d come down.
It does weigh on my mind that I did not meet uncle. I had thought to my self I would do it next time. Later that evening, after we were back in Bangalore I got to know that there would be no more next times. He had left this world peacefully during that evening’s walk.