My Platinum Grandad: On Dealing with the Loss of My Dear Muthachan
Updated: Jul 4, 2021
While at the risk of sounding pretentious quoting Murakami forthwith, “memories are what warm you up on the inside. But they also tear you apart.” This quote from his wildly successful novel titled Kafka On the Shore is one that I could never forget, for good reason. This gathering of words hit home for me on various levels, but the strongest I felt for them was while on call talking to my aunt about my grandpa in all his star-like presence in our lives. I was bawling for the most part while talking to her and felt like my head and heart hadn’t exactly dealt with his death until said conversation. Someone asks me about my grandparents and a smile lights up my face and I say that I’m very close to them, but it’s been over two years since my grandpa’s passing, and I still sometimes forget that he isn’t with us. Maybe this essay will act as a catharsis of sorts and is for the most part going to be a brief ramble about the rockstar, for lack of a more fitting term, that was my Muthachan (grandfather in Malayalam), throwing light on how he affected us passersby who had the good fortune of having been a part of his journey.
My grandpa spent most of his working years in Doha, Qatar, where my mum and aunt were raised. A bunch of South Indians in Qatar—no one is surprised. They lived in a joint family with my Muthachan’s sister and her family. He was quite the cool cat who never let ego dictate his actions. There was this one incident my mum told me about wherein he was on his way to office, trash bag and car keys occupying both hands. As one probably saw coming, while aiming to throw the trash bag into the trash collector, he threw his car keys instead. Bag and baggage, scrip and scrippage, he dived into the trash pile without asking for any help. My Ammama (grandmother in Malayalam), still talks about what a sight (and smell) he was to see at the door with his tie loosened, sleeves rolled up, reeking of fresh garbage. He always took everything in his stride and never held anyone else accountable for how his life panned out. He was also extremely generous with money and never once questioned the borrower’s intentions. Like Oprah sans the fame and fanatics. Their time in Doha was what my mum and aunt call “the glory days”. My Muthachan being who he was, had quite the blooming social life. I have heard countless stories about all the parties Muthachan used to host. Everybody who attended a party at Mr. Kongot’s house would arrive knowing that they’re in for a night full of laughter and warmth. Even though he was always the life of social settings, he never left my quiet Ammama behind as he socialized. He would drag her along with him into their merrymaking and always ensure she was having a solid time. My grandpa was also quite the darling romantic. When he first moved to Doha, Ammama was still living in their house in Bombay. My aunt was born within a month of him leaving and he wrote letters to my grandma until they moved in together at Doha. Perhaps love and reverence of this kind was much more prevalent in their time, but they were truly a couple who my mum and her little sister looked up to for reference on what a loving, mutually giving relationship should feel and look like—one that my family is inspired by to this day.
As humans, we come predisposed with a tendency to blame externalities in a time of crisis. Not once did Muthachan direct any blame onto anyone for his conducts or the happenings around him. He was a man not disconcerted by his past. He wore it like a beautiful, vignetted photograph in his mind, not one to emotionally guilt his children like a lot of us have been in our childhood. My generation has grown up with our fair share of uncles and aunties say “you kids don’t value all that you have been given, always wanting more and more. We had to endure poverty and could hardly ever afford anything”. But Muthachan never really burdened my mum and aunt with preaching of such nature. He was always of the mindset that him not having as privileged a life in terms of material richness was all the more reason to fulfill my mum and aunt’s wishes. They were genuinely a fortunate bunch, lucky to have grown up in an environment brimming with unconditional love. Theirs is a story so heartwarming, it hits me right where the good, magical stuff happens.
My grandma’s father passed away when she was merely six years old and was taken care of by her mother and uncles. She lived in a very big house in Kerala, with several family members around her at all times, but sometimes you feel the loneliest when surrounded by people. One of her younger uncles worked with my grandpa in Bombay, and their bond was one that surpassed that of common colleagues. They were the best of friends and when her uncle suggested that Muthachan marry his niece, he agreed without the slightest apprehension. It sounds like a creepy catfish situation, but my Muthachan met his future wife for the first time only on the day of their wedding. His sheer love for and trust in his best friend is what makes this a very precious anecdote in our family.
My little brother, cousins and I would spend our 3-month-long vacations divided between two main locations in Kerala, our native land—my grandma’s maternal home and the flat they had purchased in the city. Our ancestral home was huge—we could spend all day playing hide and seek and still not find all of us given how many places there were to hide in. There was a kolam in the courtyard, and long, humid summer days would be spent jumping in with cousins and lazing about, floating in the water. You could feel small fishes, reeds, and mud beneath your feet, all adding to the tactile appeal for us young children. Muthachan would take us to open fields behind our house, him much like the Pied Piper and at least four of us, if not more of us, following suit. We would run through paddy fields, pick vegetables like green beans, aubergines, and raw bananas for dinner, and greet cows who would sometimes allow themselves to be pet and fed by us. He also tied up a swing for us on a large mango tree with the help our house help Armugan, so we could swing ourselves and each other to great heights, with complete childlike abandonment. At the end of a long and eventful day, we would go to sleep at night with the crescendo and comedown of the cicadas as our lullaby.
When it came to spending a few days at their apartment in the city, Muthachan would keep the house stacked with all the snacks and candy we loved as children, and would take us on drives around the city, with lengthy pitstops at the zoo, grocery store, and even bookstores. Muthachan would always look for the slightest excuse to go out of the house, and as a result, kept himself very fit. My friends who met him always asked me whether he was in the army at some point because he was, in their own words, “built like a colonel”. He was never in the army though, although he wanted to be; instead, his father wanted him to have a sheltered life, which is what he yielded to his own children too. Muthachan would make sure we had some kind of physical activity every day, and would even drive us to running tracks nearby for a quick evening jog.
These were truly the best years of our lives. There was such an abundance of love and warmth showered on us kids—lucky are the ones who got to experience the love of grandparents like my brother, cousins and I did. Muthachan is a term of endearment derived from the words “muthu” meaning “pearl”, and “achan” meaning “father”. In hindsight, this name fits aptly. My Muthachan was a reason for the light behind countless people’s eyes. And with his passing, it feels like the light has vanished from our eyes. Losing someone you love and revere is not simple, and never will be. But I smile thinking about the good fortune I had to have known a mind as beautiful as his. For the days that I cannot seem to crack a smile on my own, I will always come back to these words and bring back the little flicker in my flame.
List of translations:
Muthachan: grandfather in Malayalam (Dravidian language spoken in the Indian state of Kerala and the union territories of Lakshadweep and Puducherry by the Malayali people)
Ammamma: grandmother in Malayalam
Kolam: pond or pool in Malayalam