Monday, August 7, 2017

When the Lions Roamed Free

July 2017: Anna retells the story of lions roaming free to 
Ananya, my niece, and Mamta, my sister,'
to much laughter and encouragement
A few months ago, Anna was quite the chatty Cathy for a few days. That is an oddity, given that most days he is quiet, only responding to direct questions. With his eyes closed. So, him being chatty is a treat. When I say chatty, I mean that that he could talk for 15 mins at a stretch without falling asleep or losing his train of thought. That's really chatty for him.

Anna: Lions are majestic.

Me (looking at the news, confused): What lions, Anna?

Anna: The lions in Africa. They roam around freely.

Me (I think he is referring to something he has seen on the National Geographic channel that he loves): Yes they do Anna. Specially in grasslands, and open forests.

Anna: They roam freely amongst people. They don't harm the people at all.

Me (wondering if this is a hallucination, or if he is telling me about a dream, or a story): Really, Anna?

Lion Staircase, Bardo Palace, Tunis
Photo Courtesy: E. Selmaj
Anna: The stairs have lions on either side, too.

I am totally confused, wondering what lions are doing roaming freely on either side of a staircase that people use.

Me: What staircase, Anna? Where is this staircase?

Anna: In Tunis. At the Palace. It is a beautiful staircase. The lions each have a different expression.

Me: Anna, when did you go to Tunis?

Anna: A few years ago. I think it's been over 30 years since Anna has been to Africa.

Me: Anna, what were you doing in Tunis?

Anna: I went to see Nagarajan. 
Anna has known Uncle Nagarajan for ~70 years.

Me: What was Uncle Nagarajan doing there?

Anna: He was working at an oil refinery, in Algiers. The Americans had set up refineries and they needed technical people, so Nagarajan went.

Algiers? I thought we were in Tunisia at the Bardo Palace near where Uncle Nagarajan was working?! But now Anna had moved to Algeria in the blink of an eye.

From what I can make out Anna saw lions in Tunis. Were they alive and roaming free or were they stone statues? I am confused. But that's kind-of becoming the norm for me - being confused and logical at the same time.

Anna: One evening, while Nagarajan was working on the bubble cap columns, he saw movement from the corner of his eyes. He thought that it was a "herd" of dogs. But it wasn't. How could dogs all be the same color? When he asked the people around him, they shone their lights where there had been movement. That is when he saw them! The lions of Algiers. Roaming freely around the refinery.

Me: Anna, wasn't Uncle scared? Wasn't it dangerous?

Anna: No. It seems that it was quite normal for the lions to roam the refinery. The lions came and went as they pleased. More in the evening time when it was cool. Pause. They also roamed the village nearby.

Me: The village nearby?

Anna: Yes. We went there and met with the headman. When we asked him if he had seen the lions, he told us that the whole village had. The lions roamed freely between their huts. No one harmed them so they didn't harm the villagers.

All eight editions of Perry’s Chemical Engineers’ Handbook
Pub. Date2008, 1997, 1984, 1973, 1963, 1950, 1941, 1934
The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.
I am fascinated by this story and ask him questions about the location of the oilfield, bubble cap columns, the refining process. He answers all my questions, even advising me to read Perry's Handbook to understand the distillation process better!

Me: Anna, did you see the lions roaming free in the oil refinery? Or the village?

Anna: Unfortunately, no.


Anna: You know, they don't need boundary walls for protection. Not for the refinery. Not for the village. Pause. The lions protect the refinery and the people. Roaming free.

I have not verified this story with Uncle Nagarajan who is 91 or 92 years old.
Anna has also narrated the story to my sister and niece.
Pretty much word for word.
I believe that this is a true story.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

The Changing Language of My Mother Tongue

My father, Anna, can speak English, Kannada,
Tamil, Malayalam, & Hindi
with varying degrees of proficiency
Photo Courtesy:
When people ask me, "What is your mother tongue?", I say Kannada. But that is not true. If mother tongue refers to the language I grew up speaking, then my mother tongue is English (I duck to avoid the imaginary spears of anti-nationalism being flung at me as I write this!)

My father was born and brought up in Tamil Nadu and hence reads, writes, and speaks Tamil fluently. He learned English in school, Malayalam when he was posted in Kerala, and Hindi, when he was required to pass a mandatory Hindi test to get a Central Government job in the '50s / '60s.

My mother was born and brought up in Delhi and hence was fluent in Hindi.

As we are Kannadiga Madhwas, we all speak Kannada (me haltingly, often searching for words in desperation!) Most of the time, I speak with Anna in English, our primary language of communication.

My parents, sometime in the early 70s

I learned Hindi only when I was 9 or 10 years old. Till then, Hindi was limited to the Bollywood songs my mother listened to on the radio. At that time, we thought our father spoke great Hindi (it sounded so much like the songs we heard!) We still laugh when we think of how impressed we were when Anna said, "कलम में स्याही है" ("There is ink in the pen") - his earliest recollection of learning Hindi was not the alphabet but this sentence. It was only much, much later that we realized that Anna's Hindi was South-Indian accented with a very limited vocabulary.

Anna has a great sense of humor, and is a master of the art of quick repartee. This is not just the pride of a daughter, you are reading, but something you will hear from almost anyone who meets him. Before Parkinson's Disease and Dementia stole his ability to be quick and nimble with his words, Anna was the center of attraction wherever he went. Whether the gathering spoke English, or Kannada, or Tamil, if you heard laughter, you were sure to find my father holding court!

Parkinson's Disease and Dementia, now lets us experience only a small percentage of his wit and repartee (as you may have gathered from my blog-stories at Parables of a Parkinson's Patient). But it is still there, and it is still communication, whether in English or Kannada or Tamil.

10 July 2017: One of Anna's "not all there" days

Where once our language of communication was words strung together in any which way we pleased, we now often speak gestures and facial expressions. A language that involves more than a soupçon of detective work based on a long relationship of shared experiences and oft-repeated stories.

I now hear Anna tell me of his pain in a frown, or his confusion in the wrinkled lines of his forehead. I see his happiness in his toothless smile and his childlike excited chatter in the twinkling of his eyes. I hear him struggling to find the right words in his tired frown and the slight upward movement of his pupils.

We don't know them all
We owe them all
22 July 2017 at Saket Select Citywalk
I know he is asking for his head to be scratched when he repeatedly tries to raise his fingers to his scalp. A half-raised arm means he wants to wipe his nose or the drool from the side of his mouth. I can now distinguish a Parkinson's-induced twitch of a hand from the gesture that points to an object to ask what it is. I know he is stiff when I can see his weakened muscles strain under his paper-thin skin. The slight shifting of weight from one buttock to the other tells me that he wants his back rubbed or scratched.

A lot of our language of communication are these long-duration macro / micro-expressions. A language I have learned without any formal training, and one that I am teaching his attendants.

This new language is not my mother tongue but is starting to feel just as familiar.

There is no appropriate name for this language - perhaps we can create one!

Do you have any suggestions?

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Confessions of a Daughter

Feb 2017
Anna cranes his neck to see something on my phone :-)
Dear Anna,

This Father's Day, I thought I would jazz it up a bit and write you a letter. I know as a family we didn't really celebrate "days". The most we did on a birthday or anniversary was to eat ice cream. No presents. No special dinners. No flowers. After all, it was just another day. But every now and then, I wish someone would throw me a surprise birthday party. Or give me a present, or send me flowers or take me out to dinner. Just like that. For the fun of it!

So, Anna, out of character and tradition, this year I am going to tell you things I have never told you before. All in honor of Father's Day.

I loved that you were goofy with us when we were kids. The only father we knew of, who would scare the the living daylights out of his daughters for fun, or read Asterix, or specially drive kilometers out of the way, so that we could experience a bumpy ride.

I was in awe of your ability to crack a joke on any subject, and be the center of attraction at any party, solely because of your wit. I was and am in awe. And definitely, jealous.

I still remember that you called me aside and told me to stand up for myself, when my siblings stole my share of treats from the fridge. I did learn to stand up for myself. And now I often find myself in the corner of the underdog in a fight.

I still shake my head with disbelief that you think that "idiot" and "fool" are curse words! You would admonish us gently with a "Don't use dirty words!" when we did.

I do not know where the picture I dislike is!
I am irritated that the photo of me that you like is a shot of me leaning against a lamp-post, sulking after being rudely awakened from jet-lagged sleep. I was a child. And I had to lean against a pillar, to sleep while pretending to be awake. Hollywood Boulevard be damned. Couldn't you have liked one where I looked cute?

I cringe with embarrassment when I recall how you would interrogate every boy I introduced you too. No question was too personal. No relationship left undiscovered.

I thank you for the wonder of travel. Every home-country trip, we saw different countries and experienced different cultures. History came alive. Geography showed her beauty. I think I have little wings, invisible wings, under my feet, like you had.

Oh! how many times this wonder of travel worried me! Even in your 80s, you and Amma would disappear on a trip and not tell me. I had to track you down like a detective.

I am amused that though you have flown around the world many, many times, you are still nervous to fly. As children, we liked making you shiver with fear, when we loudly wished for the adventure of being hijacked! Sorry.

I appreciate that you made my dark colored skin inconsequential. Specially in a family of fair people. To you, I was pretty. A "pretty" that meant practical, intelligent, confident, logical, respected.

I cry now to see you helpless and so dependent on people. And I lie when I tell you it doesn’t matter. It does. And it hurts. Physically hurts.

This is what Anna looks like
 after eating a jalebi :-)
I feel guilty and I wonder if I am a bad child, a cruel child, when I wish that your life would end, peacefully and quickly. I think 10 years of suffering is enough. And these three years have taken the mickey out of both of us.

I love the way your face lights up with a toothless smile when I ask you if you want to eat ice cream, or jalebi, or mysore pak. I sometimes ask you this, just to see you smile. A smile that is infectious and makes me want to skip like a little child.

I don’t know how to end this letter other than to say that I both dread and look forward to every day with you. 

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Shaken, Not Stirred

Sir Roger Moore in 1973
when his first movie
Live and Let Die was released
Yesterday, when I heard of Sir Roger Moore's passing, all I could think of were the James Bond movies we watched with Anna in our childhood. Anna was a big James Bond fan. He took us at an early age to watch James Bond movies, so that we could "build a real appreciation" for them. I must have seen my first Bond movie in the early 70s - with Roger Moore as the suave and sexy 007. I am sure we saw other movies, like Jaws and Close Encounters, but it is the Bond movies that I remember the most.

Here is how one of our movie outings would play out in the Murthi household.  

We'd be eating dinner at 8pm on a week night. Anna would suddenly ask us what movies were currently showing. One of us would interrupt whatever morsel of food was finding its way into our mouth, and go fetch the newspaper (I believe that the first thing I learned to read in a newspaper was the schedule of movies!). We would specifically read out the name of the movie running at Chanakya - the defacto favorite theater for English language movies.

Chanakya Theater
Photo Courtesy: Wiki
Anna (and Amma) would ask us if we wanted to see it. Of course, we did! What tweenager or teenager would say no to a trip to the movies in the 70s and 80s?

The six of us would finish eating, clearing the table, cleaning the kitchen, changing clothes, closing windows and doors, packing snacks for the movie hall, and locking the flat in record time. Anna would bring the car and keep it idling in the porch of our block of flats. We would run down the stairs too excited to stand still in a lift with Amma, and tumble into the car with no argument on who got the window seat. 

Anna would get us to the theater by 8:50 pm so that we could buy tickets and be seated in time for the 9 pm show. We never missed an ad or a trailer. Even now, I hate missing theater ads and trailers.

Parle Poppins
I loved the red ones
At Interval, snacks would be taken out of various handbags and consumed with gusto. Those were the days when we could carry oranges, peanuts, chocolates, roti rolls, poppins, & water into theaters and have a picnic. 

Quite often, Anna would take our friends out for James Bond movies too. Since all of us could not fit into a Fiat, the elder kids (with one girl to ensure we could get tickets quickly by standing in the Ladies Queue!) would catch a bus. The younger kids would be driven by Anna and Amma. So well-known is Anna's love for James Bond movies that one of our friends gifted him with a CD set of all James Bond movies for his 80th birthday.

Now, often when we push Anna's wheelchair over rough potholed roads, I joke with Anna and ask him if he is feeling "shaken, not stirred". Anna doesn't normally get it the first time. Then I ask him how James Bond likes his martinis. I can almost hear the wheels of his memory grinding.

"You are shaken, Anna, not stirred. Like James Bond's martinis". He smiles every time. Not in the first telling as he used to, but in the second telling. In the second telling, he smiles.

PS: I haven't told Anna of Sir Roger Moore's passing

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Making Snake Gourd Vegetable (Padvalkai Palya), Anna Ishtyle

Goddess Lakshmi
Photo Courtesy:
My father and his two brothers were 3 male offspring of 10* born to my grandparents.  Ajji and Tatha, as they were called, celebrated each daughter's birth as the gracing of their homes by Lakshmi, the Goddess of Wealth, Fortune & Prosperity. That meant a lot, given that they were poor. Tatha was a village schoolteacher who owned some land, but that didn't go very far to feed the 12 mouths in his home. 

Anna told us that in his childhood he often had to wrap a wet towel around his stomach, to dull hunger pains, before sleeping at night.

I believe that this was the reason why Anna could not stand it if one of us said that we were hungry. Anna would ensure that we immediately got something to eat - a banana, a biscuit, some peanuts. Anything really. Just to stop us feeling the hunger pains that he remembered from his childhood.

Padvalkai Palya. 
Photo courtesy: Raks Kitchen
Even tho' there wasn't too much food, Anna and his brothers, learned to cook in their childhood. As was the tradition in south Indian Brahman families, women were not allowed into the kitchen to cook (among other things) when they were menstruating. Also, as the cycles of women in one household often synced, there were days when Tatha had to cook. Simple, two dish meals, made of whatever could be afforded, at that time. As the boys grew older, they were pressed into service, to clean, cut, and cook meals for the family.

One of the dishes Tatha would cook at these times was padvalkai palya (snake gourd sabzi / vegetable).
Watch snake gourd being made village style
Tatha would sit on the kitchen floor, with the boys around him, pealed snake gourd at his feet. He would use a vegetable cutter and coconut scrapper (a curved knife with a circular scraper head at the top, mounted on a leg of wood) to cut the gourd. Tatha would cut the snake gourd horizontally, into circles, and give it to the boys. Anna and his brothers would then meticulously poke out the seeds from each piece with their little fingers! Each circle would be examined by Tatha (his eyes becoming magnifying glasses) to see that there were no stray seeds left. The boys felt like they were waiting for school exam results! Once he was satisfied, Tatha would cut the de-seeded circles into small pieces and then cook the palya / subzi.

Cleaning, de-seeding, and cutting snake gourd
Photo Courtesy: Kurinnji Kanthambam
Anna thought that poking seeds out of snake gourd was the only way to de-seed a gourd for many, many years. After all, his school-teacher father had taught him so! It was only when one day he saw, Amma, my mother, slice a snake gourd vertically in the middle, and take out the seeds in one single swoop, that he realized that he had not been taught the most efficient way!

He has told us this story time and again. Laughing at the time and effort it took him and his brothers to poke out seeds with their little fingers, waiting with bated breath for Tatha to examine each circular slice!

Even now when I recount this story to Anna, he smiles. It seems that his Parkinson's and Dementia fogged brain recognizes and appreciates old stories!

*There were 11 offspring, one died in childbirth.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Coffee Chronicles - Part 1

Drip-Filter-Coffee Maker
Photo Courtesy: Eatomaniac
Anna, my father, knows how to cook. Not gourmet cook, not survival cook, but somewhere-in-the-middle cook.

Given Anna's love for coffee, obviously, Anna makes fabulous coffee. South Indian coffee, of course! The coffee he calls "Real Coffee" or "The Best Coffee".

From as early as I can recall, I remember hearing Anna in the kitchen early in the morning, making coffee. Anna, would wake up sometime between 4:30 am and 5:00 am in the morning. After saying his prayers, sitting cross-legged in the middle of his bed, he would go to the kitchen to make coffee.

My mother, knowing what he would need, would have left a clean and dry drip-filter-coffee maker on the counter top. Anna would just have to load the top chamber with ground coffee, pat the powder down into a "gently packed" cake, place it on the bottom chamber, and pour hot water into the top chamber. While he waited for the coffee decoction to collect in the bottom chamber, he would go to the fridge and pull out a small vessel of milk and boil it. Simple, right? Well not so simple, if it is Anna.

Filter Coffee Decoction
Photo Courtesy: Lime 'n Mint
Three out of seven mornings a week, we would be woken to Anna's hushed-shoutout to my mother from the kitchen,"Saralaaaa, where is the ....". Sometimes it was the coffee powder that he could not find, sometimes the saucepan to heat the water and sometimes the milk.

We would all let out a collective groan.

My mother would respond in a sleepy-voiced hushed-shoutout, "Yane-ree, it's on the shelf / in the fridge / ..."

We got so used to this, that we would wake up at an un-Godly hour to hear Anna and Amma hush-shoutout on various coffee making paraphernalia, and then promptly fall back to sleep.

We were not allowed to drink coffee as children and hence were taught how to make coffee only in our late teenage-hood. We were instructed by Anna on the precise method to get the best coffee decoction - the right quantity of coffee powder to use, how to pat the coffee in the top chamber, the temperature of the water, how to pour water into the top chamber such that the water was clear and not clouded with coffee, etc.

Foaming Filter Coffee at
 Mavalli Tiffin Room, Bangalore
We were only allowed practice runs of making filter coffee. Anna was the one who would always make the coffee at home. Two times a day, once in the morning and once in the evening. Even when Anna was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease and Dementia, he continued to make filter coffee everyday. He stopped making filter coffee only after Amma died. I don't know why. It wasn't that he lost interest in drinking coffee. He still loves his coffee. Hot coffee. No matter what the ambient temperature is.

Could it be that one of us, his children, took over his early morning coffee making ritual without asking him if he wanted to give it up?

Could it be that our fear of him hurting himself or burning the house down, made us take it over earlier than necessary?

Could it be that he was not able to manage the physical precision that is needed to make coffee?

I don't know. And I probably will never get to know. Anna doesn't talk that much nowadays, for me to ask him. That time has passed.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

The Dangers of Airport Shopping

20 Apr 2017:
Anna doing a great impression of Gautama Buddha
Saturday night was a bad night for Anna. He was agitated all night. Trying to get up off the bed by himself. Insisting on walking (shuffling) around the house. Speaking in English. Looking for something or someone. He finally went to sleep at around 4am. I was a little surprised to hear this, for Anna has been sitting with his eyes closed, whole body relaxed, doing a fabulous impersonation of Gautama Buddha.

On Sunday, Anna builds up enthusiasm to go to the mall for coffee and cake. I keep asking him about his dream, to determine why he was agitated. He just tells me that he does not remember.

23 Apr 2017: Anna & Manish
After our mandatory stop at Starbucks, he is wheeled around the mall while I shop. His attendant, Manish, takes a rest stop in front of a camel covered in flowers. Both Anna and Manish find it interesting.

Then on the way home, we have this conversation:

Anna: Were those real flowers on the camel?
Me: Yes Anna. I think so.

Anna: It must have been very expensive.
Me: Probably.

Anna: Last night I had a bad dream.
Me (suddenly realizing that he, now, remembers his dream): Really? What happened in your dream?

Anna: I bought a shirt. It was really expensive.
Me (not understanding how buying a shirt can be a bad dream): Where did you buy the shirt, Anna?

Anna: At the airport.
Me: What were you doing at the airport?

23 Apr 2017: The marigold covered camel
Anna: Going to a wedding.
Ah! Now I understand. There is a definite connection between a marigold decked camel and a wedding.

This conversation goes on the entire journey home - about 40 mins. All in question answer mode.

Anna recounts his dream (hallucination) with a little encouragement from me, like asking "And then what happened?", or "Really?", or simply saying, "Go on".

Here is the hallucination, using most of his original words.

23 Apr 2017:
Anna in front of the marigold camel
Anna is at an airport. He decides to buy a shirt for a wedding. He chooses the older "model" as the latest "model" is very expensive. He unpacks and wears the shirt and then goes to pay for it. It is then that he realizes that he has no "paper money" and no "plastic money" to pay for it. The cashier tells Anna that they will have to detain him overnight while he arranges for money to pay for it.

Anna searches his belongings and finds that he does not have any papers. He also does not remember our names, addresses, or numbers. He is panicking and the cashier keeps taunting Anna saying that all thieves pretend to have lost money and papers, and then claim not to remember their identity.

With superhuman effort, Anna taxes his brain. He remembers his "valet's" name, Manish. The cashier looks up Manish's contact details on the "address-0-gram" and calls Manish to bring money to the airport. Manish says he will take 1hr 56mins precisely and he does.

At the end of this tale, I ask Anna if he is feeling calm now. He says "Of, course! It was just a dream".

I decide not to tell him that he hallucinated the whole airport shopping event last night and was agitated. He says that the worst part of his "dream" was the embarrassment of being called a thief and being threatened with detention. The dream is over. He is calm now, and that is all that matters to us.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Uppittu Episodes

What a hectic few weeks it has been! It started with Anna's household helper going to Ranchi, to arrange his sister's wedding. At first he said he would be gone for a month, which became two months, and now is "will not be returning, please find someone else."

Anna's former household help is from a village near Ranchi, Jharkhand

It is hard to run Anna's home without household help, so we looked for respite homes. Some where he can be taken care of for a month or so. A place where I can go visit him twice a day, so that he does not feel lonely or abandoned. And lo and behold! I found one. Yes, only one!!

Ultimately we decided to keep him at home and divide the chores among us. While the hunt for a reliable housekeeper goes on (with no luck as yet), we are becoming more and more exhausted by the day.

Early in this new arrangement, I made idli uppittu (upma) and oats uppittu (upma) and stored it in Anna's fridge so that breakfast was easy to cater. One evening the attendant tells me that Anna ate a whole bowl of uppittu. That's a lot. Anna's appetite has shrunk (as has his body) over the last few months.
Oats Uppittu. Photo Courtesy: Sanjiv Kapoor

Me: Anna, I heard you liked the oats upma!
Anna: Yes. Was it oats? Really?

Me: Yes, Anna. It was oats. As in Quaker oats.
Anna: It was good.

Me (fishing for a compliment): Of course! Who do you think made it?
Anna (smiling and knowing exactly what I want to hear): You must have!! Pause. You make uppittu like your mother.

Now that is a real compliment! I love compliments! Even if I have to extract them, by force, from my father.
Idli Uppittu. Photo Courtesy: Sanjiv Kapoor

Me: Anna, do you remember the story of Amma and how she made uppittu the first time?
Anna's smile becomes wider.

Me: Anna, can you tell me the story?
Anna nods. Opens his mouth to start the story. Then he closes his eyes.
Anna (whispering): You tell it.

And so I do. 

But let me give you some context.

When Amma and Anna got married, Anna knew how to cook (kindof) and Amma didn't really. She learned as much as she could after the wedding was agreed to by both families, and for some reason, didn't write the recipes, but memorized them.

One of the first things she set out to make was uppittu for breakfast. Amma was in the kitchen for half an hour, while Anna waited patiently. Finally, Anna went to the kitchen to see what was taking so long. He found Amma looking perplexed, counting ingredients off her fingers.

Anna asked Amma what was wrong. Amma told him that she remembered that uppittu had 10 ingredients but she couldn't remember the 10th. She rattled the 9 ingredients she remembered - rai, hing, urad dal, channa dal, kadipatta, green chilly, ginger, salt, curd/buttermilk.
The 9 ingredients for uppittu that Amma remembered

Anna then asked her, very quietly he claims, whether the 10th ingredient was sooji! (That's like asking if the missing ingredient in butter chicken is chicken!)

Every time my parents told us this story they would chuckle at the memory. When we were learning to cook, if we ever said that the dish was missing something, Anna would tease us by asking if it was the main ingredient, aka sooji, and we would respond with an "Uff-ho! Annnaaaa!"

Now when I retell the story, I just see a millimeter shift of his lips telling me that he is smiling. But his eyes stay closed. And soon he is breathing deeply, mouth open, fast asleep!

Friday, April 7, 2017

The Importance of Our National Anthem

April 2016: Anna could pick up
a ceramic cup full of coffee and
open the lid of a water bottle.

Now, most days, he can't. 
A few weeks ago, I walked into Anna's house to find a sleepy Anna sitting at the dining table, a hot cup of coffee in front of him, his hands trapped under the table (nowadays, Anna can't seem to work out how to move his hands sideways and up from under the table).

Me: Anna, do you want to drink your coffee?
Anna gives a slight nod of his head.

Me (helping him move his hands sideways and up): Anna, can you hold the cup to drink your coffee?
There is another slight nod but no move to hold the coffee cup.

I bend the index finger of his right hand and curl it around the handle of the cup. That physical cue is enough for the rest of his hand to curl. He lifts the cup. The cup rises a couple of centimeters off the table and is dangerously tilted. He has little strength in his wrist and hand. 

Me (moving his left hand to hold the side opposite the handle): Anna, lift the cup with both your hands.

Anna tries but can't. The alternative is for me to lift the cup to his lips to let him sip his coffee. I've got to be really careful, as the coffee is hot and if I tilt the cup too much, he could burn his lips.

I ask the attendant, Sudama, if Anna had a comfortable night. Sudama tells me that Anna was fine till about 2 am in the  morning. Then he suddenly turned on this back, straightened his legs and spine (almost lying in attention) and sang the Indian National Anthem. Really! The whole national anthem!

Sudama tells me that Anna sang the anthem well. The words were all correct and the tune perfect. I find that hard to believe. Anna is tone-deaf. His Hindi is passable (i.e. it's just about good enough for him to have passed the Government mandated Hindi exam for Central Government jobs in the '50s / '60s).

Over the next week I try to find out what Anna was dreaming of when he sang the National Anthem in the middle of the night. Anna does not recall anything. There is not even a glimmer of a memory. So I try to ferret it out over multiple conversations.

Me: Anna, did you remember the National Anthem from when you sang it?
Anna does not respond.

Me: Anna, did you sing the National Anthem in school?
Anna: Yes.

Really? It can't possibly be. Anna was born in 1928. At Independence in 1947, he would have been 19 years old. From what I remember the anthem was adopted in 1950 when Anna was in college.

Me: Anna, did you sing the anthem in college and not when you were in school?
Anna: Yes.

Me: Anna, we had assembly only in school and not when were in college.
There is no reaction from Anna.

Me: Maybe we should have had assembly in college, Anna.
Still no reaction.

Me: (deciding to go back to familiar territory that had him talking): Anna, didn't you say prayers at assembly? We all said prayers at school assembly. We didn't sing the National Anthem.
Anna: As soon as the National Anthem was declared, we sang the anthem instead of prayers.

Me (surprised): Really Anna? We didn't sing the anthem instead of prayers when we were in school.
Anna: You should have.

Me: Why Anna?
Anna: Because the National Anthem is more important than prayers.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

The Staccato Saree Conversation

Staccato Marks
Photo Courtesy: www.
My conversations with my father have changed. Changed in content and context. Changed in tone and tenor. Mostly, ebbing away with no warning. Our conversations have been impacted by the degradation of Anna's physical and mental abilities. His speech mimics his shuffle-walk of fits and starts, leading to conversations in short bursts. A meaningful conversation can take hours or days. I call these "staccato conversations".

Here is a conversation I had on Monday.

I get to Anna's place after spending a day Ubering from one end of Gurgaon to the other in 37°C temperature. I find Anna sitting on a single-seat sofa sipping tea from a cup held to his mouth by his attendant (nowadays Anna is finding it hard to pick up a mug). On a plate in front of him is a half eaten  kodubale (lovingly made by my first cousin and sent specially for him).

I ask him how he is and get a one word response, "Fine". I try starting conversations by asking if he had a good nap, or dreamed anything interesting, or what he had for breakfast. Nothing really works. At best, I get a one-word answer and at worst, none. This is not a conversation!

In an attempt to start-up a conversation, I decide to tell him about my saree. But first let me give you a little context. For many years, I haven't bought new clothes unless I have given away / retired something similar. I am proud that I have often not replaced old clothes, shrinking my wardrobe. Earlier this year when I went to Jaipur, I had just given away 4 sarees and so did not feel guilty buying a couple more. Printed cotton sarees. One of which I was wearing on Monday.

In an attempt to get Anna to talk with me a little, I get up and stand in his direct-line-of-sight and model my saree.

The saree I modeled for Anna
Me: Anna, do you like my saree?

No answer, so I wait for a bit and repeat the question.

I continue to wait and twirl around.

Me: Anna, do you like my saree?

Anna: Yes

Me: Anna, do you know how much I paid for this saree?

No answer, so I wait for a bit.

Me (feeling proud): Anna, I paid less than Rs. 500/- for this saree.

No reaction.

Me (holding the pallu out so that he can see the design and colors): Anna, isn't this saree pretty? Red and ocher on beige?

Anna (smiling a little): It's nice 

Me: Anna, I bought this saree when I went to Jaipur earlier this year.

He does not recollect my trip to Jaipur and hence there is no response.

Me: Anna, you remember I went to Jaipur in January this year?

There is no memory, no reaction.

Me: Anna, do you know - this is the first saree I have bought in 3 years.

No response.

Me (exaggerating my frugality to see if I can get a response): Anna, I haven't bought anything new in 7 years!

Photo Courtesy: BIGLAWNewsLine!
Long Pause.

Anna (face changing from bored to incredulous): You really think I would believe that?

Bam! A bullet shoots out of Anna's brain! Straight and sure.

Me: Of course, Anna! It's true!! 

Anna (looking at me as if I just told him that unicorns are real!): I haven't seen you repeat a saree in the 2 years I have been here.

Not true. I don't have that many sarees and do repeat them often. And he has been in Delhi with me for nearly 3 years, but I am not going to correct him. I want to have a conversation.

Me: Anna, the second saree is like this one. 

No reaction.

Me: It is prettier, and green and ocher in color.

Still no reaction.

I see his eyes glaze over and know his brain is fogging up. His eyes close slowly and he falls asleep sitting up on his sofa chair.

Friday, March 10, 2017

The Little Boy

Anna fast asleep in front of the TV

Anna is slowing down. He is sleeping more and walking less. Most days when I go to his apartment in the morning (before work) and in the evening (after work), I am never sure if he is going to be awake or asleep. A couple of weeks ago, I reached his apartment at 7am after my morning walk. My signature double-tap doorbell ring normally announces to Anna that I have arrived, so I am not surprised to see his eyes are open when I lean over his bed.

Me: Anna? Are you awake?

Anna (looking at me, but not really looking at me): mumble...gurgle....mumble

Me: Good morning!

Anna (still just looking straight at me without seeing me): mumble...mumble....mumble

Me: Anna, I can't understand you. Wait a minute. Let's get you up so that you can drink some hot water.

We lift Anna so that he is sitting up in bed and he drinks a full glass of hot water.

Me: Anna, did you sleep well?
Anna says something to me in Tamil. I don't understand.

Me: Anna, I can't understand Tamil. Say it in Kannada.
Anna continues to talk in Tamil. I understand only a few words. Something about boys and playing and football and thirst.

Me: Anna, what happened? Tell me in English.
Anna (in a complaining whiny voice): He hit me!

I am instantly worried.  It is almost a physical reaction. I have always feared that I would be unable to prevent Anna from getting hurt or worse still not even know about it, as I am not physically present in his flat all the time.

Me (concerned): Who hit you, Anna?
Anna (still looking at me, straight through me): He did.

Me (thinking it is best to wake him up with coffee to get a more cogent response): Anna, do you want to get up and have coffee and tell me about it?
Anna (in a voice that should be accompanied with a pout): I don't want coffee. I want milk.

Whoa! My father does not want coffee? Now that's a first! I am really surprised.

Tairas (his housekeeper) gets him a warm glass of milk with Ensure. I hold the glass to his lips for him to drink and he gulps it down thirstily.

Me (after he finishes): Anna, you sure liked the milk. You were telling me about getting hit. What happened?
Anna (singing): Happy Birthday to you! Happy Birthday to you!

Me: (laughing): Whose birthday is it Anna?
Anna: mumble....mumble. His eyes start to close.

I tuck Anna back into bed and wait till he closes his eyes. I finish the chores in the house and walk home letting the morning's events run thru my mind.

Half way home I realize that I don't hear Anna's voice. I hear a little boy's voice. Maybe the little boy he was.