Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Year Gone By

By all accounts, 2008 has been a lousy year.  Annus miserablis. The magazine "Outlook" carried an issue on the theme "Thank God It's Over", with an essay by Ram Guha discussing whether it was India's worst year or not (1984 was far worse in my opinion).

As every year dies, magazines list notable events of that year.  I've had a somewhat morbid interest in the obituaries. Maybe it was cultivated by looking through the Britannica Year Book, to which my father was for decades a regular contributor.  Perhaps I prefer  looking back in sadness, perhaps life consists of memories. 

In any case, remembrance of people past is a part of culture.   This past year we Indians lost several notable people, the greatest of whom was perhaps Baba Amte.   We also no longer have PK Sethi (inventor of the Jaipur foot) with us.  We lost our greatest playwright, Vijay Tendulkar, and two outstanding musicians in Kishan Maharaj and Firoz Dastur.  The Indian art world is now without Paritosh Sen and Manjit Bawa, and the press lost the irrepressible Russi Karanjia.   Two noted jurists, HR Khanna and YV Chandrachud passed on to the Great Bench in the Sky.   The film world's cast is now minus BR Chopra, Mahendra Kapoor and Rajendra Nath, among others.  KK Birla vacated his boardroom seat in the business world, and the nation lost the services of its most flamboyant soldier Sam Manekshaw.   Of the politicians who died this year, two who left their mark, for better or worse, were VP Singh and HK Surjeet.  Mahesh Yogi showed us that godmen too have to transcend this existence.  

For us, it has been a year of dealing with deaths in the family.  A year ago, my wife and I brought my father home from hospital, after he had suffered a bad fall and 3 weeks of bleeding in his brain and being  on a ventilator.  Tubes of various kinds were still attached to him: canula in his arm, catheter connected to his bladder, and a Ryles tube to his nose, to feed him.  He'd been discharged from hospital since, as the doctors euphemistically put it, he couldn't get any better there.  He'd enough strength to try to try to rip out one or the other of them, and to want to get out of bed and walk. Mentally he was terribly disoriented, his brain injuries having been quite severe.   Parkinson's had ravaged his body, and his lungs strained under "COPD".   He needed 24-hour supervision and care, and someone to assist him with eating, sitting, walking, in short with almost everything.  It was an existence that he had dreaded -- unable to speak, walk, write, read.   

Slowly, we nursed him off each of the tubes, and helped him recover some kind of life.  Shouri's care wasn't easy.  Every day we had to be on the lookout for any change in his condition, for bedsores, for some new complication.  Most of all, we had to worry about whether his attendants  would turn up, and whether their work and behaviour met the exacting standards of my mother.  And we had to watch her battle with her conflicting emotions of seeing a person she loved and had lived with for over six decades, decay physically and mentally before her.

Somehow he battled on, combatting his ailments, and pitting his will against ours.  The human mind is fascinating.  In all his confusion, his delusions and his ups and downs, he lost little of his immense vocabulary and the precise use of words: the Ryles tube was his proboscis, and he was restless until he recalled the name of the animal it reminded him of (tapir).  His mathematical abilities persisted but the need to use them for calculating the cricket score had vanished.  Asked the date, even if he was quite confused or weak, he's unerringly point to the place in a newspaper where it was boldly displayed. And above all, he retained his impish humour and sense of wordplay.  "My daily push" was how he described his daily round in his wheelchair.  And in all his uncharacteristic babbling, he never once revealed any confidences or professional secret.  The boys -- particularly Aditya, who'd jump into bed with Shouri, hug him and engage in all kinds of buffoonery -- were Shouri's medicine among medicines.  They kept him cheerful.  He'd always been very reserved about physical displays of affection, but the boys seemed to elicit from him a very gentle response, and a need for touch, especially when all other senses were failing.

After he passed away in September, death didn't leave us alone.  It visited us again in late December, now taking away Nivedita's grandmother.  She had lived a frugal life, alone in a cavernous house in Vasant Vihar,  with her cancer and a gaggle of servants and squatters, hardly troubling us. In her unique amusing way, she showed her love and affection for her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.  From four generations in the immediate family, we're down to three.

H. Y. Sharada Prasad (15 April 1924 - 2 September 2008),  known to his family and friends as "Shouri", was a journalist, civil servant, author, scholar and freedom fighter.  He served as Information Adviser to three Prime Ministers, most closely with Indira Gandhi for whom he was a principal speech-writer.

Lalitha Nanjappa (11 February 1919 - 22 December 2008) was the daughter of Justice C Doreswamy Iyer of Bangalore and married to V. Nanjappa of the Indian Civil Services.