After over three decades, some of us old buddies reconnected over the Internet. During the catching-up process, I found out that Gangadharan chettan (chettan: elder brother) was presently in Kuala Lumpur, trying to come to terms with his dementia. His condition suddenly worsened a couple of weeks ago, to the point where he could not recognize either of his daughters. Frankly, I did not wish to judge his daughters for moving their father into a care home; they might have had their reasons – perfectly valid grounds that I am unaware of. Time must’ve been taking its toll on me too, if not then how come I did not think about Vimala chechi (chechi: elder sister) before. I felt numb when I was told she was long gone.
When I was in class X in St. Joseph’s, she too was a regular, boarding the 4:10 pm Palkulangara bus from General Hospital junction. She was a resplendent young woman who always wore half-sarees of pastel shades with floral patterns and also a Kindergarten teacher at Holy Angels. There were days when Vimala chechi will be held up in teachers’ meetings, and reached the bus stop just in time, before the bus conductor sounded the double bell signalling to the driver that it was all good to take off. On such occasions, I would become all chivalrous and give way to her to board the bus before me. When it was time for me to get down and as I moved past her, she offered me a half-smile in acknowledgement, the rest of which she retained for herself or perhaps for someone more important. During Q2 of that year I left school, and my parents enrolled me in a university sixty-five kilometers away, as we shifted residence to our suburban ancestral home. With that, St. Joseph’s, Holy Angels, the bus stop in General Hospital junction, the olive-green Merc. & Leyland buses ploughing the Palkulangara route with the twilight recocheting over their front-glasses and …, and the rest faded into my past.
The next I heard about Vimala chechi was, years later, somebody in our group mentioning Ganngadharan chettan and her as a couple. I cannot recall why we did not attend their wedding. However, about a week after the ceremony, we invited them for dinner at Xavier’s restaurant opposite to Sivan’s Studio, between Statue and Pulimood junctions. Dinner was an elaborate seven-course affair. My previous escapade with knife and fork was confined to juggling between cutlets or omelettes in popular restaurants like the Indian Coffee House. When it came to meat, I began fumbling, mainly because I was holding the knife in my left hand rather than the right. Nobody noticed my dilemma except Vimala chechi who sat next to me. I still recall her reassuring smile as she looked at my plate and then my face. To my great relief, she then made a benevolent disclosure that her palate cannot relish good food unless eaten by hand and cast aside the knife and fork from her plate. When I got a chance, I gratefully squeezed her fingers under the table and whispered ‘thank you’. Her smile this time was not the old-half-smile, but one that appeared in full blossom as if newly sprung in June.
Our English teacher in classes IX and X was Fr. J C Kappen. He was quite candid in his approach and tried to implement modern teaching methods that didn’t quite go down very well among us. Yet he wielded a great deal of influence amidst his students. In the evening of the final English exam. I went to see him in his cubby hole office with an autograph book in hand. After going over the question paper with me, he wrote in the calico bound small rectangular book: ‘Always remember that there’s a very fine line between loving life and being greedy for it.’
O, wither smoldering embers.