Our father’s father had died as Mr. Ashwath.
A name well-earned by a man who sired 13 children from two wives. A name befitting a grand patriarch with a bearing exactly like that of a big, regal banyan.
Yesterday, it was time for us to finally find Mr. Ashwath’s 11th son, his favourite – our father – a name.
We hadn’t thought of one yet. The necessity of having to do so had evaded us long enough. When father had had his first heart attack, my elder-by-six-hours brother, T1, had cleared his throat, and I had known what was coming.
T1 had gingerly said, to no one and everyone, “We need to find him a name”.
Mother had slapped him and left the room.
Nobody wants to prepare for death. Nobody wants an imposition that permanent. Everybody believes that thinking about and dealing with impending death, actually makes it happen.
Oh mum. Death is hardly the malaise that living on is.
Soon, worrying about how long Father would last became a priority bigger than how he’d last. He had ambled on, tremulous like T1’s voice that day. A sputtering kidney. An unrelenting left arm. His blood thinned by medicines by day, and thickened by sly gulab jamuns at night.
Father had known. All along. He’d observe his bustling, hysterical wife with unsettling serenity. He’d caress our hands and heads every chance he got, memorize T1’s left dimple, my unruly hair. He’d recount over and over, stories of T1 and me – how we were born a sunrise apart. The most glorious, fearsome, momentous morning of his life.
If father had to be distilled into one name, one word, what would it be? A faulty Brahma who’d fix broken planes with sellotape? A work-in-progress Yudhishthira whose knowledge admitted its bounds with an “ask your mother”? An irascible Shiva? A generous Sagara? A barely pious, but true prince of a Sukumara?
The difficult really wasn’t what his name could be.
It was, just what couldn’t his name be?
Wasn’t he the beginning Om? Wasn’t he immortal Amartya?
I’d once asked him why we choose a name after someone’s passing. Shouldn’t a person choose his own name, in his lifetime? I was certain I wanted to be remembered as some offshoot of Batman. He’d laughed and said that names cannot be claimed, that’s immodest. But, if I had been a middling Batman all my life, after I was gone, I sure could be called Batman.
The actual superhero then had to calmly break up the battle of rights to the title that raged between his two proteges.
He later continued, on a rainy day in his autumn, that things are most accurately named, once they come into finite being. A stone. A species of chameleon. A novel. An invention. And so, a person’s name has to transcend the trap of identification – and become identity. In something as organic as a person, being born over and over, the best time to find such a perfect definition is when they cease to be born. Ever again.
To name someone after they have left, is to etch a full-stop of the most fascinating, meaningful shape.
What then, was Father to us? The beginnings of wisdom. The light switched on in the middle of a screaming nightmare. The filter coffee in the morning. The constant start over, the eternity of optimism. The reward of a hard night. Today. Every day. The glory of that sunrise between my brother and I.
And so, this morning, we cremated Dr. Uday Ashwath.
For CEB. Just as promised.