“Be Great and Make your Country Great”:- An Eulogy for my grandfather
I have always been afraid of writing an obituary. The thought itself is rather revolting. It is easy to write about a character’s death in a novel or a play. It must have been easy for Ernest Hemingway(A Farewell to Arms) and John Steinbeck(Of Mice and Men) to end their story on a sentimental note. But it’s not easy for us readers/viewers. We become accustomed to those characters and their loss seems personal. But not as personal as the loss of someone you’ve known since childhood. Or perhaps a friend. It is easy to write about death from one’s own perspective. You’ll just stop existing and it wouldn’t matter to you, would it?
It would matter only to those whose lives you’ve touched.
There is nothing to write of my first encounter with him. He was my maternal grandfather and therefore, I had always known him. Almost half my childhood was spent in his beloved town of Nayagarh. It is a relatively small town concealed from most of us. Surrounded by hills, the town has remained constant. It wasn’t his original home. He had adapted this place and made it his own.
His father had died before he was even born. He spent his childhood in squalid poverty. His elder brother,who worked as a peon, ensured that he went to school. Until then he was called “Bhalu”(Odia for “Bear”), a name he acquired as a consequence of his long hair. His teacher enrolled him in the school as “Dukhishyam”(“Dukhi” meaning sad and “shyam”being a name of Lord Krishna).
His surname juggled between “Patra” and “Mohapatra”(owing to his informal adoption by different families). He started doing petty jobs and earning money at the age of 8–9 due to his family’s penury. That was when a station master named Damodar Das decided to help him study. He would wash utensils, cook and do other domestic works while managing his school work. He decided to settle on the surname “Das” as a tribute to his guardian. While this might seem trivial to us, in the rural Indian caste-obsessed psyche it must’ve been seen as a heresy.
With considerable hard work, he managed to graduate from the English Department of Utkal University in the late in 1960s. He fell in love with the town of Nayagarh, where he worked as a senior lecturer in English.
He would wake up at dawn and listen to the radio. His early rituals included feeding the crows at the terrace. They would gather around him as he would smilingly throw crumbles of chapatis/bread to them. I can vividly remember witnessing this. He was quite attached to animals. His heart would go out for stray cows,bulls and dogs. Often, he would help in organizing feasts for cows,bulls, dogs as well as human beings. He ensured that many injured and sick animals got the proper veterinary care that they needed.
This was merely one aspect of his multi-faceted personality. He was known for his hearty laugh. During his student years, he was often punished for laughing noisily. But as he grew older, this laugh ensured that people connected with him as soon as they met him. He would become happy at other’s success. He would greet you with “Jai Shree Ram”. He would treat you as if you are a member of his family. He would hug you when he meets you again. And as you plan to leave, he would bless you and tell you “Be Great and Make your country great”.
This was the refrain of his life. And how mellifluous those words are! If you do something great for others, you do something great for your country. And if your country benefits from your work, the whole world benefits.
His social work was covered in numerous regional newspapers. One of these newspaper articles termed him as “Gacha manisha”(The Tree Man). He had planted hundreds of trees. He treated them like his own off-springs. He also organized feasts celebrating the marriage of banyan trees with peepal trees(a local custom). For him, ritual was just an excuse to raise awareness and celebrate the beauty of nature. He would distribute pamphlets to people at these events containing stories about the importance of trees.
Cancer. Or “The Emperor of All Maladies” in the words of Pulitzer Prize winning Oncologist Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee. The problem with Cancer is that it’s almost wired in us. It isn’t caused by a micro-organism that you can eradicate or weaken. It is the unfortunate and abnormal growth of cells. Mukherjee considers Cancer cells to be “inventive copies of ourselves”. It is as if they harbor colonialist tendencies. They expand from one territory to the other. They are intransigent in their malevolence. “To confront Cancer” writes Mukherjee, “ is to encounter a parallel species, one perhaps more adapted to survival than even we are.”
He was diagnosed with Stomach Cancer(last stage) just a month ago. When he came to Bhubaneswar for treatment, I didn’t notice any change. I knew he was ill. I didn’t know it was Cancer until much later. My last conversation with him was at the hospital. There wasn’t much change in his physical appearance then except that he appeared a bit pale and thin. He was fighting a monster. A monster that was to consume him in less than a month. I was surprised at the diagnosis considering that his diet was as simple as it gets. Boiled vegetables, fruits, chapattis, rice, milk, fish and eggs. It wasn’t out of compulsion. He just didn’t like anything else. He was a non smoker and a teetotaler.
My dad would visit him at the hospital everyday and talk with him. He recorded many of these conversation. Even during those last moments, his mind was preoccupied with thoughts about literature, music, culture and his love for the Odia language and the country.
He observed the drops of blood falling in the saline container. It reminded him of Margaret Cole’s poem “The Falling Leaf”:-
They fell, like snowflakes wiping out the noon;
And wandered slowly thence
For thinking of a gallant multitude
Which now all withering lay,
Slain by no wind of age or pestilence,
But in their beauty strewed
Like snowflakes falling on the Flemish clay.
This Republic Day(some 20 days ago), he asked my father if there was any flag hoisting nearby. He was too weak to walk then. Dad took him down on a wheel-chair. He saluted the flag and smiled(photo below). He started talking to the people gathered there. He told them that hoisting the flag on special occasions isn’t enough. If one wants to pay tribute to our country then one must work for it. He asked them all to plant a tree as a tribute to their motherland.
There were numerous condolence meetings organized in his beloved town. I was rather pleasantly surprised to hear anecdotes from his students and acolytes. One of these students recounted that he was once selected for a debate competition. He didn’t have enough money to travel outside the town and the college had no provision to provide money. My grandfather paid the required amount without any hesitation.
He wasn’t able to talk in his last 5 days. When I went to meet him at the hospital some 3 days before his death, he stretched out one of his hands, which I held for a while. He listened when we called him. He nodded and opened his eyes. But he couldn’t speak. I was told that he responded to a greeting with “Jai Shree Ram” a day before his death. Those were possibly his last words.
In the Oscar winning Disney movie Coco, the protagonist Miguel travels to the land of the dead. This beautiful and enchanting dream like place is inhabited by those who’ve died on Earth. However, even in the land of the dead, there is a *second death*. The dead people vanish into nothingness when they are forgotten by everyone in the land of the living. This is a beautiful metaphor. An individual never dies as long as he’s remembered.
My grandfather will be remembered and missed. He will be remembered by the thousands whose lives he has touched. He will be remembered by the hundreds of trees he has raised. And he will be remembered by his family. Most importantly, he will be remembered through the written word, which never fades away. And thus, he will always stay alive.
This is for him. For my mom, who’s stronger than I could ever hope to be. For my dad, who has always been there. For my grandmother. And for my two uncles.
And for you, dear reader, let us pledge to “be great and make our country great”.