By trusting a simple man, who led a simple life, I learned to deal with my deepest, darkest fears.
A highly devout Hindu, my father inculcated in me a strong belief in the Gods we worshipped—a belief that quickly crept up to control my mind by feeding on my fears, like a poisonous creeper.
Chants and prayers soothed me but adolescence brought with it a host of new feelings I grappled with. The stress of keeping my weight in check and scoring well in examinations breathed life into a terrible fear—the fear of the Almighty.
Yes, God was kind—like the generous Lakshmi or the loving Vishnu. But He could also be the third eye of an angry Shiva or the bloodthirsty tongue of a ferocious Kali. What if I managed to attract the latter?
Enveloped in my own misery, I fought hard to quell rising symptoms of an obsessive disorder nourished by my desire to appease the Gods. Unbeknownst to Father, I grew insecure, vulnerable and obsessed with ritualistic worship. My turbulent, pre-pubescent mind caught hold of my faith and twisted it into a macabre display of anxiety and fear, which was all too obvious to those who watched me succumb to it.
It was with this religious malignancy in my mind that I left Mumbai for Kerala to be with my maternal granduncle, who welcomed me into his home and heart.
Father entrusted me in his care when I was 15. A genial man with a working wife and four growing children, my granduncle seemed lost in newspapers, electricity bills and the nitty-gritty of life like most human beings. Every night, as a bright moon scattered its light around us, we sat outside his house listening to him talk. Portly and humorous, he made us laugh and we enjoyed being around him. Trained in traditional Keralite dances, my granduncle had opted for a job with Indian Railways. He danced for us sometimes—his eyes big and bright—and his hands bringing to life exotic tales from Hindu mythologies. He danced for barely a few minutes every time but it was enough for me to wonder if he missed being an artist.
Vas—as we playfully called him—or Vasu Mama, meaning Vasu Uncle, openly defied all notions of God being an egotistical being that blessed or cursed people. He rejected heaven and hell and told us memorable stories that almost always hid a message somewhere. He talked about our ancestors, deities, piety, and politics. He explained the way different philosophies worked and mentioned great sages, writers and rebels like Osho. He discussed theories and mysteries I scarcely understood but I listened to him. Some part of me realized he was throwing me a lifeline I couldn’t afford to miss. I flourished under his shadow, absorbing his defiance and pluckiness.
I travelled with him to see the raging waterfalls of Athirappally and the lovely Taj Mahal in Agra. We saw beautiful beaches and enchanting hill stations. We went to museums and parks. Vasu Uncle absorbed knowledge like a sponge. Arms akimbo, he stood before information boards of galleries and monuments, squinting to read every detail. He looked at the world with great wonder, as if he were a child with a new toy. These little jaunts filled my mind with memories—moments immersed in the chatter of childhood and the joy of experiencing a world beyond my debilitating fears.
I realized that Vasu Uncle wasn’t a billionaire but he was truly the richest man I had seen. I learned that it was possible for a man to be happy regardless of anything. I learned that a husband could sometimes take a backseat for his wife to grow. I saw that a father could be a friend to his children. I understood that sometimes, men abandon their interests—as women do—when they start living for their families. Vasu Uncle didn’t try to teach me anything. He didn’t object to my idiosyncrasies or preach to me. He was never annoyed with me. He simply lived as he was. And that was enough.
At 70, he was diagnosed with lung cancer. He withdrew quickly from society and lived in a shell of his own till he died. A few weeks after he was declared terminally ill, I went to see him with my daughter. His memory had regressed considerably. He remembered me as his little grandniece, who visited him during summer vacations. He had forgotten about my youth—the time that I spent learning from him. Nicotine had tarred his lungs, making it impossible for him to sustain a conversation without choking on his own breath. He died in the arms of my cousin sister, outwardly fragile but inwardly strong.
Devoid of his boisterous laughter, his home holds an unsettling emptiness today. Nights are spent before the television instead of on the porch. The moon still scatters its light but not on my granduncle, whose wisdom illuminated my life and inspired me to be fearless in thought. I grew in his shadow—bolder, better and rational enough to crush my insane obsession with Gods and rituals.
By loving, trusting and setting me free, my granduncle created a new me. In how I perceive life, in scepticism and strife, and in the way my mind unfolds at times—I remain, by all means, his cherished child.