Epistles from Eternity

Veeraswamy Krishnaraj

 

I was born in a village hugging close to a major north-south corridor on the East Coast in south India.  For a small village of a few hundred people in the 1930s, it had two temples dedicated to Draupadi, the polyandrous princess married to Pandavas. The other one is the shrine of Siva and his family: Parvati, Shanmuga and Ganesa.

There was a pond not far from our backyard but close to the highway, the cooling station for the local buffalos, and daring kids riding on and taunting the buffalos while swimming in the brown water. The ubiquitous thorn-bearing tree grew in abundance on its banks. As a child without the footwear, I invariably stepped on the thorns. Because of the thorns, the birds don’t build their nests. The migrating birds fly into the thorns and lacerate their flesh. It thrives well even in a dry season. It is a tree no one liked. We used to break its branches, chewed one end and used it as a toothbrush.

 

 

I lost my paternal grandfather when I was only two years old. My only physical connection to my grandfather was what my mother told me. My grandpa did not wake up with the sunrise as it was his custom to pay homage to the rising sun. The breakfast was ready. Yet, grandpa was not ready. My mother carried me and placed me on his paunch so my physical contact would wake him up. My mother told me years later: He moved no muscle. He had a pinch of snuff between his right thumb and index finger. The forearm was upright and stiff. She immediately took me off from his abdominal bed rest, hurried to my father and told him he was not moving. My father went to my grandpa, felt his body, found it cold and declared he was dead. My mother did not fill me in on the details of funeral ceremony.

My mother told me my grandfather used to go to a nearby village on horseback to visit with his flame from the past.  Nothing more, I knew of her. I don't know whether I have any undiscovered cousins from that liaison.

Years later as a medical student, I surmised he probably died of atrial fibrillation, heart attack, cerebral hemorrhage or some such catastrophic event.

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I received an epistle from the midwife from her eternal abode.

Dear patient:

Your mother was a good woman, living in my village. I delivered your older brother with no complications. He died of severe diarrhea and dehydration at one year of age. I attended your delivery too. Your mother went through an uncomplicated delivery.  When the waters broke, your father sent for me. I came there and delivered you easily, it was a second delivery for your mother. You cried right away and were a luscious baby. I came to check on you and your mother every day. Your mother nursed you. Your umbilical cord fell off in a week.

Once you had sores (impetigo) on your hands and feet during your childhood. I applied herbal medicine. I burnt the leaves, suspended the ashes in oil and applied it on your sores. They cleared. The deep sores (Ecthyma) left scars on your legs.

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Dear Grandson:

You were only two years old when I died. You were the love of my life, the apple of my eyes. As my soul floated away from the body, I saw you seated on your mother's waist. I used to play with you all the time. Yes, I had a few bad habits. Now that you are a grown man, I tell you my faults.  I used tobacco snuff. It jump-started my day. I used to have a flame in the neighboring village. She was loyal. I used to visit with her on the horse back. I would be gone for days. In my days, only the military officers, the royalty and the nobility rode on the horses.

We belong to a family of tax collectors for the State and later the British. We commanded a great deal of respect in the villages. My father and his father before him owned three villages. The property whittled down because it was shared among the progeny. Our ancestors and I did not work one day in our lives. The villagers brought valuable items they found in our fields. They were so loyal to us.

The house you and I lived in was the only one brick house around. It was humongous. You don’t remember. When the workers dug the earth to build the house, my ancestors found swords and other accouterments indicating the ground was a battleground. Yes, life is a battle. How you live it matters more than victory or defeat.

My ancestors owned a humongous grove in our village. My parents told me the royal visitors passing by invariably pitched their tents, rested, relaxed and enjoyed the cool breezy grove. (I remember as a child in the nearby town where I went to school, the last of the old trees were chopped down for firewood. What a shame. The glory days of the family were behind us.)

Now I am living in the eternal abode of the Lord. Things here are unimaginable. There are no words to describe them. There is beauty, splendor and wholesomeness.

More later,

Yours loving grandfather.

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As I finished reading the letter from my grandfather, I received a letter from my aunt on my mother's side.

 Dear Gopala (That is what she called me.):

I am now in the other world.

You remember me well. I took you in during your tender years because there was a great deal of animosity and ill will towards your family for no fault of yours. It was always about property disputes, jealousy... Your parents did not want to raise you in that environment. They sent you to me. So you were with me, your uncle and my children. We had a one room school, close to my house. This is where you learned your basic reading and math skills. We had an unprotected well flush with the ground in the backyard. You were afraid to go near it. My daughter fell in it, but was quickly rescued by workers. I fed you goat’s milk. You never liked it. When your mother came visiting with us, you complained to her about the goat’s milk. Your maternal grandmother broke a promise to give a landed property in town as a dowry. She failed to do it and instead gave it to her brother. Your father was very angry and, I believe, sent robbers to your maternal grandpa’s house. The noise in the middle of the moonless night awoke everybody in the house and they chased the robbers, who jumped to the next house by the adjoining upper floor (மேல்மாடி). The neighbors caught the robbers, but they gave a slip, because they smeared oil on their entire bodies. The police caught them and they told the police they were directed to rob the place by the son-in-law (SIL).  The SIL was taken to the town police station. The police saw a light-skinned gentleman of sorts, offered him a seat and treated him with dignity. The in-laws came to the police station and swore that their SIL had no problem with them. SIL was released and never prosecuted. I don’t know what happened to the actual robbers.  

A few years later, my father and your maternal grandfather graciously allowed for your family to live in the nearby town for your schooling.  

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My elder aunt sent me this letter.

Dear nephew:

Our love for you was well known. You visited with me, my sons and your uncle many times. You used to go to the groves and ate nuṅku. நுங்கு  nuṅku  1. Pulpy kernel of a tender palmyra fruit.

Once I remember you showed up when you were about 10 . We were surprised to see you without your mother. You told us your father beat you up for no fault of yours and you went to us. Our village was about five miles. You walked all the way to our house from your town. Such a feat for child of your age. We sent a messenger to your parents telling them you were with us sound and safe. They came and got you and took you home. You may remember me telling your parents one day you would eat his shit (monetary help)..  I am no more. I am enjoying life in the other world. Will write to you when I can. 

Yours affectionately,

Your elder aunt.

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A letter from my middle aunt.

My dear nephew: 

Your mother and I, though sisters, were close friends. You and your mother visited with us in my village often. I cooked for you very many delicacies.  You ate the delicious mangos from our backyard tree.  You went visiting with my son to the paddy fields, played in the wells and had a good time. Once my son took a clod of wet mud from the rice field and threw it on your face while in the well. It hit you on your face. Your eyes were blinded by the mud. You were clever enough to wash it off from your eyes. Yet your eyes had residual mud. You came home with others holding your hands. I applied cooking oil in both eyes. The idea was the mud would slid off your eyes from the lubricating effect of the oil. You were lying flat until the last particle of mud came off your eyes. Thank God, there was no damage to your eyes.

Once your mother and you came to my village. You were tired and week. I took one look at your eyes and noticed yellow jaundice. I summoned the village medicine woman. She gave herbs for a few days. The jaundice cleared. (It was Hepatitis A infection acquired by drinking contaminated water.) I was glad later in years you became a pediatrician.  More later.

Yours,

Middle aunt

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Dear grandson:

I had not had the pleasure to see you become a doctor in the late 1950s.  I lived in a village, not far from yours. You once climbed on me while I was sleeping and passed urine on my face and ears. I got up fast and wondered why you did the urination on me. You were only two years of age. I forgive you.

Your mother asked me whether I would allow her to live rent-free in the house I owned in the town, so you can attend the school. I consented to it immediately. You and your family lived in my house from 1945 to 1953 with you going to school. I passed away soon after your turned 3 years of age. I watched from the other world, saw you go to another town for your pre-med qualification and later Madras for medical education. I am glad for you. I know you are grateful to me that I let you live in my house so you could go to school.

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Son:

I was not a good father to you; neither was I a good husband to your mother.  I plied verbal and physical abuse on your mother and you. Your brothers somehow escaped the undeserving punishment. It is possible I became more mature or too old. I said often that I liked my brother’s children more than my own. That must have been disloyal.

During your school years, I left home often for weeks and months visiting temple towns up and down the country. I went to Rishikesh in the north and Ramesvaram in the south and other temples in-between. I once visited Mr. Gandhi in his Ashramam. He asked me to stay and work with him. But I did not stay with him. I visited with Ramana Maharishi many times and stayed in Tiruvannamalai for weeks.

 I was not with you when you entered High School for the first time. I was away on my jaunt. I remeber once you came to Ramesvaram to take me back home: a son playing the father, a role reversal.

I was with you, when you went to check the list of admissions to medical college in 1955. I was glad I went with you. Your name was on the list.

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Dear classmate in the medical college:

You and I were friends and classmates in the medical college. Yes, many students were jealous of me because I was one among the few top students in the class. But you were not so. You were an average student and graduated in time. You, after graduation went to the USA for your pediatric training. You were the first in our class to go abroad. Lucky you. Many were jealous.

You were a humor monger in the class. You remember Urine Iyer, Professor of biochemistry. He was famous for diagnosing illnesses just by looking at the urine. And thus his name: Urine Iyer. He had no tolerance for students who talked during his lecture. He was as fiery as the Bunsen burner. He would say to the talking student: “Up you stand and out you go.” A dreaded phrase. There were many students, ejected from the class. Once a bird flew from outside, sat on the sill and chirped. All the students turned their heads to the chirping bird. You did too. You did something more and said, “Up you stand and out you go.” The class broke out in laughter. The lecture hall shook. The professor was pissed off, did not brook the bird, your humor and the laughter. He dismissed the class at once. Thanks for the break, my friend.

The interference by students did not abate in his class. The female medical students sat in the first few rows of lecture auditorium with staircase seats. The mischief mongers threw paper balls on the female students, when Urine Iyer turned his head to the blackboard. No one was caught in the act. But you were not one of them.

Once the professor of public health was talking about old age and its problems. She posed a rhetorical question to the student body: “What would you do with the old people?” No student answered the question. You stood up and said, “Madam professor, I will put them on a rocket and send them to the moon.”  We all knew you did not mean it. Then there was no rocket capable of transporting people to the moon. But it had the effect of humor on the class. The student body laughed in paroxysms. Madam professor thought it best to dismiss the class. Of course, you were not punished. The professor probably enjoyed the joke for joke’s sake.

You remember some boys smoked cigarettes and the ladies avoided going near them because of the smell of cigarette smoke clinging to the white coats. One of them standing behind the female students in the medical wards in case presentation and moderation by Professor ALA, the smoking students dropped the cigarette butts into the pockets of white coats of the female students.

You remember another friend of yours. He was a brilliant student and yet failed in medicine case diagnosis and presentation for no fault of his. He might have failed because of the examiner’s prejudice against his twice-born status. He became a famous surgeon.

I visited with you in NYC and stayed in your house with my wife for a few days. My wife was impressed with your bathroom, clean and immaculate like the operating room.  When we went home, we built one for ourselves.

Yes, I became professor of medicine (Internal Medicine). Wish you were with me during my tenure.

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Professor of physiology sent a letter:

Dear student:

You were an average student in my class. The physiology examination had two sections. You mixed up one section with the other and wrote section one answer in section two. The answer was correct but was written in section two. I discovered your unintended error and gave you a pass.  (Thank you professor for your kindness.)

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Professor of medicine:

Dear student:

You were an average student. You thought and spoke on your feet. Remember, I asked questions about the complications of diseases on the ward rounds. The smart ones rattled off the complications. I asked anything else. You said, "death."   Yes, that was the ultimate complication of life on earth.

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