Time had erased and eclipsed almost all my childhood memories, but not those of my uncle. He was tall, emaciated and slightly hunchbacked. He would look distinctive, a tad different with his white dhoti and full-sleeved shirt. He had jet-black wavy hair, but relished keeping it unkempt. A thick pince-nez would always be on the bridge of his nose and he would be seen carrying a black umbrella on his shoulder all through the seasons.
Uncle would talk less, but laugh more at anything and everything, making men and matters objects of humour. While he got his umbrella hung on his shoulders, he was wearing his laughter on his sleeves. But it became grotesque and people grimaced when he laughed at something during sombre situations like funerals. There were occasions when mother had a dig at him for his untimely and out of the box laughter. But, uncle never stopped his laughing; he laughed through life saying, ‘before the assault of laughter nothing can stand.’
Come Diwali, uncle would give me bundles of sparklers, flower pots, chakras and crackers. Once when a misfired cracker burnt my fingers and made a hole in my brand new shirt, mom told me to stay at home. Fortunately, I had an uncle by my side. He rushed home hearing my misadventure with the crackers and laughed loudly at the bandage on my hand. ‘Hey, man,’ he shouted at me. ‘Get into your feet. Buck up. Let’s finish off the remaining crackers’.
‘Do you know why you fall down sometimes?’ uncle asked me once. I blinked and kept mum for a while; for, at the time I had failed in my final exam and uncle got wind of it somehow. ‘You fall down just to get into your feet again,’ uncle said without looking at my face and let out a ringing of laughter. That was the uncle’s trick and I passed in the next year all my exams with flying colors.
Could I say uncle was my friend, philosopher and guide? No, because those clichés, I’m afraid, would not fully explain the bond I had with him. Could I say then that he was my guiding star? No again, for stars appear only at nights unlike uncle who shone on me always and guided me against all the odds of life.
The sun was now sheathing his rays. He couldn’t win the battle with the dusk. Sea breeze began spilling specks of sand on my head. Uncle and I were sitting on the Ramanathapuram seashore. Uncle had his eyes riveted on the series of waves lashing at the shore non-stop.
‘Easwar, you’re going to Mumbai tomorrow and start a new life. Life is going to present you many of its vicissitudes and you should make yourself ready to face its odds’, uncle became a bit serious sans his laughter. ‘Life is like a battlefield. What weapons would you like to wield in the battle, my boy? It should be nothing but laughter and, through it you can conquer the world.’
That was the last time I was destined to be with uncle. I had to move to Mumbai since I got a job there. The time of my parting with uncle came and I cried like a child, holding his hands. Uncle roared with laughter seeing my tear-filled eyes. He said: ‘Why, Easwar. I think I could cultivate an acre of paddy with the water flowing down your cheeks’.
It was over ten years I came to see uncle. The funeral was in the air when I reached his house. I rushed home the moment I heard about uncle’s sudden passing away. ‘A massive heart attack,’ I was told. It took hours for the message to sink in as I felt a knot in my stomach. All my senses refused to believe that my dear uncle was dead and gone.
Uncle was kept in a bier in his room. He was on his usual attire: white dhoti and full sleeved shirt. The pince-nez was on his nose. ‘But, where is the black umbrella?’ I looked around. ‘In his last moments, he was only calling out your name’, one of my relatives told me when people carried uncle to his grave. All eyes were set on me; they expected I would cry my head off at any moment. But, I fortified myself not to cry as uncle never liked my crying.
Funeral rites were carried out as per the agama rules. Uncle was then cremated. I saw billows of smoke rising skyward from his pyre. I looked at the smoke with a sullen face. People crowding around me thought that I would at last cry now. But I didn’t.
Crestfallen, I was now sitting on the Rameswaram seashore; my relatives were about to immerse uncle’s ashes in the sea. I was looking at the swirling waves. But they seemed sulking and hesitant to come and lash at the shore, for they couldn’t see uncle by my side.
The vast green sea, the surging foam crested waves and the cacophonies of people sitting around me reminded me the day, years back, when uncle and I were sitting on the shore, laid back. Uncle was silent, watching the waves intently. He, then, let out a peal of laughter and said: I tried to count the waves that were coming over to the shore and I heard them saying: ‘don’t try to count us, bloke. Counting us is like shaving an egg … a futile task’. He laughed again and a chorus of laughter burst out from the nearby crowd who had heard uncle’s remarks.
I now started laughing suddenly pointing my fingers to the waves. People around me grimaced by my roar of laughter as it tore into a sombre moment.
But, I laughed again and again to the delight of the waves.
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