Thursday, April 24, 2008

My Father's Brother

I guess it’s a strange way to refer to my Kaka (Uncle) but it describes it the best. Jotu as he was known in the family, parts of the family also called him Lal Mama, because he was fair skinned and had pink cheeks, lived in Germany for almost his entire life. Some of his initial years were spent in Lucknow scraping through educational institutions after which he went to Germany to pursue further studies - at that time many Bengalis opted for the erstwhile West Germany to pursue further studies.

From whatever family conversations I had heard about Jotu Kaka, studies were the last thing on his mind in Germany, blessed with good looks and oodles of charm, he was probably busier pursuing ladies rather than higher education. One particular lady - a very pretty lady named Uta managed to stop his wild ways and domesticated him. As the family lore goes, Jotu Kaka lied to Uta Kakima about his age, wooed her and finally married her. He was about 12 years older than Uta but claimed he was just 2 years older. Uta says she was so much in love that she believed everything he said.

After the marriage in Germany - a church wedding, photographs were sent to India, some of the older family matriarchs fainted on hearing the news - a Bengali Brahmin marrying a German who eats beef, the shock was too much to bear! The younger members of the family were curious and eager to meet this "memsahib" who the much loved and popular Jotu had married. When Jotu and Uta came to India for their second traditional Hindu wedding, they were welcomed with open arms by the young and the old. Uta was a lovely girl who won over the family with her charm, manners and respect for the Indian traditions and cultures. The wedding was a grand affair, from what I have heard, which ran into several days with hundreds of relatives converging in to Lucknow. Video shoots were unheard of back in the sixties but thanks to German technology, the wedding was captured on film which includes my Mother's exotic hairdo. My Mother and Jotu Kaka got along well and Jotu Kaka would often tease my Mother about how much effort she spent on dressing up and elaborate hair do's.

I was born much after the above events took place, to me Jotu Kaka and Uta Kakima were just a photograph in the album - it was their wedding photograph, a black and white one with Uta in a white dress and probably orange blossoms in her hand and both of them looking deeply into each others eyes and smiling. That photograph still epitomizes the word romance for me. My pre teen adolescent mind fed by Georgette Heyer, would often wonder about how magical their meeting and coming together must have been.

One fine day my Father announced that Jotu Kaka would be coming to Delhi to visit us, I was very excited as for me the photograph would come alive. I cannot recollect my first impressions of them except that they seemed, for the lack of a better word, foreign. Jotu kaka used to teach Physics to school going children in Düsseldorf (Uta Kakima had forced him to study and get a degree after their marriage) and Uta used to work in a departmental store called Metro AG. Both were avid golfers. We took them to Lucknow, where our ancestral house was to meet Pishima and then for a short weekend getaway to Badkhal Lake - a place near Delhi where migratory birds come during winters. My Father used to cook biriyani very well and we all cooked biriyani together at the Badkhal resort and it was served with much fanfare, decorated with silver sheets (warak), and photographed from all angles. At that time I found it very odd that Jotu Kaka accompanied all his food with beer, it seemed like sacrilege to mix the world's best biriyani with beer.

Jotu Kaka's next visit was after my Father had passed away, by then I was well into my teens and this was the most memorable visit ever. The first few days were difficult; I think my Father's absence along with some other family under currents related to division of property made them uncomfortable. Jotu Kaka wanted to visit Kashmir and he suggested that we also accompany him, which we did. Those few days were when I had my first long conversations with him, about my school, my friends, my hobbies and whatever else that came up. He taught me how to use the Minolta camera which he had given me, I discovered the joys of photography and the many tricks of manual focusing and uses of light. I still remember the plight of an old man leisurely pulling on his hookah somewhere in the Shalimar gardens, he was asked to sit and pull the hookah at some angle while Jotu Kaka photographed him. I am sure it wasn't pleasant for the old man but he complied readily - maybe he was just being polite because a gora mem was beside him.

Family property is more of a curse than a boon, the sale of our ancestral house in Lucknow managed to tide over some difficult times and provide the much needed monetary support, on the other hand its sale created rifts as deep as the Grand Canyon between the people who benefited and those who did not. I think no one can really give up ancestral property - it’s probably something to do with our roots and our desire to hang on to them, even if it is just a few thousand rupees in our bank account. From my perspective, since then arctic winds started blowing in our direction with very brief bouts of warm weather when some relatives remembered my Father and visited us.

The ensuing arctic chills and the many misunderstandings (which now seem inconsequential) kept me from meeting Jotu Kaka during his visits to India. Weddings are a time to forgive and forget, my wedding card was sent to Jotu Kaka and Kakima and they came to India soon after. My husband and I went to meet him, I was happy to find that he was still the happy, enthusiastic, somewhat childish and spoilt person that I remembered him to be - fifteen years is a long time and not much had changed really; maybe the distances we create are more in our mind than in reality.

In one of the other visits Uta Kakima and I exchanged email IDs and we kept in touch though occasional emails. The last time I met Jotu Kaka was when he visited Mumbai a few years back. That’s when he met my son for the first time; it was touching to see how easily they connected. After the introductions were over, Jotu Kaka asked my son "Babaji, cholo ice cream kheye aashi". My son, ever so glad to get some windfall in the form of ice-cream trotted off happily across the busy Malad streets. Both of them came back looking extremely satisfied as if they had accomplished an important mission. I cooked biriyani for them trying my best to reproduce my Father's recipe. I gifted him the remaining biriyani masala which he promised to use in Germany - which was incidentally; powdered using the mortar and pestle used by his mother, my grandmother who I had never seen. I showed him the only remnant of the Lucknow house which I had - the mortar and pestle, using which my Thakurma (Grandmother) ground the paan (betel nut leaf) which she could no longer chew with her teeth.

A few days ago, we got a phone call where a relative said that Jotu Kaka wasn't keeping well and these may be his last few days. A day later we heard he had passed away and had been suffering from lung cancer. They were in India, in Mumbai for a while to visit Pishima. I am not sure why he didn't get in touch with us - I guess I'll just put it down to the fact that this as a typical trait of my strange family, it’s always full of surprises.

I was perhaps through my interaction with Jotu Kaka, trying to discover my Father who I had lost when I was 10 years old, trying to find a bridge into my Father's world; with Jotu Kaka's passing away that bridge has become too frail for me to cross - maybe its best left alone.