Dec 13, 2012

“Courtesy is as much a mark of a gentleman as courage.”

Panicker Uncle who passed away recently was a true gentleman who displayed every qualities associated with one. The sense of loss, as his mortal remains were confined to the flames, struck deep within the psyche. I remembered the regal, dignified Uncle whom I knew since childhood.

“Repose and cheerfulness are the badge of the gentleman -- repose in energy”.

The first thing that struck one about him was his overwhelming presence. As soon as you entered the house, he embraced you with his loving, lingering glance. He would then ask, in his characteristic deep booming voice, “So, what is the news”? He would then enquire about your family, your parents and all near and dear ones. All the while, his face would light up in a half smile. Occasionally, when in a naughty mood, he would ask you probing questions. Any attempts at evasion would result in more penetrating questions, said in a louder tone. It continued until you opened up or gave up completely. He would then pause, a faint smile hovering on his lips before changing the topic. It was all done in fun and he never harbored malice against anyone. His cheerfulness was infectious and you couldn't help catching the positive vibes that resonated in the air.

“A gentleman is a man who can disagree without being disagreeable.”

Panicker Uncle had wide experience of the world, people and relationships. It was intellectually stimulating to engage with him in conversations. Even when he disagreed with you, he backed his views with sharp logic. You never felt put down. People around him were used to his loud verbal questions, whether it is a member of the family or even a friendly neighbor who happened to peek in and came in the line of fire. An unfamiliar person would wonder at the miniscule impact of all the sound and fury on the people around. The fact was, one couldn’t help sense the love behind what seems like mock anger that would subside just as fast. He was brutally frank and never hesitated to call a spade a spade. He would speak out his mind in your face tempered by love and compassion. It was a refreshing change to experience such frankness and honesty.

Panicker Uncle was fascinated with Kathakali, the traditional dance drama art form. He was what one lovingly calls as ‘Kathakali branthan’ or ‘Kathakali mad’. To be called so is no reproach, but an enviable distinction. Some of the ‘Kathakali mad’ have gone to excessive lengths in their zeal for the art, spending a good deal of their time, resources and capacities in perfecting the drama. Panicker Uncle, even with restricted movements, would watch a Kathakali performance and then its repeat performances in other parts of the town in the following days. Not satisfied, he would later watch the recorded videos again and again. He expressed a child’s delight in exploring the nuances of a complex performance. His love for Kathakali extended beyond being a passionate audience. As one of the founders of Sopanam, he ensured that the annual Kathakali program was held every year, now for more than two decades. Unlike hosting a classical music program, a Kathakali performance involves a huge budget. Depending on the person, he pleaded, cajoled, bullied (in a nice way) and relentlessly pursued ways and means to raise the required resources. Many people like me are grateful to him for introducing us to this otherwise inaccessible art form.

“A gentleman can live through anything.”

During the later years, Panicker Uncle had to often wear an oxygen tube. Even then, he would become breathless soon. Nevertheless, his spirit never wavered, the loud voice with which he greeted people never faltered. A man who loved to travel and socialize was confined to his room. Yet, people who came to comfort him left comforted and energized. Although he had to go in and out of hospital, his cheerful nature and zest for life never left him. It was not possible to visualize him as a patient and I have never heard him complain about his condition, though obviously he must have often been in discomfort and pain.

He had a tremendous sense of humour. Recently, my daughter was watching him pop a pill. He asked her, “Would you like to have one? I have got green, blue, pink and white”. Once, when I enquired after him as he was lying in the ICU with about a dozen instruments strapped on, he replied cheerfully, “Oh, it’s fine here. The only thing that I hate is the ceiling, especially at night. It would be good if I could be lying under the blue sky watching the stars.” I have never seen any serious patient, maintaining such a cheerful demeanor and bringing smiles to concerned visitors. He seemed to be drawing upon vast resources of strength steeped in culture and heritage and in which physical illness was just a minor irritant. 

He was proud of me during the period when my articles were published regularly in the TOI. Later, when I entered a long barren phase, he would reprimand me saying, “Why don’t you write? Very few people have been given the talent that you have got.” Although said in a loud voice, it was easy to sense the deep concern and love beneath.

For me, he was one of those last old fashioned gentleman, who, even while holding strong beliefs, was open to learning and adjusting to modern trends, understand and be compassionate to the generations below him even as the changes might appear shocking to his sensibilities. Even without large financial resources, he lived life king size, true to himself and with understanding, acceptance and regard for all who crossed his path.

I could go on and on but it is difficult to confine the life of a person like him in words. Suffice it to say that for me, as I am sure for many others, he was a true gentleman and a tremendous source of inspiration.

Actually, when you come to think of it, it seems that they don’t make gentlemen like him anymore.