This blog is a tribute to my maternal uncle, Vijayendra who passed away this day four years ago. He was Vijmaam (maam – uncle) to me and lived at 24 Shantinath Bhavan, the apartment where my mother and her siblings grew up. I spent many happy vacations there basking in the love and affection that was showered on me by my grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins. It strikes me as I grow older that there have been so many people who have had a positive influence on my life but I’ve never really conveyed my appreciation or gratitude to them. Vijmaam is one of them.
Not that any of them expected anything from me. Their affection was unconditional and did not come with any expectations or strings attached. Somehow, the Indian culture does not lend itself to an open display of emotions, or maybe it’s just me. We express our respect to our elders by touching their feet, by addressing them with honorifics, and long after they have passed away, we have annual ceremonies to remember them. Yet, at least in my experience, we rarely tell them what we truly feel about them when they are still alive. This tribute was written the day after Vijmaam passed away and shared with my cousins. I have edited it slightly to provide more context to a wider audience.
My earliest memory of Vijmaam is of a toy helicopter that he gifted me during my first visit to Bombay to attend my aunt Pratimapacchi’s wedding in 1972. I remember playing with it at my grandparent’s apartment in King’s Circle, Bombay. Long after the helicopter disintegrated, I still retained the plastic pilot. He was in a permanently seated position and took part in several other adventures in my imagination. My next memory of him is a surprise visit he paid us in Bangalore in 1974. My brother, Ravi, remembers playing on the street and glancing up to see Vijmaam walking down the street! I was at home, there was a knock on the door and as Amma opened the door, Vijmaam stood at the door, beaming. In his hand was a box of champakali. (Bengali dessert made of what I can loosely describe as cottage cheese)
I still remember the yellow champakalis, with their white stripes and red cherries on top grinning invitingly at me from the box. That trip was a memorable one. I was a little over 5 years old and some of those memories are still vivid in my mind. Vijmaam took Ravi and me to watch a cricket match at the Chinnaswamy stadium. Ravi’s memories are clearer than mine and he remembers the match was between Delhi and Karnataka. He also remembers a batsman getting out, he assumed the batsman had been bowled only to realize when he checked the newspaper the next day, that it was a stumping effected by the lightning-quick wicket-keeper, Kirmani! Thanks to Cricinfo, I now know that it was the Ranji Trophy Quarter Final between Karnataka and Delhi and was played over four days starting on March 1, 1974. There was indeed a stumping. Madan Lal, stumped Kirmani, bowled Chandrashekar! Vijmaam was working with Mahindra Jeeps at that time and I think his trip was work-related. I also have a happy memory of him gifting me and Ravi a couple of coloring books with paints. We had those books for several years and I spent some happy afternoons coloring them. I still retain a fondness for champakali, and as I bite into one, I’m reminded of Vijmaam’s surprise trip.
Vijmaam was like that, always smiling and generous. The fact that he stayed at Kings Circle and that I made annual trips to Bombay, meant I got to spend a fair bit of time with him. I remember him relaxing at home in his white t-shirt and striped pajamas. But that is not my only memory. There are pictures of a young dashing Vijmaam in various family wedding albums. With his jet black curly hair, gray eyes, and fair complexion he could have passed off for an Italian. I remember the car he purchased in 1976 and him taking us around as we were inviting people for my brother’s munji (thread ceremony). He was newly married then. I remember visiting Nalinimai’s (mai – aunt) house in Khar and eating zamb (rose apples) plucked fresh from the tree in their courtyard. I jump ahead a bit. It was on an earlier trip in 1975 that I listened to Hemant Kumar and Harry Belafonte on his radiogram. My cousin, Vinayak who was a very cute baby, would perceptibly quieten as Hemant Kumar’s silken voiced “Bhala tha kitna, apna bachpan” played on the radiogram. Or was it “Kitna Dukh Bhulaya”? Vijmaam loved children and had some great nicknames for them. The ones for his own children were most apt – Bambi and Pepito!
Ravi and I owe our taste in music to our parents and when it comes to western music, primarily our mother and thus indirectly to Vijmaam. Dean Martin, Harry Belafonte, Nat King Cole, Elvis Presley, Paul Anka, Pat Boone, and Earl Grant. Before we heard these singers, Vijmaam had bought LPs of these singers and played them at home. Amma had heard these songs while she was growing up and we listened to her sing or hum them before we eventually got to listen to the originals. Much later, after he had given away his radiogram, his cassette collection influenced us. I remember summer holidays at Kings Circle listening to Jim Reeves, Harry Belafonte, Nat King Cole, John Denver, James Last, Klaus Wunderlich and Merle Haggard on his tape recorder. There was Stephane Grapelli’s “Sitar goes Latin”. I did not listen to that tape often, but my cousin Bab still remembers that album with fond memories. He had an excellent collection of Hindi songs too. Blank TDK and Sony cassettes were a prized gift and Vijmaam would gift us a couple on each trip to Bombay.
It wasn’t just music, he influenced the books I read. I would spend lazy summer afternoons on the gallery/balcony reading through his collection of Sidney Sheldon, Jeffrey Archer, Irving Wallace, and anthologies of authors such as Oscar Wilde. I never got round to reading William Shirer’s “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich”. It looked formidable! Perhaps the best gift he ever gave me and Ravi was a subscription to Readers Digest for a few years in the 80s. I have been fortunate to receive many gifts over my lifetime but this was probably one of the best. In the days prior to the internet and cable television, Readers Digest was a lovely way to get to know the world and expand my horizons. He also subscribed to Time magazine. When I would return home after a trip to Bombay, he would give me the copies that he had already read. For a while, we had a great collection of Time magazines at home. I was pretty well informed of US and International politics, thanks to him! My paternal cousin Bakin has fond memories of borrowing a few books from Kings Circle in the 1970s. One of them was a collection of Rabindranath Tagore’s stories: “The Housewarming and Other Selected Writings.” Bakin has a recommendation scale when he recommends books to me and this was a “must buy” and so I duly bought the book and enjoyed reading it!
Vijmaam’s command over the English language was impeccable. He was a master at crosswords. Nighttimes would find him in his room with his glasses perched at the edge of his nose as he worked his way through the latest puzzle. I would feed him with suggestions, most of them just random guesses. As I grew older, when I did manage to get the rare one, he would beam at me. Those occasions, rare as they were, would make me feel very special. It was from him that I learned that persimmon was a kind of fruit. I ate my first persimmon maybe a decade ago and I remembered Vijmaam as I savored the first bite. My brother has a similar memory from over forty years ago. “A synonym for ant” said Vijmaam absent-mindedly one night while he was solving a puzzle. And then without batting an eyelid, he filled in the letters. My brother glanced at the word on the sheet “Pismire”!
It wasn’t just English, like my mother and her siblings, he could speak seven languages fluently. He attributed his command over the English language to the fact that my grandfather had him read the classics during his formative years. “You can always read pulp fiction later,” he told me, “get your foundations strong by reading the classics first”.
And then there was the food. Chole from Aroma, his favorite restaurant in Dadar, Patrani macchi from a restaurant near his work, Chilli meat fry at City Kitchen, Dabba Gosht from Delhi Durbar. I remember going to Aroma with him and my cousin, Vasanth maam in 1985. He ordered a tandoori chicken for me and watched me polish it off! Eating an entire chicken was an unheard-of luxury in those days. His own lunch at work as far as I remember would be a couple of cheese sandwiches. The inimitable pav (bread roll) was sliced and green chutney and Amul butter were applied to the two halves. Sliced Amul cheese went in between and the pavs were then wrapped in aluminum foil, ready to be taken along with him in the local train. I found out many years later that the manager at Aroma was another beneficiary of Vijmaam’s gift of a subscription to Reader’s Digest.
Food, books and music, the staples of life. Not bad at all. But wait, there were the movies! He was partial to Westerns but his repertoire involved other genres. There were the usual Spaghetti Westerns but then there were the classics too. “High Noon,” “The Quiet Man” and “The man who shot Liberty Valance”. “Magnificent Seven” was a favorite. After my ICSE exams, I spent a couple of months in Bombay. My aunt, Nalinimai had gone on a trip, Ajja had gone to Bangalore, so it was just Mamama (maternal grandmother), Vijmaam, and us cousins. Vijmaam would give us money every now and then to rent out video cassettes. One would be of his choice, the other we were free to bring whatever we liked. I remember watching Gregory Peck’s “The Million Pound Note” and “The Great Race” starring Tony Curtis and Natalie Wood during that trip. He would also laugh with us as we watched “Mind your Language” tapes. I got to watch some classics, thanks to him.
As I write this, I realize how much of an influence he has had on me. I remember spending so many evenings after dinner conversing with him in his room. He had a phenomenal sense of humor. His ability to interpret lyrics or match them with completely unrelated activities would have us in splits. If you were to ask him, Pankaj Mullick’s “Yeh kaun aaj aaya, savere, savere” was sung as he made a trip with trepidation to the toilets in Shantinath Bhavan! He was a table tennis champion in Khalsa college but I know he loved cricket. While watching matches on TV, he would regale us with anecdotes of old matches and players. He sang very well, Harry Belafonte of course but also Anup Jalota’s bhajans. He could converse on a wide variety of topics and was extremely well-read. As I left for the US, he helped me out with the formalities in Bombay. When we went to pick up my ticket, he took me to Paradise and treated me to their famous sandwich, the Temptation.
While Vijmaam was genial he did not suffer fools gladly. My mother recalls that he was once so irked by a cousin who left his underwear lying around the house that he took the whole lot and threw it outside the window! He was also a man of principles. For a while, he parked his car down the street at a friend’s garage. Shradhanand Road became a one-way after it intersected Brahmanwada Road. The building where Vijmaam parked was the first one after the intersection. Vijmaam, however, scrupulously followed the rules and took a rather longish detour to park his car. Once while returning home at around midnight, I asked him why he didn’t just drive the additional 30 feet or so and park his car. “It’s a one way,” he replied. “I know, but it is late at night, there is no traffic and everyone breaks the rules,” I said. He chuckled and replied “So they do and when I catch them I give them an earful. However, if I break the rules myself I can’t in good conscience yell at them. There is no satisfaction in that!”
I visited him each time I returned home. There was the generous “his and her’s” matching watch set when I got married. Vijmaam was a fantastic uncle and a wonderful dad but I would see him in his element with his grandchildren. I’m sure they were his pride and joy and he must have spoiled them silly. It just wasn’t his grandkids. My nephew who was interested in geography was gifted a Readers Digest Illustrated Atlas of the World. The other nephew who loved mangoes was sent a case of Alphonso mangoes by courier for a few years.
Illnesses took a toll on him during the last few years. It was hard to see him especially in 2015, but on my 2016 trip, the twinkle had returned to his eye and the old sense of humor was back. I spoke occasionally with him on the phone, chiefly wishing him on his birthdays.
I miss him. I have many fond memories of Bombay. As time goes by, the old order is changing but the memories of kindness and generosity of my relatives still linger. Now when I think back, Vijmaam had this knack of knowing what children of any age liked. He would always have the right gift. And he was unique in that he never talked down to us. My opinions were listened to carefully and I was made to feel like an equal in any conversation. That is a rare quality. Rest in peace, Vijmaam, thank you for the wonderful memories. As I end, I’m reminded of the “Satchmo” album that you were so fond of and Louis Armstrong’s gravelly voice singing “What a wonderful world”. It indeed is, thanks to uncles like you!