Kutty Ambi (1944-2015)

Appa-unedited

Several years ago, an eccentric cousin of my father’s called his office and loudly demanded that the chap who picked up the phone hand it over to one “Kutty Ambi”. The poor man picking up the call was confused. It wasn’t a name he was familiar with, not just in that office but in New Delhi in general. He politely told him there was no “Kutty Ambi” in the office and that he must have gotten the wrong number. But Professor Eccentric from IIT was annoyed. He did not believe that his capacious academic mind could have gotten a telephone number wrong. He insisted, with a little more clarity and syllabic spacing, “Please give the phone to K u t t y A m b i”. 

Before this escalated any further, my father arrived on the scene and handled the situation, because he was Kutty Ambi, and practically no one in his family knew him by any other name. His office, however, knew him as Krishnan and his passport insisted on calling him Gopalasamudram Ananthanarayanan Krishnan. He was mostly just GAK to his professional colleagues and just “Appa” to the three of us (me and my brothers). He spared us long names by keeping our surnames to just “Krish”.

He passed away from a brain stroke last Thursday. He was 71. 

He was the youngest (and most favourite) child of his mother and was born in Nagercoil in 1944 and lived most of his childhood life not too far away in a tiny hamlet named Gopalasamudram by the banks of the Thamirabarani river in Tirunelveli. His father was a brash, unconventional man who lost faith in his religion when his first wife and her three children passed away due to illnesses of the kind not uncommon in rural India in the 1930s. While my father was the fifth child of his mother, he was his father’s 8th child, and thus named Krishnan.

He wasn’t a particularly bright student and his father, in complete violation of every stereotype of the Tamil Iyer, was a businessman who ran 3 petrol pumps in Tirunelveli. Practically every one else in the family was a college graduate and worked as clerks and government servants. “Mannennai Kadai Iyer (Kerosene Store Iyer)”, as he was known, was fiercely atheist and did not allow any displays of religion in his home and even asked my father and his brother to go ask the temple priest for a sacred thread if they wanted one. He wasn’t going to pay for any expensive celebratory coming of age function. He did, however, ask his sons to come and learn business at his petrol pumps. It was something that left my father with a deep seated ambition to eventually be self-employed. 

The family went through heart-wrenching tragedies. My father’s eldest sister was murdered by her in-laws and the petrol pump business collapsed. His eldest brother was mentally disabled and his old man passed away, leaving my father with a broken college education and a disabled brother, but also a mother of tremendous spirit and grit. She persuaded my father to marry and not just spend his life taking care of his brother & mother. 

His marriage to my mother was a turning point. With her support, he grew from a lowly field sales person to eventually become the General Manager of the company he worked for almost 30 years. It wasn’t a large company and my parents were not rich, but my father spent his savings with a fierce passion that his children should have the kind of education and exposure he never had in a small rural hamlet. 

But his childhood fascination for being a self-employed man never went away. As my mother continued to grow in her job at Canara Bank and I was ready to join engineering college in a course that largely guaranteed a good job, he took the plunge and started his own business in importing hi-tech equipment for research labs, a move that would eventually break him. 

As I was seeing the streaming host of visitors who came to pay their respects to him as his body lay waiting to be cremated, I realised that Kutty Ambi was not really suited to be a business man. Visitors after visitors held my hands, and in tears, told me that my father had helped them back in the day. For some it was financial help (from a man who barely had any savings). For others, it was jobs in his failing business. It turns out he employed people to help feed them, not to extract work in exchange for a salary. Turns out that’s generally a terrible way to run a business. 

I knew my father was someone who tended to folks in the family who had the most complicated of troubles. He skipped the easy ones. He once tried counseling a psychopathically violent husband of a cousin of his who ended up beating him up. He also once successfully persuaded a recalcitrant cousin who refused to attend to her own daughter’s pregnancy because she had married outside her caste, to change her mind. But as I stood watching the mass of tearful folks who told me, one after another, that he had helped them at some point in their lives, I realised why his business ventures didn’t work out. He was more Kutty Ambi and not really much of GAK. 

He had one hobby in his life. Photography (only film, he never took up digital) and he has left us with albums and albums of photos of all of us at every stage of our lives and being the photographer, he rarely appears in any of them. His way of bringing up children was largely modelled on his mother’s ideas and he let us boldly adventure into areas that most traditional parents would prevent in the name of “passing exams”. Today, Raghav draws beautiful comics, Karthik climbs mountains and I play musical instruments because he didn’t ask us “to focus on exams”. 

One day in Delhi, he managed to get a certain violinist’s phone number and he called him. The man on the other end of the phone brusquely told him that he did not take students. My father told him to just hear his son play once and then decide. He insisted that he was too busy to take students and cut the call. After several tries, the man finally agreed to hear me play. My father drove me, all the way from South Delhi to Delhi University old campus where we walked into a cavernous Raj era bungalow (with a fireplace no less) where I played “Vaataapi Ganapathim” for this bespectabled, taciturn violin genius named TN Krishnan. He agreed to teach me and I owe my interest and ability in music today to both these Krishnans. 

He spent most of the last three years babysitting my son, taking him for long walks inside Theosophical society and blowing balloons on demand. As I was stuck in Toronto when he passed away, the family put his body in an ice box while they waited for the eldest son to arrive. My son, my wife tells me, knocked a few times on the box asking for “thatha”. I don’t think he realises what has happened, but I’m sure he misses pretty much the only person who did his every bidding. 

As one gets close to 40 years old, one realises deaths in the family are part of the timeline of life. And that, on the face of it, he was one of many people in India who started their lives in a small village, struggled in a pre-liberalisation country starved of job opportunities and got the short end of the stick when it came to success in running one’s own business. He was also one of millions of parents who sacrificed their comfort to produce the generation of children who are now reaping the benefits of India’s economic growth. He was also one of millions who struggle regularly to figure out how to make a Skype call to see the faces of their grandkids and be clueless in the face of having to deal with exponentially maturing technology. 

As I settle down to pore through the voluminous files he maintained with extraordinary detail, I realize that the man died with no possessions. Every bank account was in my mother’s or our names. As was all property. There is a Sanskrit expression that captures his nature better than any English expression will – he was a Karma Yogi

But GAK was also a strict disciplinarian boss in his working days and an uncompromising and often stubborn father who rarely listened to advice. His employees were often afraid of him and his attention to detail could sometimes be exasperating. He had little or no financial sense and tended to spend based on gut feeling and blind trust. 

He also had one terrible habit. He disliked doctors, abhorred hospitals and refused to undergo even basic medical tests despite his age. GAK regularly ignored occasional moments of disorientation and memory blanking that started occurring in the last few months. He clearly didn’t google his symptoms (as I did after my mother told me of them) and GAK didn’t realise that Transient Ischemic Attacks will almost always result in a massive, fatal stroke. 

There is a particularly tough moment during the cremation rituals where I, as the eldest son, have to hold his head in my lap and chant some mantras while pouring water (from the Ganga) anti-clockwise around his face. It is a strange feeling to hold the head of someone who is dead. For a moment, it makes you question rationality in how this inanimate mess of largely carbon, hydrogen and oxygen was once alive and took my son out for walks, persuaded TN Krishnan to teach me, drank extra cups of payasam at every wedding with his sweet tooth, believed in astrology and even once sent 20 dollars to a deposed Nigerian prince. 

GAK died on 24th September, 2015 but but Kutty Ambi, as I heard from everyone who visited home to see him off, will forever be alive because he touched more people’s lives than I realised. 

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