Change of Guard

“My Uncle A passed away this week,” your mother tells you over the phone.

The enormity of the demise does not register right away.

You never got to see your grandmother, your mother’s mother. She was always a photo around the home – a gentle sepia portrait, her eyes so much like your mother’s (and therefore yours), her smile warm and welcoming, her gaze on an object in the distance. Thus it was that you came to know and love a woman who you never saw but re-created through part legacy, part longing.

You spent all your summer holidays with your  mother’s side of the family. Every May, you made the 3 hour bus trip, in a dusty red State Transport bus to your aunt’s home.  Your aunt lived in a rambling old building where your grandmother’s brothers including Uncle A also lived. It was an ancient buidling with endless nooks and crannies, creaky wooden staircases,  latticed balconies and a huge amount of people distributed amongst the eight individual houses that the old building house.  Every house had someone you were related to – it was a merry gaggle of aunts and uncles and second cousins and first cousins and great- aunts and old grand-uncles and everyone else that was somehow, family.

You could wander into anyone’s house around lunch time and they would set you a plate and you would eat. If you went to the neighbouring house, you would be fed lunch again, you did not refuse. In the afternoons, while your mother and your aunt and the extended family chatted, you wandered the large building, opening doors and discovering new and old worlds. It was the magic hour, the world lay suspended in a brief stupor, a humid silence coloured the world. And yet you played with stray cats, you hid behind the dusty cauldrons that housed the water for your morning bath and you played hopscotch on the blazing hot tiles in the paved courtyard.

“Come inside, do you not feel the hot sun?” someone would say. It could be anyone of the extended family, love and discipline and meals and treats were shared around here, you were looked after by everyone in the building, even the building itself.

You were a child here surrounded by a thick blanket of summer,mangoes, late night icecream and family that sat around and talked and drank endless tea. You stayed awake, bright eyed and revelling in these chat sessions, hugging yourself to stay alert under the whirr of the fan and the animated chatter. Your mother was a child here too, but you did not realise that till you were grown up.  Here she talked to her uncles and aunts, she sat at their dining tables and they made her tea and fussed over her. Her, the youngest daughter of the sister they lost so tragically, without any warning.

You would talk to your mother’s uncles and her aunts several times a day. They wanted to know important things about you like what flavour of milkshakes you liked and whether you were doing your times tables in school and how you liked your tea. They gave you little gifts, sometimes a crisp 50 Rs note in a plain envelope, sealed and fresh, brimming with the promise of everything you could hope to buy. Sometimes it was little lunch box or a book,  little gifts that you recieved with profuse thanks and then packed carefully to take back home. You had surrogate grandparents every summer, you never realised it till today, till you accepted that they were all gone.

They bulldozed the old building one summer. You had grown up by then and you had moved out of home. Your aunt moved away to a better and bigger place. Your mother’s uncles moved away too. Your summer holidays were still fun but you did not have the luxuryof a house anymore where you could open doors and find so many branches of family sprawled inside.

Then you heard the obituaries from your mother over the years. One by one, they passed away, taking with them their gifts, their promises of crisp notes, their steel lunch boxes, their friendly banter on the steps, their admonishings to abandon the afternoon sun.  One by one they became empty chairs around the communal dining table, mounted photos on aging walls, a past reference to a time now irrevocably eroded.

Uncle A was the last of the grand-uncles. 38 years after his baby sister, your grandmother, died in her sleep, he passed away in a town that was far away from the bustling house of the past.

“There is no one of that generation left,” you say to your mother. The greatest of absences. The simplest of truths.

“No, they are all gone now. All the siblings,” she says. She does not have her siblings left either. They are really all gone now, the old house included.

When you were a child, these people built a fortress around you, a canopy overhead that kept the sun and the clouds out. You are left with crumbling battlements now, the house is in ruins.

There is no canopy anymore. The mighty trees have been felled, there is an endless horizon as far you can see, a clearing where once there was a magical land.

The sun blinds your eyes now, there are not many people left to shield you anymore.

RIP Uncle A. And everyone else that left.