A True Raja

Several moons ago, Rajus from modern day Andhra Pradesh moved to a small town near Madurai. Nestled between the Sanjeevi hills and the Western Ghats, this town was named Rajapalayam after its early settlers. The Raja family cultivated the rich, fertile land and the land as well as the people prospered. Into one such Raja family was born a boy, the youngest of four brothers. He was named Vivekananda after the renowed philosopher and teacher.

When he reached the age of 10 he was packed off to a boarding school in Yercaud. It was here that he met and nurtured a lifelong friendship with my father, Ravi Damodaran. Monfort Public School was an all boys school run by monks who didn’t believe in sparing the rod and spoiling the boys. Vivek was in charge of the tuckery and my dad often joked that all the yummy treats that were parceled to him ended up in Vivek uncle’s tummy.

Back then his parents had a lovely cottage in Yercaud. After he finished school, Vivek ended up pursuing a medical degree in Stanley Medical College. Around the same time, my grandmother had moved to Chennai, a year after my grandfather passed away. My dad was studying economics in Madras Christian College. It was only natural for Vivek’s mom to ask my grandmother to be his local guardian.

Vivek used to accompany my grandma as she went from house to house begging people to get a gas connection when she first opened Super Flame. Vivek’s mother passed away a few years later and in a way my grandma filled that void in his life. He always had the greatest regard for her and made it a point to look her up every time he came to Chennai.

After his specialization in ophtamology, he decided to serve people in rural areas who would otherwise not have access to medical facilities. He opened an eye hospital in Krishnankoil, close to Rajapalayam and conducted several free surgeries and treated numerous patients for free. He dedicated his life to his work and never married. Whenever we asked him why he made that decision, he would say it was his heart condition that prevented him from starting a family. If anything he had a big heart and all of his brothers’ children fit in there.

I can remember him from very far back in my childhood. He was always dressed in a spotless white shirt and pant, a smile never too far from his face. His sparkling eyes, full of mischief and waiting to tell us some joke or recount some funny anecdote from the past. He always brought us a round, purple tin of Cadbury’s chocolate almonds. Two of his brothers lived in Chennai and whenever any of his nieces or nephews got married, he would be there. Being very strict with his diet, he wouldn’t eat the rich food served at the wedding feast. My mom used to make plain phulkas for him and a simple carrot side dish. He would always ask her politely and my mom would happily oblige.

I remember visiting Vivek uncle’s farm with my family when I was probably a teenager. He lived a simple life and ate whatever simple food the caretaker cooked for him. Idlis, dosas, and sambar were a staple at his place. One morning he took us to his hospital. We stepped inside and felt like we were in a sterile environment. Everything was spotless and shiny. One lady with a clean rag proceeded to wipe down a bench after we got up and walked away! There were taps at every entrance and people had to wash their feet before they entered the hospital.

Back in the farm was this cute dog, Ruby, and uncle’s cleaniless had somehow rubbed off on her. Her fur was white without a speck of the orange clayey soil, even though she lived outdoors. Uncle’s farm too had taps placed startegically near every entrance. Ruby knew how to push the tap up with her snout to get a drink of water. I suspect she had frequent baths too when her fur got too muddy!

Several years later, Dr. Vivek had to give up his surgical practice since he was getting too old. He saw this as an opportunity to get a board of doctors and trustees to manage his eye hospital. Initially, he visited the hospital and helped out as needed. But as time went by, he began to withdraw and trusted the younger doctors to continue what he had once helmed.

My dad was a quiet man of even quieter habits. He didn’t have many friends and even among the few friends he had, many came and went like the tides of the ocean. The only constant was Vivek uncle. And I grew up witnessing this special bond that my dad shared with Vivek uncle. So what makes a great friend? Just being present through thick and thin. Through it all. The grief, the joy, the betrayals, and the triumps.

In March 2019, I was in Chennai for my dad’s 70th birthday and Vivek uncle was there too. He had just undergone heart surgery and we could see the bandage through his light cotton shirt. He brought a big birthday cake for Papa which he cut while we all sang happy birthday. Uncle, playful as usual, took a bit of cake and smeared it on Papa’s face.

My parents and brother visited Vivek uncle once more at the farm. I had left Chennai and India by then and wasn’t sure if I’ll ever get to travel to Rajapalayam in my short hurried visits back to India every couple of years. But in 2020, the stars aligned, and all of us, including my brother (who was living in Sweden then) managed to make a visit to Rajapalayam. We spent a couple of days with uncle and it made me so happy. Uncle had been asking me to visit him for years and I had finally made it.

I’m not sure if as children we don’t notic certain things or if our powers of observation get sharper as we get older, but there was something about uncle that I had never noticed before. And it was his compassion and generosity and the way he cared for everyone, from the gardner to the cook who prepared his meals. Before he sat down to eat he made sure that the driver who accompanied us from Chennai was fed and given refreshments. He took the time to inquire about his family and their whereabouts.

When his cook showed up with a swollen jaw, he gently chided her for not getting her teeth examined by the dentist he had recommended. And of course, he took excellent care of us and made sure we had the best food and most comfortable sleeping arrangements.

I remember going to meet him in his brother’s place one time and he told us to pick up some cake for his nephew’s wife whose birthday it was. We took the cake and all of us sang happy birthday for her. Later, she told us that she never used to celebrate her birthday. Such a small gesture it was but I’m sure it made her feel loved and cherished.

After the pandemic struck, we met uncle a couple of times in Chennai whenever he came to meet his cardiologist. Uncle also used to email us pictures or write to us every once in a while. After a while his doctor advised him not to travel but we always kept in touch over phone calls or email. Papa’s death was a shock to him and he lost several other close friends around the same time.

Every time I spoke to him he would ask me to be cheerful always and to take good care of my health. I don’t know if I’ll ever encounter another pure soul like him. Just being around him or talking to him instantly elevated my spirits. In his later years, he was drawn to spirituality and he used to have lively discussions with my mom about topics of interest to both of them.

I wrote an email to him about or week or so before he passed and there was no response. He usually responded to my emails in a couple of days. When I spoke to my mom I asked her if she had spoken to Vivek uncle. She told me she’d call him. But when he didn’t repsond to her text or calls, I knew something was off. I asked my mom to call his cardiologist who also happened to be her doctor. When she got him on the phone, he said he had gone to visit Dr. Vivek and that he was OK. A couple of days later he called my mom and told her that Dr. Vivek had passed away.

After my dad passed away, he had been calling almost every week to check on my mom and to offer words of encouragement as she tackled all the formalities that come with losing a spouse. Again he was constant, benevolent presence in our lives. even in the midst of his failing health and his own grief. Such souls are indeed rare and we were all blessed to have know him for all our lives. I’m sure he’ll find heaven spotlessly clean and inviting now that he’s reunited with all his family and friends.

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