There are some losses which are inevitable, even expected, and yet, when it happens, it leaves one grappling with a bundle of emotions. Chachen was fading slowly over the last two years, and in the last few weeks we knew the end was near. And yet, one can never be prepared for the finality of death.
He was fondly called Chachen, and his wife Chachi, by younger siblings, and the names stuck, so much so that his children started calling them that. Chachen, which I suppose was shortened from achachen or elder brother, lived his name. Kind, caring, direct, his advise and counsel was sought by many. The other name he went by was Achenkunju, among friends and relatives. The formal name given to him was Thomas John, Maruthathu.
I came into Chachen’s life as his daughter-in-law, more than two decades ago, and our relationship grew stronger with time. It would not have been a smooth decision bringing me into their fold, but Chachen and Chachi have never made me feel any angst or stress of the decision. If anything, I was accepted wholeheartedly, with all my flaws and limitations, not for a day burdened by the expectations of performing the role ascribed to the daughter-in-law. I have Liby to thank for expanding my family by a multiplication factor, for connecting me to his family tree.
My parents and Liby’s parents grew very fond of each other, and would exchange letters, and my parents would visit Liby’s home whenever they came to Kerala. In Laby-Reena and Leeba-Aby I gained siblings, and the most spirited nephews and nieces, and then there were innumerable cousins, uncles, aunts.
“You didn’t bathe (kulichilla)” Chachen stated with a chuckle after I came out from my bath. I looked quizzically, till I figured that in the common parlance “kuli” (the bath) was completed only if the head was washed, an everyday feature for most people in Kerala, but not something I practiced. He was patient with my mixed-up Malayalam, never discouraging as I strung sentences together. We’d have conversations around myriad things, places, people, food, travels, etc.
Doing things that were not necessarily in the comfort zone is something Chachen was quite used to. On his marriage to Tojamma, he encouraged her to complete her graduate studies and Tojamma went to her classes, sometimes with young Liby who got passed around among her friends and fussed over.
He supported the choices his children made for study and work, taking pride in their achievements in his own quiet way. I reckon he was proud of the work I did too, and supportive in his own way.
He was the only son of John Thomas and Thankamma and grew to be a handsome man, whose smile turned up the charm quotient. For the longest time he and his oldest son, Liby, looked like brothers.
The banter between Chachen and Chachi was always where each one had equal voice and weight. They would discuss, argue, fight, and come to a decision.
He participated in local politics for some years with enthusiasm, and with equal interest went to Muscat for work for some years. His work abroad was curtailed as an only son, due to family factors, but he did not resent that in any way. He stayed active and engaged in the activities of the church for as long as he could.
Grandparenting increased his charm quotient. His children, who grew up thinking he was strict and not very communicative, saw the fun and light hearted side to him. He showed me how to trim my infant daughter’s nails. He joked with Karuna about AchanKovil “father temple river” and played games with her during the many times she stayed with her grandparents, while I travelled for work.
To see an able-bodied person gradually weaken with neurological issues which could not be completely diagnosed and treated was disheartening. Chachen made a good fight of it, as long as he could. Chachi stayed by him, immersing herself into caring for him, not giving up for even a moment.
As life slowly ebbed over the past couple of years, there would be a sense of celebration whenever he was able to remember, recognise and have short conversations.
“Enthe north Indian marumol” (my North Indian daughter in law) he said in December last year, in a moment of lucidity :) And started speaking with me in English. In February he nodded his head and asked “when did you come?” before the circuit switched off…
Friends and well-wishers from far and wide came to pay their respects, remembering the big and small ways Chachen touched their lives. It was humbling and a time of celebration of the life he lived.
As the funeral concluded, I looked back, flipping through the album of life. I smiled. Travel well Chachen. You are deeply loved.
Pic taken on December 30, 2017
Standing: Aby, Thomas (Jeffy), Mathew (Jojy), Emily (Jemy), Karuna (Annu), Liby, Laby, Harry (Kichu)
Sitting: Leeba, Tojamma (Chachi), Thomas John (Chachen), Jayapadma, Reena, Harsha (Chiku)