The word aunt in English denotes both mother’s and father’s sister. But most of the Indian languages have different words for aunt; in Tamil, Chitti means mother’s younger sister and father’s sister is called Athai.
In the winter of 1995, I was taking a chemical (Polymer) trial in a paper plant near Kalyan, a distant suburb of Bombay. The polymer is diluted with water before it’s applied to the pulp. The equipment specialist who came from Calcutta where my company was headquartered broke the Rotameter (a flow meter that shows the quantity of water passing through a pipe) while setting up the feed equipment. There was no way I could start the trial without Rotameter.
I had recently joined this American Company and wanted to complete the trial to make my mark. I called the logistics guy at the HQ, informed him about the broken piece of equipment. He said he could arrange one from Calcutta which may take about a week to arrive at the plant. I was not ready to abandon the trial and asked him if I could get the equipment in Bombay (now Mumbai). He said the dealer was actually based in Nagdevi street in downtown Mumbai. I called the dealer who was ready to supply me the Rotameter if I could make the payment in cash.
Well! I did not have cash with me (this was much before online transfers and widespread advent of ATMs in India). I knew who could bail me out of this situation. Our Chitti, the saviour of us from all tough situations. She lived in Dombivli in the suburban train route from Kalyan where I was struck, to Mumbai where the dealer was based. I took a local train and went to see her.
2500 Rupees was lot of money (about 60 USD in 1995 exchange rates) in those days. She did not have cash with her either. She simply said let us go the bank and get the money. We went to the bank, withdrew cash and I continued my journey to Mumbai.
This one incident would help readers to understand our Chitti. 2500 Rupees, as I said was lot of money, probably more than half of her monthly pension in 1995. She did not hesitate for a second wondering when and how I would repay it and how would she manage her affairs till I paid the money back. She was determined to help me to get out of a tough situation as she always did. She touched everyone who came into our life and we three brothers and our sister got the best of her love and affection. Always!
One of my earliest childhood memories is how she pampered me when I a child. I was four years and few months old, when Mohan, my brother was born in Mumbai. Though little sketchy, I still remember how she nursed me when I was injured while jumping off a bed and sharp object from a toy pierced my leg when I jumped right on top of it.
Vijayalakshmi, known as Vijaya to everyone was an inspiration. She was just sixteen when her father (our grandfather died) and her uncle (my grandmother’s brother) brought the family to Bombay. Vijaya had just completed her schooling when she was uprooted from Chennai where she grew up. Though she was forced to go to work at a young age, she was determined to continue her education and went to college in the morning before starting work and became a graduate, majoring in Mathematics. Maths, as such, is difficult even if you study full time and to this day, I wonder how did she manage to major in Maths, studying part-time while working and helping to run a family in a City where she did not even understand the language that is spoken. She juggled, successfully, many things at a time and this remained the pattern throughout her life.
When she got married and moved to the far away suburb Dombivli, she had to commute for close to two hours, one way, to her work place in downtown Mumbai. She managed work as a successful executive in All India Radio, raised her family and tended to her in-laws who lived with her. I always used to wonder if she had more than 24 hours every day. And then she attended all family functions which forced to take two days of train journey to the south of India. The beauty of it, I have never seen her complaining even once about any of this. Personal space, work-life balance and stress; all these words were never part of her vocabulary.
Santa Claus, for us did not come during Christmas. Our Santa Claus was our Chitti visiting us in Chennai. Unlike Santa Claus who rode the reindeer, she travelled in Train from Mumbai to Chennai. She brought us gifts and spent wonderful time with us. I have mentioned in my recent blog Mumbai – the Maximum City how our aunts and uncles made our vacations in Mumbai, the best holidays of our lives. She took us for lunch to Samrat in Churchgate before showing us the studios in All India Radio and Samrat is still one of our favourite restaurants in Bombay.
She continued to play in important role when we entered job market. JK spent a year with them when he started his career when he was just eighteen years old. My uncle Narayanan (Chitti’s husband and my hero in the family) got him an apprenticeship in a leading Engineering firm, enrolled him in a computer course and provided food and shelter for a year.
She was an amazing host. In my early days in Pudumjee Paper Mills, I used to work in shifts. The weekly off after completing the morning shift gave almost a two day weekend as I would have to report for the night shift after my weekly off-day. I used to visit them during this long break and she would know when would I come to visit her. She would cook my favourite dinner and wait for my arrival. She had a kind of telepathy and would guess the day of my visit correctly.
It did not stop with me and JK. Mohan started his career in Mahad which was about four hours of torturous bus drive away from Dombivli. When she got to know that he got operated for appendicitis, she rushed to Mahad, attended him in the hospital, brought him back to Dombivli with her and nursed him through his recuperation. Years later when he was studying for his Masters in Mumbai, she would send him lunch through Mumbai’s world famous Dubbawala when he complained about hostel food.
She introduced us to reading good books in our younger days. Counselled us when we were at crossroads in our careers. When I was struggling with a career change in the eighties she would take me to her well wishers for advice. Most of these visits would eat away her Sundays which was her only day off. When I started writing my blogs, she became one of my regular readers, encouraged me and provided me with anecdotes for my essays. She also wrote couple of short stories in her younger days for Tamil Magazines. She was ready to learn and showed keen interest and patience when Renuka, my wife, taught her drawing.
She had the most infectious smile in the family. She always welcomed relatives and visitors with a big smile and a warm welcome note delivered in her booming voice.
She was in the hospital for the past couple of months battling to survive from an illness. The doctors kept telling us how amazed they were to see her willingness to fight every time when her health deteriorated suddenly and the nurses always appreciated how she treated them with a smile never once complaining about the severe pain she was suffering from.
When she passed away on 22nd we lost our loving aunt, a friend and a guide and most importantly an amazing human being. In one of my earlier blogs, I mentioned that The God does not create people like my Chitti any more. He must have forgotten the formula and probably has taken her back to study how did he indeed create such people.
Adieu Vijaya Chitti, our most amazing aunt.