One year into an undergraduate program, in the early eighties, JK decided that he had enough of college, and, he would be better off working full time and continue education through a distant learning program. He was in Bombay spending his summer vacation when this lightening wisdom struck him. He spoke to my aunt, (The Santa Claus Chitti) who was not very keen about the idea. After all she had gone through this route due to family circumstance and wanted JK to have all the fun of ‘college life.’ She asked him to talk to Chittappa, (uncle/her husband). He just said, ‘let me see what I can do.’
He spoke to his cousin (Nathan Anna to us) who was working in a reputed engineering company – Precision Fasteners – who arranged an interview for an apprenticeship position. JK got through the interview but failed the medical. The company doctor said, his Blood Pressure was unusually high for a seventeen year old. JK came back and informed Chittappa. He immediately took him to their family doctor. The doctor checked his BP and said it was normal. JK went back for his medical next day and the company doctor said it was way high. Back to family doctor who could not find anything wrong with his BP. The next day, Chittappa took a day off, accompanied JK to the factory, kept telling him to relax and on the third attempt he passed the medical fitness test. JK spent the next year staying with Chitti and Chittappa, went to work, learnt the local languages, enrolled for a computer program course and caught up with his distant learning as well.
That, in nutshell is our Chittappa, who is turning eighty today. From the day he saw the four of us decades ago, when he got married to my aunt (mother’s younger sister), he has showered the greatest of affection on us.
I first saw him in our ancestral house in the village where our grandma was taking care of us. My aunt and uncle got married in Bombay and were travelling to his native in southern part of Tamilnadu to visit his relatives. My mom asked them to visit us on their way south.
I still remember the day he came to Kaveripakkam, the village we were growing up. JK and I were sitting in the swing, he sat in between us and told us some stories.
A couple of years later we moved to Chennai and our Chitti and Chittappa visited once in a year, mostly during school holidays. Those were some of the best days during our childhood. He did not talk much but had a unique sense of humour. He would tease my aunt, my mom and the four of us. I used to write an occasional letter but would not get any response. He would just ask my aunt to convey his best wishes. I kept pestering him and so he wrote me a letter once. It started something like this, ‘நீயோ தமிழில் புலி, நான் ஒரு எலி’ meaning ‘you are a tiger in Tamil but I am a rat’ and wrote few more words of wit.
When my sister got married in 1981, our Chitti and Chittappa (two each) were a great help. They all descended a week in advance and made the occasion a truly memorable one.
My ‘hero worship’ of my Chittappa actually developed a great deal during the start of my career in Pune. I would visit Bombay during a long weekends (if you can call it a long weekend, time gap between a first shift and night shift with a weekly off thrown in between). When we were kids we just assumed that uncles and aunts were rich. It was much later we understood that they just had little money to spare (what we call disposable income now) but they had very large hearts. Chittappa had time for everyone. Neighbours would walk in any time of the day or night for advice or counselling. During school admission season, he would be mobbed for getting someone’s daughter or son admitted in South Indian School. He would attend to all the problems in the residential society from faulty plumbing to electrical issues (he is an electrical engineer). When one of his nephews was getting married (opposition from both sides), it was Chittappa who convinced the parents (or at least tried his best) and helped them to get married.
And then he spent money as if it came out of akshaya patra (inexhaustible vessel). I never once saw him counting money before he shoved a bunch of notes into his shirt pocket. Never once used a wallet. It was from him, I learnt this habit and till the advent of credit cards, driving license and few other stuff you always had to carry, I did not use one as well. I am not sure if it was my Chittappa from whom I copied wearing the watch on right wrist. I was proud to copy anything he did. Loving all the family members without making any judgement was definitely inspired by him. I am not half as good as he. But I definitely wanted to follow his greatest trait.
He provided moral, physical and emotional support throughout our lives. Whether we bought a flat or a bike, it was our Chittappa whom we approached first for help. When my father went through a bypass surgery he came down to Chennai and spent few days with us.
Holidays spent with him is always fresh in memory. We spent some impromptu holidays with him in Murud Fort and Mahabaleshwar (a coast and an hill station). Even when he came to help us to see through father’s operation, we took off one day to our ancestral village (100 Kms south of Chennai).
For all of us, our father is our first hero. Even with father, we go through a period of conflict especially during teen years which lasts at least for a decade. Then we realize that our dads are indeed great people, and we have not realized the sacrifices they have made to make us what we are.
With Thanu Sankara Narayanan or Mani Chittappa as he is called fondly in the family, there was never a period of doubt. For almost five decades, he is an hero to me and will always remain one.
Mani Chittappa with Yours Truly Over the Years.
Happy Birthday Mani Chittappa! Have a blast.