My literary uncle

G P Rajaratnam, my aunt's husband, was a figure who exuded an air of mystery.

The yearly summer trips to Bangalore were always something we children looked forward to a great deal. The excitement mainly stemmed from having scores of cousins around, some to play with, others to bully, and a few to hero worship.

So, in this environment where few adults intervened, and those that did could be cajoled or hoodwinked into complaisance, loomed one figure who exuded an air of mystery. This was my aunt’s husband, G P Rajaratnam. He lived in my grandfather’s house in a separate room of his own. Already, that elevated him to someone different in a house where privacy was unheard of.

I remember as a 10- or 11-year-old vaguely picking up a sense of awe and formality when he was mentioned. I’d hear other aunts or even my grandmother say to my aunt, “Seeta, your husband has come in. Go quickly and see what he needs.” The consequent hush in everyone’s loud chatter made me imagine a larger than life figure.

He would never enter the house by the front door like other mortals. He’d come in directly to his room and call out “Seetha...!” That disembodied voice added to the mystique.

Consider my delight then, when I was invited to his lair one evening. I entered and found a man with a booming voice, a beaming smile and twinkling eyes, as if he knew well how I had pictured him. His speech was always interrogatory. “So which school do you go to? What class? I am told you like reading? What is it you like to read? You read only in English, isn’t it?” I would just nod or shake my head.

Finally the magic words, “Would you like to read a book?” And he would reach up to a shelf and pull out a book and give it to me. “So…will you read it carefully and tell me how you liked it when you return it?” How reverentially I received that book, like the Holy Grail, and then with a murmured word of thanks, off I went into more familiar surroundings. Gradually, I overcame my shyness with him and looked forward to the summons to his room which never failed to come. Needless to say, I enjoyed the special feeling it gave me when other cousins would ask me questions about the room, the books, and about him!

Well, I grew up and my interactions reduced when he moved with his family to their own house but I think he still had a soft spot for the reader in me. At my marriage, he gave us a copy of “Greek plays” with an inscription in his rolling handwriting. Later still, I grew to discover his genius as a communicator and writer. His was the voice of sanity and wisdom my husband and I listened to each morning on the radio, as we rushed around getting the children ready for school. My mother too made it a point to read out his poems to the grandchildren, for which I am ever grateful.

At a village library that a friend and I coordinate, imagine my thrill when the children listed him as one of their favourite writers.Now, when I say proudly to all who will listen that he was my uncle, there is also a tinge of shame that I never learned to read Kannada well enough to read his writings, that I never discovered his greatness until I was much older and that I never spent more time talking with him and listening to him directly.

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