One person who influenced my life considerably was Uncle Nicholas or Nick as his close friends affectionately called him. Balding and muscular with a disarming smile, he and his wife, Aunt Jenny, had no children. So they doted on us, their nephews and nieces.
A senior officer in Air India’s training college in Bombay, Uncle Nick was often deputed abroad for advanced training in airline management. The prospect of his prolonged absence usually left his office assistants jittery. To build up their self-confidence, he used to tell them, “Hold the fort, guys, until I get back. I know you can!” He had the utmost confidence in them and they never let him down. He returned from each trip to find the administration running swimmingly thanks to the training he had imparted.
A gifted raconteur, Uncle Nick would keep us spellbound for hours with tales of his escapades as a youngster. Once he told us about an unforgettable enactment of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ during Lent in Kollam, his home town. The man playing Jesus was strung up on the cross and the woman portraying Mary was kneeling below, weeping. When ‘Jesus’ tried to move his cramped outstretched arms, a hammer left atop the cross, forgotten, came hurtling down and struck ‘Mary’ on the head. To the utter amusement of the onlookers, the stricken woman reacted quite unchristianly, turning the solemnity of the occasion into mirth. “Come down, you rascal,” she hissed, rubbing her head in pain, “and I’ll teach you a good lesson!”
The buxom Aunt Jenny sometimes attracted unwanted attention. Once when we were in a shopping complex she told Uncle Nick that a man was giving her dirty looks. Ever chivalrous and never one to flinch from trouble, Uncle rolled up his shirt-sleeves and headed resolutely for the offender – who promptly made himself scarce.
Among Uncle Nick’s notable friends in Bombay were Polly Umrigar and Ramakant Desai, both former Test cricketers who represented India with distinction. He often regaled us with graphic accounts of their cricketing exploits, having watched several of their Test matches. Desai, he used to tell us, could work up quite a bit of pace as a medium fast bowler despite his diminutive stature.
With his vast experience, Uncle Nick was a fount of sound advice to us youngsters. He had an uncanny knack of assessing our individual capabilities fairly accurately. Noting my interest in writing, he encouraged me to read extensively as he did. He suggested various Bombay and Delhi-based publications for which I could write and even gifted me, most thoughtfully, a brand new Remington portable typewriter, which I still treasure. Later, when I told him that my first short story ever to be published had been typed on it, he was elated.
After retirement Uncle Nick plunged into church work, lecturing at religious conventions and organising family prayer groups in his locality. A deeply religious man and a pillar of the faith, he passed away in 1994 aged 83.