I don’t share his name or his genes, but yet I call him father. He’s one of the most interesting, inspiring, funny and genuine souls I have had the privilege of knowing.
I have a father – the one who contributed to my existence. I love him. But this is not about him. This is about the other man, a certain Mr. Jagannathan Rangarajan. He also has other names but we’ll get to that.
My pedigree chart would tell you that he’s my uncle, whom we know as ‘Barthipa’. But don’t let that fool you. He and my aunt have shared their lives since 1969; since they were young teenagers. He had some rough years early on. He battled some personal demons that manifested in troubling ways but the love he and my aunt share saw them through it all. In fact it led him to pursue his passion. He started the Woodstock Dog Training School – the very first professional service of its kind in India (I think). He became the founding member of the Madras Canine Club. He has done amazing things professionally and even extended his services to the USA (where he’s called ‘Ranga’). He is regularly featured in newspapers and we call him the Indian Dog Whisperer.
Well, he did pow wow with Cesar Milan.
Do you know what all this meant to us growing up? It meant being surrounded by a minimum of 5 to about 20 dogs at home. It meant puppy-sitting, puppy-weaning, chow-preparing, fetching, wrestling, licking, snuggling, laughing and loving. Everyone should be so lucky.
He has not just been the loving family member. I can name others who fit that bill. He has been a caregiver, a confidant, a friend. When I had decided that Mr. Pink and I had something substantial and that we would marry one day it made me nervous. How do you possibly tell your Hindu family that you want to marry an agnostic Swiss white man? I told him in confidence. He was quiet for two seconds and then, with eyes glistening, he said he was proud of me and that he would stand by me. What more could I have asked for?
He was called ‘Bond’ when he was in college. He loved cars, motorbikes and was über cool. He was a handsome bloke too. Still is. That nickname is still widely used. He would drive fast and furious. Now he is stuck in city traffic. He’s a true gear-head. He has been collecting cruisers for some time now. One of his babies that I am attached to is his Royal Enfield Bullet 500. The family thinks that about 30% of his bodily fluids consist of petrol. He has always gone on short bike rides, about a weekend long or so, but now he has started doing long distance, cross-country rides. He’s part of riding clubs and gives workshops to new riders. They are usually young men who are astonished to find out that he’s 63 years old and grandfather to three precious little boys. He has more life in him than most 30 year olds I know. He has had accidents on the road but he always get up – happier, stronger and raring to rev it up.
He can be very forgetful as well, but only when it comes to his own person. The usual stories, of course, are the kinds where he asks you to search for his spectacles while still wearing them. But there are also some legendary ones. My favourite of which is the one where he packed his suitcase to visit an outstation client, got in his car, was halfway there and realized he didn’t put his suitcase in the trunk but left it standing outside his home, by the locked door! The best part of these stories is the way he narrates them – with eyes wide open and a mischievous grin on his face. It usually start off as ‘”Hey. Do you know what your Barthipa did THIS time?” Or, if there were someone around who had heard it already, he would get him or her to tell it to you and the whole time he would sit giggling in the corner like a 5 year old, savouring your every reaction. I have never met anyone who takes this much joy in their own seemingly embarrassing stories as my uncle. It kills whatever self-consciousness I have, my need for a social status and my inflated ego.
He invents special ways to communicate, be it in English or Tamil. He suffers from spoonerism which shows up when he writes but he deliberately uses it in his speech and mixes up phrases and names for comical purposes. Some of these phrases and names are now family jewels and thanks to him we all now speak in a special way, a way that brings all of us closer and gives us an identity unique to our own. Being scattered across the globe seems less isolating thanks to his genius.
I was born in a nursing home that shared a wall with their home. He already had twins (my lovely cousins) but he never discriminated or rationed the love that he had for any of us. This is also true for all the little ones who followed me in joining my ever enlarging Indian family. He used to have a bushy prickly moustache and would love to purse his lips and ‘bite’ our cheeks with that scraggly thing. It would burn and tickle and annoy. But it was the best part of seeing him. It seemed like there was no end to how much he could love. How truly and how earnestly he could make you feel like you are the only apple of his eye! He lost his mother when he was young and sometimes I wonder if that’s where he gets it from, this infinite capacity to love. Maybe he has learned to fill the indescribable void with so much positivity that it radiates and purifies all around him.
So there you have it. My family’s Cousin It. Not eccentric, but ever ecstatic. Not strange, but profound. The world knows this giant of a man as many things: J. Rangarajan, Ranga, Bond, Barthipa. But I just know him as Appa. Father.