Despite our Christian missionary schooling, my sister and I never really waited for Santa. The idea of a bearded old man riding a reindeer sleigh in the snow and dropping in through chimneys was too foreign for the 30 sultry degrees of our sunshine Christmases in flat-roofed concrete homes. But for the better part of my childhood, I did wait eagerly for the visit of a bearded man bearing gifts. Back then, he visited regularly... And when he opened his suitcases, the fresh fragrance of the then coveted International Lux soap would waft in to fill the room and wait eagerly with me and my sister for the myriad other goodies that awaited us. Star and Delta candies, toy cowboys and wild animals then made in Hong Kong, shiny stickers, the watch in his hand always strapped unto my wrist, and even sinfully red rambutans jumped out of his bags like goblins from a rabbit-hole. While all these were prized possessions over which sibling turf-wars raged for the next several weeks, Uncle K brought much more than goody-bags to the monotony of our lives. His annual visits ushered in a time full of grand tales, unfeigned laughter, gibberish songs, movie outtings, great books, unquestioned off-days from school and rare impunity from the regular "sure-to-earn-a-rap" misdeeds. Most importantly, he always brought hope.
Uncle K was the only adult I remember looking up to and really believing things might be better when I grew up. He was the only adult I knew whose eyes always twinkled with a certain contentment and laughter. The only one who had a world beyond his work and family - a world full of yoga, karate, playwrighting, poems, homeopathy, rose-gardens, mathematics, economics, OBE or whatever new thing his ever youthful mind had taken a fancy to. When I was out with Uncle K, the scary world of a little boy - so full of disliked adults, dark corners, fierce street-dogs and delayed growth milestones - became something that could be methodically broken down and dealt with. Nothing was ever a mistake... Nothing an unchangeable strife to suffer through... Everything would get better with a year of hard work...
To my hero-deprived childhood, Uncle K was superman in real life. I followed him everywhere and held to his every word.Tales of his clever escapades in school, 3-hour maths tests he'd aced in fifteen minutes, record-breaking giant cabbages he'd hand-grown, his limericks about professors in the college notice-board and his many other run-ins with the authorities were all family legends. The best part was the way he used to narrate those tales with a certain confidence laced humility - with the same details and intonations even when I asked him to repeat a tale for the fourth time in the same evening. Only much later did I learn how much had been left unsaid... Like the fact that this powerfully built little man who could now demonstrate two-finger push-ups was once diagnosed with polio and the likelihood of never walking again! Like the numerous doctors and engineers his free classes shaped out of children of poor tea-estate labourers...
It was he who introduced me to Vivekananda and classical Tamil poetry. It was thanks to him that I first believed in myself. For the first twenty years of my life, whenever I thought about what I wanted to be in life I always ended up resolving I'll be like him. He was my hero, pure and simple. Until it all changed one unfortunate day.
Oh, how we worship are heroes and how we then destroy them! How quick we are to judge a man whose infallibility is our own concoction! It was after my aunt, Uncle-K's eldest sister, passed away that for one brief moment I saw a side of Uncle-K that was so shocking in its appaling familiarity - the desperate and irrational anger of a defeated man that so many family members always wore! Only for a fleeting day, he struck out at the world around him in despair... Only after a forty year old dream of reuniting the family had been broken beyond repair... But I was young enough to be idealistic and judgmental... Proud enough to refute the havoc time could wreak on a man's resolve! Later, Uncle-K apologised profusely to all concerned but the damage was already done.
It took me a good half-a-decade to forgive Uncle-K. It will probably take forever to forgive myself for the way I reacted. Last year, I spoke to Uncle K for the first time in years - a voice that crackled and faded over the international long-distance line like some old ropeway bridge across the miles and years. But like only he can, Uncle-K made it sound like it was just yesterday that he'd given me my first lessons on religion in the street-corner temple.
Truth be told, Time has run its relentless course. Since those visits that filled the house with warmth and the smell of soap, my heroes have risen and fallen. People, things, thoughts - have all aged, perished, changed or been born. Uncle-K still lives in SriLanka - never-married, mellowed down by the frustrations of life in a war-torn country and the loss of a fourth sibling last year! Yesterday, I opened the yellowed and dog-eared pages of the only book that has journeyed with me to every stop in my nomadic existenc - a copy of Thirukural that Uncle-K gave me in 1986... His slanted Tamil scrawl urges me to follow the path laid down by the profoundly wise little book... Was so long ago - twenty-two years since a bearded man whose black eyes twinkled with prescience bought the book for me during a visit to the Rock Fort and tousled my hair with a smile? I couldn't believe this man who has so shaped my life and thought has spent ,in all, less than a hundred days with me in person!
The last time we spoke, it somehow still seemed things will be better next year.Uncle-K recruited me as an ally on his long-drawn battle to get the entire family - or whatever's left of it - to one side of the Palk Strait. But, I know my days with Uncle-K are going to be few and far between - precious days to be snatched out of time's countdown. I also know that he's still my hero! And that after another twenty years, if I am half the man he is today, it would be a life very well lived!