Well Done, Mr Cherian.

A son maps absences his father has left behind.

 

 

 

 

 

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The other day in our neighbourhood, a peepal tree, with a girth of 30 feet, fell in a terrible storm. As it did so, it left a massive crater in the ground, a deep emptiness. This happened a few days after Appicha, my father’s passing away. And it made me think. Of great absences. But then, as I reflected, I realised that I had to correct myself, while some great trees leave a great absence, other great trees do the exact opposite. They enrich the soil in which they are planted, they spread the green, so when they fall, as fall they must, they leave a great presence. And it is to celebrate the great presence that Appicha {father in Malayalam} has left behind, to treasure this, to grow from this, that I put down these words.

The Helpful Mr Cherian
As so many of you know, Appicha loved helping. Be it a ride in a train engine for a nephew, travelling days to speak to the dean of a college for a niece’s admission, months dealing with the intricacies of a widow’s tangles, or fighting for a maligned railway colleague, starting a scholarship…

Here is one such delightful tale to savour. This relates to a time when he had just retired in Trivandrum, and I had come down to meet Amma & Appicha taking a week off from work. One day on that visit, Appicha told me “Edda, monay, let’s go, I’ve got an engineering project to do.” Now as anyone who knew Appicha well, going on one of his projects was not completely wise. For he had incredible stamina, a mind that would study a plethora of solutions, and a cost-saving imperative that would ensure the popular solution would be rejected for a robust, brilliant, and economic answer. All of which meant a hundred and one stops, to a thousand stores, all of course in the hot sun. Well, I tagged along. After the 12th stop at a factory, I mustered up some interest in the pipe that Appicha carried around, and asked, “Are you repairing the plumbing in the house Appi?” “No, no”, he said, “I am building a playground for the children in the common area in front of our home. Nothing much, a slide, a merry-go-round, a see-saw, a jungle gym…” “Oh”, I digested the information and then asked, “Are you doing it for the association? Are they paying for it?” “No, no”, he replied appalled that he should ask the association for funds from their meager resources. He saw a need, and well he had to do something about it.

This has stayed with me, so whenever in life I have a choice between that which will benefit me and mine, or between that which will embrace the world, I am nudged by Appicha’s example to choose the second.

 

 

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The Calm Mr Cherian
My father was warm, caring and generous. We cannot remember a single instance where in our entire childhood he really lost his temper or raised his hand. And God knows we gave him enough reasons to lose his temper, tear his hair out and gnash his teeth.

To reveal just how deep his equanimity was, let us give you a snippet from childhood. To cope with the considerable stress of a railway engineer, Appicha was in his initial years, a chain-smoker. And the term chain-smoker is mild compared to reality. He was more like a steam engine in full fury. So Amma had marshaled us 3 children into Appi’s very own little anti-smoking army. Once we marched into his office in the railway factory. We upturned his wastepaper bin and counted out 120 cigarette stubs. And it was just mid-way through the day. Did he explode, forbid our entry to his chambers? Nope. Another weapon up our Anti-smoking Army’s sleeve was the chorus. There used to be a song, a doleful heart-rending song that I am sure most of you {from the pre 70’s vintage} are familiar with. “I’m nobody’s child, I’m nobody’s child…” Sometimes when Appicha was at the cigarettewalla, lead by our ring-leader Talitha we would burst out into this doleful song… Any other man would have thrown a fit. Instead, he just smiled, and gathered us, his flock safely back with him. Did our efforts work? No. But all it took was one comment from a respected doctor. And Appi stopped smoking the next day. From 120+ to zero, in one day flat. 

We all 3 of us married out of love, not out of custom, bringing home 3 wonderful people. And Appicha supported us. Backed us to the hilt, even though that backing cost him dear. Once when a priest threatened My Father with excommunication for our marital choices, he just smiled politely, but with an edge that let the Priest know the steel that he was made of, the family that stood behind you, the God you walked with.

 
 
 
 

 

Mr Cherian, The Strikebreaker
Yes, my father was warm, caring, generous, peaceable. But let no one mistake his peaceableness for weakness. In the railways he was known as the strike breaker. At one point of time in the early 1960’s, when strikes, and hartals, killed or maimed many managers, he would fearlessly go into crowds protected by his deep trust in humanity. Once in those years, Amma got an excited call from a railway colleague, who gave her these ‘calm, reassuring’ words, “We fear for Mr. Cherian’s life, he was surrounded by strikers and taken away.” Days passed with no news. Three days later, Amma heard a knock on the door, sweaty, but otherwise unharmed Mr Cherian walked in triumphantly. He had persuaded the strikers to return to work. As he told Amma, “They are just humans under pressure, when they see you mean well, and are not afraid, reason prevails.”  And so My Father was the one sent when strikes erupted, you spoke when others fled.  Humorously you related how once, when addressing an irate crowd and calming them you turned back to your boss before making a promise, to get his confirmation, only to discover he had fled.

And his example strengthens me. In times when I have to take an unpleasant stand, and I’d rather hide under the blanket, I remember Appicha’s example, If he could stand his ground surrounded by angry strikers, and keep his calm, so can I. Yes, Dear Appicha you are gone. But you are very much here.

Railway accidents are terrible things, as hundreds of tons of steel slam into steel, bodies fast asleep are smashed, mangled bodies lie flung, or worse scream piteously in iron coffins, blood dribbling out… waiting hours, days, for gas cutting flames, and someone with a cool head. How many accidents did My Father preside at as directing angel? Hundreds? You returned from the carnage, had a bath and a good meal, and deepened, yet not scarred by it, went on with life, as loving as if you had not witnessed death's goriest scenes first hand. How horrific was it? Well, once at a dinner as conversation drifted towards railway topics, you and a friend talked accidents. And somehow it turned into a game of one-upmanship, of the wickedest accidents. As the stories escalated, and we were bathed in visions of terrifying intensity, in putrefying smells, you related an accident-apocalyptic, a carriage was carrying eggs which smashed, dripped down below attracted by the dripping mess was a sea of cobras, rising up, blocking all rescue, even as from within the wreckage human screams poured out. You were not a general who sat in your tent. Juniours spoke of how you at times wielded gas cutting flames hands on. And lifted bloody bodies with your own hands. And in life you'd do this too, a thousand times over, helping pull people out of the wreckage of their lives. Or sometimes just offering a little help, a tiny gift, a railway treat.

And so now, following your giant feet, we too, find ourselves there. Pulling others out of the wreckage of life. Be it your blood children of Tali with her flaming sword and journalist's pen, Tambi with his doctor's strength, or I with my mystic vision and psychic hand. Or your in-law-children Satish whose enormous generosity resembles you the most, Meenu with her great organising capability, and Celia with her Aura sight.

 
 

 

 

 
 

The Curious Mr Cherian
You loved taking things apart to understand it. In Madras, you once took apart Tambi's bike. Only you couldn't put it back together. For years you puzzled over a circular bookshelf, trying more and more hi-tech solutions till you finally got a wise-old Kerala carpenter to make you a bookshelf. Immediately when you came home you took it apart. And put it together again. And built a new one.

You'd take years worrying a problem till it gave its secrets. One of my favourite memories of you was with your line box, the box filled with files, poring over them till beyond midnight. Oh you were brilliant but you had that which makes brilliance irresistible. Midnight oil. As I mentioned before, your stamina was exhausting. At 78 you came to Bangalore to pick up a set of lights. After 25 shops you went back to the first. Exhausted in the evening we had to still muster the energy to visit your beloved cousins and uncles. You had 48 hours in your day. And always strangely unrushed.

The Bold Mr Cherian
Because you had a curious mind, and shoulders to match, you'd go beyond the usual solution. Like how you saved the OOTY Mountain Railway. An accident, in the mid 1980’s, where a train fell off a bridge, lead to the usual kneejerk, close this unprofitable line down, the tracks are unsafe, the brakes failed. “How shameful” you argued, “If the British could a hundred years ago build such a marvel, surely we could keep it going.”  You and Mr Sreedharan {Of the Delhi Metro fame} joined hands. Yes, the track needed better maintenance, but the real reason couldn’t have been brake failure. The two of you reasoned that even if the brakes had failed because the mountain railway had a ratchet system. You calculated it couldn't speed more than 25 km per hour, not enough speed to throw the train off the bridge. To prove it, you did an experiment. On the steep mountain slope, you took a Mountain train {no passengers except railway personnel}, and on the slope downward, ordered the engine driver, to switch off all the brakes. You were going to let the train rush down. When your juniours pleaded with you saying they had wives and children you pointed out that your wife and child were on this train. You asked Amma, and me {I was there for the holidays} to join you. We were delighted to do so. Tra la. The Mountain train was set on the slope, and after it got to usual speed, the engine switched off and brakes turned off. But you Appicha had got your calculations wrong. Instead of trundling down at 25 km per hour, as per calculations, it did it at an even more sedate 20. {Of course being younger then, and hopelessly romantic, I personally was hoping that the train would have hit the 90's and we leapt of the track to a fiery death.}

 

 
 

 

 

 
 

Excellence & Mr Cherian
Now, the combination of intelligence, determination, method, courage, resilience, calm and generosity is highly potent. Not surprisingly, Appicha excelled at all he did. A gold medallist at engineering college, Mr Cherian was a railway man who among other things, started the Trivandrum division, served on the railway board, worked directly with such political luminaries like Shree Madhav Rao Scindia, Shree Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Shree LK Advani, he eventually retired as General Manager, South Central Railway.

Dear Appicha, you had some marvellous stories about our nation's highest leaders. Especially taking care of Presidents during your railway days. There was one who only drank cow's milk. And so at many stations you had to get a cow to be milked. Another President sometimes travelled with his many children numbering 17 {If my memory seves me right}, they needed hot water to bathe in on their train journeys, and so 17 steaming buckets had to be provided.

The Tennis Champ
Another area of excellence was in Tennis. My father had a ferocious sliced serve, and a strong serve and volley game. He was a champion tennis player, on the University team. Once in an exhibition match, he went head-to-head against India’s great Ramnathan Krishnan and lost a respectable 4-6. Someone at the match said that the Wimbledon quarterfinalist had to use all his wiles to win. At one time in the game it seemed My Father’d make front page news. For much of the match he was actually leading, finally losing out to the deftness of The Wimbledon Quarterfinalist! Appicha continued to play tennis actively, one of his tennis partners was the famed singer Yesudas. He won several tournaments. On one occasion, after winning the singles regional championship he was bestowed a grandly wrapped prize. Curious, when we reached home, to much laughter we discovered a most thoughtful but well, unusual trophy. The winner’s prize, believe it or not, was VIP underwear!

Yes, but our inheritance here is more than chuckles. Appicha believed in playing well whether the prize was the scalp of a Wimbledon champ or VIP underwear. He excelled because deep down he believed excellence is its own reward.

The Wild Mr. Cherian
You were warm, strong, and calm. But let no one think that your calmness was boring. When in college you'd take your bike and race down Trivandrum 's undulations, at speeds well beyond the fastest automotive then. Appicha calculated he had done 70-80 kmph, on the cycles of yore. Once, down one of these mad rushes he passed an Orthodox Syrian Christian Priest. Now, if you are anywhere familiar with Orthodox Syrian Christian Priests, this you will know. They are solemn. They are taken seriously. They are never quipped at. When The Priest told Appicha that if he continued being a tearaway, that everytime he raced down a hill, he would lose 5 years of his life. Appicha replied. “Aah but then you are talking to a corpse, reverend. For surely by now I am dead.” The Priest actually smiled.

 
 

 

 

 
 

The Connected Mr. Cherian
Of course, in life, you My Father had an unfair advantage. You mother Elizabeth was one of Kerala's first women mathematics graduates. Your father was a bio-scientist. Quiet, humble, deep rooted. Your grandfathers were formidable. One was a Peshkaar in British ruled India . A collector with close to absolute powers and an iron spine. When the British asked him to eliminate unwelcome freedom fighters in a false police encounter. He refused. And resigned. Your other grandfather had estates that spread across hills. A dynasty builder in the old style definition of the world. A grand uncle was a Diwaan, or Governor. Success was written into your inheritance.

The Few Regrets of Mr. Cherian
Yes, you did well in The Railways. But… was it truly your road? In School, you dreamed of being a nuclear physicist, learning at Cambridge/Oxford, your Grandfather had promised it to you. But with your father's death, your Grandfather's passing such promises became impossible. Ammachy had to scrape out a living from a Rubber plantation, and teaching College students. So, you trimmed your tree, and went into engineering instead. Would you have been happier as a Nuclear Physicist?

Through some eyes you did well. Through some eyes including your own, you did well but did not completely fulfill your promise. There were prizes that escaped your reach, horizons left untrod. You could, if you were selfish, have not joined the railways and taken the burden off Ammachy. You could have extracted money to go abroad, have made an international physicist's career come true, perhaps discovered a new theory or principle. But you wouldn't have been you. Your shoulders would have shrunk. Shoulders which lightly took on responsibility, for parents, uncles & aunts, for brothers & sister, for children, for nephews-nieces, for colleagues, juniours, friends, relatives, passersby. In the world's eyes, your considerable achievements fall short of greatness. But there is something greater than what we humans called a great man, and that is a “Good Man', it's a far rarer breed. Dear Appicha you were a “Good Man'.

 
 

 

 

 

 
 

Mr. Cherian, The Romantic
As a family man you were superlative. After retirement, after ten years in Trivandrum with a bustling circle of friends, after you had looked after Ammachy {My dad's amma}, Appachen and Mamachy {Amma's folks}… You looked at Amma struggling with the heat, and said, “You keep talking about your days mountain climbing in Ooty-Conoor, let's go there…” 3 days later you bought a mountain home in Conoor. And 3 months later, shifted there. If that is not romance, what is?

Coonoor & Mr. Cherian
Conoor was another chapter. Here you had time for the club. You learnt bridge. You practised and practised and practised. At 80, when Parkinson's was really getting your way, you won your 3rd bridge tournament. In your 10+ years, you both crafted a wide circle of friends. There are far too many to name… Hundreds who we barely knew.

Conoor was also when the raven's wings first cast their shadows. It was Celia who first spotted it in your aura. A darkness at the root. And the bindu. Then Ramani Chechi {A pioneer of pranic healing in India} who came a week later, saw it too. ‘A rabid form of Parkinson's’, a specialist said, ‘giving you 3 measly years more’.

It was only at the end, that your tennis-toned body began to play hooky. At one point, in your late 70's, you'd fall 3 times a day. Great crashing falls. Yet you never let that really stop you. Just years ago, you flew with us for a wedding in Calcutta. Parkinson's can be cruel, it steals things slow. Then finally two years ago, you took the last spin behind the steering wheel. 3 months ago you won a full game of 28. The last 3 months were quicker than we could expect. In the last month there were days when you'd be sleeping as you ate. The weight on Amma, Talitha, and Satish's shoulders grew.

15 days before your death, an insightful GP revealed that you also had cancer of the liver. Once again, Celia was the first to spot this, insisting a month before that there was darkness in the liver. It was I who said, anyway what are we going to do about it?

 

 
 

 

 

 
 

The Spiritual Mr. Cherian
The last 15 days of my father’s life, in hospital were miserable. We shall skip the humiliations of my father’s last days in hospital. The teeth he lost as a nasal feeding tube was placed. The pain, a lung failing. At the end you were in intense pain, were practically drowning, and your mind so sharp normally, was like the sun through monsoon clouds. Yet even here you were stoic. On minimal painkillers, you held on, you bloody held on till all your brothers and sisters came and all of us, your children, assembled. And if perchance you gave out even the slightest groan, that too would vanish if one of us put a hand on your shoulder. And perhaps you suffered because we your children could be there. Could learn even deeper, the true meaning of life and love. And here is one more lesson from Mr. Cherian, invest in love – for it works where even modern medicine fails – yes, it truly conquers all.

Appicha was a pillar of society, and naturally of the church. But few would associate his pragmatism and solid goodness with the mystical or psychic. Sure he had a copy of Cheiro in his shelf, but didn’t everyone in the 60’s & 70’s? Only years after he retired and I was blathering on about aura-sensing and ESP did Appicha share his psychic secrets. You revealed that every time an accident happened in your railway division you would know 20 minutes in advance. You'd wake, sweating sometimes seeing things in graphic detail. Naturally, he kept his silence while in the railway; can’t have engineers seeing pylons of prana or motors of reiki, can we? Is that how you kept the accidents so low in your division? I asked. You laughed and told us your ghost approach. You planted yourself and safety so much in the 200,000 minds that you lead, whenever safety came up, you were like a ghostly shadow behind the railway man. Should we teach The Ghost Protocol in Harvard? Humorous quips aside, in a very solid, pragmatic way, Appicha knew that our earthly world is nestled in the unearthly.

 
 

 

 

 
 

The Embracing Angel Vision

There is a terrible hour in the hospital, just before dawn, that I am sure many of you who have taken care of loved ones know well, when nurses come trundling their trolleys of mercy, filled with syringes, catheters, bandages, wipes… One night, I stood outside in the corridor, giving the nurses the space they needed. My hands held the window bars tight as I looked out at the black outside. I asked the question that so many children have asked before me – why do wonderful people have to suffer so? As I asked, I saw a shimmer of light, like a scarf of sunshine, or a golden feather. It was joined by another and another and another. So real was it, as real as the pews here, I looked away several times at the hospital corridor, but it was the usual drab shades. The air filled with a great host of golden feathers. I call this vision The Angel Wing Vision. A reminder that all around us are wings of embracing grace.

 
 

Death, Grandeur... And Luminosities.

You died with Amma, and your Aunt, Rebecca, a noble 90, holding your hands. It wasn't an easy death. But it was a good one.

You would have loved your funeral. The magnificent Priests and their eternal Syrian Christian Chants. The Family Grave. The canopy reserved for the church's proudest. And you did peek in at your funeral. With support – the prayers of so many, Amma, Becky Kochamma, Tali, Tambi, Sats, your many beloved cousins, and our healing, and your renewed vigour – you have climbed high in the luminosity.

You died with Amma, and your Aunt, Rebecca, a noble 90, holding your hands. It wasn't an easy death. But it was a good one.

You would have loved your funeral. The Syrian Christian Chants. The Family Grave. The canopy reserved for the church's proudest. And you did peek in at your funeral. With support – the prayers of so many, Amma, Becky Kochamma, Tali, Tambi, Sats, our healing, and your renewed vigour – you have climbed high in the luminosity. You connected with loved ones. Recalled your life in multidimensioned clarity.

In life, it was you Dear Appicha & Amma who stood by us, especially us Celia & Tarun. Giving us freedom. Support. Watching us stumble. Picking us up. Giving us more support. Standing by us, as we uncovered Gods alien to you. So, it is with great joy that in death we could in small part, repay this. As we laid out your death spiral, then walked each step of Death's path, then chivvied you on. Lifted you up as you stumbled. As Buffy proudly accompanied you every dark step of the way, chasing off we are told, 2 demons and one vampire, all the while forgiving you, for not giving her that bikkit. Till finally you told Celu, ‘Tarun can stop, he's done enough.” I have stopped. I am no longer your pall bearer, or your spirit-lifter. I can through these words bury my face in my hands, and weep the tears I did not weep. Many are puzzled, disconcerted, when asking how I am, get the reply, ‘fine. Good. Great actually.'

 
 

 

 

 
 

As I weighed the goodness of your life in the days after your passing, I worried God, demanding why you, a good man should have been put through such hell, I was given a multi-levelled answer. First that your deep connection with family, your caring made it harder for you to let go. That you needed to trust that there would be arms that would uplift you in death. But then came a second answer, one addressed to us all. ‘Death is a thief, by its very nature a thief. Age, worms, vultures or fire will take our looks, body, speech, memories, body-senses, wealth, home… And so we need to hold in life on to the real with such fierceness that death cannot take it away.’ Besides the inner voice argued, ‘Who said Good Things Happen to Good People? No Great Challenges happen to Good People, and with it the strength, the courage, the wisdom to seize opportunity’.

To our aura eyes Appicha is safe. And not just safe, but in a glorious place. On inner planes, I see you Dear Appicha, stand tall. A flame, wearing robes of light, going to a place with different flagstones. Neither heaven or hell, or limbo. But college. A University of The Spirit. And this perhaps is the crowning glory of your whole trainload of gifts, the evanescent whisper of immortality that some say resembles prismed light and some say is steam puffing from a great engine pulling many up impossible slopes on the final journey.

Sometimes, in Conoor as we visited, well into bitingly cold nights we'd hear your comp chirp out “Well done Mr Cherian” as you won yet another online bridge game.

Looking back, I guess you can say the same. “Well, done Mr Cherian.”