I met her in my early teens. She was perhaps in her late 20s when I was summoned some 35 summers ago by a much older friend to deliver a pack of cigarettes to someone simply known as daddy, a few houses away. Climbing a flight of stairs, I knocked on the door. When it was opened, there she was, stern, yet graceful. When I mumbled, “I was asked to give this to daddy.” She took it and just asked me, “Who gave it?” I replied, “Ramu anna.” She dismissed me with a, “Ok, go.” Later, I was told she was a lecturer. Fits the bill, I thought.
A few years later I became part of the household. Even after I moved to Delhi, I used to come and stay in their home in Secunderabad for my entrance exams. Prakash, her real brother became my elder brother, mentor and friend—despite a 13-year difference. As I dropped out of college in Delhi and drifted into jobs, she was worried and would goad me to complete my graduation. One day, I sprang a surprise on her that I had become a graduate the year before and even had a first division in economics.
As I became a journalist, she would show my published articles to everyone around with much pride. And in my lonely times in Australia, she would send me a rakhi that kept me going.
I would often phone her in a female voice and pretend to be an old student of hers in the college in Machilipatnam where she taught political science. Excited, she would ask a barrage of questions like what I’m doing, marriage and how many kids. A few minutes into the prank I would simply say in my natural voice, “Chittakka, this is Naagi.” Recovering, she would chide, “Vedhava (rascal in Telugu), you and your mimics.”
For me it was a vicarious pleasure of fooling her when she prided she couldn’t be. I became her little brother not by blood but by a stronger bond of love and was her entertainer. Avadhani, her soft-spoken husband and bavagaru for us was equally caring which made me wonder who was the pillar of strength to whom. She came across as tough and authoritative, albeit with a regal air. Beneath that she was, however, soft, gentle, caring and forever giving. Simply, a materfamilias.
As she passed away on Ugadi after multiple heart attacks in a span of a day, it became a yuga antha for us. She lived a full life, touching hundreds of lives and making them fuller and teaching us how to be kind, caring and giving.
Her real name is Ratna. That she was: a gem of a human and rare.
Satya Naagesh Ayyagary