All of us suffer a loss of a loved one at some stage or the other. After all, we are all mortals and death is inevitable. However, some deaths can affect us more than others; depending on the closeness of the relationship, age of the person, circumstances etc. So it was in the case of the death of my maternal grandmother, Mrs. Kalyani Janarthanam (fondly known as “Kalyani Patti” – “Patti” meaning grandmother in my mother tongue Tamil). She passed away on the morning of Monday 4th October 2021; at Billroth Hospital, Chennai. Her death was a huge shock to all of us – immediate family, relatives, cousins, friends and even acquaintances – coming as it did all of a sudden, at the age of 78. Of course, Kalyani Patti had been having heart ailments for the last 3-4 years; but she had been taking medicines regularly and looking after her health very well. Besides, she was a pillar of mental strength; that made her demise all the more difficult to stomach.
Kalyani Patti was born on 31st October, 1942 in Madurai; to a middle class Tamil Brahmin family. She had three sisters and a brother. Due to the extremely conservative and patriarchal nature of the family and society as a whole at that time; she was married off at a very early age of 16; to an extremely large family – her husband (my grandfather A.R. Janarthanam, affectionately known as “J Thatha” – “Thatha” meaning grandfather in Tamil) had 11 siblings!! Moreover, Patti’s father-in-law passed away early at the age of 60; when she was just into her thirties. Therefore, she had to take care of my grandfather’s entire family on her own at a really young age and go through a lot of toil. It didn’t help that she started from suffering from arthritis right from her thirties!! However, Patti was not only a pillar of support for her family, in-laws and relatives; she also had a lot of friends due to her easygoing and amicable nature.
Patti gave birth to my mother at the age of only 21; moreover, this was after she gave birth to my uncle (Ashok Janarthanam, fondly known as “Ashok Mama” – Mama meaning mother’s brother in Tamil) – at the age of just 19!! Patti turned out to be a very caring but somewhat strict mother at the same time and ensured that her children got along with each other very well and also excelled in their studies. As mentioned earlier, due to her very friendly nature, she mingled very well with the society; especially the lower middle-class and poor. In spite of her chronic health issues like arthritis and asthma, Patti was physically very active and energetic. She also took interest in many things, whether it be dresses, culture, music, politics, cricket or railways – a trait that would last right till her dying breath!
Patti was only 46 when I was born. At that time, we were living in a joint family and she doted on me right from the start. When my sister was born six years later, Patti showed equally great affection to her. I have read in one of my school books (English Literature) that as a parent (or grandparent for that matter!) you cannot divide love between your children (or grandchildren); rather you have to show 100% love to each of them. Patti exemplified that saying. However, there were times when she doted on me more; since I was her only grandson – she had two granddaughters; my sister and my cousin – Ashok Mama’s daughter. After we shifted from Chennai to Mumbai in June 1998, Kalyani Patti and J Thatha stayed with us for most of the time there. Therefore, I had the love and support of my maternal grandparents for most of my school and college days.
Patti was very caring and indulgent and at the same time firm with respect to what was right and wrong. For instance, she took great care to ensure that I was very well-fed; even going as far as to supply me with extra helpings for every meal. However, she was also strict with respect to studies and kept limits for how much time I should play outside or watch TV etc. I still remember one occasion during my Engineering when I was addicted to crime and political thrillers (I still read crime fiction a lot, especially Agatha Christie murder mysteries!!) and Patti slyly hid a book that I was reading; so that I could focus on my studies instead. Also, my sister and I used to have a lot of fights and I (am very ashamed to say this) used to lose my temper and hit her quite a few times in reaction to her teasing. Patti would then mince no words in reprimanding me for my inexcusable behaviour.
Kalyani Patti and J Thatha started to play a major role in my life when I shifted to Chennai for my MBA in the summer of 2011. During the first year, I stayed in a hostel within the college campus; but always stayed with Thatha and Patti’s home during the weekend. In fact, there were quite a few periods during which I used to stay with them even on the weekdays and travel to college by bus; being so attached to Thatha and Patti! It didn’t help that the hostel canteen food was barely palatable; nor that my roommates were my seniors and thus I didn’t get much of a chance to interact with them! In fact, I stayed with my grandparents for more than a month during early winter! Eventually, we came to know that the hostel canteen space was going to be taken over by TAFE from our second year onwards. This meant that we had to stay in different hostels outside the college campus. In fact, the hostel to which I was assigned was a bit far from the college! Thus, after consulting Thatha and Patti as well as my parents; I decided to become a day scholar in my second year and travel to college daily by bus from my grandparents’ place.
My second year of MBA was full of ups and downs. Patti and Thatha had to put up with my erratic behaviour, tantrums, mood swings and outbursts for most of the year. I must say that Patti in particular showed a lot of patience and fortitude in dealing with me; especially during the latter half of the year when our calendar was packed with assignments and at the same time placements were in full swing – therefore I kept going into panic mode; submitting assignments at the eleventh hour, failing to clear interviews and then venting my feelings at home. It must have been quite the relief for Patti and Thatha when I finally got a job; though not through college placements and mainly because the company where my uncle (my father’s younger brother) worked was a client of the company I joined. Also, it was a low-paying job and the office was actually a converted bungalow!
Though I started well in my first job, my insecurities soon took over after 5-6 months and I either vented my frustrations at home or shut myself away. There was a period of 2-3 months in the summer of 2014 where Patti and Thatha went to Mumbai to live with my parents and sister; before going on a trip to Nepal with my parents. During this period, I missed them badly and found it difficult to live alone and manage work at the same time; skipping breakfast on many days and even skipping dinner at times! It didn’t help that sometime during this period only I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome (a form of autism)! However, the silver lining was that I developed a very close friendship with Tamil, one of my colleagues; she would eventually become a family friend in the latter half of 2015. I started counselling in October 2014 and took Patti to one or two of my sessions with my psychiatrist; to be frank, he didn’t do a good job; but at least Patti helped him understand me better.
Regarding Tamil, I would frequently drop her at her hostel after office. From November 2014 onwards, I started regularly picking her up from her hostel as well; while going to office. Unfortunately, this gave rise to gossip and office politics and a rumour was spread in February 2015 that there was something more than friendship going between the two of us and that because of her my work was getting affected. This was particularly hard on Tamil; because she came from a poor family in a village and needed the job badly for financial support – she was an extremely hard-working girl by nature too. Thankfully, I got my parents and uncle (father’s younger brother) as well as grandparents to support her strongly and thereby we came to an agreement that Tamil and I wouldn’t speak to each other at office, except for office-related issues; but the pick-up and drop would continue. My grandmother also started providing lunch for her on a daily basis.
After Tamil left the company where I was working in May 2015, we became closer since now there would be no opportunity for any of my colleagues to gossip about us. She became closer to my family too, particularly my grandparents. Patti even bought 3-4 dresses for her to wear to her new office. Her bond with my family (particularly my mother) grew even stronger after she visited me at the hospital; where I was admitted for medicine-induced dystonia in July. Tamil’s mother also developed a bond with Patti. Thathi and Patti’s biggest act of kindness, though, came in December, when the infamous Chennai floods struck; Tamil and her family were marooned at her hostel and it was my grandparents who gave them a proper home to stay during the crisis; I was unable to help since I had shifted back to Mumbai at the end of October, in order to be with my parents and go for fresh therapy – since the counselling in Chennai was not working out.
I had forgotten to mention that Patti was friends with her neighbour (Mrs. Selvi) when we were living at our small (2 BHK) own house; from where we shifted to a 3 BHK rented house at the end of January 2015. I also gradually developed a close friendship with Mrs. Selvi’s son Rahul. During the course of 2016, Patti supplied Rahul and his family with quite a few bottles of IPulse; a health juice that provides immunity among other benefits. By the way, I visited Patti and Thatha regularly after shifting to Mumbai. My uncle (Ashok Mama) started living with his parents towards the end of 2017. When Tamil had to deliver her baby in March 2018, Patti and Thatha were there at the hospital to support her. The house owners forced Patti, Thathi and Ashok Mama to vacate later that year and thus they had to move to a smaller rented house (in an area with water scarcity issues) in August. My sister got a job in Chennai and thus started living with my grandparents and uncle. But Patti continued to be the head of the family in Chennai, as always.
Coming back to Patti’s health issues, she had a host of problems: rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, lung infection, urine infection etc. However, as mentioned earlier, she was always mentally strong and looked after her health very well too. Patti also was physically active throughout. Even then, things became serious some time towards the later stages of 2017; when she began taking medicines (blood thinners) for her heart. Meanwhile, I got engaged on the Christmas Day of 2019. The marriage was supposed to happen at the end of March 2020; but got postponed to the beginning of August due to the pandemic. In May, we were forced to shift to yet another rented house; though thankfully a bigger one. Till COVID19, Patti was always able to maintain a good relationship with her neighbours in all the houses where we stayed. My marriage ultimately didn’t work out, but Patti had a really good relationship with my wife (now ex-wife) till our separation in September. She even bought her dresses and jewels.
I will remember Patti fondly for many things. Her cooking was exemplary, though she was forced to reduce the spiciness in the food for Ashok Mama’s sake. Patti was also an avid follower of cricket and we would watch matches together; especially IPL and that too mainly when the Chennai SuperKings played – yes Patti was also a huge fan of MS Dhoni like me! She would always have some advice, suggestion or criticism as to what CSK should do/shouldn’t do/did wrong etc. Patti followed politics very well too and we would spend time bashing the Indian government. She also liked Harris Jayaraj’s music (I am a huge fan of him, as mentioned earlier!) and always appreciated the softness of his instruments and the sophistication of his style. She even enjoyed asking me the raaga whenever a song played. Additionally, Patti shared some of my passion for Railways and always took out time to watch the photos I took. She also shared stories of her train journeys many many years ago; besides the train stories, she also shared stories about animals (especially snakes, me being a big fan of them! 😀 ) and ghosts/spirits!!
During 2021, Patti’s health steadily grew worse; my mother would spend almost everyday on the phone with her and her worried tone would suggest to me that they were discussing about her health. The diet prescribed by Patti’s doctors was very conservative and lacked variety. Thus, she had to repeat the same food twice or thrice in a week and eventually would get bored of it. It didn’t help either that Patti kept changing doctors. Meanwhile, we had to make a trip to Chennai in the middle of September for a divorce-related court hearing. We originally planned to stay till the end of the month, but Patti requested us to extend our stay by a week after we booked our tickets. There was something unusual in the way she requested my mother; she called during the morning, something that she usually would abstain from; since my mother is always very busy during the first half of the day. Looking back at it now, it almost seems as though Patti had a premonition of her death.
Anyway, we duly decided to extend our stay; but we had no inkling of what was about to happen. Patti told my mother that she wanted to do an angiogram; my mother asked if she was doubly sure and she replied that she was, because she had been feeling chest pain. On Saturday October 2nd, the angiogram was done at Billroth Hospital, Shenoy Nagar and it showed 90% block in one of the arteries; therefore an angioplasty had to be done . The operation was successful and a stent was placed. Patti was kept under observation in the CCU (Critical Care Unit) and shifted to a General Ward on Sunday. The doctor who had performed the angioplasty told us that she could be discharged on Monday; which was quite surprising to us, since we expected her to be discharged not earlier than Tuesday. Anyway, my mother, Ashok Mama and I took turns to visit Patti on Sunday. When I visited her that evening, she seemed to be in decent health and spirits. Little did it strike me that it would be the last time I would ever see her alive!
What transpired was that on Sunday night (when my mother and Ashok Mama were just getting ready to leave the hospital), Patti developed a mild headache. My mother suggested that she have her dinner and then they would call a doctor for her medicine. After dinner, however, Patti’s mild headache turned into a splitting headache and she vomited the food she ate! She also told my mother that she wanted to “run away” as she was in severe pain! This was again unusual because Patti was used to headaches and never complained like this! My mother and Ashok Mama grew worried and requested the nurses to call the doctor responsible for Patti’s angioplasty. However, they (in particular the arrogant male nurse) refused to do so, stating that the doctor was busy and they couldn’t “just like that” call him. Eventually they sedated Patti with a painkiller. My mother returned home after Patti fell asleep, though Ashok Mama stayed with his mother. We all were really worried, but again, we never expected her to pass away so soon!
Patti eventually passed away just before 7 am on Monday morning. An hour earlier, the nurses had checked her pulse and felt nothing; therefore they had shifted her back to the CCU and tried to resuscitate her for an hour, but to no avail. It was one of the worst days of my life. My mother, sister, grandfather and I rushed to the hospital. The next few hours passed, it seemed to me, in a flash. Completing the formalities at the hospital, bringing Patti’s body home in a hearse van, all cousins, relatives and friends gathering, weeping and consoling each other, heading to the crematorium and watching Patti’s body being burned, immersing her ashes in the sea and finally dinner at home for all of us. That night’s dinner was the first and only proper meal we had for the entire day!
I was very distraught by Patti’s death and initially wanted to take a sabbatical from work. However, things slowly limped back to normal and I returned to work on Thursday. That being said, Patti’s demise was indeed a catastrophe and could have been prevented if the nurses at Billroth Hospital had cooperated with us and called the doctor responsible for the angioplasty; when Patti had that splitting headache. In fact, we came to know much later that a relative of J Thatha had done his angioplasty and suffered from the same headache; but in his case, quick action had been taken by the doctor and thus he had survived. Of course, we don’t have any concrete evidence to file a case against Billroth; but we will just ensure through word-of-mouth that none of our relatives, cousins or friends ever goes for treatment to that hospital again!
Coming back to Kalyani Patti, she came in quite a few of my dreams – in fact, in the first one, I asked her if she was alive and she responded in the affirmative! Also, Rahul had a dream about Patti; just the night before she passed away! Tamil too misses Patti a lot. Yes, alive or dead, she will always have a special place in our hearts! Here is a poem of mine dedicated to Patti: https://hellopoetry.com/poem/4474470/dear-patti-we-miss-you/ . By the way, really sorry for the extremely long essay about Kalyani Patti; but what to do? As I said just now, she holds a special place in my heart and once I start writing, it is almost impossible to stop! If you have read till here; many many thanks!!