The visit to Uncle Sushil’s grave offered me a chance to think more broadly about our loved ones far away. Not being able to see them, for those of us lucky to avoid the worst, has been one of the central tragedies of the pandemic. In a world of restricted travel, how do we maintain those bonds?
When borders first closed, I immediately thought of my mum’s mum in Indore and my father’s brother in Toronto. Nani is over ninety and Uncle Sushil had experienced a number of recent health issues and scares. Pre-Covid I had always imagined that if they were nearing the end, I’d just hop on a plane to see them.
Not so easy anymore. In April, as the Delta variant swept across India, we started to worry about Nani. After a couple of tense weeks, filled with WhatsApp convos about hospital beds and oxygen canisters, things calmed down, and we felt confident about the medical resources at Nani’s disposal.
In June, when I got the news that Uncle Sush had died (unrelated to Covid), I was not so much shocked as just terribly annoyed with life. By then, I had already been planning a trip to North America. I had expected to see him and the rest of the fam.
It was not to be. I was one of the thousand odd people from around the world who logged on to watch a stream of his funeral. I was glad that he died peacefully and at home, surrounded by loved ones, the sort of final companionship that we can no longer take for granted.
Covid has, for the first time in my life, made me regret having my peeps all over the world. I wonder what life would have been like if my ancestors had never left Kerala and Rajasthan (or East Africa?), if every person I knew lived near me on some tiny plot of Monsanto-soaked farmland. We sometimes poke fun at small, insular communities around the world; but there must be some essential beauty about having every person close to you, well, close to you.*
As much as I celebrate the diversity of my friends and family, as much as I enjoy having homes that welcome me around the world, as much as I like saying “Haven’t met in years but it’s just the same”, it can all sometimes feel like a bit of a curse.
Thus by far the biggest reason why I have just spent almost seven weeks in North America is to see family and friends. Who knows when I’ll next see them? And I couldn’t even see them all; missing those in Detroit, LA, Phoenix, and a few other spots.
Still, it was nice to end in Toronto with my godfather’s family. We spent a long weekend in Montreal, watched the greatest ever Bond’s last outing, gossiped about Mallu relatives near and far, and ate too much.
We also reminisced about the old man. One new story I like is about how he emphasised our Indian last name after he moved to Toronto in the early nineties. My uncle’s official name in Singapore was “George Thomas”, as the “Vadaketh” had been reduced to an initial for many in their generation. But after he moved to Canada, George Thomas was worried about being mistaken for an Anglo-Saxon. So he started using Vadaketh (or Vadakethu, in his case).
Put another way, while many immigrants try to anglicise their names in order to fit in, Uncle Sushil Indianised his name so that Canadians would know who he really was. Respect.
(The name George Thomas Vadakethu on the cross, placeholder while the tombstone is being built, will be more recognisable to his newer Canadian friends than to his old kakis in Singapore.)
Last week we had a wine-and-cheese picnic at his grave. I watered his patch with an Ontario red while munching on a gouda.
So while I wasn’t able to be there for my godfather’s funeral, at least I was able to pull together the first party at his final resting spot.
I think he would have liked that.
RIP George Thomas Vadakethu aka George Thomas aka Sushil
For those in Singapore who knew my uncle, you may enjoy the 1960s rugby photos I just found, as well as this short tribute I wrote in early July after he died:
Last week I wasn’t ready to film a video for my just departed godfather. When Tanya messaged, I dithered.
On Friday at four pm, twenty-eight hours before the funeral in Toronto, I almost filmed one. Had a pint of lager in front of me, drinking in Singapore one hour before my friend was due to arrive. I thought it was a fitting setting for George Thomas.
But in the end I pulled it. What if they didn’t get my humour? I knew Sush would. Not so sure about the two hundred and fifty thousand other Malayalis in the greater Toronto area, who not only knew him by first name, but had at some point in their lives visited Brampton, heard Sush yell “Omana!”, eaten mi goreng made with Canadian eggs, and then met a dozen other new Malayalis from Mississauga to the Mississippi. Sorry, Jacob Chacko Jacob Abraham Abraham, my godfather knows more Mallus than you do.
Of my grandparent’s four children, Sush is the one I least expected to become a faithful servant of the Mar Thoma Syrian Christian community. But here we are.
The last few times I visited, he had started selling houses. “You’ve cornered the Mallu market?” I used to joke to Sush and his young padawan, Jayanth aka Jon aka J-Pops aka The artist formerly known as Urkel.
Summer ’99. I was a freshman at Berkeley. Spent the summer exploring N America, including a month in Brampton, bouncing from dollar shops with Sush and Om’s kitchen to bars with Joju.
When I look at the photos of that trip, I realise that there were always people in Il Padrino’s house. I forget that I saw Shereen and Ruvi there, I forget that I was there for Such’s birthday. Perhaps I forget because Sush’s door was always open.
I remember the last time Ling and I hung out alone with the Sush. He excitedly told me that he was going to take me for amazing food in Mississauga.
Kachi moru at Kacha Punggal’s house? No, a delicious Korean ribs broth. I think I knew it then, but it has sunk in more over the years, that this was probably not the best meal in the world for him. Screw it. He’s a fighter.
These random Korean dudes knew him, recognised him as family. We had an enriching and wide-ranging conversation over the meal.
“How? Good ah?”
Five minutes later…
“How? Good ah?”
I learned many things from my godfather, but perhaps the most important is this. When you’re hanging with the people you are closest to, you love the most, you are the most comfortable around, you actually don’t need to talk.
We already said everything we needed to the first time we met.
On grief. Having lost four souls close to me over the past four years, all before their time, I have learned first-hand that for me grief is just something that is there, bubbling away, a part of my constitution. It won’t go away.
That said, I feel really lucky that, as a writer, I now have a fixed, formulaic way to deal with a passing. A few days after I hear the news, I will sit down at my computer, look through old photos and videos as I drink heavily and listen to some mournful, possibly meaningful track on repeat, and then just write, getting a bit teary eyed as I do.
And then it’s done. I’ve processed it. I share it with a small group, and usually—but not always—the relatives of the deceased appreciate what I have written. And then I’m left with only good memories of the person, and visions of their spirit wherever I go.
Last week in Mississauga that took the form of a phoenix claw. We had gone to the Emerald Chinese Restaurant for a dim sum lunch. When the main trolley finally came our way—by that I mean the trolley with the traditional hargao-siewmai goodies, not the ones with the nouveau hit-or-miss creations—Joju uncle ordered a few classics.
But he missed out my favourite.
“Feng Zhao,” phoenix claw, I asked, surprising the diminutive Cantonese lady. She had to lift up several round bamboo boxes, each inspection sending a plume of steam into her face, before locating the treasure deep within one of her stacked towers.
We all don’t eat that, Joju uncle said, looking at the four braised chicken feet in front of me. Your uncle Sushil was the only one here who did.
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* Questions about quality of life and relative happiness in the time of early homo sapiens, including hunter-gatherers, have come to the fore in recent years, prompted by Harari et al