Working overseas, I was deeply saddened and shocked by the rather untimely and sudden passing of my uncle, Atham.
He was mockingly known as Tom Thumb, and we sometimes referred to him as “Tom Thumb Mama” [the latter being an Indian kinship term, meaning “mother’s brother”].
As I young child, I remember my uncle as one of the very few ‘grown-ups’ who took time out to laugh and joke with us children. Whenever he came over from Tongaat, where he lived, my siblings (together with my cousins, if they were there) and I would arrange the cushions from the lounge into a ‘puppet stage’, and we would don socks to create hand puppets, and would insist he stay for the puppet show we would put on – impromptu, and I guess rather boring. After a few hours of watching us, he would leave, always to our disappointment.
Another fond memory I have is him allowing my cousin Vishaan and I to pretend to be doctors – with him as the patient! He nicknamed us Dr Godi and Dr Munda. Don’t quite recall the etymology, but I think it had something to do with our culinary predilections. Once again, we would spend hours feigning operations, diagnoses, etc., and he would have no problem entertaining what would otherwise be quite irritating to other adults. Often our ‘medical interventions’ would culminate in administering some kind of ‘medicine’ [food, juice, etc.], which as a rule the poor ‘patient’ could never refuse.
From a very young age I remember him writing letters to me. I used to reply regularly as well. As the years wore on, my letters became more scarce, as I inevitably became ‘busier’.
Aside from my mother, he is the ONLY one who still bothered to write to me even though I am out of the country. He did not get my last reply, which I sent via express mail. Still seems to be en route.
He is also the only person who ever bothered to phone me regularly, wherever I was, even Saudi Arabia.
Him writing to me is a big thing not only because most people don’t bother, but also because he never had a car to even post the letters; he used to either walk to the post office or take a taxi.
Despite never being well off financially, he always used to give me money when he left after a visit. When I became a Queen fan shortly after Freddie Mercury’s death, he used to go around the shopping malls – via taxi! – searching for Queen CDs that I did not already have. He actually asked me for a list of ALL the CDs that I did not have, and went in search of them. The fact that I already had most of their albums did not deter him, and after about four years of doing this, he eventually found a CD I did not have: MADE IN HEAVEN. He posted it to me from Tongaat, and called every other week to inquire whether I received it or not. The only reason he stopped doing this is… the fact that Queen were no longer making new albums, and I was not half as passionate about anything else.
At the age of about 10, I fancied myself as a fledgling novelist, and since my father used to bring home the typewriter every now and then, which I LOVED to play with, I thought I’d type my first book on it. I wrote a story about a gang called THE LIZARDS, which became the title of the book. I still have the draft in a box somewhere. After showing it to my mother and father, who extolled me the way you would a child after he made some stupid sandcastle, I posted the draft to my uncle. He was delighted when he received it! He phoned and praised my efforts, and said how much he enjoyed reading the story.
Whether it was true or not, that meant a lot to me, and he was the only one who cared. Whenever I shared my dreams and ambitions with him, he never mocked me as one would expect, even when I told him that I wanted to grow up to be an astronaut – or a famous writer.
When my older brother was getting married [in December 2007], I went to visit him the day I arrived in Tongaat from Johannesburg. As soon as I walked into his flat, children came in asking for my autograph. Some brought pirated copies of the movies RUN FOR YOUR LIFE and BROKEN PROMISES, others just wanted to get my signature on a piece of paper. I jokingly reminded him: “Told you I’ll be famous one day!”
He smiled and nodded, and I smiled back knowing that he was the ONLY one who never made fun of me when I shared those very aspirations with him as a young child. He was equally proud hearing of my achievements in karate, wrestling, and academia – however small or large that success was did not matter. He was just proud of ME.
My uncle was a very intelligent student at school, and one of the best in his English class. He was also athletically gifted; I was told by another late uncle, Sunil, that watching him and my father spar in the karate club was something everyone looked forward to, since they were both so good. He wanted to be a lawyer when he finished school, but a mental illness precluded him from furthering his studies.
Nobody knows what exactly the problem was, save to say that he disappeared from home one day and his siblings did not know where he was. After a few days they found him sleeping in the park! (I must say that I got this anecdotal story from a not-so-reliable source – my mother.) Then the family realized that there was something wrong, but till his dying day nobody, including healthcare professionals, could diagnose the problem, even tentatively. If you ask me, I would say the only solution would have been to consult an expert in the field of the Aadhyaatmic Roga branch of Ayurveda, but nobody asked me, and nobody would listen anyway.
I must stress that upon meeting him, nobody would assume that he is a psychiatric patient, so he was normal in that regard. But because of his inability to work, he was never affluent, which made him an outcast, and forced him to become more and more reliant on his other half, which put a strain on his marriage. The details regarding this will remain confidential, as they were said to me in confidence.
Just to illustrate what I mean by the whole “black sheep” thing: About two years before his death, my parents and I went to his place for supper. When we arrived, my uncle said pointed out that the food was ready. My mother then retorted that we “came to eat”, so they can dish immediately. As soon as we completed the meal, my mother said that we had to leave, and that she “didn’t mean to be rude”. This would be a kick in the teeth to anyone, but it’s especially rude in Indian culture.
I pointed out that she WAS being rude, and that we should at least sit and talk for ten minutes, but she bluntly said that I wanted to stay, I can, and someone can fetch me later. Of course that wasn’t my point, but she wasn’t listening. My father had nothing to say, as usual.
Anyway, this is the way my uncle was treated by many in the family, with a few exceptions. He wistfully said to me on a number of occasions that the family (and his wife) seems to be very ‘unhappy’ with him, that nobody seems to care, and also pointed out that he didn’t quite know why.
A lot has been said about his alleged proselytism, in that it has been said that he has converted to Christianity. I will not go into the reasons as to why I think he was forced to say that to the family, except that it is not a coincidence that his wife boycotted ALL (his) family functions, and all family actually. I wish merely to point out here that he told me on many occasions that he only said what he said, and did what he did, to make “Kay Mamie happy”, because she “seems to be very unhappy” with him. He was referring to him being coerced into renewing his wedding vows – Christian style.
His wife said to me that he must realize that he can’t worship “two gods in one house”, and until he accepts that (and starts coming with her to church, etc), she will have nothing to do with his family. There were other reasons too, which I will not go into. I understood her point though, as my own (immediate) family is severely dysfunctional anyway. She only explained this to me because she had to explain why she would not come along to the pre-wedding get together being held at another uncle’s house, since I was the one (together with Natasha) who was offering to take them.
It was for this reason that just did what she said to keep the peace, which was still not enough anyway, but in his heart he renounced none of his former beliefs.
This is why nobody was REALLY sure whether he became Christian or not, but I hope this clarifies.
In sum, I would just like Atham Mama to be remembered for the person he was, not the person he was perceived by most to be. I wrote a little bit here on the Palestine issue, and not the Zimbabwean issue, for example. Why? Because there is a lot of disinformation happening RE: the former, but everyone pretty much knows not only what is happening RE: the latter, but also what the solution is. Like this, I did not write about my uncle Sunil, who was very dear to me, because everyone remembers him the way he should be remembered. The same is not true of my uncle Atham.
And on that note:
We all miss you dearly. Thank you so very much for all the good times, all the letters, all the phone calls. People never appreciate what they have, until they don’t have it anymore. I will always remember what you have done for me, and I will treasure all the letters I received from you over the years. I have no doubt that I will see you again soon, and listen to your silly jokes again!
Posted to me here in Saudi Arabia, with a letter, labeled: Taken at Sun City Casino in 1990s