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Chef, Movie Star, Grandfather Extraordinaire

This piece is dedicated to our grandfather, Kannapan Iyer, as well as the valiant frontline workers, retail employees, public service workers, and medical professionals fighting tirelessly to keep our communities afloat.

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It’s difficult to be optimistic when a global pandemic, historic recession, and crumbling systems seem to plunge us further into darkness with each passing day. After all, what’s the point of looking forward if all you can see is darkness, any existing happiness in constant danger of teetering into peril and chaos?

Your family — that’s the point. At least that’s what I’d tell myself as I saw death tolls and unemployment figures alike rising. While the “CORONAVIRUS CASES WORLDWIDE” ticket next to Anderson Cooper’s tortured face slowly trembled upward, I’d think of all the people who made the struggle worth it. Our networks of families, friends, and mentors keep us motivated; the resilience of these families formed the basis of the world’s strength over the course of the past few months. The world may be burning, we’d think, but at least I’m not alone.

My cautious optimism shattered when my grandfather passed away from COVID-19 on July 28th. Affectionately known as our “thatha,” he was the embodiment of unadulterated, persistent, abiding joy. The key to his heart lay in the pages of a stack of For Dummies titles, freshly retrieved from the library, or in the doughy folds of a warm samosa.

Thatha was so many things to so many people. To the recipients of his calls and WhatsApp messages, a loyal friend. To those deemed worthy enough to discuss movies, current affairs, and everything in between, a curious thinker. To his neighbors, a generous companion, always willing to both readily give and gratefully receive tidbits of food or conversation.

How cruel is it, then, to allow a virus to scrape these labels from his legacy? How unfair is it, how weak of us, to allow a pandemic to deconstruct our thatha just to reconfigure him as a tragedy?

It’s endlessly cruel. It’s incomprehensibly unfair. For the millions of families affected by COVID-19, such as mine, these questions will rankle in our minds long past the end of social distancing.

But what if we choose not to define a loved one’s life by the virus to which they succumbed? What if, instead of viewing my thatha as a victim, I choose to remember him as a grandfather, a friend, as an individual who lived with conviction and joy and hope?

                                                                        ***

If there’s one thing I know about my thatha, it’s that his standard recipe for happiness was a simple one. Family, good food, and regular movie viewings. I’m not joking – my thatha’s cinematic knowledge was encyclopedic and unrivaled. Even so, being born and raised in America, I haughtily assumed that I was the authority when it came to American popular culture.

I was wrong. Thatha ran circles around me when it came to identifying esoteric actors or directors on “Wheel of Fortune.” Each time he’d casually reference a 1950s country singer or waxed poetic about 1970s American politics, I’d wonder: how was he equally as familiar with Gone With The Wind as he was with Amitabh Bachchan’s cinematic milestones? My thatha would watch anything and everything — if it was rated PG and vaguely mystical, he was there.

Thatha was every bit as theatrical as the actors he loved to watch on screen. His exaggerated, ornate stories were lifted out of a Salman Khan movie. His love for the impossible was reflected in the James Bond movies he so loved. His caring, compassionate nature would blend in seamlessly amongst the wholesome drama of a Shah Rukh Khan blockbuster. Everything about thatha was larger than life — he was our action movie, thriller, and comedy flick all in one.

                                                            ***

Thatha loved food. Not in a casual, responsible, ‘occasional treat’ sort of way; in more of a ‘I love everything spicy but also everything sweet but also salty foods and I will devour any of these items when you put them in front of me’ way. 

Like many other Indian Americans, I loved the gustatory surrealness of my rare trips back to India. In America, a trip to McDonald’s was an hour-long commitment: half an hour to explain your vegetarian amendments to your order (“Can I get number five without meat? Yes, cheese is okay. No, no meat”), and another half hour spent correcting your order when it finally arrives. But when thatha took us to McDonald’s in India, we were out in minutes, Thums Up in hand. It was always thatha’s goal to find the foods we were one taste away from loving, from spicy pav bhaji in Juhu to Indian pizza from roadside vendors. 

When he came to America to visit every few years, thatha’s tastes evolved to suit his temporary home. He loved ice cream from national giants and local favorites alike, and he devoured all sorts of foods typically thought of as pedestrian, such as french fries. That’s not to say he subsisted on fast food alone — one of his most memorable culinary discoveries was found within the leafy fronds of a sprig of kale. He tried it and didn’t care for it much — but that didn’t matter. After all, he could now say with confidence that he had tried kale and knew exactly what it tasted like (that is, aluminum with a pinch of salt). 

With thatha, food was always an indulgent adventure. Whether you liked your plate of dosa was secondary — all that mattered was that it was eaten with good company and spirits (and a hefty helping of coconut chutney).

                                                                 ***  

 Thatha loved stories. Telling them, hearing them, commenting on them — he cherished each second of conversation. Sometimes, on windy Midwestern evenings, he would tell me about the warmth of his youth in British India. Despite being worlds and decades away from his stories, I could feel the heat of the sun and the playfulness and love with which he went about life.

 I had always assumed that thatha’s childhood had been much like mine in that he always felt safe, carefree, and protected. That illusion cracked when, one afternoon, he jokingly reminisced on a youthful mishap turned sour. “I was playing on a swing,” he would say, “and I fell off and hurt myself. I went home, and when my mummy saw me, she beat me.”

But why would she beat you?, I’d ask. Why would she hit you when you’re already hurt?

He’d smile. “That’s just how it was back then.”

                                                                        ***

These days, my fond memories of thatha have been tinged with the thought of his last few weeks in the hospital. I think about him, alone in a sterile COVID ward, with no one there to recap the syndicated shows looping on T.V. and give him a fresh pack of Marie biscuits.

I wonder — was the love we gave him enough? When he was alone, did he know how much we loved his perfectly coiffed shock of hair and his penchant for newspapers? The years of visits to the local library, the stuffy afternoons whiled away playing Just Dance, the lazy Sundays spent perched next to the piano — did they stay with him?

I wonder if his love was enough for us. I know it is, it always will be. But when the years pass and my thatha is a memory rather than a person, what will my family remember? Will our eyes flicker with the clinical light of an austere hospital room, or the warm amber glow of our sunny afternoon walks? Will we remember the scent of watery hand sanitizer and powdery surgical masks, or the aroma of freshly fried vada and crispy pizza? 

I don’t know yet. But today, I turn off CNN and step outside. The street is eerily quiet, populated only by browning scraps of leaves and sandy patches of dying grass. In the lake, an eager minnow swims toward me, awaiting a handful of stale breadcrumbs or crushed pumpkin seeds. One more fish arrives. Then another. 

What does this person have for me?, they’re asking. What can they give?

“Silly fish,” I mumble to myself. “I don’t have anything for you today.”

                                                                        ***

On the night of my grandfather’s death, my swollen eyes force themselves shut. 

In the darkness, the image of an alternate reality seeps through. I see a 9-year-old boy, pumping his legs with a strength beyond his single digit age. India is on the cusp of independence, but all he can see is the dusky sheen of a million stars, each one coalescing to blanket the balmy Indian night. The moon is so close, and he’s right there. Just one more push and — he tumbles to the ground, leaving him with a garish wound. As he sprints home, tears in his eyes, all he can feel is the sting of his exposed skin and the terror of a scolding to come. 

Yet when his mother sees this small, helpless boy limping through the door, she instead embraces his wounded knees in her arms. 

“I know it hurts,” she says. “But you’ll be OK.”

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More Thrive Global on Campus:

What Campus Mental Health Centers Are Doing to Keep Up With Student Need

If You’re a Student Who’s Struggling With Mental Health, These 7 Tips Will Help

The Hidden Stress of RAs in the Student Mental Health Crisis

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