My memories of Appa are from my teen years when I would visit his residence, Aabhaas, in Hardikar Baugh, Hyderabad, India. The Aabhaas was a two-storied, oldstyle mini-mansion surrounded by a brick and mortar fence with an iron gate. Upon entering through the gate one would face a huge Bakool tree, shaped like a giant umbrella, which was surrounded by a circular driveway. One would enter the building by climbing a long asphalt stoop into an open veranda covered by a balcony.
I was thirteen years old when my maternal uncle, whom we called Babu Mama (now deceased), and Usha, Appa’s only daughter, were married. She became our Usha Mami. After their wedding, Babu Mama and Usha Mami lived in various rented houses, each with some disadvantageous feature. In fact, one of the houses they had rented was right next to my father’s house in Nallakunta. What better way to get acquainted with the new Mami than to live next to her?
Appa never liked the kind of houses they were living in. After Babu Mama’s mother, who was living with him, passed away, Appa offered Babu Mama and Usha Mami the cowshed off of the main Aabhas living quarters. It had been converted into an apartment. Appa, however, laid a condition that the young couple must put an amount of money equivalent to the rent into a savings account. Babu Mama and Usha Mami accepted his offer. It was not until many years later that Babu Mama and Usha Mami moved into the main Aabhas.
I continued to visit Babu Mama and Usha Mami even after they moved away from Nallakunta. I would make the three-mile walk, mostly on weekends, from my father’s residence to Hardikar Baugh. I enjoyed these visits and the discussions with Babu Mama and Usha Mami on various topics that were always interesting and thought-provoking. It was during these conversations that I came to know a little bit about Appa.
Appa was educated in London, England. Upon returning to India he became a professor of Pharmacology at the Osmania Medical College in Hyderabad and rose up to the position of the Principal of the college. By virtue of his professional achievements, Appa, whose last name was Hardikar, was one of the respected members of the Hyderabad elite.
Appa would always have visitors in his house. They would be members of his extended family as well as professional acquaintances. The hub for many an intimate gathering was a long corridor in the center of the residence. But the best part was a very large wooden swing in the center of the corridor, hung from the ceiling with metal rods. It was a favorite of all the children. Sometimes I would sit on the swing while talking with Babu Mama and Usha Mami. When Usha Mami had to start her cooking, she would invite me to come into the kitchen to continue the conversation. I would sit on a stool in the kitchen while she cooked and talked with her about current events, movies running in local theaters, or books we had just read. Sometimes Appa would saunter by the swing with a book or magazine in his hand on his way to the kitchen or elsewhere in the house. When that happened, the normally loud chatter of the children on the swing would reduce to hushed whispers – Appa always wanted children to be well-behaved and never missed offering a reprimand when he thought it was called for.
After retiring from the Osmania Medical College, Appa became an adjunct professor at the Hubli Medical College. Hubli is a small town in the district of Karnataka. Appa would commute to Hubli and stay there while on duty. This was probably the reason why I rarely saw Appa during my early visits to Hardikar Baugh. He would be at Hubli when I would visit Hardikar Baugh. The only way I would know about Appa’s post-retirement activity was from the casual conversations with Usha Mami. One Saturday afternoon I was sitting on my favorite stool in the kitchen talking with Usha Mami when she turned from the stove to face me and while wiping her hands on the kitchen towel asked me:
“Aré Acchu, did I tell you what happened when Appa was interviewing this young lady who had applied for admission to the Hubli Medical College?”
“No,” I said.
“Aré, it so happened that it was her second attempt at gaining admission to the college and Appa was in the interview panel each time. The first time Appa had asked her a question that she was unable to answer. The second time Appa happened to ask her the same question and again she was unable to answer it correctly.”
“So what is wrong with that?” I said. “Not everyone is able to answer all the questions.”
“Aré”, Usha Mami continued, “the young lady, how stupid of her, reminded Appa that he had asked her the same question the previous time.”
Now the story was getting interesting. I was not sure how it was going to end up. How can a prospective candidate confront a member of the interview panel? I asked Usha Mami how Appa reacted to that.
“Well, Appa told her that if she had not known the answer the first time, it was her responsibility to find out for her own good.”
“Was she able to get admission to the college?” I asked.
“No, as far as I know she never got in.” said Usha Mami
“I imagine Appa was not one of her favorite persons, then”, I said.
When Appa had finished his adjunct Professorship, he started living full-time at Aabhaas. On my weekend visits, I would feel Appa’s presence in the house even though he was not in sight. I could sense some activity in Appa’s study while we were sitting on the swing in the corridor. He kept busy. He would be in his study reading, greeting visitors, or attending to business. Usha Mami, being the main lady and caretaker of the house, would always be tending to Appa.
“I have to get Appa’s tea ready.”
“It is about time for Appa’s lunch.”
“Appa and Bin Kaka just left for their evening walk. They should be back in an hour. I better start preparing dinner.”
On some occasions Usha Mami would ask me to stay over for dinner. Dinnertime with Appa was part education and part trepidation (remember the Hubli medical student?), but it was always enlightening. It helped if those at the table were able to answer his intricate questions about science or current events. It was Trivia Time, but it was all done in a jocular way. On occasion Appa would regale us by telling an interesting fact or a news story he had come across in his readings that day.
Appa’s vast knowledge was a result of his voracious reading. Among the books he loved reading were Agatha Christie’s mystery novels. He had a good collection of these in his study. Appa’s study, which was located in the front right hand corner of the residence, overlooked a guava and an almond tree. The study had two entrances. The visitors would be welcomed from the outside entrance off the veranda. Family members and Appa himself would use the inner entrance to enter the main residence. The study was Appa’s inner sanctum. I remember how privileged I felt when one day Usha Mami said that I could go to his study and peruse the books in his library. I thought I had earned a special privilege. But for quite some time I visited the study only when Appa was not there.
I had always been fond of reading books. I was thrilled to see Appa’s collection of Agatha Christie’s novels. Later on I would have enough courage to visit the study even in Appa’s presence and borrow a book or two to read. Not that I engaged in a conversation with him. I was a mere teenager. What in the world could I talk to him about? On the other hand, in my mind, the less one said anything the better it was to avoid getting in trouble. Appa would continue with whatever he was doing. I would look through the books and walk out with copies of those I wanted. I am sure he kept a note of it as I departed.
My last encounter with Appa was when I visited Aabhaas on my first return trip back from America. I was in my late twenties then. We were at the dinner table. I was Amerikehoon Alela (America Returned) so I had the privilege to sit next to Appa. I do not think that had any effect on Appa, who asked me in his nonchalant way:
“Tell me one thing. The Americans always talk about crossing a block. What exactly is a block? Is it a mile? Is it a furlong?”
Appa never addressed me by my name. He would simply turn to me and start a question with “He paha (look here)” or some similar phrase. But this time I could feel a collegial tone when he addressed me. Perhaps he acknowledged that my having been to America had transformed me into an acceptable grown-up adult. I tried several explanations for a block but I am not sure I was successful in answering his query to his satisfaction.
April 2006, was the twenty fifth anniversary of Appa’s passing away. As I look back upon the years that got me acquainted with Appa I can certainly say that the one thing I admired in him was the discipline and rigid structure he had in his life. He followed a simple but fixed routine. His activities in a day were planned and he adhered to the plan. He was an avid reader. His mind was active. He maintained his diet. He took long daily walks with his brother. He spent time with his family.
Later on, through conversations with other family members, I found that Appa instilled different emotions in everyone who came in contact with him. Some respectfully adored him. Others interpreted his studious persona as aloofness. Whereas some others, especially the younger ones, felt his perpetual quest for perfection and penchant for disciplinary action reflected a condescending attitude toward them. The differing views show that Appa was a special person who left a lasting impact on those he came in contact with. Afterall, as Mo Udall* once said, “If you can find something that everyone agrees on, it’s wrong.”
*The late Morris K. Udall: Congressman from the State of Arizona. Played for Denver Nuggets basketball team. Well known for his sense of humor. Wrote a memoir called Too Funny to be a President.