“Can you make it up the stairs?” I asked Chandar Dada at the end of our tour of Luray Caverns in Northern Virginia.
The tour took almost an hour and involved walking on an underground, curvy, mile-long path. It was not such a big endeavor for young individuals. But Chandar Dada was 87 and we were worried that it would be too much to ask him to climb 80 steps after a long walk. I had been to these caverns many times and never had reason to find out whether they were air conditioned. He was the first of my guests to ask about it. I was not sure if he felt claustrophobic or was out of breath.
I saw a chairlift along the side of the stairs, but there was no operator in sight.
“Go upstairs and see if they can bring the chairlift down,” said my wife Bharati. “We’ll wait down here.”
Chandar Dada is Bharati’s cousin. His given name is Balachandra, but everyone addressed him by the short Chandar with the “Dada” added at the end to mean “big brother.”He had come to America along with his 75-year-old brother, Vijay, for a short visit with us in Fairfax, Virginia. This was his first time traveling outside India.
I climbed the stairs and located the operator who was assisting other visitors waiting to take the chairlift down. It was time for the next batch of the tour to start. I asked the attendant whether she could send the chair down so that Chandar Dada could come up.
“Can you wait a couple of minutes?” the chair operator said, politely. “I’ll have to get these people down first and then I will bring him up.”
I couldn’t tell Bharati to wait a few minutes as there was only one way to go down and a new batch was already descending. I guessed that she would understand and wait for the chair to come down.
About 10 minutes passed and I saw the operator again. I was hoping to see Chandar Dada, Vijay, and Bharati on their way up in a while. Instead I saw both of them coming out of the door leading to the lift.
“What happened?” I asked, afraid that for some reason the operator had refused to give them a lift.
“Nothing,” replied Chandar Dada, nonchalantly. “I climbed the stairs. It was not bad.”
“But you could have waited for the chairlift.” I said.
“You climb ten steps and then rest. Then continue,” he said. “There is nothing to it. I did it faster than the lift.”
He was right. He was not even huffing or puffing like I had done when I had climbed just a few minutes earlier.
I have known Chandar Dada since I was a teenager in Hyderabad, India. He and his wife Sulochana lived with their parents and other siblings in a second floor apartment in the bungalow, Abhas. Abhas was a mini mansion owned by Chandar Dada’s uncle, Dr. Hardikar, lovingly called Appa by everyone.
On many weekends I would visit my aunt Usha Mami at Abhas and stay for dinner. Usha Mami would adoringly talk about Chandar Dada and Sulochana as “lovebirds.” Chandar Dada was tall, almost five feet, 10 inches, and in his clean white, freshly pressed kurta pajama and Sulochana in her colorful sari and well-coiffed hair, always presented themselves as a handsome couple.
“Today Chandar and Sulochana have gone to see An Affair to Remember in Embassy. Tomorrow I will ask them what they thought of the movie. I don’t think they will be in a mood to talk about it tonight,” Usha Mami had said once, hinting to leave the lovebirds alone after a night at the movies.
I never knew exactly what Chandar Dada did for a living. I later learned that he had moved to Bhopal, a medium-sized city in north India, and became a branch manager for the Bank of Maharashtra. He was there when a tragedy triggered by the Union Carbide pesticide plant occurred. A published account in the Chemical Industry Archives narrates the story as follows:
“In the middle of the night of December 2-3, 1984, residents living near the Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India awoke coughing, choking, gasping, and in the case of thousands, slowly dying. Half a day later, half a world away, company executives sleeping soundly near the Danbury, CT headquarters of Union Carbide Corporation awoke in the middle of the night yawning and grumbling at the sound of telephones ringing… shortcuts taken in the name of profit — authorized by the highest executives within the company — had just killed thousands of innocent citizens. It was the worst industrial disaster of the 20th century, forever changing the public’s trust of the chemical industry.”
Chandar Dada and Sulochana were not affected as the wind blew in the opposite direction of their home.
Chandar Dada worked at the bank until his retirement and then moved back to Hyderabad, sometime in the late eighties. By then the Abhas had been sold to a developer who replaced it with a multi-story apartment building. Chandar Dada moved in with his younger brother Ashok. Ashok lived in a two story house in Nallakunta. Chandar Dada and Sulochana occupied a small apartment upstairs.
In August 1999 I had to make an emergency trip to India to see my mother, who was severely ill. She was staying with my younger brother Dinanath.
Dinanath lived near Chandar Dada. Dinanath’s apartment was too small to accommodate me, my younger brother Shri Rang, who had also made the trip from America, and his family. So, I spent most of the days sitting on the stoop outside. At night Shri Rang and I went to Chandar Dada’s place to sleep.
Every night we would find our beds ready with the mosquito nets attached. In the morning before we had brushed our teeth, Chandar Dada had fetched bucket of water from the courtyard and brought it upstairs. He would invite us to sit with him in the open balcony and regale us with tales of corrupt politicians. Sulochana would bring hot tea and cookies and tell us about articles she had read and cartoons she had seen in magazines. I copied some of the stories she recommended in long hand. Chandar Dada and Sulochana started our days on a cheerful note during a time of suffering.
The last time I saw both of them together was at a Courtyard by Marriott in Hyderabad in September 2010. We had made this trip to India so our son-in-law Ryan could get a glimpse of the country. We had invited Chandar Dada, Ashok and their wives for lunch. Chandar Dada and Sulochana looked frail. Sulochana was suffering from complications of asthma that had bothered her most of her life. The lunch lasted almost four hours with a continuous flow of food and beer.
“We had the best time of our lives,” said Chandar Dada the next day over phone. It was good to know that he was in his usual high spirits.
In mid 2011, we learned that Sulochana’s condition had worsened and she passed away. Chandar Dada had taken good care of her. Having spent close to fifty years together it was hard to imagine what he would do now, without her beside him.
“We have to do something for Chandar Dada,” Bharati said to me one Sunday when we were reading the Washington Post over a cup of tea.
“What do you have in mind?” I asked.
“We should invite Chandar Dada to visit US. Vijay is planning to come here anyway. It would be good to have them come together. They can visit Anand, Hemant and Arundhati too.”
Anand, Hemant and Arundhati are Usha Mami’s children. Anand lives in Dallas, Arundhati in Houston and Hemant in Los Angeles.
We let the idea stay in our mind for a week. It was going to be a delicate mission. We were not sure if Chandar Dada would agree and what our cousins would say. But it was worth a try.
The next weekend Bharati called Chandar Dada and also sent an email to Anand, Hemant and Arundhati. We were glad that Anand, Hemant and Arundhati readily agreed to share the cost of Chandar Dada and Vijay’s trip. Bharati’s call to Chandar Dada was difficult but positive. He was hesitant at first but agreed to apply for a passport and see how things developed.
Getting a passport turned out to be an ordeal for Chadar Dada. There were issues related to the name on his birth certificate – whether it was Balcahandra or Bhalchandra. Some of the old documents asked for were not available. He made several personal visits to the passport office in Hyderabad and was getting more frustrated at each obstacle. To top it all, after three months he was informed that his file was lost. We got a sense that the clerks in the passport office were looking for a bribe.
“I wouldn’t pay a paisa to these fools,” said Chandar Dada. “There has to be a limit to this lunacy.”
He said he had lost interest in the trip. He left Hyderabad and went to Pune to visit his younger brother Madhav for three months. We felt bad about the situation and kept our fingers crossed. We thought time would take care of everything. And it did. Two months after he was informed about his “lost” file. It suddenly appeared and he got a call about an interview from the police department – a precursor for issuance of the passport soon after.
He got his passport and Visa a few months later.
In late September, 2012, Chadar Dada and Vijay landed at Washington Dulles Airport. Bharati and I received them at the international arrivals terminal. We had a bit of a shock to see both of them in wheelchairs, wearing heavy sweaters and ski caps. Bharati and I worried if we had done the right thing. Were these two in shape to bear the rigors of travel and sightseeing?
Our fears turned out to be premature. They were in good health.
“I’m not going to lie,” Chandar Dada had said. “The only medication I take is for blood pressure.”
We told him not to worry and that we were taking a policy that permitted pre-existing conditions.
We wanted them to see America from a resident’s point of view, not as visitors. We went grocery shopping, to local stores — activities that would not be on the list for most tourists. Knowing that both Chandar Dada and Vijay were avid sports fans we took them to a Washington Nationals baseball game. They were impressed by the general orderliness in the American life, even in the packed metro trains and the crowds at the entrance to the stadium.
To our surprise Chandar Dada and Vijay never showed any effects of jet lag. Right from the next day of their arrival they kept to their daily routine. They would get up early in the morning and go for a walk in our neighborhood.
“Aren’t you cold outside?” I asked them one day.
It was late September and the weather was getting rather chilly.
“No. On the contrary we like the cool weather and the peaceful streets. Back home it would be so crowded, making it hard to walk even a furlong. And we have made friends with a bird who sits on the spruce tree in the next block and talks to us,” Chandar Dada said.
“A bird talks to you?”
“Yes. He is there every morning as if just waiting for us.”
Chandar Dada read everything he could get his hands on – the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, India Abroad, the New Yorker. He perused books in my library and picked one on Hindu philosophy to read in his room. Sometimes I would point out an article for him to read, which he would savor and comment on. I gave him copies of some of my essays and stories. He asked me for a file folder in which he kept the copies.
Chandar Dada’s days had a regular pattern: Get up at 6.30 am, go for a walk, read newspapers, take a shower, eat lunch, take a nap, afternoon tea, cocktails in the evening (mostly beer but sometimes liquor), dinner, watch TV and then go to bed exactly at 10.30 pm.
“You need to lie down a bit after lunch,” he would say. “Even if you don’t sleep, just lie down on the bed for half an hour. You will feel refreshed.”
After dinner he would sit on the floor, with knees touching the floor and hands stretched out and resting on his knees and keep quiet like he was meditating.
“As you get old, when you get up from a sitting position, you should stand in one place until you are stable. Don’t rush and start walking immediately,” he said.
One thing that we could not convince him to do was to try non-Indian food. When asked if he would try Mexican or New Orleans style food or go out to a restaurant, he would raise his right arm, turn his palm out and move his arm right to left and back as if saying good-bye without saying a word, indicating that he was not interested.
“Why go out? We can eat at home leisurely. We can sit comfortably and talk freely. Can we do that in a restaurant?”
He had lost all his teeth, which limited the types of food he could eat. He liked eating at home with us surrounding him on the dinner table and talk about politics, religion, our relatives, difficulty in getting things done in India.
Sometimes I would see light in his room at night way past 10.30 pm. He told me that he was keeping a daily diary of what he experienced that day.
Bharati had told me that in his youth Chandar Dada was very much into weightlifting and wrestling. One afternoon I took him to the Lifetime Fitness gym that I am a member of. He was impressed by a gym that had various equipments for exercising, swimming pools, sauna, hot tubs, locker rooms, and a basketball and racquetball court.
“I had no idea it would be so big and energizing,” he said.
He walked over to the personal trainer activity desk and asked the manager, Charles, if he had an injection that he could take that would make him fifty years younger.
“We can arrange for that,” replied Charles with a laugh. When I told Charles the next day that the man who talked to him the day before was 87 years old, his jaw dropped.
When we took him to New York City, he walked with us from the Rockefeller Center to Central Park, back by subway to 34th street and then to Tiffin, an Indian Restaurant on 23rd Street. At the end of that day we hailed a taxi from midtown, Manhattan to Elmhurst Queens where we had checked into the Pam American hotel. Our driver turned out to be from Bangladesh.
“Do you know the score from the cricket match?” Chandar Dada asked him. The driver gave an answer that I didn’t comprehend.
Chandar Dada never forgot to mention the hospitality of his hosts and the sights and sounds he experienced during his visits. And, he didn’t hesitate to tell us what he didn’t like.
“What’s the use of going to a museum?” He had said. “Unless you know the artists and something about their technique, there is no use just staring at the pictures.”
He continued taking his morning walks wherever he was. In Dallas he met an elderly Sikh gentleman who was also a visitor to America and enjoyed talking with him in Hindi. In Los Angeles he reprimanded a person in an Indian grocery store who was trying to break a line to the cashier and push himself ahead of others.
“Why don’t you learn some good manners from the people of the country you have adopted?” he said to him.
Chandar Dada and Vijay returned to Virginia on their way back to India.
Their journey to America came to an end in the first week of December 2012. We took them to the airport for their return journey. This time only Chandar Dada requested a wheel chair. After check-in, as they were going toward the security check point, they kept looking back and waving at us. They must have turned at least four times, waving their hand. I noticed a glimmer of mist in their eyes the last time they waved and looked at us. We spent the next hour and half in a coffee shop at the airport until we knew that their plane had departed.
Author’s note: The picture of the cavern is taken from the Luray Cavern website.