Kaka - My Uncle's Story

The first time I met my uncle was when I was nine years old. I mean, I had certainly met him before that – when I was less than two years old – but I didn’t remember that time. My father and his younger brother had not been on talking terms for over a decade and I’m still not sure why. I never asked either of them about it. But in 1999, when my uncle called my grandfather from Mumbai asking him if he could come over to Mumbai where my uncle was to undergo surgery, my father was present in the room and unceremoniously took over the phone call. It didn’t matter that they had not spoken to each other in years. My father asked him what was going on – my uncle revealed that he had recently been having epileptic fits, indicating that he had some neurological problem. On tests like MRI and EEG, it had been revealed that he had a frontal lobe tumor that needed to be removed surgically. My father told him he would come to Mumbai, and he left soon after. I remember this time vividly because I was left behind in the ICCL company quarters in Choudwar and this was October 1999. There was a caretaker left behind to take care of me. Remember the super-cyclone of 1999 in Odisha? I saw it live. Anyway, my father’s stay in Mumbai got postponed by a week due to the cyclone but he convinced my uncle to return with him to Choudwar so that he could get this operation done in Cuttack instead of Mumbai. This way, my father reasoned, he could take care of my uncle during his recovery. And that’s when I met my uncle. 

My father had a habit of exaggerating certain aspects of the truth – one such exaggeration was the extent of my uncle’s success in the world of acting. My uncle did appear in a few TV serials on Doordarshan, which apparently was a big deal back in the 80s, but his career was mostly a non-starter. My father had also told me how my uncle “spoke English like a foreigner” and looked like a movie star. So, my nine-year-old self was in awe when I met my uncle. He was very fair, had a curly head of hair, and a pleasant face. He brought me several books – a couple of hard-bound fairy tale books that had illustrations, a couple of children’s classics like Peter Pan & The Coral Island – and a leather hat. I was initially a little intimidated by my uncle, which soon changed because he was quite friendly. He would often correct my English pronunciation – but it wasn’t really a snooty thing. He told me the story of how he had gone to Delhi University intending to get into St. Stephen’s College since he was a merit list student, but they did not give him admission because he was from a vernacular (Odia) medium of education. That’s how he ended up in Hindu college and even there, faced quite a bit of ridicule at the hands of other students and seniors who spoke English better and without any mother-tongue influence. He was studying English Literature after all. So, he learned neutral pronunciation and got better. Before the brain tumor was detected, he had been training people in Spoken English and soft skills for a living, while still going for auditions in Mumbai.

Kaka in his thrities.

I often say that my ability to speak English decently has been instrumental in my getting the jobs I have been in. And that – my interest in the English language - is something that I can credit my uncle with. You see, my grandfather was a retired English professor with a Ph.D. in English, but it was my uncle who got me into the habit of reading and learning correct pronunciation. He would often read me the first few pages of a book, till I got interested in the story and then would ask me to read the rest. That is how I read even big books like The Count of Monte Cristo. My ability to speak and my affinity for English has proven priceless for me – it led to some life-defining relationships, some great jobs, and a lifetime of people being impressed with how I carried myself. But that wasn’t even the best thing he did for me. It was something else. 

After his brain surgery in the end of 1999, he stayed with us during his recovery. This was the time when he reconnected with my father and got to know me. And he saw something that my father had been too close to notice – that I was being abused. My father had appointed a caretaker, a woman named Meena, to look after me while he was away. She had been treating me very badly in his absence – while she would pretend to be a doting nanny in his presence, she used to starve me, beat me up, and subject me to serious emotional abuse. I never said anything to my father because I feared the woman, and she had convinced me that my father would leave me if I complained about her. My uncle, in the few months that he spent with us, somehow saw through the woman’s pretense and guessed that she hadn’t been very nice to me. Apparently, he noticed very subtle things that she would do that tipped him to the fact that I was abused. He asked me and I started revealing things to him. Months later, he managed to send the woman away, despite a lot of drama she did in protest. I think saving me from that woman was the biggest thing my uncle did for me. 

A few months down the line, my father died. Didn’t I mention that he had been dealing with kidney failure around the same time that my uncle was having his brain operated on? Yeah, 1999-2000 was not a great couple of years for my family. The radiotherapy that my uncle was subjected to, as a part of his treatment, left him bald on one side of his head. He was heartbroken. I hadn’t realized this then, but my uncle was a rather vain man – I guess that comes with the ambition of becoming a movie star. He did go back to Mumbai for a few years between 2000 and 2004 but gave up when he could secure no acting work and even the students who were learning English from him before he left for his surgery had moved on. He was also facing trouble speaking occasionally due to his brain surgery which had affected certain motor functions adversely. He returned home to Sambalpur to live with his parents, a bitter and broken man. In the meantime, my grandfather had become my legal guardian. So, from the ages of ten to eighteen, my uncle was one of the three adults who raised me and shaped my worldview. 

In Sambalpur, we use the word ‘Kaka’ for one’s father’s younger brothers and friends. Since there were a couple of other people I addressed as kaka by the time my uncle became a regular in my life, it so happened once in conversation that I said, “Anup kaka” and my uncle’s reaction was funny. He said, “I am ‘Kaka’ everyone else is “Name Kaka” – like Gopal Kaka, Rabindra Kaka, etc.” The humor in that statement hadn’t registered in my head back then, but years later I laughed about how petty but endearing it was. They say familiarity breeds contempt – in my relationship with my uncle, I realized that in close relationships, familiarity leads to disillusionment, not contempt. As I spent more and more time with my uncle, I saw more and more of his flaws. But if I start listing them without giving you a context, that will not be fair to the memory of my uncle. So, let us start from the beginning – not 1990 when I was born but 1961, when my uncle was born.

Kaka (left) and my father (right)

My uncle was born just a year after my father. My father was a strong kid, and due to such a short gap between the two, my uncle got the short end of the genetic deal – he was born skinnier and with weaker immunity. There is a picture of my father and uncle from their early days where they are sitting on a chair, and you can see my father’s legs hanging considerably longer than my uncle’s, even though they were born just a year apart. My uncle’s childhood was filled with health problems, thanks to his weak immune system. What this did was instill a sense of insecurity in my uncle regarding his body. Of course, he got lucky when it came to complexion – he got my grandfather’s super fair skin color. My father, on the other hand, inherited my grandma’s darker skin tone. This, as per my uncle, led to several people treating my father worse than my uncle and my uncle hated it. He loved my father and hero-worshipped his larger-than-life personality growing up – so I am guessing he also harbored a little guilt over his complexion because of those incidents. 

My uncle was a good student through school and passed with merit in his intermediate exam. He wanted to go study in Delhi. My grandfather wanted him to stay in Odisha but my grandma advocated his case and he went off to Hindu college. I have already told you what happened there – with his pronunciation. By the third year of college, my uncle had also suffered through multiple bouts of malaria and also a case of amoebiasis which had left him skinnier and weaker than before. That’s when Bruce Lee’s ‘Enter The Dragon’ was released in India. And my uncle was greatly affected by it. You see for him, here was a skinny Asian man who was redefining the idea of a ‘tough guy’. My uncle found it very aspirational and started learning kung fu. His scores were great in the first and second years of his BA but plummeted in his last year – because he was practicing martial arts for over six hours a day. Other movies like Stallone’s Rocky and Brando’s Godfather turned my uncle’s interest in acting. The first time he performed on stage, he knew that was what he was “made for”. Here’s a little tidbit not many people know – my uncle was in the theatre circle in Delhi around the same time as Shah Rukh Khan and Arundhati Roy. In fact, he even performed in a college play that the Booker-winning author and activist had directed. 

Even with his low scores in the third year, his professors liked him. He had served as a reader for a blind professor and had a good chance of securing an assistant lecturer’s position if he completed his master’s degree. But he had already decided that he wanted to pursue acting full-time. So, against my grandfather’s wishes, my uncle dropped out of MA. That’s how his relationship with my grandfather soured. My grandfather had lived a rather hard life and had struggled to earn money while completing his education. All he wanted from my uncle was to complete his master’s and then pursue his dream – and it was good advice too, as my uncle admitted later in life when things didn’t go his way. But we all know hindsight isn’t worth much. After he quit his master’s, my uncle started doing theatre. For a while, he kept making up excuses to get my grandfather to keep sending him money – he enrolled for a course in Japanese at JNU, which I am not sure if he completed or not. He later got a job in advertising to pay his bills. A few years later, my grandma visited him for a few months and realized he was getting by comfortably as he had the skills of a copywriter and had finally started earning well. My grandfather was happy to know that and assumed my uncle had gained some sense.

My grandfather’s relief was short-lived. After some time, my uncle picked a fight with his boss, quit his job unceremoniously, and decided to move to Bombay to “act in movies”. Just like that. My uncle would sometimes boast about how he just scrapped his television set and a bunch of expensive items when he left Delhi, because he couldn’t carry them with him. He thought it was whimsical, but I, even in my teenage years, couldn’t understand how someone could be so irreverent and callous about things. Between my grandfather and uncle, I chose to admire the former. After all, he was the one who was sorted – even in his seventies, he was still taking care of his family, whereas my uncle’s bad decisions hadn’t led him anywhere. Don’t get me wrong – had my uncle also succeeded like Shah Rukh Khan did – we would be glorifying and romanticizing his bad decisions right now – but that did not happen. 

I know very little about my uncle’s time in Bombay (which later became Mumbai) but I am guessing it was filled with a lot of struggle, and projects that did not pan out. I remember my uncle talking about this TV serial called “Parshuram” which was being produced and he had a meaty role in it, but it was canceled before it was aired. My uncle had to learn horse-riding for it in Badmer, Rajasthan – that was where the show was being shot, I assume. He had also indicated that his efforts to get work in Hindi movies weren’t as disciplined as he thought they ought to be. At some time during these years, my grandfather had advised my uncle to get into the National School of Drama if he wanted to pursue acting seriously. But my uncle didn’t know how to play a musical instrument, which he told me was a requirement for NSD. And he didn’t want to put in the effort to learn it as well. Similarly, he never put in the effort to learn dancing, something “the Punjabi model-type boys” were doing religiously as a part of their struggle. My uncle looked down on these guys because he thought they were more brawn than brains. Come to think of it, maybe that is exactly what is needed for Hindi movies – and I am basing that observation on all the actors that have succeeded after Shah Rukh Khan. 

When he was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 1999, he was already in his late thirties. I assume that life had been tough because my uncle had started teaching spoken English to a bunch of students for the Aga Khan Foundation to earn his wages. He was a good teacher but that wasn’t what he wanted to do. But it was good money and the movies seemed like a more and more improbable dream as he aged. People like Irfan Khan and Manoj Bajpai did give him hope but the tumour sort of took it all away. I believe my uncle had planned to go back to struggling if he recovered from the surgery, but he hadn’t anticipated the hair loss or the big crazy scar and dent on his head that the surgery and radiotherapy left. He did try to get jobs in 2002 and 2003 – he grew out his hair from the other parts of his head to cover the bald patch and got headshots made, but the treatment had visibly aged him and he no longer fit the image of a movie star. And the fact is, he just wanted to be a hero – he wouldn’t have been happy being a character actor, like Jaideep Ahlawat or even Pankaj Tripathy. It is also a little sad that he died before he could see the rise of great character actors. 

He came back to Sambalpur in 2003, much to my grandfather’s dissatisfaction. My uncle was one of my grandpa’s biggest regrets in life. He had very high hopes for him. You see growing up, my father was the dark horse – he wasn’t a good student, he used to get into a lot of fights and my grandfather thought his prospects in life were bleak. My uncle, however, was a good student and stayed out of trouble, went to Delhi University and it looked like he would follow in his father’s footsteps and become an English professor. But things played out differently – at the age of seventeen, my father got into the Indian Navy. He was discharged after ten months in the sea as he had developed seasickness, but he had developed a taste for the discipline of the armed forces. After a year or so of misadventures in Odisha, he applied for an opening in the Air Force and got in. From that point on, he wasn’t dependent on my grandfather for much. And my uncle, as I already told you, never really stopped depending on my grandfather. For my grandfather, who never had any support growing up, it was a deplorable thing to be grown up and unable to provide for oneself. And he despised my uncle because of that. My grandma had a big fight with her husband to let her younger son stay with them. She even unleashed the big guns – she said, “He will live off on my half of everything – I have worked my ass off all these years, and my son will be dependent on me, not you.” After that, my grandfather and my uncle were civil to each other, but my grandfather would sometimes slyly say to me that he would kick my uncle out if my grandma passed away before him. That never happened.

Secretly captured photo from 2014

In the next few years, while I was in high school, my grandma tried to get my uncle married as well. He was almost 46 years old, so finding a bride who would be age-appropriate was a struggle, especially since he was unemployed. He did set up an English Coaching Centre at home and was earning some money, but it wasn’t a lot, and it wasn’t a stable income either. My uncle managed to weasel out of that setup at the last moment, and my grandfather was mad at him for the embarrassment he put him through. I remember my uncle asking me if I wanted him to get married – I was in ninth grade, I think. I think I said I was scared that his future wife might not treat me well. I had trauma from the abuse I had experienced early in life and hence I said that. My uncle asked my grandma to stop looking for prospective brides and give up on the notion of his marriage. And that was that.

It would be a lie if I said that my uncle was like a father to me – he really wasn’t. You see, he was young at heart. I know that term has a largely positive application in the real world, but what it meant for my uncle was that he was ‘immature’, for the lack of a better word. As I grew older, we would sometimes have disagreements and would get into a verbal spat. My uncle had a bad temper and he would ask me if I wanted to fight. It was strange for me because having lost my father I looked at him as a father figure and the idea of fighting him physically was absurd for me. But he behaved as if I was a friend from his college who was about to spar with him or something. I once said it out loud too. I said: “You are like my father. Why would I fight with you? If you’re angry, you can slap me. But I would still not fight with you. I am not your friend from college.” Later that day, when he cooled down, he told me that he sometimes forgot how young I was because I was so tall. But I knew that it was more about the fact that he still believed he was young enough to pick up fights with people.

He felt young because he was fit. He would exercise, do yoga, and stick to a very strict diet. His diet was a nightmare for my grandma. My uncle used to have boiled egg whites in the morning along with curdled milk. The milk was fine but eggs meant that my grandma had to wash the whole kitchen area every day after boiling eggs for him. It was a thing with her – she had to clean the kitchen, especially after cooking anything non-vegetarian. This wasn’t sustainable if you boiled eggs every day – so after a certain point my grandma started holding the dish up over the stove with a pair of tongs till the eggs boiled so that the dish didn’t touch the stove – needless to say, this was a tiring exercise for her. But she was juggling her superstitious religious belief and her love for her finicky son. My uncle’s food habits didn’t stop there – he didn’t eat dal and would only eat one vegetable at a time. This also added stress to my grandma’s day because she had to plan extra for it and she took her cooking too seriously. All this trouble that my grandma was going through for my uncle kept enraging my grandfather further. He would crib about it to me often: “Look at this guy. A grown unemployed man, with so much entitlement and so little consideration for his old mother.” I think I agreed with my grandfather on that point.

I left home in 2007 and never went back. I spent a year in Bhubaneswar and then three years in Goa for college and then took up a job in Mumbai and subsequently Pune. My uncle did buy a mobile phone around this time but he wasn’t great at adapting to new technology or habits. He would leave his phone on a shelf and go out – he basically treated it like a landline. And I didn’t call home very frequently either. I have discussed about my temperament in other articles, so I won’t go into that. When I visited home during holidays, my uncle and I talked like we always did. In 2011, I passed out of college and got a job. I hated my job in the beginning, but I didn’t quit because I was scared that I would become unstable like my uncle if I didn’t stay employed. This actually made me stick to that one company for nearly eight years.

My grandfather died in 2013 – six years after I left home. It was a tough time. I came when he got sick and took care of him during his last days. After his funeral, my grandma slipped and fractured her femur and was hospitalized for some time. I spent about three months with them before I went back to my job. In the next few years, I became even less communicative with my uncle and grandma. I realized that my grandfather had been my anchor and I felt really lost without him. In 2017, I spoke to my uncle after a few months of no contact and realized he was having trouble speaking. This was a side effect of his last brain tumor surgery that had gone away with time. But it was back now and I knew it couldn’t be anything good. I asked him to get an MRI done to see what was going on with his brain. A few weeks later, he informed me that another tumor had grown in his temporal lobe and the doctors in Sambalpur had said only AIIMS, New Delhi could treat him now. 

I was posted in Gurgaon at this point, so I brought him to Delhi with me. Then started the run to AIIMS. Anyone who has had the misfortune of being treated at AIIMS knows how cumbersome the process is. It is no doubt a great hospital but being a free government facility and the top medical institution in the country, AIIMS sees unimaginable traffic, and getting appointments is a task. I used to line up at 7 am in the morning for a 2 pm neurosurgery consult. After several weeks of that, the doctors said my uncle needed the surgery. Then started another nightmare. Between the advice for surgery and an actual surgery, you had to line up with your documents every day at the hospital and deposit them with the department. They would then look at all the waiting cases to determine which were the most emergent ones and take them up for surgery. It was like a lucky draw for which I had to run to AIIMS in Delhi from Gurgaon every day. Tired of this, I decided to take my uncle to Sir Gangaram Hospital, which is a private hospital, and get surgery there. Thankfully, that was a breeze compared to the process at AIIMS. Within a week, my uncle had come out of surgery and his motor functions were already showing improvement. Things were looking up. 

May 2018 - Bedridden and tube fed

The next step was over 45 days of radiotherapy. I had exhausted all my leave days at work by this time and I couldn’t spare the days to accompany him to radiotherapy. So, one of his students offered to take him to Cuttack and get the radiotherapy done. This was a poor student that my uncle had helped. He was not a guy I knew but he had been staying in our house for a few years. I was relieved. But I often think that it was a bad call on my part. My uncle got very weak after the radiotherapy. He took a few falls also. Eventually, he started losing motor functions again. His scans didn’t show any more tumours and the doctors didn’t know what was wrong. He was bedridden for several months after that. We hired a nurse to visit twice a day to clean him, feed him, and medicate him. It was hell for him. In August 2018, after more than eight months of suffering, my uncle died. 

I rushed home to Sambalpur and got his funeral done. I was sad but my grandma was the really heartbroken one. After my grandfather’s death, she had made plans to sustain my uncle after her death – she had saved her pension into FDs that generated a monthly income, enough to pay for my uncle’s daily living, she had gotten an outhouse constructed where a caretaker could stay and look after my uncle. All those plans and nothing came of it. My uncle had died before her. She got bedridden herself soon after that. A year later, she was gone too.

That was my uncle’s story, how I saw it. 

Growing up, when I would say something smart or wise, my uncle would often say that he knew I was destined for greatness. That was a concept he believed in. And even I did, to be honest. But after witnessing my uncle’s life, I kind of lost faith in that idea. He was a smart man, a thinker, he was passionate and he had dreams – but in the end, his life amounted to nothing. If anyone deserved to do great, it was him. But what his anonymous life taught me was that most of us will not create ripples in the ocean of life, most of us will just go unnoticed.  


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