Just the other day I was dusting the bookshelves and as usual came across the several large volumes on Indian philosophy that belonged to Perry.
Perryappa or Perry, the Great, as I affectionately called him, was Father’s elder brother. Even when I was a mere child of six, I knew there was something odd about Perry – he heard voices that no one else did. I often saw Perry go to the kitchen door and complain to Mother that a certain Rangan was screeching in his ears. Mother, in her characteristic gentle way asked him what Rangan was shouting about. She always managed to convey by the tone of her voice that Rangan was unfair in accusing Perry and that what he said did not matter. I never found out who Rangan was or why he was blaming Perry. Like all children I intuitively understood that this topic was taboo.
Perry stayed with us because he had never married. He was more of a father to my father because he had brought him up from a very young age. Grandfather had died when Father was barely nine. Perry had then been in his early twenties and had taken up the responsibility of supporting a large family consisting of several siblings and a widowed mother.
A few years later tragedy struck in the form of schizophrenia. Grandmother often told me how Perry had gone to the office in the morning, a perfectly normal man and had returned violent and unmanageable. She always maintained that a jealous colleague had given him an orange which had an evil spell in it. I remember Perry being unnaturally fond of oranges. The family suffered great privations. Perry was treated for his illness and ‘cured’. He could go to the office and fulfill his responsibilities. But all hopes of a brilliant career and marriage were dashed. We as a people are very unkind to the mentally ill.
One cannot think of Perry without thinking of Dr S. Radhakrishnan, India’s philosopher president. Perry adored the man. Any conversation with Perry veered into a discussion about Dr Radhakrishnan, with Perry’s favourite phrase ‘as the doctor says’. To Perry, he was ‘the doctor’. Perry bought all of Dr S’s books and read them cover to cover. No. That is an understatement. He studied them. Even now when I dust them, I find small sheets of crisp yellowing notepaper that Perry ‘borrowed’ from my notebooks with closely written notes in Perry’s endearing spidery hand neatly tucked into the pages. In some books there are pages that have underlined passages and there are cross references written in the margins. On the title page of every book Perry has stuck a photograph of Dr S, clipped carefully from newspapers of the day.
Perry loved books. He was erudite and knew several languages. He could talk on the highly abstract sections of Indian philosophy at length and could hold his own with any expert. He had read widely on the subject. Another of Perry’s loves was Carnatic music. He could identify ragas easily. Many days in our small household ended with all of us gathered around the radio listening to late night Carnatic music concerts occasionally aired on AIR, with Perry humming along in his deep sonorous voice and waving his arms above his head in appreciation.
In spite of his erudition Perry could be extremely naive and stubborn. One such incident brings the laughter bubbling up from within me, though Perry’s carelessness could have caused severe damage.
It was a lazy mid-afternoon in summer. Father was then posted in north India. Our landlady came panting up the stairs in a state of panic followed by a gaggle of women hastily roused from their post lunch nap.
“Pani,” she shouted, “pani lao. Bucket kahaan?”
In answer to our puzzled looks she gestured wildly towards the window. We could see tongues of fire leaping outside Perry’s window! All of us ran upstairs to the terrace and poured buckets of water from the overhead tank. The fire died down but it could have easily spread as it was the peak of summer. Doubtless, Perry was the cause. He had casually thrown a lighted cigarette out the window and it had landed on an abandoned bird’s nest. All of us came down in a tumble, the adults ready to pounce on Perry and give him a piece of their minds. I still remember the scene as though it had happened yesterday. Perry was seated in a chair by the window a book in his right hand and a lighted cigarette in his left; the smoke curling peacefully upward. Father’s thunderous call only made Perry look up mildly from his book for a moment and enquire gently what the matter was!
After this incident Mother persuaded Perry to give up smoking and take up chewing betel leaves instead. He had to have one vice, I suppose. Mother often persuaded him to give up one for the other after minor disasters. She had earlier persuaded him to give up pan when a jet of pan juice that Perry expertly spat out the window landed on a pedestrian’s head!
Mother and Perry shared a bond. In spite of his disease and his bouts of moody anger, they got along famously. Years later, as he lay unconscious on his deathbed, he would respond only to her voice, recognising perhaps in his subconscious the only voice that had been unfailingly kind to him.
Perry often ran errands for Mother. He would buy her little things like a couple of matchboxes or a packet of tea – things that she had forgotten during her monthly shopping trips. He would refuse to put the money in his pocket and would insist on holding it in his hand clasped precariously between thumb and forefinger. Often the money would be snatched away on the way to the shop by rude boys who shouted ‘pagla, pagla’. Perry shooed them away energetically, abusing them roundly in earthy Malayalam; which they thought was gibberish. When we came down south to Kerala, Perry spoke chaste Hindi to all the shopkeepers.
Perry loved me in his own way. Whenever I cried, (and I was a cry baby) Perry would tap me quietly on the shoulder and give me a crisp two-rupee note, telling me to buy a packet of biscuits – no chocolates. He never bought them for me and insisted that I buy them myself. Both the walk and the biscuits cheered me instantly. After his death while sorting out his things, I found a few crisp two-rupee notes tucked away in his little leather purse.
We shared an L shaped room – Perry and I. His bed was along the length of the L and my study corner was tucked away at the base. As I went to higher classes I used to put in a few hours of study at night and the light from my table lamp often woke him up.
“Who has switched on the lights?” he would growl.
“It’s me, Perry. I was going through what was taught today in school,” I’d reply.
“Oh, carry on, carry on,” he would say generously.
This conversation was repeated a few times every night.
Sometimes we shared a small box of kajal! As Perry grew older, he was troubled by cataract. Father’s attempts to take him to a doctor were met with stubborn resistance. Perry was convinced that the doctor would ‘gouge my eyes out’! He took to applying kajal to his eyes firmly believing that it would help ‘peel the cataract away’. We often shared kajal from the same little box.
Perry died of old age. What always amazed Father was that Perry knew the end was near and calmly accepted it. While in hospital he often remarked that his was a decaying body and that it would soon be no more. When someone came to fetch me from school in the middle of my class ten exams, I knew that Perry was gone.
The dead are never really gone. They live on within us. I’m not surprised when I find that I make my ‘d’s and ‘r’s the way Perry did. Over the years I’ve read up on schizophrenia. May be it was stress that made Perry ill. The stress of knowing that many lives depend on you for their well-being. What a familiar feeling! And a frightening one at that. Often, during moments of duress, I’ve listened to check if I can hear voices nobody else can. Mercifully, there has been a peaceful silence.
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