The Story of a Storyteller: In the loving memory of Sarada Uncle

By Soumya Panda

It was a lazy Sunday morning, the kind which urges you to sleep some more, stay indoors, have breakfast in bed, put on your glasses and solve the Sunday crossword puzzle, load up on home cooked food, not come out of your pajamas, and just watch the day go by. I was in Bengaluru then, miles away from home to do my internship. Standing at the hotel balcony, I had absolutely no premonition that something sinister was just round the corner; I saw the sun just beginning to warm up, with colonies of clouds strewn across the skyline like flocks of furry sheep, the soft newly formed electric green leaves of the Peepul tree rustled to let the cool breeze in and out of them. As I stirred into the couch to cozy up with my cup of tea, for some random reason I suddenly thought that it had been long since I had pinged Sarada Uncle. “I should share my recent speech with him, he would love to give it a read”, I thought to myself. Little did I know that when I picked up the phone to ping you, I would stay stoned to the ground. It was dad who gave me the news of your demise. I was never a big believer of enigmas but believe you me, there was a connection. Else how come the moment I thought about you was your last moment on earth! My fellow Capricornian, you’ll be missed oh-so badly. Sarada Prasad Mishra, Public Relations Officer to the Governor Of Odisha, some people are your family by birth, but some spoil you with love and affection and become so much more than just family.
I never asked you what Sarada meant, I wish you were here now, you would have dived and delved deep into Sanskrit and Odia and Lord knows what word roots to explain it to me. I’ll miss you my dearest Sarada Uncle. My first memory of you is from when I was a kid in school, drawing and painting away with my color pencils and sketches. I was copying the Taj Mahal when you came to our house. You asked me a few questions about the Taj, told me a few fun facts about it and then somehow went on to explain me about mirages, illusions and oasis’s. Before that, you were just a name I had heard from my parents.
No, wait, that was not the first time we had met! My silly brain remembers now. It was a hazy Republic day parade and mom had dressed me up in a rose-patterned lacy flowery top and a maroon skirt. She left me seated when she had to go emcee on the podium. I remember you were a bit preoccupied then, just keeping a distant eye on me and letting me be on my own, rather that hovering all over me. I really liked that, made me feel like an independent little girl.
No Shave Novembers were not in Fashion then, but you already were a brand ambassador of it. Always sporting an unclean face, letting the wilderness of your poetic thoughts grow on your face into bushy, hairy, messy declarations of beard. I remember calling you Gopabandhu when I was small, that autumn when you had literally sworn off shaving; donning a printed Khadi half kurta, wearing those baggy cream bottoms and trotting around in your overused black sandals, dangling a woolen jhola bag someone had gifted you. You didn’t care that you were an oddball, displaying what you called a “sanskrutika” look; always living in the moment and never showing a tiniest tint of tension. Chewing a paan, ruminating over a thousand thoughts, you would look up from behind the old fashioned golden rimmed round glasses resting too low on your nose. The sun damage of your wheat-ish white complexion, your deep seated eyes, your furrowed brow, and the crow’s feet adorning the tail of your eyes gave away your age even though you used to joke about being as young as a fresh day.
I met you again at Puri, during Rath Yatra when almost all of mom’s colleagues had been assigned duty at the ‘Information and Public Relations’ tent. You helped us all; me, my grandparents, my aunts, uncles all of us. Helped us rest, helped them see the Lord on the chariots while making sure I was taken good care of. You decided to keep me overdosed and high on sugar, keeping the Rabdi in the earthen pots coming. I was hardly attentive while you were explaining me little rituals that were being conducted on the chariot, but you went on and on with the stories anyway. Your peers didn’t call you Kathakara for no reason! You loved telling stories, loved writing them, weaving intricate stories with your intriguing words. It always amazed me, how you could quote character’s dialogues, the extract of a novel, the essence of a book that you had read ages ago with such ease and aplomb, and just the mere number of books you that you have read in your lifetime, was enough to scare me and here I am trying to recollect bits and pieces of our meetings.
They say, the best gift is the gift of education. For me it was the gift of reading. When my parents sought your wise words for making their girl a great woman one day, you were the one who made them buy abridged editions of all English classics when I was in seventh standard. David Copperfield, Rebecca, The Treasure Island, Huckleberry Finn, The Time Machine, King Solomon’s Mines……ah! I was hooked. I am totally against arranged marriage but I can’t thank my lovely parents and you enough for arranging, introducing, and making me fall in love with books. Your inspiring story of having completed all the books in your school library at your village motivated me to do the same. I finished all the books allowed for seventh graders in that year. Enid Blyton, Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, The Famous Five, The Secret Seven, R.K.Narayan, Ruskin Bond……you lit a fire in me, a burning, insatiable hunger and thirst for books, for words, for the English language, for good stories, a world full of imagination that transported me away from the mundane reality, that made me curious about the ways of the world, that made me ask questions, that made me see the world differently. “If you want to like the world, see it form far away, if you want to know it, see it from near”, you used to say.
I kept talking to you intermittently when there was an assignment due on English or Social Science; you always helped streamline my ideas when it came to essay writing, elocution, and debates. We used to discuss the novels that I read, the ones I should read and the ones I was wasting my time on. I was so glad I was able to discuss Harry Potter with a grown up. You were the only person who understood that lending a book to someone felt like lending a piece of yourself, who understood that staying up late into the night is okay for people like us and that mere mortals won’t understand a writer’s or a reader’s ways. You used to convince my worried parents to cut me some slack when I used to stay up till five in the morning, reading with a torch inside my blanket, spoiling my eyes and then getting thick specks made.
You and dear aunty were the best-est family friends we had. Both of you would be there to support me when I performed in group dances at Rabindra Mandap. Tired from an exhausting day at work, you would wait till the end of the show, even if I had a cameo performance of twenty minutes. However busy you must have been, you always tuned into DD-6 when I called you to say my performance was on. You were there for me and my family whenever we needed help.
There has been many times when I have gone to your place to talk and discuss about my random musings about my ever changing hopes and aspirations, my apprehensions, my hopeless endless dilemmas. I wonder how you managed to find time to read, write, and love everyone around you. Whenever I went to your place for a cook-over I crossed my fingers and hoped that please this time at least don’t let anyone else visit Sarada Uncle’s place; I want all of his undisturbed attention and time to myself. But alas! Your place used to be swarmed with people! Coming in, going out, staying there; endless cups of tea and coffee made, live cricket and commenting on, channels switching between BBC News to History 18,snatches of laughter echoing, and then came Julie, the dog whose ruff-ruff was audible from the near the gates. It used to a club house for people who loved you, and whom you loved. I used to be so upset that now I would have to share my time with others. But you would somehow find enough time to tend to my worries. No wonder people loved you, and aunty, and your place; always open for people, full of warmth, hospitality, food and most importantly books. An entire room filled with books with the numerous wonderful one’s you authored lost somewhere in the black hole.
I remember your eyes shining like a child’s when I would get bourbon biscuits for you. And ah-the food you used to cook! That mansa tarkari with green chilies and coriander leaves chopped into the tiniest possible bit, your trademark. How you would go out of your way to make sure your younger brother stuffs me with biryani, roll or kheer; sending along a bushel full of fresh produce of vegetables from your backyard. I’ll miss that feeling; when you introduced me to your fellow colleagues with pride saying, “Meet Richa. She is Dipti madam’s daughter who loves reading and writing and…..” as if I was your own. You both, never had a child of your own, but you used to treat me and my brother, and for that matter any other child as your own. Feeding them, taking care of them, educating them, and pushing them in the right direction. Kids just loved to be with aunty and you.
When you used to describe something that was spreading venomously, ruining the progress and prosperity of the something, and could not be stopped just like that, you used to say “It’s spreading like a cancer”. And then somehow, you caught a cancer. Irony. For three harrowing years you kept fighting, underwent three critical surgeries at Mumbai, taking in each dose of chemo like a lash from a hunter that would make you stronger. My parents said, “You wouldn’t want to see him like this, neither would he like you to see him like that”. But I knew you were the most spirited person I had ever met. That this was just a rough patch you would soon be over. So, even though I wasn’t able to visit you as frequently as I used to, I never let you rest over SMSs. The best way to help a sick person is not by reminding him of his disease, but by distracting him away from the misery by behaving as normal as possible with them, I felt.
WhatsApp! God Bless the creators of WhatsApp, I was able to share my little writing or speaking projects with you over time, when the cancer had left you unable to talk much to anymore. You never missed a single chance to encourage or motivate me. In your condition you would text me pages of pointers, inputs, and feedback so that I could get better; like a candle burning to light up other’s lives. You made sure that you would squeeze every last drop of words from the leaking pipes of your tumultuous heart. I have never heard or seen anyone so dedicated to the cause, writing stories, articles, giving interviews, getting published from a bed at the hospital.
Every time you bounced back a little, you would be back to work. Like that day when the governor had to visit our college for an event. I was eagerly awaiting to see you. You had a mask over your face to cover up the signs of that cursed malady. That white cloth over your face didn’t break my heart, it made me look only into your eyes and see the vast ocean of patience and knowledge that you had in them. You came in and stood behind the Governor, my entire batch noticed; ‘who’s that person wearing that white mask?’ and I was proudly spreading the word that it was my Sarada Uncle. You smiled at me from there. I could not see your lips curl into a smile but I saw how your eyes lit up. The Governor had to leave in a jiffy and you had to follow suit. You just patted me on the back, put your hand on head as if to bless me, touched my cheek and left. I missed you then, wishing if I could have had a chit chat with you.
You were, are, and always will be a warrior, a survivor. I salute your relentless attempts at fighting, your will to write even when you were not well, writing even from the wretched hospital bed. Your final piece, “An interview of Sarada, by Sarada”. It blew my mind. Never had I heard of such a genius idea in a question and answer format! But if someone asks me, I will deny it tooth and nail that I liked it, you know why, because of the last lines, “So, Mr. Sarada Prasad Mishra, what are your future plans of publication?” To which you answered, “No more. I’m done fighting, I can’t anymore”. I hate you for writing that. Here I was thinking of discussing my out of the box, unconventional wedding plans with someone who understands and here you were writing stuff like ‘I want to go’. I didn’t even have a good picture with you. I hate you that you could not wait for me to go see you for one last time, to touch your feet, to hug you for one last time, to tell me how much I had come to love you over the years.
I guess that’s how life is. You never know when you meet someone, is the last time you are going to meet them. I cursed myself, and cursed the whole damn world for not being able to see you one last time. Truth is, this is how all great love stories end, isn’t it? The audience keeps rooting for the protagonists to meet one last time, but that does not happen. May be in that not meeting for a one last time, is what makes the stories great. For when you are not able to see someone for one last time is when you close your eyes and revisit those milestones in your relationship down memory lane and relive each moment spent and cherish them even more, each moment getting deeply etched into the slate of your journey.
The empty hollowness left behind from the feeling of not seeing you for one last time has filled me with an indescribable power, a power that connects me with you more than ever, a power which has again ignited the dying embers of this writer’s desire. A power which transcends this body, this world, this life. Just like my parents, you always used to tell me to write, never be afraid, never think too much, just to listen to my heart and write. I never did then, kind of ironic that I wrote this for you now, isn’t it? You won’t be able to read it and give me feedback and tips on how to improve now, can you? I always had this silly dream of penning at least a book in my lifetime and I always thought how lucky I am to have Sarada Uncle in my life! I won’t need to hire an editor, he’ll be my editor, scratching off my words, modifying what I have written with his beautiful calligraphy. But the universe always has other plans. The universe wanted me to emulate your footsteps; by being there for people I love, showing little kids the right path, lifting the fog from age old traditions and taboos and choosing logic and rationale amidst all chaos, enjoying the little things in life and being happy and ticking no matter what. Only I know how lucky I am to have such wonderful parents and then you to steer my ship right.
I know that I can’t have the endless sessions of chai and laugh-till-you-drop-anecdotes hosted by you anymore, where we would be trashing the current education system which murders creativity; I know although we really wanted to, I couldn’t deliver my speeches before you in time; I know that I do not possess the fabled ‘Resurrection stone’ with me to see you one last time. But every time I attempt to read or write something I’ll be instantly reminded of you. Your story, and stories will forever remain alive through my words and in my thoughts.

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