(Photograph corrected and recovered by Srikanth Nippatla)
I will start with a disclaimer. I have almost never talked about my private space online, or on social media. I was never comfortable doing it as I believe it is not necessary to have cyberspace flooded with every minute detail of our lives. And it isn’t as if anyone has time for it either.
But today I make an exception. I would like to make a small tribute to my parents – my father, Prabhala Hanumantha Rao (P.H. Rao) who left us exactly 25 years ago, and my mother Prabhala Savithri Devi who left us over 7 years ago.
To say my father’s departure from our world was sudden would be an understatement. On June 4th, 1992, a few hours after he left for work, his colleague came home to inform us he was admitted in a hospital because of (what seemed like) a stroke. When the medical reports confirmed his condition to be a life threatening aneurysm, we had no choice but to wait for his condition to stabilize before we could fly him down to India and continue the treatment. But by early next morning, we were informed by the hospital staff that he had left for another world. His 47th summer on this planet had only started and sadly came to an end rather suddenly.
My father’s childhood was far from a cake walk. But he made sure he had his share of fun and frolic. We were told by our grandparents that he would relax the most while swimming in the Krishna river for hours together. Although he got an earful every single time, it did not deter him one bit. A big turn happened in his life when he ran away from home at the age of 16 when his request to join a tuition was turned down by our grandfather. In search of better opportunities, he landed in Vizag and joined the Indian Navy where he learnt electronics engineering.
Probably one of the most defining moment in his life, it is difficult to comprehend the courage and “will to overcome” in his mind when he left the comfort and security of a home at such a tender age to step into the big bad world and fend for himself. He would narrate this incident, as well as his formative days in the Navy, to instill in us a sense of discipline. Gradually, he grew in ranks in the Navy (where he fought 3 wars for the country) and very soon my grandmother decided it was time for him to find a life partner.
My mother’s and father’s family met with an intention of forging an alliance. After an expression of approval, my father made it very clear that he had no customary material expectation from my mother’s family. Needless to say, everyone present were baffled by his declaration. But my father went at great length to ensure it, even if it irked some of his own family members.
A year later, I was born and my father landed an opportunity to work in Bahrain (an island in the Arabian Gulf)). In a matter of a few years years we joined him and my brother also came along.
My father unconditionally helped many friends and family members find their footing with life-altering job opportunities in Bahrain. Helping others gave him a sense of purpose and identity.
At heart, he was a true sportsperson and would grasp the skill and strategy of almost any game in a very short time. In this matter, he was so confident that he didn’t really care about a result as long as he knew he gave it his best. Be it carroms, basketball, badminton, pool, swimming, table tennis, chess and card-games. Even today, all the trophies that are in our home are mementos of his victories in various games. And over the years, like most families, we too had fond memories of watching World Cup (Soccer) and Grand Slam Tennis Championships together.
“Always consciously ask yourself why the opponent made a particular move, before making your counter” – my father’s advice before a chess game, which also applies to any other game. Or even life!
A firm proponent of the “simple living and high thinking” ideal, he wouldn’t hesitate to ride a bicycle in India, although there were many other convenient modes of transport available. Much to the amazement of our friends and relatives.
In addition to academics, my father allowed us to explore various faculties like classical music, dance and art even though he didn’t understand them too well because he believed it would broaden our perspectives. Watching a Bollywood movie with him was always fun but was dotted with “spoiler alerts”
“If you listen to the lyrics of a song carefully, you can easily guess the story that unfolds“
When he passed away, as much as we were in a state of shock and grief, we (my mother, myself and my brother) also needed to pick up all the bits and pieces of our life and move to India. And we had a very small window of time. During this period, we received a lot of help from our family-friends, my father’s colleagues, our school teachers and class mates and people who had known my father at some point or other. We were filled with much gratitude for one and all who came forward to help, knowing deep in our hearts that this was a result of the good-will that my father had earned over the years which had come back to help us in our darkest moments.
Coming to my mother, in 2004 after the tsunami in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu – a personal tsunami struck our family. A biopsy of a 6 cm lump in her breast tested positive for malignancy. What ensued was a continuous battle (both mental as well as physical) over a 5 year period with multiple recurrences. She made a remarkable recovery during the treatment of metastases in the lungs and brain. She bravely fought the recurrence in the spinal cord as well. A few months after her 60th birthday, things steadily deteriorated when she was given a terminal diagnosis and, eventually in her sleep, she succumbed to this deadly disease on April 30, 2010.
Much like my father, my mother too did not have an easy childhood/adolescence. Prior to her teens the family fell into bad times and lost their assets and hence a social footing. From a young age, she took an avid interest in music, art, literature and mimicry which many believe she inherited from her paternal grandmother. She also rarely missed an opportunity to play a prank.
She wanted to pursue academic studies in Sanskrit and agreed to meet my father’s family regarding an alliance, even though she was uncertain at the time. When my father’s family came to meet her, she won their hearts with a rendition of a South Indian classical song. Even though she leaned heavily towards pursuing academics at the time, her father was impressed with my father. He requested my mother to give it a thought and not lose a good match.
In her own words, listening to her father turned out to be one of the best decisions of her life. A few years into her marriage she traveled overseas (to Bahrain, an island in the Arabian Gulf) with my father and 3 year old me, something that was beyond her imagination prior to marriage.
At Bahrain, she took a very keen interest in Indian Fine Arts. So much that people remember her even today for her passionate participation. Whenever possible she would take us along to concerts of eminent Indian musicians. She encouraged us to take inspiration from these stalwarts and we occasionally got to meet some of them back stage and seek their blessings. She personally supervised our progress in music and dance, and backed us whenever we needed to perform on stage.
An active member of an Indian Ladies Association, she occasionally won a prize or two at cookery contests. She too joined my dad at playing badminton in a local club and won a few trophies herself. Also, she never missed an opportunity to volunteer for charitable activities. Even though she wasn’t born with a silver spoon in her mouth, she never hesitated to donate time, money or effort for valid causes to help the underprivileged.
She had a genuine concern for health and children. When asked what was it that she cared about the most, she would promptly reply, ” The health of people I love is most important.” Whenever she met friends after a long time she would make it a point to ask about their health and how their kids were faring.
Ironically, on the morning of June 4, 1992, it was the health of her husband that was affected in such a manner, neither she nor the doctors or anyone could have foreseen. All of a sudden, the biggest blow of her life was dealt to her. At the same time she had some very crucial and time-critical decisions to make regarding my father’s cremation, whether to continue to stay in Bahrain, and most importantly “all of our” future.
Our life in Bahrain was totally dependent and revolved around my father. Continuing to stay in Bahrain would be possible only through favours from good friends. The self-respecting woman that she was – taking favours was not a situation she could even consider. Hence she decided to move back to Hyderabad, India and rebuild our lives.
With that decision the cozy and comfortable life of Bahrain was gone and now she, along with her children were thrust into the chaotic, competitive and cruel world, left to fend for themselves. Step by step, inch by inch, and without a job and zero support from anyone, she rebuilt her life, put a roof over our head, food on the table, and put us through engineering college. One must give it to her for the resilience and courage that she faced these circumstances with. Surely, all that she learnt through her difficult childhood came back to help her during these tough times. Despite her own difficulties, she even found it in her to help friends and family with time, shelter, and money.
In tough times or happy days, whether it was smooth sailing or a hard long journey, she managed to find it in her to cheer the people around her with jokes, anecdotes, impressions/mimicry or even pranks.
“To lead a good life you need only two things – good health and good spirit” – something she always kept telling me
Just when we thought she had conquered her hurdles and seen through it all, cancer raised its ugly head and began another kind of battle.
This is a small tribute to the true heroes we knew – our father Prabhala Hanumantha Rao and our mother Prabhala Savithri Devi.