Anyone who knows me, knows that I am huge fan of A.K.Ramanujan’s writing — be it his translations from Tamil, his academic writing, his poems, essays …. just anything. So I was delighted to learn that he had written his own memoir in Kannada — not a complete autobiography, but just vignettes from his life.  I felt like buying the Kannada book and begging someone who knew the language to tell me what he had written. Luckily for me, the book was published in translation recently.


From this memoir, I share with you Atthimber’s Last Wish. (Atthimber is what you call your dad’s sister’s husband or your own sister’s husband. Confusing, I know. Luckily I don’t have a sister and only need to use the term for my uncle who, as it happens, is in the process of dying naturally through old age. )


During our three-day visit, I did not go back again to my Chikkatthe’s house. Appa visited her twice more. The first time Atthimber managed to sit up and speak for about half an hour; he asked after each of us. He wanted a newspaper. He folded the sheets of newsprint and tore them into neat squares, and like a child, made paper boats, canoes, sailboats, a cup to hold turmeric or tilak powder, and even a sharp-beaked bird with open wings. He gave the paper bird to Appa, Atthimber’s  voice was weak; he said, “Give it to Ramu. When he came here last  time, I didn’t even have the strength to speak to him.”


Appa carefully removed from his pocket, the sharp-beaked paper bird that was made from the matrimonial pages of The Hindu.


‘He was always like that. Always interested in doing handiwork. In spite of his talents, he did not achieve much in his life. He retired as a clerk at the post office,’ Appa said.


That Sunday afternoon Appa made his final visit to Atthai’s house. It seems that the doctor was there. The doctor said to Appa, ‘This may last two more days. His swollen belly will not go down.’


Atthimber had been experiencing difficulty in eating anything for more than a month, but at the very moment when Appa was there, he heard a street hawker yelling out, “Dried Dates!” Athimber felt a great urge to eat them. He made gestures to indicate that he wanted to eat the dry fruit, but his voice was indistinct. There was a gurgling in his throat. Atthai looked at him with love and said, “Dates are bad for health. Dates! They look like flattened cockroaches. Don’t act as a child and ask for this and that.”


When Appa told me all this, I said, ‘ Why didn’t you tell Atthai to go ahead and buy dates for him?’ Appa said , ‘I dared not tell her what the doctor said. I just could not bring myself to say to her, “Atthimber is dying, give him whatever makes him happy.’ Unless I repeated the doctor’s words, I knew she would not have bought any dates for him. But, had I told her, she would have felt miserable giving him dates. If she thought that she was the one feeding him his last bite here on earth, how could she bear to feed him his late bite here on earth, how could she bear to feed him his last meal at such moment? No, that wouldn’t have been easy for her. So I kept quiet.’


Until that very moment, I had no idea that my Appa was capable of such an intuitive and complex understanding of what was involved in responding to a dying man’s wish for dried dates.


In the train that night, Appa spoke of Atthimber again. “Even prisoners on death row get to eat whatever they wish for their final meal. All sorts of snacks, sweets, and desserts. They serve them a grand meal. Poor Atthimber did not even get to eat what he asked for, not even a single dried date for his last meal.’