My drive to work starts out well. The upbeat songs get me tapping along and then my mind wanders. I go into autopilot mode. Images of Valsala Chechi keep popping up. As my brother said on his Facebook page, she could have easily modelled for any fashion magazine. The only person, I know of, who could look elegant so effortlessly. She could wear the simplest of sarees and look a million dollars.
When we settled in India in the early seventies, our family relationships were not that great. It deteriorated after her dad died, someone my father idolised. The descendants of the Thazhathil family all lived around our grandmother’s family house, apart from us, in East Kallada. The family house is long gone and in it’s place is a modern house where my elderly aunt, who is almost reaching a century, lives with her youngest son and family now.
My sister and I were barred from visiting chechi’s house in those days due to the ongoing family feud. We got on with our lives and visited our relatives in Kallada often. Then one day my grandmother died. Sharath Chandran Chettan, my eldest cousin came to pick us up and take us there that evening. I used to love visiting my cousins’ homes. I didn’t need any excuse to stay the weekends with them if they would have me, unlike my sister, who was happy to stay at home. For us kids, the next few days was time to get together and have the time of our lives. My dad was distraught and being the youngest son cried the most at his mother’s funeral. I was not close to her. She used to frighten us kids. I remember trying to make myself feel sad just to get some tears going at the time she was being taken to be cremated. Watching my dad fall to pieces made it easy for me.
It was the time I really got to know Valsala Chechi. She and Shalini Chechi, another cousin, were the best of friends, both being around the same age group and 3-5 years older to me. Valsala Chechi would gather all the girls in the group and we would have a meeting on the low boundary fence to their house. I don’t think my sister and younger cousins were that interested. Beena and Sindhu were only little at the time. I can’t remember if Sobha and the girls from my dad’s other sister’s side joined us. We were and are a very large family. I would sit mesmerised as they narrated their college stories and shared the gossip. This would continue well into the evening and till night fell and we were called back.
It was the time when I was struggling with my Malayalam lessons in MGD, the school I was attending at the time. Chechi knew the teacher quite well and although she had left school by then, was willing to come to school and have a word with him. I didn’t think it was a good idea, but that was Chechi for you.
In the later years, I don’t remember her laughing out loud. It was always a smile through pursed lips, but it spoke tons. She didn’t have to make grand gestures just like all her mannerisms. A gentle and calm approach was her hallmark. The cancer took it’s toll but she diverted her strength and extended her years. I never saw any bitterness, only someone who was coping bravely and never complaining. When she was losing her hair, a family affliction, something we are all succumbing to, she laughed it off saying that everyone thought it was due to the cancer and she never tried to correct them. She carried it off stoically with style and showed us that it didn’t matter. It was still possible to look attractive regardless of what happened to you.
‘Tears in heaven’, a song written by Eric Clapton for his son comes on the radio. The lump in my throat gets heavier and my chest gets a little tighter. I am at the barrier to the hospital car park and come back to reality. Chechi is in a good place now, comfortable and free from pain. That is the only thing that matters, I try to compose myself as I lock my car door and walk to the entrance.