Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Michael Maam, you will be missed

Michael Maam (Maama means mother’s brother in many Indian languages) had no fan club, but if he had had one, I would undoubtedly have been its founder, president and life member.

That is the significance of the place he held in my life.


My childhood was definitely a cosier and far more comfortable place because of his presence in it.

He worked as a chief steward on the ship, a position that he had attained after decades of hard work. The stories of the backbreaking work he put in were the substance of the family legends I grew up on. Mum would tell me of how he went to work on the ship back in those days, when he was a slip of a 15-year-old, because his own father had passed away a year previously, leaving my Mamai (grandmother) and her brood of five with no support whatsoever.

Mamai scrounged around and made ends meet, making a little go a long way, walking endless miles to pick up broken twigs that could be burned to cook another day’s meal. This when she wasn’t working in the harsh noonday sun, working in someone else’s fields, hoping to earn enough to keep her children fed and clothed.

It was a harsh life, and I can only imagine how Michael Maam, the eldest of the children, matured before his time, and took the decision to go on the ship to earn a living. I wonder how he must have steeled himself for the task, and how he found it in himself to ask Mamai for permission. I wonder how Mamai must have felt then about letting him go work on the ship. It was after all the sea that had swallowed her husband, widowed her and left her children fatherless, with the youngest, my mother, being less than a year old.

One lonely, stormy night at sea, during which my grandfather went on his first sea voyage and never returned. Even his body was never found. I never considered this then when Mum told me this part of our family history but I have been thinking of this today. What courage he displayed when he took the decision to do the thing that needed to be done, to be the grown man that his family needed even though he was still only a child.

Mum spoke about how he would return home from those voyages, his arms and bags laden with goodies. Cheese, and chocolates and I don’t know what else, stuff they would not otherwise have had. But those things weren’t important in themselves. They were important for what they came to symbolize. They came to stand for the abundance and the freedom from want that he brought in their lives. This big brother became both Big Brother and a Father Figure to them all. For all of them, and my Mum, too, it was a bond that was never shaken.

Baab, she and her siblings used to call him, remained ever a figure that merited and was given the deepest respect and love. He had earned it.

I would eagerly listen to those stories that Mum used to recount to me, using them to forge my identity in a family in which people loved each other. Using those stories, and the people within them, as markers, I understood the depth of love that a family can hold.

And that is how Michael Maam became a part of my life.


I don’t recall the first moment in which I met him. So much of what happens in our childhood, even though it may be of life changing significance, is stuff that we cannot assign dates to.

But this much I remember. Michael Maam was always a favourite. From the beginning. No, from the beginning of the beginning. And that was a constant not only for me, but for my brothers and my cousins. Nothing could change that.

We all felt excited when we knew he was coming.

He would be at sea for around 9 months, and would return to Goa for a well-earned 3-month rest. Mum would tell me that he was coming, and just like that, I would get excited. Even if I was smack in the middle of exam fever, the news that Michael Maam was on his way was like waking up on the first day of our summer vacation. It spelled joy and happiness and affection. I would look at the world with delight in my eyes, thinking Life is good.

When he paid a visit to our modest home, neighbours would spot him climbing up the stairs and announce to my mother, “Tuzha bhau aala (Your brother has come.)” Joy indeed!

And not for what he bought, even though he never came empty handed. He was the only one who asked me what I wanted him to bring for me. Primed by Mum, I would tell him that I had everything I needed, but he would prod me nevertheless.

He could also be a prankster. At my aunt TiaO’s house (Tia is Portuguese for aunt), where I spent many pleasant days, he would often hide his toothbrush in my bag, and then search everywhere “frantically,” then “find” it in my bag, and then rag me endlessly about my “toothbrush robbing” habits.

When Dad lost his job, it was Michael Maam who wrote to Mum telling her to make sure that our education was not hampered, offering his unconditional support. More than the financial help he extended, it was the reassurance that spoke out loud through his handwriting on the blue inland letter that made Mum and Dad feel easy.

Michael Maam’s presence in our lives was like that, a huge tree in which birds took shade. It felt solid.

Summer holidays felt better when he was around. Childhood felt great because he was around. Life felt better because he was around. Now he is gone, and there is a giant sized hole where he used to be.

About 10 years ago, Michael Maam began to suffer from Alzheimer’s disease. At first, it was not so evident. Forgetting to post letters, which he carried about in his pocket; forgetting to buy something; harmless it seemed, even comical.

And then it grew. Bigger and bigger, until this horrible disease consumed my Michael Maam, making this giant of a man stoop within himself, making him forget to eat and bathe, making him forget to speak, and unkindest cut of fate, making him forget who he was, and how an entire extended family, not to mention a whole village, looked up to him with respect and affection.

Once I got a job, it became difficult to go to Goa every year. Years passed by in which I didn’t see him. But that did nothing to shake his place in my heart.

Last May, the Husband and I planned a holiday to Goa, with our two children, known on my 
blog as La Niña and El Niño. Mum and Dad came along with us too. Michael Maam’s was the first house we visited.

At their home, I spoke to him, but he just stared at me, offering no response. I knew that he had stopped talking some years ago, that he wouldn’t move around anymore, staying in one position for a long, long time, so it wasn’t a surprise, but it still hurt to not hear his booming voice in response, to see him reduced to a shadow of his former self.

We sat in their living room, chatting with my aunt, TiaT. Throughout the 30 minutes we spent there, he kept staring at me. Just staring, that is all. I felt a pang in my heart, and hoped that in some forgotten recess of his mind, my presence there, my voice, was sparking a memory, reminding him of who I was, reminding him of what he meant to me, reminding him of what a difference his presence had made in all our lives.

But he only stared. No other response.

At length it was time to go. As we took our leave, I took my two kids by the hand and led them to him. I said to him in Konkanni, “Michael Maam, these are my children.” He stared at me for a long beat, then lifted both his hands slowly, and ruffled my children’s hair with his fingers. My kids, probably sensing their mother’s affection for this man, stood still and silent. My son, only three, and always restless, stood still and silent too.

And then a thin film of tears shone in his eyes, making them shine brighter, like the sun bursting through on a rainy day, while a smile, ever so faint at first, appeared on his lips and touched his eyes.

I burst into tears at the sight, thanking God for giving me that last visual memory of him. Thanking God for causing Michael Maam to dip into the deepest recesses of his consciousness and find in the trove there some glimmer of who I am, and our bond together.

Thank you, Michael Maam, for the man you were and for all you meant to me. Our world is poorer for your absence but I have no doubt that there will be feasting and merriment and a joyful reunion in Heaven tonight.





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