On February 1, 2005, Babuchayan passed away. He was Father Abraham to the world, but to us, he was Babuchayan, our brother. He was the eldest and I, the last but one in the family of eight. He joined the seminary after graduation, but used to come home twice or thrice a year, and whenever he came, it was always like the old times.
Sure he was intelligent, but was not the most brilliant of human beings. But he reached heights that are denied even to the most brilliant of the brilliant. Both in worldly and otherworldly achievements, and also in the hearts of the people he dealt with.
Being the first born, he was intensely conscious of his position and responsibility. But that couldn’t suppress his joie de vivre. Like those occasions when we siblings cracked jokes that a priest was not supposed to appreciate. He would hoist that very serious look on to his countenance to mask his struggle to contain laughter, and would admonish us like a good priest should, till one of us told him something like “Come on Babuchayan, you better laugh or your sides will burst”. His control would then crack and he would dissolve into helpless laughter, and in the intervals of the paroxysms of merriment, he would say ”Naughty jokes, you must not crack such naughty jokes”
One of my earliest memories of him goes back to the time I was around 5 or 6. The radio was in his room, and for some reason, he disapproved of my sister listening to it for too long. I still can’t figure out if this is on account of patriarchal hangover or because he thought she should be studying. On this occasion, he had gone out for his evening walk. My sister sneaked into his room to listen to the radio, keeping me posted in the balcony to announce his return. As soon as I saw him open the gate, I ran in and informed her, and she quickly switched off the radio, ran into her room and buried her head in her books. Babuchayan came into his room, and immediately put the back of his four fingers on the radio (like we check the temperature of a person), and then marched into my sisters room.
“Were you listening to the radio?”
“No. I was studying”
“Then how come the radio is hot?”
“I don’t know”
To me,” Was she listening to the radio?” I was too young to have learnt the art of saying white lies, and blurted out the truth.
He shook his index finger at her saying, “Just you wait. I’ll tell amma”.
I have fond memories of him which take me back now to an afternoon in the drawing room of our house where my brothers and I were having post lunch gossip and fun session. One of my brothers asked me to get something to eat from the larder. I came back with a large plate full of laddoos, and all of them pounced on it. Then Babuchayan made an announcement.
“For one week we’ll give Molly some rest. We won’t make her run errands. Even girls need a break”, he said.
I wanted to fling myself on him and give him a bear hug but, he, being averse to any such demonstrations of affection, would have jumped up and run for his life had I tried. So I limited myself to just clapping my hands joyfully and looked gleefully at the disapproval writ large on the faces of my siblings closer to me in age. That one week that followed was bliss. That’s when I got an inkling as to what it feels like being a male child in a Nazrane family!
After his ordination, he was posted as the assistant parish priest in a big parish in the Nilgiris district. He was so earnest to do, to the best of his ability, his duty to his Lord and Master that he visited all the homes of his parishioners twice, on foot, within the space of six months, at the end of which period he fell ill with over exhaustion.
His next appointment as the Vice Principal and then the Principal of a boy’s school in the diocese brought out the dynamic person in him which we had not seen before. He had a major role to play, right from getting students for the school in the year it was founded to its development as one of the most innovative schools in that town. He was the first to introduce yoga, computer courses, and classical Indian dance in boys’ schools in that district.
In the late 80s he organized a national Chess tournament in the Nilgiris District. He got the public sector banks and companies to sponsor it. Young Viswanath Anand and the then big names like Dibayendu Barua and Manual Aron were some of the participants. Difficult to think of a priest, even today, taking such initiatives.
He was the member of the Lions Club. He encouraged his teachers too to take membership in clubs. I got this information from a teacher who worked with him. As we stood outside the IC unit two days before my brother died, he told me this:
“I was a shy person from a remote village in Tamilnadu. A month after I joined, Father arranged to have me inducted into the Rotary Club. Seeing my reluctance, he explained ‘You are good at your work but you need some more exposure when you deal with the type of students who come to this school. Besides, it’s good for your growth too’”. He continued “He made me what I am today. You talk to the other teachers who worked with him. They’ll also tell you similar stories’
From the conversation I had with the stream of visitors who came from his diocese and school in Nilgiris, I came to know, for the first time, of the enormity of the monetary help he had been giving to individuals, both lay and religious, and to institutions, after he rook leave from the diocese to work in the USA. “No one who approached him for help was turned away”, his close friend, a priest, told me.
All this was news to us siblings ‘cos he never told us about this. I now wish I had known this. May be then there would have been another dimension to the great regard I had for him – you know that special reverence that we always have for an altruistic person. To me, he had always been my brother Babuchayan, always generous with advice and admonitions, laughing uncontrollably at the jokes we cracked, scolding me for giving up the music lessons after seven years of training – scolding me not just once when I did it, but every time he saw me in the 35 years after that.
“You should not have stopped”, he said rolling his eyes in his typical angry way. “To be able to play piano is such a rare thing in our country. If you had perfected that skill, you could have made plenty of money giving lessons and helped people in need with that extra money. Besides, it is a kala. No. you should not have stopped. You should not have stopped” Almost the same words each time he saw me all those 35 years after I took the decision to stop getting trained in piano.
Last September, I started music lessons again, after 35 years. As I was going for the first lesson, I remembered his words and found myself thinking wistfully that had he been around, I could tell him. I smiled to myself thinking of his reaction and his “you should not have stopped” encore.
In the funeral address delivered by the officiating Bishop from his diocese, there were repeated references to the enormous monetary contribution my brother made to various worthy and humanitarian causes in the diocese. We siblings looked at each other. Why we were kept in the dark, I wondered. A true follower of Christ, I guess. The left hand should not know what the right hand was doing.
During his hospitalization, all who visited him from Nilgiris spoke of his ‘innocence”. Strange word, I thought, to describe a 66 year old person. But yes. He was that. Innocent. Not really a man of this world in many ways. He thought the world was a good place and a good person could do good things if he set his mind to it. He didn’t know how to hide his feelings. He was so transparent that you would know if he was angry or happy or nervous or amused or tense or embarrassed. No. Babuchayan could never conceal his feeling. Childlike. That’s what he was. A simple, honest, straightforward, innocent person with a tremendous drive and confidence in himself which made him rush in – with success too- into areas that the average person would hesitate to tread.
When he was finally laid to rest in Kochin, we, his siblings, stood around the grave, our feelings under iron control and maintaining a poised demeanor. As the casket was lowered, suddenly his colleagues from the school and his friends from the diocese where he worked burst out in unison. loud and clear into a Tamil song, tears streaming down their faces!!
That’s when I realised that they have seen a side of him which we siblings didn’t get an opportunity to see. There was much more to Father Abraham than the Babuchayan we knew and loved and still miss after three years.