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Gifts That Sparkle

I am cynical enough to believe that all families have dysfunctional elements, often covert.

Manish Nandy | New Delhi |

I grew up in a four-parent family. It sounds strange, but I really had three mothers. My father had two sisters who developed a fast friendship in college with a round-faced, soft-spoken woman. The friendship went further than college bonds usually go. She ended up as their sister-in- law, my mother.

Amazingly, the friendship went further. They remained close friends until the day they died. This was remarkable because all three pursued individual careers, with notable success, in different cities.

Father was very fond of his sisters. He also felt responsible for them, because they did not marry and start families of their own. The result was I grew up with four parents, each a powerful influence in my life.

Father was dispossessed by his family and had to work in a printing shop, to put bread on the table and pay for his lessons. He taught for years, then changed to an administrative job that fetched a modest pay but unusual benefits. He oversaw a library where I had access to books and journals, a gymnasium where a Mr. Universe taught me body-building, and playgrounds, where the captain of an Olympic team gave me football lessons and a world champion offered me tips on improving my table tennis.

More important, he had an extraordinary capacity for camaraderie. He made friends with authors and actors, politicians and professors, doctors and lawyers, musicians and journalists. People of all ages and all professions marched through our living room, provided tea and cookies by my ever-obliging mother.

Doubtless he left some impression on me. I remember my first girlfriend, who came from an aristocratic family, once asked me, “Do you have to start a conversation with every waiter and janitor in town?”

My aunts were a study in contrast. Aunt Senior was the maternal, nurturing kind, a true pushover. If I wanted an expensive toy and knew that mother, let alone father, would never approve, I astutely went to her and got her on my side. Once I persuaded her to order a large almond cake I had set my heart on, and later I heard mother tell her it was insane to order something so expensive frivolously, but my aunt never blamed me. She was the most generous person, both with her money and her heart. She gave immoderately, unreservedly, and sometimes unwisely, even to the undeserving. There was no question, however, that her life became a simple song of benediction, ever gracious and peaceful.

She once said of two virtual strangers, “They are good people. I want to be good to them.” That was her dogma for all people. I thought it naïve then; now I think it wise. Aunt Junior was quite different. She was sharp-witted and could be hard-hitting. Working hard and full-time, she still learned languages, did courses and built gardens. Ingenious and indefatigable, she would run with me, do jigsaw puzzles, play games and even invent new ones. From a school principal she became a state education administrator, yet always found time to read books to me after breakfast and dinner. In an indiscernible, playful way she passed on to me her extraordinary zest for life, an astonishing appetite for the concrete. When she visited me in the Philippines and we strolled, she told me the names of the trees and plants we passed. The ones she couldn’t, she found out the names the next day and told me on our next walk.

Whenever I hesitated, afraid to venture in a new direction, she would say, “You haven’t done it; try it. You may like it. If you don’t like it, try a different thing.”

Both the aunts painted, one in water color and the other in oil. I learned to sketch from them. More important, I developed a taste for art and an eye for design: I learned to distinguish fonts, separate a Bodoni from a Garamond, recognize painters, know why Monet looks quite different from Matisse, and even enjoy seeing a Renzo Piano building as much as a Philip Johnson house.

I have never quite met anyone like my mother, with her quixotic mélange of the tender and the tough, and her infinite capacity to sit back, reflect and understand. Living a hectic life overseas, I once told her, “I make it a point to write to my aunts every week. If I have more time, I write to you.” Astoundingly, though I was telling her of a higher priority for the aunts compared to her, she replied, “You do the right thing. They need a letter from you more than I do.”

She was gentle and soft-spoken. When she made a point, it seemed like a thought casually dropped for others’ benefit. She wrote affectionately; all her letters drip of motherly concern and a carefully honed let-go philosophy. When I was twenty and she had sounded perturbed about an office event, I had quoted her from a Captain Dreyfus letter from Devil’s Island saying that “of all losses, the loss of reason was the most appalling.” When I was fifty and mentioned a trouble brewing in my office, she sent me back the same quotation, adding she trusted my ability to stay steady and rational.

The greatest gift she gave me was the equanimity that Indian seers have talked about. I learned to see both sides of a question and be ready to accept both sides of a person. I will never match her, but I began the journey of seeing more than what is apparent, finding a place in the heart for others’ foibles and one’s own drawbacks. I knew she was a beloved teacher in her school, but it has taken me years to realize she taught even better at home.

I am cynical enough to believe that all families have dysfunctional elements, often covert. Chance had me rearing in a fourparent family, where love was lavish, care was unquestioned, and where, for fortunate me, all the four, imperceptibly but extravagantly, stacked up gifts that never tarnish and sparkle forever.

(The writer is a Washington-based international development advisor and had worked with the World Bank. He can be reached at [email protected])