Appa grew up in a little boat town in Kerala called Alleppey (pronounced al-ah-pee). He stayed on a little rice paddy farm and bought the essentials 6 months in advance from the boatmen who passed by.
“When I was young,” he’d say, “we’d order salt six months in advance. These men would come in boats and yell ‘Salt! Salt for sale! Salt!’ and my mother would yell back her order of salt for 6 months.”
Then Appa would make a loud grunt sound and close his eyes. I wonder what he saw under his lids. It must have been some story from his childhood playing out in the darkness of his mind – a personal, private theatre, just for him.
Appa never finished his stories. He told just enough to make you curious and then never brought it up again. Sometimes he’d stop at the most crucial moments. This one time he told us the story of how he fell into a well.
“My mother was pregnant with her last child and I was a mischievous child, you know. I kept running off to different places. This one time, I went to get water and was playing around when I fell in! I was in there a long time and I got very scared. Apparently, a neighbor found out and went to my mother. Poor Amma, she was so frightened but she came running. And you wouldn’t believe it! She fell in too! 9 months pregnant and stuck in a well!”
“And then? Then what happened, Appa?” I’d ask.
Then he’d grunt really loud, close his eyes and never say a word.
As I got older, I made a game out of Appa’s incomplete stories. Every time he stopped; I would begin. I turned the well story into an exciting, thrilling tale where the well was haunted and drew people in. Like that, I fell into writing.
When I was 21, and finally allowed to drink, Appa called me to him and poured me a glass of straight whisky with a few cubes of ice.
“This is a tradition in our family,” he’d say. “Welcome to adulthood.” Appa was our designated storyteller but as he grew older, he withdrew further and further into himself. Those magical tales were slowly drying up.
When I turned 30, Appa told me his last story. I sat near his bedside and he told me a long story in breathless whispers.
“I remember when I turned 30,” he said, “I was married to your mother by then, but we were living separately. I had a job somewhere delivering milk. It was bloody awful, I tell you. This was the first time India had packaged milk and no one trusted it. There were all sorts of stories going around that the government was putting funny things in the milk. So, we were instructed to go to people’s houses every day and try to sell them milk. You see, it’s my 30th birthday and here I am delivering milk to people who just don’t trust it. I see this one boy in the morning and I tell his mother ‘This milk is good! Trust me. It’s so easy now. You can get milk delivered right to your door!’ but she didn’t trust me. ‘Drink it then,’ she’d say. So, I got this idea! For every milk I sell, I will ask them to pour me a glass and I will drink it in front of them so they believe that it’s safe for drinking. It worked. But bless the lord, I couldn’t drink milk after that day. I sold some 30 or 40 bottles that day and for almost every sale, I had to drink a glass of milk. This, my darling girl, is the story of why I don’t drink milk anymore and what I did in my 30th year of living.”
The milk story was the only complete story Appa ever gave me. 2 days later, Appa died leaving many stories incomplete, untouched and unspoken.
When I was 40, I published a book of short stories containing all the incomplete stories Appa had told me. He gave me the beginnings and I wrote the end. I made him my co-author and dedicated the book to him.
In so many ways, I think Appa will be my greatest puzzle in life. And I like to think that my perseverance to understand him, to hear him out, is worth something. I will never know the endings of so many of his stories, nor will I ever get to hear the beginnings of all his untold ones. But I like to think, that for those little in-between moments where he was the grand storyteller and I was just his daughter, he shared with me a little bit of the daydreams he lived in. I got to peek into my father’s own private, personal theatre. All those nights at the dining table, near his bedside, or sharing a drink, I got so much more than just time with him. I got stories that will live longer than him. I will be able to share pieces of him for long after he has gone. That, I think, is worth something big. In many ways, Appa’s life was incomplete. But the one thing I can make sure of is that his stories will always be full of life, and will always, always be complete with an ending fit for a grand storyteller like him.
Teresa Thomas is a law student studying in Johannesburg, South Africa. In her spare time, she daydreams about story ideas and reads as much as she can. She loves music, and always tries to find joy, in the smallest of places. Above all, she is a forever student and always keen to learn more.
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