O Captain! My Captain!
A year without Ahu Sakhrie
If you’ve had an uncle or aunt who was liberal with pushing money in your hand, he or she is definitely on your favorites list. If you were like me and two rupees was once the daily pocket money, then you’d understand the gleeful run towards the person freely handing out larger notes. Early memories of Ami Ahu mostly include me running towards my uncle pretending not to expect a handout. After I joined boarding school, the visit home was less frequent and my acting skills got better, especially when visiting my uncle. But if you know the trend, you know there’s no free lunch and that free handouts are usually accompanied by a long lecture. I have seen elders impose that on the prodigal cousin, usually before handing out notes in a closed fist with an innocuous remark like ‘this is for a cup of tea on the road’. We know the money almost never goes for tea on the road.
As I became older, the handouts stopped but meetings with my uncle were getting longer and then the visits slowly became a ritual. I spent time with Ami Ahu every time I went home because I had begun enjoying the long conversations, spread across various subjects. These conversations were soaked in elderly wisdom, in the tradition of young Naga men learning at the morung, and I always went away richer. This kind of handout was priceless.
I knew my uncle was well known because I had had many conversations with seniors who would say at some point, ‘he was such a brilliant man…’ and then trail off. I noticed the past tense. I assumed they were mostly referring to the time when he was in college and in JNU for M.Phil, including during the origin of NPMHR. My mother would refer to those times often, during conversations about the years she was growing up. It was apparent that she was very proud of her brother Ahu, who led from the front. My grandparents did not have a formal education, and my uncle was making a big leap from that perspective. I suppose the past tense was because of my uncles’ taking to the bottle, which seemed to take the sheen off his intelligence and charisma. Society is such that appearances trump everything, and everything else takes a back seat.
I recall one occasion when he was in hospital on the road to recovery, he was fidgety and unable to sleep. We began a long conversation that began on a philosophical note -aptly about life, moved to Obama’s winning the Nobel, and finally ended with the report of the Liberhan Commission. Even at the sickbed, my uncle wouldn’t waste an opportunity to wrestle with the latest news updates.
He was like that. One of the most intelligent men I have met, every anecdote pregnant with wisdom, he had a way with words while also being direct and succinctly making the point. During my struggles with exams and years behind locked doors, he told me, “Knowledge begins by saying ‘I don’t know’. You have to learn to say ‘I don’t know’”. I can now remember that he would often say ‘I don’t know, tell me about it’ or something along those lines, whenever I asked him about something he hadn’t read about. Perhaps that was the way he accumulated wisdom.
In another debate on the subject of teaching and education, he said “Young Naga boys in the village would know when and where they should go out to hunt birds. This knowledge is passed down and that is education too.” A votary of tradition, he also believed that the young Naga generation must rise above what he called a ‘floating culture’- where people are no more real, busy keeping up with the Joneses and living beyond one’s means in every aspect of life. He often worried that the light of our values, as it were, would slowly ebb and die.
My uncle also had a strange confidence about him, sometimes evident in his laughter. He would laugh aloud in a half-mocking, playful way whenever he knew he was right.Besides his incisive commentary on the issues of the day, what made a deep impression on me was that he knew exactly who he was. There was no pretense, no effort to masquerade, no effort to impress. And perhaps that was, in a way, the secret to his confidence and his candid delivery. There was clarity in his stream of thought, which comes from thinking deeply about something. We talked about faith at times, and he was a man who feared the Lord and knew exactly where he walked. He knew he was going to heaven, no matter what. And until then, he told me, “you have to come back and take care of me as well.”
Time surely flies, because it has been one year since he passed away, the alcohol finally getting the better of him. Admittedly, it was tempting to play judge and condemn the habit, but looking only at the surface and giving advice is the easiest thing to do. I was many miles away, unable to even pay my last respects beside him. I suddenly realized that I had never thanked him for all that he had done to me, the nuggets of wisdom that now live beneath my skin.
I treasure the many conversations I’ve had with him. He pushed me to think deeper and appreciate the old and the new, and he continues to inspire his nephew in ways he would never know. Every time I struggle with expressing myself verbally, and every time I slow down, I always hear him saying, “If you don’t read, you can’t write well. And if you don’t write well, you can’t speak well.” He was not just an elder I could look up to, but he was also someone who’d call me out in case I’d taken a detour.
Each year as I grow older, I chuckle at my foolishness in not seeing more clearly the wisdom of those that have gone before us. Those who didn’t need to tap a phone app every second, but those who lived simple lives that had depth. Those who were content with less but brimmed with wisdom and magnanimity.
I am proud that Ami Ahu was among those. He had his own burdens to bear, and he knew well what they were. But he brought laughter and cheer to all family gatherings, and as he laughed with one person to the next, I would look at him and think, ‘appearances can truly be deceiving’.
Seoul, South Korea