Long ago, before we began to wish old friends just on Friendship Days and long, long ago, even before we used to call them on old-fashioned landline phones, two boys swore eternal friendship.
They did that on a rickety old bench in St Mary’s School, Champakulam, more than 65 years ago. My dad and the acting legend Nedumudi Venu.
One of my earliest memories of – dad and Uncle Venu (Or Uncle Sashi as he asked us kids to call him – which we often changed to Uncle Venu) together was of them chattering non-stop over news past and present, guffawing over old jokes and promising each other another phone call or letter soon. That in those days meant so much, because uncle was based in Kerala and we lived in the Middle East.
They missed each other, their dramas, their fun at school, the taste of their mothers’ cooking – we heard all about their escapades often, more during the special occasions dear to Kuttanadan souls – like village festivals and snake boat races.
Both loved their art – as children, they acted in a one act play with just two characters – dad played the husband and uncle played the wife. The play, written by uncle and edited by dad, was called Thavala (Frog) and all they could remember was that they dissected a plastic frog on stage. They won the first prize for the play and they both shared the ‘Best Actor’ prize. Once dad asked uncle if he remembered any of its lines – uncle exclaimed ‘Aah’ in his characteristic way and they laughed more.
When they completed their schooling, they walked all the way to a studio to click a picture together, dragging another friend along. Uncle and dad – both have copies of that photograph (pictured here)
Uncle kept inviting dad to visit him when he built his new home, to stay at least two months and act with him in a movie, please. We kids teased dad endlessly about how he missed out on a life in Indian cinema because he never could spare those two months, visiting uncle and hobnobbing with the stars. Wives spoke on the phone, us kids got gifts whenever they met.
What touched me the most was how stuffed and saturated with love, uncle was. I have been reading social media posts eulogising him – how he promised to be a dad when Manju Warrier lost her own dad, how he moved a tired Mammootty to the back of a car so he could get some rest, was a big brother to Mohan Lal and a chum to Jayaram and a mentor and inspiration to even the younger crop of actors such as Kunjacko Boban, Aju Varghese, Nivin Pauly, Parvathy Thiruvoth, Asif Ali, Dulquer Salman, Prithviraj Sukumaran and the like.
Besides being incredibly talented, he was truly one of the kindest souls I have ever met. No posh airs about that simple, loving Kuttanadan soul! Each of our conversations were peppered with so much fondness. The first time when dad put him on the phone with me, this well-known voice with its rich Malayalam and exceptional accent floated across. He was so sweet and down to earth – and I was a child who stammered a few lines in the ‘half-Malayalam-half-Manglish-mostly English’ lingo which was part of the daily life of us Gulf kiddoes. Uncle chatted so freely and kindly that I felt soon at ease. The race that knows God always recognises Him in another fellow man’s love and sincerity.
Once, we almost made him an impromptu visit – we had landed at the Trivandrum Airport and uncle wanted us and three cars full of our relatives (that’s how we Indians received families at the airport those days) to visit him, as soon as he heard that we had reached his city. Dad agreed after a lot of coaxing. That visit got cancelled because one of dad’s cousins fell sick on the way and we had to turn the cars back. We kids (and all those people in the three cars) never forgave that relative for falling sick.
Us kids finally met uncle when I was a school girl. Uncle Venu, a team of actors, filmmakers and other prominent faces of Malayalam cinema, came to Abu Dhabi for a show. We loved the show, dad cheered each time uncle came on stage, but we were not permitted in to see him later – stars such as Mohan Lal, Jagathi Sreeekumar, Sreenivasan were with him and all of UAE had turned up. The security asked for an id and agreed to pass a message on to Uncle Venu. Dad sent their old school pic in an envelope.
What I saw next is still fresh in my memory. Uncle Venu was running down – all the way down the spiral staircase – while the whole crowd watched spellbound, as these two old friends rushed at each other, hugged and picked each other up by turns. They laughed, talked, hugged. We kids gaped at all the stars, at close quarters, all evening.
Dad spent the next whole day with uncle, surrounded by all the stars, while we went off to school – which we thought was an unforgivable crime bordering on children’s torture. I have met and interviewed many celebrities as a journalist, yet none of those occasions gave the same thrill – of showing off those star pictures, sneaked into school that week.
Dad stayed faithful to his friendship by ranting at all and sundry, each time he thought Uncle Venu deserved to win an award (which was pretty much every year, according to the rule book of daddy) We teased dad often saying that he never really forgave Kamal Haasan because he wanted Uncle Venu to win the national award when those two were pitted against each other, in 1987. Uncle forgave Mr Haasan, I am sure. Dad did not.
When dad was digging for old pics recently, uncle sent him a family pic of ours from his album. Their conversations were peppered with ‘do you remembers’ and both were forever saddened because they could not make it to their children’s weddings. Dad has saved the last invitation card though.
They stayed passionately loyal to their friendship, until uncle passed away yesterday. In a world where friendships are falling short of the ideals of love, trust and most importantly – commitment, we are honoured to have at least one best friend from dad’s childhood – who truly stayed committed and loving, until death. And I, who always hated attending funerals or writing obituaries, had to write a painful one this week.
The last 24 hours have been hard, but made easier by reminiscences – uncle’s fine movie roles, his singing (we have gotten endless forwards of the same songs via WhatsApp) his sense of humour and even the music of his ghatam (an ancient Indian percussion instrument) which resonated in their school, during their lunch hours. Dad even misses the old tape recorder they once used to play their favourite pieces on.
When we recently marked dad’s birthday, uncle was sickly and undergoing treatment. Yet when we kids decided to make the cherished ‘video of birthday messages from loved ones’, we woke up to uncle’s dawn message of love – teasing daddy about his age. These two had giggled together on each other’s birthdays this year – like two school kids all over again. And that is what dad and we all will cherish the most, as we lay uncle to rest this week.
At the risk of sounding cliched, let me remind you – cherish your friendships, make sure you stay connected to people. My family teases my friends and me – because we are all total softies over our daily good morning messages, jokes and forwards (yeah yeah, Indians’ good morning messages are making the tech world wonky, but you just gotta do, what you gotta do) My son also teases me because whenever we mark a milestone, I message even the ones who are dear but aloof. Just to let them know they are remembered. What started as daily enriching ministry messages to dear ones have become such a habit, that we check on each other if one wish from that one friend does not turn up.
Make sure you call, write, annoy people by checking on them – sometimes they need it, sometimes you do. Make sure your conversations end well. And don’t wait to speak to your friends or even speak up for them – until they have passed away. Don’t leave all those loving words unsaid, until disasters strike.
The Bible talks about ‘a friend who sticks closer than a brother’ (Proverbs 18:24) Their friendship taught me that time, distance, environment, character differences (dad is as different from uncle, as chalk is from cheese) are not barriers to true friendship. In fact, nor is age, race, gender, class, religion or anything manmade.
Life throws us angels and we call them friends. I see the face of God in my friends. Real friends MAKE time for you and me. I do not have older siblings, so first my schoolmates, then my college mates, colleagues and friends of the family – have filled those roles. Some of them are family today. I have seen Jesus in my friends from all walks of life, even in the ones the world may not even call ‘religious’ or even good people. Sadly, I have also seen even so-called holy people who wear the cloak of religion and social status proudly, display such wickedness, especially when they climb the social ladder. They gossip, slander, beat up and betray their so-called friends, without any qualms. You are blessed if you have true friends and retain them without prejudice and a lot of love. That is when you truly reflect Christ.
Ironically, what cheered dad up yesterday was a phone call from the US – from MY best friend. She and I had sworn to be BFFs (best friends forever) as two little girls in school too. She was calling to check on my dad – she remembered her friend and her friend’s family enough to recollect what Venu Uncle meant to my dad. Memories, love and a lot of commitment – is possible – even from across the miles.
My son and his school friends too have already begun to make plans to work, collaborate on writing books together etc when they grow older.
Some things never change, across generations.
PS: Image borrowed from Uncle Venu’s WhatsApp. My dad is on the extreme right and of course we all know the familiar face on the left. Rest in peace, uncle. You will be missed a lot.
By Linda Joseph Kavalackal,
Christ & Co.