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Stewardship and Trusteesh
  By A.J. Philip  
  I ACCOMPANIED Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on his visit to South Africa on the occasi  
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  DEVOTIONAL  
 
   
Letter to Metropolitan
  By Rev A.P. Jacob and five other priests  
  Most Rev. Dr. Joseph Mar Thoma Metropolitan Most Rev. Dr. Philipose Mar Chrysostom Mar  
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  COUNSELING
 
Back to infancy -- they n
 
  By Shaheen Chander  
  ENJOYING a relaxed weekend, I was checking updates on the Facebook page. I came across a b  
     
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  ARTICLE  
     
  Life at 105  
  With no complaints  
   
  CURIOSITY is central to journalism. All great stories are, in fact, the result of a strong desire to know more about something. Last Sunday when I sat through a reception in the church where speaker after speaker repeated what everyone knew about a bishop, what struck me the most was a cryptic comment made by the church secretary that the audience consisted of people in the 3-103 age-group.

Who is that centenarian? By the time I had a cup of tea and a piece of cake, served free of cost as a reward for our patience, he and his wife had left for home. I have only read about centenarians like the Japanese Jiroemon Kimura, who died on June 12 completing 116 years and 54 days. His obituary mentioned that he had seen four Emperors and 61 prime ministers come and go.

Jeanne Calment, 122, a Frenchwoman, is believed to have lived the longest. Last month, newspapers, however, speculated that Carmelo Flores Laura, 123, a Bolivian, is the world's oldest living person, though the Guinness Book of World Records is yet to verify his age. The oldest person that I came across is in the book Apprenticed to a Himalayan Master: A Yogi's Autobiography by Sri M (Magenta Press).

A few words about Sri M would be appropriate. Born in a Muslim family in Thiruvananthapuram, he grew up in the eclectic traditions of the city where a temple, a church and a mosque stand in a line, as if proclaiming that God is one. His maternal grandmother who doted on him forbade him from eating from any Hindu house but he had no difficulty in swallowing the ashes a holy man had given him, for as a Muslim he could not smear it on his body. 

The author narrates his first encounter with a sadhu, who did not have much philosophical thoughts to share with the young seeker. All he told him was to pronounce the name "Raa-maayanam". Then he said, "Raa means night, darkness, irrutu. The darkness must go. Then you will see Rama". What a profound thought! His autobiography is all about his search for his Guru, whom he finally meets in the upper reaches of the Himalayas. He is over 100 years old but has the body of a forty-year-old person.

It is one thing to meet someone in a book and quite another to meet someone in person. A little inquiry revealed that he stayed not far from my house and he was aged 105, not 103 as erroneously mentioned by the church secretary. Although in Kerala it is considered a measure of informality to visit someone without giving him a notice, I decided to seek his permission to visit him.

Any time convenient to me was fine to him. I was simply stunned by his response which was a give-away about his state of health. No, he did not have to be given a bath and made presentable like the Bolivian, who is 18 years elder to him. A friend, Naseer, in whose old palatial house much of the mega Malayalam TV serial Kayamkulam Kochunni, the story of a Robinhood-like character who is believed to have lived in my hometown a few centuries ago, was shot, volunteered to drive me to the place.

I had a choice when a younger friend, who is a mechanical engineering student, also came forward to take me there in his new Innova. I noticed that he had some interest in journalism. Who knows he could be another Jal Khambata, a friend who gave up his engineering studies at Maulana Azad College of Technology (MACT) at Bhopal, to join United News of India (UNI) in the seventies, I thought.

As my sister had given me proper directions, I had no difficulty in locating the single-storied house with a roof-protector on the Kayamkulam-Mavelikkara Road near Bhagawati Junction. The moment we reached the gate, an old lady in a pink kimono-like dress came out to receive us. "Why don't you park the vehicle inside the compound?" she asked, struggling to open the gate. I sprang to her help and soon the car was nicely parked in her sprawling courtyard.

"Is 'Appachan' -- a generic, respectful term used for elderly Christians -- at home?", I asked her. I am comfortable with the word with which I addressed my father. "I am here. Please come", I heard a clear, loud reply from inside the house. He did not wait inside. Rather, he came out and opened the collapsible, specially-built, high-secure door that led one into the house through the car garage.

"Would you like to sit in the verandah or in the living room?" When I told him that whatever was convenient to him was convenient to me, he took me inside and sat in a sofa chair. He wore a lungi and a T-shirt and his 105 years sat lightly on his shoulders. Ammachi, as I began calling his wife, sat at a distance. It is not proper to ask a lady her age if you are not a census enumerator but I made bold to ask her.

"I am 90" she said with a youthful smile that revealed that she had a nice set of dentures. I do not know how she guessed what crossed my mind when she added, "my teeth are artificial while my husband's are natural". I had read somewhere that it is the texture of the skin that reveals a person's age. When someone says, "you don't look that old", it means your skin still retains its shine.

As I sat before Ammachi, I realized that if she looked a score younger, the secret lay in her teeth. Not only that, the teeth also gave clarity to her voice. "What Marykutty said is true. The teeth that I have are all natural, though their number has been decreasing over the years", Appachan said as he began counting his teeth with the help of his right index finger.

"Oh, you don't have to count them for me". But who would listen? "I have fourteen in all", he said with an air of certainty. I became the first journalist in the world to have the teeth of a centenarian counted for accuracy. "They are sufficient to enable me to have a normal meal". Ammachi took her cue from his comment and said, "He is happy if he gets rice, butter milk in curry form, a vegetable and a piece of fish. He is not at all fastidious about food".

She still cooks their food. "Thank God, we do not have any illness worth the name, except for pain in my right knee. Neither of us has any problems like hypertension, diabetics or high cholesterol". I thought how true is the definition, "absence of disease is health"! Appachan had a point to make: "My problem is loss of memory. I am unable to remember many past incidents".

"Now I am also not able to remember much", complemented Ammachi. However, she remembers in vivid detail her marriage to K.T. Varghese in 1944, how he came to see her first at Mavelikkara and how she as a bride reached Kayamkulam. "Ours was an arranged marriage. So it did not matter that he was 15 years elder to me". He had an explanation for his late marriage. "I was keen that I should have a proper job before I got married".

Born on March 5, 1908, he could not complete matriculation as his father, who ran a provision store, could not afford to send three of his children to the school at the same time. "My father thought I could be inducted into his business. Though I would do errands for him, business did not interest me. I wanted a job". His search for a job took him to Nilgiri and many other places. He does not remember the kinds of job he did.

A turning point in his life was joining the Military Engineering Service. Marykutty had better memories of various postings he had in places as far apart as Avadi in Chennai, Vizag in Andhra Pradesh and Pangod in Thiruvananthapuram. It still pains her that some people called her a "barren woman" when they were not blessed with children for a few years. The God who heard Sarah's and Hanna's prayers heard hers, too, and the couple was blessed with six children.

Her face brightens up when she says with a lot of pride that they have six children, 14 grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren, the latest having been born four days ago. As she recounted her story, I remembered my grandmother saying that she had lost five children before my father was born to her. Long life is in their genes as Varghese's father was 93 when he passed away.

Barring two daughters who live in Kerala, all the other children are in the US. Nothing gives the couple greater happiness than the company of their children. But for reasons of their own, they cannot stay with them, though they visit them as often as possible. "Almost every day, we get calls from the US and he is very happy answering them". Also, they prefer to live their own life. "I get a pension which is sufficient for us".

He has authorized his daughter to draw his pension. Their children have also employed a Nepali Gorkha, who stays with his wife in an outhouse in the same compound and provides them with a sense of security. It's said that loneliness is what haunts the old. "We have our own company. We also get a lot of visitors. Our priest calls if we don't attend the church for any reason".

Going to church is what keeps him going. On Sunday morning, a church member visits him, takes out his car from the garage and drives him to the church and brings him back. In fact, his church-going starts on Saturday afternoon when he takes a long oil bath. On Sunday, he takes another quick bath and will not have a morsel of food till he returned home from the church. Every morning and evening, they have their family prayers which, they say, is what keeps their family united.

What is the secret of their longevity? I indeed asked him this question. He smiled and answered, "There is no secret. We lead a simple life". The total lack of tension and their smiling, friendly nature, coupled with their firm faith in God, make them an enviable made-for-each-other couple.

Varghese has strong opinions on contemporary political issues. He reads the newspaper thoroughly and follows news on television too. He subscribes to quite a few religious periodicals. Apart from the Bible, another book that he thumbs daily is Prathidinam Priyante Savithe (Daily in His Company) that contains 365 devotionals written by his son-in-law and theologian Dr Thomas David, who lives in the US. 

When he turned 100, he organized a prayer meeting and community feast attended by many people. Though he complained about loss of memory, he vividly remembers his visit to New York, the Hudson river, the Statue of Liberty and the ride up the World Trade Centre towers.

"Do you have any unfulfilled desires?" I asked him. "No, none at all. My only prayer is that I should not be felled. I am ready for my tryst with my Creator. If given an option, I would like to be surrounded by my family when I am called to eternal rest". I could make out that it was time for his lunch. As I took leave of him, he asked me yet again about my family name. "You are Ambikulangara Achen's grandson? I have visited Achen's house several times. One of your uncles was my classmate at Kayamkulam High School".

Since my father was the eldest in the family, having been born in 1917, he could not have been his classmate as he was born nine years earlier in 1908. Maybe one of my father's cousins! He accompanied me to the gate, held my hands and said in English, "Thank you very much for your visit. Please come again. We enjoyed your visit".

It was difficult to believe that the person who was seeing me off had experienced the rigours of two world wars and had drawn a salary when an Indian rupee fetched more than the US dollar. On the way back, I said a silent prayer that they may lead a longer life. 

The writer can be reached at ajphilip@gmail.com 

Courtesy: Indian Currents
 
  By  A.J. Philip  
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