OK Kanmani — What Could Have Been
Special thanks to Aishwarya and Prashanthini for helping me edit this patiently without losing their minds. Thank you Pappu for being the lazy snob who chose to watch Chinna Papa Periya Papa instead of giving me feedback.
Everybody who has met Mr. Ganapathy has one word to describe him — stubborn. He lives by the rules, and he knows what he wants to do with his life. Decades of service for the IOB have groomed him into following a routine every day, and made sure that he is doesn’t enjoy any sort of change in life. So much so that now, several years after his retirement, his house in Mumbai remains the way it was 30 years ago. Everything in his apartment, right from the old fashioned wallpaper, to the clearly-well-cared-for furniture have been around since he moved in. Even his relatively-new TV and his computer monitor are from the picture-tube era.
A lot of people think Mr. Ganapathy is stuck in the past. Some of them are almost his age, and some of them are less than half as old as he is. And in a certain way, they are all right. But it’s not just because he is used to the old ways. Mr. Ganapathy has something in life that closely ties him to the past — his wife Bhavani.
A life-long Chennai resident, Ganapathy moved to Bombay in the 70s and found himself lost in a strange city that was nothing like home. He did not understand the language properly, he didn’t know how to get around town and he had only a few Tamil friends whom he could spend time with. His only solace came in the form of classical music concerts that were held periodically at the Center for Fine Arts. He would go there every weekend, sit in the last row and forget about the rest of his uneventful life. And for those two hours every week, he wouldn’t feel so left out.
A few months into his stay in Bombay, Ganapathy attended an event that, at first, didn’t seem very different from what he was used to. But it was different because this time around, he met someone special there, someone who would change his life forever. Bhavani, then a 19-year old carnatic singer, was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. She was amazingly gifted with her music, and people waited in line to see her perform that evening. It wasn’t long before he fell in love with her, and convinced her to marry him.
Early in their 20s, it was an impulsive move for both of them. They had no idea what they were getting into, but they decided to take life on as it happened.
Four decades later, Ganapathy and Bhavani are still together and they show no signs of growing tired of their relationship. They enjoy living inside their little box, where they have everything figured out. They know that as long as they are together, that is all that mattered.
But for all their understanding, life hasn’t given them much other than their relationship. Ganapathy and Bhavani have no children to look after them in their old age, or grandchildren to share old stories with. As the years passed by, Bhavani’s career in music slowly faded away as people no longer preferred spend money out of their pockets to attend carnatic music concerts. They were left to lead a simple middle-class life on a bank officer’s modest paycheque. Since his retirement a few years ago, Ganapathy’s pension has been just about enough to get them through the month.
The only thing that remains, that is truly theirs, is their apartment. It’s the house they moved into right after they got married, the house they made their own by sharing so many memories together.
For Ganapathy, it is a doorway to the past; it shields him from getting overwhelmed by the rest of the modern world. And everyday, he does everything in his power to make sure that everything in the apartment remains just as it was in the 80’s. He wants to hold on to the one thing time hasn’t taken away from them — nostalgia.
However, after several years of denying the inevitable, Ganapathy is forced into a situation he had been fearing for years because they are running out of money. Their lifestyle remains the same, but the world has become more expensive. And the older generation is left with no choice but to get on the train. Ganapathy is stubborn, but even he realizes that they can’t make it work with his pension anymore.
As he struggles to find a solution, Bhavani comes up with an idea that could help them get back on track — they could rent out the other bedroom in their house to make some money. Initially, Ganapathy is hesitant about sharing his personal space with someone else, and more than a little worried that things might change for the worse. But he has little to no choice, so he agrees and starts looking for a tenant. However, it does sting just a little bit that, unlike him, his wife didn’t seem to care much for the past. Not anymore.
After receiving several applications, Ganapathy meets Aadhi, a young man in his twenties who is moving to Mumbai to continue his career in video game development. The brother of a former colleague, he is almost perfect because he is from Chennai. Ganapathy still has a few misgivings, but he agrees to rent him the room because he is running out of options.
Aadhi moves in almost immediately. A young man in his 20s, he is extremely excited about the prospect of living in a glamorous city like Mumbai. And despite Ganapathy’s many rules, he does everything he can to enjoy what it has to offer. But a month after his arrival, growing tired of his maverick attitude, Ganapathy decides to teach Aadhi a lesson. He forces him to take his wife out to a concert on a Saturday night, while he plans to run some errands on his own. He instructs Aadhi to stay with her through the evening and escort her back home when it gets over.
Aadhi has no idea about what he is getting into until he gets to the concert hall. Although he couldn’t help it, two minutes into the show, the classical music performance bores him into sleep. On their way back, Bhavani yells at him for being disrespectful to the singers and makes him leave her alone to go back home. But just a few minutes later, Aadhi finds her stranded in the middle of a road and ends up having to save her from almost getting run over. When he runs to stop her from getting killed, he discovers that Bhavani has no idea where she was, and has forgotten how to read the traffic signs. But somehow, she still seems to remember that she is angry with him.
Unable to talk to her properly, Aadhi manages to get her back home without getting into more trouble. When Ganapathy hears the whole story from Aadhi (and a tirade about Aadhi’s disrespect from Bhavani), Ganapathy takes Bhavani to a hospital the following day. The CAT scan and a few tests reveal the actual story: Alzheimers… Stage 3, and no one had seen it coming.
The doctor invites a visibly shaken Ganapathy to a private room and tells him that he would need to bring Bhavani in for regular check ups from then on. He also tells Ganapathy to get ready for the inevitable — his wife would start forgetting things, and would eventually lose all of her memory. Ganapathy, unable to believe what’s happening, starts cursing God for taking away all the happiness from their lives.
Back in their apartment, it finally hits Ganapathy — his beloved wife, his Bhavani, is going to lose her memory. She is going to forget everything, even him. And to make things worse, he has no way to pay for the medication that would help her. When Bhavani finds him, Ganapathy tries to get her off the subject by telling her that he took some sleeping pills that adversely affected his eyes. But he should have known better than to pull one over her — she just snaps at him (“I’m losing my memory! Not my mind!”) and walks away to sleep alone.
Aadhi, who heard the whole argument, walks over to Ganapathy and offers to help with the expenses. But stubborn to the very end, Ganapathy refuses. He can, and he will take care of his wife without charity, especially from a man much younger than him.
A couple of days later, Aadhi comes up with a possible solution to the problem. He brings home, one of his friends, Tara, a 24-year old architect, and introduces her to Ganapathy and Bhavani. Aadhi wants Tara to live in with him in his room. In exchange for letting them be, they will pay Ganapathy double the rent for the same space. It would be a win-win for both parties. But a little probing tells Ganapathy the truth; they are not married. In fact, they had known each other for only a few weeks! What they were really planning to do, was to live together for a short period of time before separating to follow their own careers.
It takes some time for Ganapathy to comprehend the situation, but very little to tell that he would, no way in hell, let an unmarried couple stay together, in his house! Aadhi tries persuading Ganapathy that marriage is not the right thing, not for him and Tara. They would be much happier if they aren’t committed to each other. But Ganapathy thinks it’s a joke and while they argue, Tara starts talking to Bhavani about the raaga she’s strumming. And before they know what’s happening, Tara breaks into song as Bhavani accompanies her on the veena. This brings Ganapathy to a stop like nothing else. He hasn’t seen his wife like this, not in years. It reminds him of the time when his wife was at her best. So, choosing to ignore everything else that was bad about the idea, he agrees to let them stay together.
In the following weeks, Ganapathy lies to his neighbours that Tara is his niece and chooses to ignore the couple’s personal lives as long as they don’t get in his way. Soon, he learns that, contrary to his belief, Aadhi and Tara are not bad people. They are patient, understanding, and kind. And they bring new life to the house with their happy-go-lucky attitude. He finds that Bhavani is much more cheerful around Tara when they talk about music, and Aadhi is kind enough to help him with chores and taking care of the house.
Meanwhile, Aadhi and Tara enjoy living together in the apartment and grow extremely fond of each other. Looking at (and living with) Ganapathy and Bhavani everyday makes them both secretly wish they could be more like them. That they could also have a long-lasting relationship. But they are too stubborn to say it out loud, and instead, continue to be happy-go-lucky. None the less, their happiness starts to rub off on even Ganapathy, helping him go from depressed to cheerful in a matter of weeks. Soon, Ganapathy starts realizing that he might have been wrong about holding on to the past too much.
A few months later, just when things seem to be going well, Bhavani starts having trouble remembering her own address or phone number. One time, she wanders off only to realize she doesn’t remember the way back. She can no longer be allowed to leave the house alone, and soon, she would forget who her husband was and all of the time they had spent together in life. After a long evening of discussing what they would do next, Ganapathy promises Bhavani that he would never leave her side. But they have to brace themselves for the truth — there is no stopping the Alzheimer’s.
The idea shakes both Ganapathy and Bhavani, who feel that it is a sad way for their story to come to an end. They both wish they had time to go back do everything they hadn’t done in life — travel across India, get a pet dog or even adopt a daughter. Ganapathy realizes that while he was trying so hard to relive the past, he has forgotten how to live in the present. For the first time in his life, he wishes he was more like someone else, someone like Aadhi or Tara.
Ganapathy seeks to find them and thank them for giving him and Bhavani hope in their most troubled times, and for showing him what the world was really like. But to his surprise, he learns that both of them are making plans to leave India separately. They have come to the end of their live-in period, and they are about to break off their relationship to move on with their lives. The decision seems utterly foolish to Ganapathy (and rightly so), and he can’t believe they are ready to let go of everything because they are scared of commitment.
Aadhi and Tara had helped him see the world for what it was, and in return, he wants to pass on an important lesson back to them. He wants to tell them that they have to give life a chance to find out what it has in store for them. He has over 40 wonderful years with his wife to show for it, and if they make the right choice, they would eventually see it for themselves too.
Ganapathy tells himself that he would make it happen even if it is the last thing he does in his life. He may not be able to do anything about the Alzheimer’s, but he isn’t going to let Aadhi and Tara run away from each other.
Not because it isn’t right. Ganapathy would do it because it is what he and Bhavani have stood for their entire life. That is worth something. To him, it is worth everything.
Originally published at blog.rameshganapathy.com on April 24, 2015.