My Missing Uncle

The year I turned thirteen, a year after my father’s passing away, I spent part of my summer vacation, as usual, at my grandfather’s home in Central India. The days were long and hot, the afternoons slow and languorous, the evenings warm, the nights short and cool. We–my brother, my cousins, and I–played cricket in the mornings, drank lemonade, went swimming in a nearby river, and hitched rides on my uncle’s mining company’s trucks to visit the mines themselves, where we could see rock faces blown to bits by explosive charges. And in quieter moments, I would read books–picking one after the other from the shelves in our living room–and look through the family’s old photo albums.

The albums in my grandfather’s home had heirloom status by now; they were filled with a black and white photographic record of my father’s family, from their earliest days in this small town, all the way down to the present day. I delighted in examining these photos again and again, revisiting weddings, birthdays, festival celebrations, travels on vacation. A central pleasure in these investigations was that of seeing an uncle or an aunt in their childhood incarnation: there he was, good ‘ol A__, back in the day as a rakish young college student, slim and dapper, moustached, long before he grew heavy and sedate; there she was, our lovely aunt C__, looking almost impossibly glamorous, long before she resigned herself to household duties and bringing up her daughters. Sometimes they were teenagers, sometimes they were even younger.

One evening, while looking through a set of photographs of a family trip to Kashmir in 1950, I came upon a group photograph, posed against the backdrop of a beautiful lake ringed by hills. We chuckled over how callow some of our grizzled elders looked, how slim, how dashing, how innocent. We named them all, exclaiming in surprise at the changes wrought by the years. We were brought up short by a young lad, sitting quietly in the front row, his legs neatly tucked beneath him. Who was this? He looked vaguely like my uncle’s son, my ten-year old cousin–who could he be? We didn’t dwell on the mystery too long; our family was capacious, and it was not too surprising to find out members of it were unknown to us.

A day or so later, I showed my uncle–my father’s younger brother–the photograph and asked him who the lad was. My uncle said he was his younger brother. He had been my uncle’s little buddy, a friend, someone to be taken care of and protected, just the way he had been by my father. He named him. It was the first time I had ever heard the name  uttered in my presence. I had never met him.  I couldn’t have, for he had died a year after that photograph had been taken. He had been set to follow my father and my uncle–his older brothers–to boarding school in Delhi, and indeed, had his baggage packed and ready to go, when he had come down suddenly with a mysterious intestinal ailment. Despite being rushed to the doctors and extended the best care possible under the circumstances–in a small town in Central India in the 1950s–he had passed away. He had been nine years old.

My grandmother and grandfather confirmed the story. My uncle–that little boy–was their youngest child. They had loved him dearly, pampering him in a way they hadn’t their first two sons. They had held him back at home a little longer, not wanting to send him away to Delhi to boarding school as quickly as they had sent my father and uncle. As they spoke, tears welled up in their eyes.  My grandfather, a gruff and stern man, visibly weakened as he spoke; my grandmother, always soft-spoken, murmured in even lower tones.

So I had had another uncle, one who didn’t even grow to be as old as I was when I first heard of him. Had he survived his mystery illness, he would have been twenty-three or so years older than me. Calling him ‘uncle’, conferring upon him that avuncular title makes him sound older; he was just a little kid.Till I had seen that photograph and persisted in my curiosity, no one had ever mentioned him to me. His death was a tragedy that no one spoke of; perhaps it was too distant in time, too many years had gone by; perhaps the memory was too painful. I never learned much more about my father’s brother. My grandparents passed away; my uncle’s memories of him remained limited.

My father, certainly, had never spoken of his little brother. I knew, in the days and weeks and months and years following my father’s passing away that I would find out more about him–that my childhood picture of him would change in many ways unanticipated. I had not reckoned that I would find out that he had once been a teenager, who had received a devastating letter from his parents telling him his youngest brother had passed away.

In the brief time I knew my father, he had been carrying around, somewhere in the spaces of his memories, recollections of a long-dead brother. In some roundabout way, to learn about my uncle was to learn something about my father, about what he might have had in that part of himself that he kept hidden from his children

2 thoughts on “My Missing Uncle

  1. This makes me sad for your father. Remembering that people carry around secret tragedies makes me try to be more forgiving/tolerant of behavior and opinions that would otherwise irritate me.

    1. Katherine,

      That was my reaction too; I wondered how he had reacted, what he felt. And of course, I wondered why he never told us; perhaps he thought we were too young.

      As for your closing remark, I agree again. So much hidden away from view. So much.

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