Reflecting on a life well lived

Ajitesh Abhishek
9 min readMar 26, 2023

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Today when leaving the home for the office, I said, “this day would just be over in a moment”. And that’s how it should have been. I had a meeting with one of the large customers for Google Cloud, a product presentation to 100+ customer engineers, and a shift to a new house later that day, which would have involved me driving the U Haul.

As soon as I said that I felt something strange. Ignoring the thought, I drove to the office around 7 AM in the morning. Lost in the preparation for the presentation, I saw the message from my brother — “Bhaiya, Nana ji nai rahe” (Nana ji is no more).

Out of all the messages on whatsapp, 100s of windows on my laptop, countless todos in my head … I had a real, deep pause in the midst. One that I didn’t have for a long time. I had this coming for a long time, but I was never prepared for it.

Nana ji had a deep impact on my life. In said and unsaid ways. I spent most of my early years with him for one or other reason. He was 94 years old and had a major impact on so many of our lives in our big, extended family.

As a single parent, Nana ji raised five daughters and two sons. In India, in traditional society, raising and getting daughters married is still a big challenge — security and dowry, which is still pretty prevalent in traditional Bihar. An achievement in itself on how we managed his finances to make this happen while building a house and investing in the education of grandson.

As far back as I can remember, Nana ji always had a small briefcase, which was probably given to him at the time of retirement. And that was a treasure trove of so many things I never understood but curious to understand. Everytime we visited, including in 2019, he would open this briefcase with keys tucked to a janeu (a sacred thread that many Hindu wear) and hand us some money to spend.

While Nana ji received this briefcase at retirement, never actively retired. After leaving his government job, he started a homeopathy clinic. He used to spend his whole day in the clinic. Whenever I used to visit him in the clinic (to take a break from study or just have fun), he was either reading a medical book or some novel. He used to give us a sweet medicine from his clinic. Every time before exams, Nana ji used to give me a medicine, which he said increases memory and intelligence. Not sure how much it helped, but it sure tasted good and made me feel good about the exam. I used to take it near my exams, and I continued doing it till I was 10th.

After 10th I had to come to Delhi, and my frequency of meeting him diminished. Mummy and Papa were always in different cities, so traveling to Arrah became difficult. And then I came to the US :(

A lot can be said with stories

Nanaji never just shared a fact. He shared a perspective on it. Long before I studied medieval India history or about the British role in modern India, I had a strong take on major events.

A happy moment of my mom with Nana ji

We heard a lot of stories about Ramayan and Mahabharat, and each from a different perspective. For example, for all the virtues of Ram, Nana ji never shied away from highlighting that he did leave his wife and agnipariksha wasn’t the right thing to do. Nana ji lost his wife (nani) pretty early in life (his fifties) and never remarried. Countless times he told how she used to make Nana ji save money and cook really yum foods.

Living life on his own terms

Nana ji’s retirement was a big transition in his life, and naturally we heard a lot of stories about it. The year Nana ji retired, the Indian government revised the pay scale. If he would have continued for one more year, he would have got 10–20% more pension — a really good deal. As luck would have it, Nana ji’s manager offered him an option that he can extend his tenure. To everyone’s surprise, Nana ji declined. He said he can’t do “ji hajuri” (insincerely agree or flatter to get some benefits). He told us that he never did this before and chose not to do this time.

His attitude of living life on his own terms reflects on many aspects of life. In small towns of India the bride’s side still has to struggle a lot and always show that the groom’s side is somehow at a higher pedestal. While Nana ji also didn’t walk away from dowry or some related practices, he always met the groom’s side with confidence mixed with humility. But it did have its challenges, which he was willing to deal with. I remember during Kiran Masi’s wedding, Nana ji came to make us sleep at around 10 or 11 PM (from what I can remember). This was after Jaymal (key function in wedding) was done. The brother of the groom (who unfortunately was from IIT and in 30s back then) came, full with male chauvinism, and made this comment “look at the bride’s father. Sleeping during her wedding”. People like them should just burn their degree. If they can’t show decency to a person so much older in age and still consumed in superiority on the groom’s side, they have no use of modern education. While I always wanted to be in IIT, this incident drove the point that I should more importantly be a nice person than anything else. The kind of person Nana ji was, who chose to not respond to this mindless comment.

Living life on my terms is deeply valuable to me, and I struggle to do ji hajuri (and many a times to my disadvantage). This has a lot to do with Nana ji.

The power of storytelling

Everyday, we kids would sit with Nana ji in the evening and ask him to tell stories. The stories can range from Indian mythology to fictional kings to Indian history. When bored, Nana ji could create a never ending story, which had cycling loops.

Countless times I heard the tragedy of the battle of Panipat, whether with Hemu or Marathas. My favorite was the story of Prithviraj vs Ghori. In his stories, battle happened 18 times. While he was sympathetic to Prithviraj and told us about his marriage and courage, he never failed to emphasize the importance of persistence. He told us that Ghori was inspired by seeing an ant, which was trying to climb a wall and slipped 17 times. On the 18th time, she made it. One theme in these stories was how the victory was stolen from India, and even today when I think of these historical moments, it mostly saddens me.

Through his eyes I’ve witnessed some major historical events of India. He told us about the time when India was under British rule. The tyranny of it, and some minor positives of it. With a disregard to political correctness, he felt India needed more discipline and British rule and emergency did bring it. Through him, I learned early on the tussle to become PM between Jinnah, Nehru, and Sardar Patel. I never validated the story that Jinnah had cancer, and Nana ji felt if Jinnah could have been the PM and that would have avoided the partition. Nehru was his last choice.

Thanks to these storytimes, I’m still pretty fascinated toward history, mythologies, and stories in general. A few years back, I was in Kellogg School of Management and participated in the Idea Competition, which was sponsored by Red Flyer. The theme was to come up with a product idea targeted at kids. No surprise when I look back, I came up with the idea of launching a “storyteller” — an AI powered smartspeaker (~Alexa for kids), who tells stories to kids with associated sound effects and generates these stories based on the culture and historical context of the kids family. We threw in some AR/VR and catchy product names, and my team was the runner up of the competition (good $600 to every team member).

Had a way with kids

Every kid in our family had a special bond with Nana ji. While adults in the family kept to themselves at times, Nanaji always had time for us. To tell stories. Listen to our questions. Now when I think about it. He just did the basics — treated us with care and respect (no shouting), created small joyful moments, and never forced his choices on us. Perhaps that’s what it takes for every relationship.

Nana ji transcended generation gaps more frequently than most adults in our family. One example is about who to marry. Bihar is still a caste-ridden society, and this becomes worse when it comes to marriage. My brother and I married without worrying about the caste barriers (what’s generally called “love” marriage vs “arranged”). Nana ji was one of the few who never questioned any aspects of it. He did once ask me to marry an Indian. That’s slightly racist, but that was the extent of it.

Once my dad was posted at Darbhanga for a period of 3 years. I chose to stay with Nana ji at Arrah during that time so that I don’t have to deal with the anxiety of changing schools. That phase is what I remember most now. I used a barge into his clinic to just chat during the day. He would give me money to buy some snack or just buy things from vendors crossing the street. In summer breaks, I used to travel to Darbhanga with Nana ji. It used to be a 10 hr train journey but it was really fun. Nana ji used to buy from at least 10 vendors during this journey right from chana-garam to samosa to fruity. This speaks about the kind of personality he had. Nana ji was’t extremely rich, but he never said “no” to these small joys of life.

My last birthday with Nana ji — 25th April 2019

Nana ji was also an avid video game player, and quite competitive about it :) Contra and tanks were his favorite. He was equally interested in gardening and watching cricket and movies. Every time we visited Arrah, had something that he grew in the garden: Papaya, Banana, Beans, Indian Okra etc.

One of the regrets that I perhaps have to live with is not getting to meet him enough. Covid and then visa delays made me not visit India for 2 years from 2019 to 2021.

Nana ji and I during my brother’s marriage ceremony

He kept asking me to visit him, but I somehow got lost in the chores of life. The last time I saw him was in 2022, right after my marriage. That was after 3 years. A lot has changed in these years. When I walked into his room, he had just woken up from a nap and was unable to speak. But he smiled at me. I can still picture his face.

Nana ji always told me he wanted to see me get married. He would say, “I will come wearing a red coat and support in one hand” (alas! that never happened). When I introduced my wife Smiley to him, he gently and slowly put her hand in mine and smiled. That was the highlight of my trip to Ara and Patna.

My last meeting with Nana ji. Smiley was with me this time.

When I left him that day, I knew the chances of meeting him again were slim. Such is the life of living in a different country. If I continue to live in the US, I would only get to see my family back home 30–40 or so more times if I were lucky. Maybe less.

Now when I go back to his house in Arrah, I will miss so many things. I’ll miss him sitting on the bed, smiling and asking when I would come next. I’ll miss him taking out his briefcase and handing me cash despite me telling him I don’t need it now. I will miss asking him to repeat the stories that I now know by heart. I will miss him, in anything and everything :(

But that’s a conversation for some other day. Today I want to remember a life well lived! With a big smile. Loads of little joys. No grudges. And a generous heart …

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