Rangakaka: Remembering a colorful life

Rangakaka and me in New York, 2011.
Rangakaka and me in New York, 2011.

The film “Aradhana” had just made its big splash in 1969 when my family returned once again from a soujourn in America to India. As we settled back to a middle-class existence that back then meant ration cards and standing in line for water, the songs of “Aradhana” blared on speakers at street stalls. We had a radio at home but half the time we didn’t have electricity. So there were two ways to hear music for someone like me in Kolkata: go see the movie over and over again at a cheap matinee or listen to the street speakers.

The movie starred Sharmila Tagore, a Bengali actress who was hugely popular in Kolkata, and Rajesh Khanna, perhaps the biggest star in Bollywood at the time. The songs were all number one hits and I went to see the movie many times with Shantidi, the woman who worked for us as a housekeeper.

That summer, we went to Delhi to visit my father’s brother. I called him Rangakaka.

My uncle’s name was Tapan Kumar Basu. In my culture, younger people never address an elder person by their first name. Kaka is the word for a father’s younger brother. My father had four brothers so the family gave them all terms of endearment. Ranga was the name given to this uncle. It means color in Bengali, a fitting name for a man with so much joie de vivre.

Rangakaka was the most outgoing, the most gregarious of all my father’s brothers, I thought. He gave new meaning to “eat, drink and be merry.”

On that trip to Delhi, I was only 7 years old and did not know my uncle well then, though my parents were very close to him.

When he was a college student, he had lived with my mother and father in north Kolkata for a while. One of the stories that was often circulated in the family was of the time when my parents were out and burglars broke into the house, gagged and tied Rangakaka up and shoved him under the bed. My father always told me Rangakaka was a lucky man that day.

Instantly, I took a liking to Rangakaka. One big reason was that he knew all the lyrics to my favorite “Aradhana” songs. Another reason was that Rangakaka drove us everywhere in his Fiat when few people in my family even owned cars. Those who did hired chauffeurs to take them around. But not Rangakaka. He told me he loved to drive. In the early 1970s, the streets of Delhi were wide open and it was easy to navigate traffic. Unimaginable today.

Rangakaka drove us around and all the while regaled us with song. “Roop tera, Mustana. Pyar mera, diwana. Bhuul koi hamse naa ho jaaye.” Your beauty is intoxicating. My love is crazy. Let’s not make any mistakes.

I loved that I had such a hip uncle who knew the songs that were dear to me. My parents did not care for popular Hindi songs. They listened to far more intellectual Bengali music, which I did not understand well then and therefore, was not interested. It was sort of like having a mom and dad who listened to Beethoven and then visiting an uncle who sang the Beatles. Yay.

Rangakaka sported sideburns, drank whisky and smoked cigarettes. He liked to dance and get loud. Everything my father was not.

He was an architectural engineer and in his long career, he worked on several important projects in India, including the Vidyasagar Setu, the longest cable-stayed bridge in India that carries traffic over the Hooghly River in Kolkata. A lot of his work was in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir and when the insurgency raged in the late 1980s and 1990s, I listened to my uncle lament the destruction of one of the most beautiful places in India. Later, when I went to Srinagar to cover the war, Rangakaka set me up with his contacts and friends. I felt a modicum of security knowing that I could run to my uncle’s friend’s house if I were in danger. They would have done anything for me because I was Tapan’s niece. That’s how much my uncle’s friends respected him.

I wish I had spoken more with my uncle about his work, especially in Kashmir. I wish I had spent more time with him when he still confronted life full on. For many years, when my parents were still alive, I did not go to Delhi much so that I could spend more of my precious few vacation days at home in Kolkata. It was only in recent years that I spent considerable time in India’s capital, reporting stories for CNN and visiting family.

My uncle and aunt were always generous with their hospitality. The house that they built in the 1970s always had guests in the downstairs room. We referred to it solely by its street number — J1815. I have so many fond memories of Rangakaka there.

On my last two trips, Rangakaka was weak and had trouble going up and down the stairs. Everyone gathered in the evenings in his upstairs bedroom, where we’d munch on snacks, sip wine and talk. Often it was about his adventures or about my childhood. My uncle and I both loved a syrupy Bengali dessert delicacy called Chom Chom. Rangakaka was famed for the number of Chom Choms he could eat at one sitting. He told me once that I was as sweet as a Chom Chom and from then on, that’s what he called me. I was 51 the last time I saw him and he was still calling me by that name.

“Mone aachhe, Chom Chom?” he said. “Do you remember, Chom Chom?” And then he launched into a childhood story.

I had planned to visit Delhi in January but for many reasons, I postponed my trip. Now I am full of regret.

Rangakaka died on April 9. He was 77.

I was on assignment for CNN  when I received the sad news in a text from Rangakaka’s eldest son, my cousin Jayanta. My heart grew heavy. It was as though I had lost my father all over again.

At the Charlotte airport, I plugged in my ear buds, went to my Hindi playlist and selected “Aradhana.” I could hear Rangakaka singing, and it made me smile.

%d bloggers like this: