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A hard act to follow

india Updated: Jan 16, 2010 22:45 IST

Inevitably, death makes you remember the past. Memories, long forgotten, come tumbling back with a clarity that can be surprising. They also return with fresh meaning. It’s as if recollection can lead to understanding. I’d say it does.

Last month, my brother-in-law Irwin Tellis died after heroically battling cancer for four months. He knew the end was near yet it never affected his attitude. Till the end, he was smiling and joking. It was hard to believe he was a dying man. Today, looking back, I can identify the qualities that made him special.

Humour was, of course, Irwin’s métier. No occasion was too serious or glum for him to see its funny side. On the other hand, if someone was pompous or showing-off he would puncture their bombast with a single witty comment. But he did so without giving offence. His eyes would light up as he got into his element, his gentle stammer adding to the dramatic effect. Mimicry was his forte; his favourite target was himself.

I was 18 when we first met. Irwin and Kiran had just got engaged. Irwin suggested I spend the day with him. At lunch he encouraged me to drink as much as I wanted and when I crossed the limit he gave me a look of mock reproach, saying: “You better have a couple more. There’s no point being tipsy when you can be royally drunk!”

My last memory is not unsimilar. Irwin was in bed surrounded by drips and tubes. The hospital attendants were about to wheel him into the ICU when he suddenly asked: “Do you like my wheels?” Then, before I could answer, added: “They don’t call me a high roller for nothing!”

The telling quality of Irwin’s wit was its style. Dry, precise, perfectly timed. But, then, style was another of his defining features. He was punctilious about his appearance. Never flashy but always coordinated. He liked good clothes and readily admired them on others. In the 70s, as a young chartered accountant, he had a hand-made Saville Row suit with two pairs of trousers. “Why two?”, I asked perplexed. “So when one wears out I still have the other.” I took that as clever repartee until he explained that bespoke suits always come with two pairs of trousers. “The trousers wear out long before the jacket gives way. That’s why you need two.” I’ve always wanted something similar.

When I think of him I recall his British pronunciation of ‘suit’, the way he called a hanky a ‘kerchief’ and that he was fond of over-sized shaving brushes from Floris. “It’s got style”, he said, when he discovered that an expensive badger brush he’d given me remained unused. He was right.

As I look back on his life, the quality I never recognised till the end was perhaps his greatest — a quiet but firm determination. He always knew what he wanted to do and was rarely swayed by others. He used to be a heavy smoker and hard drinker but when he had to he gave up both, instantly and uncomplainingly. We’d sit around him puffing and swigging as he happily sipped a nimboo-soda. Not once did he complain, nor was he ever tempted.

Although we never spoke about it, I’m convinced he was determined to go with dignity. By joking till the end and keeping his sense of style intact, he ensured that he did. Irwin won his last battle. He’s left us with an example that could be difficult to follow.

The views expressed by the author are personal.