My summer vacations growing up were some of the most memorable times of my life; surrounded by the voices, laughter, and tears of cousins of all ages. My uncle was an esteemed general in the Border Security Force, a part of the Indian armed forces and the largest border guarding force in the world. So every summer, between 7 to 11 kids would descend on the sprawling military campus wherever in the country our uncle was posted. Together we concocted endless escapades that were sometimes fun and sometimes injurious but always memorable.
During these visits, we also got valuable exposure to a mix of Indian cultures and places—the jeep excursions into the rainforests and waterfalls of Shillong, through lush mountains of Jammu & Kashmir, and over desert landscapes of Leh and Bikaner. The farm picnics in Punjab next to gushing tube wells and the endless cold coffees with ice cream. The parties that went late into the night, set to an eclectic mix of music, surrounded by handsome uniformed men with impeccable bearing, and charming women in beautiful saris. Adults with technicolor stories from their saturated, adventure-filled, lives. This only begins to get into the nooks of experiences we had as a pack of kids. Each experience became a cherished lifelong memory and a shared language of connection, a brick in the strong foundation of love upon which our current lives sit.
Then there was this other sad and distressing side to life…when my mom, siblings and I went back home, acutely aware of the gaping hole my father’s death had left in our lives. The sustained psychological and financial impact of losing him weighed us down. The impact that could have completely decimated our lives. But what kept it together is the genuine and lifelong support of family; of my aunts, uncles, grandparents and cousins who with their simple everyday acts of warmth created the strongest sea wall that no tsunami of pain could dismantle. With every wave of grief and financial lack that tore at us, they added more stones, more boulders, more cement. No single action might stick out to an observer, they might just note a family hanging out together, but to those of us inside this cocoon of love—especially those marred by grief—these moments of togetherness were profound gifts of care. It’s the stuff you read about in extraordinary tales of love, the stuff they make movies about.
What allowed these actions to germinate was a thoughtfully and lovingly created container. A physical and emotional space that set the ground rules of who was welcome (everybody), how they were treated (like old friends with compassion and generosity), and the tone of everyday life (one of patience, care and adventure). And the people who were instrumental in creating this space for all of us kids were my aunt and uncle, who I started seeing as my second set of parents. My aunt gave me courage and unconditional love, fended off juvenile attacks from my siblings and cousins, and squarely had my back…even when I was the troublemaker. My uncle epitomized courage, sociability and intellectual curiosity—whether about geopolitics, travel or farming. Both were examples of patience and unmatched generosity. Despite the adulation and professional respect he received daily, nobody was too young, old or poor for my uncle to engage with. And while we kids crawled all over his house, he was out there addressing some of the most violent terrorism in the world.
My uncle passed away recently, leaving an enormous legacy of love and impact. Even as our family reverberates with pain, each of us is grateful to have his rare example of care and generosity. There are many generals in the world, but we had our very own Clark Kent with a superhuman combination of strength, integrity, love and humility. We all looked up to him. He was also charismatic and astonishingly handsome. We are blessed to have a first hand blueprint of a very well-lived life.
Everyone has ancestral lineages, influences and teachings. Mine brim with exemplary love, care and true accompaniment that make a life worth living. Life’s rhythms create busyness and we sometimes forget the nurture that was passed down to us. The last few weeks have brought my family visceral remembrance. No matter where we live in the world, my pack of aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters and nephews have acknowledged my uncle’s container of love in amazingly similar terms. My wish for us is that we embody his traits as we move through life, that we welcome everyone like he did and create a sense of meaningful connection, curiosity and joy wherever we go. That we go on creating more and more containers of love.
“Character is like a tree and reputation like a shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.”— Abraham Lincoln
In loving memory of Ravinder Singh Mehta, our real-life Clark Kent.