Moving tides – memories of Grandfather

I don’t know what is my first memory of my grandfather. In fact I have no first memories. Just instances, which are vivid in my mind’s eye.

A tall man in white – white dhoti and a short white kurta – a ‘fotua’ as we call it, lightly starched and lightly worn in summer, with a neatly wound black umbrella in his hand. Not the folding kind -that was not yet,  but the old straight type with a crook handle, as in a walking stick.

I can see him marching down the street with it; visiting us in Calcutta, talking with Mother sitting on a chair with the umbrella –both straight and upright and supporting each other.

The other image is of a man squatting in the garden, bent over with a short spade digging up weeds and pruning the slim vegetable patch growing something or the other in succession through the seasons.

It was a small bit of land with a high old wall around it the top set with glass to keep the naughty boys and thieves off his precious fruits. By the time I had reached my teens the old crumbling wall was wound around with a creeping cactus which produced large tubular flowers at night. Or perhaps the cactus and the flowers were separate plants.


Garden and Grandpa were one. The jackfruit in the far end where we never ventured was planted by his father and he had seen it grow form a seedling. That part covered in large stones was rumoured to be haunted amongst us cousins. The guava tree on the left of the path which veered away from the house before making a short distance to the door in the wall. I have sat on it munching the fruit. And when I was very young and restless was once or twice lifted onto a higher branch and not brought down till I promised to behave. The guava tree went long before the old man did.

A patriarch with a volatile temper, we all faced it on occasion for in those days he was not a patient man. Especially sensitive to what he called people’s ‘imbecility’, there were times I think when the daughters in law- my mother and aunts tiptoed around the house; or our boisterous play was silenced with “Grandpa can hear you’ll.” Mostly I think his ire was directed at those who did not understand him quick enough or those who talked or laughed too loud: most fell into that category. And we children were often guilty of these. But he reserved his fiercest ire for anyone who touched a leaf in his garden.

People drifted in and out of that house all the weekend. They came for advice, to invite for marriages and first rice ceremonies and funeral ones, though he never went anywhere; they came to see how the old couple fared or a cup of tea. Running his fingers through his silver white hair, he talked and asked questions and expected relevant answers. I sometimes wondered why the people came when they had to answer so many questions as in school.

As I grew older and into a greater familiarity with him, I discovered behind this a sensitive man and a helpful man. A man with the time to listen. Really listen, for that is why he asked so many questions. I feared his anger less and increasingly gathered the courage to point out to him that he was being ill-tempered. He would listen and tell me he was old and people just did not think.

He told me many things, lying in bed after the morning’s work or sitting on that funny blackwood chair with no back support: of gone-by days and people that had shaped his life, of the struggles to complete his studies, of the difficult days when his children were young.

He spoke of how people had lived and what books he had enjoyed and asked what I read and what I thought of various matters; my opinions were of interest to him. We talked and later I sometimes read to him or he to me in hot summer afternoons when the others were asleep or cold winter evenings when only I visited.

But he was at his best amongst the plants and the trees- his mood mellow as he weeded, picked leaves, tied supports or simply replanted seedlings. I was around often with my endless questions and intermittent help. And as we worked and talked – two generations apart, I learnt of  simple pleasures, life’s big disappointments though that was only theory to me and on how little my parents’ generation had been brought up. He never treated me too young to comprehend.

I went to college, less people visited now and I started to work. I found myself looking forward to my visits, these intimate sessions when he opened himself to me. Long ago he had told me my first ‘love story’ – that fascinating tale of the Christ’s Robe, of a Greek slave and a Roman princess.  It was Lloyd C Douglas’ The Robe a tale of early Christianity. Now I had supplied him with books to read from the library. I spent days in second-hand bookshops looking for other books by authors I hadn’t heard of.

Though a Brahmin, he was not in favour of any rituals. He never went to a Durga Puja saying it was no worship but ‘idle worship’ and noisy. He complained if the drums played too long into the night.

Yet he woke at 4 and went for long morning walks even at 75. When he visited us in Bombay he walked from Santacruz to Mahim Causeway !

He sat for his meditation sometimes with a radio in the background! And his first morning tea – thick and sweet had to be served in a glass. He sat most of the time in the small, almost shabby room overlooking the garden and staring out or reading each word in the newspaper with loud comments about the bits he did not approve of!

The room had a large picture of the yogic man (perhaps according to Patanjali?) showing the different nerve centres. Next to it was a picture of Christ with the crown of thorns. An old bookcase stood near his head. The books were old and a motley collection of his own, children’s school prizes, one that someone had finished with and left behind; each one covered with crisp newspaper with a powdery coat of crumbling neem leaves around them. I spent hours browsing  and sneezing through them. And when he would explain how each book had got there, what it talked about. Some he urged me to read, some he warned me were old-fashioned!

Being a thrifty man who had seen long hard times and the disappearance of large amounts of family property, he was painstakingly economic and had few material needs.

I found a Koran in this lot. Greatly surprised, I questioned him. He shrugged saying he had wanted to know the links between Christianity and Islam as they were from a similar cultural milieu. Seeing my surprise he laughed. ‘ If I read I understand. To read was not to reject or accept but to know.’ That was a statement which my adolescent mind took over the next ten to fifteen years to understand.

This same man had lifted my young cousin and almost thrown her into the lemon bush for plucking off the roses one winter! The same man who had slapped me for arguing without knowing.

jack fruitTime rolled by and roles were reversed. My friends laughed at my hunts for unfashionable authors he had hooked me onto – Lloyd C Douglas, Marie Corelli, Daphne du Maurier, Sharadindu; few read them then. In return I gave him Camus, Victoria Holt a teenage romance-thriller and he read them with gusto. Perfectly at home with Bengali and English and Sanskrit, he quoted the Upanishads, the Bible and the poets .

Then he asked me for large print books. Soon after he started using a large magnifying glass to supply his ever inquisitive mind. And then a few years later he said, ‘Don’t bother, I don’t read any more.’ I tried reading to him, but it did not work as before.

In college I often dumped the copious notes that we students of English Honours had to take onto him. His clear round hand, letter following letter in neat even rows, on foolscap sheets. At the end there would be questions, why this particular critic, why not another, etc. These notes and the letters he wrote to me in the hostel still remain.

A man who lost his father at the age of seven, struggled with his family and entered the engineering course in pre-Independence India; a man who had to give up all his dreams in his final year to feed his family who had no money left, then later his own on a short salary in a then turbulent India; his garden by the river Ganga and his books sustained him till he was too old to live alone.

Then too, imprisoned in the dovecotes of Calcutta houses of his children he participated in their joys and successes and that of his grandchildren; till his hip broke. Yet he lived between frustration and contentment.

I had married, moved away, kept coming back with my own family; but I was busy now and did not seem to find enough time. Then one day at 98, he went on his way: I hope it was to another garden.

Yet I long for that garden that we may share again.



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