And so it is with our own past. It is a labour in vain to attempt to recapture it: all the efforts of our intellect must prove futile. The past is hidden somewhere outside the realm, beyond the reach of intellect, in some material object (in the sensation which that material object will give us) which we do not suspect. And as for that object, it depends on chance whether we come upon it or not before we ourselves must die.
Marcel Proust (Swann’s way)
It is one week since I received news of Grandpa’s demise, and in this period I have tried, for the most part unsuccessfully, to recreate moments I spent with him during my childhood. All that remains is a collection of hazy images that lack the depth of more recent memories, and a few incidents which, for unclear reasons, I can recollect as if they happened yesterday. So until I find the elusive “material object” that Proust’s narrator refers to in Swann’s way, the handful of fragments that lend themselves to easy recollection will have to do.
* * *
My earliest memories linked to him are from the 1980s when I visited, with my parents who made this trip once every year, his home in Bangalore.
It was a small two storied house, and along its boundary ran a wall that seemed to grow smaller each year. We met many relatives during such visits, who remarked, without exception, how much taller I had grown since they had last seen me. It took some years before I put the two together and solved, once and for all, the mystery of the shrinking wall.
There were no strict rules in his house, save one. When The Mahabharatha was being aired on Sunday morning, no one was allowed to speak. We – cousins, aunts and uncles – would gather in the small living room and watch, in hushed silence, the epic staged on the small screen. He was a sentimental man, and it wasn’t rare to see his eyes moisten during an emotional scene. Often he would compare his own life with some character in the epic, drawing parallels where we children could hardly see any.
* * *
He had taught himself Hindi during his younger days, and after retirement he began to offer Hindi tuitions from home.
As a teacher he was kind and caring. Once, watching him gently ask a girl of ten why she hadn’t done her homework, I began to wish my Hindi teacher, a lady who would terrify us with her strict demeanor and irrational punishments, would take a leaf out of his book on how to teach.
During our visits my parents would sometimes persuade me to learn a bit of Hindi from him. One thing that remains etched in mind was his way of teaching the rule behind recognizing the feminine gender in Hindi: “Everything that ends with an “i” is feminine …” he would say, not quite ending the sentence. Then, as if revealing the secret behind a magic trick he would add: “But there are the five exceptions: Pani, Moti, Dahi, Ghee, Ji!”, counting off a finger for each word.
* * *
Always a keen sportsman with a particular liking for tennis, he took to umpiring when he could no longer actively play and went on to become an official for the Karnataka State Lawn Tennis Association. The zenith of his umpiring career came when he was sent to New Delhi for the 9th Asian games in 1982.
The green blazer – with an emblem of the 9th Asian Games embroidered on the upper breast pocket – he received at the event ranked foremost among the memorabilia he had accumulated over the years, and he would proudly show it to relatives and talk about his two weeks in Delhi in the winter of ‘82. I remember nothing of those anecdotes.
* * *
He was fond of quotes. He would refer often to Dr.Johnson, though I’d never seen in his house any book by the author. Repetition was common, and most of his grandchildren had listened to his quotes many times over.
“One can take a horse to water,” he would say, and we all would chime in: ”but a thousand cannot make it drink!!” and giggle amongst ourselves.
* * *
Like most grandparents he often gave advice, but in matters of discipline he practiced what he preached. He woke up at five every day, and by the time the rest of the house was up he had completed his bath, prayers, pranayama and a walk. During our visits I would, after waking up, find him sitting in the courtyard, reading the newspaper and sipping the steaming cup of coffee Grandma had prepared. I frequently resolved to get up early enough to accompany him on his walk, but seldom managed to do so. One occasion remains in memory.
It was a typical Bangalore summer morning from the 80s (things are different now, I learn) – slightly misty, with a soft breeze and a touch of dampness – and it seemed the world had just been created. I must do this more often, I told myself, as I walked next to him. After a while we entered, through a small gate away from its main entrance, the campus of the Indian Institute of Science. It was a bit like leaving civilization behind and entering a pristine forest, but soon we saw other people, walking or jogging. Most were elderly people like Grandpa, walking in groups and chatting merrily. At one instant, when we had just crossed one such group, he turned around towards them and said loudly: “And that is the only thing where they cannot hoodwink us!!”, to which the group of elders, who had stopped to hear him, laughed loudly, nodded in agreement, and continued walking.
“Do you know them?” I asked Grandpa.
“No,” he replied. “They were talking about how everything is available in an ‘instant’ these days – instant photographs, instant coffee, instant weddings etc, and how we will soon also have ‘instant death’. So I told them we cannot be tricked on that account.”
Back home, I looked up the word ‘Hoodwink’ in the dictionary, and it still didn’t make sense. What struck me was the understanding he and the other elders, strangers until then, had spontaneously established. He hadn’t hesitated to interrupt their conversation, and they seemed least surprised by it.
He had meant it when he said he couldn’t be tricked into buying ‘instant death’. Earlier this year, when he turned 95, he told a relative that he would touch 100. He retained his zest for life till the end.