Like most children I found it difficult to believe that my grandfather had once been young. My earliest memories of him are of a ruddy complexioned, well built person dressed in spotless white dhoti and white customized kurta (which he took pride in washing himself even when he was past 80) with quaint golden yellow buttons strung on a red silk thread. He carried himself with leonine grace and regality. If anyone was to the manner born, it was he. His silvery white mane had a silky touch and as a child I would remember running my hand through his hair that was so pliant like fields of rice.
Grandfather or thatha as I called him was charismatic and there was a certain crackling vitality about him. His large extended family over which he presided like a pater familias regarded him with awe and reverence. He reminded me of the banyan tree that looms larger than life. Like it, he was sturdy, strong and dependable with his roots sunk deep into the substratum of family welfare, values, dignity and honour.
Numerous are the instances of his arranging marriages for his nieces and nephews, supporting his siblings, and enabling relatives and friends find suitable jobs. His fiery temper and straightforward nature made others quite fearful of him-a perception he did nothing to continuously change! Only those closest to him knew that beneath his rough exterior was a nurturing and caring person. However intimidating he might have been to others, to his grandchildren, my brother and me, he was the quintessential grandfather-a role he reveled in, believe it to be a logical extension of his parental role.
As a husband he was a good provider (although demanding and authoritative) but it was in his role as a father that he excelled. His two children, my uncle and my mother, often talk about his concerned parenting. Certainly he did not believe in proxy or remote parenting.
Thatha was 70 when I entered his life. Being his first grandchild, he was as excited about me as my mother. My mother was barely 20 when I was born. As a young mother-to-be she had mixed feelings about the new person who wouls soon become her raison d' etre for living.
"Appa (Father), how would it be to have a child in my life?"
"The moment you set your eyes on the child, you'll never be able o take them off."
When my mother went into labour, he accompanied her to the hospital. He cried along with her when birth pangs wracked her fragile body. Like her he reveled when he first saw me. There I was, an eight pounder, lying contently in my crib and devouring him with the unconditional love a child is capable of. It was love at first sight.
"Mark my words. She'll be a very intelligent child", he remarked to my mother. 4 5 In the following years, he was passionately involved in grand parenting my brother and me, supplementing the nutrients of parenting with his vitaminised inputs on child rearing. Right from his insistence that mother read Dr.Benjamin Spock to his views on the psychology of child development and native wisdom. He would fondly call me "Nandu" and later on as "amma".
I was a reluctant pre-schooler who insisted that I would attend school only if thatha went along with me! Separation anxiety, I now wonder? After getting permission from the school authorities my septuagenarian grandfather would walk me to school reading the newspaper while waiting for me. He did it spontaneously and because he believed that it was an emotional investment in my psychological wellbeing.
As a child, he kindled in me an abiding passion for the wonders of books, the beauty of nature and the joys of imagination. I recall sitting with him under the shady canopy of our mango tree. He would ask me to read aloud from great literature both of the east and the west. This he believed was important to inculcate a panoramic vision that sprung from a mature understanding of people: their inherent similarities and their distinctive differences. In spite of not being a native speaker, he had a profound love and insight in the use of English. Today many years later, I realize that continuously or unconsciously he initiated me into the principles of learning English as a second language. In this, as in most other matters too, he was far ahead of his times. He felt triumphant when I began to top my class in English-a consistent feature throughout my scholastic career.
As I morphed from a child into a young woman he continued to be there for me. When I came of age his reaction was not surprising. "It's a natural part of growing up," he said, gently massaging my legs that hurt because of cramps.
As I grew up he revived the set of ‘rules' that circumscribed my mother's life! While by no means an obscurantist, he never let go his stance as a disciplinarian. His band of discipline however was not irrational or pathological. He would provide you with the logic behind "rules" if you cared to ask him. Curfew time was 6.00 pm and you had to account for delays and your activities! At times it did appear restrictive and chaffing, but you could not doubt that he had your interests uppermost. It won him many admirers. And enemies who in insight realized his wisdom.
Thatha was delighted when my grandmother initiated me into cooking. He hovered protectively in the kitchen while grandmother with experienced ease guided me through the dynamics of culinary science.
"Be sure not to tax the "child," was his constant refrain to his wife.
"Thatha, I want to learn cooking. The only way is when I do it," I replied tossing the ingredients into the pan.
"M-m-m.... the salt is just right," I said licking my fingers in glee.
"Oh, Amma, what a child you are!" he said lost in wonder.
I took him for granted as a permanent fixture in our lives. However as he became older thoughts about mortality and finiteness of life began to flit across my consciousness. I could never imagine a world without him. On occasions when I dared to do so, it felt like an amputation. It seemed so hard to let go.
Grandfather was 90 when he died. His immediate family members were gathered around him as from the oblivion of coma he slipped out of life. A well-known and highly respected person, in death as in life, he drew people to him. People whose life he had impacted in some way. Today I realize that death merely signals the end of life; not a relationship. To me my grandfather still lives on in his autumnal splendour.