Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Grandfather in My Father's Stories



I had a spare grandparent. I was three, when I realized that despite losing my maternal Koka (grandfather) a couple of decades before my birth, I still had four grandparents. I did some quick calculations intelligible only to me, that if I were to lose a grandparent every decade, at least one will be around to see when I am as grown up as my parents were then. This unique family structure felt like quite an advantage that no one else I knew shared; and I delighted in the fact that my grandparents will be around for a long time since there were so many of them. All but my spare grandmother died within the first decade itself.

In January 1989, my paternal Koka died. He was ‘Pitai deu Koka’ to me; since I heard my father and uncles call him ‘Pitai deu’ (father). I thought it was his name; it befitted his gaunt face with soft, white hair curling around his ears, tall and muscular body; his crisp white dhoti and kurta, a blue sweater and a khadi jacket; and very large feet in old, worn-out khoroms. He died when I was three and my memories of him have faded over the years and only a few images remain. He taught me to fly kites; fastidiously trimming bamboo, cutting old newspapers and gluing them together; reveling in the delight that arose in my eyes as he handed me the kite string. He consoled me if I fell down and scraped my knee, on the newly cemented driveway. He brought me animal-shaped biscuits in a brown bag from an old bakery in Jorhat, each time he came home from our native village in Teok. He affectionately called me ‘Majoni’ and ‘Mamu’, which are quite common pet names for girls in Assam. I was quite a treasured grandchild of his, owing to my birth seven years after my parents’ marriage. My mother says he had barged into the operation theatre when my mother was undergoing a Caesarean section for my birth, such was his restlessness to ensure my mother’s and his grandchild’s well-being.

He died within a month of being diagnosed with terminal stage gall bladder cancer. I knew he was ill, but didn’t know that I’d be losing him forever, and preferred to spend my time in my room with my crayons and coloring book. I was tired of the fact that he was always in bed, surrounded by people; and eating Cerelac out of a bowl, a habit I had long outgrown.  The family was troubled by the idea of losing him, and a multitude of relatives frequented our home. Two of my younger uncles got married (one arranged, one arranged-cum-love) on the same day, within two weeks of diagnosis of my Koka’s illness. Life happened at a rapid pace to accommodate as much happiness and joy into that one month for my Koka. He wasn’t aware it was cancer, and was angry at his sons for not taking him to Guwahati for a surgery, that he believed would have cured him. The evenings brought out the fragrant odor of incense, while my aunts sang hymns from the Bhagvad Gita at his bedside. One day he asked my father for his sandals, as he would be going on a long journey soon and pointed to the bright, blue sky (the same color as his sweater) outside his window. My father scolded him for saying such absurd things, in an ironic role-reversal, parenting the parent; and went off to office. My Koka died a few hours later that day, while I sat cross-legged over a pile of pillows and colored with my crayons.

There was great hue and cry, my mother and aunt fainted, and I saw my father smoke a cigarette pensively in our garage. A huge tent was erected on our lawn, and they took my grandfather wrapped in a white shroud. My father and uncles shaved off their heads, all of them looked similar; huge, brown bodies wrapped in white dhotis as the five sons slept in a row on the floor.  A few days later a lot of people came for a ceremony where the frightening ‘taal’ was played. I ran scared to my neighbor and stayed there the whole day eating ‘lushi and aloo bhaji’, while they were praying for my grandfather’s soul. It took me some time to realize the significance of death, of never seeing my grandfather again; apart from the photograph in our home, in front of which my mother placed fresh marigold garlands. That’s when I felt sad, as I saw the mourning household. But the feeling lasted only a few days and was replaced with horror, as I realized they have cut off my grandfather’s thumb and preserved it along with his ashes, to be immersed in a holy river later. I had nightmares about the thumb, and I was glad when my father got transferred to Guwahati a few months later.

I knew my grandfather years after his death through my father’s stories. As my sister and I lay our heads on my father’s cushiony tummy after lunch on Sundays, it was a cue for him to begin his stories; his childhood anecdotes far surpassed a fairy tale. I visualized everything-the village he was born in, the river he swam in, the cows he brought back home every evening, the pranks he pulled on his friends and his teachers, and the frightening consequences of such actions at home; my father’s stories weaved for me a personalized Axomiya version of “Malgudi Days”. And the stern father, the imposing figure of my grandfather always featured in his stories as the one to keep a check on my father’s natural aptitude for mischief.

That’s how I learnt about my Koka, through my father’s stories. My Koka was the headmaster of the village school where my father and uncles studied. He was extra hard on them so as not to run the risk of being labeled as favoring his sons. He was a strict parent, authoritarian in fact, and this had extreme effects on his sons; my eldest uncle became the studious, obedient one and my father played the truant schoolboy. But never did his sons disrespect him.

The image of my Koka as a stern schoolmaster was so set in my mind, that I was shocked when I learnt much later that he used to work in the police force earlier and was equally feared by his colleagues in that field too. His profession didn’t shock me as much as the thought of him wearing trousers instead of a dhoti!

He led a life of struggle trying to raise a large family, five sons and two daughters, with his meager monthly salary of fifty-two rupees.  He married young, as was the norm in those days, and was childless for twenty long years. It was a social stigma then to remain without an heir to carry on the family name and he was married off to my grandmother, who was still in her early teens then. It’s horrifying to think of it now, to think of the huge age difference between my grandparents, but that’s the way it happened more than sixty-five years ago in rural India. A large family soon followed, and I am still astonished how he managed to keep two wives in the same home for so many decades without much turbulence! And to my young mind hearing these stories for the first time, it created much awe. 

During the floods of the Brahmaputra in 1965, my grandfather lost all his land and life savings, and suffered a breakdown at the prospect of bringing up his family without a job at hand.  He gave up, but his children took over the responsibility of looking after each other despite their young age. I wonder what went though my Koka’s mind, seeing his children struggle to make ends meet and earn an education at the same time while he was a mere spectator, defeated and helpless. I ask my father sometimes whether it made him love his father less; and the answer is always a vehement ‘No’. They idolized him, despite his failures late in life. This reverence for parents, despite all short-comings made me think about the low tolerance level we have for our parents’ deficiencies nowadays; it humiliated me.

My Koka died in January, and my sister was born in October of that same year; and this nine-month gap led me to torture my sister for a long time by stating that she was Koka’s re-incarnation and she had even inherited his dark feet. This thought confused her for a long time, as she actually began to wonder if she was her father’s father! My aunt once told me that my Koka had stored a few currency notes, his treasured savings, underneath the hay in the 'bharal ghar' in our native village; and later broke down when he saw the currency notes chewed to bits by the mice. I found this tale very tragic.

I had never until my Koka’s death, seen a 'Shradhha' being held; and I so strongly believed  in the stories that the dead come to visit their loved ones around this time, that even now I have dreams of my Koka in and around the end of January, near his 'Shradhha'. My youngest uncle was quite reckless in his youth, and used to return home in the wee hours of morning after a night of partying at the local youth club. I remember being mortified when he once told me he saw Koka standing near the pond in our old home at 3am, a few days before his 'Shradhha'; and I didn’t question if it was the alcohol. I stopped looking out of the window after dark for a long time afterwards. I enquired his reaction on seeing his father’s ghost, and he shocked me even more when he said that he spoke to the apparition! A ghost, I reminded him, it was a ghost! But even my father said he wished every moment of his life to speak to his father once again. The idea of wishing to talk to dead people scared me when I first heard it as a child, but only now I understand the significance of that wish. 

To lose a parent is the biggest void in life, and the desire to re-connect the dearest wish. I wish I had the opportunity to know my Koka a few more years, but he is and will always be very much alive in my heart , a heart that has my father’s stories.

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