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.