Growing up with Grandparents

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It was those days when the raindrops used to be blue, green, purple and burnt-sienna. The old, fat toad used to sit under the Toad-stool  and tell stories. The breeze carried the smell of Neem flower and butter-toast.  And in those days I was small enough to tuck myself between my grandma and grandpa to listen to the radio play. My grandpa, the ever hypochondriac that he was, used to be wrapped in a warm shawl from head to toe – with only his tiny eyes visible. Grandma’s long locks smelling of Amla hair oil used to casually flutter over my face. By the time the play used to get over, she would be fast asleep. My grandfather would silently put off the radio with a ‘click’ sound and wrapping the shawl tighter would go off to sleep.

Our childhood was with and about grandparents. We were nine of us – cousins, technically, but we had a single collective tag – ‘brats of Mamma-baari’. Mamma was what we used to call our grandma. Being the assertive and stronger one of the duo – our grandma was the matriarch of the family. So our house unknowingly became “Mamma Baari” (Mamma’s house).

Our grandfather was the soft one – gentleman in the truest sense. By the time I grew up enough, he was a retired man – taking recluse in the comfort of the sofa set in the front room. He was so pinned on to the sofa day in and day out that every second year the sofa would pop out the springs inside–as if to announce it’s exhaustion!  Soft that he was, my grandpa would hardly complain till one of us would get a chance to sit on it! Ouch! What was that?? Grandpa! How could you not tell us all these days? An expert would be summoned to repair it within no time! Once repaired grandpa would be back to his seat. When I was younger, grandpa used to spend his retired moments helping maids and masons open bank accounts in the newly opened branch of a local bank- just like that. When I grew up he became Amitabh Bachhan of Piku. There was this yellow telephone with those round dials kept just for him. Every morning he would dial his second daughter – my aunt- who is incidentally married to a doctor. His opening lines would be something like this:

“Hello Pia. This morning I am a bit better. I went to the toilet and had a near clear motion. Now, should I still take the enzyme in the afternoon?”

Or

“Hello Pia. I just went and tried but ‘it’ did not happen!”

My ever-loving and soft-spoken aunt would patiently answer him or comfort him – as the situation be.

But the ‘it did not happen’ would be the cause of his depression for the rest of the day. He was a terribly neat and tidy person and would insist on shaving daily. But on the days when ‘it did not happen’ he would not shave and would eat as little as possible. Back from office during lunch time, my father would laugh, “Why didn’t you take a shave Baba?”, very well knowing the answer he would get in return.

“Huh, what shave…I did not even have a proper potty!”

My grandma was always poles apart from grandpa.  That they spent more than sixty years together is a Black-hole mystery of the family!

She, unlike grandpa, was robust, loud, hot-headed and unlike women of her age and time – a total dictator of the family! From fixing marriages to ensuring education of all her grandchildren she was the ONLY authority in the family! From her food habits to response to life’s situations – she was so different from grandpa! While grandpa was a frugal eater – satisfied with just a light fish curry and rice, grandma would eat four times his consumption level – and some strange eating habbit it was! While we would be over-filled with our morning breakfast of Parathas or bread, grandma would have an additional 10 am ‘mid-morning snack’! She would have a bowl full of left-over rice from previous day, add oodles of raw mustard oil, salt and then devour it with immense passion with a green chilly. And then have a full three course meal after two and half hours – rounding it off with a short helping of her handmade pickles!

Unlike a ‘womanly’ woman, she would hardly show her patience when it came to cooking. So most of the younger days of my dad and aunts was spent in eating strange items like – half-burnt curries, massive chunks of boiled potato to be had with rice, fish curries still carrying the smell of raw fish, hot chapatis with sliced onion!!!  She was hardly bothered about what the others thought about her! Her real passion lay in her eccentricity! That she was a good writer of her times was a catalyst to that! Once, just after my mother was married into the family, she came home from the market with a dozen small fishes to be had for lunch.

“Just clean these and keep the oil and masala ready. I will come and cook”.

My mother did as instructed and waited for her mother-in-law to return. One hour passed, two hours passed…..with the racing hands of the clock my mother began to panic. It was near lunch time but grandma was not to be found anywhere. Hesitantly my mother took the plunge and cooked the fish her way! My grandma ultimately returned after two days! She had gone to her younger daughter’s house in Dakshineswar –a half an hour train journey from Calcutta – not to meet her but spend moments besides the river Ganges in order to get ideas about a story!

She would hardly be at home, finding opportunities and pretexts to go outside. So, almost every evening I would accompany her to the nearest Gariahat market just to buy ‘important’ household items like – a pair of rubber slippers or clips for hanging clothes or even a handkerchief. I would proudly accompany her –  sitting in the hand-pulled rickshaw. This was till the day we had ‘rickshaw mishap’! God knows why or how but having found a school bus in front of him, the rickshaw puller suddenly gave up! He let go of his hands, leaving grandma and me see-saw head down while he himself hung in mid-air. Men all around came rushing towards us. They brought down the rickshaw puller from his mid-air position , only to flung grandma and me back in mid-air. While the game of see-saw gave fodder for loud laughter to the crowd, grandma was ready to turn the poor man into ashes by her angry stare! From that day on, we both went and came back to the market by feet but strangely that rickshaw puller was never to be found again!

My grandma had a unique knack of being associated with troubles and mishaps of all types. So every second year she would end up with fracture of some kind or the other. The orthopaedic had almost become a family member! Though with her impatience, grandma would hardly carry on with her plaster cast for too long. One fine day we would find her with her favourite pair of scissors – cutting away her plaster cast with uneven cuts! As a result she had knees that wouldn’t bend beyond a certain level, a half-twisted left arm, a limp etc.

But beyond all this she had a self that was unique. That was that part that ensured that her six grand-daughters grew up to be self-reliant and strong-willed women!

But my purpose of writing this blog was not just to tell about the unique people that my grandparents were, it was also to talk about the fact that irrespective of what or how they were, they were an integral part of our lives. They were luckier than the grandparents of our children. When I see my parents, my in-laws, my aunts and uncles – I realise that though they are busier these days, they are lonely somehow. With nine grandchildren creating havoc, my grandparents were a luckier lot! Till the day my grandfather died, it was an unwritten rule in my family that food would be first served to him. It was a satisfaction for my mother to see her father-in-law closing his eyes in front of his plate of frugal meal for a short prayer of thanksgiving.

Sundays were especially special. My grandparents would watch with loving eyes as nine of us would empty jars of biscuits and puffed rice! My father would lovingly accept the little note of donation from my grandfather as his contribution towards ‘one kilo of meat’  for a special Sunday lunch.

“Son, would this be enough for a Kg of meat?”, he would ask.

My father would smile, “Ofcourse Baba. This would be more than enough”, though he well knew that the amount wouldn’t even fetch half a kilo.

And most of all, for us and our parents, their decision was always the final decision. Erratic, wise, eccentric, unbelievable, practical, impractical – we accepted all their decisions – with frown or with smile – but we did accept!

Today, my parents are the ones who have their dinner after all of us . Now, I do not expect my son to have the same level of obedience towards his grandparents as I had. And my aunt who was once a patient listener to her father’s call waits unendingly for a call from all of us!

We are too busy to attend to their needs ; too involved with our own selves to teach our children the value of ‘genuine bonding’. Parents and grandparents are now a matter of need and convenience rather than of necessity.

Times change, so do situations and we are, perhaps, victims of our changing circumstances. But how I wish there was one thing that hadn’t changed – growing up with grandparents – the way we did!

 

 

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Of Thorns and Flowers

One World

      Photo Courtesy: Subhadip Mukherjee

My son was excited about the new essay he wrote in his English class. Titled “The tomorrow I want to see”, he definitely felt important having been finally asked about ‘his’ opinion about his tomorrow!

“ So what did you write ?”, I was curious.

“ Oh, I wrote quite a lot…the type of things I expect, I want. But I loved my conclusion the best. I wrote that I finally look forward to a time when there won’t be any barrier between people in terms of religion, caste, language – nothing at all.  I look forward to a day when there will not be any fencing of barbed wire at the borders of nations, instead the people would together grow flowers of different colors”.

**   **   **   **   **   **

Those days the summer vacations would be long without the threat of examinations looming over our head. The afternoons would be hot and inevitably interspersed with periods of power-cuts. During those very hot afternoons when going out was forbidden till evening, I would lie down next to my grandmother, placing my leg gently over hers. She would fan me with a hand-fan, with a rhythmic movement of her hand, opening her huge collection of stories at the same time.  Her stories would mostly reach the blind alleys and grass-lands of Bangladesh where she had spent considerable part of her childhood. We would gape in wonder as she would animatedly describe the smell of the rivers, the red-hot curries prepared by the boatsmen at the river-ghats, the palm-sized pinkish white sweets at Charaibari and of the sweet prepared with garlic by her neighbor, Meherunissa.  And every story of hers would end in the dense grove of mangoes and berries where she had left her six month old dead sister – buried in a small cardboard box, under one of the trees. Strong that she was, she would never ever show emotions except a short pause and a sigh.

“ How I wish I could go and find out that grove where my sister is! If there wasn’t a war, there wasn’t a partition I would have gone and searched for my sister’s grave”. She would rue till her last days.

“But you still can, Mamma”, we would coax her.

We knew she wouldn’t answer. The no man’s land between the two nations was too traumatic for her to travel back to her land of childhood! She could never accept the fact that religion could be a premise of building different nations.

I don’t know if this was one of the causes, but she vehemently hated the fact that people’s choices, beliefs and identifications are done on the basis of their religion.

And it was not just her, time and again it has been equally challenging for me to explain that my religion has nothing to do with my identity.

“A Christian, are you? I don’t believe this! All the while I was thinking you were a Bengali!”

“ A Christian ? How come you do not have a Christian name ?”

Worse – “ Do you speak English at home? “.

How do I really explain that being a Christian does not make me ‘English’ (when Jesus Christ wasn’t an English-man himself!) ! And no, we do not drink wine every evening – infact, my family has been teetotalers for generations!  My mother has never, ever worn a gown and my father does not go to church wearing suit and tie!

When told that I would prepare special sweets for Bengali New Year’s Day , a surprised reaction was, “ But you all celebrate New Year on the 1st of January every year, don’t you ?”

I had a good mind to ask if her calendar dates actually begin with every Bengali New Year but merely clarified that ‘our’ New Years were same as ‘their’ New Years and the church service we do on the night of 31st December is a Thanksgiving Service for the year gone by!

It is exasperating at times to explain that I do not have any special feelings for the Queen of England, just because she shares my religion and Mother Teresa is my idol for the immense work that she has done and not merely because she was a Christian!

Most of my childhood was spent in an Ecumenical Centre in Bangalore where brass lamps, as seen in temples, adorned the little chapel and instead of the usual crucifix there was a beautiful picture of a Laughing Christ – not a smiling, calm one but one who has just shared a hearty joke with you. That helped me remove a lot of inhibitions about religion. It helped me grow up with the belief that religion is a matter of faith – your understanding with the supreme and is not a label for you. A faith is not about a set of rituals, it is about your belief in transforming your life according to some values that you feel are good for you!

When I grew up, I had a beautiful opportunity to attend a course and meet people from different parts of the world which changed my outlook forever.  I met Simon from Kenya who would dance and sing as he worshipped.  There I became friends with Noel who was a pastor from Phillippines and an avid mountaineer! His God was in the church, as well as up in the mountains! He introduced me to Khalil Gibran and helped me discover life through poems. Both Simon and Noel shared my faith and yet their ways were so different from mine! But at the dinner table when Noel and I both enjoyed our meals eating with our fingers rather than with the spoon and fork, I realized we come from different nations and yet we were so similar in our needs! And I felt how really restricted I was in my own thought process!

Right now, I have a group of writer friends, coming from exactly four different corners of the country and at times I am astounded by how they help me relook at life! We share nothing in common at all except our love for writing, books, movies and music perhaps…..But from Eid to Friday the 13th – they celebrate and wish for every other event.  They don’t just celebrate they also do not let their personal beliefs come in the way of human bonding!

In every stage of my life I’ve discovered bit by bit the mystery called Life and I’ve come to believe that the barbed wires are actually in our mind. We create nations for political gains; we build a pre-conceived identity for individuals we do not know, based on religious tags; we cherish in the false pride of being superior to others!

The other day a television programme showed an interesting news that there is this group of artists in rural Bengal who make hand-painted murals about the life of Hindu Gods and Godesses. They go from village to village carrying the murals and then present a show using the pictures, accompanied by folk-songs about the Hindu Gods and Godesses. But what is interesting about the whole thing is that – all the families who are involved in this art are Muslims by religion! What a profound piece of learning from a handful of so called illiterate people from rural interiors!

But even after all these lessons from life, am I myself completely free of prejudices? Why do I feel strange and not normal if I see a Hindu praying fervently at the church alter? Why do I get goggle-eyed when I find a Muslim with a perfect Bengali name?

I haven’t told this to my son yet but I soon will – that his vision of an ideal tomorrow is possible…..if only we ourselves take an effort to remove the thorns stuck to our souls. The flowers will automatically follow.

Till then my grandmother’s little sister will continue to rest under an unknown tree, in an obscure village, in a nation that is separated from ours by a no man’s land!