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Monday, July 29, 2013


I know I haven't written in a couple of years. 
I know that this might just be another start to a series of fabulous literature but in all likelihood it may be nothing. 
Today my grandfather would've been 85. He died after battling lymphoma for about a year and a half. I wrote this in the middle of all of that. It's all I can think of writing for now. 

I've started this many times... just a little something about my grandfather. It began when we first heard that he had cancer back in November of 2011. At that time this was on paper. With ink. Because I thought it was something that had to be romanticized and perhaps pontificated. Ink doesn't work well on wet paper. Six rounds of chemotherapy, the scare of imminent death and gradually watching him recover from half the man he used to be to something maybe stronger made thoughts of writing this recede to the back burner. Till the cancer came back and today he gets admitted again for another round of chemotherapy. Another 6 cycles of fear, uncertainty and perhaps a consummation that no one really wants or wishes for. 
Like all things now I begin to write again. A memoir, perhaps. Memories of him and me. Not his biography, not a paean. Just what he means to me as a person, as a grandfather, as a friend. 
The reason I write is because when I think back the first clear memory I have of people is one of him. He was younger then, as was I he would have been about 56, a head of white hair which apparently had always been that way. There's a picture of him when he got married where he has some black hair I think. It was a cold Delhi winter, much before global climate confusion made Delhi hotter and colder, cold enough for a 3 year old me to not want to wake up and walk across the arctic floor to wash up. He'd make me stand on his feet and walk me to the basin. 'Thatha Chappal' we'd call it. I remember that as clearly as yesterday. The rest of the times at that age blur and are only clear in photographs and thus not a memory I relate to, just perhaps ones that I recognize. 
I spent two years in Delhi and I'm not quite sure when we moved from a little home in Patel Nagar to a swanky deal in the Asiad Games Village (built at a time when Mr Kalmadi had nothing to do with Games and Village). Perhaps these are memories from many summers I spent there. But I digress. I remember him clearly then too. Tall, fit as a fiddle for a middle aged man. He'd religiously run Brylcreem through his hair every morning. And when a curious me would explore the tin I'd be warned that my hair would turn white just like his. Still I loved that smell, and I still do and I suppose that premature greying gene just skipped us by. 
I also think the Brylcreem was sourced like many t-shirts from Mustafa in Singapore and Malaysia where he went every month. 
I remember his ritual waking up and a short puja, coffee, newspaper, bath, longer puja, which was always interrupted with calls from Agartala and Kapurtala, and a full lunch made by a usually grumpy grandmother by 9.30AM. He'd then leave. And come back later when I'd usually be quasi awake from all the consumption or exertion of a child in summer. 
There were days he'd leave earlier, where I wouldn't hear the bells in the puja room as I woke, or have to answer phone calls and grandmom seemed unusually cheery. Bombay I was told. He'd come back always with a box of alphonso by dinner time. 
Years later after he retired and came down to Bangalore, the apartment became a second home. It lay en route from home to school and there was always food, anecdotes and the option to curl up and be pampered. 
It was a different man who I learnt to love over those years. He wasn't obviously as busy as he was when he worked but still would infuriate my grandmom by taking walks to the local bank/post office/railway ticket counter/market/temple/sweet shop immediately after lunch, at 10.30AM nowadays and once more in the evenings, usually clocking about 10-12km a day. 
He'd tell us stories of his time as a boy, an orphan at 8, brought up by his poor yet proud grandmother. On how he and other boys his age used to play football barefoot, swim in the local river and walk 10 miles to the nearest town once a fortnight to watch a film and  eat onion sambar, which wouldn't be made at home. He went on to become a civil engineer and then from the PWD to the Railways. Spent most of his time in the north and in Vishakhapatnam, which he still calls Waltair and made a bunch of friends. 
It is with these friends that he'd tell my grandmother most evenings that he was "going to bridge" and proceed to play a few rubbers. He learnt to drive a Jeep and did not, despite being in Raipur and then Delhi, learn Hindi. 
This time again is a blur and filled with little anecdotes of how his part of the rail track was always so much better, how he built a railway line across Malaysia and Singapore working only in the night, how bridges are beautiful and tunnels difficult. And how street food, no matter how good a cook grandmom is, has its own charm. The only clear story though is of a time he and a colleague quaffed about half a kilo more than what is considered gentlemanly of "soan halwa". And made like well fed boa constrictors for the better part of 3 days. 
Our times in Bangalore, when I was in school had 4 major components. Him trying to get me to learn math. The old way. "If 3 and 3/4 raw bananas cost 2 and 2/3 of an anna, how much would 4 and 1/3 raw banana cost." A wrong answer would get me a "mandu!" (imbecile). 
Him trying to get me interested in sports, where I suspect he still thinks he's a failure but his other grandson more than makes up for me. 
His sweet tooth, which involved looking expectantly and grandmom after lunch and every 3rd hour hence. For her part there usually was something. If not a spoonful of sugar accompanied by a guilty look would do. 
Walks, to the aforementioned local bank/post office/railway ticket counter/market/temple/sweet shop, where we'd discuss life, the universe and everything and listen with rapture at his stories. And be treated to a coffee. 
A lot of what I am, or perhaps what I want to be is born out of those talks and that time. 
As time went on our talks changed. To life, religion, his interpretation of Hinduism and the respect he has for his parents and how they are central to prayer. Of death and sadness as his friends and contemporaries fell to disease and age while he still was healthy enough to feel their loss. 
And I don't know when but somewhere along the way he decided that he would walk up the seven hills of thirupati every year to ask for his children's and grandchildren's happiness. I think it was when my cousin was diagnosed with autism. I don't know if he blamed himself, or what made him do that, but he did. Every year till 2011. For everything. I had the good fortune to accompany him one year. 2007. Me in dri-fit and Nikes and a knee brace, him in a dhoti and shirt and chappals. And he wasn't even short of breath 7 hills later. 
We spoke of marriage, of how my happiness was more important that just being married. And I saw that I'd gained much more than just a grandfather... He was now a friend. 
Ever since I've known of his condition, it's been a constant battle between being a doctor and knowing the statistics and being a grandson and weeping with him. I wish I were a tenth of the man he is, for even now he comforts me when I want to weep and asks me about the chemo when I feel like being a doctor. 
I was with him the last time he was in pain following chemo when he looked at me, his eyes a combination of sadness and anger and he said that he would not want to go through this again and I promised him he wouldn't. 
Last weekend when he knew it had returned, he said he needed to be there for us and would go through with it again. 
It's taken a bit to not breakdown with him there. But I was with him last weekend.
In his house there's a divan, frozen in time. A divan where even today at 32 I become a 5 year old and fall asleep in ten minutes with him sitting in an adjacent armchair reading the newspaper. 
I wish that time stood still...

He lived another 6 months, the last couple of which were in pain. Sometimes bearable sometimes much worse than that. 
In all that pain and agony the day before he died he found a brief period of lucidity when he told me the last words I'd ever hear, "Don't worry, Savitr. I'm fine. I'll be alright."