Published in South Asian Parent magazine
Because his wife died in the same year as my father, we both fell down a hole of grief together. At the same time, rather, because together is not how I would describe us that year, and I’m fairly certain we were not in the same hole.
I was angry with him then, for not providing enough comfort and for using up our time together with talk only of inheritance. “I would give every single f****** penny away if it would bring Daddy back,” I wanted to say to him, violently.
I didn’t, though. I realise now perhaps my grandfather was holding in his own anger: he had outlived his eldest son, his livelihood was left in the hands of a daughter-in-law and her children, and his wife—whom he had spent years preparing for his own death—had left him silently in her sleep with no final hurrah or proclamation, the irony of her earlier exit shut tightly between her lips.
“They will give me dentures,” Dada said, his grin widening to show me his two remaining teeth on FaceTime. Dada is the Gujarati endearment for grandfather. His name, Chuni, is followed by the word ‘bhai’, meaning brother, a traditional addition for respect. Chunibhai got those two teeth taken out a few days ago and I’d like to think it has humbled him a bit.
It’s new, this ability to see my grandfather as an individual, separate from the fact that he fathered my father. I think it helps to have met the woman whose narrow passageway Dada came out of. She was resilient and faithful, my great-grandmother Icha Ba, and I had the pleasure of sitting next to her on a flight once. She was around the same age then as Dada is today, and for the entire journey from Pondicherry to when we reached her home in Nadiad 18 hours later, she never went to relieve herself. Icha Ba admitted only much after it was because she didn’t want to trouble my mother, who’d have to go to great lengths to help her manoeuvre out of her sari in an airplane toilet.
It was a gracious sentiment to offer a granddaughter-in-law, particularly for a woman of three generations ago. Dada has acquired a similar extreme discipline, the ability to stay bound to himself. People often judge his self-mastery as detachment, but I think it’s the very quality that sustains him. At 86, he demands of himself a physical and mental excellence and does not settle for mediocrity. I point out his age, but he would not.
It is my own frailty that considers Dada’s mortality so closely. Every time I hug him goodbye or disconnect the line, I worry it will be the last. My grandfather finds humour in this. I once called and let the phone ring for a full three minutes (what I considered long and he corrected as impatience). He picked up, short of breath, and said, “I was upstairs. And before you get too excited, not all the way up stairs to heaven, just the second floor.”
Dada’s funny has a wickedness, which I discovered when he started calling me long distance to share jokes he couldn’t get out of his mind. The telling was in Gujarati, but he often had to translate the punch line in English, which by then had lost most of its punch. This meant my grandfather was in fits of laughter while I chuckled in polite confusion.
But those jokes reduced the severity of our past sadness to little threads of present cheer. In my aggressive ambition to stay connected to the only surviving parent of either of my parents, I was willing to take anything I got. And this was Dada’s way.
He could never be called affectionate. But when I see him I hug him so tightly I’m afraid I’ll dent his organs. He would not be described as expressive. His words, few and weighted, are given out only when he pleases. But I call incessantly, and he has to speak.
I have separated from Dada’s previous versions of himself, and in doing so, have been able to preserve what is most authentic to our immediate relationship.
Others in the family have their own narratives. Dada’s daughter-in-laws know him as a stern man; his brothers mock his fondness for luxury. His wife would shudder at the fury of his temper, and his children always knew the bar of expectation was set high.
But I am not his daughter-in-law or wife or child, and I decided in the year Daddy left, to remain untainted by someone else’s history with my grandfather so that I could create something real; something new and now, for as long as that small grace would allow us.
I’m lucky that Dada is on board with this. Because even more vehemently than me, he keeps our relationship clean. Clean of the dirty emotional entanglements family affairs can bring – guilt, entitlement, and obligation, to name a few.
He doesn’t begrudge me my young and often selfish life, miles away from the spiritual haven in which he lives alone, so far out of my reach. He recognises relationships are cyclical; parents give birth to children, who eventually become parents, then grandparents, and might one day be people who have to loosen the ties with those who came before in order to strengthen the ones ahead.
If I don’t call him, he calls me. Even in jest, he doesn’t give me a hard time if I can’t visit or forget to send the DVD I said I would. Instead, we chat about what’s front of mind in that instance: what he thinks Modi could achieve, how the tangible fear of rape in India horrifies me, what he ate for dinner (always baked beans on toast), what I am about to cook for dinner (always unknown), the steamer he took from India to Uganda as a teenager, the temple I visited in Siem Reap last week, how much he misses his mother, how much I miss mine.
There are incredible stories I know about Dada’s early years, but it would be discriminatory to describe him chronologically. In time and correct tribute, those tales will also be told. For now, my grandfather is here, in my very current existence, and that’s where I’d like him to sit.
It’s his wife’s birthday today, and my father’s. Born on the same date, mother and son had a particular unison in both their arrival and departure. Whenever I speak to Dada, I imagine my father and grandmother orbiting the periphery of our conversation, tilted slightly towards us like the rings around Saturn. Present, but not touching.
I wonder what they’d think of our new and improved alliance. And then I forbid myself to go in reverse. I look ahead, to the next encounter with my grandfather, the sound of his voice and the wrinkled smile of his delight at the sight of me. I feel the entirety of my gratitude flooding my chest, previously undefined, but today having steered itself towards a place in Dada, in his mere, very earthly, presence.