I first knew my grandfather as a legendary figure who lived in a distant desert country. I heard stories about his life, about the beautiful bungalow he lived in, and the number of friends who surrounded him. And that meant that he was always with me — in my subconscious, or later, by my side. He died sixteen years ago, returning to my subconscious, but as a stronger presence than ever. Memories of him make me ache, but I know that he guides me in his benevolent spirit-way. He sees my achievements and my failings, and I would not want to let him down again.
Bahrain Thatha: that was how I first knew my grandfather. He worked in Bahrain and lived alone, having lost his wife several years ago. I was three when he visited us for the first time. He came laden with presents, hoping to attract his grandson’s attention, but he didn’t really have to do that. I had heard enough about him, even at that age, to run straight into his arms as he walked through the door. I was excited to meet this man from my mother’s stories, from a land whose name I could barely pronounce.
And so it was that Bahrain Thatha became my new best friend, supplanting Samantha from next door. I was delighted that he did not go back to Bahrain, but chose to retire and live with us. Though I was the only child in the family, I had never seen the amount of pampering that I experienced with Bahrain Thatha’s arrival. Amma and Appa had a large extended family to support, which left them with little time for me. In those few hours, their role was to check my school work or to take me to the dentist. Thatha became my biggest ally then, walking me to school every morning, buying me sweets on the sly, and intervening on my behalf when I did not do an exam too well.
Thatha was a sport in every possible way. In the afternoons, when I went out to play cricket with my friends, he would watch our games very closely, an impartial umpire taking our side against irritable adults who, out of jealousy or mere ill-will, despised the sight of children enjoying themselves. How easy it is to forget that you were once a child! Rents, school fees, work, and traffic make you forget that there was once a time when your favourite afternoon pastime was not napping, but spending hours on the streets playing cricket. The sultry Madras weather did not matter when we had a bat, a ball, and a wall on which we could mark the stumps. It did not bother Thatha either. “Children will be children,” he would say to objecting adults, with a hint of steel in his voice. Unable to argue against this tall, dignified, silver-haired man, they would walk off meekly.
Thatha became everyone’s grandfather, but I made sure I had first claim on him. I would let my friends share him, but only in my presence. I kept by his side most of the time. With no cousins to share his attention, I was the king of my castle.
Once a week, Thatha bought me treats at Abhilash Bakery. The road wasn’t as busy as it is today and we would cross over easily, my eyes widening in anticipation as we approached the shop. I looked forward to these evenings very eagerly, even willing to hand over my batting turn to someone else so that I could get off early. At the bakery, Thatha would let me choose two pastries, with the result that I spent agonising minutes with my nose pressed against the glass of the display-case, making that difficult choice from among cherry-topped pineapple and vanilla and chocolate. Sometimes, when I begged for an extra pastry, he would frown, his eyebrows meeting over his aquiline nose — then, breaking into a smile, he let me pick a third pastry. He was never strict with me.
Bahrain Thatha showed me Madras. He bought me comics and took me on long bus-rides. He taught me to use a typewriter — an instrument which I still have — and took me to the beach. He told me stories from the epics without moralising. He was sarcastic, but in a gentle way. I enjoyed every minute I spent in his company.
However, as the years rolled on, it became obvious that Thatha was craving for something beyond his life in the city. As he aged, memories of his old haunts assailed him with increasing frequency. He would speak fondly of his wife and the friends of his youth. Notwithstanding the company of his daughter and his grandson, he seemed to want a slice of his old life back.
Finally, Thatha decided that he was tired of the city. He was adamant about returning to the village where he was born, even if all that welcomed him was a vacant house. Perhaps he sensed that I was growing up and would soon have little time for him, though I wouldn’t have believed that to be possible.
On a hot summer afternoon, he packed his bags and set off for the village. He stayed at a Tirunelveli friend’s while the cobwebs in the old house were cleared, minor renovations made, and a fresh coat of paint applied. Within a week, Thatha was installed in his house. I wrote to him regularly on cream-coloured postcards, starting my messages with an illustration of a boy holding a phone, ending with a drawing of a man with a long nose. He turned the pictures around in his replies and gave me a Pinocchio-like nose. His letters were very cheerful, for he was an excellent correspondent. He made the mundane sound interesting, turned the sleepy village into some kind of enchanted setting. The 90s were upon us, but we found joy in the RK Narayan-esque simplicity of our lives.
Along with the letters, there was one other upside to Thatha’s move back to the village — I had the opportunity to go on a vacation for the first time ever. Having all your family in the same city is no fun, as I realised when friends went away to Kumbakonam or Thanjavur or Trichy during the summer vacations. Amma had always found it difficult to put aside her responsibilities, so when this rare chance came up, I jumped for joy. Two years after Thatha moved back to the village, my mother and I boarded the train for a visit. I couldn’t contain my excitement. I didn’t know what to expect, because I had never set foot in a village.
“Is there a cinema, Amma? Is there a beach? Can I see a dancing peacock?”
Amma, half-amused and half-annoyed by my questions, was as excited as I was to be returning to her childhood home. Thatha’s stately figure met us on the platform at Tirunelveli, from where we took a bus to the village. Soon, we were walking down the dirt path to Thatha’s house, excitement knotting my stomach.
“You can swim in the river,” he said. “You can play with the calves and watch the peacocks dance. There are a number of boys for you to play with, too.”
And so there were. A few boys were playing marbles right outside Thatha’s house as we approached and looked up with a shriek of delight.
“Thatha! Come play with us!” called out the oldest and the tallest, about thirteen years old.
“Not today,” replied Thatha, smiling.
“Afraid you’ll lose?” said another boy, very cheekily.
“You want to trouble my creaking bones and disturb my peace, you little scoundrels?” Thatha raised his hand in mock fury, and the boys ran to the river at the end of the street, laughing.
My nine-year-old self shrank within. Who were these strange boys staking claim to my grandfather? I was troubled. They were gone, but I felt like something had been torn away from me. Thatha wasn’t my Thatha alone anymore. My friends at home had never dared to appropriate him while I was around. Why was Thatha allowing these boys to treat him like this? A mixture of rage and jealousy welled up inside me.
As we walked around the house, Thatha pointing out little things that he thought would delight me, he noticed my scowl. “What is wrong, little man? Why so glum?” He reached out to ruffle my hair, but I twisted away from him and ran to the end of the street. Much as I hated them, I wanted to see the boys again. I wanted to know how they had charmed my Thatha. I had to show my grandfather that I would defend him against all slights. I was hoping that he would follow me, but I sulked even more when I realised that he didn’t.
The river was a wide, blue ribbon speckled with rocks. The younger boys were wading near the edge, while the older ones were swimming away to a large rock at the centre. One of them beckoned, daring me to come into the river. I shook my head fiercely. I wasn’t afraid of them — I just didn’t know how to swim. Their laughter rode on the wind as I stood by a platform that also doubled up as a shrine. The world was laughing at me, even pot-bellied Ganesha.
Fists clenched, I raced back to the house, straight to Thatha, who was standing at the gate. Even if I didn’t understand why he was friends with the boys, I was happy being with him. He might laugh at me, mock my cowardice, but I didn’t care. However, Thatha didn’t pry. His expression was inscrutable. He simply guided me into a small room he had set aside for me. “This will be your bedroom.” I wiped away the tears that had been pooling in my eyes and looked at a stack of comics on a little table. This room was truly mine. It would be my refuge from those nasty boys. Thatha was making everything right again.
“And at sunrise, you can go swimming with Shankar and the others,” he said, his eyes twinkling. For a moment, I was dumbstruck. Then, watching his lined face break into a wide grin, my anger dissipated.
“You let Vinod, Sriram, and Sai call me Thatha. You don’t get angry then. So what happened now?” he asked gently. I stood there feeling sheepish, trying to make sense of these new mingled emotions of envy, hypocrisy, and vulnerability. Thatha waited, allowing me to gather my thoughts. He made things right by just being there; by not treating me like the petulant child that I was, he gave me my dignity back. I was determined to stand by him all my life.
Thatha suffered his first heart attack when I was seventeen. Amma insisted on bringing him back to Madras — now Chennai — because she didn’t want to leave him alone in the village. Thatha, a shadow of his former self, had no choice but to comply with her wishes. He spent most of his time in the house, peering at the newspaper through short-sighted eyes, or simply looking out of the window at the quiet, leafy street. As we were in a different neighbourhood now, far from the one we had lived in when he first stayed with us, he had no friends who would drop in to drink coffee and play chess.
Sadly, I had little time for Thatha as well. In the ten years that he had spent in the village, we had visited him only twice. Thatha came to us for annual visits, but we could never replicate the carefree village vacations of my childhood. I was growing up, looking forward to adolescence and then adulthood. I was busy with coaching classes and important exams. I was old enough to fight my own battles and his intervention was rarely solicited. However, I still made some time for him when he visited.
So when Thatha came back to live with us, I almost had a separate world of my own, one in which he hovered only on the fringes. Thatha became the pliant one, adapting himself to suit my new temperament. He had changed considerably — he was frailer than I had ever known him to be. The meticulous nature that I associated with him was gone. When he rearranged things, it wasn’t out of fussiness, but from forgetfulness. I helped him find his spectacles and his book, knowing that it was only a matter of time before he misplaced them again.
Grudgingly acknowledging this unwanted frailty, Thatha insisted on helping out with small chores. He chopped vegetables for Amma and did a little shopping for her. He ironed my uniform and sometimes covered my notebooks for me. This last detail led to the incident that, in retrospect, affected my relationship with him.
One morning, as I packed my school bag, I realised that I had forgotten to cover my new Economics notebook. My Economics teacher was not the kindest person I knew, and I didn’t want to come home with red gashes across the pages of my new book, or bear the brunt of her angry outbursts. I was also worried about a class test that I wasn’t very well prepared for. I requested Thatha to cover my book while I ate my breakfast.
Thatha went to work immediately. He cut out a rectangle of brown paper, tucked the edges of the sheet into the covers, and glued them in place.
“Good job?” he asked, beaming.
I was flabbergasted. How could he call what I thought was such shoddy work a “good job”?
“The edges are so uneven! And look, the glue is smeared all over the cover. This is such terrible work!” I had never been so irritated with my grandfather. I had never spoken to him so rudely. Eyes downcast, he took the book from my hands and went out. I didn’t feel anything — no regret, no guilt. Amma glared at me, but forbore from speaking, knowing that I was too preoccupied to care.
As I got on my bicycle, I saw Thatha shuffling back from the shop nearby. At that moment, I realised just how much weaker he was than the stately man who used to buy me cakes and defend me against irate adults. A small spark of pity arose within — but it was stifled by a wash of anger. When he came up to me and handed me a new, freshly covered notebook, I pushed it aside, got on my bicycle, and rode away. I would not be taken for granted. I would not be treated like a child that needed to be appeased constantly. He should know that I wasn’t nine years old.
When I returned from school, I had all but forgotten what happened that morning. Our Economics teacher had taken the day off and the test had been postponed to accommodate a guest lecture, so when I came home, I was in a more buoyant mood than usual. I invited Thatha to watch a movie with me and he accepted readily. The incident was forgotten, or so I thought. When I lost him, I realised that I hadn’t quite forgotten it, but just tucked it into a store of memories, from which single events were plucked out at random by inexplicable stimuli.
Thatha was adept at concealing his emotions — or maybe I never tried to find out how he felt, so occupied was I with my own life. I wish I could turn back the clock and bring the wheels of time to a stop. Even though the incident never came between Thatha and me while he was alive, I want to know how he felt that day. Did he think I was cruel, taking advantage of an elderly man’s vulnerability and kindness to assert my own brash, fledgling adulthood? I would like to go back and apologise. I would like to tell him that his silence that day had taught me a lesson in empathy and to have him by my side, untouched by time or age.
Thatha passed away a year later after a bad fall which led him bedridden for a while. He bore his pain so patiently that I didn’t let myself see that the end was coming. His passing seemed sudden. I missed him badly when I started going to college just a few days later. I wished he was with me when I went to work for the first time and when I got married. I turned the harsh memory of that occasion into a lesson, because guilt would serve no purpose.
My wife, who hears my grandfather’s stories from me, tells me I seem to have imbibed many of his characteristics. I hope Thatha hears her.