There are some things you experience in life which enrich you beyond your understanding. That feed your soul even when you think it is hungry and parched, only for you to of a sudden realise that you were only being forgetful — help is at hand. Even if you’ll have to search real hard for it.
Dadiji and Dadaji (my father’s parents) are a couple of such people, who coloured my life in ways it is difficult to put in words. Memories can be narrated, but what they do to ones heart and mind, and how, is a thread that gets fogged with every attempt at an explanation. But I am going to try it.
They had seven grandsons from their five sons before Dadiji became desperate for a Dubey granddaughter — a girl to carry on her family’s name. She prayed for a girl throughout my mother’s pregnancy. Her prayers were answered. When I was born, needless to say, she rejoiced. And showed a figurative tongue to my mother, who was certain it’d be a boy. That is, however, where her overt expression of a wish fulfilled ended. Never again did she show through her actions or words any preference for any of her grandchildren. Not so my Dadaji. He very clearly showed his love for my brother, Shonu. A man of meagre requirements and a strict routine, he didn’t quite agree with celebrations and parties, but he did insist for a big third birthday party for Shonu. How people behave and change, how their expressions differ from time to time is such a mystery, is it not?
Our meetings with them were fixed for at least once a year, when we went to Jabalpur for summer or winter holidays. We’d first go to Rajnandgaon, where my Nanaji and Naniji (mother’s parents) lived and then go for a longer stay at Jabalpur. Dadaji decided to shift to Jabalpur in a huff. Though his roots were from Raipur, he vowed never to return to it because of the strange ways of the people there. He was one of the first from his community, perhaps the first, to go out of the country and spend time in England. The people around him weren’t interested in his achievements, but in the fact that he’d gone and maligned the sanctity of their society. Perhaps eaten meat. Even touched a white person. Perhaps he drank alcohol and smoked foreign cigarettes as well? Blasphemy! So they sort of ostracised him, sure that he’d come and apologise to the powers that be. Dadaji didn’t think such a people worth his time and life, so he decided to remain in Jabalpur after he retired.
The decision was the most trying for Dadiji. Even though she’s spent most of her married life outside of Raipur, she’d looked forward to returning back to her people. She loved gatherings, gaiety, food, fun. Well, Jabalpur wasn’t going to stop her from enjoying all of that! She had friends in Jabalpur, too. Dadaji didn’t have any money to make a house, though. A well-feared collector, he often neglected the fact that he would need a place to go to after his retirement. Spending money on property was just not his game. No, he wasn’t a miser. Only a little impractical. But Dadiji came to his (and her own) rescue. She got a house built with the jewellery she had. It got completed just in time to welcome them after Dadaji retired. This house is where many of my childhood memories wander.
She had diabetes ever since I can remember. Though it made her life a little less than comfortable, I don’t remember her complaining. What I do remember is her grumbling that everyone took the doctors too seriously and denied her her two favourites — mango pickle and rice. She got her way with rice somehow (that’s a different story for a different time), but the pickle was never much of a hit with her sons and daughters-in-law, who continued to prohibit her from eating it. But little did they know, she had a comrade-in-arms. Me. I’d sneak in after lunch or dinner to the pantry, fish out a few pieces from the huge pickle jar, wrap it in layers of paper after sufficiently removing the oil, and hand it over to her. I knew how she felt, because it was my favourite, too. What’s more, she was alert enough to remove the evidence from under her pillow before someone discovered it. I can still remember her cataracted eyes twinkling with joy whenever I succeeded in getting her the loot.
My reward was more time with her skin. Wasted muscles and vanished fat had left her with bags of skin in her upper arms. I could spend hours touching, squeezing, caressing the soft folds. And then moving my hand down to hers. Such a difference between the two! Hers was gnarled with time and hard labour. The skin pushed into the skeleton, embossing the green-blue veins. And yes, I could spend hours tracing the veins, trying to straighten her unrelenting fingers with my young, keen ones. Is there always a need for a reason for one to be fascinated with uncommon things? I don’t know, but I was fascinated without ever waiting to find out why. For years, I couldn’t bear to straighten my fingers as the hands joined for the school prayer. “But didi can’t do it, so how can I?” So mulish was I, raps from the PT master’s cane didn’t budge me, and the fingers promptly went back to being bent.
Dadiji wanted to marry me off soon as I turned thirteen. “But I won’t survive until when she grows of age! Get her married. I want to see her as a bride!” She’d try to reason with my parents. She knew she’d not have her way, but she tried. If my dreams of when I was thirteen were to be analysed, it’d become clear that I’d have supported her wish if anyone had bothered to ask me. I wanted to get married, dress up in beautiful sarees, wear vermilion. Like her, I didn’t think of the added baggage — a husband. “But you can always do the gauna (a child bride stays with parents until she becomes mature, then is sent to her husband — the event is called gauna) when she’s done her college!” Such wisdom. Or so I’d have thought then.
College was a time when I was busy wondering what I was doing anyway. Confused about future, boys, career, pimples and cellulite, I didn’t have time for anything less important. So, my letters to Dadaji became less frequent. He’d been alone for almost 4 years after Dadiji’s death, and had become more insistent about getting his letters. He still wrote back. He was nearing 96, his words on the paper were like determined prints by a magpie with inked feet. It took us minutes to decipher them, but we eventually did. This was a welcome project we were given at least thrice a month.
That day, he asked me on phone whether I’d written to him. I mumbled a guilty no and promised I’d write that day. He laughed. And said, “What’s the use now?” He died the next morning. His housekeeper said that that morning, he went out for his walk after weeks, came back and demanded a glass of milk. Joked with him the housekeeper and told him to make paranthas for breakfast. Paranthas? He’d not eaten them in years! But then there’s always some room for change, he said. Sated, he went to his room, lay down, and must’ve gone and met his Ram sometime in late morning.
I don’t remember how Dadiji died, and I am not interested in asking anyone. Was it at home, or in the hospital? Did she suffer? I don’t remember. What I do remember is that I immediately thought of how she would miss my wedding.
There are so many memories of them, so many ways they make me feel warm and cared for — even today. I suppose this is what you call enrichment.
I wish for an awareness of beings in people. I wish we noticed life more. How I wish I am able to write letters to my grandchildren when I am 96 without my written words turning into magpie footprints more than they already have with lack of use forced by a weak will and a stiffness caused by endless hours at the computer. How I wish my children and grandchildren are better than me in being patient with the limitations of age, that ill-mannered slurping of Bournvita milk because the lips are losing their grip, that frightening smell of old age. That they know the value of that glint of an eye, that slap on the thigh with sheer amusement, the love.
The picture on top is Dadiji, Dadaji with one of their great grandsons.