My earliest memory of my grandfather is of us in his living room and me pinching his arm. His wrinkled skin would fold and lift like the cream that forms on coffee. His coffee coloured skin was folded all over but especially on his hands. I used to love pinching the folds of the skin on his hands and then letting them go, watching them slowly slip back into place. They were so different from my hands. My skin was a different colour. It didn’t have any folds and wrinkles, when I pinched it, it sprang back into shape so much quicker than his did. He had the softest earlobes and the warmest smile and glasses on his nose and a pen in his pocket and a newspaper close by.
He could be found sitting by a window or on the sofa in his famous safari suit. Always a safari suit. Tan, light grey, dark grey, brown, black, he had safari suits in every colour. Safari suits for every occasion. Even at home it was a neatly ironed white button down shirt and neatly ironed trousers. He had the same haircut and hair colour for the thirty years that I knew him. Same moustache, no beard. You’d never catch him looking untidy. He stood with a slight stoop, with his hands usually behind his back. When he was sitting, hands folded in his lap, legs crossed. Always poised. Whether he was watching TV or eating or looking after the grand kids, he was mostly quiet and only ever made slow, deliberate movements.
He loved taking us out to the park, looking sharp in his safari suit of the day. My brother and I spent so many sunny days in Cubbon Park and Lal Bagh. I actually remember a little bit from before my brother was old enough to come with us. There are blurry memories from the Children’s Library in Cubbon Park. I remember being allowed to pick out whatever book I wanted and sitting on a tiny colourful chair at a tiny colourful table and turning the pages while thatha sat with me. I’ve tried a few times in my adulthood to revisit that library but it always seems to be closed. I’m not sure if it’s been shut down now.
When I was eight or nine, I can’t remember now, thatha got me the first three Harry Potter books which became my childhood obsession. We then made it a tradition that he had to buy me the each new book on the day it released and he had to sign and date it. Those books, now with broken binding and yellowed pages, still sit in my bookshelf. Two years ago when I decided to brush up my Kannada reading abilities he found kids comic books in Kannada and read a few stories with me. I didn’t get very far but he would keep asking me if I had finished reading them on my own. Those comic books too, sit in my bookshelf now, crunchy, dusty, and untouched.
Thatha is the reason that my dad’s side of the family are all a bunch of nerds. Honestly. Everyone reads because he led by example. My current bookshelf is rivalled only by his. He has books in English and Kannada and always had an age appropriate reading list ready for his brood of grandchildren. He would either read to us or give us books to read. He even had books for his first great granddaughter even though he was too old to read for her or play with her the way he did with his grand kids.
In the late aughts, the books, diaries, folders and sheafs of paper where relegated to the edges of the desk to welcome a laptop. Thatha promptly got to work. He wanted Gmail, YouTube, Skype, newspapers, and anything else the internet offered him. He was not one to be left behind. He even had a trusty iPhone 4 that served him well for years. He had mastered WhatsApp video calling also like a boss and would call me occasionally when I lived abroad.
But for all his gusto, every few months he would tell me his laptop wasn’t working. I would check and find that the desktop had become a cluttered hellscape downloaded straight from Ransomware City. I would delete a bunch of things, tell him not to click a bunch of things, reset his desktop so he could find Chrome, and wait for a few more months till it had to be done again.
Thatha loved celebrating his grandkids. He was always so proud of us. And can I tell you, this man knew how to throw a birthday party. There were cakes and magicians and snacks and gifts for everyone. He spared no expense. He celebrated our birthdays like turning a year older was simply the most fantastic thing a child could have done. He had photos of us all over the house and demanded pictures of all major milestones. From Arangetrams to graduations he needed his albums constantly refreshed so he could show us off to friends and family. He loved telling everyone how his grandchildren studied in America or lived in Canada or were working in the Netherlands.
He was gender non conformist way back in the 50s. He raised his kids to do whatever the hell they wanted, regardless of gender. He passed that ideology to my dad who was always open to throwing his kids in the deep end, regardless of gender. He called us all ‘boy’ and ‘mister’ and treated us all as just kids. Never as girls or boys. I had no idea how unique this gender agnostic upbringing was until I was much older.
He never once asked me about getting married. But he constantly harassed me about getting a masters degree or a PhD. Which is why I was worried about telling him I had quit my job to become an actor. To my surprise he was genuinely and sincerely supportive of my career change. When I finally told him, he didn’t bat an eyelid. He went straight into questions of what kind of work I wanted to do. He even made the gruelling 90 minute car ride from our house to Jagriti Theatre in peak weekend traffic to watch me perform in Girish Karnad’s Yayati in 2017. I still remember the moment when I had an emotional scene looking out of a window and right in my eye line was thatha, in his safari suit, in rapt attention. I couldn’t believe he had come all the way!
Let’s not forget that this small, nerdy literature buff had a rocking social life. With a daughter in Canada, he made trips around the world several times. He was a regular at the Cubbon Park Laughter Club and travelled quite often with them. He didn’t limit himself to day trips or weekends, by the way, thatha went on a full blown Euro trip in his late 70s with his Laughter Club pals and did all the touristy things possible. He came back with some amazing (read: hilarious) photos of him dressed in ethnic clothing, holding props and posing against a hilly backdrop of whatever country he was in.
Thatha knew how to live life. Maybe that’s how he always had a story ready. A story from his childhood, of him being in school while independence from the British Raj was being fought for. A story from his young adulthood of watching black and white English movies at a theatre. Stories of how he wanted to be a lawyer and regretted not finishing his degree. He never told me why he didn’t finish. He had also never learned to drive a car or ride a two wheeler, another thing I know he regretted. He didn’t tell me much about his young adulthood. He always brushed it aside and changed the topic.
I know thatha had a lot of things he regretted doing or not doing. He seemed to have lived a very complicated life before I was born. His quiet demeanour sometimes suddenly gave way to flashes of anger, a glimpse into his life before he was the calm grandfather he was to me. I know he married very young and from what I gather, had big shoes to fill. My great grandfather was said to have been wildly successful and extremely wealthy. He had two wives and my grandfather grew up with several step siblings. I don’t know much more than that but I wonder if thatha worried about living up to his father’s reputation. Sadly those stories from his early adulthood are gone with him and I’ll be left only to wonder.
Thatha was far from perfect, as are all human beings, but he got pretty close to being a perfect grandparent. His grandkids spanned age 39 to 9 as of last year and now from 34 to 10 after we lost our oldest brother. His grandkids included a non profit business leader, two doctors, an actor, an educator, and two who are still in school. He helped raise quite a brood. A brood of kids with noses in books and a vast bookshelf to borrow from. A brood of slightly deviant, slightly mad, slightly eccentric overachievers. A brood that was always told that they were meant for extraordinary things.
I hope we can achieve what you wanted from us, thaths. You gave us so much of your time, patience, and love. I am who I am today because of you. Today when we laid you to rest, all I hoped for was that you are finally at peace now and that all those regrets and voices of self doubt are quiet. You deserve to rest. You’ve done enough.
I’m glad I was able to be there for your last rites. I’m glad that I was able to carry on my shoulders the body of the man who was the first to hold me when I came into this world. I’m glad we had a chance to hold each other at these key moments in the cycle of life and death. Your friends and family knew what kind of values you instilled in us, so they didn’t argue when I broke tradition to carry your body despite not being a boy. Your oldest grandson would have done it had he been around, but since he was already waiting for you on the other side, I stepped in as oldest grandchild present. It was an honour for me and a nod to your values that I could put gendered tradition aside to be there for you; to literally give my shoulder for you to lean on.
As they put your body away and closed the doors, all I could think to say was thank you. Thank you for everything.
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