Grandfather Stories

by Ramesh Mahadevan

I must have been in my ninth grade then. When I got home from school one day, my mother was in paroxysms of joy. "Your grandparents are coming here tomorrow." She explained her mirth away. "This is not just a visit - this time, finally, your dad convinced them to move with us permanently." Shucks ! What a shocker. Now, I had to make serious adjustments to my grandpa if I wanted to maintain my quality of life. How could she be so happy ?

Nevertheless, I tagged along my dad to the railway station. Grandpa emerged finally from one of the bogies, looking all tired, his skin had wrinkled into leather and his hair looked bleached. His wife was only a few steps behind, as always and he had brought with him three of the most massive trunks, besides other assorted pieces of luggage. A porter was summoned and when he dared haggle his porter fee, grandpa quickly stepped in.

"An extra rupee ? Do you know that the Southern Railway rules clearly state that you cannot charge more than 35 paise for a trunk? What is your license number ? I will complain about you this instant to the General Manager, who by the way, is a good friend of mine."

All right ! The man hadn't lost his touch ! Of course, even idiots would have recognized grandfather's bluff about knowing the general manager. It was another story that my father managed to slip some extra money to the porter and got grandpa home. Thus began the first day of the rest of grandp's life in our household.

It took grandpa only days to settle down to his new ambience. Hardly a week had gone by, he was already a terror in my friends' circle. Grandpa would sit in the front porch and pretend to be immersed in the newspaper. But should any kid enter the house looking for me, he would quickly toss his cover and pounce on his prey and start the inquisition.

"What is your father's name ? What is your grandfather's name ? What is your other grandfather's name and where do they come from ?". Grandp's curiosity knew no bounds. Occassionally, he would be rewarded for his grilling.

"Oho, what a coincidence ! So, you are then the grandson of my dear friend Subramaniam from that village. I studied three years of high school there. Me and your grandfather used to play 'gulli danda' by the river every day. He had a bulbous nose and we used to call him 'lizard'. So what is that skinny scoundrel doing now ?" My grandfather would ask my friend.

"He has been dead for the last ten years." My friend would reply.

"Tss Tss. Did they sell the house by the Collector's office or is someone living there ?"

"Grandpa, will you leave him alone ? We are already quite late for the cricket game."

"You are always spending too much time playing. Don't you kids get homework these days? When you come home, you read trashy books by, who's that, 'Enid Blyton' or something. Your english is so bad you say things like 'thanks an awful lot', what awful lot, I say? You are in the ninth class and you don't even know what a gerund is. You should be reading Char-less Dikkkens" He would admonish me in his heavy South Indian accent "When I was in college, my Professor Rangachary would teach Shakespeare and even the English fellows would listen to him with rapt attention. If you are going out, put on a shirt, for heaven's sake. You are only wearing a banian."

"That's not a banian, grandpa, its called a tee shirt."

"Whatever it is, get home before it gets dark. The town is getting dangerous these days. All kinds of people are lurking around and kidnapping boys like you. Don't get me and your grandmother worried."

Grandpa disapproved most things. He had a view on almost everything in life. Listening to him was like reading a thousand Soc.Culture.Indian posts, without touching the 'n' key. He was quite sure he had figured out the whole system and stumbled on the Universal truth. Yet it bothered him that nobody took him as seriously as he took himself.

He quickly managed to find a host of senior citizens like him and in fact, became something like their leader. They would congregate in our house and freak out, only occassionally to pause for steaming hot coffees, after a perfunctory fuss about drinking too much coffee.

Grandpa hated Indira Gandhi's policies, Gandhian philosophy, Morarji's face and every one of the contemporary politicians.

"What do these ministers do ? They simply want to win the elections and keep on cheating us. Look at the price of gold today, I say." He would pronounce. For a brief while, he even considered entering politics. But given he had no vote bank, he channelled his energies into writing letters to the editors of the newspapers. It was always issues like 'Today's women' or the new generation and its new fangled notions like the 'Love marriage'. When occassionally his letter got published, everyone in the household was treated to a twelve hour follow-up sermon on the same topic, by a very triumphant grandfather.

He and a buddy of his discovered homeopathy one day and enrolled in a class. Prior to that, he made me take him to the nearest stationery store to buy a notebook and a pen to take to the class. After personally examining every notebook and pen, he was still upset about the shoddy workmanship of today's products.

"What pens do they make these days ? Terrible little pieces. I bought my pen in 1934 - a blue colored beauty - I had it for forty two years. It was made in England. You will never get such things today. Never leaked nor wore out. And then somebody picked it from my pocket. These days, you have ridiculous things, what is it called, ball point pens. Your handwriting will be complety screwed up if you use those."

Within weeks of enrolling in the class, my grandfather cured his first patient - our servant maid - of a persistent cough. His fame spread to her neighborhood and in no time at all, her neighbors lined up in front of our house for the 'doctor' and his free medicine. Short of performing brain surgery, he was able to handle most medical situations and I was dragged to the most obscure corners of the town by him to locate that one shop which sold the homeopathy medicines. At home, we couldn't even cough or sneeze in privacy, without him giving us a dose of 'Natrum Sulph 60 X'. (One day, when he left his medicine cabinet unlocked, I quickly sneaked in and gobbled a whole bottle of the sweet medicine - quite a silly thing for a high school kid to do) When we faked our coughs to get a dose of his candy medicine, he would quickly see through it and say "Give the child a cup of hot milk with black peppers, haldi and dry ginger."

Each time I returned home for vacations from college, my grandfather seemed to have gotten more sulking and grouchier. He had also grown older and weaker almost exponentially. He had even succumbed to what he contemptuosly called the 'Allopathic medicine'. He disapproved most normal behavior and was getting more and more frustrated that nobody was paying any attention to his words of wisdom. He had become a consummate cynic. He had also become increasingly religious, practicing his own brand of it.

"Grandpa, we just got back from hiking in the Himalayas .."

"That is wonderful, did you go to Manasarovar and Mount Kailash ? If you rolled around Mt. Kailash, you would have earned yourself a lot of good."

"No, grandpa, they are technically not even in India. I did go to Gaumukh, where the river Ganges originates and I have even got a bottle of water from the source of Ganges."

"Source of Ganges ? That is useless. Nobody gets it from there. You should always get 'Ganga Jal' from Prayag. Others don't have the same holy properties."

When I was leaving for the USA, he was strangely cool to the whole idea. He saw an abandonment. First his son moved to a new city and now his grandson is moving to a new country. Nonetheless, he chose an auspicious day for me to fly out and gave me a zillion pieces of advice. He would say,

"Getting old is a terrible thing, no matter how you want to rationalize it. You think old age is far into the future and then one day, you realize you have been old for a while now and you hadn't quite prepared for it. It is a losing battle everyday. You constantly lower your expectations of people, of life. You lower your standards, try to cope up and live with whatever dignity you can muster. But still you realize very clearly that you are simply marginalized, day after every tiring day. You just don't matter any more for most purposes and I hate it when people treat me with that phony courtesy."

He would continue.

"You are young now, so go ahead and experience life. Discover the world, go to America. Do things that I or your father could never do. Smell the flowers and swim in the rivers. Take a lot of data in life, do a lot of analysis. But don't write a final report any time soon. The day you do that, you know you are hopelessly old."

I dared not look into grandpa's eyes.

When I called home for the first time, somebody handed the phone to grandpa.

"Grandpa, how are you ?"

"Why bother asking me? I am as good as dead now. My legs ache every step I take. I can't sleep in the nights. What time is it now, there ?"

"Oh, it is almost midnight."

"How interesting, it is already about ten in the morning. Are you doing well in your exams ?"

"yes, grandpa."

"Listen, you have to watch out for the foreign guys. They will always try to corrupt your morals with booze and cigarettes. Their women will try to seduce attractive young men like you and then dump you afterward. You shouldn't forget our culture and tradition. Do you get time to do any Poojas ?"

"Sometimes I do grandpa, but.." I was lying, just like my grandfather used to.

"What but ? All these things are dying - just like me. Have you met Ramaswamy yet ?

"Never heard of him."

"He is my sister's grandson. He is there in America. He married a girl from Madurai district. The Madurai people are extremely smart people. They will eat you alive and let go a belch after that. If you ever see him on the road there, avoid him."

"Okay grandpa."

Another call from home, a couple of years later.

"We are very worried about your grandpa. Yesterday, he just wandered outside and we were looking for him all over the place. Luckily, some kind gentleman saw him walking around aimlessly and got him home. Now we are keeping the front gate always locked. He has become terribly absent minded. He does not even remember to take baths or to take food .."

"I think what he is suffering from is called Alzheimer's disease."

"No, no. He doesn't have any diseases or anything. He is simply getting older and a little senile. His temper tantrums are unbearable. Many times, he simply does not even respond when we ask him things. And he talks to himself all the time. All the adages about 'second childhood' are very true."

And a few months later, he passed away and I could not even go to his funeral.

Copyright(R) Mahadevan Ramesh