It’s now over a decade since my grandfather (paternal) passed away. Everyone has their own memories to share when it comes to remembering Thatha. I hear from Paatti stories about what a sharp, intelligent mind he had. I hear from Appa about how staunch a supporter he was of education. I hear from other family members tales of how hardworking he was – what all he went through to come up in life, to build a family and to provide for all their needs. I hear from my sisters / cousins about what a great grandfather he was.
And I… I have one memory, and it’s bittersweet.
Unlike my relationship with my grandmother, my bond with my grandfather was never strong. For reasons unknown to anyone in the family, my grandfather and I got off on the wrong foot. No one remembers why or how, but my grandfather and I hardly ever spoke to each other. We didn’t grow apart; this wasn’t something that happened gradually with time… it’s been that way for as long as I remember. We lived under the same roof for over a decade, yet, the only conversations I remember having with him from back then involves either me inviting him after dinner table was set, or him letting me know that someone was looking for me, or me acting as a messenger, relaying a piece of info to him from someone, at the most.
Growing up alongside him for years together only strengthened my resolve to keep my distance. And it made me reason with myself and dig out theories as to why I didn’t take the initiative to get to know him better. While my sisters and cousins would merrily gather around him to hear him tell a story on a Sunday afternoon, I would go about doing chores. While the children in the family would run to hug him when he returned home after a trip, I would stand there and stare. While everyone in the family showed both respect and fear for the patriarch, I was merely indifferent. So, like I said, our relationship was complicated… or was it simple and straightforward? Depends on how one looks at it, I suppose.
The lack of interest in mending the broken bond (or, should I say, in creating a bond where nothing existed before) was mutual. It wasn’t just me who was unconcerned; he took the same stance. His affection for my sisters had no bounds. And they reciprocated. Perhaps he had the same warm grandfatherly feelings for me as well, but it never showed… when it came to me, he only got involved when requested and let me be otherwise. With time, both of us adapted to live comfortably in the our own cocoons without needing the other’s company, learning how to well hide any emotions – be it anger or fondness – we may have felt for each other.
Years down the line, my father secured a job in a different city and we moved out. This only weakened what was left of the relationship. We grew farther apart. Some holidays were spent visiting the grandparents, and the excitement, for me, was only about meeting grandma, not grandpa. And it didn’t feel like I was missing much.
In the summer of 2000, we moved back to Madras and lived, temporarily, with the grandparents while my parents looked for a suitable residence near school. At this time, my grandfather’s health was deteriorating by the day. All his children and their families were around. Even with rising health issues, he managed to spend as much time as possible with his family. It was then that my affection for him surfaced a bit. I don’t really know if it was seeing a strong man like him bedridden or if something inside of me really changed, but grief overtook me the same way it did all others. And, hence, when the elders decided that it was better to let the children be elsewhere and not see their grandfather in that condition, I refused to go; and, left with no other option, my sisters and my cousin were sent away to spend a couple of days with my uncle and aunt, while I stayed back.
I can still remember that afternoon like it happened yesterday. I was in the terrace with my cousin when my uncle came rushing. He told us that the doctor was called as Thatha wasn’t responding all too well, and the doctor arrived only to give the news that Thatha’s organs were failing, one after the other. He doesn’t have much time, my uncle said, he wants to see you. I exchanged a gaze with my cousin and got ready to walk behind her to see what Thatha wanted her for. My uncle let out a cry – why are you staring at her? He wants to see you!, he said. And before I could totally grasp the fact that he was talking to me, I was rushed inside the house.
I sat by the bedside and waited for Thatha to open his eyes. My uncle leaned towards Thatha and whispered to him that I’d come. Thatha opened his eyes and put in all the efforts that he could to keep them open. He took my hand in his and with much difficulty spoke… I want to go for a walk; I want to go outside; will you please take me? he asked. I looked around and then at Thatha. I told him he wasn’t in a position to go out for now and that I would take him as soon as he got better. But this is as good as it’s going to get. It’s all downhill from here. And I have so much left to do. I have to get to the bank now. Let’s go, please, he pleaded again. I held his hand closer, gripped it tighter. The sight was nothing short of heartbreaking. How can the man as strong and as powerful as he be pleading to me? I controlled my tears as much as I could, but they refused to stay in. My eyes went blurry. I tried hard not to lose eye contact. I told him it was just a matter of time before he got better and I would take him right after the doctor gave me an ok. The next few minutes were spent with everyone around him trying to explain to him that everything can wait and that, right now, he needed to rest. But I want you to take me out. You’re the only one who I know will listen to me, he uttered and closed his eyes for one last time.
I cried. Those were the only few minutes of our lives that we spent in such closeness. To date, neither I nor anyone knows why Thatha asked to spend his last few minutes with me. When everyone – his children, his grandchildren (my elder cousins), his daughter-in-laws, his son-in-law, his doctor and most important of all, his wife – were all around him, why me? I don’t know and I never will. I’m just grateful that I got to spend that time with him. It’s those few precious moments that has given me a fond memory to last a lifetime and more.
Had he lived through his ailment and been around today, I don’t know where our relationship would stand. There are still things that I can’t look past or let go. And it is for that reason that I am unable to picture a perfect loving relationship with him. I might have taken steps to work out our differences. I might have opened up to him about what actions of his made me develop a cold front towards him. I might have given us a chance to reconcile. But none of that matters… All I have left is a memory, etched so deep in my mind, of the day I sat beside him, held his hands and, I hope, helped ease his pain a bit. And that thin ray of light brightens our relationship and aids in overlooking, if not forgetting and forgiving, the dark shadows that surround it.