Copyright 2020 by Rani Jayakumar
My father's father was a man both well known and distant from me - a man of
strong principles raised in South India before independence. This story
explores my relationship with him and the rest of the family.
been twenty-eight years since my grandfather died. On September 4,
1992, I remember seeing my father sitting in our shiny black lazy boy
chair, his arms draped over the arms of the chair, as if they were
one, his body slumped as if drained of energy.
dead, he said.
was so matter of fact, so brief, and so lacking in emotion that I
genuinely believed he was joking. I laughed out loud, the silly laugh
of a teenager trying to laugh off something she doesn't understand.
he insisted, as if frustrated with my incompetence, the way
he did when I didn't understand a seemingly obvious algebra question.
But this time his voice wasn't strong and his face wasn't animated.
He didn't move.
only stared. I might have said something, or nothing. Maybe Oh, my
gosh, or Wow, what happened? Maybe I listened to his explanation.
Maybe I heard what happened. Maybe my mother said something. Maybe my
sister was there.
only remember that I offered him no consolation. He must have cried.
Did my father ever cry? I never knew. His eyes were puffy, and his
face was drawn.
I was doing homework on the dining room table. I had a pencil in my
hand one moment, and the next, my wide-ruled cardboard notebook page
was dimpled with splotchy tears. I sobbed. I sobbed for my stupidity
in not getting to know my grandfather better, and for his long
illness. I sobbed for not giving my father a word of apology or
consolation. I sobbed for someone I felt I knew so little and so
much. I sobbed, not really feeling he was gone.
was only a few minutes, and I felt better. I went about the rest of
everyone seemed distant, and I don't remember even talking to anyone
else that day.
later, my father left to perform the last rites for his father. An
atheist performing religious rites for a devotee of yoga and
astrology. He did everything exactly according to tradition, I was
told. I was also told to be glad that my grandfather had gone
peacefully, and that he had been able to see us and so many other
relatives all in one place a few months earlier.
we returned to India two years later, I felt a vague emptiness - an
unspoken void of his absence. It wasn't mentioned directly only in
sentences like, Your grandfather used to know ... and He and I once
Seeing my grandmother without him was also strange,
as if half of her had suddenly disappeared. She didn't mention him,
but he was there, on everyone's mind. Glimpses of his existence.
years later, and he is no longer clear in my vision. I forget exactly
what he looked like - still, he exists only in glimpses. I recall him
frail, having to travel by wheelchair, a thin stretch of cloth draped
over his shoulder, his bald head shining, bottle-glass thick
made his twinkling eyes look much too large for his face. His scruffy
white two-day beard. And a picture, from somewhere, of him seemingly
much younger (still bald!), standing tall in khaki pants and a shirt.
The same ever-twinkling eyes, and a rare hint of a smile on his face.
taught me much that I am surprised to remember. Sure, he always had a
thing for the boys in the family, my cousins, who were his favorites.
He always thought they would go on to great things, be geniuses. But
I listened to him, and got the privilege of hearing him say things
else heard. I felt special and gobbled up his advice, as if it would
make him like me more, somehow.
started with the fact that he had diabetes. Everyone knew. He had it,
his daughter (my aunt) had it, his son (my uncle) was getting it, and
for all we knew, my father and I myself might get it someday. My
father did, as did my cousins, and I am waiting.
used to eat bitter gourds religiously. He told me, it's good for you,
it's good for my diabetes, keeps my sugar down. I didn't really
understand at the time what "his sugar" was, but clearly
this was something good, and although it had a bitter taste, it
wasn't that bad to eat. I could be
Thatha, so I ate it.
his other tricks to ward off diabetes was his religion. That meant,
of course, prayer, but also astrology. He could read a person's
horoscope and divine all sorts of things from it. He and my
grandmother were always fighting, and he used to say, "Oh, I
looked at her horoscope. I knew it wouldn't match mine, but I married
her anyway out of pity." I took it as a joke, but he never
laughed about it. The summer we went to see him, in 1992, he had
looked at his horoscope. Shortly after the housewarming ceremony for
their new apartment, he said that if he could make it through
September 3rd, he would be ok. He died the night of September 3rd,
tradition was part of his entire life, and it brought with it some
dogma, like the importance of writing with one's right hand. As a
lefty, I was doomed. My parents had made me switch hands for eating,
which was difficult enough. Thatha made me sit with a notebook, and
that I practice writing with my right hand. After a few minutes, I
complained. But he made me continue, even when my hands were cramped
and in pain.
home, he taught children prayers and scriptures. I'd listen in but he
would insist it was only for boys and men. I felt left out, so I
helped my grandmother with chores around the house, waiting
reluctantly for my hour of writing.
also manifested patently in his yoga. He had used it successfully in
lieu of insulin to ward off the effects of diabetes for years. In the
mornings I would find him in a headstand in the middle of his small
cement floor room, the same room where I would later practice painful
writing. I learned the lotus pose (feet crossed over my knees, even
my arms to grab my toes), headstands, somersaults, and other poses
for which I didn't know names but could perform with delight. He
helped me, adjusting this arm and that foot. Then we would sit
together to eat lunch off of banana leaves on the floor.
I got older, discussions grew out of these exchanges. When he asked
me what I wanted to do when I grew up, I had one answer or another,
always changing. Why? he would ask, and I would tell him for fun, and
to make more money. He couldn't stomach that - more money? That was a
bad thing. Why not, I asked. I could live well, send kids to
college... And then came
lesson that I will never forget: when you make more money, someone,
somewhere is making less. It was a concept that blew my mind.
he came to the US, he was older, but wise as always. My friends'
parents came to visit, and talked with him for hours on end. They
asked advice (which he gave), asked him to read their horoscopes
(mostly, he refused). They asked him to teach them yoga (he did). I
was somehow both proud and embarrassed.
was once sitting beside him, waiting for far away relatives to
arrive. "I'm excited," I said. "No, no, don't be
excited," he cautioned. I was a confused little girl, and
clarified, "No, no, I'm just excited that they're coming."
Maybe it was a language barrier, though he spoke excellent English.
"No, don't be excited. You should be calm all the time. Try not
to be excited," he patiently explained. "I'm just anxious,"
I said. He said not to be anxious, eager, or any other synonym I
could conjure. My eleven year-old brain couldn't comprehend his
lesson, but now,
so many years, I realize what he meant: he was teaching me another
yoga lesson. Learn to be calm and together, unperturbed by events.
later, when he was frail and in and out of hospitals, I sat with him,
urged by my mother to spend a little time with him. I was reluctant -
what could I say? So I said, "Hi Thatha, how are you?" and
I listened. He asked me some questions, not much I remember. He told
me about his
I asked why he never took insulin shots. "You know why?" he
said. Because insulin was harvested from pigs. He would never allow
something that caused an animal harm to help him.
I insisted it no longer did so - they probably made recombinant
insulin in a laboratory. "No, not in those days," he
insisted. Now, he had no other choice, he said. We sat together
silently for a while, and then I let him rest. It was our last real
there were the prejudices: he always preferred the boys in the
family, insisted on doing everything the right way with the right
hand or foot, was stubborn as a mule. Despite all that, I remember
him, not just through other people's memories, but my own. This year,
he would have been 100 years old. My memories live still, and will
still live twenty-eight years from now.
not be dismayed by the brokenness of the world. All things break. And
all things can be mended. Not with time, as they say, but with
intention. So go. Love intentionally, extravagantly, unconditionally.
The broken world waits in darkness for the light that is you. -
of the message
won't know where to send it.)
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