“Liked it? Cost me ten lakhs!” said my grandfather proudly, rubbing his left hand on his shiny bald head. A bowl of what appeared to be a murky dal sat in front of him, waiting to be cussed at. “Pimps!”, he snorted as an afterthought, looking at the television screen, as Mahendra Singh Dhoni, the Indian cricket team captain got caught and bowled by a stunning yorker. “Can’t bat against pace, what are these kids getting paid for these days. You know! Gavaskar used to -”
“Bat without a helmet against the West Indians…they were the best team in the world…had the fastest bowlers….had Michael Holding….he was called whispering death!” I completed. “You’ve mentioned it to me once or twice, I remember over the past twenty years..”
Grandfather chortled which turned into a animal like cough. As he gasped for breath he pushed the bowl of masoor dal away and turned towards me, raising his finger. “I thought I’d get to eat some fat and meat when Sheela left us. This is worse than what they used to serve us in training.”
It had been a week since grandfather’s last chemo. My uncle, one of Pune’s best oncologists had taken me to a corner in the hospital and told me it’s my job to let mother know we probably have a month with him left. He didn’t have the heart to break the news to his own sister despite being her closest confidant. Today was my Sunday on the calendar. Grandfather, an ex-army man had changed completely since we told him he had stage four. It stripped him of his age by decades. He started resembling the man my mother had told me stories about since I was small. The man who was the centre of attention at army parties. The man who would laugh in the face of his biggest trials and the man who had turned into a shadow of his old self over years of battling debt, depression and marital problems.
“He was a really nice father”, my mother would tell me. “It was my mother who was a real witch. She would provoke him into a fight, and he’d lose his temper and oh god, he had a terrible temper.”
The last time I had visited grandfather at home, he had smashed a large wine glass on my grandmother’s face. We had found them sobbing in different rooms, their entire crockery cabinet in pieces in the living room. We had rushed her to the hospital, spent the entire night watching her wince as the nurse tweezed out bits of glass out of her cheek. I had vowed never to visit their house again post (I swallowed my pride after he was diagnosed) My mother, though furious at her father at first surprisingly blamed her… “She must have said something really terrible. She would always say mean things. Stretch him to breaking point” just before I left the hospital at dawn. My grandmother stayed with us for the rest of her days, till she passed away a year back. She was eighty. A week into shifting in our house, I saw our crockery cabinet combust similarly, this time at my mother’s hands. The temper that was so famed in the house had luckily by the grace of genetics not been passed to me. I never saw grandfather apologise for that day, you know. He continued to harp that she deserved it till…well…till the last time we brought it up before he –
“We haven’t played Ludo for so many days. Get the old set out. Let’s play some Ludo.”
“Eh Appu! Not Ludo. You always end up winning at Ludo. I know you cheat somehow.”
“You rascal, you accuse your old grandfather of cheating? I’ll show you today”
“Do you want to play chess? I can make you some tea and we can play till mother gets here.”
I got the old wooden board out from ‘my cupboard’. It was actually a single drawer where my grandparents would store all my toys when I was a kid. Out of habit, the first thing I do when I reach their house is open it to ensure all ‘my things’ are still there. There’s my chessboard, unused for years, an old whistle I had driven the neighbours silly with when I was five, a couple of Secret Seven books I had re-read till I knew them by heart and I have no idea why I’m so attached to it, but an old World Book I used to press leaves in during summer vacation. Press leaves? You know, keep leaves in an old heavy book in the Summer of 1999 and open the book again by winter to see them etched as a skeleton? I would love doing it.
“You want black?” I asked him.
“Nope. But I know you want white. Go on then.”
I moved the pawn in front of the king a couple of steps ahead. “Boring, boring. E4, E5, NF3, NC6. That chess class ruined you. You were doing so well sitting on my knee and playing. I keep telling your mother, you would have been the next Bobby Fischer.”
Grandfather taught me how to play chess when I was six. I used to sit in his lap while he would furiously explain what each piece was capable of doing in Marathi. By the time I turned eight, I actually started beating most of my family. My parents’ Indian sensibilities blazed to life, realising there’s a miniscule but very likely chance for monetary opportunity here. They shoved me into an archaic buddhibal gurukul where I would be forced to train for hours at an end on weekends till my head throbbed. In six months, I started hating the game eventually refusing to play it. Grandfather was furious his protege had become a guinea pig for slaughter. He tried making it fun for me, but something in my head just switched off whenever I saw a chessboard then. I don’t mind playing it now, I still get flashbacks about the musty smell of the cloth chess boards and the all too familiar irritating click of kids banging chess pieces out of the board whenever they were captured.
“I’ll make tea, wait. Do NOT touch the pieces! I remember where they all are!” I warned him.
It triggers memories whenever I wander around my grandparents’ house. It’s in the old part of Pune, where time stands still – almost infuriatingly sometimes. Theirs is almost a century old, largely made of stone. I remember it being cold. Really cold. It smells the exact same even today, of burning camphor and incense sticks. Except you can also smell the effort invested into keeping an old man alive. My grandparents brought a television way before we did. It just had twelve channels, but it did have Cartoon Network. I’d make excuses to come here and watch Tom and Jerry or any of the old Hanna Barbera re-runs, whilst grandmother doused me with variations of deep-fried, unhealthy snacks. I digress. Where was I? Yes, in the kitchen. Making tea. Boiling water and milk separately. Waiting for the tea leaves to settle down. “We aren’t savages, like them” my grandmother would say with a heap of disgust, referring to her neighbours from Delhi. Her years in the capital left her with a heavy aversion for how the north would make tea – mixing water, tea leaves, spices and ginger till they were well and truly butchered by the flames.
I used to find the reluctance of all my relatives to embrace my adulthood infuriating. As the youngest kid in the family, I would be spoken to like a small prize winning dog – worthy of attention, but no seriousness. In my grandfather’s case, it was the exact opposite. He made me feel important. I’d sit at his desk as a kid and stamp his bank documents, feeling like my involvement is his paperwork somehow mattered. He’d ask me for advice, which I’d find very endearing. I’d see most of my other defence kid friends have a strict hierarchical culture in their house, which was nice to see my grandfather not give a hoot about.
Grandfather slurped the tea. “Tastes a lot like Sheela’s…”
“It’s because mother makes the same tea. And I learned from her…”
“You haven’t moved any pieces for twenty minutes. Are you going to bother playing?”
Grandfather was a simple man. Post his army life, which I never thought he really liked too much, he became quiet and reserved. He’d always tell me how he missed death by an inch fighting the Pakistanis in ‘71, though grandmother had on safe authority that he never actually touched a rifle the entire stint. He distanced himself from all his friends in the regiment and sat at home post his retirement, immersing himself in hours of television and B-grade Marathi novels. He used to be a lot of fun, mom would always tell me. Always filled with terrible jokes
“I think she was having an affair.” said my mother.
“You know know, or you suspect?”
“Um. They never told me anything, but I always overheard bits from their fights. There would be this ‘uncle’ who would come up to our door and take her away in a car. She would never introduce him to us, so I kind of always suspected…”
Grandfather, like several of Pune’s tea drinking heavyweights, has an intricate ritual circling every sip he takes. He slurps each time to a crescendo and then follows it up with a low bass ‘Ah’ as if to reassure himself that it was a sip well invested. I had come to forget his little intricacies over the last decade I’ve spent working in Bombay. My home trips to Pune had become less frequent and the time I’d get at home to visit my grandparents, even less so.
“You want to see the garden?” he asked me, about eight moves from defeat.
We sat on the swing. He chattered on about how his gardener is quite obviously a crook, since his fertilizer supplies having slowly been disappearing, always punctuating his sentences with a racking cough. We spoke in depth about how the rose plants were there just to show off, and no real botany connoisseur would want to have a plant as common as a rose in his garden. He even offered to field for the neighbours’ kids playing in the yard opposite his house, much to their horror. There was a time he would have been really mean to them when their ball crossed over to his fence, but this was a changed man in his last month. I think of his transformation like that ‘Selfish Giant’ story…we used to have it in our Radiant Reader by who was it? Yes! By Oscar Wilde.
“I wish I could have taken you to my Father’s factory!”, he said suddenly.
“Yeah, you guys would make glass, wouldn’t you?”
“And what amazing glass it was!” he reminisced. “Green, violet, orange glass. I used to get scraps of the colours for your mother and her sister all the time. They’d make ornaments out of it. It was wonderful.”
“What happened to it?”
“Oh, shut down in time. Once the borders opened, a bunch of all these foreign brands came in. They were better. Cheaper. We had to sell.”
“You must miss your village.”
“Terribly sometimes. I miss the small things. You know, throwing stones at the mango trees to eat kairi. Cycle races all around the fields. You wouldn’t know the simplicity in that life.”
“Ever feel like going back?”
“No. Not really. You miss them. But you move on. I don’t feel like going back to the army either. I hate meeting my old mates from there. Going on and on about the good old days. I’m quite done.”
We rocked on the swing for a little while. The skies turned a steelier shade of grey. It was just April. We call this rain ‘valvacha paus’ in Pune. The first rains. Just a premonition of monsoon.
“I think I was way more ready to pop it in 71’. This is just embarrassing right now. Tell your mother from my side. They’ve covered me with pipes. Throw it all away. I’m pissing out of a tube half the time in the hospital, if you haven’t noticed…”
“You’re NOT ‘popping it’!”
“Don’t lie to me. Even a duffer like me learns a few things by the time he turns eighty. This chemo and radiation nonsense is meant for people who want to live more.”
“I…you realise no one’s going to let you just wither away right?”
Grandfather ignored me. He began rocking his legs like a little child on the swing. At his most vulnerable, he always reminded me of a child. He was a simple man. He had always been one. With no ulterior motives. No ambition. No desires. It kept him happy.
“I hope it rains today. Been so hot this summer. I won’t need to water the plants too.” he said, as a gust of wind set the windchimes in motion, their clangs echoing through the garden.
“Whatever happened to those parrots? I completely forgot about them”, I asked him.
“You mean, the ones you forced me to buy from the cantonment? Those were love-birds. One of them died. And then the other one-”
“Oh right. It died as well?”
“No silly. We let it out.”
We sat for a while as he hummed a song I couldn’t recognise. “Right. I’m sleeping in for a while. Your mother’s coming here to make sure I don’t kill myself taking the wrong medicines. I don’t want to disappoint her.”
“Do you want your stick?”
“Let it be here. I don’t actually need it till I go outside. I wouldn’t mind a cigarette though? This weather is quite something”, his eyes hopeful.
“If you actually think I’ll get a man with lung cancer a cigarette…you have got to-”
“Yes. Yes. A simple no would have sufficed. I’m going to sleep.
He slowly walked into the house, balancing his drip. I sat alone, my attention moving to the the touch-me-nots he had planted right in front of the swing last spring. I touched one of them, just to make sure they still work. It closed.
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Artwork: Aditya Phadke