My earliest memory of my father’s father may not be a memory at all… it is the stories that have been told and retold over the years. My earliest memory of my father’s father, in fact, is a familiar feeling of adoration – much the same as I have for my father. We called my grandfather Papaji… it was what his seven children had always called him, and the name had stuck for his seventeen grandchildren as well. I remember those early years when all of us would gather in Bathinda in Papaji’s sprawling house where, in the end the room would still fall short for the thirty one of us. I remember the snore-fest contests between the elders. I remember weird-tasting drinking water which none of us outsiders found palatable & hence, we’d almost always have ‘Rooh Afza’ water instead, the potent sugary solvent making the task of drinking water much easier.
There were times when Papaji would come and visit our home in the summers & I remember giving my grandfather company during breakfast – eating porridge, sharing the common love for mangoes and with me playing with the protruding veins on the back of his hands. I remember his walking stick, his white kurta-pajama and his evening walks.
I also remember a story that’s been usually told, where my grandfather found himself with two adorable baby chickens – one pink, one yellow. My memory fails me when I try to recall who bought the two chicks, I only remember that someone had & these chicks had waddled and found themselves in my Papaji’s long white beard. Maybe their nesting instincts found his beard most comfortable… warm & fuzzy and much like home. Papaji kept very still so as to accommodate the chicks and their exploration, being careful not to talk or move… quite enjoying all the attention his beard was getting. Quite a sight, it must have been… a pink & a yellow chick figuring which way is up in my grandfather’s long, white beard.
But the memory that is most completely etched in my mind, is of the days following the day we got the call from Bathinda telling us that Papaji was no more. The bags were packed in a jiffy and before 7 year old me knew what was going on, we were on board a train – making a two day journey to the sprawling house with the weird tasting water. A day dreamer since birth – I never quite understood the gravity of the situation. Papaji was no more. Was I supposed to be sad? I don’t remember being sad. I was busy enjoying the train journey, teasing my sister when she finished her mango drink before I did and playing pretend where I was driving the train. I was happily oblivious to the melancholy that must have been around me.
The cycle rickshaw journey from the station to the house was a long one, on a bumpy road. My sister and mother were on one cycle rickshaw while my father and I were on the other. Bored and unable to concentrate on my daydreams, given the distractions caused by the craters on the pathway, I turned to my father. “Let’s play a game, papa!” I patted him and said. The reply he gave me breaks my heart even today. He said, “When your father dies, I’ll see how well you’d like to play.”
Jolted by his words, I remember completing the rest of the journey in stunned silence. I wish I knew how to comfort him, but I hadn’t yet comprehended the situation. I wish he had comforted me, too. I just simply wish he hadn’t said what he had in his misery. When we reached the house, it was full of people – but that wasn’t out of the ordinary. Holding on to my father’s hand I made my way to where my grandfather was laid on ice. The image is still clear as day in my mind. I asked my father if I could touch Papaji. I try to recall why I wanted to do that. I haven’t been able to figure it out. But I had asked my father, and with his warm hand around my tiny one, he had said yes. And so I did. I don’t know what I was expecting when I touched him. I could say that I thought he would move or get up, but that won’t be true. I think I was simply moving on autopilot. So when I touched him, I remember being taken aback by how cold he was… and how motionless. And that was when I held on to my father for dear life and cried. When I look back at the memory objectively, I don’t understand why this particular memory has stayed with me. I was a child. I couldn’t possibly have been that close to my grandfather. I could not have possibly been so impacted by his loss. But the truth of the matter is that I was, and that I still am. The memory makes me cry even today. And I haven’t gone to a funeral, since.
This is how I remember Papaji. He was a kind man who allowed baby chickens nest in his beard, unperturbed by the mess they’d make. He was a patient man who allowed his grandkids to play with his hands, and their protruding veins. He was a generous man, who always had space in his home for that one more person who needed accommodating. He was a warm person, and probably the only one whose hugs I remember, besides my father’s. I’m glad I was born to his son, who is exactly like him.