Rani Jayakumar

© 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.

It's 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.

“Thatha's dead,” he said.

It 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.

“You're joking, right? ”

“No, I'm not,” 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.

I 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.

I 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.

Later 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.

It was only a few minutes, and I felt better. I went about the rest of my day.

Somehow, everyone seemed distant, and I don't remember even talking to anyone else that day.

Days 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.

When 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 went to… 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.

Twenty-eight 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 eyeglasses that 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.

He 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 that no one else heard. I felt special and gobbled up his advice, as if it would make him like me more, somehow.

It 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.

He 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  like Thatha, so I ate it.

Among 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, 1992.

Religious 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  required 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.

At 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.

Religion 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 reaching around  with 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.

As 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
the lesson that I will never forget: when you make more money, someone, somewhere is making less. It was a concept that blew my mind.

When 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.

I 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,  after so many years, I realize what he meant: he was teaching me another yoga lesson. Learn to be calm and together, unperturbed by events.

Years 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 diabetes. 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.

Oh, 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 conversation.

Sure, 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.

Do 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. - L.R.Knost

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