I was ten years old when my grandfather passed away. I remember that May morning as one remembers a particularly vivid dream – in a flashing series of disconnected sounds and sepia images. Neighbours milling around, someone carrying a large oxygen cylinder, Ma hurrying, anxious, and then a deep silence. I was whisked away to Darshan Masi’s – where Ajay and Anuradha did their best to keep me entertained. I remember a night spent with Darshan Masi, who insisted I sleep beside her and sat up talking to me late into the night. I remember returning home – Jiji was standing in the upstairs verandah waiting for me. The house was spotlessly clean, and very very quiet. Mummy came – I remember asking Aali, ‘Did she cry when she heard?’ and Aali shaking her head silently. Asha Masi came too, and suddenly that empty house was very full. Only Ma sat silent, day after day after day. One morning someone called me – I don’t remember who it was, and gave me a thali full of food. ‘Take this to Ma,’ I was told. ‘She hasn’t eaten anything. You are the only person who can make her eat.’ I don’t remember if Ma did eat – but I remember her, in a white sari, her head covered, and that haunted look in her eyes that I had never seen before, and which would recur from time to time over the next few years.
Gradually, life resumed its course, and for me, returned to being the long sunlit adventure that was my childhood. Ma would talk of Nanaji often, and tell me things I had never known about him when he was alive – the death of his first wife, an incident during the anti-Hindu riots in Calcutta where he had come to within an inch of being lynched by a mob but was pulled to safety by a Gurkha just in time, his trip to Assam under the assumed name of Mr John…to me, my grandfather became a figure of romance, someone I looked up to, and by whose ideals I tried to mould my life.
His presence never left us – it was there in his hundreds of books, which very soon became my responsibility to look after. I would spend morning after morning dusting and cleaning the books, always taking great care to put them back in exactly the same order in which he had kept them because Nanaji had always been particular about the order of his books. Towards the last months of his life, when he was sometimes too unwell to fetch a book he needed, he would give Mituram precise instructions - to fetch say, the third book from the left on the second shelf, and Mitu, who could not read a word, would dutifully do as directed and come back with the right book.
For many years, the house downstairs would remind me of him – the quiet, the atmosphere of deep respect, almost reverence that he had inspired in me when I was little. Today, as I sit here in another room lined with books, so many light years away, I can still smell his shaving cream, and see the gleam on his many pairs of shoes, lined neatly under his desk by the window. Nanaji was what we would today call a ‘natty’ dresser. He enjoyed good clothes, and was always impeccably turned out – he always had the right clothes for the right occasions: a business suit for work, white pleated dhoti and churidar kurta for weddings and festivals…I remember him on Diwali mornings at the Jain mandir, gracious, surrounded by friends, deeply involved in life and living.
Nanaji’s breakfast was always an important event of the morning – brown bread toast, papita, and mosambi juice followed by strong coffee. The chaos of the house upstairs would subside as long as he was there – we would be silent, all of us, and Ma would supervise the breakfast. He would read throughout his breakfast – a newspaper folded up or a book. The only creature who dared disturb him was my kitten – no matter what adventure it had set off on that morning, it would turn up at Nanaji’s breakfast hour, to sit quietly at his feet under the table. I don’t remember any overt interaction between Nanaji and the kitten – but there seemed to be an understanding, in which the kitten seemed to take great comfort.
Once, and once only in my life, did Nanaji reprimand me. One morning, as he was leaving for work, he asked me if I wanted anything. Yes, I said, a box of 48 crayons. To a six year old, a day can seem interminably long, and faith wavers by the afternoon – so, when Ma went out shopping, I asked her for the same thing, a box of 48 crayons. Ma, unaware that I had asked Nanaji that morning, bought me my crayons. In the evening Nanaji too came home with the crayons. When he realised what had happened, he was…not annoyed, but disappointed, which was infinitely worse! Neither Ma nor Nanaji punished me, or penalised me by taking away the crayons – but it was a long time before I found any pleasure in them, even though I now had 96 instead of the 48 I had aspired to!
Nanaji was not always solemn and serious – there was a lighter side to him, which I remember vividly. In Jaipur, we had a big rambling house (or so my memory tells me) with large wooden wardrobes standing temptingly empty; the wardrobes were, in my opinion the perfect hiding place. One evening I told Ma that I would hide in one of these, and she was not to tell Nanaji where I was. Ma obliged. When Nanaji came home, I slipped into my hiding place, and Ma said to him – ‘She has disappeared! Please call the police!’ Nanaji caught on at once, and dutifully played the role that was expected of him, creating a pretend panic at my ‘disappearance’ and showing the right mix of astonishment, indignation, and delight when I popped out of the wardrobe with a pleased ‘Here I am!’
Today, thirty six years after his death, he continues to be in my thoughts. Ma would say that I had ‘inherited’ his love of books. When I moved away, she gave me some of his books to take away with me, and also left me his collection of books on art. His books grace my bookshelves – their spines, aligned in an order I think he would have approved of, bring back my childhood memories.