He was like any other grandson who took his grandparents for granted and assumed that they would live forever. And when all that was left of them were photographs, fading memories and death anniversaries, he realized what he had lost.
He never knew his father’s father, who died long before his parents probably even met. His widowed grandmother then focused all of her energies on her doting grandchildren. It never struck him as remarkable, how hard life was in those days, when his grandmother had 5 children in 7 years and travelled from Lahore to South India in train over a span of four days. Those were the days when trains didn’t have air conditioning, sleepers, cushions and pantry cars and when one prepared food for a long journey.
She regaled him with all those tales of struggle but he only half listened, impatient as usual to finish his food and trudge back into his cocoon. She would tell him stories of how in those days women woke up at an unearthly hour to cook for the entire household. That’s where she honed her culinary skills because that was what she did for half of her waking hours. His earliest memories of festivals were the food items that she so assiduously prepared. From Pongal to Krishnashtami to Ganesh Chaturthi and finally to Diwali, every dish was prepared at home, the aromas wafting through the house. During summer, dry mangoes would be cut and mango pickle would be manufactured out of them. Little did he realize that those recipes were probably more than a century old.
The television set was a constant source of dissonance and tension. She would subject him to endless regional soap operas that ran on forever and ever. He would subject her to MTV, Eminem and Friends. She would pretend to read her book but after all these years, he suspects she stole a glance or two. Though unlettered, her granddaughter would explain to her the plots of those equally tiresome english sitcoms that dotted the cable television landscape. As he grew older, a compromise was reached when it came to television viewing. In his eyes, she would never grow old, she would live forever, prepare the most traditional dishes and light up every festival with her delicacies.
First her knees gave in, but her will didn’t. She trudged on, kept up her routine, until one day, her kidneys gave in. She spent the last year of her life away from the kitchen that was her second home all her life. For all of the people she enamored with her supreme culinary skills, she spent her final days forced to ingest bland and salt less food before she finally succumbed to her illness.
Sometimes, he wishes he could listen to her fascinating stories all over again and realize how easy his life is in comparison. Sometimes, he wishes he could taste all of those delicacies again. The television set now sits, gathering dust, just as many memories of her too are gathering dust somewhere in the recesses of his mind.
His home was also home to his mother’s parents who moved in when age got the better of their independence. Their story was no less inspirational. He was told of how his grandfather, a station master, his wife, 7 children, and a few relatives were housed in a one bedroom dwelling. And how everyone wondered how a family with 6 daughters would make it through. But they did, somehow. All the stories he heard about his grandfather - who rode his moped at the age of 70 and accompanied the police on their night beat. Who was just about a school graduate and gave his wife the responsibility of running an entire household with a stationmaster’s salary. Who finally owned a house after he retired and his children started working and once staged a protest outside a post office because someone inside called him an old man. And gathered some 50 people to lay on the road when a minister’s motorcade was passing by in a bid to water supplied to his neighborhood.
All these stories he wished he could hear from his grandfather. When he finally came of age and realized just how extraordinary a life he had led, Alzheimer’s struck. The memories became hazy. Some days were a living hell as the disease slowly and steadily ravaged his body and mind alike. His grandmother, who too had lived a lived a life of struggle in her younger days and raised a large family with only her presence of mind to fall back upon, and whose heart would soon give up on her, watched as her husband of more than 60 years became unrecognizable day by day.
He realized that when a life gets closer to the end, everyone needs somebody.
In a span of 4 years, his grandparents had all passed on. A home that once brimmed with an assortment of cooking aromas felt bland. A home where grandparents once told stories to their grandchildren now became a home too big for its remaining inhabitants. Theirs was no ordinary life, their struggles no ordinary struggles either. All this he realized only when they were gone and he found himself wishing he had listened to them a little more attentively when they were alive. Every grandparent, he realized, is a treasure house of stories, recipes and the source of unabashed pampering.
Then one day, his parents became grandparents. And he saw himself in two rambunctious kids who listened in rapt attention to the stories their grandparents had to say. And reveled in the aromas that wafted through the house.
And when all that was left of his grandparents were fading memories, photographs and death anniversaries, he realized what he had found.