“I have added two more brief vignettes to bring Swedha's original piece (the first two vignettes) to a close.”

 

 

 

                                                                                          ~ ~ ~

 

 

 

On Thatha

 

1.

 

Thatha1 has embraced his Kindle with a ferocity I cannot quite wrap my head around.

 

This, after all, is a man who waxes lyrical about the feel of quality paper between his fingers. “It’s different,” he would say, and that was that. When I happened to mention that I preferred the Kindle’s convenience, he called me a young fool who didn’t deserve good books. I said he was an ignorant old stick-in-the-mud. He scoffed. I scowled. This went on for days. Evidently we were at an impasse.

 

But things have changed now. Thatha's fingers tremble when he reaches for a newspaper, and he cannot read his favourite books without his hands shaking. Switching on the light requires sitting up straight, and he no longer has the energy to do that at will. So he makes do with a clean, sleek device he distrusts but tolerates. Sometimes I wonder if he chafes at the unfairness of it all.


I think of the man who taught me to write the Tamil alphabet on uncooked grains of rice, chortling away as we steadily navigated the complexity of the pesky letter “இ,” who thumbed through his precious copy of Cho’s Mahabharata2 to read me stories every night as I clamoured for more. His ink stained books define him—they are his gift to me. Now he takes what he can get from the comfort of his bed because he can no longer leave it without difficulty, and I am suddenly painfully aware of what he knows and what I refuse to accept: my grandfather is weak, and he will not be getting stronger any time soon.

 

I suppose I have won the argument. But I am not exultant. This is not a victory without cost.

 

 

2.

 

I want so badly for my grandfather to have some relief from the casual, cruel indignity that accompanies old age.

 

We talk about death just about every day now, Thatha and I. Death and health insurance—permanent guests in our household. The first time he alluded to dying I staggered back, disoriented, parts of my world coming undone. He hates experiencing the small, humiliating things: the constant aches and pains, having someone wash his body, shuddering every time the phone rings because he fears news of old friends passing on. He dares me to challenge him, and I know better than to reply with trite reassurances. So I say nothing at all.

 

Two months later the edge has still not worn off these statements. But now I will myself to grin at him, hold his hand, tell the man he’s still young, hasn’t reached a hundred years yet! Then I dash to my room and try very hard not to cry.

 

There are brief, beautiful moments, still. Thatha's sudden love for food he used to scoff at—spaghetti, crunchy cornflakes, muesli bars, chappathis3. His grim determination as he hobbles from room to sofa to read The Economist. His quiet, enduring love for his wife.

 

I wake up early these days. The house is quiet. Sometimes I tiptoe slowly to Thatha’s room, open the door and strain to hear his laboured breathing. His chest moves. He is alive. I can breathe again.  

 

 

3.

 

As Thatha is sleeping, I walk about the house. I pick up his cane and wash his cup—little things that I do now without the wrath of his “Leave it! I will do it later!” Once—and this I remember while he was still Thatha-Behind-the-Newspaper, Thatha-who-fixed-the-fan, he would leave his glasses, his tea-stained mug, and his redleaf pen where he made a note of a concert on the limpid pink chit for our monthly Murasu subscription—he bellowed at us, “I said, leave it! No need!” This despite the mess having been there for two days, which upset Patti. As the afternoon wears down, and the sun makes its way slantwise across the peach settee, my grandmother begins to hem and haw. She walks to the kitchen, bangs a few pots on the stove. I hear the oil spark, the mustard seeds jump. Thatha picks up his cup and walks to the sink with it. Tomorrow we will begin the leave-it cycle again.

 

To anyone walking past our front door, left open for the air from the main corridor, this would be the finely timbered assemblage of the everyday, a regular Indian family. I wonder what our neighbours see. They avert their eyes from the altar at the door, the statue of Ganesha just inside. When Thatha goes out on the corridor, in my mind’s eye, as he sometimes does, holding his colostomy bag under his cotton singlet, I try to see him as others do. An old man wearing thick spectacles, holding a cane, extending a wry smile and a word when others past—a silver-haired gentleman. Not the deep belly-laughs that my father gives off, at his own jokes, with the folks next door. Politely, they refuse our offers of food on Deepavali morning.

 

Tonight, I go out to water the plants. The Chinese lady from next door walks past. I call her “Aunty” even though she thinks “Hi” is my name. Thatha watches TV in the living room. The neem is doing well, sending out its narrow-leaved shoots.

 

I am Thatha’s kutty4.

 

 

4.

 

We no longer talk about death. The words have come and gone, like wind on the longkang downstairs. The monsoon drain, from our view on the eleventh floor, is a wide concrete swath that fills with muddy tea after every downfall. This grey channel is mutely functional; it saves the entire housing estate from becoming tide country. And so Thatha has made his arrangements for the hours where, bereft of him, he will nonetheless be with us. The funeral arrangements and costs are paid for in full. He has shown us the papers. A page at first, punctuated by a comment about prices. It seemed as though we were talking about the price of longans bought that morning—nothing too consequential, but still air taken and breath spoken for.

 

I am standing on the page between one breath and the next. The weight of my heart sits upon the words both he and I have read. His breath, my breath; in this house; in our house; yesterday and today. Tomorrow is a mighty guardian with one finger upon the page. Soon, it will happen—the gusts will blow so hard that he must lift his finger and let Thatha’s book close. Then he will write ஏக்கம்5 in the air, upon the door of the wind.  

 

 

 

References

1. Thatha: “grandfather” in Tamil.

2. The Mahābhārata is one of the two major Sanskrit epics of ancient India, the other being the Rāmāyaṇa. The title may be translated as “the great tale of the Bhārata dynasty.” It is an epic legendary narrative of the Kurukṣetra War and the fates of the Kaurava and the Pāṇḍava princes. It also contains philosophical and devotional material.

3. Chappathis refer to an unleavened flatbread from the Indian Subcontinent; and is a popular staple in South Asia.

4. Tamil term of endearment, meaning “little one.”

5. Tamil for “a sense of longing.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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