By all rights, this should be four separate posts.
An old man lay dying last month. In his time, he was one of India's pre-eminent intellectuals. I'm not sure how 'productive' he was, or how great an influence he had on his field. But with his vast, wide-ranging knowledge holding forth on topics banal, topical and arcane in his clipped accent, few had been failed to be impressed by him. Decades ago, he used to be one in my father's bridge quartet.
Two of the others died during the 80s. And now, here in the 21st century, he too lay anonymously on a stretcher at the nation's leading hospital, almost alone. The only person accompanying him was my mother. She had just driven over an hour with him, transferring him from the hospital nearer his house, where his less-than-competent physician had had him installed. The diagnosis was cancer of the brain, the prognosis was bleaker than bleak.
Thankfully, word had gotten round, even to the highest places. The nation's chief executive just happened to be this man's friend. The directive came -- Take care of him. The bosses at the hospital relayed the message onwards. The front line caretakers were a little more inclined to take their time. Which is why he lay on a stretcher while his sole attendant hammered her head against the layers of bureaucracy between him and any remnants of hope.
Thankfully, she succeeded. Thankfully, they realised that the diagnosis was very likely just wrong. Thankfully, someone suspected something else and treated him for it. Thankfully, he started recovering.
And so I got to meet him again, in Delhi week before. My parents, who had been at his bedside almost every single day while he was in hospital, hadn't visited for a few days. My wife, whose father had also been a good friend of his, was very keen to meet him as well. But when my mother called to say we were coming, it took her over half an hour to persuade him to let us. "I'm sick of visitors," he told her, "I feel like some sort of black Taj Mahal." "But they really want to see you," she said. "They've even brought you a present." "A present? What sort of present?" "It's a Chinese robe -- like a dressing gown." "Oh, that's excellent. That's so useful. These Malayali nurses, you don't know, they make me wear lungis
all the time."
He wasn't quite the man I remembered when we met. But then it had been ten years since I'd seen him last, a chance meeting in a different city. Ten years can do a lot to anyone. If I hadn't known what he'd just been through, it's possible I wouldn't even have guessed.
Limping into the drawing room where we were waiting, he sat down in his favorite rocking chair and opened the package with the robe. He had to be helped into it, but he looked regal once it was on. It seemed to bring a glow of satisfaction into his eyes (I felt good) and with it, some of his old elan. The Chineseness of the robe sparked something off within him. Without preface, he launched into a discourse on Genghis Khan's strategic use of religion in colonialism.
After ten to fifteen minutes, he abruptly broke off and changed the topic, asking about us. Was I still in Hong Kong? I told him yes, but I'm moving back to the States next year. I told him which school I'll be joining. Two things happened. First, he checked -- the University of X at Y (i.e., the biggie, as opposed to a campus in the boondocks, for instance)? I said yes, with a smile to myself. His academic's class-conscious instinct for ranking had not dimmed. And second, he said, "Oh, you must make sure to look up Z when you're there. I believe he's the Dean there now. Very close friend of mine. I was his best man." And before I could respond appropriately, he was off and running, telling stories that involved Z, his father, Niels Bohr, Heisenberg, von Neumann, and I forget who else. It was a riot. Topics came and went, he had good stuff to say about everything. I found myself too busy listening to pay attention. I have never heard someone use the word epistemologically
in normal conversation, let alone so effortlessly, more importantly, so rightly
He kept it up for almost an hour and a half. When we were leaving, he thanked us for coming. I blurted out that this was the highlight of our entire trip. In a sense, it was. Maybe it was all gas, but I wish I had friends who were as erudite as that. In the car driving out I felt awfully jealous of my parents for having had a friend like him. I wish I too could be like that - maybe someday, when I grow up. The memory of a dance my father had made me do for him, when I was five, kept burning me up -- even then I had sensed that he, childless at that time, had had better things to get on with.
In Calcutta I met my uncle again. Many many years ago, in the middle of a stormy family fight, in response to a comment that he'd made (one I was probably too young to understand; definitely too young to remember) my mother had broken off from her fury and exclaimed her surprise at hearing her younger brother speak as wisely as her father. From this, I gathered that her father had been wise. I know he had been a lawyer. But then, I only knew him as a person not in my generation, one who I could entertain briefly in a city where I had younger and more interesting people to play with. (How our priorities change, as life passes and choices get drawn away from us!)
But my uncle is wise, of that I have no doubt. He used to be a hot-head in his time, though, and due to that he ended up a mere graduate while both his elder sisters garnered PhDs in America. The choices he made led to a huge and intimidating physique, one that frightened his seniors at college into opting to not rag him. But they also led him to be unqualified for a genteel Bengali career. He went into business with some friends.
For a time, his firm did marvelously well. Tens of millions of rupees flowed into their hands. However, that was only as long as luck - say beginner's luck - was on their side. A mere few years. For, as first-generation entrepreneurs, they had no one to guide them in the tricks of the trade. As he told me last week -- people say all sorts of nice things to you; about your company, your work, you yourself. It all counts for nothing. One day, a leading business house decided to withhold payments on a colossal contract. Colossal, that is, for the young firm; not so colossal for the business house. The lack of cash flow made it impossible to pay suppliers and repay loans. People started going to court. Contracts dried up. Strikes happened. Accidents happened. Partners died. Soon, the only one left holding the reins was my uncle. He soldiered on, alone. The whole sordid mess lasted nearly twenty years, and it is still not fully over.
It is possible that experience has made the man wiser. Every time I visit Calcutta, I carry with me a bottle of scotch. It is my way of bribing some of that experience out of him the cheap way, in my weak hope that I will learn by osmosis. This time too, I spent several hours just listening, stepping out into the balcony ever so often for some fresh Calcutta rain-swept air.
Tomorrow would have been my grandfather's birthday. 8/8, wherever in the world you may be, it would have been his birthday. I never forget this day, since this was my other grandfather, who lived a dozen years longer than the one I talked about above. And though photographs tell me that I look tellingly like my mother's father (imagine me outfitted like a 1940s lawyer), it is my father's father that I got to know as a person, and his traits that I recognize most readily in me.
He has been gone a long time as well, so why have I been thinking so much about him of late? One reason is that he used to write postcards. Those 15 paise postcards, that now cost many times that, and have been taken over by the game shows and other trivialities on television. He wrote them all the time, crammed in with his tiny handwriting, running across the card, then on the back, then round the edges and margins, spiralling till in to the Love, Dadu
. Those postcards used to contain gems of all sorts -- one I remember most clearly was one of the last ones -- the analogy he drew between my physical presence ("the brilliance of the new generation!"
) in Bangalore and his ("the overdue end of a long and painful innings"
) in Calcutta, during the World Cup where India beat Pakistan in Bangalore but had to abdicate during the semi-final in Calcutta. I had saved those postcards, all of them, and letters from other friends, until the time I left Delhi. They were all stored up in the drawer of my desk along with a few other pieces of childhood memorabilia. Until, that is, my parents decided to organize the house. What can I say -- several trips to Delhi, several searches, a move from Delhi to Gurgaon, I looked and looked, but the contents of that desk are not to be found. Preserve your memories
they said. That's my wisdom. I'd trade it in for those postcards.
The second reason my grandfather's birthday has been on my mind is that through one of those weird quirks that life delivers, his youngest brother, accompanied by his son, i.e., my father, are due to visit his grandson, i.e., me, for a week's vacation starting tomorrow, his birthday. I don't know if either of them has realised it yet, or if my mother or grand-aunt has. But tomorrow night I'm raising a toast to him -- the man I loved so dearly, and from whom I inherited my distinguishing characteristic (or so I'm told), the ability to stress. Happy Birthday, Dadu, this one's for you.
And what binds these narratives together, in this post that's already way too long? One, it's about old men. That's a copout. Two, I guess it's about identity. We don't realise how much we're shaped by other people, in this case, ones who have gone before. If we do realise it, these days, we realise it less and less. One of the great things of Indian culture is the emphasis on association with elders. The drawbacks of prolonging such associations may be several; the benefits may be incalculably enrichening.Ato boro dheuAto chhoto amiShomoyer tare bheshe chole jayi
So big a wave
So small am I
On the crest of Time I float on
- Mausumi Bhowmick(thanks, Gift!)