Saturday, May 16, 2009

Little minds, Big questions.....

                                                            For 2011 :

They lived on the shores of the lake. The house was actually ancient, and the unusually small size of the windows, and the tantalizingly non horizontal window ledges often gave you the feeling of staying on a ship. Right next door was a brand new, modernistic, official looking guest house of the Institute, with undulating lawns that swept a graceful curve down to the lake.

For the little boy who lived in the old house, it was the place that he could visit on his own, to play with his friends. No traffic , no roads to cross, no dark corners and eerily moving tree branches, and he would rush home as soon as it got dark. He lived on a wooded campus, and these buildings bordering the lake had a bit more natural light than the others.

His grandmother had moved in with them. Earlier, Both his grandfather and grandmother would come to stay. But sometime when he was in first grade, his grandfather fell sick. He would often bring his cars and other things and play with them in his grandfathers room, actually because everyone was always doing something there, but mostly because his grandfather liked to watch him play and chat with him. One day, he was taken to an aunts house after school, and when he returned home in the late evening, he found that his grandfather was no longer around, and his grandmother looked different.

"God has taken him to heaven" , they told him, "because he was so sick. He will be well there".

They told him the same thing when he lost his baby brother 2 years earlier. He himself was younger then, and believed what everyone was saying. And now his grandfather. This whole thing about God was getting a bit suspicious. No one explained just how God came and took the folks with him. Was he invisible, did he come at night, how come no one heard ? And this was broad daylight. How come no one noticed anything going on ? Heaven was somewhere up there . Birds flew, but you could still watch them......

By and by his grandmother came to live with them and they settled into a nice routine. His parents worked, but came home for lunch. His mother would glance through his school books in the afternoon, and give him some assignments to do if there was no homework. His grandmother would take a short nap while he played, and then would supervise his studies as she had her afternoon tea. He was two years older now, and they were learning stuff in History at school about which his grandmother knew things. Like the struggle for Independence. She had even seen some of the people for real, when she was a young girl . And he only had photos in his text books.

Come 5 o'clock, and his friends would land up , calling out to him in sing song voices, as they tried to grab his attention , as they jumped up and down outside his window, calling him to come out and play. They were all at an age, where normal modes of entries and exits into gardens and things were to be avoided. One entered through broken fences, slid down bansiters instead of descending stairs, and the bigger their mother's eyes became, the more they tried to do such things.

He'd be just about done, and he'd then rush out with his friends to play, sometimes in the garden and sometimes on the slopes of the guest house next to their house. His grandma had her own group of other grandmas who met on the lawns there. But they waited for their sons and daughters-in-law to get home at sundown. The day was a bit cooler then, and walking was more pleasant. The elderly ladies often sat there till dinner time. The little boy would be intermittently back home with his entire gaggle of friends to drink water, attend to freshly acquired wounds and scrapes, and sometimes, simply to show off some freshly acquired book or toy contraption . He and his grandmother shared a room and the boys would be all over the place with their grubby hands and feet. Around eightish, his mother would dispatch him once again next door to the guest house lawns, to escort his grandma home. She didn't see too well in the dark, and he would go meet her and escort her back , holding on to her hand, to the highly approving glances of her friends, whose grandchildren were older and so, otherwise busy.

Into this well set wonderful routine, his mother came home one day to find a strange expression on her mother -in-law's face. Her eyes were full, but there was no sadness. Just a sense of wonder.

That afternoon, they had sat down to do history. Talking about the new stuff he was learning.

"Aji (=grandma), just be grateful you didn't live around the time Raja Ram Mohan Roy lived", he said, his finger on some filling-in-the-blanks-assignment on a page of his book.

(Raja Ram Mohun Roy of Bengal was one of India's greatest social reformers in the 19th century, and many of these reforms were beneficial to women. He was opposed to the idea of, and worked for the abolition of the practice of "Sati" where widows burnt themselves on their husbands funeral pyre)

She was nonplussed.

What was wrong with Raja Ram Mohun Roy, and of all the people she could think of, why was this 7 year old chap against him ? Where did she come into all this talk of freedom fighters, great leaders of India, and the Independence movement etc ?

She looked at him questioningly, taking him very seriously, as only grandmothers can.

He looked at her, alarm in his eyes. Then he put out his arm, and placed his hand in her lap, as if to let her know, that, come what may, he was there...

"You know , if Aba (=grandpa) and you had lived during those times, people would have made you perform "Sati" after he died !".....

He probably had gory visions based on the terrible descriptions and graphics shown in various textbooks , and for a minute, he just held on tight to her hand.

She was stunned. His grandfather's death still played on his mind. When he studied the social reforms introduced by the Bengali gentleman in class, this must have occurred to him. For a child with a penchant for vivid imagination, this was just too traumatic. First they told him that God took his grandfather, and now Ram Mohun Roy and the terrible practice of Sati.

Then the humor just hit her. Which was as well, as the whole scenario was getting a bit serious. It was more than a century since the terrible custom was abolished. Even in her own childhood, she didn't wonder too much about these things; widow remarriage, even then, was being encouraged, education for girls was considered useful. And h
ere was this 7 year old chap, totally trauma struck, with the concept of his grandpa's death, his grandma, and Sati.

"Not to worry. Your grandfather would not have permitted that. Those were the old days, and everything has changed now. Everyone's mother today is educated, and some , like your mother and aunts , even work. And all this is because Raja Ram Mohun Roy convinced the government then to make a law saying Sati was not allowed. "

She got up to make a cup of tea, and bring him his afternoon glass of milk; but really to wipe away her tears. She couldn't figure out whether they were of joy or sadness. Certainly more of the former than the latter. She and her grandson were 70 years apart. She had other, much older grandchildren, but this was the first one to get into a panic over an age old practice followed in the early 19th century, and worry about her .

He went off shortly to play with his friends and his grandma entertained her son and daughter-in-aw with this story when they returned.

He and his grandmother enjoyed each other's company for a few more years. She passed away one night in her sleep, when he was asleep . He was still a young child.

Wordlessly, stoically, chin up,
after bending and touching his grandma's feet, he went off to his normal day at school , taken care of , by the neighbors, for the day. Young children are not part of the various formalities associated with funerals.

By then I think he had figured out what happens. When he came back with his friend's parents, late that evening after everyone reached home, he didn't ask any questions. There were a whole bunch of folks staying over. He kept fiddling with his books, pestering a cousin to sharpen his pencil just so. He went into the kitchen before bedtime, and poured himself a glass of milk, his hand unaccustomed to handling steel containers with about 2 litres of milk; mixed the cocoa into it, just like his grandma did for him, and came and sipped it, slowly, as he sat leaning next to his Dad. He wouldn't be sleeping in the room he shared with grandma for a long time after that.

This time there was no confusion about the mechanics of how one went away with God without anyone noticing.

Miraculously, he had learned the most difficult. He had learned to accept. Death.

(A true story....)

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  1. When you write these true stories, there is an element of living. Even in the dying !

    The grandson accepting the fact that the grandmother who he thought of as immortal is an important transition point in the lives of young boys !

    The wonderful narration and the interplay with history was a brilliant and touching read ! As usual !


  2. I'm speechless...This was a lovely lovely post, and i wish i could write more about how well you've written this, weaving in so many details, it just draws the reader in...

  3. I dont know why, but I have tears in my eyes.
    How beautifully you have narrated this true story of a child's growing up and how as grown ups we learn to accept facts and realities...however sad or bitter and unpleasant they may be....

  4. You write stories in which we relive our experiences! Very touching.

    You are not Ugich Konitari. You are Nakkich Konitari!!


  5. Ugich, I've been amazed too at the acceptance children show of life's relentless march. You've laid out the story so beautifully. I am grateful for your experiences and for the fact that you share them.

  6. This has really touched me. I saw my twin daughters lose their grandmother and they loved her more than anything but she taught them to accept death as part of life, too. They talk of her like it was yesterday that she was with them. I feel I have a special bond with my grandson, too. He never wants to leave me when he comes for a visit. This was a great story post. One of my favorites.

  7. Truly touching story.

    The way a child views events changes as he grows up- you bring this out beautifully here.

    I'm glad the grandmother had the experience of knowing that her grandson cared so much about her, before she died.

  8. a touching story. can't help sharing this incident. my in-laws suffered from parkinsons and PSP. My daughter was nearly 5 years when she saw her paternal grandmother's health failing and being confined to her bed or chair, while a nurse and maid helped her through the daily routine. She made friends with the nurse and maid who were in their early twenties, and the 3 of them with their chatter and banter kept the grandparents entertainted. Then in 2004, both my in-laws passed away. One day somebody asked her, ' where are ajja and anamma (dadi)? She replied - they have gone to live with God'

    Recently my parents and we, moved in together into a new place. We placed a photograph of my in-laws in our mandir room,on a low red wooden stool (paatla). Their picture on the left, our gods in the centre and on the right i have a decorative patla, where i intended to keep a figure of Lord Krishna. that patla was bare as i hadnt found the idol i was looking for. One day my daughter who was now 2 yrs older came to me and asked, "why is that patla vacant. is that the place where we are going to keep this ajja and ajji's ( she meant my parents) photograph after they die??"

    and we call them 'kids'

  9. What a beautifully told story of the love between a grandparent and child and of the child learning about death.

    I adored my grandparents and,through your story,I relived the emotions felt when my grandfather died.

    We may live in different parts of the world and have different cultures, but so many things are the same.

  10. Suranga, this post just made me cry....
    I had a cousin, who died in an accident when her son was only two-years old, and I have always wondered how little children grapple with the concept of death.

    And you have narrated the very same thing with such wise insight and gentle humour.

  11. This reminds me of Satyajit Ray's movies where the child comes running in to his grandfather's room to find him eternally asleep.
    What Ray said so poignantly in a frame, you said in words!

  12. Suranga, that was beautifully written; I smiled to come here and find us both addressing death today :)

  13. Kavi, Suma, SGD,Vivek,Sujatha,Roshni,Manju,Lady Hope,

    Thank you. There is a certain richness about a child's friendship(I am deliberately avoiding the word "relationship"), with the grandparents. I think this itself empowers the child to deal with the death scenario and later.And the process of how the child does that is so fascinating....

    Judy,Darlene Thank you for the comments. And its interesting to hear from folks who are already grandmothers...and darlene, what you say is so true, about human relations remaining unchanged, regardless of culture....

    Sucharita Thank you. Believe me, young children can teach us so many things about how to handle things in life...if we only observed...

    Braja The anticipation,approach of death, and reaction , after the event, continues to be fascinating, as a result maybe , of having had to share the last moments of several loved ones, sometimes being the only one there. Even so, I think children have such a unique way of figuring out stuff for themselves. I have learnt new things about death and those about whom I thought I knew everything, as I have attended to them, in those terminal periods of life. You might want to have a look at This ....

  14. Lovely story. I am glad I discovered your blog.

  15. suranga,
    we must have so much to share and you say it so well.i have no words to adequately express what i feel.

  16. radha Thank you and welcome.

    HHG Would love to meet up. I see from your blog that you are in NY. Let us know if you plan to pass thru Mumbai on your way back....Maybe we can have the next bloggers lunch then.....

  17. That was beautiful:)Its hard for kids to come to terms with death but they learn to handle with time :)with adults its the other way round, though they take it for a fact and know the harsh reality, the knowledge of not getting the person back ever again makes matters worse. Its like a difference between clear paper where lines can be erased and the one which has been written on time and again...the lines just leave a mark.

  18. Very nice...have tears in my eyes. I hope day...I'll learn to accept death too. Or does it get tougher with age?

  19. A new beginning Thank you.

    A. I. I dont think it gets tougher with age. Its always tough to accept. But if you have travelled a bit of the last road with the person, with true respect and love (interpersonal, and not necessarily always as ordained by society), it is easier to let go......

  20. Hi Suranga Aunty
    Simply phenomenal; please please write a book. Your writing is really phenomenal. Shall visit you in June thrid week when I am next in Bbay, and catch up aaraamaat. We still have to have that conversation about the education system :)
    love, Vikram

  21. Hi Vikram,

    I guess you know who the little boy was...

    Good to hear from you. I do read about your musical bhajan events in the papers often. And yes, I look forward to your visit to Mumbai in June. (You might be amazed at the progress of the swimmer....:-)

  22. You write beautifully. I had tears in my eyes when I read this.

  23. Congratulations :) This post in one of the winners of 'Tejaswee Rao Blogging Awards - 2011' (TRBA 2011). We would like to create an ebook with all the winning entries in 47 categories on Feminism and Gender Issues in India (and one category on Animals Rights). Please do let us know if you are fine with your winning post/s being included in this ebook. ( Please click here to let us know).