January 12, 2014


I never saw my grandfather -- he died well before I was born -- so I missed experiencing that slightly comical but deeply affectionate grandfather-grandson relationship.

All I know about my grandfather is that he was a teacher of Persian who became a headmaster and a magistrate in a small town called Ferozepore. My father once told me, without the slightest tinge of regret, the story of how my grandfather had turned down a largesse offered to him by Howe Sahib, a terse Scotsman, who was the commissioner of land revenues entrusted with the responsibility of distributing vast tracts of land that had fallen under the British tutelage after the end of the Sikh rule in Punjab.

Mr. G. D Howe was so pleased with my grandfather’s work as an honorary magistrate that he decided to bestow upon him 35 murrabas of land near Jhang. With folded hands my grandfather beseeched him not to inflict such a heavy punishment on him. He pleaded that a man who was familiar with only two implements, pen and ink, was incapable of looking after lands. Besides, he entreated -- and here my father chuckled -- his children and grandchildren would become wastrels; they would become aish parast (luxury-loving) and this he could not afford.

I have just received an exquisitely written memoir of a grandson about his grandfather. The author’s name was not mentioned anywhere, but my nephew, who sends me rare pieces of prose and poetry, tells me it is a Mr. Subramanian who lives in New York.

"I should have known him far better than I do, I realized upon his death. I grew up around him, accustomed to his presence at home: to his shirtless torso, brown as a violin; to the angle at which he arced his leanness over the newspaper; to the eclipses of sunlight in which he liked to sit, in feline habit, next to the window, to the low bicker of his voice in prayer, to his twitchy handwriting and, in his final years, to the degree of cloudiness in his fast-fading eyes. These were the precise aspects of a precise man."

Subramanian grew up in a family presided over by a grandfather who was not a shy or retiring person. He involved himself with great energy in Subramanian’s early boyhood. It was grandfather who dropped him off on his bicycle at the stop for his school bus. He watched cricket with the young boy on their black-and-white television. Mr. Subramanian writes with a rare mixture of irony and tenderness:

"Here he is, telling me stories, spun mostly out of his capacious memory of Hindu myth and dramatised to eye-popping effect. Here he is, teaching me arithmetic, his mind as sharp as soda. He brooked no dullness, even from a boy in his very first throes of long division.

‘The answer is 12’, I’d venture for instance.

"That’s the quotient. You’ve forgotten about the remainder".

He didn’t rap me on my knuckles with a ruler, as he had done with his own children. But the rebuke of scorn was almost as stinging."

Mr. Subramanian, the paterfamilias who died at the age of 94, was born in the small Tamil village of Kattalai, deep in the heart of South India. He ran away from home at the age of 18 after completing a degree in mathematics. He severed all contacts with his family, taking to the road as a mendicant, living on charity and his wits. In his ‘lost years’, never recounted or explained, no one knew how he travelled or where he stayed or whom he met or why he ended his spiritual wanderings. His family heard of him only when he came back to live in the city of Madras after several years. In Madras he made a living "by acting with -- and also serving as the cashier of -- a musical theatre troupe. This was the first sign of a new man. He had acquired for example, a profound familiarity of the Upanishads, a canon of Hindu philosophical texts, and he had also studied the first rudiments of a system of faith-healing, which he practised throughout his life. He also displayed a new-found ability to quote the Bard, accurately and at length, the lines ringing with his nasal tawang".

From Madras he shifted to Delhi, where he taught mathematics. His students performed so well in their exams that they hoisted him on their shoulders and paraded him around the school. The father of one of the students, a civil servant, was so impressed that he found the grandfather a position in the coal ministry. He was nominally employed by the government for the rest of his life:

"But as far as I can see he really seems to have passed those days turning himself into a polymath. My grandfather blazed with knowledge. His Sanskrit grew so fluent that he could compose lengthy verses of prayer. He gave public performance as a storyteller, in which he would first recite sings-song snatches of Hindu epics and then, out of these, extrude a moral commentary."

He had never seen a telephone or perhaps even a radio but he wasn’t averse to speak on the cell phone, (unlike one of my uncles who never touched the telephone throughout his life; he considered it to be a Satanic device). He did feel, nevertheless, left behind as time passed.

"In the new India, there was progressively less space for a man whose life revolved around his faith. A flair for the Upanishads could not get him very far now. People seek -- quite rightly I hurry to add -- to be cured for their ailments by science instead of prayer. Nobody pays much attention to the astrological charts that he used to pore over trying to siphon fates and fortunes out of the position of the planets.

For all the mystery in which he cloaked himself, I think now that I also failed simply to be curious enough about him. Perhaps it suited me, the grandson, to consign him to oblivion… I was committing, of course the arch sin of the historically ignorant.

"We see our parents ageing before our eyes, but we regard our grandparents as such oaks, their mortality not once entering our thoughts because they have always, to us, been old. By the time I began to realize the urgency of learning about him, he was gone. I never had the chance - or, to be perfectly honest, I had the chance but never took it - of asking him straight about his life. I should have asked him about what drove him, what angered him or misled him. But I never put any of these questions to him."

A more enlightened -- and moving memoir -- is hard to come by.