The Beauty and The Beast

Every summer, we had this routine.

In April, we’d (i.e. my sister and I) hang out at our home, playing with amma’s saris, teaching the various trees in our garden the toughest words we know, fighting over who gets to be ‘Dad’ in the game of ‘House’ and generally making a nuisance of ourselves, Presumably as a result of this, in May, our parents would, with much glee, pack us off to my grandparents’ place to wreck havoc there with our equally troublesome set of cousins. That was, looking back, the best part of all summer!

As my mother is the eldest her 5 siblings, my sister and I were the official shepherds of the rather large brood of boisterous kids. I’ve personally overseen the arrival of each of my siblings, (with the exception of my elder sister. But you know that already :P) into this world. I’ve been there to drive my aunts crazy by asking ‘vavakku tanukkunundavuo?’ 50 times a day, to dance/sing/make faces to make them eat their dinner, cry even louder than them when they hurt themselves as toddlers (lest I get blamed for not taking enough care of them!), to make up stupid games just to get them to drink their milk…I’ve been taught to count from one to ten 9 times. I’ve feigned not knowing how to write ‘A to Z’ and been profusely grateful on being taught the same. Again 9 times. I’ve pretty much seen it all.

Anyway, my memories of those days always begin with the same scene. I’d storm into the house on a run; pounce on my grandma who’d be in the kitchen, preparing one insanely delicious dish or the other. She’d squeal in delight and scoop us in before it dawns on her that we are hungry. Like all grandmothers, my grandma’s sole aim in life was to ensure that all her grandkids were stuffed with enough food to end world hunger 24 X 7. Well, that and ascertaining that we had all been studying well during the past year.

And then there was my grandfather. A tall, well-built man, dressed in starched white khadi shirt and mundu, with a long kaalan-kuda and alarge purse in his armpit. An intimidating man whose face breaks into the widest smile whenever he sees his grandkids. A man of considerable stature, infinite willpower, a tinge of crookedness…a man who built everything from scratch by rolling up his sleeves and toiling day and night. A man who tried to do his best, who lived life by his principles.

My grandparents have the weirdest life story. On second thought, it’s pretty simple actually. As was common in those days, my grandma was married off at 16 to a considerably elder man she barely knew. Her only request to the groom was that she be allowed to study further. And so the groom supported her, financially and otherwise, through 2 years of Pre-degree, 3 years of Degree and a year of TTC, which was practically unheard of in those days – at least at the place where they hailed from. Further, when she requested (requestedbeing the keyword, taking into account that the heroine of the story is one of the most timid, petite person I’ve ever met!) that she be allowed to work, he readily agreed to that too. Rumor has it that he, on learning that the working conditions at the school where she worked was exceedingly poor, went on to build a few classrooms free of cost! A poor man’s Taj Mahal, you could say. Aah…the number of times we kids have pulled his leg about this!

They were always a queer pair. Incredibly open-minded on certain issues, infuriatingly conservative on some others, they always found a way to balance out each others’ virtues and vices. They’ve stuck by each other through some exceedingly difficult times, not the least of which was when he was down (more than once) with multiple cardiac arrests & brain clots. They sometimes have terrible fights over the most mundane things (a recurring villain was an old, Jaambavan-ish radio) – harsh words would be spoken, tears might be shed…but somehow, when the day dawns, all would be forgiven. Achachan would be back to calling ‘Kanakam…’ every 5 minutes and Ammumma could be found shadowing him saying ‘Athey..noku…’, for that is how she always addressed him – we found it rib-ticklingly cheesy, to be honest.

Then again, when they had kids, the one thing they always agreed on was the necessity of educating their babies, irrespective of their gender. On this issue, grandma had the upper hand. She was a teacher – she knew the importance of being well-educated. So did my grandfather who was not as educated as he wished he was (and that remains as one of his life-long regrets). She ensured that all her kids made schoolwork their priority. My aunts and uncles often recollect their school days when, instead of the prayers that you chant at the dusk, they used to chant the multiplication tables and ‘A for apple’. Once they completed their studies, they were all prodded to work for a living. No marrying off the girls right after their studies or without a job. We kids often joke that the only reason my aunts (my amma included) found a job immediately after their Masters was because that was their only hope for getting married! In those days when the education and freedom of boys were prioritized over that of girls, my grandparents have often had to bear with the social stigma of treating their male and female heirs equally. Not that any of that deterred them – big crusaders of gender equality my grandparents were. Are.

What prompted this sudden outburst of memories, I’m sure you wonder. It’s just that I met with my granddad yesterday. He isn’t well. To be honest, he is as unwell as one can be. He doesn’t recognize me. Nor his children. He doesn’t recognize his better half. He doesn’t open his eyes. He is being fed intravenously. His condition fluctuates from bad to worse every few hours. I look at the flabby figure in the hospital bed and can barely make out the silhouette of the man I worship. I laugh at myself for expecting him to spring to consciousness when I touched his cold hands. When I hear his unconscious grunts, I hope that they are ghosts of his trademark booming laughter.

I’m 21 years old. I’m a pragmatic, sensible adult. I know better than to expect a humongous miracle. I am aware of the futility of tears. I have no illusions about where this situation is headed to. And at the moment I know not what I should pray for.

I just don’t want him to be in pain.