From Across the Void
Once again, the eight-year-old me is standing under the mantle staring up at that serious, soft-eyed person in the picture. Sometimes, when passing through this room, I glance up and smile. Other times, I fear he is watching me as if he is judging. When no one is around, I return his gaze and try to converse. Grandfather looks so much like Har Narain Uncle who is tall and athletic. Three relatives, two uncles, and an aunt, are tall. So, we can guess that Grandpa must have been tall. The third uncle and Daddy are the shorties.
I never met my grandfather or my grandmother. Both died long before my birth. Growing up, my grandfather’s portrait hung over the mantle in the living room–a serious visage. A turbaned man, with a thin garland of jasmines, barely perceptible, around his collared coat.
Decades later, as an adult living alone, he appeared in a dream and hugged me. As I hugged him back, I could feel his bony shoulders. I inquired where he had been, and he declared, “dead.” “You are standing here hugging me. How can you be dead?” He shakes his head and walks away with an inexplicable expression. But I am happy he is here now.
It is a strange dream in which weird situations seem so normal.
Our grandmother died, many years before my grandfather. No picture exists to visualize her. I have no knowledge of who she is, not even her name. No matter, I often thought about my grandmother. Was she pretty? Attractiveness is the likely cause of her good-looking children. It was almost an obsession for me to imagine her.
It is still fresh in my mind, Daddy telling Sudhir and me how sick she was. I asked Daddy how old he was when his mother died. He looks at me as a sad, forlorn look crosses his face, telling us he is eight years old. The look on his face troubles me even today whenever it strays into my thoughts. This how how old I was when he told us. Kaushalya Auntie was a little older, and she was like a mother to her eight-year-old brother. If anything happened to Mummy and Daddy, Daddy tells me I should be like a mother to my younger siblings.
Many years later, my grandmother visited me in a dream. I had discovered her name a few days earlier. Mummy read a diary Daddy kept during his trip to India. He had died on this trip. and he had written her name and the date of her passing in the book. Grandmother’s name is Jwala Devi. The Sanskrit word evokes a glowing, flickering flame spreading light and hope. An enchanting name. Elated at knowing her name, I could not sit still. I moved quickly in and out of the house. I wanted to share and shout her name with anyone who would listen.
But then it hit me so hard that I dropped in my tracks. The date! The year was 1917. I am frozen, stunned, shaken, unbelieving. At the time, Daddy was almost a two-year-old. He had no memory of her, let alone her appearance. The thought of Daddy not knowing his mother was unbearable to me. How could that be? How could Daddy have grown up with no memory of his mother? Going through life, always wondering! A lifetime was spent searching for her in the faces of relatives or strangers on the street. Agitated and tearful, I pace the room, trying to accept this new reality.
Then I remember our childhood conversation. Sudhir and I were deceived by Daddy’s claim of being eight years old when his Mom died. Since I was eight at the time, he could not bring himself to admit not remembering her. It would be too upsetting for Sudhir and me to imagine not knowing Mummy–a scary, unbearable thought.
In my dream, I find myself in a dark room. From the shadows, my grandmother emerges into the light. A beautiful, serene, albeit sad countenance! A poignant expression! The uppermost area of her face resembles Sucharita’s, Kaushalya Auntie’s daughter. She has the same striking brow and contemplative, dreamy eyes. Her mouth, lips, and chin, which look like Munna, are beautiful. I gasp and awaken with a start. Sitting up straight in bed, tears rolling down my face, I know instinctively who she is. Now I know what she looked like–my exquisite, beautiful grandmother.
Daddy was gone, but I told Mummy of grandmother’s visit in my dream. She listened to me, but still reeling from Daddy’s absence, Mummy did not comment or ask probing questions. With a heavy sigh, she turned away.
Intuitively, I now understood why Grandfather never married again. All he had left were his children. Too precious to continue in semi-poverty, he was determined that each would be successful. He declared to devote all his time and endeavor, and even his life, to make sure of this. Not highly educated himself, he knew the value of an excellent education, and chased after it relentlessly to better his family’s circumstances. After losing his life companion, he devoted himself to his children. Grandfather was resolved to pull his family out of this rut.