by Jindagi Kumari
Sometimes a phone call may bridge the gap between life and death in a snap. When you announce death you don’t greet. So, my elder sister on that Sunday morning call began with “Had your breakfast?” before telling me that Baba was no more.
Baba, our grandfather, was bedridden for last several weeks. Near 80, he had suffered loss of appetite and weight. Death had chosen not to afflict him with a disease, but as they say, old age itself was an ailment, big time.
When my WhatsApp messenger brought the images of Baba on the pyre, we were at a table in an exquisite eatery — my spouse and kids discussing the buffet menu.
Miles apart, I penciled in my itinerary for attending his last rites. I had concluded death was his bliss; and gone about our sacrosanct Sunday routine — shopping, movie, and eating out — mourning on the go, perhaps.
How I had prayed to God to end his travail — when mother updated me about spooning small pieces of milk-soaked rotis into his toothless mouth and carrying his aged body to the concrete platform near the hand-pump in the aangan (courtyard) for cleaning and washing.
In the pictures, Baba’s face bore a pained look — an imprint from the last moments of his life, perhaps. His thin body was wrapped in white cloth, on top was a yellow cover with the words Ram printed all across in Hindi. The photograph also revealed one end of the bier made of freshly cut dark green bamboos.
Our village neighbours were resourceful. They made biers with tacit expertise. When my grandmother, Mama, had died, they immediately got sleek and long bamboo stems from the bamboo grove, resizing them with a scythe into pieces of varying sizes. The smaller logs were then fixed to the longer ones with straw ropes. In no time, the carrier for the dead was ready. Mama’s gaunt body on the lifeless cot was given a quick bath, anointed with ghee, and wrapped in a new cotton sari. I don’t remember the colour of her last sari, but many of her saris were my flowing rainbows.
And Baba? He would almost qualify for a fairytale grandfather. In the eyes of the world, he may be a loser who left behind the trifle of a few acres of land and a village house; but in the dazzling garden of my young universe, many of the mellow and tart, dreamlike moments throbbed and sparkled with the spell of Baba’s presence.
Baba was a farmer. While growing up, we often saw him working in fields; tilling the length of fields with bullock drawn furrow, scattering countless handfuls of golden yellow paddy seeds across the pool of magical mud — the very womb of mother nature — that would return with mass of grassy tiny tots of paddy in matter of few weeks.
When the rice saplings matured and their spikes bent with the weight of profusion of grains, they were cut and gathered into huge paddy bundles ready for threshing. Baba performed this entire task with a few hands to assist him. Once the harvest was brought home, the process of storing and selling the surplus grain began.
Weighing the grain was no joke either.
Baba would weigh several quintals of it with the measuring weight of five kilograms. Rooted beside a hillocky pile of rice, gram, or linseed, he doubled the weight by adding equal quantity of granule to that side of balance, for better efficiency; and kept weight count using his unique singsong; “beese (twenty) bees- beese bees”.
Later, he packed the hoard in large jute sacks and secured them with thin jute threads and his prized jumbo needle; a large ferrous stylus we were not allowed to touch. Baba made it a point to display it to us whenever he took it out. He knew it killed us with curiosity. But he did not know that we marveled also at the thin film of whitish powder from granule smearing his tall profile.
He had to bend his head whenever he entered the foyer or the courtyard of home; when he stood near the doors his head hid the top frame of the door case. He possessed an oblong face, strong limbs, fine torso and abs chiseled by regular manual work.
He was a handsome old man by all standards, almost a rural version of Benedict Cumberbatch as Dr.Strange; except, dark brown coloured his eyes and skin, and his nose flared at the nostrils, hinting a distant genetic symbiosis between Aryan and Dravidian ancestors.
But great physique does not always come with great worldly skills. Baba was a poor negotiator. He was, often, negotiated into accepting the first offer price. Profit or loss, he did not seem affected. He would sleep peacefully even if a piece of land had remained unirrigated; or sowing was delayed for a week or two. He loved to rest. He was not innovative, enterprising, fierce, and ambitious like some other farmer-heads-of-family in our village. On the contrary, he mocked people striving to earn more wealth and he bragged about his own profusion.
His lack of promptness irked many, particularly, the women at home. Besides, they did not like that he chewed tobacco and spit indiscriminately; that he did not bathe daily; that he delayed work; that he slept a lot and spent a lot of time in the provision shop, conversing with the elderly wife of the oil miller.
We — his grandchildren — disliked most of these habits too, but we did not mind them in Baba (except the spitting). “You are blind to the faults of your dear Baba” was my mother’s perpetual complaint, for all of us siblings doted on him. He knew that his grandchildren nurtured profound affection for him. However, our connection with Baba fazed to insignificance when we married into tiny families far from our home.
“There is no food in the naad (the animal trough), the buffalo looks famished, but who cares!” Mother would note as Baba plunged deeper in his siesta.
My mother and grandmother would take turns to parrot the observation, now louder, reminding Baba to refurbish the trough. At such moments, Baba would wake up like a defiant adolescent, muttering his protest, throwing a basketful of cattle feed in the dome shaped trough fixed headlong.
He loved to tend to cattle; a buffalo or a cow. He knew how to calve a buffalo and prepare post delivery potions for her. Encouraging us to caress the young calf of buffalo, he would explain how it needed pampering like any other child.
I never saw him fight with or hurt anyone; never a sign of malice or ill will towards anyone. To me he seemed a sober giant with a few bad habits. Lying, some said was one of these.
Many believed that he cooked up the story of his encounter with a ghost during the ritual worship of the first tillage of the field or the shagun. But my brother had witnessed its effect on Baba. He told me how scared Baba looked when he entered home all sweaty and panting. He gaped like a little baby at father and grandmother who had rushed to calm him. That night he had gone to perform shagun. He was carrying his grub hoe along with water in a brass pot, a little pouch of vermillion, and rice powder. After digging the bit of earth he squatted to apply vermilion on it when he saw two mysterious figures robed in white sitting at an arm’s length from him mimicking his stance. Baba could not make out their faces or features.
“How come I did not notice them earlier” thought Baba.
He smelled something weird about these identical figurines now making bizarre guttural noises. Without wasting another minutes he rose, picked his stuff, and tuned to leave when he felt a tug at his shoulders and the nasalised chorus “Non’ nya neen eny yelp wi nat?”
Baba did not look back to see how close were they standing, and ran homeward with all the strength in his muscles. He slowed near the first house in the village when he heard familiar, comforting sounds of people talking.
He had hurt his toes. His huge rugged toes were always bare, dusty, and dry. I would marvel at them as he walked long distance on foot to receive us when we arrived in the village during vacations – festivals like Holi, Dussehra, and summers from the city where we got schooled. Even when he walked to the aangan for the day’s first meal and the rasoighar (kitchen), for his lunch, he was bare feet. He never wore shoes except when he went for weekly grocery shopping to a neighbouring village.
“Want to come?” he would ask my brother and me implying “lets go”. We never said no, and he knew that. My brother and I were the youngest of the siblings and were offered this privilege; other siblings were too grown up to join him for grocery shopping.
Baba seemed unlike Baba on the shopping day. He would wear a kurta and a less worn dhoti. He would also put a red gamchcha ( a long cloth that often doubles up as a towel) on his shoulder and complete the dressing up with a pair of black shoes — a humble village avatar of moccasins. On normal days, he wore a half-sleeved vest and dhoti. So constant was this ensemble on him that, to us, he seemed to be born in them.
Baba carried a list of provisions, written on a small piece of paper, to the market. But he never adhered to the prescribed quantity. He enjoyed buying; a little extra sugar, and an extra litre of oil. This was his moment of exerting influence, of taking split-second decisions. He made most of these moments despite his awareness that he could be potentially nagged for it back home. He always kept his excuses ready to defend his purchase.
When the shopping ended, he got packed jalebis (sweets)for those at home. We would get small sweetmeat made of roasted jaggery dusted in white sesame seeds if it was winter. We were overjoyed munching on smoky sweetness of jaggery hiding within the sesame crust. This was a perfect reward for us but Baba wanted to be more generous and would encourage us to eat boiled eggs. We would stand and watch the egg seller in great anticipation as he quickly juggled the hot boiled eggs into perfectly peeled and sliced oval halves. The aroma of black salt powder on the smooth surface of egg yolk made us salivate.
Across the stretch of around four kilometers farmland, hyphenated by a canal was the nearest market from our village. Almost a small fabric manufacturing hub with several handloom workshops of lungi, the village was dominated by the Muslim community. While shop-hopping, my brother and I halted near these workshops and peeped curiously inside at the intricate arrangement of thread on the wooden looms, waiting to chance upon a glimpse of the magic of threads turning into fabric.
On way back, how I trailed behind Baba through those fields of fructifying peas, gram and blossoming mustard, pausing to pluck, indiscriminately, a couple of infantile peas, munch on them rejoicing in their sweet juice while Baba would have walked beyond. Even at a distance he appeared prominent, leaping forward, bathed in the mild sparkle of the evening sun, traversing the brown carpet of earth.
I would love to remember Baba in the fields, among crops; as master of his own whims! No instructions or prohibitions for me as I roamed freely. Secured to the invisible tether of his presence, I explored my own little surprises; a fuchsia bud on the pea creeper or a flax shaped like a tiny top which I rotated on my palm all along fancying it to be the miniature gada (club or blunt mace) of Lord Hanuman…
Dr. Jindagi Kumari is an Assistant Professor of English at Maharaja Surajmal Institute of Technology, New Delhi. She teaches English Language and Communication Skills to B. Tech 1st and 3rd year students. She has published several research papers in the areas of Indian English Fiction and Poetry, and Post-colonial Studies. Her short story, poems and book reviews have been brought out in journals such as Muse India, Setu, and Teesta Review.
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