I remember long, dull summer afternoons spent sitting at the dining table with Baba and Dadi. I would stare at my plate and then at my grandfather.
“What happened now?” he would ask, eyes twinkling with mild amusement as they always did when I was being troublesome.
“I can’t eat anymore. I’m too full.”
“Oh, alright then.”
He would take my plate and carefully divide the food into small, bite-sized portions. He’d point to one and say, “You know who this is?”
I would shake my head.
“Well, it’s a peacock. And it’s sad. So sad, that it’s crying.”
“Because you’re not eating it.”
To the mind of a six-year-old, this was an extremely sad thought. Even today as an adult, I can’t bear to leave a single grain of rice on my plate because I don’t want it to cry.
For the longest time Baba was just Baba to me. Not a college professor, not a scholar, not an academician, not an author. Even though he was all of these things and more. He grew up in poverty, walked barefoot to school with nothing but a handful of boiled chickpeas tied to a corner of the only dhoti he owned. He taught himself how to read and built a career for himself. He achieved much in his life and in our dusty little town of Agra, he was, and still, is one of the most respected souls. He was a teacher admired and appreciated by all.
But to me, he is simply the man who turned my food into little animals waiting to be eaten. He is the man who gave me an ‘inaam’ when I finished reading a hundred books. The one who read the childish stories I wrote with glee and corrected my spelling and punctuation mistakes with the reddest ink pen I had ever seen. He had done the same with Dadi many years ago, when she wrote letters to him in English. He’d read each letter, correct all her errors, and then send it back. Who does that? Being a lover and a teacher at the same time with such dedication?
As a little girl, I would tail him for hours and watch him in fascination as he melted lac sticks onto envelopes to seal his letters. I watched him enter names alphabetically in his formidable telephone directory. He had his own stamp as well. ‘Dr. SP Sahai’, it read. Shiv Pujan Sahai. Named so, because he was born only after his parents prayed to Lord Shiva in a nearby temple.
Many afternoons were spent watching him shave his coarse, white beard with a metal razor sitting under the sun. I watched him open his big book of ‘hisaab’ where he recorded each and every expense he had made in the last several years. Everything had to be accounted for. Everything needed proof. Even if it was a couple of lemons bought for five rupees. He taught me about eclipses and planets, and drew a diagram of the summer solstice to show me what he meant when he said “the days are getting longer.”
He often told me about the day of the storm. I loved listening to his retellings because of all the drama he added to it.
“It was very windy,” he’d say. “I was walking back to our old house in Soami Nagar. You were barely a year old. Just a tiny bundle of flesh wrapped up in a blanket. The wind had started picking up, and I could hear tree branches cracking and blowing towards us with full force.
I was so scared for you that day. You were so helpless, your eyes squeezed shut. There was no place to take shelter, so I just held you tightly to my chest and ran towards the house as fast as I could. I didn’t stop. I didn’t look anywhere but the road. I ran and ran until we were both safe inside the house.”
I sometimes held my breath when he spoke. I sometimes forgot to chew. I asked him to repeat that story over and over again because it made my heart grow ten times its original size. A big ball of emotion always rose in the pit of my stomach. A sudden wave of love for this old man who had lost so many “soft” teeth he had to mash his food with his fingers before he could take a bite. This lovable, harmless soul who barely had a handful of hair at the back of his head but still went to the barber regularly to get a haircut like it was the most important task in the world.
He’d remove his white dhoti and vest, and wear a crisp shirt and pants that reached up to his chest for the occasion. He never forgot to protect his head with one of his innumerable woolen caps during the winter. There were so many to choose from. The black Nehru cap with the soft fur, the grey rounded one that fit on his head snugly, the brown one that almost looked like a hat. I loved running my fingers over them and feeling their softness against my cheek. They smelled faintly of sandalwood, neem leaves and naphthalene balls.
There was a time when food wouldn’t pass down my gullet without listening to his stories during lunch. Of course, I knew all of them – even the pauses and the dialogues – by heart. But there was something so gratifying about listening to them again and again. And he never refused to narrate them a hundred, a thousand, a million times.
I loved accompanying him to buy groceries. He always chose to walk all the way to the market. “You should always keep the body moving. A still body is a refuge for disease.” I would observe as he picked up the freshest fruit while keeping a stern eye on the weighing balance before his lentils were handed over to him. On our way back, he always stopped outside the sweetshop. The smell wafting through the window was too tantalizing to be ignored. “You want barfi, is it? Come then, I’ll get you some.”
A few years later I realized that it was he who had wanted all that barfi all those times. The milky white rectangular sweet with a delicious pink layer of sugar and coconut shavings. It was our favourite. A few minutes of conversation with the shop uncle and a plastic bag full of sweets later, we’d walk back home. Baba always grabbed my hand while crossing the street, advising me to look both sides before crossing the street.
Mummy Papa were both at work during the day, so after school Baba Dadi were our babysitters, our parents and our playmates. I’d run home to them, undo my pinafore, my laminated ID badge, and run around the entire house with my red ribbon still hanging from my ponytail.
After lunch, I could do whatever caught my fancy. Run up to the forbidden ‘sloping’ part of the terrace, climb all the trees in the park next to our house, collect the prettiest Amaltas and Kachnar flowers and bring them back to Dadi so she could arrange them in her vase. Sometimes when she couldn’t handle my effervescence, she lured me with another story and I fell straight into the trap of an afternoon nap. Oh, I hated being tricked into those, but could never resist a shiny new story. My last thought before falling asleep was always this: Dadi’s eyelids looked exactly like aam papad. Mmm, I wish I could have some aam papad right now…
Every alternate day or so, Baba invited his closest friends for a game of Bridge. It was an unspoken rule to make it to each game without fail, unless there was a family emergency. Dadi would call me to serve them hot cups of tea and special homemade snacks. The pattern was always the same. Something crispy, something savoury, something sweet. I wondered how she always managed to think of something new and exciting to cook every single time.
“Chinky betaaa!” Baba would call out to me. “Come and say Namaste to the guests.”
Dadi always made me wear a nice frock, did my hair in two neat little braids and then sent me off to the ‘game room’ with a tray full of trembling tea cups. I loved greeting them, delicately placing the cups on their respective saucers, answering their questions politely.
“Gupta ji, my poti writes stories,” Baba would say. “She’s going to grow up to be a writer.”
I liked these men. I loved their calm, steady chatter emanating from the room and filling the entire house. Sometimes I would peep in, eyebrows scrunched up. I never really understood what was happening even though Baba tried explaining it to me once. It was way too quiet, even during the most interesting parts of the game. The silence was broken only occasionally by nods, quiet chuckles and monosyllabic terms. I’d get bored eventually and bury my nose into another book or laze outside in the verandah.
Many, many seasons have passed since. The Kachnar tree doesn’t bloom anymore. Baba uses a hearing aid now, and even that doesn’t seem to work most days. His skin is mostly always too dry, and has snake-like patterns all over. His eyes have sunk so deep into his skin they look like tiny, grey beads staring out of dark holes. He doesn’t stand tall anymore but walks with quiet, calculative caution. He doesn’t play bridge any longer, because a few years ago the players started disappearing, one by one, until eventually there weren’t enough left to play.
Baba is too weak to visit the market now, and he needs assistance to get simple tasks done. There’s something so incredibly vulnerable about him when he removes his dentures and presses his lips together. He often has a faraway look on his face, and his afternoon naps keep getting longer and longer. He sometimes writes the simplest of facts in his diary to keep track of the world around him. The last time I went home, he asked me where I was working.
“Bangalore, Baba” I said.
“And your sister?”
He nodded, and then silently opened his telephone directory and scribbled this on the first page:
Cheena – Singapore, Chinky – Bangalore
Baba turned ninety last month. Nine times ten. Nine decades of learning, teaching, writing, record keeping, loving, losing, breathing. Ninety years of that sturdy heart beating and beating and beating away. Ninety years of routine, relationships, and countless, countless games of Bridge. On occasion, Baba boasts of the enriching journey he has had. “We have led a great, fulfilling life. No complaints. No complaints at all,” he says and smiles faintly. I look at him, and my heart swells up to see the familiar twinkle in his eyes return.
Happy 90th, Baba. You are and always will be, the angel who saved me on the day of the storm.