Sunday Edition

A ‘grand’ love

| | in Agenda

The greatest debt youth owes is to the age, to the magic which happens when the twilight of dusk and dawn mingles without restraint, writes Anubhav Pradhan, as he pays a tribute to his grandparents

If I’ve been lucky in anything, it has been in the love I continue to have from my grandparents. Most people have one or two sets, and not always in the same home or city. Most people usually have friends their age, peers, who are their constant companions. Most families tend to be small, insular units poorly connected to each other. In these times of immense change in the nature of familial ties, I have been lucky to have grown with and have had the love of not just my own parents’ parents but also their many sisters and brothers.

By a singular turn of fate, these have been more sisters than brothers; I’ve had more grandmothers than grandfathers. It used to be fairly exciting as a child, when in school, I would rattle off tales of various nanis to a variety of friends and classmates: Walking to Shakuntala Nani’s after school to play Battleship; being coaxed into lunch with tales of legend and myth by Madhuri Nani; marvelling at Ranjana Nani’s paintings through the old family house. There were so many stories, we met all of them so frequently that my friends never got the hang of exactly how many grandmothers I had. One of them, confused beyond repair, even went on to ask how many times my nana had married because he could not simply imagine a family where everyone was so close.

My maternal family has always been a tightly knit unit. My great-grandparents lived long enough to celebrate their platinum wedding anniversary, and ensured by the dint of their personality that all their many children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren kept coming back to them with a spontaneous regularity borne of love and respect. Their house in Karol Bagh, an old kothi from a time when families were meant to be big and together, was a rich repository of memories and mystery for my siblings and me as we grew up in the Nineties. From gramophones to desktop computers, it had almost every single kind of technological innovation which had made life convenient through the course of the previous century. But what made that house a home, what made it a lively, exciting, and magical place to grow up in was not as much as what but who: People, my many grandparents, gave it an abiding character which shaped all our lives and dreams.

A lot of the credit for this goes to my great-grandmother, my Barhi-Nani. My most enduring memory of Barhi-Nani is of her feeding me atte ke ladoo every time we came to Karol Bagh, which was twice or thrice a week at least. Her cartographic acumen, so to say, was also mischievously skewed: Karol Bagh was necessarily on your way when you were going from point A to B in Delhi, even if these points were Urmila Nani’s in Jangpura to Nandu Nana’s place in Alaknanda. For my elder brother and me, living in Ashok Vihar and studying in Bal Bharati in Rajinder Nagar, Karol Bagh was an inevitable stopover for the first decade of our schooling. We would get free around 1.30 in the afternoon, would be often escorted home by our Nana, and would then be free to do as we pleased in that cavernous house — doze off in the library, play on the stairs, read as much as we wanted — till our mother came from her clinic in Fatehpuri and took us back home.

But if Barhi-Nani was the organisational genie of the family, then my Nani, my mother’s mother, was the actual glue which gave it lasting form through many generations. Gentle and generous to a fault, Nani was like few people I have ever known. In a large family networked across the world, she was in many ways the operational head: She kept it together in many ways, least of which was her cool and canny wit. Ours is a family prone to incessant argumentation, we love armchair debating more than anything else, but Nani would always maintain a deeply simple sense of what is appropriate and right. She was also a compulsive bookworm, and would almost always be found with a book: I have no doubt that my own mania for reading has come in part from hers. No one remembers her ever being angry or wronging anyone through the long years of her life; she was truly a model of selflessly rooted and dedicated love.

But Nani was not the only model at home. Looking back, I cannot but marvel at how progressive my great-grandparents were; not only did they encourage their five daughters to study and work as they thought fit, they also allowed them to marry as they deemed right. Raje Nani, for instance, has always been an ideal of both, of love as much as work. Her devotion to Vishnu Nana through his long illness is one of the most poignant incidents of conjugal love that many of us know, just as her success in many entrepreneurial ventures way before liberalisation is a case study in canny management. Shakuntala Nani, who taught generations of children more than just mathematics, was one of the warmest people I knew. Her home in Rajinder Nagar, just opposite Salwan Public School, was a really a garden of joy. She actually had a profuse garden, carefully cultivated, and it was wonderful to shadow her as she tended to her beloved plants. She was also, perhaps, the most plucky and headstrong of all her sisters. At close to five feet tall, she insisted on driving on her own and not taking anybody’s help in setting the terms of her life even in advanced stages of Parkinson’s.

If Shakuntala Nani was plucky, then Urmila Nani is perhaps the spunkiest of all my nanis. She fondly refers to herself as having being a tomboy in her early years, flinching cigarettes from her Jagdish Chacha, being a badminton champion, getting scolded constantly by Barhi-Nani. She recently celebrated her golden anniversary as an Advocate-on-Record in the Supreme Court, and I daresay she is still quite a tomboy in many ways. My introduction to good music, to all the classics of the Fifties and Sixties came from her. I relish her many stories of funkytown parties late into the night, as I feel inspired by her success in a deeply patriarchal occupation. Hers is a story as much of grit, determination, and strength as of love, kindness, and loyalty, though in all of these, she is not too dissimilar from Madhuri Nani. My first Complete Works of Shakespeare came accidentally from her, from her college days as an English Literature student. She went on to work in a bank, but like another avatar of Eliot and Wodehouse retained a keen knack for storytelling which livened many a childhood meal. Madhuri Nani is perhaps the best cook I know, but much more than that, her calm, steadfast devotion to the spirit, her bhakti, is what makes her such an inspiration to seek balance in all that one does.

Talking of inspiration, I cannot but mention Saroj Nani. Had I been a woman, she would have been my inspiration in much of the how of life: How to behave, how to conduct oneself, how to be. Nobody can be a more perfect lady, I think, than Saroj Nani — affectionate and stern in equal measure, Saroj Nani’s visits from the States were always a high point. There was, of course, that hint of the exotic which all relatives from abroad seem to have in childhood, but even from that distance she was always — and continues to be — concerned and involved. Saroj Nani has been an example of how to be family even if distances drive one apart, of how to truly stay connected in word and deed and not just be ritualistically attached for appearances’ sake.

It will never be enough, no matter what and how much I write on all of my grandmothers. I haven’t even been able to refer to my Dadi, who stood her ground, educated herself, went all the way to a doctorate and became the headmistress of a school for visually impaired girls, or to my Dada’s sisters, who managed family and work often in defiance of social norms and expectations. I have also not been able to acknowledge my Nana, whose dedication to family and work has been unparalleled, or my Dada, whose love and generosity of spirit warms the heart years after his departure. This may well be a truism, but the greatest debt youth owes is to the age, to the magic which happens when the twilight of dusk and dawn mingles without restraint. In looking at myself now, I cannot but see the foundational influence of all of my many grandparents in making me the person I am today, and in this my nanis have been a constant source of strength, dedication, and love.

The writer is a doctoral candidate with the Department of English, Jamia Millia Islamia. The views expressed here are his own




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