Bheeshma

My grandfather once warned my dad that he would shoot him if he married my mom. When they eventually eloped and called home, he simply said “Congratulations on the wedding”. To me, this defined the man for many years. He had a notoriously short temper, and a scary one at that. Yet he also had a distinguished way of showing love and kindness when the situation called for it.

He was the grand patriarch of the family – the oldest of his generation, and a deeply respected man among those who knew him, and people who hadn’t even met him. He personified dedication to a cause one believed in. He spent his entire retired life in philanthropy, and religious and community service. At 79, he frequently rode long miles on his trusty old scooter to deliver groceries to a food shelter that he helped start and run. He cured jaundice in scores of people with a strict diet of cow’s milk and an herbal pill he concocted himself at home. None of us ever recall him being sick or exhausted. He had his shortcomings, but they were all redeeming in one way or another. He watched the TV too loud, but only because he couldn’t hear too well. He swore as a younger man, but never raised his voice on children. He proudly wore the badge of his priestly caste, but he accompanied it with sparkling advice from an exotic personal collection of idioms.

He shouldered the responsibilities for raising his brother and sisters, and supporting his step-mother, distant relatives and every unrelated person who came to him for help. His wife died 25 years earlier, and yet he always had a new fond anecdote to narrate about her. He raised his two sons with tough love, and they grew up to be tough men who showered their own sons with love. He went to great lengths to keep his daughter well-nurtured and cared for, and she transformed into an astonishingly resilient and kind-hearted person. He touched the life of every person he met, and always gave them support or saintly advice. Either way, he left an indelible impression. In my case, he left many lasting memories.

I remember while I grew up in his house, he would beep his motorcycle horn every evening as he turned into the street. I would abandon my toys and run to the porch steps to lay down a long wooden plank for him to wheel his bike up the stairs into the house. I remember he used to sit in front of the TV, wearing a dhoti and an undershirt, legs crossed at the ankles, one arm propped up at the elbow, and wearing a faint smile. I would watch him, an involuntary smile forming on my own face while I did. I remember the entire house reeking of ungodly smells from his druid-quality jaundice pills. I remember he took literally hundreds of photographs of us as a hobby – every single one of them a timeless treasure. I remember my brother once asked him what the greatest form of charity was, and he launched into an hour-long discourse on the virtues of feeding the hungry. I remember he remarked that my father and I had inherited his distinguished nose – ‘the trademark of the clan’, he called it.

I remember he took me a couple of times to a psychic, who I believe hypnotized me into seeing images of Lord Hanuman in an ink stain on my thumbnail. I remember he used to scare me when I was a little boy, that a frog was going inside my legs and it would ‘hatch’ out of my chubby thigh someday soon. I also remember his headphones – the very first pair I ever saw in my life, and I remember the first song I heard on them. I remember he used to take my grandmother and me to watch some unforgettable, classic movies. I remember he used to make all the four boys sit in a circle around him on the floor at dinner time. He would put gigantic balls of rice in our palms and we would hastily gobble them up before he came back around the circle to deliver the next one. I remember he would always answer the phone with a respectful tone, “Satyanarayana speaking…”

I remember the growing distance between us, as I moved away physically and emotionally from my extended family, drawn away by the circumstances of higher education, career and simply the pursuits of youth and life. Yet the few times I said “Hello, grandpa” on the phone, he answered back “Hi, grandpa!” every single time. I remember watching all my other grandparents die one after the other a long time ago, and being constantly reminded of this man’s mortality. In a way, I remember these words forming in my mind for several years now, like a morbid draft of his obituary. I remember hoping he would get to meet his great-granddaughter, as if to scratch that item off of my self-serving to-do list. It remains un-scratched forever.

The first time he fell ill in many years was merely a few months ago. His physical build and his endearing appetite were the first victims of the deadly disease. In the 17 days after his diagnosis, he slowly lost his strength, smile, the booming voice, and eventually his will to endure. But he never lost his mind. Even on the day before the end, he worried about the responsibilities my father and uncle would have to shoulder after he was gone. He politely endured the well-meaning, but increasingly depressing visits from all his relatives, near and distant – all falling over each other to get one last look at him. He became irritable and frustrated with all the pain he had to bear, but he never showed it to anyone who didn’t unconditionally love him.

The Mahabharata tells the story of the grand patriarch Bheeshma – he laid on a bed of arrows for days until the end of the Great Battle of Kurukshetra. He then literally willed Deliverance upon himself, surrounded by his kin. My grandfather endured everything that the cancer could throw at him while his family prayed for his relief, and eventually went to sleep in the loving arms of his three children.

Language fails us at the most unfortunate times, especially when it is desperately summoned. The job of a eulogist is to condense an entire human being and his life – all the memories, quirks, characteristics and events – into a single page. These pitiful lines do no justice to the man who was my father’s father. He was truly grand in several ways, at least to me. I have no pretenses about our relationship. I was not his favorite grandson, and neither was he my favorite grandparent. But I was his first, and he was my last. And that meant a lot to the both of us.

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