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Memories of My Grandfather: A Sketch from an Indian Childhood

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Deepa is a freelance researcher and journalist. She writes and makes documentaries and videos.

Reminiscence of a Morning

My grandfather was a middle-income land-owning farmer. He had about five acres of land in which he cultivated rice, coconut, Areca nut, bananas, and cashew. He was 72 when he died in 1977 and I was just a three and a half years old child. I never got to know him except for his diaries in which he mainly journaled his income and expenses, and through his curious collection of porcupine spines, sands of different colours, red and white sandalwood pieces, conches of many sizes, a broad piece of a deer horn, and a pouch of ‘ponpanam’, (gold coin) the half gram gold coins that were in circulation when he was young. In this collection, he also had British coins from the time when India was a British colony. I clasp to the few memories of him that I have because death took him before I grew up.

Memory 1

It is a clear morning of spring. I somehow find myself on the long mud path lined with mango trees, Jack trees, Tree of Heavens, Kenda trees, and Indian Kapoks, from our house to the iron gate of the compound wall. The floor of the path is laid with fallen purple shoots of the mango trees. They emit a mild and fresh mango fragrance. I see grandfather, wearing a ‘mundu’ (a one and a half metres long rectangular cotton garment worn around the waist). He is tall and heavily built and is walking slowly toward me with the help of a long and majestic walking stick. On the tip of the stick where he grasps it, there is a monkey’s face carved into the wood. As I am just a three-year-old in this memory, I am not supposed to wander off so far away out of my safe zone, and it seems he is coming to pick me up and take me back into the house. Or maybe it is drizzling, the rain on my bare arms and neck, a cold dab of mist. He might have wanted to protect me from getting sick being in the rain.

Glimpses of a Life and a Death

Memory 2

Grandfather is sitting on our verandah, on a traditional wooden recliner that is of mammoth proportion when compared to the size of a human body. The backrest of the recliner has decorative holes throughout, each the size of a finger hole. Grandfather seems to be napping after his mid-day meal. I walk to his behind and poke his flesh protruding out of the recliner holes. One, two, three, …I count as I poke through each hole. Grandfather laughs.

Memory 3

After lunch, as usual, grandfather is sitting on the verandah in his chair. There is a small mat spread out in the courtyard under the sun on which my grandmother or mother has laid out spiced raw mango pieces to dry. Once they dry completely in the sun, in many days of summer sunlight, they are kept in air-tight jars to be opened and used after the mango season ends. They will last till the next mango season. I climb down from the verandah to the courtyard and try to pick up a mango piece from the spread. Grandfather calls out for someone to pick me up and prevent me from eating the mango that is too spicy for a kid of my age. I freeze with the mango piece in my hand, alarmed by the sudden clamour.

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Memory 4

Grandfather is sick. He is lying on a bed, spread out on the floor in a small room inside our house that is mainly built of red laterite stone, and wood. There are massive wooden pillars, thick wooden windows, and a ceiling of wood blocks below the original mud-tiled roof. Shadows dance on the whitewashed (lime-coated) walls of the room as an oil lamp flickers in a corner. My mother and father are trying to give some medicine or water to my grandfather but he seems to be unconscious.

Memory 5

There is a scent of the raw coconut meat burning and that of burning coconut oil. In the larger room adjacent to where my grandfather was in my previous memory, he is lying on the bare floor. He looks like as in a deep sleep. Many half-cut coconut fruits are laid in a circle surrounding him, coconut oil poured in them, and small cotton wicks burning in them. Just behind where his head lies, a traditional bronze lamp, that also uses coconut oil and cotton wicks, is lit. On the lamp, the wicks are arranged circularly. The golden light from the flames gives a unique glow to the forehead and cheeks of grandfather. We children are not allowed to keep going into that room once we were made to prostrate at his feet and ask for his blessing for one last time.

Memory 6

There is a burning pyre at a distance. My mother’s sister has picked me up and she stands beneath a young mango tree. This specific mango tree was planted there after burying our pet dog when she died. She might have been a watchdog rather than a pet dog as in those days, I believe, nobody in our place knew what a pet dog meant. My mother’s youngest sister who was only five years elder than me also stood there near us. She was pointing to the pyre to let me know that it was burning.

The rest of the things I know about my grandfather are from other people’s accounts and his frugal possessions and journals. On a day, probably at the peak of the Indian freedom struggle, grandfather wrote in his diary, “I did not do anything for my country today”. He was not a freedom fighter. He was just a feudal landlord who was literate, who had travelled a bit all over India and as far as Varanasi in north India, and who used to read a little classical poetry and literature in two languages, Malayalam our mother tongue, and Sanskrit, the language of the sacred scriptures of Hindus. The spirit of freedom and revolution might have touched his heart in some way though he was not directly involved in the protests. His real passion was the medicinal system of Ayurveda. He has in his notebooks, many Ayurvedic medicinal preparations elaborately recorded. I have learnt later that this was a common practice as people used to make certain health supplements and medicines listed in the old texts of Ayurveda on their own annually and store them for future use.

Only the above memories as my resource and reference, I do not know much about what kind of a man he was. The glimpses we have of people are what we compile and analyse to form a holistic impression of their personalities, as we interpret them through interactions. When thinking of my grandfather, I wonder if I would have known him better than this even if he had many years to live with me. These memories however help me understand the history of my place and my people in a better light. The minimalistic life that was there before the onset of consumerism, the routine of a countryside farmer, the role of travel and books in those days as pristine sources of knowledge, and the self-sufficient manner in which those days people personally understood and studied health care and medicines.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Deepa

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