Our grandfather did most of the running around. He was an active man. The grocery shopping, stocking up necessities, milk, clothing, medicines, dairy, were all done by him. We used to frequently visit their home over the year, other than during the summer vacations. When we came over, he would specially bring ladyfingers for us and would announce to no one in particular, “Kids like it. Make this for them,” and kilos and kilos of mangoes in summers that we usually ate without removing its skin, by sucking out the pulp and licking the running juice off our hands. Despite having 7 children and 7 (at that time) grandchildren he remembered what each one of us liked and never forgot to bring those special somethings. That was my grandfather. Babaji, as we called him. In India “ji” is used as a mark of respect for someone who is elder to you or to give respect to someone. But for us he was not “Baba ji”; he was babaji. It was one single word. The mark of respect was fused with his name.
He was a short man standing at 5.3′ feet and dark complexioned, not handsome and in no way towering but still imposing. He was a fastidious man, a man with a strict routine. His tea was always accompanied with Parle G biscuits, his food always hot and fresh, his drinks always paired with some snack. He got up early, earlier than all of us, bathed and did pooja and went out of his daughters-in-law’s way. In that era, still in some parts of India, daughters-in-law did purdah, that is they covered their faces in presence of older men of the house. He made sure that he completed his morning rituals before the day started for all bahus (daughters-in-law) so as not to get into their way. It is these little actions that tell you so much more about a person than the big words. Not only was he considerate and thoughtful but also a true egalitarian. He never differentiated between a girl and a boy, between a man and a woman, between people from different strata of society, and between his own children and daughters-in-law.
My mother, who married young at the age of 16, wanted to study. She confessed to my father, who at the behest of my grandfather, encouraged (and tacitly allowed) my mother to study and then work. If not for these two men she might have never succeeded in her dream of studying and being independent. The day she cleared her senior secondary (XII standard) examination in first class he was genuinely delighted and got sweets for all.
Never did I hear my babaji say “give more to the boys”, unlike others outside and sometimes by someone within the clan. He encouraged us girls to eat healthy, to play outside along with our brothers and study well. He would bring kharode (hooves), a delicacy, because it was good for bones. “You children need it. Ask the girls to have it. More important for them,” he would announce in his characteristic way to no one in particular, but the message reached loud and clear to one and all. My (female) cousin and I crinkled our noses at that sticky foul (to us) smelling gravy while all men, including my brother and the other cousin, relished it till the last drop. I hated the way it made my fingers stick to each other. I still cringe at the name of “kharode”, but I also remember those times, pleasantly.
Despite his hot temper, we knew he was a kind man, from the numerous ways his actions suggested. He would sometimes bring fruits, sometimes candy, sometimes sweets and would ask my grandmother to distribute amongst us kids. During “karvachauth”, when all 5 daughters-in-law (at that time) got together at my grandparents’ house, and kept a fast along-with my grandmother, he would bring all types of fruits that each one of the daughters-in-law and us kids liked. He always entered the house tired, sweaty, carrying big bags in both his hands. He would immediately shed his wet shirt and hang it on the door nail and lie down the bed in his “banyan” (vest). He was no longer physically strong, despite being a footballer in his days, but his spirit would beat the best in the business. He used to take us out when he went to purchase milk from ‘Mother Diary’, which was at a distance, and tirelessly hear us talk and buy candies for us. Despite all of this, we had a certain fear of him. The eldest members of the house are usually mistaken. Their stern expressions brings fear along with reverence for little kids. I feared him, as did other kids. There was a reason too. His fury was legendary, although I never experienced it first hand but knew by the way the air changed in the house when he was home. We saw it in the demeanor of uncles and aunts.
We were forewarned to never, under any circumstance, disturb him while he slept. The room were to be closed, lights off and we were to retreat to another part of the house to play. We never dared to disturb him in his peaceful lion-ic rest time. We didn’t bother him when he sat corresponding, but we sat in a line to help lick the stamps and put them on envelopes or fold and close the telegrams along the lines, just like in ‘Art and Craft’ classes in school. I once saw him writing a letter in Urdu. He had a beautiful handwriting. My father got that from him. But nobody in the house knew how to read and write Urdu and Gurumukhi (script of Punjabi language). My father was the only one who knew how to read Punjabi but even he didn’t know Urdu at all. I saw him write from right to left instead of left to right, like we were taught at school. I asked him and he smiled at the simple question and patiently explained. He told me that in another part of the world there was a language in which they wrote from top to bottom,vertically. Experience is a teacher. I wish we had learnt more.
He was closest to my brother, who is also the eldest of us kids. It was him to whom babaji recounted his days in Lahore, their house, the big move, his hockey days, the family tree and many of those amusing stories that grandparents are made of. Sometimes he would call him and show him old letters and few black-and-white pictures that he had of those times. His interaction with us girls was fairly limited, but we had our own special tasks, that we took pride in. When we were very young, perhaps less than 5 years, he would ask us to walk on his back while he slept on his stomach or to punch his back with our tiny fists. He laughed at the effort we would put in and the little tiffs we had over whose turn it was to be a masseuse.
When I grew up I saw many other qualities that were previously unknown to me, such as his exceptional sense of humour and his love for maaji, my grandmother. He loved my grandmother like no other. He made early morning tea for her, took care of the clothes washing when their children were young. He wasn’t afflicted by the societal plague that decides “women’s job” versus men’s and this was back in 60s and 70s. He would take her out on walks in the evenings and buy her favourite idli-sambhar for her. It is evident in the fact that my grandmother never bought a single sari for herself till babaji was alive. He would bring her saris from all over Delhi, the latest in fashion and the kinds she personally liked. He would sit with her and read out news from the newspaper, as she herself couldn’t and watch shows on television that he explained to her. Since she couldn’t dial, he would do that for her whenever she wished to speak to anyone. He remembered everyone’s anniversaries and birthdays and would take her to visit the person in question.
He went everywhere on his bicycle or used public transport for longer distances. He knew Delhi like nobody ever did. Which place has the best for what, he could list it out. Not just that, he knew people from all corners of Delhi and Punjab. He was a people’s person. He had the quality to interact with anyone about anything, from history to sports to politics to general social topics; he was a master conversationalist. We got gifts on our birthdays from all over Delhi, the best of this and best of that. I still have a pair heavy silver payal (anklet) and a pair of little silver balis with red-green meenakari and little ghunghroos that he specially got for me. But I realized the extent of his persona and friendly warmth only after he passed away. Half the Delhi and Punjab turned up to pay their regards. For three whole days the house was swarmed by all his friends, people he helped in tough times, people he kept in touch with.
The day he passed away, which was in early hours of 7 June 2005, 9 days before his birthday at the age of 72, I had a premonition. I couldn’t sleep the night before and lay awake as our landline phone rang around 5:15 am. Mom-dad came to my room to announce that Babaji is unwell and they are going over to see him. I did not say anything to them, but I knew. Babaji had left us all. I had gotten a job and were to join in one month of time. He was most excited about that. I wish he waited a little longer, long enough to see at least one of his grandchildren’s wedding. He would have been so happy.
It’s been 10 years and I still sometimes dream of him, see him smiling and feel that he is blessing us all. He is around, I know. I tell my husband that he would have liked Babaji and Babaji would have liked him. But, these two men, who I dearly love, would never ever see each other, forget meeting. Maybe, in another world, in another time. Till then, I have these memories and my dreams.
It’s his birthday today. I just want to tell him that I miss him and we all did well. We are all fine. There is nothing to worry.
Happy Birthday Babaji!!