My grandfather looked at the clock for the third time in the last half an hour.
‘Uff dadu, your news won’t arrive faster on TV if you keep checking the clock!’ I exclaimed, while tucking him inside the Jaipuri rajai and handing him over his hot Darjeeling tea.
‘Plus, it is the fourth time you’ll be seeing the same news, so what is the point?’
Dadu leaned on the cushion I’d just fluffed up and placed against his back, and took a noisy sip of the tea.
‘What else am I supposed to do, didibhai (granddaughter)? God knows what made your parents think that this old man will be enjoying the Delhi winters!’ He shook his head sadly and sighed. ‘Above all, what is there to look forward to, except…?’
‘Dadu!’ My shriek cut him short. These constant mentions of death had been gnawing at my heart. In fact, that was the reason my parents sent dadu to my place in Delhi. To keep his mind off dida who suddenly passed away in her sleep two months ago. My grandparents have been together for almost 60 years and yet the childlike innocence in their relationship never failed to fill us with the warmth of the winter sun.
Before I took my teaching job and shifted to Delhi, my grandparents were my safe haven. I remember how every morning dadu would come back from the fish market with a guilty look on his face, while dida would start ranting about how he loved to see her toil by bringing home the small fish that required intricate preparation. Yet, the days when he only got the bigger rohu fish, dida would look searchingly into his eyes and ask whether he was feeling alright.
Then the time when dida contracted severe pneumonia and dadu would not leave her side even for once, putting damp clothes on her forehead, feeding her soup, taking her to the bathroom. When my parents wanted to hire a caretaker for all those days since they both worked and dadu was getting older, his reply was, ‘Have I died that I’ll leave her under someone else’s care?’
My grandparents got married when they were merely teenagers as was the custom those days. Yet, dida’s smile remained intact every time she recited the story of how dadu gave her a small pair of silver earrings on their marriage night and said that was all he could afford with his pocket money but once he got a job he’d get her golden ones.
It was at that moment that dida found a good friend in him. And they remained that way even after they became parents to my father and later on my grandparents. Most of the times, we’d see them engaged in endless banter and then either of them making up for it by doing something the other one loved. Like, his getting her favorite achaar or her making the onion pakodas that he so loved.
I would often joke that my grandparents have set the bars for an ideal marriage so high for me that I could never settle for a less affectionate relationship. Though my parents also loved each other, yet somehow, my grandparents were like the poster couple from high school whose hearts remained unscathed by the passage of time.
Dadu was so distressed after dida’s death that the doctor advised him to travel to a different place for some time. After all, every object in that house carried grandma’s presence like faithful torchbearers.
Hence, I cancelled my plans to visit Kolkata for the winters and asked my parents to send him to Delhi, instead. But my heart broke a little every time I faced the old man whom age seemed to have finally defeated. It had been a fortnight since he arrived and yet, he hadn’t once stepped out of the house. All he did was watch the news and have a few morsels of food after much coaxing. This was a man who once thoroughly enjoyed his morning walks and his expeditions to the bazaar or the bank where he socialized with all and sundry.
Every time I tried taking dadu out, he came up with some flimsy excuse. He had been to my place before with dida and they did have a few friends here, but I think he felt uncomfortable meeting them without her and facing their inevitable sympathies and condolences.
However, that day I had to step out of the house. One of my close friends had met with an accident. I wasn’t too confident leaving him alone, though he kept insisting he will be alright.
That is when I saw her from the balcony. In her tracksuit and sneakers, she was just returning from her morning walk. Looking at her steady and confident face and that perpetual smile, you would never have guessed that Mrs. Gomes had faced some of the toughest challenges in life. Her husband passed away while serving in the Indian Army and shortly thereafter, her son joined the forces and he too met with an untimely death while fighting for our nation.
Mrs. Gomes lived by herself but you’d never guess that if you passed by her house which at most times would smell like cakes and be filled with the noise of playful children. She ran a small crèche for the neighbourhood children including those of the drivers and domestic helps. All kids were welcome at her crèche and the poorer parents paid whatever little they could afford. She used up all her savings as a professor to set the place and the entire neighbourhood helped her. Her place didn’t discriminate between children and was popular because it taught them the values you needed to become a kind human being.
She was the friendly granny you went to, in times of troubles, and the twinkle in those brown eyes while she offered you a piece of her walnut brownie was enough to make you forget your troubles. I suddenly had an idea and ran downstairs to talk to her.
Though she was more than happy to accommodate dadu, it was altogether a different story convincing him. I finally concocted a cock-and-bull story about how old people were getting robbed and murdered in our locality.
‘There will be too many kids; it will be too noisy there!’ He grumbled.
‘It’ll only take me a couple of hours plus if you think it’s too noisy you can sit and read your book in her terrace garden. Just let her know if you’re hungry and she’ll send you the food there itself. I’ve spoken to her and she has promised that no one will disturb you.’
I took him to her flat where she greeted him with a warm welcome. ‘Oh hello Mr. Biswas! How are you?’ Mrs. Gomes extended her plump hand adorned with colorful rings which grandpa took reluctantly in his papery shriveled ones. ‘Hi, I’m doing fine. Thank you.’ He replied stiffly.
I feared whether he’ll make a run for the door, the moment Mrs. Gomes brought up grandma’s topic but she seemed to have entirely forgotten about the incident.
‘By the way, sir, do you have a good handwriting? Can you make a birthday poster? Don’t worry, you can head straight to the terrace right after these five minutes of work. None of the kids, including me, will disturb you!’ She broke into one of her booming laughter which I couldn’t help but join. I could never figure out the reason behind her infectious happiness, despite all the grief she had faced in life. I hugged her and whispered, ‘Thank you, granny.’
Stuffing my mouth with one of her chocolate rum balls, she waved me goodbye.
‘Come back soon, please.’ Barked my grandfather.
My friend had a minor fracture and the doctor at the hospital said that she would be released the next day. I chatted with her and tried cheering her up while her husband completed all the formalities.
I was worried sick by the time I left her. Doctors did mention that dadu was still very depressed and there was a slight chance of him trying to end his life. The worries which had looked like flimsy cobwebs when I left him with Mrs. Gomes now assumed the shape of terrifying monsters in my head. Though I trusted Mrs. Gomes to take care of him, what if she forgets about him in all the birthday celebrations?
My parents sent him here to gain back his cheerful spirit in my presence but all it did so far was make him even gloomier.
There was a strange silence when I reached Mrs. Gomes’ door. My heart thrashed against my chest like a mad animal. I rang the bell twice before she answered.
‘How is he doing, aunty? Did he have anything to eat? Is he upset with me for being so late?’ My questions tangled into an unintelligible mess.
Mrs. Gomes sighed. ‘Uff you’re worse than those paranoid parents who visit my crèche.’ She took my hand and led me upstairs to her terrace.
There was grandpa–his eyes closed, slow dancing to the tunes of ‘Ai dil hain mushkil jeena yaha, zara hat ke ,zara bach ke, ye hai Bambai meri jaan.‘
I tiptoed and reached him from behind before startling him by grabbing his waist. His face broke into an embarrassed smile, like a child caught in the middle of stealing pickles.
‘Mrs. Gomes was teaching me ball dance.’
I looked at Mrs. Gomes with surprise who winked back at me.
‘Actually, Rini, I was free because the kids had gone to the nearby fair with my staff. I told him let’s have some lunch and then we figured why not listen to some music. Did you know he has never danced in his life so I thought of teaching him some of my moves?’
‘What about the birthday party?’
‘Oh, didn’t I tell you, it was tomorrow?’ I looked at her impish smile and figured it was all a part of her plan.
I hugged her tight. ‘Your grandpa is a very interesting man; bring him back soon, ok?’ She whispered.
Dadu waved a shy goodbye to Mrs. Gomes.
‘So dadu, it wasn’t so bad, haan?’ I asked him once we got back.
‘Hmm…it was alright.’
However, during dinner, he hesitantly asked, ‘Can we invite Mrs. Gomes for dinner one day, just out of courtesy’s sake of course!’
‘Ahem, of course! And your dance lessons should also continue, what say?’
I could sense from the smile on his face that he was finally happy to have found a friend.
‘You know, she mentioned how her losses made her realize about the unpredictability of life. How she felt this urge to do something meaningful before bidding goodbye to life. All this while, I’d been thinking of ways to end my pain, but would your grandma ever want me to leave this world like a coward? Wasn’t she all about spreading happiness and goodwill?
‘Mrs. Gomes said that I can visit her crèche and recite stories from Ramayana and Mahabharata to the kids, just like I told you when you were young!’
‘Oh that’d be amazing, dadu! After all, that is the way I learnt so much about our mythologies.’
‘She said, she also loved listening to stories.’ He gave a shy smile.
‘Do you want to go tomorrow?’ I thought this was what he’d been trying to say for so long.
‘If that’s not too much of a trouble.’ He meekly replied.
I smiled and texted Mrs. Gomes, ‘Can grandpa visit tomorrow for the story session?’
Pat came her reply, ‘Yes, please, if that’s not too much of a trouble.’