Sunday, December 7, 2008

My great grandpa is turning in his grave

Sometimes I am lost to a near-impossible task of piecing together all my fragmented childhood memories to make him alive in a sepia tone frame – my great grandfather – whom I missed when I had just begun to understand him.

He died when I was 12. By the time we reached the funeral was over. But none in our family was deeply mournful when he passed away just a few days before him turning 102. When we just arrived at our ancestral home, one of my younger cousins, just four then, gleefully told us “we buried him”. His greatest worry was if the old man would sprout up from the grave.

Even the youngest of the family members shared the common feeling; he was more feared than loved. His presence enforced a degree of silence; even we kids were restrained in our activities. I think the older members of the family were actually using it as a ploy to control us. His walking stick was the most hated object during my pre-school years when I was, away from my parents, raised in my ancestral home. When I throw tantrums grand mother would show his walking stick and tell me, he would come and beat me with that.

Being the youngest and the oldest in the family, there might have existed some sort of power struggle between us. Because, care, attention and consideration were shared between us and we were equally narcissistic, selfish and inconsiderate to others. But both of us eventually lost our powers.

He was tall, fair, healthy and handsome. I suspect his father was envy of him. My great grandpa’s father was tyrannical just as he was. Those old days, in the beginning of 20th century, fathers must be invariably so, tyrannical, unquestioned and whimsical. His father chose a wife for him whom he saw only on the wedding day. She was just opposite to him; dark, short and unattractive. Thus we, the generations, a mix of both was born.

I have a feeling that his father had a devious agenda to limit his marital joys by getting him married to a lady, who was in no way a match for his charm. My father often jokes, “they mated just thrice, that is why they ended up with only three children”. I found some merit in this observation as the great grand father’s contemporaries would have a minimum of ten children each.

The three things that constituted his character were stubbornness, temper and piousness. He was hardworking and single-minded which eventually made him arguably the largest land owner in the village in Malabar where he settled. When I was in second or third standard, I once asked my mother “What was great grandpa doing during the time of independence struggle?” Because, for me, he was the most important one I personally knew who was alive at that time. Mom’s answer was spontaneous “Oh, he might have been planting tapioca”. I think, this applies to the Syrian Christians as a whole, who I observed that, is more driven by individualistic goals rather than the collective social goals.

I never remember a single occasion when he spoke softly to me. During family prayers he used to sit on a chair while every one else would be sitting on a mat. I would be sitting close to him. I was hardly four and he was in his nineties then. He would shout at me for not being loud enough. Then I would lean close to his ears and recite at the top of my voice the Malayalam version of ‘hail mary’. He would yell back at me “Are you out to break my ears?” I would get a sense of satisfaction for having disrupted his carefully conducted evening prayer and earn the silent support of others who were just not able to take on the tyrannical family patriarch.

He went to church every morning. If he was not seen in church for the morning mass, other regular churchgoers, concerned about the nonagenarian’s health, would visit him. On the other hand, the whole parish would be surprised if his grandson – my father – was spotted in church even on Sundays.

One of the very few persons my great grandfather liked was my mother. Once when he visited my home, he was afflicted by dysentery following an overdose of liquor on the previous night (he rarely drank, this was my father’s treat to him). Mom took him to doctor. When they reached town, he handed over his walking stick to my mom and walked freely. She had no choice but to hold the stick. A 95-year old man walking steadily and his 30-year old granddaughter-in-law meekly following him with a walking stick offered a hilarious scene for the onlookers.

Although he entrusted his property to his son and grandsons, he set apart a small piece of land for him where he used to cultivate himself. None would now believe he was once hospitalised in his nineties after falling from a tree. He would save the money for himself. The old man had savings in the local bank for his funeral!

In one way he was lucky to die without any hunch about the precarious position of the landholding he developed with his hard work, thanks to his wayward grandsons. He might be, proverbially, turning in his grave.

There must be so many ordinary great men like him who were not privileged to be written about;they do not have self-obsessed journalist-great grandsons.