“Huh. Tumhare Nanu¹ . Bahut popular hua karte the apne zamaane mein. Class ke baad, ladkiyan unke peeche peeche bhaag hi jaati thi – Sir, Sir, Sir. I have a question. Unke smile pe toh saari ki saari latoo thi.”²
Nani³ smiled. It was that story again. Again, and again, it looped around the room, painting a layer of warmth on the walls of this quiet, lonely house in South Delhi. Some days, the silence burped with the sound of cricket playing on TV, Hindi commentators using popular jingos to add flavour to a one day long international match. “Arrey arrey arrey. Catch drop kar diya! Iss match mein toh koi catch hi nahi!”⁴ After all, it was Nanu’s favourite.
And yet, I preferred the music of Nani’s stories, their rhythm a reminder of balmy winter afternoons, Nana’s eccentricities an indication of how I viewed the world, a little differently from how the world was taught about. It was to Nanu I had first confided in about how, whenever I saw the crescent moon, I felt the sky smiling at me. He chuckled, memories of his own childhood resurfacing – “well, I always thought the moon kept following me around, even when I hid from it. Then I started waving hello to Mr Moony, thinking he was lonely and wanted friends. Since then, I’ve always had someone to talk to.”
In my family, rumour had it that I had inherited both my temper and my unconventionality from Nanu, madness so similar that my mother never found it in her heart to punish me whenever she found diaries she had bought to plan details of her life soiled with notes entitled – “I spied on my mother today”, or she discovered her lipsticks completely mushed, their remnants colouring the floor in random, abstract patterns.
For the past year, I have been living with my grandparents, the first time since they had moved out of our hometown, Patna, seven years ago. Caught in a confused stupor of life where I simultaneously desired to study everything and absolutely nothing, I moved into their house, hoping for a reunion with love, something I had misplaced and forgotten about. But nothing felt familiar. For starters, I was no longer a child. The setting was new and disorienting, and, while I was occupied rushing through life somewhere in the C block of Hansraj College and the bylanes of Kamla Nagar, Nanu and Nani had aged. Nanu now sat in his wheelchair, his rocking chair replaced, helped around by a nurse, slowly swallowing food churned in a mixer. Nani stumbled while walking, her steps more mismatched than I remembered.
Sunday morning breakfasts no longer presented a choice between Nani’s world-famous aaloo parathas⁵ doled out with butter and Nanu’s scrambled eggs cooked in the microwave with sausage and brown bread, a sumptuous affair he had learned to prepare as a scholar in Amreeka⁶ . And yet, that old, doting love still existed, preserved in the boxes of medicines both were forced to take, the unkindness of dotage wrinkled heavily on their faces.
On some days, as Nanu fussed over lunch and Nani scowled, tired of his stubborn refusals to swallow food, he would exclaim, “aaj achi lag rhi Sudha” ⁷ . And despite her anger, she’d sigh a laugh, unsure of how to respond, savouring the sweetness that diabetes had long denied them. She’d think of a reply, her gestures the only way she knew how to convey love, and say, a giggle suppressed, “khaana kha lijiye jaldi jaldi. Sana kya sochegi? ⁸ ” In those moments, I knew I existed only as an afterthought, as an intruder who had lodged in for comfort, but glimpsed love instead.
As the burden of adulthood increased, an 11 to 7 job left me wanting more of my grandparents’ lives, time seeming more abundant then than it was now. In all the pictures curled around the house, they seemed happy together, laughter I longed for but could never locate in my own hurried life. So, I flitted between them, re-learning their life which I vaguely remembered from once upon a time.
“This one time, your Nanu got down from the train to buy a bottle of water. He kept sipping water, thinking the train in front of him was his. Meanwhile, I as our train started moving, I shouted – ‘train chal rhi hai. Waapis aaiye! Waapas aaiye!’ ⁹ Ugh. Why would he even listen. I have no idea what he kept dreaming about, even during the day! What was to happen really? He came back on a bus, dhakke khaate khaate.” ¹⁰
“You read so many books, a new book every day! When we got married, your Nani looked after all the expenses. Every day, she would keep aside some money to buy vegetables, and every day, I would steal it and buy books. Ab shaadi toh nayi nayi hi thi¹¹ , what could she really do? Her teeth chattering in anger, she’d tell my mother everything. And my mother would come with a stick– Beta, library se maang ke kaahe nahi padhte ho? ¹² ”
I listened carefully, the warmth of their tales wafting up, surrounding me like the comfort of garma garam chai¹³ on a rainy day, bliss sauntering around like a shadow. As much as I wanted to excel at whatever I pursued, I desired this more, this life of anecdotes I could repeat over and over as my grandchildren sprawled around me, chuckling and giggling, pointing out the details I had forgotten about and posing questions over any new information I included.
And so I quit my job, its meaning unimportant, my overpowering need to tell stories finally forcing me to escape the drudgery of cataloging names of artwork in an art gallery. I was successfully unemployed and restless to tell stories that would make people smile on a dark, stormy night. On the same day as I quit my job, Nani decided to visit her mother in the US a month later, imposing faith in me to take care of Nanu, in the same way when my mother left me in their home, knowing I would be safe as she ran about, finishing umpteen errands. … Two days had passed since Nani left for America in the middle of the night, moments when nightmares turn graphic and real. Afraid that her absence would make Nanu miserable, she waited till the last moment to tell him that she was going away, lying that she would return in two days instead of two weeks, that some urgent matter needed to be settled in Patna. In these circumstances of white lies, truth concealers and open secrecy, Nanu’s fourteen-day exile had begun.
As I sat next to him, our morning rituals suffused with laziness instead of Nani’s prayers, he chatted, relaying stories about his life in America, stories I had never heard before. It was as if he knew exactly where Nani was, what street she was walking down in New York while he recalled the endless expanse of his days, his happiness in a different world, one no one else knew intimately. I had always known him with Nani, their stories weaving in and out of each other, past anger laced with smiles in the present.
On video call, when I reported how Nanu no longer fussed over eating, my mother asked, laughter ringing in her voice, “Kya Papa, bas Amma ko hi pareshan karna aata hai? ¹⁴”
“Tumhari Amma toh tumhare pass gyi na. Soch rahe khana kha lenge toh shayad waapis aa jaayegi. ¹⁵”
“Amma toh buddhu bana di aapko. Yahan toh nahi hai. ¹⁶ ”
“Toh fir kahan gyi?” ¹⁷
“Apni Maa ke pass.”¹⁸
“Fir toh waapis nahi aayegi.”²⁰ He laughed. All of us laughed with him, three generations peeling over how Nani had hatched a conspiracy and deceived all of us.
Later in the night, as we prepared to sleep, Nani called, her morning rituals now misplaced through the tricks of distance and time.
“Haan boliye?” ²¹
“Tum batayi bhi nahi ki America chali gyi.”²²
“Bataye toh the.”²³
“Waapis kab aaogi?” ²⁴
“Ek-do din mein.” ²⁵
“Aisa kya kiya jo bhaag hi gyi?” ²⁶
“Khaana theek se kha rhe hai na?”²⁷
I giggled, relaying the same information to her as I had done to my mother in the afternoon.
“Fir toh Sana ke pass hi chor dete hai. Usko aap nahi pareshan karte.”²⁸
Days passed similarly. Nanu talked of various things – how he thought Jhumpa Lahiri wrote his feelings in a way he had never been able to express, how his elder brother thought he was a wayward disgrace, too lost to do anything worthwhile, how he never learnt maths but realised its importance while managing his finances in America, how he refused to share his books and stationery with his sisters, how psychology appealed to him more than any other subject, how he could never stop from buying books much to the dismay of Nani, how he had chased a goat in Dumka once. How he had once clung onto the moustache of a tall man in the train because the man had refused to vacate his seat.
His tales were as eclectic as he was, always told in a way that would tickle you even on days of great distress. Whenever anyone asked him about Nani’s whereabouts, he chuckled, conjuring up a new response.
“Divorce de di hai. Socha tha iss budhape mein toh nahi degi, par dekho! ²⁹ ”
“Dumka, apne sasural chali gyi hai. Humse mann bhar gya tha.”³⁰
“Upar chali gyi. Maa ke pass.”³¹
“Boli Patna waale ghar mein chori ho gya hai. Usko dekhne gyi hai.” ³²
“Aaj Saturday hai na. Mandir gyi hai.” 33
“Meri shaadi bhi hui thi? Ab yaad nahi ye sab itna.” 34
“Bina bataye bhaag gyi. Batati toh hum bhi bhaag jaate.” 35
“Pepe aur Bobby ke sasural gyi hai.” 36
“Gautam fir se school se bhaag gya. Uske teacher se milne gyi hai.” 37
“Maine fir se kitaabein khareed li. Naraz hokar maike chali gyi hai.” 38
Everyone laughed, Nani, his children, his grandchildren, as he re-evoked memories, muddled his answers, invented replies. But I could see the quiet shimmer of tears in his eyes, hear the sigh he let out when everyone else chortled, too preoccupied with his humour to notice his little displays of grief. He knew Nani would have. His fussiness had disappeared, not because he felt free the way his children joked about, but because he longed for her, his show of need the only way he knew how to express love. Day in and day out, he sulked, slinking back in his wheelchair, too displaced from his own self.
In between these conversations, he’d suddenly ask, as if time had refused to end while he awaited Nani’s arrival, ticking, ticking, ticking ceaselessly, dismay creased on his forehead – “Tumhari Nani waapis nahi aayegi kya?” 39 … March had arrived. Yet, there was no sign of spring. The sun skittled around in the sky, the Delhi smog blurring it to a hazy disc of colour that spilled around its edges. The evening spread gloomily, and dew clung on the balcony railing in a final act of desperation. Nani was supposed to reach any minute. Her arrival was just as big a surprise as her departure had been, only this time the intention was of rearranging things back to the way they were, like mending a tear in your favourite kurta, worn more times than you can recall.
Huddled in three layers of sweaters, Nanaji glanced at the TV, his topi40 sliding off his forehead repeatedly. Winter had never been kind to him, but this year its malice had extended well into the spring, Nani’s absence prolonging it further. A cup of tea lay perched on the table beside him, absorbing the cold air rapidly. “Nanaji, aaj chai nahi piyenge? 41 ” I ask as I readjust his topi, masking my knowledge of Nani’s arrival, gently nudging him on. He had eaten little since the last day, for the whole duration of Nani’s flight.
“Ab toh call bhi karna chor di hai.” 42
“Abhi wahan bahut subah ho rha hoga. So rhi hogi. Uthegi toh call kar legi. Ab chinta mat karo.” 43
Earlier that day, Sheela didi had cooked all of Nanu’s favourites as per Nani’s instructions – Poha and Suji ka halwa, food in preparation of their reunion, food that would remind Nanu of Nani’s love, never expressed as a series of “I love you”, but always as an extra helping of whatever he enjoyed.
“Dekho Nanu. Virat ko out kar diya. Ab India kaise jeetega?” 44
He looked up, merely glancing at the score, too devastated to find even cricket interesting anymore. “Bas thori der aur Nanu” 45 , I mumble, awaiting Nani as eagerly as Nanu had for the past 2 weeks.
The doorbell rang. After a second, it rang again. With a sudden surge of energy, Nanu shouted- “Ae Sheela, dekhti kyun nahi kaun aaya hai? 46 ” It was as if he knew who was at the door, impatient that everyone delayed his moment of reunion with Nani more than they needed to. This was, after all, not a daily soap, the ones Nani loved watching on tv – the chhan chhan of payal47 didn’t preempt someone’s appearance, and no cameras zoomed dramatically upwards to reveal who it was.
And yet, there was something filmy about the whole moment, as I watched Nani quietly tiptoe her way into the room.
“Dekhiye kaun aaya?” 48
Nanu’s eyes lit up. He smiled, the most magnetic one I had seen since Nani’s departure.
“Bhaag gyi thi toh waapis kyun aayi?” 49
“Fir aapko Suji ka halwa kaun khilata?” ⁵¹
For the rest of the evening, I witnessed my grandparents re-establish their own form of language that they had shared for more than fifty years – Nanu fussed over his food, more intensely than when Nani had left, and she frowned, annoyed at his stubborn refusals, gently coaxing him to remember their daily routines of love.
Even though Death would barge in through the door, unannounced, when the summer heat would vacuum one into suffocation, life had settled in for now, dissolving into the last embers of sunlight.
In loving memory of Dr Mani Bhushan Prasad, a charming husband, an adoring father, a doting grandfather and the greatest teacher one could find. I hope you’re tickling some bones, wherever you are.
Maternal grandfather ↩
Huh. Your Nanu. In our times, he was very popular. After class, girls would run after him- Sir, Sir, Sir, I have a question. All of them fancied his smile. ↩
Maternal grandmother ↩
Oh, Oh, Oh! They dropped a catch! There seem to be no catch in this match!” ↩
Potato chapatis ↩
You look nice today Sudha. ↩
Do eat your food quickly. Otherwise what will Sana think? ↩
The train is leaving. Come back! Come back! ↩
We’d been married for only a short while ↩
Son, why don’t you borrow books from the library? ↩
Piping hot tea ↩
Oh Dad, do you only know how to annoy Mumma? ↩
Your mother is visiting you no. I’m thinking that if I eat, she’ll come back. ↩
Mumma is fooling you. She isn’t here. ↩
Oh, so where is she? ↩
She’s visiting her mother. ↩
Then she won’t come back. ↩
You didn’t tell me you were going to America? ↩
I’d told you. ↩
When will you come back? ↩
In a couple of days. ↩
What did I do that you ran away? ↩
Are you eating properly? ↩
Then I will leave you with Sana. You don’t irritate her. ↩
She’s filed for divorce. I thought that in this age, she wouldn’t do it. But see! ↩
She’s gone to her in-laws’ place in Dumka. She was fed up of me. ↩
She’s gone to heaven, where my mother is. ↩
She said that there was a robbery in our house in Patna. She’s gone to look there. ↩
Today is Saturday no. She’s gone to the Temple. ↩
Did I even get married? I don’t remember all this now. ↩
She ran away without telling me. If she would’ve said anything before, I would’ve run away too! ↩
She’s gone to visit Pepe’s and Bobby’s in-laws. ↩
Gautam ran away from school again. She’s gone to meet his teacher. ↩
I bought books yet again. She went back to her parents’ place in anger. ↩
Will your Nani not come back? ↩
Nanu, won’t you drink tea today? ↩
She’s stopped calling also. ↩
It must be very early in the morning there. She must be sleeping. She’ll call once she wakes up. Don’t worry. ↩
Look Nanu! They’ve bowled out Virat. How will India win now? ↩
Just a little while more Nanu ↩
Sheela, why don’t you see who’s come? ↩
The sound of an anklet ↩
See who’s here ↩
Why did you come back if you’d run away? ↩
An Indian dessert, sort of like a dry pudding made of semolina ↩
Who would’ve fed you Suji ka halwa? ↩
Suyashi Smridhi is an aspiring writer and journalist from Patna. Her work has been published on platforms like Feminism in India, sbcltr.in, Coldnoon- International Journal of Travel Writing and Travelling Cultures amongst others. She is an alumnus of the Summer Institute, University of Iowa, a two-week creative writing cum cultural exchange program between India, Pakistan and the US.