Friday, August 04, 2006

My grandfather and my name

My name causes much frustration for those who have to type or print its full snake-like length; it elicits wry smiles from those who realize that even an attempt to say it right would be futile. My long cumbersome name which recalls popular and powerful deities might have been shorter had it not been for my grandfather’s insistence.

I last met my grandparents a year ago at their rented house in a residential alley of Perambur, in Chennai. I knew my grandpa wasn’t well, but that hadn’t prepared me enough: I was shocked to see him shriveled and bed-ridden, resting uncomfortably on a water bed against a stack of ten pillows, wincing at every movement, his skin wrinkled and gray. He called me to his side, took my hand, kissed it, and with respect, touched his forehead with it. I was overwhelmed by the sentimentality of the moment, by his unexpected show of reverence, and it was only with some sustained effort that I controlled my emotions.

My earliest memory of being with grandpa is at the Menambakkam airport where through a meshed grill he showed me great winged things that, twenty odd years later, still fascinate and terrify me in equal measure. I had accompanied him then on his morning walk, a part of his unshakeable daily routine. And after all these years, segments of his routine are what I remember most. Every night, soon after the news ended at nine, my grandfather would hang the yellow tote-bag at the gate for the milkman, remove his dentures, spread his mattress on the floor, place a torchlight by his side so he wouldn’t have to grope in the pitch darkness of early morning, and go to bed. As he slept, his fingers would move intermittently of their own accord: subconscious, still-persisting rhythms of his working days when he had typed, for a meager monthly income, hundreds of documents as a clerk for India Pistons.

The precision of his routine was equaled or surpassed only by the precision with which he dealt with financial matters. He was sometimes known to be cold and calculating when it came to monetary issues. And so when I handed him an envelope with some money from my earnings, my grandma, still at her witty and sardonic best, lightened the somber ambience: "Now that he’s sniffed dollars, there's nothing stopping him from prancing around despite his fractured leg."

I left that afternoon, wondering if my grandpa would get to his 90th birthday next January, or whether I’d be able to see him again. My grandpa did make it to his 90th birthday. He died on his birthday, on Jan 14 this year, also the day on which Pongal is celebrated. His memory will live on in many ways: in the minds of those who had been close to him; in framed photographs and albums; in the Brahmanical ceremonies organized by his sons, ceremonies that will time and again commemorate his passing away. The Jagannathan in my name (often confused as a middle name) is always referred to by my parents as grandpa’s special contribution; and it will be one way I shall remember him.