Granddad must have been quite intelligent because, by the time he was 20, he had progressed from a simple labourer on the Sugar Estate to the post of sirdar1. Like everybody else, he worked six days a week, from Monday to Saturday.
On Sunday mornings, he left the dreariness of the camp2, and went to the baika3 of the nearby village to teach Hindi to the local kids.
After the Hindi lessons, it was the turn of the adults, most of whom were illiterate, but very devout people. Granddad read/chanted the Scriptures to them, translating from Sanskrit into Bhojpuri, the lingua franca of the Indos, who were first/second generation from the north Indian state of Bihar. Often he had to stop, and explain the meaning of the symbolic representations that is a common feature of the Classics. They enjoyed his succinct elucidations and joined in the chanting with him wherever they could.
It was thus that Granddad gained a certain standing in the local community; and he felt a mixture of pride and humility at the respect and importance that the villagers bestowed upon him.
And, he was happy. He was young and strong, had a good job and people sought his company on account of his knowledge and wisdom. So when the time came, he had no difficulty in finding himself a bride. Unlike his Coolie dad, he did not need Grand Missier’s4 help; he got married in the baitka where he taught. And a year later, his wife rewarded him by giving birth to a baby boy. They christened him Ramadevan; that was my dad. My phoophoo5 Jayantee, was born on Ramadevan’s fifth birthday.
But, to every silver lining, there is normally a black cloud. And as every schoolboy knows, black clouds have the unfortunate habit of being followed by nasty storms that can tear asunder century-old trees, and sweep away everything in their wake. Granddad’s life was about to be hit by one of those storms.
First, his father caught TB. Given the unwholesome living conditions on the estate camp, this was hardly earth-shattering news. In those days, lots of people died of simple diseases, partly due to ignorance but mostly due to a total lack of proper health care. In their helplessness, many often turned to the witch doctors for help.
Besides the mumbo-jumbo rituals, the latter also had some basic knowledge of natural remedies. But, being uneducated, they probably killed many of their patients with misdiagnosis, unsuitable treatment or simple overdose. Great Granddad apparently took only a few doses of a potion concocted by the voodoo-man and gave up the ghost within a week. He was 50!
Great Grandma was inconsolable. Like the surviving half of a pair of lovebirds, she pined her short life away. After a lapse of only six months, she just collapsed one day and let out her last breath in her 45th year, to be reunited with her old man. Today she would be considered to be in her prime and could look forward to living another 40 years. But those were dark, tenebrous days; life was so harsh that many just wished themselves into dying.
Inevitably, being the only child, Granddad missed his parents a great deal. He had no one else; his guide and mentor, uncle Kassim had preceded his dad by a year to join the heavenly choir. But as behoves a Hindu scholar and a Man, he faced up to his losses stoically—or so he thought!
“You must miss them terribly, don’t you?” Grandma said to him one day, soon after the death of her mother-in-law.
“Sure I do, Vani,” he replied. “But though I hurt an awful lot inside, I don’t know why I am unable to cry and grieve properly.”
Grandma got up from her Pirrha, a small wooden bench. She went slowly over to her husband and held his head against her soft, warm tummy. And the floodgates opened up, to let out the immense pressure that had been building up over the past six months. Granddad cried like a baby, with Grandma caressing his cheeks gently. To his knowledge, this was the second time that he had ever cried in his life.
“There, there, my dear, that’s better, isn’t it?” Herself an orphan since the age of 7, Grandma understood his pain only too well.
“What would I do without you,” Granddad said, getting on his feet and touching her face. “Everyman should have a wife, a companion like you. I am so, so lucky!” he kissed her forehead.
“It’s I who am blessed to have a devta, a saint like you for a husband.”
“You know, I hope to die before…” Granddad began, but Grandma put her hand over his mouth before he could finish his sentence.
“Shh, never say that. I hope we both live to a ripe old age and, when the time comes, we leave for heaven together,” she said.
He held her in both his arms — not hard, not tight, but softly as one would hold a baby. As she reciprocated, the old man felt so incredibly light. For a passing moment he felt that, if there really was such a state called Nirvana, then he was pretty close to it. He felt so at peace with himself, and the world around him. Instinctively, Grandma could sense the bliss that her husband was feeling, and was happy to share the moment with him.
But happiness is like the fleeting butterfly — here one minute, gone the next. In the blink of an eye, the roving insect moves on, leaving a thousand little eggs that will hatch into a thousand ravenous caterpillars that will eat away at the flowers you had sowed and nurtured with so much love and care!
Part II/final part follows next week…
2. Hutments for workers, provided on the Sugar Estate, by the Estate
3. Building where Hindu associations meet
4. Sugar Estate owner/manager
5. Paternal aunt
* Published in print edition on 6 June 2014