a grandfather in perspective
Rustic cupboards and light gray walls. An old man and a young girl. The camera clicks too fast. Her eyes wide and adoring, the girl is still looking up at her grandfather. In his lap, she is surrounded by the familiar warm scent of clean clothing, incense, tobacco, and paan. Her grandfather looks straight at the camera, the edges of his mouth curved into a quiet and gentle smile. They fit together, in ways that words cannot describe. The bright green of her shirt complements the sandy brown of his own; her innocent eyes accentuate his serene half-smile.
The photo captures a bond infinitely deeper than the oceans that separate the old man’s and the girl’s homes, or the 60 years that separate their births. Within it lie deeper intricacies, moments, and memories that only the two people in the photo will fully understand.
He types the fanciful stories she imagines aloud, laughs at the way her eyes pop out of their sockets when she begins to recount her day, steadily corrects her hand as she draws the banyan trees outside. She loves his large glasses, his long earlobes, his patience, and his throaty laugh.
Every day, they walk across the street from their house to Nageswara Park. The girl winces as she walks barefoot on the sharp pebbles in the park’s pathway. Her grandfather squeezes her hand, laughing. They watch the exercise circle of laughing men at dawn, the dogs resting in the shade of the palm trees, and through the fence, the milkman beginning to cycle around the city. In the evening, they travel across Chennai on his scooter, the girl tightly clutching her grandfather around his waist, screaming with glee as they hurtle across Adyar River, through the T. Nagar shopping district and the small bazaars, the world around them blurring into specks of color and light.
Twelve years later, I wake up to sunlight streaming through the window. I wipe my eyes groggily in the warm, soft covers of my parents’ bed. For the first time in my near memory, I smile as I wake up. My mother sits on the bed with the home phone. Confused, I look up at her, the events of last night rapidly infusing into my brain. Something is terribly wrong. Her face is twisted, strange, unfamiliar.
“He’s gone,” she says.
There is silence.
Then my breaths become rattled, cries are forced from my mouth.
There Is Not. Enough Air. To. Breathe.
Rapid breaths turn into shrieks.
Something is tearing within me, ripping and crushing and pressing my lungs all at once. I can hear myself screaming; I can see myself in the mirror disheveled and broken; I can feel myself shaking. I am china scattered across the floor.
Stomp. Stomp. Stomp.
Every breath is like a foot crushing the few shards that are left.
I am now yelling for my grandfather, shouting to the heavens to send him back. My voice echoes, reverberating against the pale green walls. I lie back exhausted. Feeling my mother’s arms around me, I close my eyes.
They say near the end it was as though he was falling asleep, gradually and softly. And a year and a half after his death, I feel him slipping from my memory, gradually and softly. Our memories are now slowly becoming intangible, fading as they reach the edge of my mind, like ripples in a pond. I no longer accidentally tell people I have four grandparents or feel surprised when I receive an email reply from my grandmother instead of him. I no longer expect to hear his voice on the phone or dissolve into tears every time I see his picture in the family room. I can no longer remember where the wrinkles were on his face, his exact assortment of collared T-shirts, or his height in relation to mine.
While his life has ended, mine continues at a breathtaking speed. In the years to come, he will become tainted by my subjectivity and perceptions. As I change and he fades, he will develop into a character of my invention. I can only guess his thoughts, his reactions to the events in my life. Both he and I are rendered helpless to Time, the ultimate mediator of the human experience.
My grandfather’s life and death have ultimately changed my perception of what living life truly encapsulates. I used to believe that success was defined by immortality, by being remembered after death, like Einstein and Curie and Austen. But Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, and Jane Austen are no longer people; they are historical figures— characters in the lives of the living, subject to our interpretation and manipulation. Their story is over.
And so, perhaps it’s not about the glorious moments in which we stand triumphant, or the extraordinary adventures and accomplishments that we vow to never forget, but the moments that seep under our skin, the feelings that could never be quantified but tint the world we see around us.
The photo of us stands on my dresser. Though I will someday forget the time and place the photo of my grandfather and me was taken, the experience of being with him on that summer day in 2001 can never be taken away from me. I will always be thankful for our shared collection of Agatha Christie novels, for our religious solving of Sudoku puzzles, for our moments savoring hot dosas on the streets of India. I will always be grateful for our little moments.