MY grandmother, like everybody’s grandmother, was an old
woman. She had been old and wrinkled for the twenty years
that I had known her. People said that she had once been
young and pretty and had even had a husband, but that was
hard to believe. My grandfather’s portrait hung above the
mantelpiece in the drawing room. He wore a big turban and
loose-fitting clothes. His long, white beard covered the best
part of his chest and he looked at least a hundred years old.
He did not look the sort of person who would have a wife or
children. He looked as if he could only have lots and lots of
grandchildren. As for my grandmother being young and pretty,
the thought was almost revolting.
She often told us of the
games she used to play as a child. That seemed quite absurd
and undignified on her part and we treated it like the fables
of the Prophets she used to tell us.
She had always been short and fat and slightly bent. Her
face was a criss-cross of wrinkles running from everywhere to
everywhere. No, we were certain she had always been as we had
known her. Old, so terribly old that she could not have grown
older, and had stayed at the same age for twenty years. She
could never have been pretty; but she was always beautiful.
She hobbled about the house in spotless white with one hand
resting on her waist to balance her stoop and the other telling
the beads of her rosary. Her silver locks were scattered untidily
over her pale, puckered face, and her lips constantly moved in
inaudible prayer. Yes, she was beautiful. She was like the winter
landscape in the mountains, an expanse of pure white serenity
breathing peace and contentment.
My grandmother and I were good friends. My parents left me
with her when they went to live in the city and we were constantly
together. She used to wake me up in the morning and get me
ready for school. She said her morning prayer in a monotonous
sing-song while she bathed and dressed me in the hope that I
would listen and get to know it by heart; I listened because I
loved her voice but never bothered to learn it. Then she would
fetch my wooden slate which she had already washed and
plastered with yellow chalk, a tiny earthen ink-pot and a red
pen, tie them all in a bundle and hand it to me. After a breakfast
of a thick, stale chapatti with a little butter and sugar spread on
it, we went to school. She carried several stale chapattis with
her for the village dogs.
My grandmother always went to school with me because
the school was attached to the temple. The priest taught us
the alphabet and the morning prayer. While the children sat in
rows on either side of the verandah singing the alphabet or the
prayer in a chorus, my grandmother sat inside reading the
scriptures. When we had both finished, we would walk back
together. This time the village dogs would meet us at the temple
door. They followed us to our home growling and fighting with
each other for the chapattis we threw to them.
When my parents were comfortably settled in the city, they
sent for us. That was a turning-point in our friendship. Although
we shared the same room, my grandmother no longer came to
school with me. I used to go to an English school in a motor
bus. There were no dogs in the streets and she took to feeding
sparrows in the courtyard of our city house.
As the years rolled by we saw less of each other. For some
time she continued to wake me up and get me ready for school.
When I came back she would ask me what the teacher had
taught me. I would tell her English words and little things of
western science and learning, the law of gravity, Archimedes’
Principle, the world being round, etc. This made her unhappy.
She could not help me with my lessons. She did not believe in
the things they taught at the English school and was distressed
that there was no teaching about God and the scriptures. One
day I announced that we were being given music lessons. She
was very disturbed. To her music had lewd associations. It was
the monopoly of harlots and beggars and not meant for gentlefolk.
She said nothing but her silence meant disapproval. She rarely
talked to me after that.
When I went up to University, I was given a room of my own.
The common link of friendship was snapped. My grandmother
accepted her seclusion with resignation.
She rarely left her spinning-wheel to talk to anyone. From sunrise to sunset she
sat by her wheel spinning and reciting prayers. Only in the
afternoon she relaxed for a while to feed the sparrows. While
she sat in the verandah breaking the bread into little bits,
hundreds of little birds collected round her creating
a veritable bedlam of chirrupings . Some came and perched on her legs,
others on her shoulders. Some even sat on her head. She smiled
but never shooed them away. It used to be the happiest half-
hour of the day for her.
When I decided to go abroad for further studies, I was sure
my grandmother would be upset. I would be away for five years,
and at her age one could never tell. But my grandmother could.
She was not even sentimental. She came to leave me at the
railway station but did not talk or show any emotion. Her lips
moved in prayer, her mind was lost in prayer. Her fingers were
busy telling the beads of her rosary. Silently she kissed my
forehead, and when I left I cherished the moist imprint as perhaps
the last sign of physical contact between us.
But that was not so. After five years I came back home and
was met by her at the station. She did not look a day older. She
still had no time for words, and while she clasped me in her
arms I could hear her reciting her prayers. Even on the first day
of my arrival, her happiest moments were with her sparrows
whom she fed longer and with frivolous rebukes.
In the evening a change came over her. She did not pray.
She collected the women of the neighbourhood, got an old drum
and started to sing. For several hours she thumped
the sagging skins of the dilapidated drum and sang of the home-coming
of warriors. We had to persuade her to stop to avoid
overstraining. That was the first time since I had known her
that she did not pray.
The next morning she was taken ill. It was a mild fever and
the doctor told us that it would go. But my grandmother thought
differently. She told us that her end was near. She said that,
since only a few hours before the close of the last chapter of her
life she had omitted to pray, she was not going to waste any
more time talking to us.
We protested. But she ignored our protests. She lay peacefully
in bed praying and telling her beads. Even before we could
suspect, her lips stopped moving and the rosary fell from her
lifeless fingers. A peaceful pallor spread on her face and we knew
that she was dead.
We lifted her off the bed and, as is customary, laid her on
the ground and covered her with a red shroud. After a few hours
of mourning we left her alone to make arrangements for her
funeral. In the evening we went to her room with a crude stretcher
to take her to be cremated. The sun was setting and had lit her
room and verandah with a blaze of golden light. We stopped
half-way in the courtyard. All over the verandah and in her room
right up to where she lay dead and stiff wrapped in the red
shroud, thousands of sparrows sat scattered on the floor. There
was no chirruping. We felt sorry for the birds and my mother
fetched some bread for them. She broke it into little crumbs,
the way my grandmother used to, and threw it to them. The
sparrows took no notice of the bread. When we carried my
grandmother’s corpse off, they flew away quietly. Next morning
the sweeper swept the bread crumbs into the dustbin.
By Shirley Toulson
The cardboard shows me how it was
When the two girl cousins went paddling,
Each one holding one of my mother’s hands,
And she the big girl — some twelve years or so.
All three stood still to smile through their hair
At the uncle with the camera. A sweet face,
My mother’s, that was before I was born.
And the sea, which appears to have changed less,
Washed their terribly transient feet.
Some twenty — thirty — years later
She’d laugh at the snapshot. “See Betty
And Dolly,” she’d say, “and look how they
Dressed us for the beach.” The sea holiday
Was her past, mine is her laughter. Both wry
With the laboured ease of loss.
Now she’s been dead nearly as many years
As that girl lived. And of this circumstance
There is nothing to say at all.
Its silence silences.
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