MY PATERNAL GRAND PARENTS
My grand mother was about sixty five at about this time. She had a fair complexion unlike my grandfather who had a light dark complexion. She was taller than my grandfather but had a stoop which concealed her real height. She used to narrate to us grandchildren stories from the Epics and Puranas. She never interfered in the affairs of the house and never bossed over her daughters-in-law. Most of the time she would be silently chanting, namassivaya, meaning ‘prostrations to Lord Siva’. Most nights grand mother couldn’t get a wink of sleep until the wee hours of the morning
My paternal grand father was in his early seventies during this period. His day started at around 4 in the morning. He recited the Vishnu Sahasranama ( the hymn containing the thousand names of Lord Vishnu) every morning. He walked a distance of 6 KM in the morning for bathing in the river. After bathing in the river, he performed Sandhyavandanam (the morning prayers which include the chanting of the Gayatri mantra) sitting on the bed of the river where it was sandy and dry. He then offered prayers at the Siva temple situated on the bank of the river. On the way back he plucked flowers for worship from the plants on the road-side fences using a hook tied at the end of a long thin bamboo stick which he carried with him. Reaching home, he worshipped the Lord in his aspects as Siva, Ambika, Vishnu, Ganesha and the Sun God (known as the panchayatana puja). The worship involved invoking the Lord in the various symbols like Linga, Salagarma, Sphatika etc. and offering 16 upacharas chanting Vedic mantras. The food to be offered symbolically to the Lord in the worship was cooked by one of his daughters-in-law who, clean in body and mind after bathing and chanting prayers, did the job with the utmost devotion. After the Puja grandfather retired for some rest. He had early lunch at about 10 o’ clock as he did not take any breakfast. He ate only the rice offered in the puja along with sambar, rasam and cooked vegetables prepared for the day. He made the rice into small balls, dipped the rice balls in sambar and gulped them down without chewing. Sometimes my grand mother used to comment on this habit of his saying ‘one day this man is going to be choked when the ball of rice gets stuck in his throat’.
In his younger days grandfather had walked the whole distance of about 2500 kilometres from our village to Varanasi. He had left the house with a friend, wihout telling any one at home, taking only a few clothes and may be some cash. Later on, people at home came to know about his whereabouts only from a third person. Those days one could get food at temples and dharmashalas where they could rest for the night also. He must have prayed at all the temples en route. I was told he reached Varanasi in 6 months or so. While returning he covered part of the journey by rail since railways had started operating on some sectors.
Grandfather was hard of hearing. My help was sought for any message to be conveyed to him. I used to deliver the message in a loud voice close to his ears. This habit resulted in my inability in later years to talk in whispers or even at a normal decibel level while in conversation with others. Many times, in later years, after I myself had become a grandfather, one of my grand daughters used to ask “Thatha, why do you shout? speak normally.’’ I had to explain to her the history and the reason for the loudness of my voice.
I used to run errands for my grand father. Some times he used to send me to buy idlis from a household in the village where the woman used to make idlis for sale. My commission to carry out this errand was in the form of two idlis. I was always ready to run these errands because of the commission. Grandfather used to get eatables like crunchy murukku and cheedai made at home by his daughters-in-law exclusively for his use. The eatables made for him were put in air tight containers and kept in his room upstairs so that he could eat them whenever he liked without disturbing the other inmates of the house.
In the peak of summer, with temperature at 40° Celsius, grandfather used to cover himself head to foot with a light woollen shawl and expose himself to the scorching sun for several minutes extending up to one hour sometimes. To this day we couldn’t find out how he was able to accomplish such a feat.
Grandpa was a votary of kindness to animals. Any cart man overloading his cart, driving it through the village and whipping the bullocks to make them pull the load, was sure to invite his wrath. During the mango season he used to buy basketfuls of ripe mangoes and distribute them among the children of the village. He used to give boys of the village problems from Lilavati, a treatise on Mathematics in Sanskrit by Bhaskaracharya.
Grand father was a great disciplinarian. He insisted that we return home, wherever we might be in the village, by the time the evening worship in the village temple was over. We knew the doors would be closed if we did not return in time. Without ever scolding us or punishing us he held us in fear of his punishment if we transgress the rules laid down by him.
Grandmother, by contrast, was very affectionate and never scolded us even when we were naughty. The younger children preferred to lie by her side during the night and she put them to sleep. Whenever I got an opportunity during the night I would nestle up to her and, hearing stories from the epics narrated by her, quietly slip into sleep. I also learnt some of the prayers she used to recite. One of her favourite prayers in Sanskrit ran like this:
anaayaasena maranam vinaa dainyena jeevanam
dehi me kripayaa shambho twayi bhaktim achanchalaam
अनायासेन मरणं विना दैन्येन जीवनम्।
देहि मे कृपया शंभो त्वयि भक्तिमचञ्चलाम् ॥
अनायासेन मरणं विना दैन्येन जीवनम्।
देहि मे कृपया शंभो त्वयि भक्तिमचञ्चलाम् ॥
“O Lord! Please give me an easy and painless death, a life without abject dependence on others and unwavering and loving devotion to you”
The Lord did grant her what she wished. She had a peaceful death free from any kind of suffering. That was my first encounter with the reality of death. When her body was being carried for cremation, we grand children followed it with lighted torches for a few yards. We were not allowed to go to the cremation ground. My eldest uncle lit the funeral pyre and for full 13 days after her death there were rituals to do for the peace of the departed soul.
The final rites on the 12th day were performed at Perur near Trichur in Kerala. That was the first time I saw a train when we stayed at Trichur as guests of one of my father’s friends. While in Trichur, I had unknowingly taken out some currency notes from my father’s shirt pocket and left them somewhere outside. Luckily, after some search, the money was recovered. Otherwise, all of us would have been in a soup not having a penny to return home. I was afraid of a severe scolding from my father but he did not have a single word of rebuke for me.
When my grand father was about 80 years of age, my youngest brother fell seriously ill with double pneumonia. His body was reduced to a skeleton. Those days medical science was not as advanced as it is today. My maternal grand father, who had a good knowledge of the Ayurvedic system of medicine, was treating him to the best of his ability. We were desperately fighting for my brother’s life. It was at this juncture that grand father quietly passed away after a sleepless night during which he kept on drinking very hot water. After the death of my grand father my brother’s recovery began and gradually he attained his normal health. It did look as if my grand father had sacrificed his life to give a new life to my brother. As far as I knew, grand father had not been bed-ridden even for a single day in his life. His departure left a void in our life which we couldn’t fill for quite some time.