“You know the Greeks didn’t write obituaries, they only asked one question after a man died, ‘Did he have passion?’” A weekend movie marathon led me to ponder over this line from the film Serendipity. It led me to think of obituaries and passion and what passion means in life. When it comes to the factual accuracy of Greek and obituaries I cannot really be sure, but what is certain is that the presence of passion implies living life to the fullest. Passion does not arrive like a sudden downpour seeping all over you, or a flash-flood imbuing in you a sense of vitality. Instead it develops slowly, steadily, breathing life into you and imparting a new dimension to your being or existence.
I never really realized that two of the most passionate people I have encountered in my life were my grandparents, my Nani and Nanu- two absolutely different people in habit and outlook but with one thing common between them, a raging fire of passion for life, zest for living if you will and two people who spent every second of their lives experiencing its richness and spreading that zest to every person they encountered. From them I have learnt that life is not about just being it is about living –celebrating the highs and shrinking the lows.
I remember my grandmother as a short, frail lady, wrinkled and bespectacled, her frame shrunk with time, given her medical ailments especially a long severe battle with asthama. Nani’s was once beautiful, and the family still spoke of the days when as a young girl she was everyone’s favourite and admired for her beauty. Aging sepia pictures in the drawing room endorsed the claim. From her I have learnt that kindness is all encompassing. Once as a child, I happened to visit her with my mother while she was admitted in hospital on one of her many trips to the hospital in a later years as she and her many ailments fought a long prolonged battle. We found her, intravenous tube inserted in a limp arm, bent over, with her supply of IV fluid by her side, gently speaking to another lady admitted in the hospital with a broken hip bone. My mother was almost beside herself, quickly huddling Nani back to bed, admonishing her in the manner only a daughter wracked with worry can. Nani was calm and smiling, unfazed by the fact that she had just come out of intensive care and the list of extremely ill people that the Doctors had been concerned about. The lady with a broken hip was in pain, and she simply had to go over and offer a word of comfort. That was my grandmother-someone for whom kindness was a way of life.
Nani’s house was over-run with visitors always. Young girls, friends of her daughters dropping in for a cup of tea, a neighbor with marital issues she needed some advice on , friends in the town, a motley group of people who would crowd into the living room sipping endless cups of tea engaging in banter with my grandfather and rolling in laughter at his tales and anecdotes.
From Nani I have learnt what giving freely of yourself means , that giving of your time, a comforting word here ,generosity of spirit are qualities that endear you to people and live on long after you have passed away. Even today I meet with people who recall her warmth, gentleness, concern and limitless compassion. Nani loved to knit and almost all my memories of her include a pair of knitting needles between her hands, her soft conversation peppered with the clicking of the needles as she knitted. Almost all the children born to family members, neighbours, friends in fact any newborn in the locality spent their early winters clad in the warmth of a cap, shawl or sweater knitted by my grandmother.
Nani was a cook par excellence. Even today if I close my eyes I can almost taste the spicy sweet tang of her cauliflower and carrot pickle in my mouth and the explosion of flavours in my mouth as I crunched through a piece of carrot. Meal times at my grandparents home were about celebrating food and sharing. Nanu cooked too, patiently standing over the pot in which his own brand of lamb curry bubbled and simmered, exquisitely spiced, the fragrance of slow cooked mutton wafting over the house. Everyone was welcome home for a meal, anytime of the day any day. In their warmth and generosity they never failed to include the not-so-fortunate.
From my grandparents I have learnt that to move on means truly that. My grandparents came across to India post partition, having left behind homes, possessions, friends and an entire way of life. To start afresh in a new city bearing no grudges and carrying with them no malice, no feeling of resentment, no emotional baggage except a collection of fond memories and endless hope despite the messy imperfection of life, takes a kind of courage that I often find difficult to muster up even when faced with much smaller stresses. In the case of my grandparents the emotional and physical struggle with facing the upheaval and anguish of partition almost engendered in them a sense of gratitude. A sense of gratitude that permeated every action of the rest of their life and made them seek joy in every single moment they were alive without an emotional landscape scarred by the trauma wrecked on them in the early years of their existence. This probably is a lesson that I have found the hardest to learn, all too often being weighed down by lesser and more insignificant stresses.
My grandfather was almost a tableau of anecdotes and stories, stories that we as grandchildren spent many a hot summer afternoon reveling in, as he would gaze into the distance, take long drags from the cigarette hanging between his fingers, sip his tea and narrate with the fervor of a professional raconteur. He could talk about world wars and world leaders and take us from Tashkent to Tiananmen. His tales would transport us to the apple orchards of the Kashmir valley, the streets of Lahore and the peaks of Pahlgam. Each one of his stories was like peeling one layer of paint after another. And another and yet another ad infinitum. There was a sense of longing for the places and time he had left behind yet that did not stop him from celebrating the now he lived in.
From my grandfather I have learnt that there is no age to stop learning. To follow your curiosity. He could be found nose buried in a book or newspaper reading everything he could lay his hands on- from stories of Bollywood starlets to treatise on galaxies and constellations. For us grandchildren he was a font of information, pointing out the stars in the skies and being the encyclopedia on any topic that interested us. One of his favourite people was the neighbourhood kabariwallah– from whom Nanu would forage old books and magazines and read them savouring every word. His overwhelming curiosity about everything in the present and his daily need to celebrate life made him very popular with the children in the neighbourhood and my grandparents were famous baby-sitters as well.
Every year he would take the grandchildren and a whole host of other hopeful children to the Dehradun Parade Ground to watch Ravana go up in flames on Dusherra. He would walk back home, child in each hand with a prized balloon or two narrating the Ramayana story year after year- neither he nor the children seemed to get tired of the narrative.
My grandparents were obsessively and compulsively in love with each other. She was a college lecturer in her days and he was young Casanova. They met and fell in love with each other and stayed in love with passion that is uncommon these days. For us grandchildren, it was quite amusing watching them bicker about daily chores and events-they would insist on calling each other Darling even while telling the other one off as we watched and giggled! Long after the children left home post marriages and to follow their careers the two of them never complained of being lonely. Content in each other’s affection, always in love the two never ran out of conversation. They would be impeccably turned out, Nani in her beautifully tied saris, her hair neatly in a bun at the nape of her neck, an embroidered handkerchief in her hand and Nanu with his creaseless shirts and polished shoes. Nani’s greatest concern when admitted in hospital perhaps was not so much the endless supply of drugs being pumped into her as much as having disheveled hair-something she was would be most upset about.
My grandparents lived a life less ordinary- a life that comprised of rejoicing in the ordinary things- a new flower bud on a plant gently tended to or a festival celebrated by sharing food and joy. I never recall them having a negative thought or word for anyone, their lives enlivened with pragmatism, positivity, infinite patience and boundless optimism. They did not just survive their stresses or deal with them; they used them to give shape to their lives-lives of passion, of contentment, of kindness and gentleness, of gratitude and inexhaustible hope.