My dada jee always got up early, even before the ink-black darkness of night got diluted by the first soft sprinkle of light across the sky. He always said that one should get up before the stars go to sleep.
He was my grandfather. My father’s father. We called him bhaaiya jee.
Seasons changed, the scorching summers turned into autumns, and autumns melted softly into chilly winters. But bhaaiya jee always got up before the stars went to their sleeping chambers, and took his bath in cold water.
He was like a child, and water was his most precious toy. He smiled when he rushed towards the bathroom. We could hear him talking to the water and chuckling. Water tickled him and he laughed.
Even when we shivered washing our hands in cold water and it froze our fingertips, he had long, cheerful baths in ice-cold water.
Summer or winter, autumn or spring, he always took his bath several times a day. Three times was a must though: in the early morning when it was still dark, during midday before sitting for his lunch, and in the evening before going to the gurdwara for evening prayers.
Whenever he was happy, he laughed out loud and clear, with small chuckling and crackling and gurgling sounds, like a little child. Sitting alone, he would burst out laughing. Saying his prayers, he would look at the sky and laugh. His laughter had a strangely pleasant sound, like metal striking against metal, and it was not easy to guess the cause of that outburst of laughter. Because outwardly there was none.
After taking his early morning bath he went upstairs, to the top floor, where we had our meditation room with the Holy Book along with its entire paraphernalia. After the long night’s rest, the Holy Book was ‘awakened,’ and bhaaiya jee touched his forehead with it and opened it. The first hymn on the left hand page was supposed to be the ‘order of the Guru’ for the day. Usually, it was a pleasant order, and very reassuring.
He recited the lyrical hymns from the Holy Book for hours. Whenever he was free—which he almost always was!—he climbed the stairs, humming, and went to the meditation room, and recited hymns from the Holy Book. While reciting, he closed his eyes and climbed down those invisible stairs which lead one to a very dark and very bright spot in the inner recesses of the soul. He spent long hours at that pitch-dark and brilliant, luminous spot in the inner core of his being. And his lips quivered with silent laughter.
I often saw him sitting like that, absolutely quiet. With the open pages of the Holy Book spread before him, his eyes closed, completely oblivious of his surroundings, a silent laughter spread across his face like sunshine, and his hands dancing gracefully.
Isn’t it a strange sight to see somebody’s hands dancing! Only the hands! The rest of the body absolutely still, and the hands making languorous mudras of some unknown celestial dance!
This is one of the earliest memories of my childhood. Though we always feel that everything connected with those early days of our life were wrapped up in unknown mysteries and inexplicable magic, I honestly feel that my grandfather was a mystery, he was magic personified.
I haven’t met anyone like him ever again. Nowhere. I don’t think God makes such people anymore. People cast in His own image. And why should He? He too doesn’t want to go out of business after all!
Even today when I look back, I feel a spurt of surprise within me. Surprise, and mystery. In what sort of magical world did he float? What was the level of existence on which he lived?
He always seemed to be lost somewhere deep under the water, and we could only see the tips of his being, floating and swaying in the waves like seaweed.
Or probably he lived somewhere in the neighbourhood of all those mysterious universes around the galaxies, far beyond the layer of air which envelops our planet and keeps us glued to the gravitational pull of this earthly world.
I couldn’t fathom then, in the ignorance of my early childhood, but I realise now that he had a whole universe ensconced in the seclusion of his soul. His own, very private universe. He had built the whole of it himself. He dreamt it first, and then created it. He closed his eyes and watched this universe within him. He reigned over it like an emperor. He closed his eyes and he looked over its expanse from one end to the other, felt happy with his creation, and burst out laughing.
It was a strange universe that he had created.
Strange, and mysterious!
Sometimes, reciting the hymns from the Holy Book, he just stopped midway and looked out where the sun reigned in all its glory. That was invariably the time when the sun shone just outside the meditation room, like a large holy lamp full of pure ghee, lighted as an offering to the Supreme Presence, placed in the middle of the huge round thaali of sky, and seemed to be peeping into the room, where my grandfather was having long dialogues with God while sitting in front of the Holy Book.
He looked at the sun and laughed. He often talked to the sun, in soft whispers, the way one talks to a beloved.
He also talked to God in soft whispers. Smiled, and laughed, and talked, the way one talks to one’s beloved in the stillness of time.
It was really a strange and mysterious experience to see a man sitting alone and talking in whispers to the sun and to God, to see him smiling and laughing as if he was sharing a joke or a nostalgic anecdote with very close friends of his. This mysterious sensation was like peeping into another world, a world so different from the common reality we are surrounded with. It was a different world in which he lived. I was not familiar with this world. Only had a vague feeling that it did exist somewhere close at hand. When I grew up, even the memory of that mysterious world had just vanished.
Grown up people rarely retain the memory of such experiences.
Probably my grandfather never grew up in the usual sense. He belied Time and Space, and everything that we call and consider normal. He kept his dialogue going with the sun and God and sparrows.
At that point of time, in the innocence of childhood, one is still close to everything that is mysterious. The mirror of mind is not yet covered with the dust which keeps accumulating on it all the time. As days and months and years pass by, you can’t understand many things, you can just feel them. You feel that there is something mysterious and hidden behind what is visible to the naked eye, but you can’t express this feeling in words. That’s the miracle called Childhood.
He was a strange phenomenon. I never stopped wondering. I often hid behind the door of the meditation room and watched him. He was the biggest wonder of my childhood.
Nobody else bothered about him. Not even my daadi, his life-long companion.
My father had given a whole floor of the five-storeyed house to his parents to live in. The meditation room used to be on the first floor, but my grandfather wanted it on the top floor where he, his God, the sun and the sparrows could be together. So my father got a room built on the fifth floor. And when the room was being constructed, my grandfather manipulated to get another room built for himself adjacent to the meditation room.
So his whole world shifted to the top floor of the house. He spent most of his time there.
My father had provided the place for his meditation, his rest room, his clothes, his food, and a whole portion of the house for leading his private life with his wife, my daadi. Besides, he was given a regular expense-allowance. Wasn’t it enough! He had done his filial duty, and his conscience was clear. ‘What else do the old people need!’ — he thought. All they need is to be looked after by the son in their old age, and my father was looking after them. What else!
My mother looked after their breakfast, lunch, dinner, and a glass of milk with snacks in the afternoons because tea was considered to be a medicinal brew which was taken only when one had flu. Besides, she gave them medicines when they were ill, though my daada jee hardly ever fell ill. It was my daadi who got the usual bouts of headaches and stomach upsets or constipation and spondylitis.
My mother gave her hot water bottles and hot oil massages. And she thought she was doing more than her share of duty towards her aged parents-in-law because that is what one is supposed to do, and that is what all the well-bred and ‘properly-raised’ and ‘cultured’ daughters-in-law are trained to do from their early childhood.
‘What else do the old people need!’ she thought, and felt contented and at peace with herself.
I never saw my grandfather talking to anyone. Nor did my grandmother talk to anyone. To tell you the truth, nobody talked to them excepting an occasional, ‘What will you eat?’ … ‘Have your lunch’… ‘Lassi?’… ‘Milk?’… ‘The tailor is here for taking your measurements’ … ‘A little more curry?’… and other such non-talk. Even such one-word, single-sentence communication, if it can be termed as communication, took place intermittently between them and my mother only.
My grandmother had gone down the steps which led to the dark cave of her mind and kept groping there for something that didn’t exist. And my grandfather had busied himself with his three personal pets: God in the meditation room, the sun in the vast sky, and the sparrows on the open terrace outside his room.
Many years ago they lived in Bhera, where they had a family business. It was a self-generating business because everybody knew my grandfather. It was a small place, and they were quite well off.
My grandfather’s parents had just one child: my grandfather. In every generation, as far back as he could trace the family tree, only one child was born in the family: a son. And that business, established many generations back, just passed on from the father to the son.
But my grandparents had two sons. Everybody said it was a miracle. The generations-long spell was broken. One was my father, and the other his younger brother whose name I don’t know because nobody mentioned him.
When he finished school, my father said he wouldn’t be absorbed in that business and would go for higher studies in medicine. He told his brother also, “You should also study medicine and become a doctor. There is no challenge in this business, no inspiration. It is a well-established business and it doesn’t need two extra pairs of hands. Both of us will be doctors in another five-six years. Why waste our lives here!”
Both the brothers came to Amritsar and started their medical studies. The younger one died there.
When my father established his clinic in Lahore, on Chamberlain Road, one fine morning both my grandparents arrived there. They had a tin trunk with them which was green, with red flowers painted on it.
My grandmother embraced her son and wailed, “He has incurred heavy losses. Everything is gone. He has sold the shop, the godown, everything. He locked the house and left the city, and he is not even sorry for what he has done!”
“But how? How could it happen? So suddenly!” My father was so surprised that he didn’t know what to say. He didn’t say anything to console her.
My grandfather laughed and said carelessly, “You were not interested in that business, so what was the fun in keeping it going! Anyway, it was a lot of headache. Meaningless!”
They were given a portion of the house to live their lives the way they wanted.
My grandmother always found excuses to quarrel with her husband and to admonish him because her roots were left back home in Bhera. My grandfather could never replant them in Lahore, that cruel city where she had no friends, no familiar neighbours, no relatives, excepting her son and his family.
A few months passed. And then he suggested to my father that a room could be built on the top floor which could be made the meditation room. And when that room was being constructed, he quietly got another room built for himself. ‘For my siesta,’ he said.
When eyebrows were raised, he simply laughed and said, “It is so nice and open up there. What a fine terrace! What glorious sunshine! It is best for the Holy Book to be placed in such peaceful surroundings. And I have to be there, close to my God. What’s wrong with that?”
Whenever my grandmother remembered her younger son and tears rolled down her cheeks, my grandfather said to her in a tone which was both stern and tender, “He was not ours. He had come to us by mistake. He was just a traveller passing by. He had to go. Just think about it, has there ever been more than one son in our family? Since generations the family has had this one-son tradition. And you have got that son. The second one came by mistake. A traveller who had lost his way and came to your house to a one-night shelter. He had to leave. Why cry about it?”
And then he didn’t stop to listen to my grandmother’s reply. Like a swift-footed deer he rushed up the stairs and reached his sanctuary which was on the fifth floor, at the top of the house.
He went straight to the meditation room, opened the Holy Book and sat there quietly, his eyes closed, lost in a silent dialogue with God. And then he laughed, and whispered sweet nothings, the way one talks to a long-lost beloved.
Sometimes he talked and laughed with his eyes closed. Sometimes he looked at the sun and laughed and whispered to it.
I thought his beard was white because he was so friendly with the sun. The sun seemed to have nestled in his beard.
At times I asked him, “Bhaaiya jee, who do you talk to?”
He looked at me, very seriously, with all the laughter evaporating in thin air, and said, “To no one! No one!”
Probably, he felt that I was also a part of that house, his son’s house, where nobody understood him and nobody communicated with him. Everybody said, “Bhaaiya jee is not worried about anybody. He doesn’t bother about anything. He doesn’t care! He lives like a carefree king, oblivious of life around him. And why should he bother? The son is earning enough, so the father is taking it easy!”
Even my grandmother didn’t spare him. She often quarrelled with him and said, “You have ruined my life! What is the life of a woman whose husband doesn’t earn? You are not even ashamed of taking everybody and everything for granted! We don’t have any respect in this house because you refuse to be useful to them in any way. At least you can go and buy the daily vegetables, fruits and groceries.”
She always started this when he was eating his food. I felt she couldn’t tolerate watching him eating with so much unconcern and indifference, with total peace and contentment. Having been mercilessly uprooted from her native place, she was so unhappy that she couldn’t tolerate the indifference and contentment of her husband.
My grandfather kept listening to her, silently, and finished his meal as quickly as he could. He always saved half a roti for his sparrows. Holding it tight in his fist, he almost ran up the stairs, to his sanctuary.
He threw small little pieces of the roti on the sun-washed and wind-blown terrace, and the sparrows gathered around him, pecking at the little morsels of food, singing, quivering with delight. Their little fluttering feathers looked ethereal in the sunlight, sprinkled with myriad colours. My grandfather looked at them and laughed.
He talked to the sparrows too. In whispers. The way he talked to God, was the way one talks to a beloved. The sparrows responded with their brief melodious notes.
I knew he had a deep, friendly understanding with the sparrows. He communicated with them. Probably that’s why his own body was light and lively, like the sparrows. He ran up the stairs, he rushed to the gurdwara, he could never sit still excepting when he was communicating with God in the meditation room. Even then his hands kept dancing, and laughter quivered on his lips, tickling his white beard.
Whenever I went with him to the gurdwara, I had to run to keep pace with him.
His room had not been cleaned for ages. Whenever the house was whitewashed and painted, my father insisted that Bhaaiya jee should also let his room be painted. But he wouldn’t listen. He had never allowed his room or his windows and doors to be painted. He didn’t even allow the servant to clean his room.
When the floor had not been cleaned for ages, how could the poor walls complain!
My father got annoyed, shouted at everybody, so that Bhaaiya jee would probably relent. But at such crucial moments, he just locked his room and went out. When he left the house nobody was sure in what direction he had gone. He was like the wind. Who can be sure of the wind’s direction?
I knew he would either go to the gurdwara or to Lawrence Gardens which was quite a distance from our house, at least four or five miles. Or, he could go to the canal too, where he could talk to the trees which grew tall and sturdy around the canal, and formed a small shady forest in which Bhaaiya jee could not only hide for hours, he could also spend the whole day taking a long siesta, seeing dreams of the worlds beyond, roaming about in the luminous lanes and squares where his friend, God, lived.
Afterwards, in the deep evening when he came back, I could see a strange translucent glow shimmering in his eyes, on his eyebrows, in his beard. Probably these were the particles of sun that he had been collecting during the day. Probably he had been to some wonderlands where the dust particles were made of sunshine and moonlight, and they had got entangled in the salt-and-pepper-hair on his face.
He went straight to the meditation room and started reciting the lyrical hymns from the Holy Book. And then he laughed, and talked softly in whispers.
I asked, “Bhaaiya jee, why don’t you allow your room to be painted and cleaned? Fresh paint on the walls makes them look so bright and cheerful.”
Usually he just laughed and kept silent.
But once, just once, he probably loved me immensely in that rare moment when one is able to confide one’s secrets, he took me into his room and showed me small holes and said, “Whole families of rats live in them. Even the tiny little children of theirs!” And he showed me the spiders which had woven the thinnest and softest silk in the crevices of walls and ceiling. He also showed me the nests of sparrows in the hollow of the round base of the ceiling fan, and of the pigeons in the ventilators. And he whispered, “Where will all of them go?”
He was a hundred and three when he passed away.
For a whole century he had been eating with his own teeth. Without glasses he had been reading all the Punjabi and Urdu papers and magazines, and, of course, all the sacred texts.
He was ill for just three or four days before his death. He refused to take any medicine. He didn’t take even a spoonful of milk. He sipped water and said, “My station is approaching. It is time to alight from the train. It’s the end of the journey.” And he smiled and chuckled, like a lost child going home eventually.
He had woken late, the day he died, and the sun was shining in all its glory. It was early in the morning. He sat up on his bed, looked at the sun and said, “My friend, I haven’t taken my bath yet.” Then he laughed and just fell down. The pillow tenderly cradled his head.
I cried, “Dad, come and see! See what has happened to Bhaaiya jee! ”
Bhaaiya jee seemed to be laughing, still. He faced the sun, and his lips were open because a minute back he was talking to the sun.
My father touched those lips and joined them. I felt he was wiping away the residue of laughter from those lifeless lips.
I felt his laughter had now flown away, straight to the sky, and had nestled in the luminous white beard of the sun. And while I was looking at the sun, I saw—well, I know you won’t believe me because who would!—I clearly saw my grandfather was embracing the sun, far away in the sun-soaked skies, and was laughing. And the white-bearded sun was clasping him in his luminous arms, smiling and happy because his long-separated friend had come back to him.