I am alone now with my grandparents’ dogs—Labo, the prized Labrador, the other a glorified mutt called Missy—and the lizards that have made their homes in the light fixtures. Everyone else is asleep; the house comes to life with nightlife as my family snoozes under laboring fans. I have returned year after year to this, my father’s parents’ home in Kalamassery, Kochi, returned to the bird that perches in the kitchen window every morning, waiting for my grandmother, Patti, to spill bread crumbs across the table for its breakfast, returned to the finger-length red ants that race across the gate and the faded, optimistic sign that greets visitors: Beware of Dogs.
Bird, bread, ants, and sign remain. So much else has changed.
Fifteen years ago, the dogs at home might have been deserving of the warning. Today’s Labo and Missy, themselves young dogs, bear the signs of my grandparents’ aging. They, too, are slow, making their way to the gate only at the behest of my grandfather, Thatha, preferring to lie, swollen, on the linoleum floor of the puja room. For the duration of their lives, the dogs have been fed balls of rice and miscellaneous curries from my grandmother’s own hands, biscuits and cakes from my grandfather’s hands at teatime. It is no wonder they cannot move now, weighted down by years of the city’s best dosas and idlis.
I am writing these words on the final day of my most recent trip to India. Just after New Year’s Day 2007. I am not celebrating. Doubtless you, my reader, have moved on from well-intentioned resolutions, first-day-of-the-year temple visits, and last-day-of-the-year superstitions. If you think back on the start of the year, you will remember that the weekend was marked by Saddam Hussein’s death, violence in Somalia, bombings in Iraq, the passing of James Brown. For my family, this past New Year’s Eve had even further significance.
In March 2006, Thatha was diagnosed with cancer of the larynx, which has since worsened and spread. 2006 may have been the last year that my Thatha has lived to see to completion. We in Kalamassery “celebrated” by watching snippets of The Parent Trap and napping in front of the television, only to go to bed before 11. Nevertheless, it was a new year’s to remember. When my grandfather woke on Jan. 1 morning and, walking unsteadily to the kitchen table, covered the cavernous hole in his throat to croak, “Happy new year,” I knew he might never again have occasion to say those words.
As with so many cases of cancer, this one took all our family by surprise. Thatha is a non-smoker, a vegetarian, a man who walks his dogs every morning (rain or shine or cowpats in the street), and who refuses to retire even at nearly 78 years of age. What’s more, cancer of the larynx seemed an especially incongruous fate for a man who has never uttered an unkind word about anyone. Despite being the grandson of India’s “silver-tongued orator,” the Right Honorable Srinivas Shastri, my Thatha is a quiet man by nature. A man of a generation in which it was not seemly to be overly conversant with one’s wife and kids, Thatha nevertheless used to enjoy dialoguing with his business partners and son, his chatty daughter-in-law and grandchildren.
Some people lose their hair to cancer; Thatha lost his voice.
Now, covering the stoma in his throat, Thatha can manage a few words at a time. “Telephone.” “Office.” “Oats.” But he is a markedly different man without the ability to communicate freely. Even the dogs have reacted to this seemingly inexplicable cessation of speech. When my grandfather enters a room, Labo and Missy bound toward him, straining their ears to catch the sound of his voice, cringing pathetically when they hear the now customary clap he uses to garner attention, returning to their lump forms on the floor before his muted figure. They bark less now than I remember, perhaps out of respect for he who can no longer make a sound.
When I bought my first iPod and microphone a couple years ago, I made up my mind to record the voices of all aging family members. I knew how rare and special it was that I, at age 20 plus, had three living grandparents and a great-grandmother, and with all of them I had been privileged to develop sustaining relationships. Ours isn’t a family of videographers, and I feared that the voice of my 90-year-old great-grandmother, especially, might be lost forever. The few existing audiocassettes of my mother’s father voice, the one grandparent who passed away years ago, are the dearest family treasures.
Discreetly then, I recorded my great-grandmother’s conversations with her eight children. Less discreetly, I questioned Patti about each of her nine siblings, her childhood growing up in Bangalore, even what she planned to cook for the next day’s lunch.
“What do you want me to tell?” Patti’s sweetly accented voice sounds on my iPod.
“Ummm, what are we having for lunch tomorrow?”
“Rice, cabbage thoran, beans curry, potato, raita …”
Not exactly pearls of wisdom, but I was thrilled with myself for having thought to make the recording. Thirty years from now, won’t I want to remember my Patti talking about something as fundamental to her life and our relationship as her cooking?
I was more nervous to approach my grandfather with questions about his childhood and didn’t want to waste his time with subjects as mundane as his favorite foods. Next time, I thought, I’ll prepare proper questions and record Thatha’s voice.
Now, his deep, beautiful voice prematurely gone, I sit in the living room with Thatha as he feeds the dogs and flips through television channels, stopping only for the news, Tamil music videos, and Animal Planet specials. I talk to him, chatter on about my post-college plans, when I might next return to India. He smiles, nods; I take all signs of attention as encouragement to continue. When he has the energy, Thatha closes the hole in his throat and interjects a question. At those times, I feel I have managed a remarkable feat, that we are sharing something far more significant than comments about the weather.
For weeks before my family made this brief trip to India to see my Thatha, I racked my brain over what I might bring to give or show him. I didn’t want to believe that I would never see Thatha again, but, at the same time, didn’t want to take any chances. Should I write him a letter? About my life, my future plans, my dreams, something that might help him understand what part I would play in carrying on the family name? Would he want to see pictures from all my travels, travels to countries he had never visited in nearly 80 years that I had seen, some multiple times, in just 20? In the end, I brought neither letter nor picture, doubting my ability to present something worthy of communicating farewell.
And so we have these wordless interactions. At the dinner table, I pass the sambar. In the living room, Thatha passes the remote.
One evening, my father brought out his laptop, and he, my brother, and I sang duets of old Hindi songs, karaoke style. Thatha sat, head covered with a small towel to protect him from the cold, a rapt audience, unable to protest against our perhaps overly enthusiastic singing, equally unable to join in. I sang louder and more clearly than ever before, losing all inhibition, putting into each song the meaning I had wanted to invest in some final gift to my grandfather. Churaliya, pukarta, jaan e jaan: we began to say goodbye.
I have no way of knowing what state my Thatha will be in as you read these words. Metastasized cancer truly has a life of its own, and I cannot predict how it will have affected his. I have pictures of Thatha to look at now, but no record of Thatha’s voice. No video or cassette in which he can be heard talking about his life, his family, his business, not even his favorite meals.
In our 21st-century world of iPods and Skype and webcams, it’s fairly unbelievable that there should be no recording of my grandfather’s voice. Perhaps he is one of the last in his generation to have come and gone without leaving an oral trace. And perhaps it is fitting that my Thatha’s strong voice will remain unadulterated by mechanical reproduction, irreducible to any one string of words. A memory of sound where now sits a quiet man, and, before him, two faithful, silent dogs.
Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a senior and Angier B. Duke Scholar at Duke University.