Almost 26 years ago, I landed on the steps of my grandparents’ house, my luggage in tow. My dad had been transferred to a rural area that lacked a good school. So I was to stay with my dad’s parents until mine moved to a town with a better school.
I had visited my grandparents many times before that point of time, of course. Many summer vacations, many festivals were spent at their house. But I always had my parents with me and I didn’t have to pay much attention to my grandfather then. I only remembered that he was a strict person, a man of very few words, a man whose grown up children spoke to him in, what seemed to me, frightened voices. The only memo I got from my dad was that there shouldn’t be any complaints about me. I had no clue what the following days, months and years would be like.
The first few days, I exchanged very few words with my grandfather, Tatagaru, as we grandchildren called him, not sure how to talk to him or what to talk to him about. One day, we were watching TV together and there was an Amul ad, in which a kid, roughly my age, comes up to his grandpa and says “Dadaji, badminton?” Tatagaru, Dadaji, they all mean the same thing, but still Dadaji sounded very appealing to me. Would addressing him in a different language make any difference, I wondered. Dadaji meant grandpa in Hindi, but my grandfather didn’t speak Hindi. For some reason, maybe the way the kid in the ad seemed to bond with his grandpa, the word Dadaji appealed to me. Hesitantly, I addressed my own grandfather as Dadaji. He responded with a bright smile. Ice broken! From that day on, he became my Dadaji—a very approachable, huggable, lovable grandpa. He woke me up every morning; checked to see if my bicycle tires needed air, or any other repairs; got my bicycle down from the porch, and held it ready for me. He stayed at the gate until I turned the street corner; asked me to explain my lessons to him; checked my homework and tests, and analyzed my handwriting. Any time there was a new pen advertised on TV, I’d bug him to get me one. He carefully put his money wrapped in a plastic bag in his front pocket, got out his two-wheeler and we went all the way to the town center to buy the newest pen on the market. When my grandma went out of town, he even cooked for me: rice, rasam (soup) and a vegetable. The vegetable dish would be either potato, okra or eggplant, fried crisp. No surprises there!
I ended up staying two years with my grandparents, over the course of which I collected countless memories. My most vivid memory of Dadaji is of him sitting in his easy chair, devouring The Hindu newspaper end-to-end. The fabric on the chair turned black where his head rested, but he never replaced that chair. On Sundays, I would race him to his easy chair and refuse to get up from it. Dadaji read The Hindu religiously. It was thanks to him that I first read Reader’s Digest, my most favorite magazine to date.
He was a hard-working guy even in retirement. There was a schedule to be followed each day without fail. His source of pride was his garden. He used a tape measure and a level to make sure the plants were all evenly spaced and growing in a straight line.
When I eventually moved to the United States, I wrote to him as much as I could. I took care to use my best handwriting and double-checked my grammar and spelling. It wasn’t because I was afraid he would judge me, but because I wanted him to be proud of me. He always wrote back in detail, also telling me that my handwriting was getting to be lazy, that my S’s should stand straight. The first time he came to our house, he went to work in our backyard and planted roses. He investigated our lawn, taught us how to fertilize and water it. As the years went on, the letters became fewer. I got very emotional once when he wrote that he no longer had the right to comment on my handwriting because his own was getting messier as he got older.
Dadaji lived to be 92, saw all his grandkids get married, met his great-grandkids and died peacefully. What I learned from him in those two years are lessons that he never sat down to teach me. I think of him fondly when I work in my own yard and realize that he would probably disapprove of the plants not growing in one straight line. When the persimmon tree yields a lot of fruit, I think of how proud he would be. While handwriting these days is rare, when I do pick up a pen, I wonder what he would say about the state of my handwriting. And when I sit on the recliner to read the month’s Readers Digest, I picture Dadaji in his easy chair, content with his newspaper.
Sunita Upadhyalula lives in the Bay Area, Thanks to Dadaji, she continues to approach people with a smile. She still struggles to get her plant to listen to her and grow in an orderly fashion.