Why’s your mouth like that? What’s wrong?”
Many children stop to ask my grandpa this question when they meet him for the first time. My grandpa, whom I address as “Thatha” in Tamil, answers every innocent, curious question with the patience and geniality of an angel.
After experiencing a terrible stroke in his 30s, my grandpa found that one side of his mouth slowly started to droop. He didn’t notice anything when he fell off his bicycle one day in 1956 while he was on his way to work. For a few days after the accident, he felt a weakness on the left side of his body, but nobody really observed anything about his face until many years afterward. At some point, his mouth settled into a permanent state of comic crookedness.
Thatha, being who he is, often makes fun of his own “crooked mouth,” calling himself “Crooked Mouth Anantram.” He never forgets to remind his family that this is in fact what makes him unique. My grandma, whom I called “Patti,” would always put him in his place when he let it drop at family gatherings that he was simply the most handsome Indian man, “second only to Bollywood film star Amitabh Bachchan.”
“Enough of the same old joke,” Patti would snap at him, her frown a nasty warning that he was expected to be on his best behavior for a few hours. “Don’t bore us.”
But now that Patti isn’t around to put him in his place, Thatha has free reign to subject his daughters, his sons-in-law, and his four grandchildren to the millionth replay of his slapstick stunts and wily comebacks. He loves to sneak up behind relatives and tickle them by wiggling the pointed end of a thin cotton cloth in their ears. He often emerges from behind the sofa in his living room, pretending to walk up a staircase as he morphs from a dwarf to a giant.
And I can’t forget the number of times he has attempted to amuse me with his “finger astrology,” where he sticks out his two fingers and asks me to choose one. Of course, I’ve figured out that it doesn’t really matter which finger I choose, since Thatha has already decided what the future holds in store for me.
On any given day, Thatha ends up out of breath after laughing at his own jokes. His whole body shakes. His face turns bright red. His eyes pop out of his face as he marvels at his own sense of humor. You’d think such a light-hearted man would lack discipline. But it’s quite the opposite.
Even at the age of 84, Thatha wakes up at 4:45 each morning. He brushes his teeth, slides on his dentures, and, at 5:15, he hobbles over to his kitchen. He sets the water to boil, spoons coffee powder into a South Indian decanter, and, ever so slowly, lets water trickle into the upper chamber of the decanter, making sure not to soak the coffee powder too quickly. After making his coffee, Thatha takes care to clean up after himself, saying that “this kitchen should be exactly as your grandmother left it—nothing should ever be changed in here.” After drinking his coffee, Thatha unlocks the closet in his bedroom and pulls out a white shirt and pair of shorts. He casts aside his dhoti, a thin muslin cloth Indian men wear wrapped around their waist like a flowing skirt, and steps into his Adidas shorts. He pulls on the Nike shirt my mom gifted to him over his undershirt. Stopping at the door to his quaint apartment, he again unlocks a small cupboard and slips his feet into the Reebok sneakers sitting patiently in the cabinet. At exactly 6:00, his shoelaces tied into perfect bows, Thatha places one foot on the staircase and prepares for his one-hour walk around Jeeva Park, bracing himself for the invigorating smell of the open drains.
Thatha does this every day, and he has done so for the past 15 years. He is a man who likes routine, who likes sticking to his personal schedule. Yet this routine does not end simply with his morning walk—he returns home an hour later, reads the newspaper, takes a shower, does his daily puja, eats an early lunch, and then goes off to work at my uncle’s company for six hours.
When my grandmother was dying of cancer, Thatha still kept to his daily practice because he needed that sense of normalcy. His work hours were shorter because he spent much of his time in the Adyar Cancer Institute or at home tending to my grandmother, but he did not change the way he lived. He was losing his partner of 62 years—someone to whom he had become a husband at the age of 20, through an arranged marriage, when she was only 14. They met for the first time only on the day of their wedding. Yet my Thatha could no longer imagine a life without Patti, no matter how many purses she cluttered her closets with or how many times she’d run back to a jewelry store to get her necklaces fixed so that each semi-precious stone was just perfectly cut and set. There were many days after Patti’s death Thatha would call my mom to tell her that things just were not the same.
From his stroke to his wife’s death, my grandpa has learned to move on and live his life. After Patti’s death, my mom often suggested that Thatha come and live with us, but he refuses to do so simply because he can’t lead his life the way he wants to in America. He tells us that he does not want to be a burden to our family, and that if he should ever become senile and disabled, we should just hand him a gun.
Thatha would survive just fine in America, though I suppose he’d genuinely miss the smell of open drains as he walked around the streets of Saratoga every morning.
“India is where I belong. I’m king in my castle. If I stay too long in your house, you’ll wonder when this crooked mouth’s going to go back to India. It should never come to that, you know,” he wheezes, his words caving into his chest, his face purpling. He’s having another one of his laughter attacks.
|Pavithra Mohan is a freshman at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.|