My earliest memory of my grandfather is when I was 4 years old. My mom had given me a bath and I ran away to dry off into my grandfather’s well lit room. Since, I was apparently in my birthday suit, he was shocked, all six feet of him, but I was in the mood to play and hear stories – he gently narrated one quick tale and nudged me to get dressed so he could tell me more stories. That’s when I fell in love but didn’t realize – it was the precise moment that I fell in love with stories.
I miss my grandfather these days, ever more so, because it’s the month of Ramzan. He loved seeing the moon at the onset of Ramzan and tell me a story related to it and pray for me – he did the same when we were about to see the moon of Eid. It’d be a long walk taking him towards the porch to see the fickle moon that stayed only for 20 minutes. What an arrogant moon!
My grandfather had a long face and a longer nose still. He was larger than life in his six feet tall frame among us dwarves. His deep voice and clear communication, he was a lawyer, gave him the kind of aura that would impress you. He was clear and he made sense. In retrospect, he made a lot of sense – the kind of man who wouldn’t get carried away easily, except of course for us children to get away with mischief. He would give all the freedom in the world to make a mess something my Dad inherited. There were deep lines etched on his face – those of laughter, worry, thoughtfulness or as simply perhaps scars of experiences that I would never know.
The recurring theme of my life has been realizing in retrospect once it’s all over. As a numb ‘Cold Bitch’ most of my adult life, it was easier to make sense of things and be clear in thought and action. But, once you start feeling things, life becomes unbearable.
Stories make life bearable – they bring imagination, compassion and the ability to think things through from someone else’s perspective. I probably remember most of my grandfather’s stories, if not all.
At four years old, my father realized that his workaholic attitude made him miss raising me in the way that he felt could be the best suited to a toddler.
This toddler was a miracle baby – a baby born out of menopause – since you have a miracle born in your family or perhaps a happy co-incidence after multiple trials – you had better make it good. But that’s the thing parenting doesn’t come with a manual, in fact, nothing in life does, and you end up messing up just where you wanted to overperform.
So, my father noticed how well my grandfather and I synced and then he brought home a bell. Most doctors like my father know the story of Pavlov’s Dog. Simplifying it for the sake of storytelling, Pavlov inserted a test tube inside a dog and rang the bell for the dog to come and feed at the precise time everyday. After a while, he rang the bell at the wrong time, but the Dog had associated the sound of the bell with hunger. Whenever, the dog heard the bell, he started salivating, ready to digest the food he will soon be fed.
Dad brought home a bell and he gave it to my brother – who made sure that the carving that had a face on it was galled enough using a whetstone. He took me to Dadaji and instructed me, “So whenever Dadaji rings a bell, you come here and get him whatever he needs.”
Like the obedient little girl who had access to a new game, I excitedly replied with an enthusiastic, “Yes!”
And, so the bell rang and I attended to him attending to his every need – water, food, medicines, listening to stories etc. I was his personal assistant, friend, listener, sister – maybe I was his BFF. He called me sister – his eldest sister who died a young unfortunate death.
He called me sister because I reminded him of her – the careworker that nursed him back to life when he had fallen sick. Dadaji was born on September 30, 1919 in the pre-partition era at a time when it was rare to survive diseases. Grandfather never had a father, he lost his, while he was still in his mother’s womb. His single mother raised him – more so the eldest sister – the one I so reminded him of, that he created a poem just for me. It was a beautiful simple song that I can still hum.
That’s how majority of my childhood was spent attending to Dadaji’s needs. I would wait for him to ring the bell. Sometimes, he’d ring it when he felt lonely and urged me to talk about my day. I did not know how I could talk about my day – it’s a thing adults did, not children – children randomly spoke whatever came to their minds or about something that happened moments ago but the entire day that never made sense to me.
But that’s how I also became Pavlov’s dog – the moment the bell rang I ran abandoning everything that I was doing. That’s how I was conditioned – the kind of conditioning I’d happily embrace any day.
Decade later when he passed away when I was 15 years old, I missed that bell. For weeks, all I could hear was the sound of the bell at random times of the day, hoping it’d be him. It got so bad at one point that I decided I’d move into his room to ensure that there’s no one ringing the bell. Pavlov’s dog you see, I had a real need to care for someone but found no one!
No one told stories anymore and I fell sick for years (nearly 6 to be precise). It seemed that a part of me too died with him. The love for stories lay dormant within until I began reading again and again. Sabbaticals after sabbaticals followed trauma after trauma – stories kept me alive – imagination did.
Staring at a wall inside a room for years – stories were my refuge. I lived a dozen lives, made friends in obscure characters and learnt important life lessons through stories, books and movies – sometimes songs too and poetry when I had no one to talk to. I could empathize how grandfather must have felt and what I would have meant to him as he lay on his bed waiting out his old age.
Stories taught me how to be real but I couldn’t be because I had never experienced it – it felt like looking at a picture of a sunset – you need to be there to know how it feels. I couldnt feel though after he died – I didn’t feel much until recently when I realized that I had come a long way – 16 years long to be precise.
Stories taught me how to talk – the dialogue between people that’s how you talked or so I thought. Once I started living the ‘everyday’ life, I realized that’s not how people always talk – it’s an exaggerated version of it. So I stayed quiet for years and let others talk until my late 20s. I learnt expression from the characters and that’s how my facial expressions became loud. It was hollow inside but on the outside it was animated, full of life and energetic. It got relatively easier to blend in.
Not all stories were funny, so I did not know how to take a joke, quite literally. In fact, I took them quite literally, this one still is ‘work in progress’ sometimes even to this day – I miss obvious jokes or sarcasm – yeah dense!
And, now this whirl of emotion that I feel in my gut, this elusive gut feeling is not just anxiety, it is ’emotions’ – and I am learning to process them one day at a time. The floodgates opened last year when during a Mental Health Workshop a friend just out of the blue asked me to share my struggles with the group.
I took it in stride and said what the hell – this is what it is – I shared the story of my life in 35 minutes and at the end of it all – this is what it summed up to, “You’re a great storyteller.” I came home elated and then I cried. I cried for my grandfather, I cried for myself, I cried for how alone I felt, I cried for my friends, I cried for the death of our collective dreams – I cried, I was angry, disappointed, disoriented, confused and anxious. Then, I began to worry for months – a new feeling worry.
Yet it took me the loss of another loved one until recently to realize now, in retrospect, that I have not been numb from the moment I shared my story with the world. And, it’s about time, that a story stays a story, a memory, something that’s not real anymore. It’s also what I feel now – longing. What used to be elusive bursts of feelings in a ‘Cold Bitch’ are now a daily norm. But, it’s okay, emotions make for a great story, don’t they?
It’s time to write other stories now!