Life has come a full cycle, I feel. Our four-year old granddaughter J was staring intently at my silver-white hair while I read to her in bed, the close-to-grand-finale to our bedtime ritual. She reached out and very softly patting my head sagely pronounced, “Nana (grandfather), you have some black hair. People who are really, really, REALLY old have only white hair and then they die. You are not going to die. My daddy has black hair as he is MUCH younger than you”. I was reassured and reminded her that having read the last of the three PJ Mask tales, nana was now exhausted and going to sleep, as must she.
Alone later, I recalled posing this very question to my maternal grandfather when I was perhaps a little older than my granddaughter. It was repeated when I was around eight and queried my dad whether the number of wrinkles on the face or grey hair could portend the end of a man’s life. I clearly remember that twilight hour on a cold evening when I posed this question on the verandah (porch) of the annexe to a large mansion in Manali, India where we were vacationing. I had been sitting astride his shoulders plucking grey hair from his head, one at a time. My nephew, a few years younger than me, who irritatingly aped me forever, was doing the same thing to his father, my dad’s cousin. Each of us had been promised “one paisa” for each grey hair removed (1 rupee = 100 paisa; at the time 1 CAD fetched around INR 35, today it is around INR 55); I suspect it was a ploy to keep both rambunctious lads occupied and out of trouble. I cannot remember whether I received a response that satisfactorily laid to rest my concerns or the money I made that evening.
My maternal grandfather was altogether different. A bespectacled, slightly overweight man with ruddy pink cheeks, he looked like an angrez (Englishman). He had retired from service as a senior official of the Indian Railways but still emulated his bosses, the English and enforced strict discipline at home. Everyone in the family and neighborhood addressed our grandfather as “Bauji” (Punjabi version of “babuji” which is a term to respectfully address the father figure but in the British Raj days was typically also used to refer to an Indian clerk or babu). He would wear a light gabardine suit and especially when stepping outside the house, don his “turre wali pagri”. In India, headgear symbolizes honor and landed gentry always wore a headdress commensurate with their status in civil society and his headgear was commonly used by men of means in the undivided North India, with the expression “turra” said to be a word of Farsi (Persian, meaning plume). It comprised of a conical gold brocade centrepiece around which around six yards of heavily starched white cotton scarf would be twisted, with about a foot-and-half or so ending as a tail covering the nape of the neck while the other end would be prominently stuck out through the turban top in the shape of a fanned plume.
I recall that he used a sturdy cane for walking. It always remained propped by the side of his favorite chair and when relaxing, he loved to surreptitiously loop the handle of the carved knot-wood cane stick around one of us youngsters within reach, tugging us gently towards himself and guffawing “Oye baandar, aithe aa!” (O’ little monkey, come here!)
Every evening, bauji would sit on the verandah of his house in Lajpat Nagar in Delhi gathering all the kids around in a semi-circle, facing him. Then, he would carefully remove his turre waali pagri and place it on the table next to him, inquiring in his booming voice that struck fear in our timid hearts, “Who has been the best child today? Whom can I trust to carefully take my pagri inside and hand it to bhabho (Mother, in Punjabi)?” All our hands would go up simultaneously. He would then make a great show of leaning forward in his chair and peering through his thick-lensed spectacles at each of us with great deliberation and pronounce, “Saare theek-thaak ho (All of you appear to be okay)! But only one of you can do this. So, anyone who can correctly guess the number of hair on my head will get to do the honors today.” A commotion would ensue with each of us trying our best to get his attention, screaming numbers from a few “hazaars” (thousands) to “lakh and crores” (hundreds of thousands and millions). I recall, a frequent smart-aleck answer was “As many as the stars in the sky”! He would smile indulgently and always impartially pick a “winner” such that each of us would get the opportunity to feel honored for reverentially picking up his headgear and taking it in to be handed over to his wife, our grandmother, for safekeeping. He would then give each of us a few coins to run out and get ourselves a kulfi-falooda (Indian ice cream frozen in conical molds and served with vermicelli type of noodles sweetened with rose syrup), a piece of sweet or some fancied delicacy. Our parents of course had no say in the matter.
As I delve into these childhood memories, a song penned by Gulzar and sung by India’s nightingale Lata pops up in my silver-haired head. The lyrics poignantly express a daughter’s yearning for her missing babuji, whose memory she has managed to keep alive by recounting things they used to together when she was a little girl:
“Ik thaa bachhpan, ik thaa bachhpan
chhota saa nanhaa saa bachhpan
bachhpan ke ik babuji thay, achhe sachhe babuji thay
donon kaa sundar thaa bandhan …”
[There was a childhood, there was a childhood
a brief, a tiny childhood
there was a babuji, a wonderful, truthful babuji
both of them (childhood and babuji) had a lovely bond …]