I pictured my grandfather as a saintly Sikh gentleman with a long beard from a decaying, old photograph in the house. My grandfather was married to a very religious Sikh lady who had several brothers with flowing beards. He, himself, was not born a Sikh. He became one because his mother had taken a vow in a Gurudwara that if her first child was a male she would make him a Sikh. In some Hindu families, it was customary to make the first son a Sikh. Hindu and Sikh identities often merged and this relationship was universally accepted. Pretending to be a devoted Sikh, my grandfather had an impressive beard. However, he did not strictly follow the Sikh rites especially relating to smoking. In a dark corner of a room in his house, he had kept a small Hookah to smoke. One day, I was told, he had come from office and retired to his dark room to smoke when two of his hefty Sikh brothers-in-law came visiting. They smelt tobacco on entering the house and started a relentless search.

To their horror, they discovered the husband of their own sister with hookah in the dark room. All hell broke loose and my grandfather, Sardar Sant Singh, was admonished in public. Unable to take that insult, he left the house in a huff and after one hour came home clean shaven. He was still a Sikh but he opened a new option for his offspring. This is how my father became Sunder Das when he would have been Sunder Singh!

With his less than one hundred jingling silver rupee coins drawn from the Government Treasury every month, my grandfather put together three houses in the same street which he gave to his three sons. The eldest sold his house and moved to the state of Jammu and Kashmir in the service of the Maharaja. The second one died early. My father received a house not bigger than 150 square yards and four storeys tall. The ground floor was kind of a sitting room where people were welcomed. The first half floor was a bedroom overlooking the ground. The second floor was the kitchen and store area while third floor was a big bedroom where all children and parents slept. The fourth floor was called the Barsati (rain shelter) and was used by married couples. This floor was also where the toilet was located. In summer months , the roof of the house was used for sleeping under the blue sky . I recall sleeping in the open enjoying cool breeze.

My grandmother ruled with a heavy hand, keeping every daughter-in-law under her thumb, until they became independent and escaped her clutches. Only my mother and father were with her as she grew old and helpless. When I was a child, my grandmother had a fall and broke her spine. No cure was possible those days and she was usually confined to bed immobilized and mostly spent her day looking blankly at the ceiling. She had her bed in the Barsati. My older brothers used to pick her up and carry her down in the afternoon so that she could have some chat with her neighbours and kids and would take her back again in the evening to the Barsati to sleep alone.

I loved my grandmother more than anyone else. For some reason, I never wanted her alone in her room at night. My mother could not give her much company as she had to cook food for a dozen members of her own family as well as for grandmother. Whenever I went near her, she looked at me fondly. I was supposed to be her 'favourite' in the family, so they said.

There used to be medical shops in Punjab where trained wrestlers practised their own methods for dealing with injuries to bones and muscles. One of them visited our house daily to give her some physiotherapy which unfortunately did not work for her. However, there must have been something to their methods because they worked in the case of my father. At one time, he was attacked by an angry bull and his back almost collapsed. Three months of regular massage with special Ayurvedic oils at the hands of one of these wrestlers put him on his legs again. Any time after this miraculous treatment, whenever I pulled a muscle which was often in my young days, I ran to the nearest Pehlwan. I must say they managed to cure all sprains in no time.

One day, while I was playing outside my grandmother’s floor, I heard her shriek, “Pran, Pran…” My mother came running and so did other members of the family. Grandmother was sinking. She was brought to the ground floor and placed on the bare floor over a sheet. I was told that dying people must die on the bare earth because the human body was made of earth and it must mingle with the earth during one’s last moments. I was horrified. She remained in a semi- conscious condition for a couple of days and then passed away.

Although shaken, my mother took charge of the household. Perhaps, grandmother had become a pain lying in bed immobile. She must have added to my mother’s workload considerably. I overheard some neighbouring women saying, “The old lady's torture is over and so is that of Gyan Devi (my mother).” As far as I was concerned, I was shocked by her death. I missed her everyday when I came home from school.

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