I woke this morning with an insight. The insight of my oversight.
I have written about my parents and my brothers. I have never talked about my grandmothers. They would have been neither hurt nor surprised to hear that. They played a part in my life and then vanished without a fuss. That is probably just how they would have wished.
My mother’s mother, Benodini, was in her late seventies when I got to know her well. She lived with my uncle, a successful doctor in Bihar, who had a large house in town, which he had named after her, Benodini Lodge. There lived his wife with all his many children. Uncle had another house across the river in a village, where he had started a large hospital and spent much of his time there. Benodini moved to that house, where she thought could be more of a help to her son.
When the Japanese started bombing Kolkata in the mid-forties, mother moved, with us two brothers, to Bihar temporarily, on her brother’s suggestion. We moved to uncle’s Lodge, but I took the first opportunity to switch to his rural home and live with my grandmother. I wasn’t unsocial, but I had enough of a social life with my parents, and I wanted the quiet solitude of pastoral life.
A late widow, Benodini was a hardy housekeeper, who kept a flinty eye on everything that would make her son’s life silky-smooth. From the kitchen to the clinic, nothing escaped her attention and scrupulous care. Deeply flattered that I had spurned the company of aunts and cousins in town and chosen to live with her in a village, she ordered up the best food and started the practice of asking me each morning what I wanted to eat. Though there was hardly anybody except poor farmers on the road, she arranged for my shirts to be ironed and my shoes to be polished each day.
She didn’t quite understand why I liked to wander for hours in my uncle’s wild orchard but, inferring that I might be in the quest for fruits, ordered quantities of mangoes and guavas. On the portico there were two huge library chairs – the black one perpetually reserved for uncle, she told me – and the brown one was graciously allotted to me. As I sat there and skimmed photos of hungry hyenas and toothy tigers in old issues of National Geographic or of busty women in Life, she came with a steaming cup of tea with cookies.
At night, after dinner, we would sit on either side of Benodini’s bed, and, since there was no electricity in the village, two lanterns would cast an eerie light. Uncle would tell us sad and happy stories from the day’s clinic and goad me to tell stories from my school or home. I had also the option of telling a story from what I had been reading and I would sometimes concoct absurd stories of friendly tigers and ferocious women.
I have no doubt that my lifelong love of stories started with her, for she read every manner of stories for me, from fairy tales to mythic tales, and later adventures and detective fiction. I can still close my eyes and remember her soft voice, reading of handsome princes lost in the forest and wise, kind birds telling them the way. I wish I could weave a wonderful story of a caring, kind grandmother and read it back to her.
None of my grandmothers was a sophisticated woman, and I had certainly no need of sophistication. I was just a gangly young boy, awkward and insecure, trying to find my place in the world, forever unsure that I will find it. They were smart enough to sense my doubts and hesitation, my weak core longing for reassurance, and provided the unstinting affection I needed.
What I could not say, I would not say, they read into my blinking adolescent eyes. Without saying it, they let me know that I was loved, and hence I was lovable and worthy. I know now what I didn’t know then, that they were teaching me a lesson none of my teachers could teach as well: I had value and I could do things if I trusted myself to do those. All I needed was the space to breathe and grow and the loving indulgence that makes the small grow big and the big even bigger.