Legacies need not necessarily all be in monetary terms — any enriching experience can be a bequest enough

Grandparents are synonymous with stories — it’s one of the perks of the job. Some of them regale grandchildren with traditional sagas of heroes, villains, and morals. Others relate exciting and moving anecdotes about the best and heroic moments of their own lives. And then, there are a few who’d relate their life stories, pitfalls and all, so that another generation not only benefits from the experience, but can also learn from the mistakes.

My grandfather was an example of this last group. If our family’s history could be penned down as an epic, then grandfather would undoubtedly be the tragic hero. He was never very successful financially.

As far as the family annals are concerned, TNR (as my grandfather stylised his rather long name) was someone amiable, loving, impulsive, but not quite successful.

And they probably are right, if success is to be measured just by the amount of wealth one leaves behind. At his death, TNR wasn’t the rich man he’d been at birth. He was chronically impulsive — a trait guaranteed to bring on reversal of fortunes in the best of businesses. Grandfather did not leave behind a pile of fortune to remember him by. Nevertheless, he did leave behind legacies.

Tangible bequests

One is a tangible bequest — a school, still standing in the ancestral village that he never quite left, in spite of his years of exile in the big city. In the 1960s, educational entrepreneurship was not the byword that it is now. And not too many know of the struggles grandfather faced in getting the school up and running, chiefly because did not choose to tell. Except to his grandchildren, who heard these experiences as wondrous stories.

The memories of meeting the greatest individuals of the day — people who extensively supported him in the charitable endeavour. The simplicity-personified Kamaraj, the brilliant G.D. Naidu, the eloquent Kripanantha Variyar; the wise Kanchi seer … all came alive in my grandfather’s vivid descriptions.

Then his experiences in running the school for over three decades — dealing with rigid caste differences; staff room politics; the ‘tea parties’ at the end of high-achieving academic years… these were all chapters in a serial novel for us. A novel that was to end with his poignant musings of the last few years; when he was hard up for finances, and yet refused to up the fees, or charge any ‘extras’ for allocating teaching and administrative positions. “If I could take the money, people would call me successful. But I won’t, so they’d call me a fool,” he was wont to say.

The second legacy is rather nebulous — a legacy based on our memories of a loving and upright personality; reminiscences that would live on, untainted by the visions of success and failure imposed by an unforgiving world. We miss him a full 15 years after his death — all of us, down to his great-grandson, to whom he’s still alive through the stories of a great-grandfather the boy has never seen.

Unbowed

Grandfather made mistakes, but he never was bowed down by them, or never compromised his integrity in the face of failure. While he was reluctant enough to talk about his accomplishments, he was never reticent in talking about his failures. “That’s my lesson to you,” he’d say. “Be careful with your finances. Never borrow. Put away some money for yourself. Don’t end up like me.” Impulsive and generous to the end, he metaphorically donned the dunce cap in order to impress the lesson better on others.

And though he never had the resourcefulness to live out a monetarily rich life, he did possess the bravery that carried him triumphantly through life to death. He was 60, and by all means, had a lot of life left ahead.

But he’d been preparing for months. Subconsciously, perhaps — right from settling his affairs and trying, up to the last, to save his floundering finances; arranging my marriage; visiting his beloved ‘Thiruchendur Murugan’; and then paying a round of visits to all his children on the eve of what turned out to be his last day. “I am not afraid to die” — this was his last statement before he left for the hospital. It was provincially diagnosed by a cohort of doctors as an upset stomach. But grandfather had probably realised, sooner than them, that it was something more sinister — a slow-building myocardial infarction.

I’ll never know if he was glad to die, but he certainly wasn’t afraid.

And this — the courage to meet death, the spirituality and integrity that helped him face the great change without any qualms and regrets — was his biggest legacy to us.

Legacies need not necessarily be all monetary — any enriching experience can be a bequest, more so if it is illustrated by example. There might be many senior citizens out there — grandparents who relate the better experiences of their lives; but hold back the bitter ones for fear of remembering the mistakes that might be buried deep under, and thereby leave behind self-portraits that are less than flattering. But that’s all the more the reason to pass the memories on to progeny.

For, a generation later, the faults even out, leaving behind just the wisdom gleaned from life’s lessons. Just as I remember my grandfather, not as a “man who lost all his property” but as a man whose life was a “magnificent mix of triumph and tragedy”.

gayatripon@gmail.com

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