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A journey of roots

Working in the social sector, one often comes across interesting correlates of development. One among them is the impact of grandparents on children through “rooting”. I began to unravel its meaning as I watched Malayalam actor Roshan Mathew’s riveting rendition Every Story has a House. A story woven across time and space, of his late grandfather, reminiscing about his life, tastes, friendships, the home that he built in stages over 36 years and its name board that endures as a testament to resilience, surviving attempts at defacement.

Listening to his narration, tears welling in my eyes, I was reminded of my own late grandparents. Then, it struck me that my story has a house too and this is courtesy my upbringing — spending 15 years raised by my maternal grandparents. And my biggest takeaway — rooting. Their journey and “golden” tales of another time (when “dozens of coconuts cost an anna”) and of a lot more wisdom make me belong to a home, family, place and culture. These roots and the sense of belonging will remain an inherent part of me that stands the test of time, like the symbolic name board.

The story of my grandfather, or appacha as I call him, begins in 1924 in a small town in Kozhenchery, Kerala. Over the years, he grew to become one of the youngest to graduate from college, got commissioned into the British Indian Army in 1942 and rose to the rank of Major General. Many fondly remember him as a man with an illustrious career; someone who had lived through India’s Independence and wars, met Presidents and Prime Ministers, attended the Queen’s coronation in London, and even been awarded the Param Vishishta Seva Medal. Above all, he was a person of strong ideals and strict discipline, the epitome of an Army officer.

His profession helped shape me as an individual, years after he retired and settled in Chennai. Appacha would excitedly make me practise for march-past, throwing in salutes every year as sports day at school neared. He encouraged me to take up sports, even if I wasn’t the best at it. One sweltering summer afternoon, on my return from school, my nearly 80-year-old granddad was busy making a long-jump sandpit for me to practise.

He taught me the little things — dining etiquette, using a fork and knife, laying the bed with a mosquito net that hung on precariously balanced ancient wooden posts, and saying “thank you” and “please”. I also learnt about the larger things in life from him — discipline, self-respect, honesty, humility, values, the importance of time, “hard work as the stepping-stone to success”, generosity, and most important, love.

My handsome six-foot-tall and physically fit appacha fell in love the old-fashioned way, through an arranged marriage. One photograph of my five-foot-tall and plump grandmom (ammachy in Malayalam) was all it took.

They have held hands through life’s myriad ups and downs, showing me what it means to celebrate the little moments and stick through in relationships, valuing and respecting each other as equals. “In our times when vases broke, we fixed it… Not everything is easily replaceable,” each of them would say. This lesson, among many, infused through several stories, is perhaps, why I strongly shun, for instance, today’s fad of “quick dating”. Unsurprisingly, I am teased for being an old soul struggling to fit in.

Ammachy and appacha made me have faith in miracles and the power of love. Fourteen feet of water at home during the 2015 Chennai floods ruined and destroyed everything we had except one treasure. A priceless photograph of my grandparents, joyous and dancing in each other’s arms, remains untarnished; another testament like the name board in Roshan’s house.

Even in their death, they magnified my belief. They had discussed and planned every detail. Appacha said he would go first, since he was weaker emotionally. Six months later, he would call Ammachy. Appacha passed away in June 2015, just as he said he would after outliving multiple organ failure, proving the doctors wrong, and before I moved abroad to study. And Ammachy passed away suddenly and peacefully exactly six months later on a Christmas morning, after braving the Chennai floods of 2015. Their mortal remains are buried together. Since the day they met in 1955, in life and in death, my grandparents never spent each other’s birthday or Christmas apart.

They live on in the lessons they have taught, in vivid memories, in habits, and in little surprises. For example, my identity as “General and Mrs. Abraham’s granddaughter” in the neighbourhood or my instinctive smile when I see a bottle of Brylcreem or Old Spice, which appacha used, or catch a whiff of Lacto Calamine, ammachy’s beauty secret. Our family still enjoys sitting out in the veranda under the shade of a mango tree appacha planted, drinking evening coffee just as they did.

Old vs new

My grandparents and I sometimes had ideological clashes — the old vs the new. Healthy debates were encouraged ranging from smaller issues such as nose piercings to more consequential topics such as careers in the social sector and the classic “arranged vs love marriage”. I won all of these. Appacha liked my nose-pin; they encouraged me to pursue my passion of working in the development space and even told me to marry a person of my own choice. I follow their advice to navigate challenges and every day, I strive to embody their values. My grandparents laid the ground for the person I am and will be, giving me my roots.

Trees can’t survive or thrive without roots, and neither can we. Our roots make us belong and this universality transcends social, economic and geographical boundaries. As the pandemic throws a wrench in our lifestyles, perhaps it offers a renewed opportunity to reflect on, and respect, our own journeys of rooting. For “all the world’s a stage” and we’re characters in a larger story, parts housed in a life movement that started before and will continue after.

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Printable version | Jan 19, 2021 4:46:04 AM |

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