Baba

 

 

Kalindi Akolekar Handler, Fiction

 

 

When my tiny, imperious Baba arrived at Newark Airport, it seemed he’d shrunk again; the shrill nasal pitch of his voice had crept higher. That summer morning began the season officially known as “our turn.” For years, ever since our family had moved to the US, he’d stayed September through May with my aunt, Lakshmi atya, at the family compound in Baroda, renamed Vadodara when Bombay became Mumbai. The elderly often slipped into the British nomenclature, Baba told me. Perfectly okay in the home, he advised, but in public, bad as a fart. From June to August, Baba was ours.

Twenty minutes after collecting him, we pulled into the driveway of our rather plain split-level home in Edison, New Jersey, set behind a square of mowed lawn and the obligatory shrub or two. Baba let my father hoist him from the car without meeting his glance, but refused to grasp the railing to reach our front door.

“Nirmila,” my father urged me, “take Baba’s hand, please.”   

Baba allowed me to hold one hand while he used the tip of his index finger on the other to press the doorbell with punishing force, knowing quite well that no one was inside. Dad maneuvered close behind him, anxious to prevent the occurrence of any possible mishap or trip-up. The proximity also allowed my father to disengage Baba’s offending finger, seemingly glued to that bell, and to unlock the door. He then withdrew, unobtrusive as an English butler, feigning the same oblique demeanor.

We would now begin the annual process of making Baba comfortable, which would fall to me, his teenaged granddaughter, because, after a quarrel midway through last summer, Baba refused to utter a word to either of my parents. But we were an Indian family. Such a falling out would never affect his returning to us for another visit. For one thing, his failure to return would be an admission of discord. For another, in the murky jungle of family tradition, their tiff was irrelevant to filial obligation. The silence was respectful, reverent even, at least on my parents’ side. But Baba could hold a grudge.

My grandfather shuffled across the living room, heaved a sigh, stripped to his boxer shorts, chucked his chupals, and stood waiting, all his belongings shed in a heap at his feet. Mom switched on television while Dad dragged Baba’s favorite lawn chair from the garage, unfolding it in front of the TV just in time to catch his partially denuded father springing into it backwards like a wayward grasshopper. The legs of that chair would etch four rusty, circular imprints onto my mother’s ivory carpet, imprints that, in September, would cause her to weep and curse. But now, she dared say nothing. Seated, Baba crossed his legs—neat, brown, lithe, though gnarled—and formed a circle with his arms perpendicular to his lap, the signal that he wanted his bowl of chuda.

“Don’t you want to freshen up, Babaji? Drink some nice, cool water?” my mother pleaded in lilting tones that just missed singsong, sounding whiny instead.

“I am a camel. I am an ox. I am an elephant. I never forget,’” he uttered, not in direct response, but to the room at large. “I may suffer under the yoke of ill treatment with unbridled fortitude, but…” He turned to me. “Nirmila! I am an ox, I am an elephant… Find out from which poet I stole those admirable lines. Bring me the book.”

He waved me toward the task, but I simply moved out of sight, knowing he’d forget his request the next minute.

Shamkant,” my mother whispered to my father. “Please make Baba stop. What does he mean with this poetry now? Is Nirmila to be the librarian also?”

My father shrugged. He was not the poetic type. He was a bioengineer who’d built a portfolio of stocks and mutual funds as one might build a fortress—to keep us safe from the attack of enemy forces.

Chuda, I said!” Baba shouted.

My father fit the bowl of spicy red chuda snack into Baba’s waiting arms. I’d heard my dad lament that he could make new arms and legs so that strangers could move again, could be reborn, but he could not repair damage in the heart, soul, or mind of his own father. The old man munched handfuls of chuda mix while staring enthralled at the commotion on TV, until finally my parents gave up and left the room. As soon as they were gone Baba grinned, winked, and gave me the “thumbs up” sign. It was a redeclaration of war, an affirmation of minute victory.

The next day I arrived home about half past noon. It was a given that I would take advanced academic courses every summer, just as it was a given that I would watch Baba. This year it was Calc II, which ran every weekday morning from nine to twelve at a nearby college. My non-Indian friends teased that I would have already earned my degree by the time I set foot in the university of my choice; they knew the mixed blessing of Indian parents. Push. Push. Push. Achieve. Push. Push. Push. Achieve. Baba grabbed my hand as I stooped to kiss his cheek.

“Let’s watch my movie together,” he begged. “Kabhi Khushi Khabie Gham.”

“Baba, I’ve got so much homework for this class. Remember how hard you were on your own students? You told me. You understand.”

He shook his head, waving away the past. “Come now, Nirmila, for an old man. Kabhi Khushi Khabie Gham. It’s a tearjerker. Sometimes I like to have a good cry when I think of how my only son treats me.”

“He treats you just fine. Besides, I’m here to keep you company, but KKKG is three and a half hours long. I have an exam tomorrow. Why don’t we play some cards instead?”

Baba shook his head, refusing to release my wrist. “No. KKKG.”

He was quite strong for such a little man. KKKG, as it was popularly known, was a classic Bollywood extravaganza of the first order. The title meant, Through the smiles, through the tears. Sentimental family scenes were followed quickly by dancing girls and sixties-esque pop numbers. When the characters were not hugging, staring off into the distance, praying to God, or honoring their elders, they were thumping out hip-swiveling, sweaty bumps and grinds, half-naked under the glitter ball of the local disco, or perched on the hoods of Jaguars and Porsches, hair blowing in the wind. Everybody wore sunglasses. Bollywood movies were easy to get where we lived, right off Oaktree Road. Our town boasted more Indians per square inch than Mumbai, my father once said. Baba was delighted the first time we took him to Namaste Video.

He wouldn’t let go of my wrist; his sharp, longish nails impaled me.

“Okay, okay. I can only watch for one hour, though.”

“Yes, yes. Find the part of the cricket match where we learn that Rahul is adopted and, no, no—we must get to the dancing-girls scene right after the Diwali celebration.” His voice had gone bargaining hard. “Come, I am your elder. That must hold weight with someone in this upside-down house.”

He’d barely spoken to my mother last summer, even before the big quarrel, because she’d returned to work and could no longer prepare his meals fresh, from scratch, everyday. A fine daughter-in-law, he’d muttered under his breath whenever she could hear. Then, on top of it all, the quarrel had erupted, leaving me as the lone soul who could still “jolly” Baba.

My hand was numb from the unrelenting pressure of his grasp. When I shook my wrist he loosened his hold, but laid his other hand on top of the first.

“Please. Let’s have popping corn and my spicy treat.”

I disengaged his hands and spread his fingers flat, his hand on mine. Had I not seen this before? His fingernails were black with dirt and so long the tips curled under. His cuticles were lined with grime.

“I’ll watch for one and a half hours if you clean your nails and sit next to me on the sofa.”

“There are ninety-two years of living under these nails, girl. I’m an artifact.”

“Clean your nails, Baba, or no movie.”

As he jumped out of his chair now in search of the nail clippers, I allowed myself a small sigh. I’d just got my driver’s license—I was old enough to babysit or even get a real summer job—but Baba had been my only job for three months of each of the past four years. “It’s just like babysitting, bublashen,” my mother had said the first time I’d broached the subject. “Only it’s Baba-sitting!”

Quite pleased with her own bad joke, she’d scurried out before I could retort. I felt I was old enough for indignant protest. “Nobody pays me!” I’d shouted after her. This was only part true. Though nothing was ever said, each one of those years, after we delivered him to the Air India attendant who would watch him on the flight home, I’d been presented with some discreet form of remuneration. Two years ago he’d contracted pneumonia right in the middle of summer. When he left fully recovered, I was allowed to go to Aruba with a friend and her family at the Thanksgiving break. Not too bad. But last year, I’d asked to get a real job. All my friends worked in the summer. At the mall somewhere, scooping ice cream, serving a million varieties of expensive coffee. Anything, I’d begged my father, anything but this. It had come up again, this year, right before Baba arrived. I would be a junior this coming September. I felt entitled to cold, hard cash and a chance to be like my friends. Finally, my wish had been granted. This summer I could have a job, provided that I continued to tend my grandfather.

Baba padded back into the living room and stood, holding the clippers out to me. His hand trembled. The clippers shivered in his palm. Just a bit of Parkinson’s. The doctors had tossed off this news. Not surprising at his age, they’d said, absolving themselves of any real need to exert curative efforts. Baba blinked as he watched his hand tremble of its own accord.

 “You must. I can’t do it myself. My own nails. They’re too little for me to see. Buggers.”

He had put on his glasses, large square frames encasing thick lenses that dwarfed his face, making him look like an earnest insect, or Mr. Magoo. But he wasn’t a cartoon character. Far from it.

When I was a little girl my Baba was spoken of in tones of the greatest awe. He’d been a champion gymnast and swimmer at University of Bombay and kept swimming well into his eighties. He had a PhD from Oxford where he’d taught political theory for several years before returning to India to join the fight for independence. He’d even, in his late twenties, met and spent time with his idol, Mohandas Gandhi, who evidently enjoyed the dry wit of the very young Baba, though the Mahatma had little use for academicians. “You may as well spend your time swatting at bats,” he had once teased my grandfather. Gandhi even told Baba, perhaps as reward for his evident worship, that they were much alike—two very little men with ridiculously big ideas. At least so the family tale goes. In his later years, Baba had written and published slim, elegant volumes of poetry. Just a different kind of swatting at bats, Baba had joked when the family made a proud fuss. No. There was no doubt that he’d been a luminary, my Baba, delivering lectures, chatting with Gandhi, conferring with Nehru, advising the British, writing about God and the heavens.

But something happened to Baba’s brain. He’d grown more forgetful over the years and somewhat abrupt, nothing unusual. But, then, to tell his daughter that she was made up like a vulgar nautch dancing girl, a courtesan, at her own wedding? To pinch the bottom of the kitchen servant? At the time, India in the late 1970s, no one knew what to make of such behavior. My God, said Lakshmi atya, we couldn’t cure the most common ailments for lack of facilities. All the doctors were leaving for US or Britain. How could we know what to do? He was going senile, they supposed, but still in such great demand as a lecturer, and commanding such fees! So the family ignored it, and everyone continued on as before. He got a bit worse. He was old by then. Probably no one would have noticed, or particularly minded, if he had not been quite, well, who he was.

Baba still had good spells. They printed his editorials in The Times of India. Finally, the family flew him to the hospital at University College London for evaluation. By that time everyone knew the word “Alzheimer’s,” but that’s not what he had, not exactly. I remember his trying to explain it to me when I was about seven. Of course, to me he was still the man revered by all. My “famous” grandfather.

“Look up to the sky,” he said to me one pellucid December evening when we were vacationing in the Kashmiri foothills. The sky was jet-black infinity, infinite power, glory, holiness, and soul, lit with thousands upon millions of stars. Throbbing stars, pulsing, waxing, waning, dead, frozen, microscopic, clustered pinpricks, swathes of powder. “Now pretend,” he’d said, “that the sky is a black paper, and the white is where the paper has been cut away. What do you see?”

“I don’t know. A piece of paper with lots of holes in it?”

“Exactly right.”

We sat in silence for a minute. I waited for enlightenment.

“The picture they took of my brain shows that many holes in my head.” He pointed up once more to the sky. “Imagine my brain is the black. Do you know what happens when you have holes in your head like those? All of your soul, spirit, mind, dribbles out. Very slowly, so that for a long time nobody even notices, until one day, the person that you were has all leaked out.”

The doctors, he told me, called it vascular dementia.

     

I finished clipping his nails. As he shook free of me, a shower of severed fingernails flew into the air and onto the floor.

“Come, now,” he said. “Let’s watch Hrithik. He is so handsome. I was that handsome, I think, when I was young. I was a great favorite with the ladies.”

So, yes, Baba was a Bollywood fan now. Bollywood movies, stars, songs, magazines. He idolized the biggest Bollywood star, Hrithik Roshan. In fact, he’d made me sign him up for the online Hrithik Roshan fan club, 6thumbsrgreat.com (Hrithik has an extra thumb on one hand), along with all the teenybopper girls from all across India and certain parts of Edison, New Jersey. I wasn’t allowed to look when he entered his secret ID and password.

I slid the DVD into the player. This version of the movie was in Hindi with English subtitles; the Hindi was too fast for him to catch because his hearing wasn’t good anymore and the subtitles were too small for him to read because his sight was failing. For Baba to enjoy it, I had to narrate the story in my special louder-than-average-but-not-condescending Baba voice.

“Rohan is at bat. He hits the ball and wins the game.” I was always at a loss for the cricket terminology.

“Ahh. I see the white bat and blue hat. So read to me about loyalty to parents.”

After Rohan wins, he starts droning on. It’s one of Baba’s favorite parts. He never waited for me to read; this speech he knew by heart. He and Rohan droned together. “If you want to be someone in life, if you want to achieve something, if you want to win, always listen to your heart, and if your heart doesn’t give you answers, think of your parents. All your problems will vanish and victory will be yours.”

Baba squeezed a fist to his heart and tears filled his eyes. I couldn’t believe that he sometimes forgot my mother’s name, but he’d memorized every word of this. Indian movies are so corny.

“Maybe today isn’t a good movie day, Baba. Let’s play checkers.”

Baba paused the movie and turned on me. “I told you I wanted to have a good cry, you cheeky girl. Rohan says one must think of the parents. Do my son or my daughter-in-law think of me? Why do they leave us alone day and night? I want good cooking.”

“They have to work, Baba.”

“Yes. Your mother is a drug dealer; your father, Dr. Frankenstein.”

“They are scientists. They both work very hard.”

“Yes? Maybe my own son would have time for me if I lopped off an arm, or a leg or my head. And my daughter-in-law would rather sell drugs than care for her Baba?”

“She doesn’t sell drugs. She does research.”

“Look at the children in these movies,” he said pointing to the silent, wobbly picture. “They always honor their parents.” I didn’t dare sigh. I loved him, but it was hard to imagine this man discussing anything with Gandhi.

“Nirmila, bring the popping corn and spicy snack mix. Bring that cherry no-cal soda. Hell with your mom and dad. Bourgeoisie. Crack dealers. Pot heads. Turn to the part with the dancing girls. Tomorrow, when you return home from your lessons, you will make me nice, hot, fresh, crispy papadum? Packaged is okay. You just fry them up? Hot and nice for me?”

There was no avoiding what I had to say next. I took his hand.

“Baba, tomorrow, every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, actually, I will be out for a few hours, working in a store.”

“Oh? Is it Namaste Video, per chance?”

I paused, momentarily flustered. I’d been rehearsing this little talk in my head and now he threw me this wacky, curveball response.

“Because if it is, we can maybe get free movies. What do you say? I’d like to see a serious movie, Lagaan, maybe.

“It’s not the video store, Baba.”

“Where, then?”

I didn’t have the guts to tell him that I’d caused the quarrel with his eldest son. That it was for my sake that my father had suggested last summer that the family hire a “helper” to come assist Baba each day during his visit. That it was on my account that my father had allowed himself to be accused of putting my grandfather “out to pasture,” as Baba had characterized it. I could only bring myself to tell Baba the bare facts.

“I will be assisting the pharmacist at the Star Pharmacy. It’s a very lucky job. Most teenagers have to stock or work the register. Mom got me this job because the pharmacist is a friend of hers. All of my friends have jobs, Baba. That’s what many teenagers do in the US. It will look very good on my college resume. Don’t you think?”

As I’d delivered my well-rehearsed speech, Baba hopped off the couch, settled into his lawn chair and crossed his legs into a half-lotus and now sat silent, staring at wobbly Rohan, trapped in “pause” mode, cricket bat in his grip, arms swung back in eternal preparation to score the big points.

“So. You, too, will be dealing in the drugs. You will be a crack whore, eh?”

I told myself it was the dementia speaking in place of my beloved Baba, but tears started in my eyes nonetheless. We each endured the long silence that followed. Baba stared at the mute wobbling screen. I stared at my recently painted toenails.

When Baba spoke again his voice was gentler, mild even. “It has been decreed then; I have spawned a family of reprobates. Do you know what Gandhi thought of doctors and medicine? But, this is the US, I suppose. What can we expect? A courageous, robust people, but vulgar and self-indulgent. Your father should never have left Mumbai. Then you would be a proper Hindu family.” He shrugged and heaved a long sigh before he imposed sentence.

“You will watch all of KKKG with me this afternoon, so that you must study very late into the night to excel at your maths tomorrow. You deserve, at least, to be tired. Then we will let your father bring in this ‘helper’ he spoke of last summer so that you can run off to your drugs. Ah, the indignities of old age. But you must spend one hour per day keeping me company, and I suppose I’ll have to speak to your parents again or I’ll go out of my skull from loneliness.” He slapped his head with the flat of his palm for emphasis.

When I phoned to tell her that Baba had agreed, in his own way of course, to the new arrangement, my mother was so overjoyed that she left work at two in the afternoon to cook him a special meal. That night we all ate together. Dal, rice, raita made with cucumbers from the farm stand, sag paneer, homemade chapatis, bindi curry, gulab jaman. My grandfather’s favorites, all from scratch.

From that day on, the quarrel was forgiven, though Baba made sure we knew that while chunks of his brain might be gone, he could still hold on to a sliver of a grudge. To that end, he never spoke my mother’s name again, claiming to have forgotten it, and just to spite us, deemed the home health aide we’d hired his new almost-favorite person. I was still his very favorite—nothing could change that—but his new pet name for me was now “crack head,” which he used on a regular basis. Baba only called for “Nirmila” if he was tired, peevish, and a bit out of sorts.