Sunday, February 28, 2010

Memoir: A Tribute to My Grandfather

Shortly after I said goodbye to my colleagues at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and reached my apartment, a fifteen-minute-walk from the office in Pittsburgh—a city in the U.S. known both for its three rivers and its industrial past—my wife Kabita called me from Nepal to say that my paternal grandfather had passed away. I paused for a while as her voice became barely audible. It was early June and the sun was just about sinking into the horizon.

I wasn’t shocked to hear the news because when I left Nepal in early March that year in 2008, my 93-year-old grandfather Dhanya Prasad Adhikari was literally on his deathbed. On a freezing January night, he fell down on the floor while on his way to the restroom. His back was badly bruised. When the doctors at a nearby hospital cited his frail health as hazardous for any sort of operation, we reluctantly brought him to my youngest uncle’s house in Jorpati, Kathmandu.

I feel overwhelmingly sad thinking about his final days. He spent the last few evenings of his life in a one-floored concrete house of his youngest son whose family looked after both him and his wife, our grandmother. His youngest daughter, who lived nearby, often visited her ailing parents. He would have never imagined that his last days would be so dismal, so pathetic. Of late, he could not even recognise his offspring, let alone distant relatives. When he turned 93, I had sparked off a talk about celebrating his near-centenary. He was excited about the birthday bash. But I had then headed home in eastern Nepal to celebrate Dashain, and now, I regret my poor planning.

My grandfather had impressed many with his astrological expertise. He was educated in Sanskrit, and used to recite the Bhagwad Gita and the Mahabharata. His life was interwoven with Hindu scriptures that invariably formed his paraphernalia. Even though he was a Hindu priest, my grandfather never complained when I often drifted away from strict Hindu norms—I neither wear the janai, the sacred thread that is worn after bratabandha, nor do I miss a chance to relish on buffalo meat. He knew about this ‘deviation’, but always kept mum.

He had been a man of action, always on the move. He would leave Thumbedin (our ancestral home in the remote hills of north-eastern Nepal) and trek a few days to the southern plains and in turn to Kathmandu. In early 1980s, when we were living in Kuljhoda, an inner plains village near Urlabari in Morang, I accompanied him on one of his travels. Eschewing the east-west highway, we travelled through lush paddy fields along the dirt tracks. We waded though Ratuwa khola and reached Gauradah. It was his typical way of familiarising me with our distant relatives.

He traversed the north-east of India to meet the other Adhikaris there and gather information for his book on the genealogy of Adhikaris, called Adhikari Ko Vanshawali. The book (in Nepali verse) was published in the old letterhead press in late 1980s. He used to carry several books along and distribute to bookstores in the small towns in eastern Nepal. But as he grew old and his health withered, the books remained in his house, undistributed and unused. I still have a tattered copy of the book.

He undertook the excursions all alone, leaving the grandmother to fend for the kids. She had to bear the brunt of raising six sons and three daughters. In addition to that, she would also work in the farm. In his native village, my grandfather was a respected figure. He sent his children to school and they grew up to become teachers, businessmen, and government employees. He always took pride in the education of his children and encouraged village folks to follow the suit, an unorthodox notion at that time.

I’m now worried about my grandmother who has been shoved into solitude, without the intimacy of the person she loved all her life. I wonder how she copes as she often wished that she would die earlier. They had been together through thick and thin for nearly 75 years of their lives.

The most inspiring thing to me has been his unwavering support for my decision to pursue journalism. My family was skeptical when I chose journalism as my career. They did not think of it as a worthy profession (that is very true in terms of monetary gain). But my grandfather would be delighted to talk about my small accomplishments. He would encourage me when I was working hard to establish myself as a journalist. He would love to see my name printed in a newspaper or a magazine. Even in his twilight years, he would ask me whether I had brought a copy of Nepal Weekly, the Nepali language magazine I worked for. He would flip through the pages and ask me about the topics I had covered. With his big old eyes, his body leaning against a pillow, he would search for my name. He always loved words.

Besides his book on the Adhikari lineage, he was in the process of publishing a second book on astronomical aspects of the consummation of marriage. He showed me the manuscript. It was fine but book publishing is still not profitable in Nepal. He somehow wanted it to be published. He had asked me to find a publisher, because he thought that since I worked at a news publication, I would be able to help him. Me, I kept on promising, albeit knowing that I could not be of any help. My job and life’s other obligations kept me busy from pursuing a publisher. I am sorry that he could not see the book being published in his lifetime. Now, the manuscript is gathering dust in Jorpati.

This originally appeared in The Kathmandu Post on Saturday