There is a photo of my daughter and my father-in-law that I love. In it, you can see their backs, her sweet round little diaper-coated bottom Fevikwik-ed to his dignified one, sitting on a pavement berm in Italy. She is not yet two and he, a good 70 years older. That was the day that our daughter had her first gelato. As first-time parents bringing up a desi child in the West, we imposed the same sensible diet restrictions that anyone else would on their toddler — she could eat anything as long as it was hand-grown by Benedictine monks in an organic farm and processed by milkmaids wearing silk gloves and had no added sugar, salt or chemicals.
So her grandfather patiently endured our bleating on about what she was allowed, and then went off slyly to buy her her first gelato, and then in quick succession, her second and then third. At the time the photo was taken, they are eating up the evidence, their backs to us, a couple of hardened gelato criminals planning their next heist. For me, this photo captures the essential truth about the universe — if you stick with a grandparent long enough, a gelato will miraculously and spontaneously arrive on the scene. A gelato or a laddoo or jalebi or a cookie, whatever that your heart secretly desires will manifest through the will of God and the acts of your grandparent in your hand.
That’s the joy of grandparents; they are always the first (and sometimes the only people) to realise one’s true potential and greatness and behave accordingly. Show me a grandchild’s nether end and I will show you where the sun rises and sets for his grandparents. This inter-generational bond is one that is unique to humans — in no other species of animal do grandparents and grandkids engage meaningfully (Apparently whales are the only other species where this bonding sometimes occurs). But human or whale, the fact is that grandparents are so much more than just parents of parents.
As babysitters, caretakers, perpetually accommodating playmates, story tellers, holders of the key to yummy treat paradise, family historians, confidantes and unshakeable allies in the battle against one’s parents, nani-nanu and dadi-dadu play a million critical roles. When he was little, my son, who hadn’t yet quite grasped language but had understood the nature of love, informed me that I was his “badparent” and Dadu his “grandest” parent.
And that’s exactly how it should be. A close relationship with one’s grandparents is a warm blanket of love in the cold foggy days of this world. A grandparent’s love often sets the gold standard for what we are willing to accept in later life — if a grandparent can love us so steadfastly and extravagantly despite all the evidence, then so, bloody hell, can the others. Scientific research proves that those loved to squishy little pieces by their grandparents have better self-esteem, better skin, are smarter, better looking and, on average, 20 per cent fatter than those who aren’t. (The depressing part of the statement is that, yes, kids looked after by grandparents are likely to be way tubbier than those who aren’t — has been irrefutably validated by actual scientists. Besides, look at the wealth of evidence that whales provide! Sadly, the other bits are just the views of the Loved Madly by My Grandparents Club, of which I am the founder president.)
Being extremely discerning and a great judge of character and beauty, my grandfather adored me. When I was little, the whole family — cousins, aunties, uncles, everyone — would descend upon him and my grandmother for our vacations. Even in the gaggle of much loved grandchildren, I knew I was special. After dinner every single day, he and I would walk down to lock the gate and he would pop a Seven Seas pill himself and hand me one too. “Don’t bite into it,” he would warn me every time — the start of an elaborate charade we both played out daily. “It will flood your mouth with a hideous taste. Which can only be taken away by eating a toffee.” Then he would wink elaborately and say sotto voce, “However, if you were to tell me you had bitten into it, I would not be checking inside your mouth to see for myself. I would have to rush to get you a sweetie.”
Even with my room temperature IQ, I knew it meant I should swallow the pill whole and pretend to have bitten into it, which would send him leaping to the tin of Quality Street Toffees. These toffees were brought by my shippie uncle from the land called foreign and were highly prized, guarded like the Crown Jewels — kept by my grandmother in her pooja room under lock and key. They were awarded to us grandchildren like Republic Day honours — the selection process totally opaque, hideously influenced by lobbying and awarded only once a year. My grandfather would breach this unbreachable bastion for me, smuggling me one toffee every day of the vacation, with none of my cousins or siblings being any the wiser that their annual share of the grandparental inheritance was being used just to rid my mouth of a fake castor oil tsunami.
Years later, when my grandfather had dementia and a series of strokes had left him paralysed and bed-ridden, I used to visit him on breaks from college. He and I would lie in bed together and I would read out old Reader’s Digest articles to him. And we would talk desultorily. He would tell me how the person who gave his boots the best possible shine in the world, when he was training at the Forest Research Institute in Dehradun as a silviculturist, was a boy who he called “boy”. When he got married, in the hope that my grandmother would have the same shoe shining talent, he took to calling her “boy” as well. He would mention now and again that he had a wonderful dream where he was in a forest and unspeakably happy because he saw something beautiful (At this point, he would look dreamy and otherworldly). I would prompt him, routinely asking, “What did you see nana? Angels, devis, devtas, flowers, trees?” He was a silviculturist after all, in love with trees. But no, he would cackle evilly and tell me me had seen many beautiful women undressing.
Yes. My ascetic, pious, wonderful, loving, wise grandfather. Saying things about my whippet-smart grandmother being only as good as her shoe-shining talent and about dreams of undressing maidens that would make anyone’s tongue go furry. But between him and me, it was all good. Somewhere, between those days of castor-oil-pill-popping and Quality-Street-stealing and the days of drool-wiping and bed pan-changing, the roles had changed somewhat. But what we felt for each other? It had absolutely not. So, all of you who can still remember what your grandparents’ house smelt like, and how soft and papery yet strong ajji’s hands were or the feeling of cuddling into the soft warm embrace of nani’s mulmul saris, the feel of dadu’s hair in your hands as you surveyed the world from his shoulders, accompanying them to visit their friends and listening to them boast about you, waiting for the school bell to ring in an agony of impatience so you could rush home and run into the present-laden arms of your Dida who had just arrived — if you can recall a hundred million things like these and if these memories sustain you in ways you can’t describe, then welcome to the Loved Madly by My Grandparents Club. The benefits last forever and membership is free.
Your grandparents already paid the dues.
Vatsala Mamgain is a glutton, cook, runner, tree lover, shopper, reader, and talker.