WITH time things change. Seasons change, nights change. Twelve miles away speech changes. How much is in the head, has anyone weighed it? One hopes to God that no one loses their head.
In a village waving in the breeze, lived Bania. A sweet grandson was born to him in late age; birth was in Moola nakshatra (the first star of the Sagittarius). So both his parents died when he was seven months old. The mother died first, then the father. Who can say what is going to happen? When the only son dies, grief is not ordinary. When Sethani saw her only son’s dead body, she wept and wept and died. But Seth considered these events to be the result of his karma; he took courageous action.
Clasping his grandson to his breast, he continued to run his business somehow... and no one will know how he did it. Grandfather loved his grandson more than his own life; the child stuck to his lap twenty-four hours a day as though he was part of the same body. When the child would cry, grandfather would do what he could to stop the crying. He would make him drink milk; when the child insisted, he would walk on his knees. He became a horse to ride on he would be beaten lightly with a whip. At night he would sleep on the wet side of the bed while the child slept on the dry side... and even in his dreams he did not get repulsed by the child’s drool, shit and piss.
As he started learning to walk, the child began asking questions in his lisping way. In the middle of the night he would ask what is this and who says what... and grandfather would answer each question with enthusiasm. He would explain everything... he would be asked once, he would be asked thirty times. He would laugh and answer in sweet and mild tones. He would never make the child wait for an answer, or give another answer. He would not be anxious or angry, but explain with fourfold enthusiasm as though he was the questioner himself. As though each question was a new question. He would relate long forgotten memories to his grandson. What is this – a crow. What is this – chandamama (moon). What is this – a peacock. What is this – a tree. What is this – neem.
One day during the monsoon, grandfather was explaining the meaning of loss and gain to his grandson when lightning and thunder struck with great force. The child became frightened and cried, ‘Which bad man is fighting with whom?’ Grandfather soothed him and replied: ‘This bad man is mad, he is constantly fighting with everyone and roaring and glittering for twenty-four hours. But we don’t care about him.’ He then put cotton balls into the child’s ears. After this incident, he would put cotton balls into the child’s ears every monsoon.
Once during the rains a frog hopped near the child. He pointed to it, what is this – a frog. What is this – a frog, a frog. On the third repeat, grandfather started to cough... the child continued to ask what is this, what is this, but grandfather could not form the word ‘frog’ fully. He coughed so hard that he became exhausted... khal khal, khal khal... till his guts started to hurt, eyes started to water. But the child’s attention was still on the frog. In between coughs, grandfather managed to rasp out ‘frog’. In the child’s happiness lay his own.
While making bills in his shop, while weighing items, he was asked what is this? What is this? Not once was he miserly with an answer. What is this – ant. What is this – elephant. What is this – lamp. What is this – sun. In the light of the moon, the lamp, the sun, grandfather taught grandson all that he needed to know. Explaining, explaining, Seth became old. Grandson became a youth. He was married with much song and dance. His wife entered the house, rimjhim rimjhim.
Grandfather’s birth became successful, but his body became old and weak. Teeth dropped out, hair fell out... his neck began to shake and illness began to stalk him. Every nerve became filled with weakness... cough fever pain anxiety... if god would only take me now, then my breath can leave my body. But death does not come soon and one must bear ones sorrows. His eyes became dim, ears could not hear properly.
All through the day and night, grandfather’s cough would disturb the sleep of grandson sleeping beside his wife. He would be upset, but hesitated to scold him; he would admonish him many times, but grandfather could not control himself. Until his eyes gave away, he would wipe his spit and phlegm with his own hand... but when he became blind, he could not do this. He would wipe his drool with the end of the turban. Who would wash his clothes, who would bathe him? Grandson and his wife were young, they themselves were blind. They did not care. And then the business-accounts had to be kept and maintained... no one could take time off. Once he heard the sound of the door opening... he called out who is it? Grandson did not like the question and answered sarcastically, ‘It is me’. While leaving he banged the door shut; grandfather asked who is it? Grandson became angry: ‘How many times do I have to tell you, it is me! Why don’t you nderstand it once? Why don’t you start reciting gods name now... why should anything else concern you?’
Seth hesitated and said: ‘Son, slowly slowly all meaning has been erased from my life, but before one dies all relationships cannot be broken off. I have been wanting to say something to you for a long time. If I do not say it now, it will remain forever in my heart.’
Grandson replied with irritation: ‘After death, how can anything remain in your heart?’
Grandfather coughed and coughed ‘...son you do not even have time to listen to me. But I had all the time to give to you. Don’t be so angry. You would ask me a question twenty, twenty times, and I would answer you immediately. And now you are upset when I ask you something twice.’
‘So should I leave my work just for you’, answered son. ‘I too would work’, said grandfather. ‘But more than my business, I looked after you. Now you are big, but when you were a child I would consider your piss of more value than gangajal. I did not even dream of being treated like this. Once in the monsoon, frogs came into the water of the courtyard... you asked what is this? While saying the word frog I started coughing, and coughed so much that I thought I would die.’
‘What nonsense!’ said grandson angrily. ‘Is it possible that I did not even know a frog? You have nothing better to do than accuse me falsely.’
Laughing his toothless laugh, grandfather countered: ‘False accusations? Would I lie to you? In business the supreme quality is of ommission-commission... I now ask you for a favour. You cannot refuse me. When you have children you will understand the true meaning of return-favours.’ Grandson was in a hurry, he was not inclined to wasting his time in such talk. ‘But I have never taken any favours,’ he said. Seth spat out phlegm and replied: ‘The mistaken favour was all mine and it is my biggest mistake that I am in your care today. Now I have had enough... while dying I give you my blessings – may you live a thousand years. May there always be children’s voices and laughter in your courtyard. And when the time comes, may your children treat you exactly in this way. Like you, may they never acknowledge return-favours. I hope I die now... go play the drum in happiness.’
Seth reached the end of his lonely life. Was his grandson happy? Only he knows that himself... but to keep up appearances he wept loudly and kept weeping long after the ceremony was over.
* Bhul-chook leni-deni by Vijay Dan Detha and Komal Kothari. Transcreated from the Marwari original by Mohmaya.