My maternal grandfather, or Nanaji as we affectionally called him, lived with us for almost a decade before he passed away in 1998. Before that he lived in Mumbai, alone, a widower. With dad in the Air Force, we usually moved around a lot and got to see him once or twice a year before he finally decided to move in with us. I was ten when he came to live with us so our relationship was something that became a key part of my formative years.
It was a relationship that started with the familiar comfort of knowing him in his role as a grandfather — the guy whom we could count on as an ally to shelter us from parental justice. The guy who’d frequently reminisce about his past and we’d politely listen, not comprehending but nodding along just the same. He was loving and generous with me and my brother, always pampering us with the latest toys and gadgets, much to my mother’s annoyance. He was also unobtrusive and easygoing around the house, a refreshing change from some of the other seniors who had strange quirks and idiosyncrasies that took up most of our day whenever they visited.
But he was alone. That was clear to me from an early age. He wouldn’t get in anyone’s way, but he’d sit alone, quietly reading his newspaper and occasionally lowering it to fondly glance at us kids getting up to some mischief or other. He wasn’t enthusiastic about going out, participating in family events or generally being a part of gatherings. He’s present in some of our photographs from then, staring impassively at the camera, just another person who happened to be staying with us. The only time his eyes would light up was when he’d watch classical music shows on TV. Then he’d come alive, closing his eyes and gently moving his head in appreciation of the music, occasionally interjecting with a soft “wah” or “bahut khoob”. Then he’d go back into his shell. It’s that loneliness which intrigued me. Unfortunately, teenage intervened and my preoccupation with navigating this puzzling phase of life took precedence over my desire to learn about his.
Years later, my mother told me his story, of how tragedy had followed him throughout his life. He was born in Lahore into an upper-middle class household. His father Govindrao Apte ran the Gandharva Mahavdyalaya in Lahore, a university to teach and promote music, started by Pt. Vishnu Digambar Paluskar. His son, the great DV Paluskar and my grandfather were good friends and learned and sang together as kids. Being the eldest and very talented, my grandfather was pampered like a prince, occupying a place of pride in their sprawling home in Lahore, much to the envy and admiration of his siblings.
Then the Partition happened. The entire family had to literally leave everything behind and escape. My grandfather made it out of Lahore on the last safe train to India, before hell broke loose. The family split up, having to stay with friends in Gwalior and some in Mumbai. Nanaji made his way to Mumbai and friends helped set him up. Over the years, Mumbai, as the city is wont to do, grew on him and he decided to settle there. Music was always a passion and despite the trauma of the Partition, he stayed in touch with his musical roots. This led him to a job at All India Radio where he was part of their roster — a privilege and a proud moment for him. Unfortunately, singing alone couldn’t support a wife and child so he had to give that up for a more stable job at the Shipping Corporation of India. He continued to sing at functions and taught from home. He forged strong relationships with his students. My mother remembers long sessions of singing on the weekend when their home would resonate with khayals and thumris.
This happiness was also short-lived. He lost his wife to cancer when my mother was twelve and their lives were again thrown into tumult. He’d had happiness snatched from him so often, in retrospect I find it amazing he had any strength left at all. It’s this shell of a man I came to live with and know as Nanaji. This is the man whose rare stories I politely ignored because I considered them irrelevant. Perhaps that was just me being a silly, self-absorbed teenager, but I wonder about the significance of the stories I missed.
In 1992, an author and documentary filmmaker called Anjali Kirtane visited my grandfather when were living in Pune. She was an ardent fan of Pandit DV Paluskar and was conducting research for her book, “Gaanayogi: Pandit D.V. Paluskar”. She heard about my grandfather’s connection to Bapurao (as Pt. Paluskar was also known) and paid him a visit for more details. The exchange is captured in the picture below. It’s an anecdote from his childhood when my grandfather and Bapurao participated as singers for a concert by Bapurao’s father, Pt. Vishnu Digambar Paluskar, the founder of the Gandharva Mahavidyalaya. After the concert, one of Digambar Paluskars’ disciples in the audience came up to him and offered his gold “Om” pendant as a gift to his son for his flawless singing. Digambar Paluskar accepted the gift, but went over to my Nanaji’s mother to tell her that her son sang as well as Bapurao and also deserved recognition. He then gifted the pendant to her. I can’t begin to imagine how proud he must’ve been that day. That pendant is also visible in the picture. I remember wearing it as a novelty on a couple of occasions, blithely unaware of the pinnacle it represented for my grandfather, who never spoke about it or referred to it.
The reason this anecdote even came to light was because one of my uncles, while browsing a bookstore in the US, chanced upon this book and discovered this page. To think that this story, transcribed by a stranger, traveled such a circuitous route to reach me when its protagonist had lived with us for a decade, is mortifying. How many more such wonderful snippets of his life had I missed?
As I think of the pendant, I realize it’s not the pendant that’s significant, it’s the story of the pendant. We all dream of being the ones who make stories, but more often it’s the stories that make us. These stories of victories, defeats, joys, disappointments mark our journey and become a part of our identity. These stories are a tapestry from which we derive our personality and behaviors. Some of these stories can hold us back, as perhaps they did to Nanaji. There was so much that had been taken away from him, I fear those stories overpowered his present. Perhaps sharing those stories with someone who would have really listened could’ve eased his burden. I’ll never know.
But thanks to him, I do realize the importance of a personal story and the dignity and patient ear each one deserves.