The Side of Gratitude We Forget

My grandfather was only seven years old when he became “the man” of his house. As the elder son of a father whose sudden death had seemed to shake the roots loose of his family’s spirit, my grandfather became responsible for a lot more than superhero collections or toy cars. It was up to him, whether he knew it then or not, to sew the seams together for years to come, and to nourish the soil upon which the future generations of his last name were to build their lives.

When he was twelve, Partition called for new boundaries. One country becoming two meant he had to move from his mountainous village in Shinkiari, Pakistan to New Delhi, India — by foot. With his mom and little siblings, my grandfather made a journey in which the whispers of attack interrupted any chance for sleep. Several friends and fellow villagers did not make it to the other side. When they found themselves on earth some foreign voice had dictated to be theirs, they did not care for all the possessions they had lost. Nor did they care that there were but coins in their pockets. They were rich with love and dreams, and a desire to make meaning of the pieces.

Growing up, my grandfather picked up many odd jobs to help supplement his mother’s income as the seamstress of the local town, including working at the local gas station. The fear of getting his hands dirty was one he could not afford, even at home. He did the laundry. He washed the dishes. Instead of playing with the children on the streets, he was in his one-room home, helping prepare dinner or raising his brother. I often wonder, did my grandfather ever get a moment to be a kid?

And he worked hard in school. With a fierce sense of internal motivation that I have yet to find matched in any other man I know, he approached his education with an energy not typical of someone who carries the weight of loss. Knowledge, for him, was the golden answer to the golden question: how do we move up from here?

After getting into and attending one of India’s best boarding schools, he went to an MBA program and thereafter, worked for a life insurance company. Some of his coworkers poked fun at the one formal suit (the only one he owned) that he wore every single day. He did not care. He knew his success was fragile, capable of being shattered at any instant. And so he saved up for the future, with the goal that, one day, he could buy his children the candy he had always eyed from the glass window of the store.

***

It is a custom in Indian culture that honey be the first food an infant tastes, fed to them by the the most respected member of the family. Within the living room of the beautiful two-story Delhi home that my grandfather had moved three generations of Anands into, a week-old version of me was first acquainted to sweetness by the hands of my grandfather.

And, two decades later, he continues to be the reason for the sweet moments in my life. The truth is, I have recognized, that without the sacrifices made by the man I lovingly call Bade Papa (big father), my worries would be far greater than replying to emails or organizing my library. The stresses I experience, of daunting finals and demanding professors, are ones of great privilege: a privilege that would never be mine without the persistence that was his.

I am grateful.

But: here’s the catch. The feeling of gratitude doesn’t cut it. It’s not a word you can carve into a rock and keep in your pocket, claiming you have it. It’s not a thought you have in your head. It’s not a dedication page of a book or a soundbite in a speech. And that’s because of this: gratitude is not a feeling. Gratitude is an action.

It is only recently I have come to recognize this. Just last week, during a new family dinner table tradition of asking each other questions like favorite family holiday or ideal country of residence, I came to learn that my grandfather’s dream career was to be an actor. I had never known this before, nor had I any hint of it. In fact, all of us were surprised.

And I ask myself: for all the dreams I can dream because of a man that gave up his, am I doing enough?

No matter how much I know I could never be where I am without Bade Papa’s hard work, my gratitude is not complete until I listen to him when he’s speaking. Until I ask him, just where does your fear of dogs come from? Until I notice the little things, like the way he continues to write notes in his diary, and until I make time to listen to him read it aloud.

Now I know. Being grateful is not a passive act. Being blessed means bearing a responsibility to pay it back, and pay it forward.

***

It is entirely possible that my grandfather missed out on his childhood. To be grateful means I make sure he doesn’t miss out on any more.

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