Gift from a grandfather

I’m not sure your parents would have spoken to you about pre-marital sex.

I must have been fifteen. We were seated at the dining table at my grandfather’s house. My mother’s father, was a big man — not just physically but in every sense of the word — full of life, a Shakespeare scholar, a keen raconteur and a successful entrepreneur who’d gone on to build a college and an amazing study guide business. Not bad at all, for a man who’s father passed away months before he was born and who was stricken by polio at age 2, leaving him with a life-long limp and the need for a walking stick.

And then he lost the use of his other leg and an arm in an auto accident in his 40s. He went on to study dance theory and built a model house where a wheelchair-bound man could live by himself. In other words, he was an amazing man.

And a wonderful grandfather. Of course my mother and her siblings talk of what a strict parent he was — but those are tales for another day.

Twice a month or thereabouts, my parents would take my siblings and me across town to visit my grandfather. This was always a great treat for me — my grandfather lived in a large house, like the ones you’d have encountered in Indian movies of the 60s and 70s — a two-storey brick and concrete home, with a wrap-around porch lined by pairs of cement pillars. The house itself was set at 90 degrees to the street and a large driveway separated the house from a garden filled with mango trees — or so it seemed to the teen me. Grandfather or thatha as we called him, would be sitting in his wheelchair on the porch at the corner nearest to the main gate. Keeping an eye on the comings and goings. Even as our car pulled in he’d give a beaming smile — I felt directed solely at me. I couldn’t believe or imagine that this was the strict, cane-wielding father that my mom and her brothers spoke of.

On this morning, I’d just wheeled him from his bedroom at the front of the house, through the living room into the dining room. His plate — the round steel one divided into four sections, was already placed at the head of the table. As soon as he was settled in, and one of us tied his nearly-apron-like bib, my grandfather picked up the spoon, in his hand and looked at us. We were seated, my cousins and I to his right between the table and the living room wall. That’s when he posed the question — well it was more an assertion I guess.

I’m not sure your parents would have spoken to you about pre-marital sex.

One of my aunts shuttled between the kitchen and the dining room serving my grandfather, while another stood by in case he needed anything. The moment he posed this question, both of them beat a hasty retreat. My grandfather didn’t wait for us to answer or respond. I suspect, we were somewhat taken aback by the topic. Forget talking about pre-marital sex — there was no talk of the birds and bees — at least from our parents. So you can be darn sure he had our attention.

“An unexamined life is not worth living” Socrates.

Truth be told I don’t recall, the rest of that morning’s discussion — at least not with the same clarity as his opening gambit. An avid chess player my grandfather knew about opening gambits. That day, as with nearly every time I visited him, my grandfather always challenged my cousins, siblings and me to ask questions, and come up with answers ourselves as well as examine the ones that he posed (often in question form). He was a big believer in living the examined life.

In many ways my grandfather epitomized the spirit of the popular Tamil saying “Your mouth does not get burnt when you say the word fire!” So questions such as “Does God exist?” which might have earned a nasty look, if not a quick cuff to the head, from parents or uncles were par for the course. What made many of our discussions truly memorable was that, after debating a topic one week (and invariably winning the argument) he’d have us switch sides the following week and argue the same topic. While most times, I recall him winning the debate by making the more compelling arguments, it’s only much later that I realized, that he’d given us the best gift of all.

The desire to examine both sides of a question, keeping an open mind and fighting for what you believe in, even in the face of a powerful adversary — all of which meant that even if you lose the argument, you end up a winner!