The Family Tapestry by Bikram Sharma
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‘Come quick,’ my grandfather breathed into a telephone receiver in the dead of night. Come quick we did. By the time I landed in Delhi, Ma was already in Munirka sitting by his side. Pa, on business in Singapore, was rescheduling meetings and booking new flights. My aunts living in America were midway across the Atlantic, their eyes on the small screen in front of them, watching the red dot of their plane’s progress, hoping there was still time.

 

Outside the airport I caught a taxi to Munirka. It was early morning, a dense December fog choking the city, and as I peered out the window I saw the shapes and silhouettes of buildings that seemed to be both familiar and bizarre. If pressed to identify where exactly I was, I wouldn’t have been able to answer. Years had passed since I had last seen the city, seen my grandfather.

 

When we reached the colony a watchman stopped us at the gate. I paid the cabbie and rolled my suitcase the rest of the way, past block after block of crumbling buildings – more than fifty years old, water-stained, unobtrusive and forgotten by many. I stopped at apartment number 130, ‘Colonel G.B. Singh’ engraved on the post-box, and knocked. Ma opened the door and I crossed the threshold into the warmth of my grandfather’s house.

 

Ma’s face was pale, her eyes pink. ‘Grandpa’s resting,’ she said. I glanced at the closed door of his room and then wheeled my suitcase into the living room and sat down on a chair. There were cracks in the wall, some chipping the paint from the ceiling and some splitting the wood in the window frames. Worn couches that had occupied the living room for decades were arranged in the same pattern as before, reeking of mothballs. On top of the grand Persian carpet, centrepiece of the room, were two thin mattresses covered by a bed sheet and large blankets.

 

‘Are you cold?’ she asked.

 

‘A little.’

 

She turned the bent grill of a small portable heater towards me and cranked the dial. A yellow light blinked in the darkness and the machine whirred to life, emitting waves of heat.

 

‘I hope this thing won’t pack up any time soon.’

 

‘It’s okay,’ Ma said, lying down and pulling blankets over herself. ‘I’m going back to sleep.’

 

I remained by the heater, pressing my hands close to the hot grill. Light was beginning to fill the windows and I could make out a film of grime covering the frames of paintings. In a corner of the ceiling an expansive and delicate latticework of cobwebs was slowly spreading. Dust, so much dust, everywhere. Seven years old. My cousins and I run havoc. We balance on coffee tables and bounce off couches. With every leap, we release cloud after cloud of dust trapped in the fabric of the cushions. My aunt throws us out, threatening us with tight slaps, and we laugh and chase each other, shadows flitting behind.

 

I awoke to the smell of tea and butter. A pale square of sunlight had entered the living room and dust motes caught the air, rising and falling.

 

‘Hoi, are you awake?’ Ma shouted from the kitchen. ‘Go get ready.’
           
There was no hot water in the pipes and the shower wasn’t working, so I bathed, heaving mug after mug of freezing water over my body. After towelling myself dry I dressed in my grandfather’s study. There was a mirror there, covered in patches of rust, and I stood in front of it and combed my hair, paying special attention to the parting. Twelve, my grandfather’s dexterous fingers fold the cotton fabric with precision before placing a strip against the nape of my neck. I sit there, eyes closed, as he wraps the cloth around my head, layer by layer. When he is done he rests his hands on my shoulders and says, ‘Dekho.’ I open my eyes. There I am, nearing puberty and chest already filling in, wearing a turban and smiling as my grandfather roars with proud laughter. There I was, eighteen, clean-shaven and hair sliced short, an empty cane chair and a messy desk behind me.

 

‘Ready?’ Ma said. She knocked on his door. ‘Father, are you dressed?’ She didn’t bother waiting for his response and let herself in.

 

He was standing by his bed, wearing a pressed blue shirt and crisp grey trousers. On his head was a maroon turban, immaculate and well set. His silvery beard was combed and tied. There lingered in the air the fragrance of a citrusy cologne.

 

‘Father,’ Ma said, raising her voice, ‘look who it is.’

 

‘Eh?’ he asked, leaning towards her. He was not wearing his hearing aid and his glasses were on the bed.

 

‘Look. Who. It. Is.’ She pointed.

 

‘Hello, Grandpa.’

 

‘Oh! Oh, ho, ho, ho,’ he boomed. We raised arms, embraced, and he, taller and larger, squeezed me, and I thought there was still strength in those bones, despite their ninety-nine years of life.
           
‘Hello, beta, hello.’

 

Ma smiled and said, ‘Chalo, let’s have breakfast.’

 

There was toast, jam, porridge and eggs, but my grandfather contented himself with a few slices of apple before cracking open his medicine case. Translucent yellow capsules, pink and green tablets, ordinary white pills – his case with its boxes for every day of the week was a veritable pharmacopeia. He counted out and swallowed his daily dosage, chasing them with water from a Borosil beaker. When had he replaced all the glasses with scientific apparatus? I couldn’t remember, but at some point we all accepted drinking tea from laboratory equipment. He let out a great gasp and then wiped his mouth and beard with a handkerchief. ‘Heh, heh, heh,’ he chuckled. His hands slid forward and mine did too. It was routine for the two of us; old and worn skin, tight at the leathery seams, holding on to pale and pink skin, fingers intertwined.

 

‘How are you, beta?’

 

‘I’m fine, Grandpa,’ I said, raising my voice and nodding.

 

‘Achcha, achcha, good.’ He rubbed the back of my hand and I felt the years in his rough palms. ‘And school?’

 

‘Oh, I’m not in school anymore, I just finished.’

 

‘Eh?’ He leaned forward, smiling, his beard pulled up with his lips.

 

Ma joined us at the table with two cups of tea. She pushed one towards him and shouted, ‘He’s finished school, Father. He’s going to university now.’

 

‘Yes, yes, I know,’ he said petulantly, patting my hand. ‘Where are you going?’

 

‘University of Illinois.’

 

‘Amreeka?’ He frowned. ‘Is it any good?’
           
‘Yes, Grandpa,’ I said.

 

‘And scholarship?’

 

‘No, Father, he didn’t get one, now leave it,’ Ma said. ‘Eat your food. Both of you. Eat your food.’

 

He nodded. ‘Yes. I’m sure it’s good.’ He let go of my hands and pierced a slice of apple with his fork. As he ate I noticed his teeth were browned on the sides. One of the eyes was milky white, blind, and the other cloudy, while his skin, semi-translucent in the morning light, was covered in liver spots. The flesh under his jaw sagged. I picked up a spoonful of porridge, but my appetite was lost.

 

Around midday my grandfather’s blood pressure plummeted. He suffered from light-headedness and was so weak he was unable to rise, confined to his room and bed where he spent hours listening to the faint beat of his heart through an old stethoscope. ‘Call the doctor,’ he wheezed.

 

The doctor was another senior resident of Munirka – a septuagenarian who sported a terrible comb-over. He arrived in the evening and tilted his head as he held my grandfather’s wrist. Ma stood by, her thumb worrying her palm. ‘Breathe,’ the doctor instructed. He pressed the silver disc against my grandfather’s chest and listened. ‘Rest, G B Singh Sahib, rest. We need to take you to the hospital.’

 

My grandfather lay on his side and shook his head. ‘No. No more bloody hospitals.’
           
‘Father, please...’
           
‘No hospitals,’ my grandfather said, swatting away Ma’s words before dragging the blanket over his shoulder.

 

The doctor looked at Ma and stepped out. We followed.

 

‘He needs to be admitted immediately.’ The doctor whispered. ‘At his age, his blood pressure? No, he can’t stay here. We can take him to the hospital. Make him comfortable.'

 

‘What can I do?’ Ma said. ‘He won’t go. He doesn’t want to … he doesn’t want to die away from home.’

 

There was a sense of compression in my chest and head as black spots burst into my vision. I didn’t hear the rest of their conversation. I only registered her drawn expression, the doctor’s sigh and nod, and then it seemed like an unspoken agreement had been made. The doctor wrote something on his pad and left it with her. She saw him out.

 

I returned to my grandfather’s room and sat beside him on the mattress. It was thin and hard. Despite the two heaters, he was shivering. I squeezed his shoulder. Nine, cycling from the park back to the flat, I swerve to avoid a car in Munirka’s narrow lanes and flip off my bicycle, splitting my chin on black tar. The doctor stitches me together as my grandfather holds my hand and hums a Punjabi song. When it is over I stop crying and inspect my bandages while the two elderly gentlemen sit down for a glass of whisky soda and a discussion on the sad state of affairs in Indian cricket. The next day I want to play with the children in the colony and my grandfather’s laughter echoes in the house. ‘Brave little soldier,’ he says. ‘Already recovered?’

 

We took shifts, Ma and I, sitting beside him and taking care of him. It was around two in the morning when she lay down in the living room and fell asleep. She didn’t bother waking me – perhaps she believed there was no harm in letting four hours pass unattended. But I couldn’t sleep. It was too cold. A power outage meant the heaters were lifeless. After a while she began to snore lightly and I stood up, wrapped myself in blankets, and went to the study. I lit a candle there and sat on the cane chair. The desk was cluttered with junk: rulers, post-its, rusted pins, sticky pens and browned and curling sheets of paper. There was a decade-old calendar stuck in the month of August 1996, on it a list of tasks to be completed. They were all unchecked. Not once could I recollect my grandfather seated at the desk. What sort of work did he even do? My parents had mentioned his time in the Indian Army, but after that? I peered at the writing on the pages and saw mathematical figures and a near-illegible script that was bolder and larger than my own.

 

A door creaked open. I tensed. The light flickered. Behind me, down the corridor that led to the dining room, was a faint yellow glow. No glass had been shattered, no wood smashed through, and yet for a moment I wondered whether a burglar had entered the house. I crept into the dining room. There was my grandfather, seated at the table, wearing his white kurta pyjamas and pressing his hands close to a candle’s sliver of flame.

 

‘Grandpa?’

 

He looked up. His beard glinted in the candlelight, his skin shone bronze. ‘Hello, beta,’ he said. ‘Sit.’

 

I joined him at the table. ‘Are you okay? What are you doing?’

 

‘Oh, nothing.’ His voice was rough as tree bark. ‘Just warming up.’

 

He cupped the flame with both hands and as he smothered the light it felt as though the room was suddenly bathed in heat.

 

‘Grandpa? How are you feeling?’

 

‘Feeling? Heh, heh, heh. Old. I’m feeling old, beta.’ He didn’t take his eyes off the candle and we sat in silence. Shadows cut deep into his face. ‘You know, I have been married three times.’

 

‘What?’

 

He coughed and rasped up a bit of phlegm, which he hocked into a tissue. ‘Three times,’ he said, folding the tissue before dropping it into a bin.

 

This was new information. I thought of Ma’s sisters, aunts of mine, scattered across the globe, retracing their steps in their hurry to say goodbye, and wondered why my parents had chosen not to share this detail with me.

 

He turned in his seat, pulled open a glass cabinet, and retrieved a bottle from within. The colour of the bottle was black, bruised, but when he placed it by the candle it changed to a deep green. He swirled the liquid and its shadow showed a hint of purple.

 

‘Wine?’ he asked.

 

I chuckled. I had been familiar with alcohol and its effects for more than three years already, but my parents did not know that. Neither did my grandfather. I turned to make sure Ma was asleep. ‘Sure, Grandpa.’

 

He poured a generous amount into two beakers and drank deep from his own. ‘Ah,’ he smacked his lips.

 

I took a sip. It was sweet, very sweet.

 

‘I made it myself,’ he said, already topping up his glass.

 

‘You did?’ I wasn’t too surprised. Ma often complained about broken flasks and driving to pharmacies to buy rubber tubes and other such paraphernalia for my grandfather’s experiments.

 

‘My first wife was very beautiful. Simran. We were married young. But she died during childbirth.’

 

I clenched my toes. No one had told me. It was almost obscene, the casual manner in which a family member’s life slipped from his lips, summarised in such short and dull words.

 

‘My second wife. She fell ill when we were in Burma.’ He was looking at the table in frustration, furrows in his broad forehead. ‘But what was it, what was it? I can’t remember. Damn it.’ He shook his head and looked at me. ‘Can you imagine? I can’t remember the name of the infection that killed her.’ His neck flushed red.

 

I nodded at my glass, unable to look him in the eyes. There was a sense of something operating around me, some greater mechanics at work, deliberately obscuring my grandfather, hiding his life. The fact that he had even been to Myanmar was a mystery to me. In a small voice that cut at the base of my throat I said, ‘I’m sorry, Grandpa.’

 

He waved my compassion aside and took another sip, though he was slowing down now. ‘You know about my third wife, your grandma.’

 

A hit-and-run.

 

He thumped his chest in grief and I was startled to notice his eyes were watery, the corners lined with yellow gelatinous dirt.

 

‘Sometimes, it has been so lonely.’ His voice – so strong and so deep and so constant in my life – was broken. ‘You know, beta, ninety-nine years means … means a lot of terrible things.’ His rheumy eyes flicked to the sword and its scabbard in the glass cabinet, to the framed photographs of his children and his grandchildren, all smiling and dolled up in lipstick and saris and ornamental jewellery. Even a black-and-white photograph of Ma and Pa was there, when they were still young, carrying with them the elegance and arrogance of youth and self-assurance. In that cabinet was the dusty map of our family.

 

‘I’m tired,’ he said, holding his hands close to the candle. The room was suffused with another wash of warmth and then suddenly the candlewick was trailing smoke and a ball of fire crackled in my grandfather’s cupped palms.

 

‘Yeh loh, beta,’ he said. ‘Take it.’

 

He leaned forward and placed the fire in my hands. It flickered for an instant – an instant in which I could see the fine lines in my palms, in my fingers, an intricate tapestry of all that I was and am, charting its way through my very skin – before the flame sputtered out. Smoke and the iron tang of blood filled the air.

 

I relit the candle with shaky hands and a thumping heart and found the table bare, chairs empty. My grandfather was in his room, still and asleep. He did not wake the next morning.

 

When his clothes were removed and the body cleaned, I felt a ferocious pull in my stomach. There was my grandfather, hollowed out, ribs bared in a hideous grin. Grey hair on his chest and abdomen spindled its way down. Tributaries of purple-knotted veins squirmed out of translucent skin in their attempt to unclog. But most astonishing, most painful, was to see his head, almost bald, covered in thin wisps of hair. I could make out the network of arteries that crisscrossed his scalp.

 

Ma cried. Not loudly, but with relief. She was grateful he passed in his sleep without pain. I did not know what to say or do to console her. We sat at the table and she called my father and told him, voice tremulous, tears hastily wiped away. After her phone call she locked the door to her father’s room before lying down on the mattresses in the living room.

 

As per his wishes, my grandfather’s body was donated to the local army hospital. An autopsy was conducted for the sake of determining the ultimate cause of death and the doctors found his body was riddled with a number of minor infections. But he had been undone by pneumonia. The cold had taken him.

 

There was a service at the Gurdwara, where friends, acquaintances and relatives milled around Ma. I saw in them my grandfather; in a large and pronounced nose, in the curl of a lip, in the swagger of a body as it shook with laughter. When I was introduced to these people they shook my hand or embraced me, whispering kind words in Punjabi and Hindi. They greeted me as their own and recollected how I looked as a baby. But I did not know them, did not recognise them, and only nodded and smiled at their enquiries.

 

Before entering the temple I was asked to remove my shoes and wrap a handkerchief around my head to cover my hair. In the prayer hall Ma and I sat cross-legged on a thick red carpet, listening to the Granthi’s prayers and occasionally glancing at the framed photograph of my grandfather.

 

When we returned home Ma cried again. I do not believe it was because of the service but because of the house and the emptiness it carried. There was no hoarse greeting, no creak of the bed, no scrape of his slippers against floor.

 

A day later my father arrived. He and Ma sat in the living room and held hands as they watched the news, talking about my grandfather, his will, and what would happen next. Eight, and watching the Republic Day parade on Doordarshan. I call out to my grandfather when the Sappers, his old regiment, march past the camera. He leaves the adults in the dining room and joins me, scooping me onto his lap as he peers at the television screen, inspecting the faces of those saluting soldiers who have replaced him.

 

We sifted through my grandfather’s possessions, determining what needed to be parcelled away and sent to relatives. Ma made notes on his life and combined them with interviews she had held with him during his eighties. She showed me his passport and I grinned at a picture of him taken before I was even born, when there were fewer lines on his face and his eyes were undamaged. The smile was the same. I read his details and frowned. His full name was listed and it took me a moment to realise I had never asked what his initials stood for. ‘Gharial Balwant,’ I said aloud for the first time. I placed the passport very carefully in Ma’s hands and then sat down beside the heater and listened to it whir.

 

In my grandfather’s bedroom I found copies of the Bible and Quran. They were beautiful editions with gold-inlaid inscriptions and I remembered times when he would wake everyone in the house with a loud chorus of ‘Allahu Akbar,’ testing the feel and mettle of those words. I also found, inside the chest of drawers beside his bed, a stainless-steel box containing every single letter I had written to him, blue string and a butterfly knot holding the stack tight. Ten, my grandfather and I sit at the table and write. He uses his gold Cross pen and I scribble with a Crayola colour pencil my aunt from America has gifted me. He ends his letter with the words ‘All my love,’ and I mimic him. All my love. We exchange letters and I laugh as he kisses the paper with reverence. I wanted to keep the box, but was afraid of the dates on the envelopes. The last time I had written had been more than four years ago.

 

Though his bedroom was emptied, my parents continued to sleep in the living room. As they slept, I wandered from room to room carrying a candle with me and inhaling the dust from emptied cabinets and shelves, willing the flame to expand, to grow, to radiate waves of heat. It did not, and my nights ended with me cocooning myself within blankets, shivering and trying to keep away the chill.

 

And then one day our flight tickets were booked and we were off, away from Munirka and Delhi. The sum total of my grandfather’s life was reduced to three cardboard boxes and the inanimate objects within.

 

*

 

I do not know what caused it, perhaps the rustle of leaves or the sound of my shoes scraping concrete, but many years later, walking the empty streets of Urbana late at night, an image flashed in my head, sharp and bright, of my grandfather’s hand pouring the flame into mine – rough skin brushing against my fingertips, a luminous filigree of lines in my palms.

 

My grandfather’s possessions and the box of letters were still in the basement of our house in Bangalore, waiting to be unpacked. His stories, Ma’s interviews, were perhaps resting under a pile of books in her room, yellowing with age. And Munirka was still in Delhi, still standing. But I knew I would never go back, never read those sheets of paper. After all that time something caught in my chest and I began to cry, clenching my hands in the empty pockets of my jacket. It seemed to me the fire had long since died. 

 

*


Bikram Sharma is from Bangalore. He completed his MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia and is currently working on a novel. His writing has appeared in various literary magazines including Conifers, Bartleby Snopes and Helter Skelter.