Two of my closest friends have lost their fathers this weekend. I cannot say much more without violating their privacy, but I can however talk about my grandfather. Nanaji, as I called him, for nana means mother’s father in hindi, was my hero.

A few months before my 7th birthday, right after I had finished kindergarten, my parents sent me back to Calcutta, from Kuala Lumpur, thinking that they would be following soon. I was to start school and live with my grandfather for a year until they arrived.

I remember wearing a tartan skirt with an enormous safety pin the night I flew alone on a BOAC flight, literally the only passenger in this midnight flight from KL to Calcutta. My grandfather’s house was immense in size and the garden was big enough to contain a lily pond, a rose garden, a lawn, a kitchen garden, the gardeners shed, some coconut trees, the cowherd’s shed where the cows were kept for fresh milk right down to the dhobi’s room where he did the laundry for his customer’s in the neighbourhood. Towards the front were the gardener’s house as well as the guard cum doorman’s quarters. All of this in Ballygunge, the heart of Calcutta, just a few minutes away from Park Street, Flury’s [!] and Chowringhee. O Calcutta the city of joy – yes, I can wax painfully on about that city.

The driveway was paved with river pebbles, difficult to walk on with slippers or sandals but long lasting and fun to play with. Nanaji would walk with me every morning after breakfast together, in the lawn and he would teach me one more verse of raghupati raghavan raja ram. Then I would go to school. This was when I really felt close to my grandfather, this tall and wise man, or so it seemed to my littley eyes, with his crisp white starched dhotis that he changed into every evening. He used to wear white in the Calcutta summer heat – white trousers and a long sleeved white shirt. My mother tells me of days when he would be outfitted for his steamer ship trips to London in the early fifties – hats, suits, overcoats, nothing but the best for he was a "gentleman".

Nanaji was an engineer from Benaras Hindu University. This was before the days of fragmentation and specialization in engineering, he majored in electro-mechanical engineering. The only other major in the late 1920’s was civil engineering. I remember pouring over his encyclopaedias of engineering from 1945 – the illustrations of washing machines and refrigerators were fascinating because I could already see the difference with what was available now. My mother still likes to proudly recall that they were the first house in Calcutta to own a washing machine in the 1940s.

It was because of Nanaji that I knew by the time I was nine years old that I would become an engineer. I didn’t ever think I wouldn’t practice as one, but by my senior year in Industrial engineering I knew that the kind of changes that could be effected were not initiated on the shopfloor but upstairs in management.

First we lost Nanaji to Alzheimers, then only a few years later he passed away. It was a rapid decline, he worked every day until he was 80 years old, often commuting upto a 100 miles roundtrip to his latest forge or factory and when he retired it was as though a light had gone out of him. Nanaji was also the only adult male I’d ever seen cry in sad movies.

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2 Responses to Loss

  1. KG says:

    This is a wonderful tribute to your Nanaji. Your careful details really make his house, personality and character come alive. I enjoyed reading it.
    How amazing that at 9 years old you knew you wanted to be an engineer!

  2. niti bhan says:

    I can still see my grandfather’s house as it was the year I was 7. He still lives in my mind’s eye. He was the only person whose feet I would willingly touch as an indian marker of respect for elders without cues and coaxing from my parents. Adolescents in India rebel violently against such social customs.

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