| This fall marks 20 years since my maternal grandfather passed away. I didn't know him all that well, but I have a soft spot in my heart for him. It has to do with a handful of memories from his visit to America in the summer of 1968. He came to visit us in Palo Alto. I was 12 years old. My sister, Lopa, was 7, and my brother, Virat, was no more than 2.
We called my grandfather "bhai," which literally means brother, but in this case it was an honorific term recognizing grandfather's senior status in the family. Bhai was tall for an Indian of his generation. He stood just over 6 feet, and his slender frame made him appear taller than that. Bhai was what I would call a "little big man" in India -- not his physical size but his social stature. He was the headmaster of a high school, the author of a geography textbook, and, as a result, a minor celebrity in our neighborhood in India. Mom also worked at the high school as an English teacher.
Always dressed in freshly washed and crisply ironed pants and shirt, Bhai was a commanding presence as he walked across the field from the house he was given as headmaster of a school. He ran this school with an iron fist of discipline, and there was to be discipline at home, too. Since my Dad had gone off to seek a graduate degree in America, Mom and I moved in with Bhai in the headmaster's house. There, he had the final say in matters related to my life. I had to do my dhaklas, (math problems) and I had to be quiet and behave at all times. If I didn't behave, I could get a spanking or get smacked with Bhai's switch. Nevertheless, the story goes, I was so out of control when there was no supervision during the days (what with Bhai and Mom at school) I ran wild in the school compound -- sneaking in to peek in on Mom's class and disrupting the lessons; running around with the servant's son (something Bhai could not tolerate because of his prejudices); throwing rocks at people passing by outside the compound gates; and learning all the curse words from the older boys at school and then trying them later at home, which did not go over very well.
When Bhai came to America we all went to pick him up at the airport. When he saw me, for the first time in many years, he just put his hands on my shoulders and giggled for a long time. Perhaps he didn?t believe that I was the same naughty boy that t he knew at home in India.
Bhai stayed with us for the whole summer, but now I only have a handful of recollections from that time. I asked him once to explain what leap year was. Dad had pushed me into it. He said to ask Bhai because he was the headmaster. Bhai explained leap year to me in a way that I immediately grasped: The earth makes a rotation around the sun every 365.25 days, so every fourth year we must add an extra day to the calendar so that we can keep up. That was impressive.
One day, we all went to Santa Cruz, the beach town on the Pacific Ocean that was a 45-minute drive from our house. An amusement park and boardwalk were the main attractions. We walked around, ate a picnic lunch Mom had packed, and strolled on the beach a bit. Then I wanted to go on the roller coaster. But Dad said no. Bhai intervened, and asked why not? Dad said no one else wanted to go and I couldn't go alone. So Bhai said, "I'll go with him." Mom and Dad both said no, but Bhai insisted. So he and I went. The ride started slowly -- some easy rights and lefts, some ups and downs. But then we picked up speed and went up steep climbs and gravity took us down some big dips. I glanced over at Bhai. He had his eyes shut tight, his chin tucked into his left shoulder. I honestly thought he had died of fright right then and there. I kept looking over as the ride went on -- for what seemed like hours -- and Bhai had not moved. I was thinking about what I was going to do when the ride ended: Flag down the guy in charge, run over to Mom and Dad and go hide somewhere until dead Bhai was taken away. When the ride ended and the carriage came to a stop, Bhai opened his eyes, took my hand, and we walked out of there fast. As we came out back onto the boardwalk and spotted Mom and Dad, I looked up at Bhai and was shocked to see him with a wide grin on his face, as if he had thoroughly enjoyed the ride. My dad asked how it was and Bhai said "bho majjha" (very fun). I was again shocked, but didn't say a word. I was not old enough to know about how adults engaged in impression management, or about saving face, or adult pride, but somehow I knew not to say anything about how scared Bhai was on the roller coaster.
One time, I was drinking a soda. It was a new brand called Shasta. It was named after a mountain in northern California that looked a lot like Mt. Fuji. Mt. Shasta was an extinct volcano and stood in solitary fashion, a lone peak that could be seen for miles around. Bhai looked at the can and read the brand name aloud. "Shusta," he said. "So, it is a cheap product?" he asked. I said, "It's not 'shusta.' It's 'Shasta.' Shasta is a mountain." Of course, I knew what he had been thinking. "Shusta" means inexpensive in Gujarati and he had assumed that this American soda company had decided to use a Gujarati word as the name for their new drink. I laughed until tears ran down my cheeks because Bhai kept insisting ? just to keep me laughing, I'm now certain -- that the soda company was using a Gujarati word.
Bhai was a big fan of Perry Mason mysteries. In India, he read every Perry Mason paperback mystery he could get his hands on. Bhai was absolutely delighted when he found out one afternoon that Perry Mason mysteries were on television. The shows were in syndication and he watched them every afternoon at 3. Mom would make him afternoon tea with a few biscuits and he would watch the show. Sometimes after school I watched with him. I always got a kick out of it when he recognized the case (always within a minute or two after the show started) and in his excitement would tell me what would happen next and who the murderer was. But I didn't really care, because I was usually there for the tea and biscuits and laughs.
Bhai slept on a folding bed in the family room where the television was located so he could sometimes watch television late at night, for news or some re-runs. In the early morning hours of June 5, long after everyone else had gone to bed, I heard him talking at the top of his voice. I couldn't make out what he was saying at first, but in a minute or two I understood. He was walking down the hallway towards my parent's bedroom, his headmaster's voice booming. "Kennedy shot. Kennedy shot," he said over and over again. I got out of bed and went to the family room. Robert Kennedy had just been shot in Los Angeles and my grandfather had witnessed it live on television. He was numbed by the experience. This was not like watching Perry Mason cases that he knew by heart. This was a real murder, in front of his eyes practically. He was not prepared for something like an assassination in a country that he endlessly praised for its abundance, efficiency, fairness, technology, educational system, clean public lavatories, and so on. I sat and watched the coverage for a while and eventually went to bed. Bhai stayed up all night concerned about the future of a country he would never visit again.
|My grandfather's visit to America
by Hemant Shah