Dadaji, my grandfather, was my mother tongue and my homeland. As I type this, I am on a foggy highway, driving from Delhi to Jalandhar with my family. Dadaji was visiting his youngest son in Jalandhar when he died at the age of 93.
Dadaji has lived with my parents in Delhi for most of the last three decades. I had always imagined that he would be home with them when the final moments would come, but Dadaji finally chose to pass on in Punjab. He chose his own part of the earth.
In Jalandhar, there is a temple where my grandfather used to take all of us grandchildren in the evening. I want to go back and touch its walls. I want to make eye contact with the deity he believed in. I want to ring that temple bell and look at the fish in the pond that we used to feed with atta (wheat dough) as small children. I didn’t see him before he was cremated but I want to say goodbye to him.
I look at the map of Punjab on my phone and I can read the names of towns and villages in my grandfather’s accent. Ferozepur, Rajpura, Malerkotla, Phagwara, Patti, Barnala, Mandi Gobindgarh, Khanna, Ludhiana. Makhu, my grandmother’s village. I can hear his Urdu-Punjabi accent clearly in my head but it doesn’t come to my tongue when I try to replicate it. You will have to imagine it.
Dadaji had a heavy, loud, coarse voice. The voice that he used most recently to call out to his great-grandchildren. Madhav, my brother’s son. Naseem, my daughter.
My grandfather’s name was Mulkh Raj—he who will rule his country. Born in the early 1920s, his name symbolized India’s aspiration for freedom from colonial rule. Dadaji grew up to become a postmaster. He was posted in Kasur (now in Pakistan) in 1947 when India became independent. My grandmother’s family crossed over to the Indian side of Punjab as refugees. Dadaji found them in camps in Dhuri and brought them home with him to Ferozepur.
Dadaji was the storyteller of our family. In my early childhood, when Dadaji was in his 50s, my brothers, cousins and I would listen to his tales with rapt attention. In his 60s, I would engage with him, cross-questioning him about contemporary politics, religion and women’s role in society. In his 70s, my brother and I would grow weary listening to stories we had heard many times over. Especially when they inevitably meandered towards how unhealthy our lifestyles were and how we lacked discipline in life. Like all good grandparents, he never gave up trying to reform us.
Two weeks ago, my 70-year-old father was joking with us that his father still scolds him when he feels that he is getting late for work. Papa’s childhood memories always feature a father so strict and harsh, that the children would run and hide when he returned home from work. Dadaji recovered his tenderness with his grandchildren. Even more so with his great-grandchildren.
Ever since the news of his death has reached us, I find that I need to stop every few hours and cry. Then I become absolutely okay and carry on with things that need to be done. My parents are relatively calm. My mother tells me that deaths like my grandfather’s are celebrated in our culture. A life lived well—full of good health and accomplishments, surrounded by family and friendships.
Dadaji’s passing away reminds me of my teacher, Father Os’ going away. That sense of grief as well as relief that someone so beloved is no longer suffering. That oscillation between celebrating a full life and grieving the end of an era. The legacy of gifts left behind by one who is gone forever.
Old age is a ceremony of losses, I read recently. In the last three years, Dadaji’s body had begun to slow down. He had chosen to have knee surgery in his 80s and had willed himself to recover fully from it. Now, early dementia had begun to set in. Although he was walking and socializing inside home, he couldn’t go out comfortably any more. He remained defiant to the end.
Dadaji was literally raging against the dying of the light and there was nothing poetic about it.
I have inherited storytelling from my grandfather. I hope I have some of his iron will. He remained loyal to one holy book all his life—his copy of the Bhagavad Gita in Urdu. He would read passages to us in Sanskrit and then follow up with the Urdu translation.
Dadaji taught me the Gayatri mantrawhen I had just started going to school. My grandmother and he were staying with us in Ranchi, supporting my mother to run her home with three small children. It was the right time and the right place for me. Throughout my life, I have discovered that in moments of extreme stress and helplessness, being able to bring this chant to my lips is what finally helps me collect myself together. Repeat it three times, he had taught me as a child. I have an opportunistic relationship with the mantra, and yet it never fails to work for me. By the time I am halfway through, I am calm and ready to face the world again.
“Namaste Dadaji,” my daughters and I would always say very loudly in turns, as soon as we reached my parents’ home.
“Jeendey raho,” he would answer. “Khush raho.” Live well, live happily.
I offer Dadaji’s words to all of you. My grandfather sends his blessings and best wishes to the land he had left behind.
Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker, media trainer and mother of three. She tweets at @natashabadhwar and posts on Instagram as natashabadhwar. Read Natasha’s Mint Lounge columns