Early each morning the priest arrived and my husband and his brother left with him for a nearby spring to perform the prescribed set of rituals by the side of a mountain stream. This was carried out day after day for 10 days, so the soul of Babba, their just deceased father, would be freed of his earthly bonds.
Many years ago, the spring with the adjacent land was donated by Babba to the town of Almora where he was born and breathed his last. This, he explained to us, was because various local rituals needed to be performed along a body of flowing water, and he thought if the spring and the slopes around became public property, the folks in the area would be rid of the tedium of long treks to the river and back.
“After this I shall own no land nor assets other than this house that I live in, and that is how it should be,” he’d said.
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Though he served through his long and distinguished career all over the country, at heart Babba remained a highland man—a pahadi, upright and fiercely independent, with little use for worldly possessions of any kind.
In this he was a most atypical product of the Indian Civil Service (ICS), spawned by the British in a colonized land during the prewar years when the sun did not set on the Empire. Our pahadi relatives, who came down periodically from the hills for a visit, were alien to the world and the language of the privileged band of ICS officers, and but for Babba’s generosity and the warm welcome extended by his gracious wife, my mother-in-law, most would have chosen to rush back like startled deer.
Babba and Mami’s hospitality remained legendary among the clansmen and anyone who wished to negotiate a match, shop for a wedding, appear for an interview or needed a medical check-up, was welcome to move in to stay till things were sorted out. This required not just a genuine warmth from the hosts but also free access to a large and comfortable home and transport. And Babba and Mami saw to it that their old-fashioned relatives always had what they needed even if it meant denying many things to their own family.
After he voluntarily resigned his last job as the governor of Punjab, Babba shrugged off all dire warnings of friends and well-wishers about going to live in what still remains the proverbial one-horse town. Having removed himself to Almora with his deeply loyal wife, he achieved what every migrant dreams of but seldom does: completion of the immigrant’s journey back to his roots and a perfect symmetry in life.
In Almora, Babba and Mami moved into a simple traditional stone house built by his father about a hundred years ago. It was a sunny house surrounded by flowers of many hues and filled with souvenirs of a long and happy married life: photographs of children and grandchildren and great grandchildren, interspersed with delicate old porcelain figurines and vases made of terracotta or gigantic gourds painted over with bright colours by some local artist.
In their living room a simple takhat (settee) was strewn with cushions of many colours and was flanked with many mismatched chairs from another age. An exquisite old statue of Vishnu in an alcove beamed with benign indulgence at a gathering of the grandsons’ plastic dinosaurs and a medley of antique can openers nuzzling at its feet.
“Old age, like living in the mountains, is not for the faint of heart,” Babba used to say, not angrily but with a gentle smile as worsening eyesight made it hard for him to indulge in his favourite hobbies: reading and going for long walks.
Towards the end, Mami became his eyes and the main connecting link to the rest of the world. With her sudden passing away two years ago, his mind had become more introverted and his memory begun to scour the past more and more, looking for something to hold on to.
He’d sit for hours in his favourite chair without speaking, just soaking in the happy sounds of children playing in his courtyard and listening to the news over the All India Radio.
Visits pleased him, visits from old friends and his grandchildren and the great grandchildren, the messengers of life and mortality. “Give me your hands,” he’d say to them when they approached him. He stroked their palms and faces gently, absently, as if re-reading a long forgotten poem.
In our last meeting about a week before the end came, we sat around him in companionable silence as usual and heard him reminisce about the town as he had known it. Then he suddenly began to stoke the prospect of his imminent death like a fire in the grate. “I have been cared for very well,” he told us. “But my time has come, and when it is time for someone to go, even children must let go of their parent.”
He said it calmly. It was clear he did not want our pity or sorrow, yet his faint voice carried a gentle plea for both. I heard the sons telling him gently perhaps he was just tired after a long day. Would he perhaps like to be put to bed? Would he like some hot milk maybe? But in our hearts we all knew it was, by then, entirely beside the point.
From the motor road the house appeared frail and small. A tiny pearl lost among hideous modern buildings towering around it. By deed it may now belong to us, but for all of us it will forever remain Babba’s house.
Mrinal Pande likes to take readers behind the reported news in her fortnightly column. She is chief editor of Hindustan. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org