I wrote this in April last year and I didn’t have the heart to publish it till I had a conversation with a close friend yesterday about emotionally absent grandparents. I discovered this in my inbox this afternoon — like a sign from The Universe. Maybe I’ll never make peace with the grandparents I never had. Maybe I’ll be lucky enough (if I ever choose to raise children) to watch my parents become the grandparents I didn’t have. Till then, I have this.
When I walked in to watch Kapoor and Sons, I was expecting to be hit in the face by some extreme good looks and a tidal wave of emotion. Within the first half an hour, I was in love with the grandfather (played by Rishi Kapoor). As his stubby fingers navigated their way across an iPad, discovering YouTube and YouPorn all at once – I giggled to myself.
The flights that Rahul and Arjun take to meet this adorable old man when he has a heart attack reminded me of a flight I took two years back to my own grandfather’s funeral. He was the only living grandparent I had known till then. In contrast to my inconsolable cousin, I was a picture of nervous calm. I had a dissertation to submit in four days and while I was concerned about meeting my mother who had just lost a parent — honestly, worrying about an emotionally absent grandparent’s death was not a priority.
The family I consider my own is very small and comprises my parents and myself. Anything outside that remains an extension of it. I was always told that family is everyone you’re directly related to by blood; that you cannot choose your family. No matter what age I am, I have wished, at least once a year that I could choose my family. More importantly, I wished I could keep my grandparents – the ones I never had the opportunity of knowing.
The one I did know refused to ever look me in the eye when he addressed me. I may have been in his prayers by default, but I was never in his line of affection. His funeral two years back left me feeling a lot less than I should have when family passes away. My 12-year-old cousin looked at me and asked, “Don’t you miss him at all?” I struggled to explain that he had given me nothing to miss. The pain of being the ignored grandchild is one I don’t wish to share, but I guess it would be fair to say I have a skewed idea of grandparental love.
My other grandparents had passed before I was born or soon enough for me to have little to no memory of them. Relatives who knew Ammachi (my father’s mother) tell me that I remind them of her. She was, at least in photographs, a formidable woman and I am told that was the case. She kept to herself and dominated the kitchen with the few things she knew how to cook. I would love to describe myself that way, but my twenties-esque lack of identity stops me. I just believe what they tell me. I am told my other Ammachi (mother’s mother) would have been appalled at the way I sleep off in the middle of mass at church or that I would have enjoyed Appa’s (father’s father) dry sense of humour.
But, I will never know.
The myth-like quality to these anecdotes about my grandparents makes me wonder how my life would have been different if they were alive and a part of my life. Maybe, I would have spoken Malayalam better than the polite nodding and half-Tamil I pass it off as. Maybe, I would have appreciated a generation I have no ties with. My fear of offending people way older than I am that comes out of a fear of authority would be replaced with love for other old uncles and aunties who reminded me of my (as I would like to imagine) doting grandparents.
Instead, I have been bestowed with a blank space in my brain that I fill with pictures and anecdotes I don’t get to relive in vivid detail. I am stuck with the memory of a dark room and calling out for Appa as he called out my name. I may not remember his face outside of what my parents or old photographs tell me, but I live off this manufactured memory. I know Ammachi is watching over me as I sit in the living room of our ancestral home – a 1BHK flat in suburban Mumbai. Yet, I cannot help but wonder where she was when my best friend was showing off the sweater her Paati knitted for her in the sixth grade. I wonder if she could even knit.
Growing up in Saudi Arabia in the ’90s and the early ’00s ensured that I lived in constant fear of the wars I heard about on TV. My parents did not shy away from exposing their child to international news (But, God forbid I watched a kiss on TV) and it scared the bajeezus out of me. What if the bombs that rained from the sky obliterated the exact half of the house that my parents slept in? It didn’t make any sense and my parents laugh it off when I tell them of my childish fears, but the fear persists. As is the case with most Indian families, I wouldn’t have had grandparents to be passed on to in the event of my parent’s eventual demise. As an only child, I have been trained to understand that this is a reality and not even a far-flung one. Sure, it’s in the (hopefully) distant future, but I have been taught by my parents to never expect the safety net of family to spread wide open for me if they ever had to depart before their time.
When I watched Kapoor and Sons last week, I found myself thinking, “Huh. I don’t have a family like that.” I love stories about dysfunctional families and this one hit it out of the park for a Bollywood movie. All their problems aside, there is no way you cannot help but feel for the Kapoors trapped in their own egos and past wounds. Dysfunction isn’t ideal at all, but family is.
My parents and I often huddle up together and miss these grandparents that their parents would have become and never did. They wonder the same things that I do and marvel when they see their parents in me. This is not just a story of me reflecting over absence. It is a story of my parents’ loss too, and having to live with the fact that their parents would never see their child become the adult that I am becoming. While in the movie, Dadu Kapoor was a constant source of stories to anyone ready to listen, we made our own. Somewhere, I realise now that my parents tried their best to never let me miss the presence of a grandparent.
As Rameshchand Kapoor’s presence in the film becomes the anchor for the family that has drifted away from each other, I wonder where my anchor is. Is my anchor my father, the only man in the mother-father-child trifecta and my favourite voice of reason? Is it my mother, the pillar of strength and goofballery? Or is my anchor more like a compass within me, pushing me towards new places to call home and new people to choose as family?
Watching Dadu Kapoor made me realise that family is more about the emotion than the people in it. It didn’t matter if you hated them on most occasions, but the people you call family are just going to be there forever. It reminded me that home has to become literally where your heart lies or whom your heart lies with. It could physically be thousands of miles away from you, but if you feel you’re home – you have probably found family.