Trying to capture light - in one sentence
What it means to leave a legacy
Here’s a sentence about my Nani, my maternal grandmother — the only grandparent I knew. Even as both my parents have passed on, my Nani returns as a beacon.
This was first published in The Bluebird Word Literary Journal in July 2022.
My grandmother in one sentence
by Reena Kapoor
When she died I was well into engineering college battling my own confusions, resisting demands on my loyalty from family, country, love and looking ahead with such desperation that I refused to bother with any kind of history, even that which surrounded me protruding from the earth in every stone at the shallowest dig, brimming over walls of old buildings awaiting renovation, bubbling up in street corners among hawkers of food, color and cloth in of one of the most history laden cities of the world so much so that part of the city had been named “New” Delhi – even this naming was by now history – in an eagerness to cast off the old and tell the world we were new and arrived and secular and departed from our native soil and brothers and concerns and even this departure came back to haunt us years later but we didn’t know it then in the same way that I didn’t know she would come back to me later in life so when at the sight of her body a shaking sob broke through my worldly concerns and forward-focused attentions, I involuntarily reached out to touch her face, causing all the micromanaging elders around me to yell, “don’t touch the body” for now she was just “the body” and not the matriarch she had once been, which they didn’t like to admit she hadn’t been in over a decade since she was forced to live not on her own terms but those of her children within their rules and fences and with Alzheimer’s merciless dissolution of her identity, the same one whose sense and strength had built and rebuilt all our lives when the fates had come knocking to extract usurious debts which she could be held responsible for only as much as any woman in a society that made it a habit of heaping responsibility and duty and tradition and religious stricture without agency at her door can be, but which were now all paid or abandoned in this final departure so her beneficiaries could (pretend to) pay one last homage to her glorious past and her sacrifice, iron will and fearlessness, except at that age I wanted no part of this remembering because I had heard this ancient history umpteen times and knew it would devolve into a multilevel contest of tears and grief that uselessly distracted me from my singular focus of looking ahead to places my life was going to go where no one would want to know my tired history or even more tiresome stories of why my grandmother was forced to flee Peshawar, her home, her mohalla, her town of generational soils and how a woman who was barely fifth grade educated in a language and script whose use was confined to a daily reading of her holy book so much so that none of her children bothered to learn it and I most certainly did not except for the recitation of prayers that she taught my sister and I as children called paath which literally means “lesson” beginning with Ik Onkar (there is only one god) which I strategically utilized before school exams even as I was slowly turning atheist, something I never told her, I don’t think, but now in my middle age as I look for my voice and myself in the universe and wonder what I will leave behind, she often comes back to me and when I confess my atheism to her and that I have no use for religion and don’t find bliss in the paath she taught me, although I do remember it all, she simply ignores my protestations proceeding on to tell me qissas from her time and her journeys and when I marvel at her refusal to be cynical until the end, her kindness even to those who came to steal from her, and her steadfast attention to dharma in the face of insurmountable odds she simply smiles saying these are the only paaths I need remember.
*mohalla = neighborhood; paath = lesson; qissa = story; dharma = the right path
Yeah, that was my grandmother — the most fearless, righteous and kind woman I’ve ever known.
She lived a remarkably affluent life in Peshawar until 1946 when her husband was suddenly killed in a freak accident. Soon inter-religious Partition violence was erupting across India, so in the summer of 1947 she gathered up her children and got on a train to Haridwar, leaving everything behind. This decision alone was no small undertaking in Peshawar where women kept strict purdah; and her journey with her kids (and back and back again) is a harrowing tale for another time.
She settled in Haridwar to raise her kids, sending them all, including two daughters, to college. Considering the era, her conservative upbringing, and lack of formal training — a 5th grade education, married off at 14 — she was and remained exceptionally ahead of her times until the end.
Despite the rotten hand fate dealt her, my grandma never played victim nor shirked responsibility or kindness to others. Post-Partition scores of similarly displaced families would routinely arrive at her door. My grandmother took them ALL in without question, often for months on end.
Her life and legacy shine even more brightly these days. At my (decidedly middle) age, I meet too many people, stuck in a liminal state somewhere between peaking careers and looming death anxiety, desperately searching for meaning and legacy in strange places. Recently, I ran into an acquaintance I hadn’t seen in over three decades. Soon he was listing his career accomplishments, all the company boards he was on and the wealthy and powerful people he was connected to. When I tried to ask about his kids all he could tell me were names of Ivy Leagues they attended.
He’s not unique. Listing material accomplishments and connections to important people is how many of us try to stave off what stares us all in the face. But creating a meaningful life and legacy is actually much less complicated. My unschooled and humble yet proud grandmother demonstrated that better than most.
The memory of her life is a reminder that people who remain inspirations long after they’re gone are not those who enamor us with their social status or wealth or safe virtue-signaling. Instead, they’re those who stand with courage and kindness, for righteousness, for love, in times of fear, need, and uncertainty — often at a great cost to themselves!
It’s such people — even when they come and go without fanfare — whose nobility lights our paths long after they’re gone.
Your Nani and indeed all our grandparents were made of different mitti! She is inspiring and I cannot even the courage it took.
Thank you so much for introducing us to your nani who is so inspiring. Her resilience against all the tragedies she faced and yet her kindness is a paath we all need to learn in these troubled times. It is simple to remember but challenging to practice, especially for those with whom we disagree. We can spend the rest of our lives based on those two values- courage and kindness because that is all that matters while we live and after we are gone. I love these regular reminders as it is easy to get lost in the mayhem.