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The Guardian of Smile
|by Pramod Khilery|
It was the most unlikeliest piece of news ever broken to me. The moment my mother said, "don't get sad" with a tinge of choke in her throat before breaking it out my heart had begun to throb swiftly and my eyes had started rolling before them a film tracing the life of my maternal grandmother as I had seen it since my childhood. My grandmother is 75 but any remotest thought of losing her could have transported me into a world of unconsciousness. Within that fraction of second my face had moved from being a hurler of equanimity to a struggler making an attempt at holding my voice from falling and tears from moist eyes. And then fell that incisive sentence, "your mausaji…. Krishanji is no more". I felt as if it were a hammer blow on my head.
Discombobulated and convulsed, I said to myself, Krishanji mausa, how could he! I forget everything running through my head. I went blank. Sat in a quite corner in the library trying to remember the face of that man who was mausaji to me all these years and now I was being told that he was dead. Poker faced, staring at the magazine I had been reading, my mind went deep into the days I had spent with mausaji while bai (mother) kept talking on the other end telling me details. For next fifteen minutes, lost I was in the images of memories wearing a brooding look interspersed with moroseness on my face. This was the piece of news I couldn't have imagined in my faintest imagination. How could he? He was so young only in his fifties. No longer was I ensconced in my chair. I leaned forward, rested my right elbow on the table, put my chin in the cupped palm of my right hand and began to gaze into vacuum. Everything was before my eyes now. A film started to run unfolding all the episodes and instances of my life spent with him. He was there in every frame of film with his smiling visage mouthing witty rejoinders, telling me working of mechanical parts of his jeep, toiling hard at his home, driving jeep and tractor, having a cup of tea, gulping his daily dose of 'post' down his throat and doing myriad things. Half opened magazine was trying to cast its word in my eyes but mind was blocked. It was his face, his gait and his whole demeanor that had enveloped me. He had come alive in the recesses of my mind.
When I restored myself back to normalcy and came out of reveries the reality of his being not around anymore was buffeting hard. At a distance of more than 400km the reconciliation with the bitter truth was easy, devoid of having to see my cousins and mausiji grieving but yet hard to digest. But I knew the reality. My endearing mausaji was no more. This realization blanketed in 'My mausaji' had sent me far away from even imagining the plight of the family he left behind.
The earliest memories of mausaji goes back to my childhood days when for him, yet to become father himself, my sister and I were nothing short of his children. I recall with vagueness the day when he drove my mausiji, my sister and me on a tractor to a photographer's studio and made both of us children sit between him and mausiji as if we were his children. When photographer was about to click he asked me to put my hand over his lap. I have no idea what this gesture of his was suggestive of but one thing I can vouch for is that this touch must have given him the feelings of being a father vicariously. Another incident that rings in my head belongs to days when I was too small even to remember anything. So many times have I heard this incidence from almost every member of my family that it got imprinted on my mind. Once when he drove down to his in-law’s he parked his jeep outside the home. Around 8 or 9 in the evening when he was busy prattling with my uncle and aunties he heard the sound of honking. Immediately he came out to inquire who was fiddling with horn only to find a neighborly woman carrying a child doing the nagging act. He was just about to come down on the woman for having done so when he was told that actually the doer was the child. At this he cooled down and said it didn't matter. That child was me.
Mausaji is no more. Mere thought shudders me. I am yet not used to seeing my grandmother's home without my grandfather. The desolation is so scary. A man who was synonymous to activity won't be even seen anymore. Here was a man for whom procrastination was a non existent entity and problems just a joke to laugh at. He had this uncanny knack of extracting a burst of laughter from every situation however much grim may it be. How often he had me in splits through his sense of humor which made him come up with jocular remarks that he regaled me with in his own inimitable style. Mausaji had lost one of his hands to crop-cutting machine early in his teens. Yet never ever once did he whine about his having only one hand. On the contrary he would toil so hard that often people with both hands intact felt shamed. Neither did he let his handicap come in the way of his driving. He was one of the smoothest and cleanest drivers of transport vehicles I have ever seen. None doubted his driving skills, so much so that sometimes when he would hand over the wheels to someone else most often everyone in the vehicle would request him to come back at the wheels.
As I write this my eyes see a face. This face is innocent and smile-inducing but somewhere gives impression of being in some sort of indescribable conflict. This face endeared itself to children. This face when mouthed one liners listeners couldn’t help erupting into laughter. This face was also the harbinger of what the body carrying this face had been enduring for so long, trying hard in vain against the brutal desires of addiction. This face as it segued from sporting black whiskers to grey had made room for some wrinkles but not for moroseness as it faced so may hardships. This face had an ingenuous appeal to it. Behind the weight of grey was a face young and fresh.
During my Navodaya days he came to see me more than once on 'parent’s days'. Every time he came he did not forget to bring along fruits and home made food. Not only during my school days even when I was in Polytechnic College he came cropping up twice out of blue. I had been rambling about in the college campus when someone diverted my attention to a man near a jeep pulled up across the road trying to beckon me. When I turned around much to my pleasure it was mausaji. He picked me up, drove straight to woman's Polytechnic where Pooja, my sister, was studying, picked her up and drove straight to a restaurant. He and mausiji made sure that both of us had good time and dropped us back at college. He did this whirlwind twice. In both instances he came like a gust of wind, buffeted us with his balminess and took leave. Today I remember and say those were the days.
How often do we get to see a relative like mausa doling such affection on his nephew? My respect for him comes partly from his being an innocent person and partly his being so nice to me. How many times would he start telling me serious things he was engaged in endowing my childhood with respect? His talk interspersed with a very affectionate and fawning 'beta' telling me about intricacies of sundry things would make me nod my head often. I would feign comprehension of his mechanical terms laden jargon. Showering encomiums on me seemed to have become his second habit. More the number of people greater the degree of praise. During my salad days when I was groping in the dark to seize a job and traveled to Chandigarh he extolled my virtues before the bodyguards and police personnel of a certain minister to such an extent that for most of them I was a paragon of virtues. Though I did not succeed in landing a job but I got dollops of love and affection from police personnel who otherwise are so infamous for being uncouth and boorish.
Ever since I gained my consciousness I always saw him driving one vehicle or another. In my childhood every ford tractor was an instant reminder of him. In later years when he bought another tractor, for some inexplicable reasons I could never associate that tractor to him. Such was his fondness for vehicles that almost all my memories of him have one vehicle featuring in it alongside him. In some way he was incomplete without a vehicle. He would often travel to my nanihaal and our home on his jeep and sometimes on even tractor if the nature of work required him to do so. Though he must have traveled on buses and driven other vehicles as well but it is so difficult for me to imagine him without his jeep. As my mother told me when once his jeep met an accident on their way to Haridwar, once he was sure that everybody was safe he turned his attention to his jeep and he had his heart out of him at seeing the mangled state of jeep. He was almost inconsolable. To me his entire persona was tied with first ford tractor and then jeep.
Up until a certain time rattle of his jeep followed by honking was such a part of our life that it became synonymous with him. Towards the later years of his life this rattle and honking became very infrequent. No matter what we were busy with we would hear the rattle of vehicle and we knew it was him. Most often even before he honked. The sentence "Krishan ji aa gaye (Krishan ji has come)" would float in the air. He would halt the vehicle, wait for someone to open the gate, if opened, O.K. otherwise he would get down and open it himself and bring in the vehicle. Often I would find him busy with his jeep, setting something right, fixing some snag even before having had a glass of water. His jeep was his greatest friend. During our run-ins with our virago neighbor he and his jeep were only one call away.
To his children he was an indulgent father. On most occasions he would pander to their choices. So far as I know he could never bring himself to hit children physically. If he ended up scolding his children out of a fit of anger a minute expression of dimmed and pale visage of his children was enough for him to give in. Then he would start trying to please them. I never saw him making children the target of his ire.
Besides these whenever I came home I would get to hear innumerable stories of his hardships every year. On meeting I would try to read his face expecting some, even faint bearing of those bitter episodes but he would defy my expectations. I would find him enjoying his life in the same vein with the same jest as if nothing had happened. He was made to go through the most trying times by the quirks of fate yet he remained same as he always had been; spirited and vibrant. Instead of marks of his fights with fate all that I could glean from his face was an infectious smile.
I had last seen him a year and half ago. Our full family sans my Daddy had gone to Katehra, the village he lived in. As we all were sitting in the room he sauntered in holding something in his hand, exhausted, making clear he had been toiling hard, passed that very old smile and blurted out, "you have become an officer". I couldn’t say anything other than throwing a meek smile. That was the last time I would see him. He seemed in hurry and walked out of the room, never to be seen again, now ever.
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