Eleven years ago, under the sequinned sky on a warm summer day, on the roof of his palatial home in the town of Vrindaban, my grandfather introduced me to wonder. As I lay on a mattress surrounded members of the family, my grandfather or “Nana” as I used to call him, asked me to look at the sky and try to spot the patterns and the constellations. “What does that look like?” he would ask, pointing to the Little Bear. “Um, a cart?” I would hesitantly venture. And he would chuckle and acknowledge what I had seen. He never denied my experiences. If it was a cart I said I had seen, as far as he was concerned, it was a cart.
Often, Nana would start telling my brother and I tales from Indian epics – the “Ramayana” and the “Mahabharata” – and the storehouse of literature that was broadly classified as folklore. He’d point to a star and say, “Do you see that twinkling star? There it is next to the baby star, a little to the left. “We’d crane our eyes and try to find the star he was referring to. When we had found it, or thought we had, he would start telling us the story of that star.
“Now that is Sage Vashishta, the royal priest in the court of King Dashratha, and next to him is the fearsome warrior Parashurama. One day, Parashurama was alone in the forest and he heard a cry for help…” Nana would go on, transforming the stars into embodiments of ancient historical figures and the end of the story was always the same: after the characters died or ascended to heaven or whatever, they always became stars. Even today, when I look at a big bright star, l wonder what great king, prince or beautiful princess Nana would have talked about. Sometimes, I wonder if he is up there somewhere, perhaps the brightest star of all, gathering all the other stars around and telling them stories through the night.
As I grew up, I learned, of course, that Nana had made up all his tales and I often teased him about it. But he was never apologetic about it. “Learn to see the world in a grain of sand, beta (child),“ he would say, and then drag me off to see the thousands of temples that surrounded the town that was famous as the birthplace of Lord Krishna.
In the narrow, brick-lined streets of Vrindaban, (so narrow that barely two persons can walk side by side), Nana would walk with confidence. As I hurried alongside, trying to keep pace with his long-legged steps, he would start narrating his favourite tale of Krishna. “Here Gopala (alias child Krishna) would stand with his little feet planted firmly on the ground with his hands stretched across the narrow lane till they touched the walls on either side,” Nana would say as he stretched his own hands across to demonstrate how easily his hands could touch both walls.
Some women approaching from the other side looked confused and seemed to be wondering what Nana was doing blocking their path. Nana promptly explained in Braj (a Hindi dialect common to the region), “Ladies, I am just trying to explain to my granddaughter how Gopala used to harass the women of Vrindaban.“
Suddenly the women’s annoyed faces were transformed as they smiled and laughed knowingly at one another. In their presence, and not in the least bit embarrassed, Nana carried on. “So, where were we? Yes, Gopala blocking the way. Well, when the women came down the lane with their earthen pitchers of butter resting precariously on their heads, he would demand loudly, “Give me your butter or I will not let you pass.” The women would beg and plead, threaten and cajole, to no avail. Gopala would not let them pass. Finally, the women would relent and hand over their freshly churned butter to Gopala who would gleefully wolf it down,“ Nana said ending his tale.
But he wasn’t quite finished. He turned to the women and asked, “So, ladies, what do you have in you pitchers? Maybe you should let us have something before we let you pass.” Like a merry game, the women made a big show of appealing for mercy while Nana played the adamant Krishna. Finally, one of them looked into her metal container and took out some sweetmeats and handed them over. Nana passed one over to a delighted me and “wolfed” down the rest himself. After saying “Radhey, Radhey” (the standard greeting in this Krishna-obsessed town), we moved on to other lanes, other stories, and I hoped, other sweetmeats.
Then five years ago, Nana died. In the middle of a hot summer afternoon, someone rang the doorbell. I opened the door and found myself facing a stranger who asked, “Does Mr. Balakrishna Gupta live here?” I nodded, wondering why the man was asking about Nana since technically Nana lived with us only for a few months each year. Before I had time to think of an answer, the man said, “He’s dead. He died in a car crash on the Delhi to Vrindaban highway.”
“He’s dead.” It was a simple and straight-forward statement and the man, who happened to be no more than a passerby on the scene of the accident, was obviously in a hurry to get out of the searing Indian summer heat. As the fact sunk in – and my mother confronted the loss of her father – I walked around in a daze, sometimes fingering the strings of my sitar (Nana always assured me that I was a wonderful player even though it was more like hellish jangling). Other times I simply sat on my bed, closed my eyes and traveled back to the days of my childhood and days spent with Nana. The memories came back crystal clear: Nana teaching me how to fly a kite, fire a gun, feed a monkey without getting hurt, making a necklace of the fragrant harsingaar flowers to offer to the gods, and how to repair a broken tap with shreds of string. As I sat there still on the bed, I could see where my sense of wonder had come from, where I had learnt to wonder about the birds nesting in the peepul trees and the stars and the moon in the sky. And as I sat there, comfortable in a different time and different place, my mother walked in and said, “Why aren’t you ready yet? We have to go to Vrindaban for the funeral.”
Back to reality. Back to the fact that my wonderful, eccentric Nana was gone forever. But the wonder remained. I don’t know how Nana’s magic worked – but it did. When I look at a star or a nail from an ancient boat my mind wanders and wonders about all the fantastic things that that tiny nail or brilliant star may have seen. And then I think of Nana and smile and know, “He’s not dead. How silly of that man to say so.”