Roots: Gap Year Week 26

My grandparents live in Vizag, or Vishakapatnam, a small coastal town in Andhra Pradesh. At least I’ve been introducing it that way for the last eighteen years.  But it’s not any more: Vizag is now the biggest city in the reshaped state. Though Vijayawada is the capital (with an apparent “smart city” courtesy of Singapore architects eventually on the horizon), development has hit it strong. In my first days, sunburnt still from the Andamans, my grandfather and grandmother took me to the beach, visiting the Kali temple that overlooks the shoreline. As we drove along Beach Road I realized suddenly how many restaurants, stores, buildings had come up—a new five-star hotel, a coffee shop, and I had a passing sensation of being somewhere else altogether.

I’ve been coming to Vizag for as long as I can remember, to the same first floor apartment off the main road that my grandparents moved into in 2000, the year I was born. Some trips have been with my extended family: I remember sleeping in the living room with both my cousins and my brother. More often (especially as us children grew too much to feasibly all fit on two mattresses) my family has come together, nearly every year, whether for a month or a day.

Over the visits, I’m used to hardly anything changing—the same patterns on the couches, the same large TV cabinet, overflowing with knick-knacks I’d spent lazy afternoons categorizing. Maybe there was a new TV, or a new car, but still, there was the copy of Jurassic Park I had returned to year after year. And at the center of it all my grandparents: my grandfather, who, though now bald, still retaining his tall movie-star looks, insisting I take third helpings at every meal; and my grandmother, who has the softest hands and the softest smile, and saves every memorial coin she finds for me.

After a week in the unfamiliarity of the Andamans, I was looking forward to the five days in Vizag. No one will take care of you like your grandparents do, my mother reminded me just before I arrived. Finally, I was reaching somewhere like home.

Seeing Beach Road crowded surprised me, because it was a reminder that—shocker of shockers—that everything in Vizag has changed, that my grandparents are older in the same way I’m no longer two feet high. That my grandfather can no longer walk the 10 kilometers he used to, that my grandmother gets tired more easily. That things in me have changed, too: I won’t pick up shells along the beach or try to pet stray dogs or dive as wholeheartedly into the waves that drown several every year. That time is inconstant and the universe is unyielding and oh god it’s already January and I’m going to leave Asia for forever (1) in eight months.

The moment of existential uncertainty passed as quickly as it came. My week in Vizag grounded me, not least with the weight I put on being stuffed by my grandparents. I had little to do in the very best of ways. I actually sat and watched sports for the first time in years. My grandfather and I continued our yearly habit of gin rummy (sans betting) while Serena Williams dominated the court. I tried, also for the first time in years, to develop opinions and intelligent conversation about the game. Thwack. Thwack. Thwack. Tennis is powerful, but it’s also slow, stretching out over long games and sets before reaching a match. My grandfather, trained by five-day cricket test matches, has developed an unbelievable stamina for tracking every piece of it, understanding how the player’s confidence, technique, energy shifted from moment to moment and patterned over the hours. The days held that same kind of slow power.

My grandmother took out the old family photo albums and paged through them with me: the pictures of me, my brother, my cousins, as chubby faced children and flailing toddlers, my mother as a schoolgirl staring down the camera with the exact grim face she still gives me, my father at their wedding with the most ridiculous mustache I’ve ever seen that made me burst out laughing every time. My grandparents on his side, who passed away years ago, and I tried to look in my grandfather’s face for recognition. In the older pictures, my grandmother drew out complex family trees for me. The long Telugu names slipped out my mind like water, but I repeated them after her like a mantra.

Both my grandparents came from villages near Elluru in Andhra Pradesh, but raised my mother and uncle in central India, where my grandfather worked at a steel plant. They would go back to visit, over a days-long train ride that passed through Vizag—then even smaller, a town that sprung up around an old navy base. Eventually, they’d arrive back at the villages where my grandfather and grandmother grew up. My mother has spent my childhood telling me stories of the summer, her great-grandfather’s mango orchard, the milk sweets, the potter’s village, the fan they clustered under. The long hot days.

One day, my grandmother took out a sheaf of pages from her cabinet, each clustered with tight rounded Telugu. The language, which is my mother tongue, I know as well as the back of my foot—that is to say, not at all. Over visits to family friends and family that week, I got used to sitting in silence while conversations flowed around me, perfecting a blank, smiling expression that my grandfather laughed at later. After 18 years of it, I am used to not knowing Telugu, used to being quiet, used to searching for the lone English word or the tone of voice that will tell me which direction the conversation is heading in. Still, every time someone asks, a note of pity in their voice, “Oh, she doesn’t understand?” it’s a reminder of the distance between me and India, the physical ocean between Singapore and here resulting in this linguistic gulf. And I feel a little sad.

But my grandmother sat on the bed with me and went over the pages, translating to Hindi for my expat ears. This is my childhood, she told me, and drew out her world in the village. The cyclone that hit one year, shattering their house and all the silverware, and the frantic rush to her uncle’s place, how she had wandered off near the well, how her mother had found in her in the pouring rain just in time. Her uncle, who told stories while she and her cousins perched on his feet and stomach and head, and a sweet potato plant in his massive courtyard. Her schooling, till 11th grade, which everyone told her mother—my great-grandmother—she was crazy for continuing so far: she had to move to a different village for it and hire a cook, just to learn, and eventually it was easiest not to. But she wanted an educated husband and so married my grandfather, one of the few, if not only, college graduates in the area, even though he was from a different village.

I typed up pages, translating into English the best I could. Stop typing, she said, I’ll just tell you, but I kept my laptop open. This world was so far from me, but it was where I came from. I couldn’t understand Telugu, so maybe I could try to understand this. This was my history, too, and I wanted to grasp it, to press it against my chest so hard it became one with my body, so I could carry it with me wherever I go.

My grandparents are not glamorous people. They grew up with farming parents in tiny villages with limited exposure. But I am so proud of my grandfather, who fought his way into one of the nation’s top colleges for the first degree ever in his family, and of my grandmother, who never restricted my mother in anything. This heritage can never be built over.

And the city will grow, and I will grow older, and so will they. But they will always want to put more food on my plate, always want to make my favorite snacks, always be ready for a game of rummy or a story. Of everything in Vizag—of everything in the world—in the last eighteen years, the vast generosity of my grandparents’ love has changed the least.

I love you too, Amama and Tathu.

(1) Or, like, at least four years, which is basically the same thing.

tathu tree.jpg

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5 thoughts on “Roots: Gap Year Week 26”

  1. Hi Tanvi, loved your write up about your grandparents. Every word you wrote about them is so touching, true. Nostalgia engulfed me because I experienced the same warmth, love and affection from them. Bless you. Your flair for writing will take you to new heights. Continue speaking your heart, get them published from time to time.
    Sudha
    Bhilai.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi!Tanvi
    It’s fantastic expressions you made about yr grand parents from yr heart. You made me remember my grand parents. Thank you.you may not remember me. But you stayed in our house at bhilai during yr mother’s short visit,when you are small.
    Ravi uncle

    Liked by 2 people

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