Saturday Features

Conversations are all

  • When people age and retire to their limited spaces, the walking-talking section of the society begins to forget that conversations are important for the elderly, too
- Prateebha Tuladhar

Nov 4, 2017-

I sleep in the room exactly above the one my grandfather sleeps in. My bed sits in the same position in my room as my grandfather’s in his room downstairs. We fall asleep, when we do, in the same corner of the house. Me upstairs. Him downstairs. 

Some nights, I wake up to his coughing. And I stay up in bed, listening, wondering if he is alright. When he goes quiet, I try to lull myself to sleep by the sound of the pigeons outside my window. There’s something weird about the way they make that guttural sound.

I can’t decide if I like them more or the noisy chirpy sparrows at the kitchen window every morning, hopping around demanding feed.

The pigeons are different. They sleep, standing on my window. Their eyes shut, their head slumped into their body, like feathers were a muffler pulled over their neck.

Sometimes they make short sudden flights to the my neighbour’s house, sometimes they fall halfway, then fly. 

My grandfather says they defecate all night long. Their droppings land in splotches on the cemented yard, disturbing his sleep. He doesn’t think much of them. Just ‘elements of disturbance’. He says he lays wide awake all night some nights because of the pigeons. 

He feels disturbed easily these days. It’s quite unlike how he used to be. I’ve always known him to be a sound sleeper. I wonder if my grandmother’s passing has anything to do with his sleeping pattern.

The two maintained a strict routine, part of which he still follows. Like all office goers, the two followed the same discipline for all the years of their lives together. They went to work at the same time, returned home at the same time from their respective offices. Sipped the local brew together before dinner and went to sleep to wake up to the same thing the next morning.

When they retired (and they sought retirement together), their lives fell into a different pattern, similarly. Breakfast-TV-lunch-nap-tea-TV-dinner-sleep. And repeat. The cycle broke when my grandmother died. Maybe that disturbed his sleep pattern and now he spends some nights, just lying in his bed, pretending to be asleep.

We spend nights awake together sometimes. He downstairs, and me upstairs. I toss and turn in my bed, allow a thousand thoughts to cross my mind. There are forgotten friends, childhood trespasses, dogs, books people never returned, money people owe me, stories I want to read, but have not.

There are all these thoughts. It makes me wonder what thoughts must race through my grandfather’s mind. Especially since he’s become a walking talking, prized furniture in the house, who walks only to get to the bathroom, the balcony and the dining table, and talks during meals or if someone in the house, in between all their running around, finds the time to listen to him.

On a recent evening, when I arrived home early from work, I found him him sitting in the drawing room quietly. I joined him and we were soon talking about his childhood. I turned on the recorder on my phone. He started talking about my grandmother. We fell in love between smiling at each other, he told me. When he saw me push the phone closer, he asked me if I was recording. 

Don’t record the love bit, he said. But he continued talking about how they had met at a friend’s place in Calcutta in the 50s, where my grandmother worked as a nurse. For days after the first meeting, my grandfather made rounds of the Neel Ratan Sarkar Medical Hospital canteen, where they chatted over tea.  At some point they were married and they had their first child—my father.

It was several days to get to Kathmandu from Calcutta in those days. My grandfather recalls taking the train to Gorakhpur and then changing buses and walking to get to Kathmandu. But he fails to give me a break down of how many days it took.

He tries to describe their rented rooms in Calcutta, the rent, the price of sugar. But he forgets. He says the rent was two rupees per month and sugar was thirty rupees per kilogram. I ask him to repeat and he says he can’t remember.

Maybe it was 30 taka, he says. And he got paid 200 rupees for every tuition class in classical music he offered. That sounds like a lot of money for those days, I say. And he says, maybe that’s not how much he was paid. But he can’t remember. 

And he switches to the description of his childhood days in Jhinjiya, somewhere in the Tarai he says, where his father was a Thanedaar. He talks about an attack by dacoits and how his father hid him in the rafters while a shooting went on outside the police thana.

Everything he recalls appears in fragments. They do not add up to anything solid. But he smiles as he talks at something only he can see in the room. He also remembers to tell me not to record. He says it is embarrassing. I ask him why he must be embarrassed over a recording when he loved playing the sitar to hundreds of people.

“Because I can’t play anymore,” he says. 

He had a regular club of neighbours and friends who came to him to listen and learn during his heyday. But the day he stopped playing, the house grew quiet and the people suddenly disappeared. Overtime, my grandmother became his only conversing partner.

The rest of us only talked to him about the things that people generally talk about in a household. There was never a conversation that lasted hours. But the two of them would sit in their room talking all day. They would sit on the balcony talking. Sometimes, hum together. 

When my grandmother died, my grandfather was more worried about my heartbreak than his own. He kept saying it out loud. It was like he was deliberately looking away from his own pain, so that he would not have to think about it.

A person is, while the person can. And although we try to take great care of him—make sure he get his meals and teas on time, keep his room clean, give him shaves and haircuts, and make sure the TV in his room is working—we all fail him at conversations. But we all see that all his waking hours are spent before the TV. 

Published: 04-11-2017 08:25

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