My grandfather speaks in haikus. He sees from behind thick and cracked rose colored glasses. And he listens as if he will hear God one day. He rises at 4 a.m. to walk beside wild dogs and lazy pigs on the beaten paths in front of his home before the moon has been swallowed by the sun. The air in Ajmer is brisk and cold this early in the morning, even during hot Indian summers, when the temperature soars above 40 Celsius well before noon. He walks when the thermometer reads five degrees. Sometimes I tell him, “Nana, you’re crazy,” but he laughs and doesn’t understand. Last Christmas, we bought him a thick cap to protect his ears from the chill and to shield his thoughts from being blown away with the wind, and gloves to keep his weathered hands warm and ready to write when he returns. Most people are waiting for something to happen, but my grandfather is not one of those people. He walks in search of something. I cannot say exactly what that something is, and I don’t think he can explain it either. Even though I am 17 and he is 77, we are on the same odyssey, a pilgrim’s process toward something. Perhaps it is completeness of the soul.
With the exception of a few puttering cars whose drivers are still wiping the sleep from their bloodshot eyes, and a poverty stricken wanderer who has lost his sense of time, my grandfather walks alone through the narrow drives of his colony. In the darkness, he thinks of his childhood, of the partition of India. He thinks of his parents, and the village where he was born. When he was my age, my nana had already been an adult for many years; terror, violence, and death made him old before time. Now time has caught up to him and has taken his thick hair, his hearing, and his health. In the dim glow of dawn, he walks beyond the crumbling home where he raised two children. He turned an abandoned dentist’s office with a leaky ceiling and steel pots on the dirt floor that overflowed into puddles during the wet monsoon into a home for his family. Tugging at his cap, he tries to hide his memories under the knitted wool until he is back in his study. He keeps his journals on a modest wooden desk where he writes. I imagine he must have hundreds of journals, piled as high as the Himalayas along the edge of the table. From the desk, he can see his garden through a large paned window adorned by heavy curtains that have never been drawn closed. But right now it is dark, and the flowers seem to be sleeping under a blanket of dew. In the day, the jasmine and lilies will dance to remind my nana that he is surrounded by life.
In the pool of light from a single lamp, he slowly peels off his cap and gloves and smoothes his wispy, white hair with his frail and wrinkled hands. With an ink-dipped fountain pen in his grasp, he scribbles quickly and the words spill onto a new page of an old journal. In his poetry he escapes reality, or rather transcends reality. My grandfather publishes his work in both English and Hindi, but today he writes in Hindi. I cannot read all of the devanagari script that looks more like pictures than letters, yet I can almost hear him reciting the poem in his tender voice and heavy accent. The verse is complex and wise, but raw and savage at the same time. The words burn my ears with dark intensity like a branding iron on calf hide, and I see his pursed lips scowling as he reads.
But as the sun seduces the sky with its warm and orange touch, I know my nana is smiling. These days he is always smiling. On the same desk where his yellowing journals sit, he has set up a computer and a web camera. He grins and claps his stained hands when we video chat. I am still adjusting my eyes to the light as my grandfather returns from work at the Sewa Mandir, a nonprofit hospital he runs with the help of my grandmother. It is 8 a.m. in Michigan and 6:30 p.m. in Ajmer, but his home and my home have never seemed so close. Today, though, I have trouble looking into his eyes and I stare down at my sweating palms. He knows that I haven’t been able to get out of bed for days, that I’ve been missing too much school, and that I’ve been overwhelmed by anxiety. I wait for him to ask me if I’m sick or if I need help, but instead he promises that I will be okay. He tells me that he and my grandmother got a new puppy: a tiny Retriever named Goldie. He tells me Goldie hides in his shoes and nips at his ankles on the cold marble floors. He tells me, “Goldie is very smart. He likes to play on the stairs. He climbs one step, and jumps down. He climbs two steps, and jumps down. He climbs up to the third step, but he knows it is too high and he does not jump down. Even Goldie knows his limits.” My grandfather learns from everything around him. He wants to help everything around him. “Break the shackles,” he says. Then, he tells me a story that I don’t understand: “There were two buckets. One was golden and proud, and the other was of humble tin. A thirsty traveler asked for water. Both buckets ran to drench him, but you know the water was the same.”
I have been told that I am a lot like my nana. I think that we both depend on the power of words to help us break free from the shackles that restrain us. Sometimes I feel like an old soul, tired from struggling under the weight of the chains, like I am 77 and not 17. I wonder if he is tired, too: tired of walking, tired of searching. I envision my grandfather on the streets of Ajmer, with his hands clasped behind his back and the soles of his shoes marking his path behind him. He is not tired. Nor should I be. This is more than an odyssey; this is evolution.