This morning, I was rummaging through my mother’s stationery drawers, looking for a notepad. As I dug deeper, I found an old, yellowed, barely used notepad with a cooperative bank’s logo and header. Across the first leaf was strewn his name. In his characteristic, well practiced, fine handwriting. I turned the page overleaf and fingered the mirror embossing of his name on the back of the paper. It felt as smooth as his podgy, smooth hands. And suddenly, I felt like a seven-year-old, snuggled next to him for an afternoon nap.
Dada was my maternal grandfather. He was born in a small village near Satara, in Maharashtra to a house of plenty. There was land, there was the “wada,” (large, stone house) and he was his grandfather’s pet. (Dada told us stories of how his grandfather would come to school to steal him away for a bit because hot puran-polis were being made at home!) Even as a child, N. S. Kulkarni was brilliant. He did consistently well in school, and was always ready with the correct answer. An inspector was once doing the rounds of his school–his dropped into the kindergarten class and asked Dada to draw a hen. never a man of great artistic talent, my grandfather drew an egg. The inspector demanded an explanation, reading the act as one of toddler rebellion. Dada calmly explained that the hen would come out of the egg.
The rest of Dada’s childhood and youth was just as turbulent as his early days were smooth. He lost his mother, the house almost burned down in a freak fire accident, and his father remarried and got stricter with him. Dada was made to rise at 4:30 a.m. every day and write four pages each on Roman and Devnagri scripts. This was followed by a recitation of multiplication tables. A young and sleepy Dada would fight it all. He was then sent to Pune for better education opportunities. Here, he stayed with his maternal aunt, who ran a “khanaval” or canteen for students. The financial condition of the house was not very comfortable, and Dada would contribute whatever money his father sent him as pocket money, ignoring all the letters instructing him to use the money to feed himself sheera and fruit. He earned a Sanskrit scholarship in college, taught tuitions, and funded his way through college, earning a Masters degree in Economics.
Around this time, he met Aai, my maternal grandma, who happened to be the niece of his hostel mate. Aai would come to the boys’ hostel to teach Dada Hindi–perhaps the only subject Dada was weak in. The young couple tied the knot despite disapproval from Dada’s father (Dada was not going to accept dowry and he, a Deshastha Brahmin was marrying a Koknastha Brahmin girl–blasphemy!) and Dada eventually worked his way to being an IAS officer, holding many important positions in his career.
But that was NSK, the man. My Dada was so much more than just a self made, successful man. This was the man who woke up at 4:30 and 5 (latest) in the morning and first checked if my brother and I, sleeping in the other room, were well covered under our blankets or not. Invariably, he pulled the blanket a little over and covered our ears because he said ears get cold first. He walked the entire stretch of Marine Drive and back every single day of his long life in Bombay, never forgetting to pick up a fallen flower from the Canon Ball tree for me on his way. On days that we accompanied him, we were always, always treated to a tender coconut on the promenade. As we ate an early lunch with him before he left for his small consultancy firm in Nariman Point, he would supervise our plates closely and encourage us to eat more daal or mix our rice in the middle of the plate so it wouldn’t spill. He took us on holidays, we traveled in the most luxurious modes of transport, and were generally made to feel very special.
Dada is also singularly responsible for the mad obsession with which my brother and I eat fruit–every day, Dada would bring home the best, most fresh, most expensive seasonal fruit home for us to eat. Mango season was another thing altogether. Boxes and boxes of all kinds of mangoes would be bought in varying degrees of ripeness and set on beds of hay in the library with studs of onions here and there to help accelerate the process. Every morning, before lunch, he would sit us down and teach us how to identify a ripe fruit. We’d then carry basketfuls to the kitchen to make aamras to dunk Aai’s hot polis in. On his way home from work, he would bring us roasted peanuts and gram–50 paise a cone then–as an evening snack. Then, once he’d have freshened up, we’d make our way to the park on the corner, where after all the playing around, we were allowed horse rides–five rounds of the park each–fifty rupees per child everyday–what a treat!
Dada coached me through the tiresome Economics I had to study in college but was thrilled when I took up English Literature and did well in my Masters. Despite a very risky spinal surgery at the age of 75, he had recovered on sheer will, and was back at his walks. Most importantly, Dada was a people’s man. He loved having people around him, and had a huge circle of friends and was always everyone’s favorite relative. My grandparents’ house was always full of visitors, and I will never forget the number of people who gathered for his cremation. He always supported my career choices, and was very content with my choice of MK as husband. By this time, of course, he had stepped into Dementia, and I knew I was losing him–he wasn’t the same guy–neither physically nor mentally. I’d wake up in the middle of the night and tiptoe into my grandparents’ bedroom to check on him. But it wasn’t enough–I was busy growing up, busy finding a career, busy falling in love; and he needed me to be his little grand daughter again–he needed someone to listen to the egg-hen story again, and I just didn’t have the time.
When Dada suffered a stroke, I was visiting MK, who I was engaged to at the time. That morning, when I left the house, he said to me that I should be spending more time in the house because I’d be moving away after the wedding anyway. Those were his last words to me. That evening, as went out for his walk, he suffered a stroke. And I wasn’t there when he wanted me by his side. He spent a few days in the hospital, and I barely managed the courage to go and see him. And yet, when I went to say goodbye to him just before his cremation, he had the calmest, most loving expression on his face. His glasses were perched on his nose just so, and he looked ready to put on his suit and go marching for another very important meeting.
It is almost seven years now since he’s gone, and I can’t let go. Not yet.