Friday, July 17, 2009

The Flying Lesson

I could visualise him. Neel. My little wide-eyed, wanting-to-know-everything-about-everything grandson. All of six, he was the driving force of my sixty years. I could picture him right now, nose pressed against the glass pane of the window, waiting for me. Waiting for that evening at the aero-modelling club. While here I was at the Board meeting called unexpectedly, but unavoidably, on a Sunday.

I sighed inwardly. At sixty, I had retired from work. But not from life. I had always looked forward to a quality retired life. With my work having taken me far and wide, and reluctantly away from the family, when my own children were growing up, I had decided that spending time with the family would be a priority.

But work did not let me go so easily. As a member of the Board of Directors of three companies, retirement just meant that I didn’t have that corner office anymore. Meetings, seminars, conferences, award functions, still took up my time. Especially when all I wanted was time with the family. Especially the new generation.

Sometimes I wondered, was it because I was too busy when my own children were growing up? Did I lose out? Were they deprived? Then I realised that grandparents and grandchildren shared a special bond, and here I was experiencing one of those blessed relationships in life. I wasn’t going to think too deeply about it. I was just going to make the most of it.

Somewhere at the back of my mind, an article I had read began to ring true. It talked about how ‘Dads’ influenced children and their behaviour right up to adulthood. So what if his Dad was busy. I was a notch up: as a ‘grand’ Dad! I could still do my grandfatherly bit.

That’s how the ‘Grampa Sundays’ came to be. Every Sunday, Neel and I would plan a little ‘misshun’ on our own. It could be a visit to the museum, an hour at a distant park, the aquarium or simply a walk on the beach. It was just our special time together. Neel and me.

No bribes of ice-creams, special rewards of chocolates or promises of gifts from his parents could take Neel away from our little Sunday outings. On my part, I tried my best to plan something new every time.

A shuffling in the chairs brought me back to the meeting. It was decided to call the meeting to a close. As I got into the car to drive back home, I casually glanced at my watch. And gasped in dismay. It was past six in the evening. Neel would have had given up on me. It was too late now to take him to the open ground where they flew the model airplanes. Neel had been looking forward to it all week. And now I had let him down. My heart sank. How was I to face those big, brown reproachful eyes? How was I going to make up for the loss of a Grampa Sunday?

Then an idea struck me. I swung my car around, walked into the nearest department store. Within minutes I was on my way home. The temperature at home could have sent the hermits of the Himalayas into deeper penance. Gingerly I opened the door to Neel’s room. He sat on one corner of the bed, and gave me a reproachful sideways glance. Inwardly I thanked myself for my last-minute thinking. I would never have survived that look.

I went over and sat next to him. I knew this was not the time for an explanation. I simply said, “Sorry, Neel. You know the time we spend together is very important to me”. It was like the floodgates were waiting to open. He burst into tears. “But you promised to take me there… show me those model planes fly! I wanted to see those aeroplanes fly!”

My eyes welled up too. I quickly gave him the package, saying, ”You know what? There’s something better you and I can do today. Look what I have got for you. ”
Somewhat tentatively Neel opened the long rectangular gift-wrapped box, glancing at me in between, trying to gauge what was inside. When he opened he gasped. It was an aero-modelling kit of balsa wood, complete with a small motor. Quickly wiping his wet nose with his sleeve, Neel looked up at me and asked, “Can we make this… now?”
“Of course, we can”, I said, “it’s still Sunday, remember?”

We worked late into the night on our model. It was that of a World War II fighter-bomber. And as it took shape, even my heart raced with excitement. Neel was handing me little bits to glue together, running around with excitement from time to time, his hands spread wide like the wings of an airplane.

Neel agreed to go to sleep only after I made a secret promise to him. The next morning, we both rose early and went up to the terrace. There Neel took out his first model aircraft. Handing him the remote control I placed the little wooden plane at a distance. At the flick of the switch the motor whirred and the plane took off, tugging at the string that held it to the ground.

Looking at Neel’s face in the gentle light of the morning, my heartstrings got an even bigger tug. I may not have been much of a father, but by trying to be a conscientious grandfather, I had rediscovered my boyhood. Finally, I was flying as a grandparent.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Remembering Uncle Sam

The movie hall darkens. As the screen flickers to life and the images begin to fade in, a strange craving overcomes me. No, it overpowers me.
“Uncle Sam?” I hiss.
A crackling bag is handed over to me. I feel the warm stuff inside the bag. I’m satisfied and now I can settle down to watch the movie.

Somewhere I had read that there were certain associations can actually help one remember. Here was one simple example: movies made me ‘remember’ samosas! For me, a movie loses its flavour without the accompaniment of hot ‘theatre’ samosas. It’s nothing new. It’s something I’ve always associated with watching films, in the theatre in my younger days, and now even at home.

So much so that way back in our childhood, samosas got shortened to ‘Sams’ and then became a cryptic ‘Uncle Sam’. In other words, no movie was complete without ‘Uncle Sam’. That hot delicious savoury once almost set a theatre on fire, figuratively speaking.

I was all of eleven at that time.
My brother, fourteen, was a teenager who was at the stage when brothers did not want to have much to do with a ‘kid sisters.’ Home from his boarding school for the holidays, we were having our share of quibbles and fights. The film, ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’ had just been released a week ago and I kept pestering my mother to take me to see it. Bogged down with guests in the house, my mother hit upon an idea. She delegated the entertainment portfolio to my brother.

My brother was indignant. “Take her for a movie?!!!” He looked at me like I was something amphibious that had crept out of stagnant water. I opened my mouth to protest, but one stern look from my mother and I realised that silence was golden at that point in time. I turned and left the room, glowering.

Several moments later, I realised Mom had won the case. The die was cast. My brother, resigned to his fate, came out with his nostrils flaring. I was thrilled. I put my pride aside. For me what was most important was going to the movie.

But not that easily.
I was bombarded with a volley of instructions.
“You will not walk next to me. Walk behind me like you don’t know me.”
“Just keep an eye on me, if you miss the bus stop, I’m not responsible”
“And don’t talk to me in the bus.”
“Get off when I get off”
“And don’t talk to me, at all, ok?”

I promised without flinching. The desire to see the movie was so great. And so we were off the very next day. I was excited. He was still sulking. He strode ahead, hands in his pockets, thinking deeply about why God made kid sisters. I scampered happily behind him, determined to keep my promise not to talk to him right through the outing.

At the theatre, I waited patiently while he bought the tickets, and then we went in, sort of, together. Ushered into our seats I settled down to watch the movie. And then it happened. Those associations. Those memories. And an overwhelming craving. Forgetting all the promises made to him, I blurted out, “Uncle Sam?”

His look to me could have set, not just me, but the rest of the theatre on fire. He glared. He hissed. And then he spat fire. But knowing he could not do anything, he harrumphed and then stood up and went out. Five minutes later, a hot pack was thrust into my lap with another look that now sent me to the bottom of the evolutionary cycle. But the smell of the samosas wafted up and I smiled and settled to watch the movie. Any promise could be broken for ‘Uncle Sam’.

As we got older, we remembered that incident and laughed. Especially every time we ate samosas.

Years later, I was visiting him in the United States. On the second day after my arrival, my brother came home from work and handed me a packet smiling.
Looking inside, I saw a Blockbuster home video of ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’
And a dozen samosas.
“Welcome to Uncle Sam”, said my brother smiling.

(c) All rights reserved. Vaishakhi Bharucha