I have my grandfather’s hands. They are square and hardy. They can hold a lot. Like him, I suppose. I used to hate my hands. I have always found them to be too masculine and bulky. Too much for me.
I have spent years hiding them, or wanting to (how do you hide your hands?). I yearned for the kind of slender palms and delicate digits that can slip on rings and be painted with mehndi. That can be admired. Like my mother’s hands. Feminine and nurturing, so maternal. “They are like the hands of Buddha,” a manicurist once told her. Holy, you know?
But I have always been told that I have my grandfather’s hands.
My family would laugh that when I turned off a tap (or “closed” it using our turn of phrase), I would often screw it so tight that only I could retrieve it back to “patency” (life). I guess this is some sort of allusion about being “stronger than you realise.” Still, these are the only hands I’ve ever known. They feel heavy and unbreakable. I suspect my compulsive nail biting harbours some subconscious intention, mildly disfiguring them. Don’t forget my strength or my sensitivity. They are not mutually exclusive, the act says.
My Dadaji was very much heavy and unbreakable. Like so many hard men. Or so everyone thought. It’s hard to say. An orphan, he was born out of the blood of his blood – Partition. As India and Pakistan ruptured, so too did a part of the young Bhargav. It hard to imagine my grandfather as a young boy. Today, watching him walk, you’d be forgiven for assuming his deliberate, laborious gait is a product of old age. But I think he’s always walked like this.
I was maybe two years old, we were on the outdoor balcony of our house in Vikaspuri, New Delhi. I remember sitting on Dadaji’s shoulders, eating pomegranate seeds from a small silver bowl. Anār evokes qualities of flesh and blood in some, almost grotesque, way. I’ve always felt close to the fruit, despite rarely eating it since I first left India. The sensation of removing the seeds of fruit from their cocoon, feels like a liberation. Where perfect spores, beginnings, are sleeping softly in a corpus, before you emancipate them. But when I was a child I didn’t break open the fruit at all, my grandfather did that for me. Back on the porch in Vikaspuri, two years old, I laughed loudly and clambered onto Dadaji’s shoulders, swinging joyously from his neck. Or, do I actually remember this? Maybe it migrated to my memory from an old photograph. Does it matter? They say you don’t develop episodic memories until you are five years old. But where does it all go? I left India with my parents soon after this day. Maybe my infant mind knew something about keeping souvenirs.
My grandfather was a well-known poet. I didn’t know this until I picked up a book written about him when visiting the same dusty Vikaspuri house years later. Dadaji, yeh aap ke bare mei likhee hai? I queried with my broken tongue. “Is this written about you?” I was older now, about 12. Yes, he smiled, proud. Even then, to be a poet seemed to me virtuous work. Leafing through the terse pages of this hardback, I couldn’t read the stern hieroglyphs – it was all written in Devanagari. I located a small photo at the back cover. Glossy and unblemished, Dadaji’s image sat at the bottom corner, austerely looking out beyond me to the middle distance.
For all his poetry and eminence, my grandfather had, at the same time, been a terrible father and an even worse husband. My Dadiji recounts, quivering with bitterness, story after story of emotional abuse. Often while he is sitting silently next to her. Inhai poochho. “Ask him”. She uses the palm of her hand to point at my grandfather, without looking over, and continues her litany. There are decades of pain in her voice. I can’t imagine what she is holding on to. A lot. And I, have his hands. The same hands he would hit his family with. The same hands that would hurt my sweet, soft grandmother. I look down at my palms. I have never raised them towards anyone, but somehow I feel at a fault. Irrational, I know. But I don’t want this this terror in me. I don’t want any part in it. I wonder if the practice of confronting ancestral ghosts always leaves people aching a little.
I look over at my grandfather now –is this the same man? The gentle giant who sits quietly at the dining room table today. Still, almost always staring off into the middle distance. Doctors say the staring is one of the early effects of Parkinson’s, described by the term “masking”. To mask. But I get the feeling he has always been in hiding.
I wrote a poem recently, in Hindi. It was difficult for me, to both excavate the emotional sense in this language that has been severed from me and to share it with my family. After reading it aloud, I asked my grandfather, the poet, what he thought. “Oh, did you write that? I didn’t really hear you… Can you write it down for me?” I imagine what it is like to be his child. To be fathered by absence. Why am I frustrated? “What is it that you want?” I want to ask him. “How can I help you be glad and relieved and joyful? How can I help you come out of hiding?”
I think the question is actually, what do I want?
My grandfather was complicated (i.e. a person) but everything he did and everything he is is alive in me. I am, indirectly, a by-product of the experience of an orphan on a train from Pakistan to India. I am part of the ruptured geography of the great subcontinent. I am the parts of him that are feared and too, the parts that are fearful. I am both the hurting and the hurt.
I am my grandfather’s hands when they form fists, reeling from worldly injustice. I am his hands when they gather tenderly in prayer. I am his hands when they close taps too tight. I am his hands but adorned in rings and mehndi, painting bleeding pomegranates, my nails bitten to the quick. And I guess, too, I am my grandfather’s hands when I write.