Bringing Up Father
Preetha Jayaraman writes about that time in our adult lives when roles are reversed and our parents become our children.
It started with a WhatsApp forward. A sketch of a little boy standing on a mound holding the hands of both his parents, their image was reflected in the water at their feet but now the boy was an adult holding the hands of his ageing parents. A simple sketch but its profundity haunted me.
We were taking my 89 year old grandmother for a checkup. She barely moves around at home anymore. A fall had scared her into bed rest. We booked one of those wheel chair friendly cabs, a boon I tell you. Even the doctor took the number down when he heard about it. We were plodding through Bangalore traffic when my grandmother started asking us where we were going, and would the doctor come into the van to see her. My father explained to her that we would wheel her into his clinic. She nodded. We reached the end of the road and she asked again. This time I told her that she didn’t need to walk, we would be able to wheel her to the doctor’s room. She said OK. On the way my father told her to look at the sights, “this is M.G Road, this is the metro train.” She did. We went to the hospital, during the checkup she was trying to be patient but after a few minutes she looked at me and said, “are we done, can we go home?”
The checkup got done. She was fine. In good health. We shared juice outside and she told me my salwar kameez looked funny, it was the re-invented palazzo version. I told her it’s comfortable, she laughed. I opened my phone to check something and she pointed at my daughter’s picture and said Mira and smiled. We drove back. On the way back, she asked how she’d get home. My father told her we would wheel her into her room and straight to her bed. She nodded. After ten minutes she asked again. “How will I get home?” I told her, “don’t worry, you don’t have to walk. We will wheel you to your room.” After a pause she asked me if I would come all the way home with her and drop her. “I’m scared,” she said, a little softer. I said yes and looked out of the window suddenly teary eyed. Remembering the razor sharp woman who used to match wits with everyone, always sitting with her crossword and pen in the balcony, famous for her twenty questions to anyone who came by. She had taken me around the world when I was ten. Draped in a sari, wearing sensible sneakers we had travelled from Lucerne to Maine. She was always in charge.
Now my grandmother tells my father she wants vanilla ice cream and mangoes every day all summer. He knows it’s bad for her but he buys it anyway. She is the child who makes demands and commands. I scold him for buying it for her because this means he walks in the sun everyday to buy it for her. So my sister installs Swiggy on his phone and I buy the ice cream and mangoes once a week when I go over.
When my father called me one afternoon three years ago and said he wanted to move to Bangalore and live close to his daughters and grandchildren, I was aghast. Because it meant we would sell our home in Madras and it was like chopping off our roots. But I heard in his voice a need for our approval and we said yes-great idea! In a matter of months we sold the house and he moved here with his ageing parents. He got right into my children's lives. He even got an Instagram account and likes their photos and writes comments. I get jealous sometimes.
I am envious that my daughter hugs him with abandon, something I can do only in my head. There’s a pat on my leg when I’m sick or sleeping and a call every day around the same time to ask how my shoot prep or shoot is going. Are your assistants coming? Have you prepared well?
So we do this little dance of caring. Not appearing to be worried but we do worry. I look at my parents from a distance in a mall and notice my mother holding the side of the stairs and climbing gingerly as her knees are weak and my father helps her gently. I hear my mother talking to hers and know she misses her and worries about her. She tries to go to Madras to see her as much as she can but the months in between get longer some times. Once her trip to Madras got cancelled, her bags had been packed a week in advance. The suitcase filled with things for her mother, aunt and brother lay in the corner of their bedroom. We were talking and suddenly she broke down like a child and said, “I want to see my mother. I really wanted to go.”
Then on a cold day in November I find myself on the steps of the Ghats of Benares. The boats bob, the babas petrify and the puppies huddle together to keep warm. I’m sipping lassi in The Blue Lassi shop and three corpses drift past, men chant with their feet drumming on the stone. I walk through the narrow lanes, looking at locked doors and make way for cows. In Manikarnika Ghat I watch a man reading the newspaper as a body burns. At a distance, a father is dunking his little baby girl into the Ganga her screams turn into giggles. Every morning the sun rises, and the boats awaken, last night’s lit lamps float along the boats, like white flowers. Everything makes sense here. Or it feels that way. Even the monkeys have wise eyes though my friend tells me not to make eye contact with them. We pray to the river, light lamps for her. We immerse ourselves in her. And the calmness that creeps in while I sit where a baba sat looking at the rising sun on the last morning is not going to leave me. It has changed my alchemy somehow.
I’m home now and I hear my daughter calling me, “come sleep next to me Ammu, I’m scared.” And I turn off the lights hug her and think about things. My grandmother, my father, my daughter. How parents show their children sights, tell them to look at this and look at that when they are little. How they hold their hands to help them walk, check if they are eating properly, going to the bathroom regularly and sleeping well. And how time twists things around and bends them into a circle. Parents become children and children, parents.
And just before I close my eyes I think about the flowing Ganga and the oar slicing the water and a kind of acceptance sets in.
Preetha Jayaraman is a cinematographer, the non-bearded variety, and is called ‘Cameraman Madam’ on the sets.