Thursday, May 12, 2005

Dennis The Menace, part II

My parents and I have been sitting around the dining room table, swapping stories.

My mom and dad (or Mummyji and Papaji, as we call them in India, with the customary suffix -ji denoting formal respect) were "arrange-married" in the early sixties. They came from very different Brahmin backgrounds.

Papaji's family was of very modest means (he rode a bullock cart to school) but well-educated -- they were all either village school-teachers or priests. Mummyji's family was wealthy, and my grandfather was a successful CEO. He had an outsized personality and was a cultural sophisticate. He was also a fearsome autocrat, charismatic but extremely temperamental. Adults or children, we'd quake in his presence and speak only when spoken to.

Scouting around for a husband for his only daughter, my grandfather one day paid Papaji's home a surprise visit after having quietly researched the family. No one was home but my dad and it is believed that the cup of coffee that he whipped up for his guest was so good that my grandfather instantly decided that this was the man his little girl would spend the rest of her life with.

Grandpa traveled a lot, and we saw little of him. Once, when I was five, he took us out to the ritziest restaurant in town. When he asked Papaji what he'd like to order, I blithely interjected, as my parents watched in horror: "Beer!" My grandfather's eyes narrowed, he fell silent, and it is said that he was always a little suspicious of poor, abstinent, clean-living Papaji from then on.

I have few memories of my grandfather. When I was twelve, he retired and made plans to come and stay with us for the first time ever. A week before he was to arrive, we got the phone call to say he wouldn't be coming.