My grandfather was a vestige of our colonial past and India's nascent restorative democracy following independence.
|Like many second-generation Indian Americans, I grew up with my grandparents, especially my father's parents. They lived with us for most of my childhood and watched my younger siblings and me grow up.|
In May, my paternal grandfather passed away, exactly one month before my dad and I could call him for Father's Day. We never harbored any illusions about his mortality, but his death shook our entire family. As my father said, we were left "like a sail boat without sails in a windstorm in the sea."
My grandfather was with me on my first day of elementary school, took me to the movies and went on field trips with my class. Growing up in an all-white, conservative part of Cincinnati was far from easy, but my grandfather was there to help me get through tough times.
Though my father helped mold me into the man I am today, it was my grandfather who reminded me of where I came from. In many ways, my grandfather made India and its history come alive in a way that no textbook, movie or family vacation could.
My grandfather was born in 1913 to a Brahmin petty landowner who had lost all of his property. His early years were spent watching the Indian independence movement gain momentum, despite the reactionary laws passed by the British colonial government and Katherine Mayo's racist book, Mother India, which was meant to cast colonialism in a sympathetic light.
Thatha grew up in poverty and was raised primarily by his mother and older brother while my great-grandfather left the home for extended periods. His experience living in poverty taught him the value of money. My grandfather was judicious when it came to money, investing wisely while maintaining a very close monitor on how he spent every dollar. As my uncle later recalled, my grandfather's diligence with money reflected the fact that he knew that financial security was fleeting.
My cousins and I - all of who grew up outside of India - referred to thatha as the Don because of his seemingly endless "side" dealings. We often wondered if our grandfather wasn't really a powerful underworld figure with a vast empire in Tamil Nadu and beyond.
Our imaginative musings aside, we knew he wasn't one to shy away from investing in things he cared about, particularly when it came to matters of faith. At the age of 91, he funded and personally oversaw the construction of a Ganesha temple in our ancestral home of Kodumudi, a village located on the banks of the Kaveri River. Like his father, my grandfather also donated annually to the Tirupathi temple, a tradition he passed on to his children and grandchildren.
The lives of my dad and his siblings revolved around thatha, which made my life and those of my cousins inextricably linked with him. To us, thatha's aura was a place we could find shelter in when we questioned our identity and walked the line between our Americanness and our Indianness.
My grandfather was a vestige of our colonial past and India's nascent restorative democracy following independence. He grew up in poverty and rose to become part of the petit bourgeois in Tamil Nadu, instilling in his children and grandchildren a sense of Brahmanic entitlement at a time when postcolonial Tamil Nadu attempted to redistribute opportunities to non-Brahmins.
Thatha tried to join Gandhi's satyagraha movement when it came to the South, but when his British headmaster found out his plans, he warned him that he would be expelled. "I couldn't leave school," Thatha recalled to me in a conversation several years back. "It was one of my biggest regrets."
Though he protested British rule, my grandfather - like many of his peers who grew up in the throes of a colonial-era education system - internalized the supremacy of the English language. He was taught the importance of the English language as a means of securing employment, a lesson he took home and practiced daily for over 80 years in daily diary writing.
I used to find his admiration for the British both confounding and frustrating because of the history of oppression. He used the "master's language" to keep track of his daily routines, from family affairs to land sales to musings about the world, and was proud of his English fluency.
But his English-language diary entries always ended with the words, Om Jai Ram, as if reaffirming that the British influence on his thinking could never take control of him. He might have been colonized, but he refused to be conquered.
My grandfather's belief in education also shaped who and what his children and grandchildren became. Part of that faith was shaped by his own college experience, where he worked as a canteen boy to pay for his tuition. Despite being teased incessantly as a "water boy" by his classmates, my grandfather stayed in school.
My oldest uncle settled in the Netherlands and became a highly successful executive who returned to India after retirement to take care of my grandparents, while my dad, my younger uncle and my aunt, the youngest sibling, all carved out successful careers in the United States.
Thatha wished for my dad to become a doctor, but because of Tamil Nadu's restrictions on Brahmin admission in medical school following independence, it was a dream that went unfulfilled. But my grandfather's regret that his son didn't become a doctor turned out to be a blessing for us. My siblings and I did not grow up insulated - a common perception about second-generation Desis - and followed our convictions to careers in social activism. Our professional paths were a direct result of Thatha not being able to send our father to medical school, and for that, we are in his debt.
In his last years, my grandfather pined for one last chance to come to the United States, his adopted home. He wanted to see his grandchildren and great-grandchildren, read the American newspapers he had become so fond of reading, and catch up on politics. He had long been a big fan of Joe Biden (despite Biden's recent controversial remarks about Indian Americans) and said he wanted to return to the United States to vote for Barack Obama.
In our last conversation, five days before the Pennsylvania primary, he asked if I thought Obama would win. I said I did, but cautioned him that America's history of racism might continue to pose a problem for any nonwhite person.
But my grandfather remained confident, holding faith in the education of the American people. It was that faith in education that had, after all, guided him from poverty to family patriarch and transformed him from a simple Brahmin to a modern-day Bheesma.
Thatha made sure that he instilled in us - his children and grandchildren - that same faith, even though it took some of us longer to find it. In losing Thatha, it seems I have finally discovered his true legacy.
Om Jai Ram.