My paternal grandfather passed away last year. He was someone I knew only from afar. In my memory he is but a cheerful greeting and a pat on the back that came with summer visits after every school year.
Our visits were brief but looked forward to, as he lived in the hills. He taught at a school there and refused to leave the place even after retirement. Reaching him meant hours of exhilarating travel up steep winding roads lined by forests on one side and a precipitous drop on the other. I remember how we used to roll up the windows, for fear of monkeys that resided in the area. It was not uncommon for them to swing off low branches and latch on to slowing vehicles to grab food from unsuspecting passengers. Once night set in, there were chances we might come across wild rabbits, deer and even herds of elephants. The memory of a lone wild elephant spotted one night still fills me with awe. Another vivid memory is that of a glorious sunset witnessed once, the sun a large ball of fire in the blood red sky, playing peek-a-boo from behind the thick foliage as we traversed the sharp bends.
Large tea estates awaited when we reached the top. The shrubs trimmed to perfection resembled green crocheted carpets strewn over either side of the road. We’d pass a couple of small sleepy towns, punctuated by wilderness and estates. I remember I always kept a look out for an ancient tree shrouded in mythical mystery. Every year I’d gaze upon it with wonder as my mother pointed it out and recounted the legend.
When we finally reached, the first to welcome us were large clusters of pink flowers that fell from vines that grew along the walls. All my life I have associated Rangoon Creepers with my childhood vacations in Wayanad. Grandpa would lead us in with his typically flamboyant pleasantries. In a corner of the hall lay his faithful sheepdog, oblivious to our presence, blinded partly by age and partly by the unruly mane over his eyes.
Most of my time there was spent going through his collection of books, usually abridged and illustrated classics in orange paperbacks. Every year I’d scourge the shelf for new classics, exalting in the discovery of previously unread ones. Otherwise I would explore the backyard up to where a small stream ran. An unused grinding mill stood there, surrounded by thick layers of rice husk coughed up over the years, replacing soil. There were guava and mango trees nearby which bore fruit in the summer, and I’d munch on freshly plucked ones happily if the monkeys did not get to them first.
While books and nature always engrossed me as a child, people seldom did. I don’t remember ever having a real conversation with my grandfather. This is partly due to the fact that my visits dwindled after high school and ended once I went off to college. Me coming home became a rarity in itself, and travelling to meet him was out of the question. I was too busy growing up to notice he was growing old.
Last year, I made the journey again after nearly a decade. The place has undergone drastic changes in the last years. The climb up is not as steep anymore, the roads having been widened to facilitate the growing traffic. Wayanad is now a hot spot for people seeking ethnic enclaves and picturesque getaways. Large billboards boast of ostentatious resorts that cater to every need. Institutions have sprung up in between the tea estates. My fabled tree of old is easy to make out now, as the area around it has been cleared and fenced to mark its existence.
A great many people showed up for the funeral. I knew my grandfather as a teacher, a retired Headmaster. But everyone who gathered had a lot more to share. I was intrigued to discover he had been instrumental in turning part of that isolated village into the town it is now, using his ties with the ruling political party to erect the first schools there and the first bus depot. He had been President of a regional bank. He had a degree in Law in addition to Literature. My ideas about Grandpa faded, and in its stead I saw a curious young man, charismatic and fascinating, alive through all who had truly known him.
As the stories poured in, I felt a deep sense of loss. In all those years as I scourged for orange paperbacks, I had missed out on this particular classic.