Letters from my Grandmother

Fiction Apr 17, 2020

Our family has never been very ‘normal’. We’ve never quite managed to blend in, to exist without the eccentricities that define us. In a way, I think, it all began with my grandmother. Born into a Bengali-Hindu family in Bangladesh on the eve of India’s independence, she saw her house destroyed by angry protestors and her family name, town, and occupation changed within a week. Being a refugee in her own country, she narrowly avoided the Partition riots and settled in a village in Nagaland, but she could never avoid the casteist slurs that fell upon her from the mouths of Hindu farmers. She was a cautious, paranoid and deeply lonely child. Her father—the closest person to her—in his position as a lieutenant colonel in the Indian Army, often forgot about the general existence of his family and preferred to be posted across the subcontinent for different missions. In the midst of these changes, the giant library in their house became a sanctuary for my grandmother, a place to make time fly until her father arrived. The love of books that she developed there has been passed down the generations, making an imprint on every member of our small family tree.

My grandmother’s life was a collection of novels. Her husband, the newspaper editor, made it his life’s mission to turn their apartment in Kohima into a library, filling shelves to the point where they sagged like an old woman leaning on her cane. A writer himself, my grandma’s husband loved books truly and completely. Sometimes, I think, he loved the books more than he loved his wife. In this love, more than in any other, they were united.

But my grandmother did not simply read books, or love them, she lived in them. She was a thousand pages at once: a librarian, a model, a struggling woman from a Dickens’ novel, a criminal on the run, an unrequited lover, a mother of two, and a widow. Like the characters, she grew up and aged within the novels. You could see her in the smudged ink, in the woody smell of the brittle pages. Her heels were as sharp as her tongue, her watercolour pencil makeup always in place. Like the hero in an epic, she seemed invincible, and although her name was not Mary Sue, she became her. She lived in the dog-eared pages and the underlined paragraphs, in the marks that others left in the stories she shared with them.

Her children grew up differently, though. A lawyer and a journalist, they both examined the sentences with a magnifying glass, losing sight of the metaphors along the way. They dismantled the castles in the air and tried to turn a world of imagination into a world of reality. For them, there were no games.

Ever since she got married, grandma had wanted to write a book, a novel perhaps, something that would serve as a testimony to her existence. But every time the opportunity rose, she refused to finish her work out of fear of the neighbourhood misogynists and Hindu supremacists. The clocks kept ticking though, and while my grandmother stuttered uselessly through half-formed words, her husband kept her connected to life. He accumulated all the paper-notes that she’d studiously written over the years and kept them safe in a locker so that not even she could destroy them. After a decade of arguments and torn out chapters, the pages were spread out on the carpet and my grandfather was spread out on his grave. Cancer did not care about lost opportunities. Even now she does not talk about him. The words never leave her mouth and they cannot be found inscribed on any piece of paper. There are glimpses, but only as disguised puns and jokes, like an introduction to a book that was never written.

And so the wind picked up. The pages fluttered. After his death, grandma packed her luggage and took the train all the way to Kolkata, holding on to her bags the way a scared child clings to his pillow at night. For the first time in forty years, she was going to live alone. She would need a job, but she spoke no English and her Bengali was heavily accented. She was terrified.

The stars do not smile on us mortals often, but sometimes they snicker.  On her fourth day in the city, grandma found work at a local psychiatric hospital. After a lifetime of meandering inside the paperback world, it was now her turn to become the storyteller. Her job was to read out inspiring tales to PTSD patients and encourage them to write and share stories of their own. She took her work seriously, and within a few years she’d become a different person. She sat straighter, almost as though she was afraid of becoming a sagging bookshelf that nobody ever touches out of fear of it breaking. Despite the weight of a foreign culture on her shoulders, she smiled calmly at unfamiliar faces and went about telling her stories.

After a lifetime of novels, she became a magazine. A Bengali bride. A crossword, a joke, a laugh escaping from stranger’s mouth, a newspaper headline. In Kolkata, she wanted nothing more than a simple, quiet existence, and her life story there was reduced from a dramatic tale spread across three states, involving partition riots, giant libraries and a dead spouse to a simple love story, an office romance forged by convenience. Her new husband has no library.

His name is not Marty Stu, but he is perfect. He loves her, even though he is unable to read the words and can only look at the illustrations. He loves her not for the witty quotes but for the chapters. He cannot read, but he knows that novels are not meant to be summarised into paragraphs and put away out of sight. They are meant to be breathed in, to be injected into your bloodstream until their stories mix with yours, until the words blur and smudge together, until the pages have been read a thousand times. He knows. He tries.

The great thing about books is that there’s always more to find. My grandmother is now a bilingual, an immigrant, a gardener, a cook and occasionally even a shopkeeper.

“If your life was a novel, would you read it?” she would ask me. She has always had a way with words.

I lay back into my chair and exit the email. My hand moves on autopilot as I copy the contents and add it to the folder in my laptop called ‘Grandma’. The file number reads 76. One day, I think, I will publish these letters. I will preserve her voice and put it in print so that others can finally read the painstakingly lived letters and understand all the confusion, loneliness, heartbreak and joy that she has been through. So that somebody else’s eyes can ghost over the paragraphs of her life. Novels, after all, are meant to be shared.

-Shagnik Chakravarty

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