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The Grapevine Art Salon

Ravi Kumar

Ravi Kumar

who wrote in the first Grapevine Salon of a harrowing experience as a fighter pilot, continues here to explore his life in two cultures, the traditional one of his grandmother in India and his new life of retirement in the United States. He lives in Lawrenceville, Georgia, where he paints and enjoys the pleasures of good conversation.

My Grandmother's Voice

On one of the early days of my flight training, when I was still a teenager, while I was flying inverted, held to my seat by the harness over my shoulders and across my lap, high up in the sky, all alone in a small trainer airplane, I heard my grandmotherís voice. Ravindra! What are you doing? Oh God, I told Shiam Lal not to send him to the Air Force. Now look what he is doing. Nobody listens to me. The voice was quite clearly hers. Shiam Lal is my father, whom she always called by his full name. I straightened the plane to fly right side up, and her voice died away. I had to reassure myself that I was alone in the cockpit. Then I had to land the plane, a task that demanded all my newly-acquired skills and all my concentration, so I stopped thinking of her.

Before sleeping that evening, I returned in my thoughts to the cockpit and my grandmotherís voice. Perhaps she came to my mind because what I was doing was so foreign to her life and her understanding. She was almost ninety when I began my career in the Indian Air Force. She had been born well before the Wright brothers in America had even opened their bicycle shop. She had never seen an airplane up close. She had lived most of her life in a small village in northern India, with no education and no opportunity to travel beyond the confines of her community. She had as a child been married off to my grandfather who was himself a child from a nearby village. When she was l6, she was sent off to join her young husband and to do what most women did in those days, to bear him children, cook and care for him.

Though I am now in my sixties and my grandmother died over forty-five years ago, I remember her vividly. She was a small, thin woman who lived with us during my growing-up years. Her face was deeply lined and her body seemed all bones. Most of the day she would sit on a thin, square piece of carpet on the bare cement floor of the interior verandah overlooking a courtyard. With knees pulled up, her back to the wall, a string of beads in her hand and fingers busily pulling the beads on the string, she would move her lips, making mantras without sound.

Having lost her husband many years back, she now lived alternately with her sons. She preferred the comforts of my fatherís house, where she had plenty of company. Besides the seven of us children, there were servants. She was well taken care of.

Grandmother was irascible. At times she complained against a servant, usually Tika, who was only a few years older than I. He performed all kinds of work for my parents, including strapping me to his bicycle for the ride to elementary school. He had been with us for as long as I can remember. Dedicated to my father and mother, honest and a man of few words, he nevertheless enjoyed teasing my grandmother. She had a small tin box that she kept locked. Nobody knew what was inside it. Tika would imagine out loud all sorts of hidden treasures in her box. Then he would announce boldly, ďMa Ji, One day I am going to pry open your box and see what you are hiding there!Ē

She would look at him as if he were a robber holding a gun to her head and demanding her cash. Then she would get very angry and threaten to go away. Soon afterward, she would remember that it was Tikaís habit to tease her, and she would calm down and go back to her prayers.

Once in awhile there was some unpleasantness in the household, which would cause her to demand that she be taken to another sonís house in another town. My father would try to pacify her, but eventually she would have to be escorted away. Her sojourn never lasted long. In a short time, she would be back with us, having forgotten what offended her.

Another memory illustrates how she was embedded in traditional Indian culture. She loved boys. Girls were a pain to be tolerated until they could be married off and sent away. Her preference for boys was rooted in the social structure where even today, in many communities, the girl child is considered a curse.

My cousin had three sons and two daughters. One day my cousinís wife unwittingly drew my grandmotherís wrath. It happened like this: she had knitted some sweaters, each one a different color, for her boys. Using the leftover wool, she knitted another sweater for one of her daughters. The multicolored sweater was bold. My grandmother thought that her daughter-in-law had been indulgent, that she actually preferred the girl. She pointed at the colorfully-dressed girl and said to the girlís mother, ďSo now you are decorating your girl like a queen and ignoring your sons!Ē Like a good daughter-in-law, the girlís mother kept quiet. The rest of us, knowing Grandmotherís temperament, laughed the incident away.

Belonging to the male species, I was much valued and loved by her, and I loved her in return.

One day in l958, while she was with my fatherís brother, her eldest son, she went up to the terrace on top of the house to sleep in the open so that the winter sun would warm her frail body. She rubbed her limbs with mustard oil and went to sleep, never to wake again.

Grandmother died as my thirty-eight year career in the Air Force was just beginning, two years after I had heard her exclamation of disbelief when I was alone in my cockpit flying upside down. Like many young men, I had been fascinated by airplanes, but my real motivation for flying had come from a dashing uncle, a pilot much admired in the family. She protested my following in his footsteps. And she would have been, of all people on earth, most shocked to see me flying. I could hardly believe it myself at the time when I so clearly heard her scolding me.

At her death, the family opened the tin box that Tika had threatened to rob, and in it they found only a few trinkets, including a gold chain, worth perhaps $20 in all. Now, hardly a day goes by without me thinking a little about her. How vulnerable she was. And how much I loved her. My memories of her are always tinged with some regret for this old lady and the opportunities of life that she was denied. Yet she was often happy and she was loved. Perhaps that is all that one needs to live a worthwhile life. And it may be that all the strivings and exertions of modern men and women are making them forget that there are joys in a simple life. Perhaps her voice that I heard in the cockpit, that long time back, was trying to tell me exactly that.


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