Thursday, May 23, 2013


This weekend I went to visit my grandparents in Canada. All four of them are still alive, which was a fact I took for granted until a couple of years ago when my paternal grandfather (my Dadajee, in Punjabi) started showing signs of dementia. I was his first grandchild and he has never made bones about the fact that I'm his faraway favourite (out of four) but suddenly I could tell he wasn't always listening. I'm still his favourite though, and when he had his stroke, when he was diagnosed with cancer, I was still the one he asked for. He still has sharp moments, no doubt, and most of the time he's there, but sometimes he just stares blankly into the middle distance and it kills me. Part of that is his mind...but part of it is the fact that he doesn't like to wear his hearing aids because he thinks they make him look old, so he doesn't hear the conversation that's going on around him. That's the same reason he won't use a cane, despite the fact that I'm pretty sure his life would be a lot easier with one. This past winter he crashed his car into a snowbank and his car stalled. It was 40 degrees below zero that day, and he didn't have a way to reach anyone. He could have died. A Good Samaritan came by and helped him out, but he could very well have been a Bad Samaritan and god knows what I would be writing here now if...the wreck itself gives me chills when I think about it, the "what ifs" aren't even possible to delve into because of the horror they inspire. I mean, I'm horrified as it is, to watch my Dadajee fade slowly. And yet, I would much rather this than the alternative...because I'm cruel, because I'm weak, because I don't have the strength to let an old man rest.

Because he is a proud man and he's aware of his condition, and because his deterioration is as painful to look at as the sun itself, I haven't had very many real conversations with him these last years. Every week we talk about the classes I take in school, what I'm learning, when my finals are over...but nothing beyond that. Finally my grandma, who is still as sharp as a tack and takes her responsibility to him very seriously, told him to tell me about his life as a younger man. He obliged. The story of my Dadajee's life begins: "I was born in a room with no windows."

My Dadajee was born in 1922 in what is now Pakistan. We are Hindu. In 1947, the Muslims of India were granted a homeland, and Partition began. For Indians and Pakistanis alike, the word Partition strikes a certain type of dreadful chord in what I guess amounts to ancestral memory, even for those of us who weren't born for another forty years. The slaughters, the destruction, the hatred on both sides...Dadajee told me that Muslims pulled his male friends' pants down as they tried to cross the border into India to see if they were circumcised...and because they weren't, they were killed (I have little doubt that the mirror image of this atrocity was committed by Hindus on the other side of the border). Dadajee dressed his grandfather and aunt in burkas so they could make safe passage to the nearest Sikh temple, and he left them there. I didn't find out what happened to them after that. He told me he was in a caravan of 90 trucks on his way to India when he made an hour-long detour to check on some relatives. When they got back on the road, they passed all 90 trucks, every person in the caravan had been killed. Their bodies were visible from the road. Dadajee came from a rich family, lived in a house with 6 stories, but they lost everything. When he crossed the border, they took the rest of his money and he lived by buying milk at the store and selling it to fellow refugees at an inflated price. The profit from these transactions sustained them, in that he and his 3 sisters, younger brother, and mother could buy enough chickpeas to eat once a day. They lived like that for years, until Dadajee and his family emigrated to Kenya. When Kenya achieved independence, they feared that there would be a coup, or some violence, as there had been in other African countries that had gone through the same transition, and they emigrated once again, to Esterhazy. My dad only had short pants and short-sleeved shirts, and they got there at the end of the Canadian summer. He got frostbite that made his ears stick straight out from his head. They were so unprepared.

And that's the tip of the iceberg. I don't really want to go into it more but this has been weighing on my mind; the untold epic of every person's life (well, some people's, not mine), the fact that these important histories go untold and for no reason other than nobody asked to hear them. The fact that we can care so much about someone, and yet not delve deeper, never know what makes them tick, never really see them in the context of their lives. That's an idea that's been on my mind lately too, that we claim to love people and never really make the effort to know most of them. It's not enough. We have to do more, just to love properly. I have to do more.

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