She died before they met. Eight decades’ worth of wisdom extinguished before they could share a smile or exchange a kiss.
In 2011, within the span of a few months, my grandmother died and my daughter was born.
She departed as quietly as she lived: A well-educated and proud woman, treading this world lightly with her cane and a bad ankle. My brothers and I called her Achchi (pronounced Aah-Chi), an endearing Tamil word of love and respect.
After my grandfather died, Achchi lived with us periodically. Between preparing meals and chatting with Aunties and Uncles from all corners of the globe, she would read. Newspapers, tabloids, novels, letters from home and aerograms from England – she read it all, in English and in Tamil.
I remember watching her turning the pages of her Agatha Christie novels with that recognizable hunch of her back and that ever so slight whisper of a smile as she got swept within the story. I became acquainted with Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot; Sherlock Holmes would pay frequent visits. The grown up world seemed like a just and fun place, where the good eventually caught the bad with wit, charm and a pipe that remained perpetually lit.
As I picked up novels for her at the library, I became accustomed to that now familiar and comforting smell of printed paper. I discovered the Hardy Boys and their audacious American adventures. I relished the small victories of those feisty Gauls, Asterix and Obelix, with every story ending as everyday seemingly should with a fantastic feast of wild boar and beer.
Words and stories became my solace, a temple of solitude I shared with her.
When Achchi moved for brief periods to live with my uncle, her hand written letters would inevitably arrive. She taught me how to master this necessary craft – the proper positioning and format of the date, the introductory remarks and the polite goodbyes. In between was the space to fill with love. Sometimes there were pictures embedded within the pages, but it was that familiar sweeping handwriting of hers that forged our bond of words.
While my brother stole the stamps off the envelopes, I collected those precious pieces of paper, initially out of nostalgia but later as a symbolic gesture of the beauty of our shared language.
My father shares my love for books and the written word. He marvels at the functional utility of ideas conveyed by words, and the potential found in that magical space between the ink. For Achchi however, the pleasure was merely in consuming and experiencing the words as they flowed out of the pages.
She read everything with graceful patience from start to end. There were hardly any judgments or prolonged debates about the merit or meaning of the author. For her it was either a good enough story or a good story. She let stories remain stories and life to remain something to be lived, a page at a time.
She rarely, if ever, sat me down to give me life advice or to prepare me for the future. Her philosophy was there for all to see; to live a calm, measured life filled with family and words. It was pragmatic, exemplary and left a lasting impression on an impressionable grandson; unobtrusive to the very end.
The grief of her death got sidelined with the birth of my daughter, Eve.
I remember her arriving crying and gasping for air. This was a new kind of love, unadulterated and undiluted, bringing permanence to the daily events of my life. With it came diapers, undiagnosed cries, sleepy mornings and wakeful nights. We struggled initially as all new parents do, but as she grew and started claiming her autonomy we saw an opening to resume our lives. I returned to what I’ve always done, I read – deep into the night, while walking, during prolonged teleconferences, and while I played with Evey.
What started as a curious study of the lives of Joe and Frank Hardy turned into an endless well of words and ideas, an exploration of language.
I read everything and anything, just as Achchi did.
People magazine at the checkout counter, Vincent's letters to Theo, the Saturday Globe, The Lancet and Russell’s musings about happiness. I read books about individuals, books about ideas, books about art, books about food and books about other books. There was no end in sight, and in that lay the secret pleasure of reading my grandmother cherished – the unending symphony of words. This was Achchi's gift to me: an open invitation to read, dream and explore.
Between the rattle and hum of her toys, Evey looks up to see if I’m still within sight. Sometimes she catches me sneaking a page or two while we play, and gives me her delightful quizzical look. She must surely recognize that whisper of a smile on my face as the same one I last saw in my grandmother Achchi. And perhaps one day I will say with confidence that her wisdom wasn’t extinguished, but passed on seamlessly from one generation to another.
Arjuna Ponnampalam lives in Vancouver.