Arjun V.K. Sharma is a writer and resident physician at the University of Toronto.
Love came hard for my grandfather. Our embraces were flimsy; we clipped our conversations short across a gulf of language and culture. “Too thin,” he’d often mutter, scanning and surveying the angles of my bony frame as I seethed. And as I’d poke at floating globs of ghee that coalesced into larger ones along the surface of his sabzis, my eyes would lock with my father’s in a silent plea: “Get me out of here.”
We’d gather in the kitchen, a place I learned early on was his pulpit. With the rising tenor of a preacher, he heaped not only food, but also opinions I never could stomach – on politics, on science and on race.
We found ourselves on very opposite sides. Though we didn’t yell and shout and argue for the other to see life as they did or to see the wrongness in their ways, in our silence and in our heads, we did. Some of those perspectives, I tried to tell myself, sprung from his deep well of faith. He was an ardent follower of the Hare Krishna movement, an evangelical sect of Hindus, whose members once included George Harrison. In his mind, Western medicine made way for the miraculous motions of divine intervention, which he felt saved him, time and again, from an infection that long festered in his foot.
But when my grandfather’s devotion didn’t fluster the physician in me, he had other beliefs that stressed my humanity.
“Only trust a Hindu,” he’d warn me, his eyes big and wide, filled with terrors unseen. Another day, he met my partner, and after waiting for her to move out of earshot, he sat me down, lacing his fingers tightly around my elbow, bringing me close. “You must find someone of a good nature,” he implored, suggesting that an Indian woman would be better for me than someone who was white.
I wrestled with his views, but was held back from ever challenging them – sometimes by my father, but most often because I was unable to muster a voice above Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The Indian leader’s Trumpian rhetoric about religious minorities and the liberal-minded footnoted my conversations with my grandfather, filling the newspapers splashed over his kitchen table and blaring loudly and often from his television.
In protest, then, I avoided my grandfather altogether.
His house was walking distance from my family’s home, but my legs stretched it to a world away. It wasn’t uncommon to go months without the sight of him. The cost was a gnawing guilt: for continually saying next weekend when that weekend to visit arrived; for hemming and hawing when my father asked if I would go see him; for nodding and smiling, awkwardly, as if in agreement, when the phone, pressed to my head, made my ears ring and my body flinch at his twisted perspectives. When the COVID-19 pandemic arrived a year ago, we kept my grandfather at a distance, and it was unclear for how long that would be the norm. There, in his home, he remained. This was, in a wrenching way, a kind of relief: As he became an invisible figure, it was hard to feel guilty for things that weren’t in my life.
But at the height of the virus’s first act, when health care workers were seen – and even saw themselves – as radioactive, I disappeared, too. Holed up in my apartment, I was alone with my thoughts. And it wasn’t before long that those thoughts landed on my grandfather.
I imagined our mirroring moves: shuffling about our kitchens, fumbling for our glasses, columns of steam rising from pots on the stove. I couldn’t help but envisage the winding staircase anchoring the middle of his house – a perilous climb for feet with little feeling, hips that barely bent. I saw him leaning further into each step, his back almost parallel to the tread.
In these fresh surges of guilt, I tried calling him once, or twice, but it went to voice mail.
Instead, I called my father. “His foot is getting worse,” he said one day. He always felt my grandfather had a certain insight, a special knowledge about the time he had left.
“Maybe,” he continued, “this is it.”
He’s not a crier – never has been. But Dad cried that evening.
Dad and I talked, something we rarely ever did. I trailed the dilutions of my family history and my grandfather along the vague outline many immigrants trace to their faraway country. First Cairo, then Beirut, and London following that. Eventually, life’s current docked him alone in Halifax in 1970. Working his way through the back kitchens of greasy highway diners, he scrounged just enough to settle into a modest home on the outskirts of Toronto. Dad came soon after.
At the end of such a journey, though, I learned of his struggles to, above all, find peace.
The bustling bazaars where my dapper grandfather brokered fine linens bordered a generations-long war between the region’s Muslim and Hindu communities, and so it was his father’s fight, and his father’s before that. Skies would wail with the sirens of impending air raids, and bodies of the dead passed him by the trainful – at the age of 14, my grandfather’s father among them. Still, Canada was not much kinder.
Often, he stood as the lone person of colour, his presence more of an intrusion than a curiosity. To the local folk, this was made known by those patrons who would yell, or hiss under their breath, as he stacked their dirty dishes and wiped clean their plates. Dad had to live through many of my grandfather’s outbursts, which came with a frightening intensity in his younger years.
On my last reluctant visit to my grandfather’s home, just before the pandemic, he patted the couch and waved me into the cold comfort of his living room. I sank into the same divot where, 30 years earlier, my father announced his controversial marriage to my mother. Though she was Indian, she was from “the South,” which my grandfather considered a different country altogether.
With a pained smile, he handed me a photograph. It was dull to the light, browning slightly at the edges. Even though he was such an outspoken man, I was struck by how little I knew of him. He’d never told me how much he missed my grandmother, whose image rested in my hands, her on a bed of rolling green in the sun-kissed field of somewhere. Though I sometimes caught the longing look of his gentle, amber eyes, I failed to glimpse all that hid behind them.
In my quiet contemplations these past few months, I have unearthed many invisible truths. But some, no matter how much rubble we remove, remain deeply buried. Therein laid his pain, one that was beyond my grasp. It occurred to me that what reached my grandfather’s eyes in his hours of wakefulness and in his dreams – the places, the people, the traumas – would never, in fact, reach mine. I thought about the rush of hands that marked my daily life – Black, brown and white, drawing medicines and pushing on a chest, desperately forcing life to return to a lifeless body – and how that would be as foreign to him as a day’s work summed up in a fistful of tattered bills, or a life taken away by a finger on a trigger or at the point of a blade, would be to me.
The pain was the chasm between our worlds, the loneliness of consciousness. I could not see the darkness that blotted his days; he could not see the light that flooded mine. To fill that gap, when I looked at this man in my life I saw as the other, I leaned into the one thing that seemed to hold us: hope.
I’d hoped to find safe passage to his experiences. I’d hoped that he, and I, would’ve worked to see what made our worlds different but also what bound them together. I’d hoped that if he looked past a certain evil, he might ask why I would not. That hope grew, and grew, even as we drifted further apart. In a way, it was also what pushed us away from each another; that hope, before it was lost, held our pain, too.
In November, shortly before he died, after working a long night, I snuck up to the intensive-care unit where he’d been admitted. Beneath the whirrs and beeps of the machines and devices that towered over him, under a sterile white blanket, a withered, veiny hand was jutting out from beside his hip. I grabbed hold of it. It was weightless.
“It’s me,” I whispered, lowering my mask. Holding his hand in mine, he slowly turned to me, opening his eyes, before closing them again. “God bless you,” he said, an utterance so soft, leaving the lips of a ghost.
And we understood each other. Separated not by six feet, but by a lifetime.
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