Past never fades, past lives in us: Pragya Bhagat

Last night, I dreamt about Nanaji, my grandfather. In this dream, I was on a cruise ship, hosting a show about him. Strangers streamed into the auditorium of the cruise ship, the show was about to begin. While I introduced my grandfather, I realised it was my birthday. And when Nanaji hobbled on stage to the applause of hundreds, I realised I was crying. This was the dream.

We celebrated his 90th birthday last July when I visited his home in Texas. As is tradition in our family, we gathered in a room – aunts, uncles, cousins, parents, grandparents – and one by one, expressed gratitude for the chief guest. Nanaji sat on a single-seat sofa that appeared to engulf his hunched back, his gaunt, bearded cheeks, his skeletal body. But because he was still the patriarch of the family, Nanaji clasped either arm of the sofa, held his head up with pride, and listened.

“Papa,” one of his three daughters began, “I’ve always felt closer to you than Mammi. You are such a great listener. You supported me when I was going through tough times. I love you and wish you have many more years ahead.”

A soft round of applause.

“Nanaji,” said a teenage grandchild, “you’re one of the smartest people I know. Though we don’t talk much, you’re always there when I need some advice. I really respect your opinions.”

A soft round of applause.

Respect. Admire. Inspire. These were recurring themes in the expressions of gratitude. While the rest of the family appeared teary-eyed, Nanaji, it seemed, was bored.

“Let me interrupt you all,” he interrupted, clearing his throat. “This is all well and good. However, I don’t want to hear good things about myself. I’ve been hearing these things all my life. Tell me something I don’t already know. Tell me about yourselves.”

A few people chuckled.

“He’s just being modest,” someone said, and the speeches of gratitude continued as Nanaji listened with what was now irritation in his 90-year-old eyes. Perhaps we weren’t talking about Nanaji for his sake. Perhaps we were doing it for ourselves, to remind ourselves why this wise, old, visibly-irked man was still relevant in our lives, why he was still special.
Nanaji and I, we shared something special. I was his first grandchild, which could be why I dreamt about introducing him on my birthday. My first memory of him was the nickname he christened me with, a nonsensical word bubbling with affection: Boga. My second memory of him involved his fingers pulling at my toes and shaking them vigorously. My third memory of Nanaji was a gift – a year-long subscription to National Geographic’s wildlife spread, a collection of Amazonian birds and African gazelles that I stored in a three-ring binder and leafed through countless times. Nanaji had always been a learner, and he encouraged me to be one too.

Nanaji the Gardner
Nanaji the Gardner

When I was seven, he taught me Sanksrit prayers which I memorised and recited religously at bedtime. When I was eleven, he listened to my violin performances. When I was 13, he patiently answered the questions I asked him on my second-hand voice recorder. For most of my childhood, he harboured a bushy white beard and dentures, but now when I saw him on his 90th birthday, he seemed older than old. He seemed historical. And just like I had in my dream, I began to cry, because I knew what came after older than old. I didn’t want his history to end, because my imagination could never recreate his shape, his smell, his deep-throated velvety singing voice, the way his eyes lit up when he called me Boga. No, I didn’t want to bear the burden of his memory. I wanted him instead.

Nanaji loved to garden. In his youth, he had travelled to Japan and learned silk farming. After returning to India, he taught English to and fell in love with my grandmother, a woman 10 years younger. Wherever Nanaji’s posting took them, he left his mark in soil – saplings of fruit trees, tomato vines, potato tubers, pits of compost dark with health. He plucked out the weeds, created homemade insecticide, and watered each plant according to its needs. In this way, he nurtured life not just inside his home, but in the grounds outside it. And as I grew older and he grew older than old, I wondered if gardening was a reflection of his inner journey. Nanaji’s body and mind would not be cowed down by brittle bones and bending spines. He would squat in his garden and pull weeds and his mind and body would be truly alive. His children called it “active.” Being outside kept Papa active, they said.

But sometimes, his body rebelled this active, this need to do, rather than to be.

It was on a regular morning that Nanaji stepped out into his garden. The roses were in full bloom, the thicket of curry leaves smelled like Indian kitchens. And on this regular morning, Nanaji walked barefoot as he stepped on a sharp object, perhaps a chunk of glass. Because his ankles were swollen and his feet had lost much of their sensory ability, Nanaji didn’t notice the gash in his foot. He felt dizzy. It was only when he sat down that Nanaji saw the vastness of red that had soaked into the grass. His wife came outside and called my mother and brother, and they rushed him to the hospital. The doctor said he had lost three cups of blood, that due to his age the production of blood would take time, that he needed to rest. And when I woke up later that morning and saw my mother returning home with tears in her eyes, it was then that I learned what had happened and rushed to Nanaji’s home a few blocks away.

He was lying in bed, his ruddy brown skin paler than usual, his foot bandaged and slightly raised. And though he should have been resting as the doctor ordered, Nanaji was all talk.

“I didn’t know what had happened until I sat down. There was blood everywhere! That scared me, naturally, but I was too weak to go back inside and call your grandmother. I am an old man now, after all, and things like this may continue to happen. But my mind refuses to accept it, what can I do? I don’t want to lie in bed all day and wait for my time to come. I just don’t understand what’s happening.” Nanaji’s nature was to be active. His body wasn’t letting him.

I had assumed people grew wiser with age, but like everyone else, myself included, Nanaji was grappling with his changing body. This body had encouraged him, enabled him, and now this body was betraying him. Was I looking at my future? Was this what life would eventually come to – lying in bed, three cups of blood short? I went to the bathroom, locked the door, flushed the toilet, and cried some more.

Nanaji recovered, because like his fruit trees and curry leaves and weeds, his active was stubborn. And when I dreamt about introducing him on a cruise ship and woke up, I decided to call him.

“Boga!” Reflexively, my toes wiggled.

“How are you Nanaji?”

“I’m well. I’m well. There’s a party going on today. Here, talk to your mother.” I heard my mother, Nanaji’s oldest daughter, rebuke him for talking with his mouth full. I spoke to my brother and grandmother. It was a short conversation, lacking the emotional oomph of Nanaji’s ninetieth birthday. But I was happy to hear the voices of our family. I was happy that Nanaji had our family. I was, in those two minutes, simply happy that I had called. I made a mental note to do that more often.

(Pragya Bhagat is a spoken word poet and the author of two books, More Than a Memory and Yarn: An Interwoven Memoir. You can follow her work at

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