A memory: Late summer, 1988. Thatha, standing at the Borneo House gates, still handsome with a big toothless smile on his face, slightly stooped but regal, one hand resting on his beloved black-handled, rubber-tipped aluminum walking stick, the other hand raised high, waving me goodbye. He’s wearing a white tee shirt, his lungi- the traditional wrapcloth worn by Tamil men- firmly tied around his waist, and a small bag of foil-wrapped chocolates tucked inside.
I have just given him those chocolates that morning, the last morning of my visit, before heading back to college in the States. I remember how happy he was to get them, eyes lighting up as he took them from me. Paati said, “See? She kept them hidden until now, just so you could have them after she’s gone.”
He nods, glowing with happiness at this meager gift from his granddaughter.
I smile back, taking their praise at my strength of will in keeping the chocolates secret. I kneel down in front of them, silently asking for their blessings. I touch each of their feet and then my forehead with my right hand, feeling their ritual touch on my head and then seeing their proud smiles as I stand up, my Thatha’s eyes cloudy with tears. I hug them both gently, saying the traditional farewell in Tamil, “I am going, but I will return.”
They look at each other in wonderment, amazed at my words, since all they have ever known was my rebellion against anything traditional. “Go, but come back,” they both give me the reciprocal response. “Go, but come back.”
The car to the airport pulls away as I twist around for one last look at them out of the rear window. They are both standing there, waving, framed by the swirling dust kicked up by the car. I strain to keep them in sight, turning back to face the front when I can no longer see them. Watching the familiar streets go by, the neighborhood teashops, the food vendors, swarms of people, the stray dogs, I think about the joy on my grandfather’s face when he saw the small bag of chocolates. I can’t get that image out of my head.
I had arrived three weeks earlier, on winter break from college. I was in my old room upstairs, the one I stayed in for that brief and eventful six months in late 1982. I looked around, my old schoolbooks were where I’d left them on the little desk, dusty, undisturbed. Eighties Bollywood actresses stared up at me from old entertainment magazines, stunning in all their airbrushed beauty. I looked out the windows at the majestic chickoo tree that dominated the front garden, my friend for all those years of visiting my grandparents, a watchful confidant, home to the resident fruit bats that kept me company through long sleepless nights.
Shaking away the memories, I unpacked for the stay, setting aside the gifts I had brought them: a scarf for Paati, Wincarnis tonic wine for Thatha, other little sundries that they had requested from overseas, things that were unavailable at the time in India. I pulled out a large bag of foil wrapped chocolates, the ones with the gooey centers, the ones I knew he would like. But at the last moment, as I was gathering up the gifts to take downstairs to give them, I tossed them back in my suitcase. Our favorite Swiss chocolates, Toblerones, were included in the pile of gifts. That would be enough, I reasoned.
Later that night, as I lay in bed, windows open to let the cool night breezes waft in, listening to the rustling sounds of the bats in the trees, I unwrapped one of the chocolates and popped it in my mouth. As the creamy deliciousness melted in my mouth, I closed my eyes in guilty pleasure, smoothing out the creased foil paper with my nails, bringing it back to a fragile smoothness. I tucked the paper away in my bag, and went to sleep.
I ate those chocolates meant for my grandfather, night after night, for the rest of my stay. During the day, I would watch him set aside his hated dentures, carefully portion out the Toblerone, cutting one triangle into halves, sharing them with me (Paati didn’t want any). We would eat them together, relishing the nougat, sucking on the piece to make it last. At night, I would take the same care with eating one out of the stashed bag, taking my time, rolling it around in my mouth until the last bit had melted away. Then I would smooth out the foil and tuck it away in my bag.
The morning of my departure, I had maybe twelve of the chocolates left. By now I was slightly sick of them and taking them back home with me seemed ridiculous. I’ll give them to Thatha, I thought, he’ll love them.
I sit in the car, watching the city fall away, coconut tree plantations and farms slide by, the agricultural college, seeing it all from behind a veil of tears. I picture his toothless grin, his joy at seeing those chocolates. I can see them both, in my mind’s eye, standing there at the gates, waving, happy, proud.
“Go, and come back.”
“I am going, but I will return.”
I will return. And I will make up for this insult, I will bring you bags of chocolates, more than you will know what to do with. I promise.
That was the last time I saw him on his feet, conscious, fully alive.