I am sometimes amused with myself when it comes to the certainty and conviction with which I can talk about something completely hypothetical. But indulge me a bit here, please. My maternal grandpa passed on 26 years ago. But I know without a shred of doubt – don’t tell me I didn’t warn you! – that he would have had absolutely no issues dealing with this COVID-19 imposed social distancing, lockdown, quarantine or whatever flavor of restriction that he had to deal with. Until he passed on in 1994 aged 61, he lived in the same house he was born in. He had a small, tightly knit family. His best friend was one whom he had known since 5th grade. He retired from the same bank that he had joined upon graduation. His friend once quipped, “You have had one job, one friend and one wife!” (He had two daughters, one of whom was my Mom. Another was my Aunt, who was as much a Mom to me – she sadly died in 2016.)
Did I tell you that he lived in the same house his entire life? It is not just a fact. The house was a pivotal character in the story of his life. While my lovable grandma infused that home with warmth and hospitality, the house didn’t rest on any pillars – he was the pillar. He exerted a quiet authority on the happenings of the house. Everyone had their freedom, of thought, of expression. As the patriarch of the house, he just took it upon himself to ensure that people respected each other’s boundaries. He did this effortlessly because he practiced what he preached. I shall share two examples to illustrate this – one an amusing one (hopefully) and one a slightly serious one.
He had this monthly routine to go to a stationery shop to buy office supplies. (Boy, what a creature of habit he was – he stuck to the same stationery shop for as long as that shop existed!) He would always make it a point to buy me some sundries from there. I would eagerly wait for the car to enter the threshold and I would shamelessly rush to him to see what he had bought for me. Anticipating my eagerness, he would have already set my stuff apart. Of course, being the mischievous runt that I was, I would take note of what else he had bought for himself. I would sneak into his office room in his absence but would always leave behind a piece of incriminating evidence. (Those damn residue from sharpened pencils were my arch nemesis!) He would find out and admonish me, “WHY do you have to touch my items when I buy you the stuff you need!” Since he was being totally fair, not once would I feel a sense of anger or hurt.
On another occasion, my father had gotten into a squabble with my Aunt when she was in her late teens; Dad was in his mid-thirties. My Dad and my Aunt were very affectionate with one another. My Dad indulged her a lot and she was more of an older sister to me. My Aunt was also my grandpa’s pet. On this occasion, my Dad and Aunt had gotten into a verbal volley. My Dad had tried to discipline my Aunt, who was this carefree, happy-go-lucky girl. My Aunt, who got testy after a point, hurled some colorful language at my Dad! Later when my grandpa got to know of this, he called my Aunt and said to her, “You should not have spoken to Murali that way. Apologize to him.” Once she did, he then turned to my Dad and said, “What she did was wrong. She has apologized. But henceforth, please don’t interfere in her matters. I’ll take care.” What was remarkable was that both my Dad and my Aunt followed his advice to the letter, unquestioningly. And things returned to normalcy. They knew that he had an innate sense of fairness and an uncanny understanding of the space that people needed.
The other remarkable facet of him was that as much as he was a creature of routine, he dealt with the harder knocks of life with a mixture of acceptance and gumption. He controlled what he could. He never fretted about what he couldn’t. I don’t think I had ever seen him sulk or be downbeat. When he had a heart attack in 1985, he just took the setback in his stride, developing new physical activity routines, a modified diet and so on, in an unfussy manner. In 1990 when a cataract was detected in my left eye, it was he and my grandma that took me to a preeminent ophthalmologist in my hometown in India. And if my memory serves me right, during the next stationery shop visit, he bought me a couple of extra items to cheer me up! (Not that that stopped me from ‘exploring’ his office room!)
I admired the fact that he had possessions, interests and hobbies such as cars, watches, movies and classical music that kept him engaged and gave him happiness. The joy he derived from these inanimate things was absolute, not relative to what others had. As a result, his relationships with his close family members as well as his lifelong friend were pure, relaxed and free of manacles such as jealousy or insecurity. He freely shared happiness with others because he had an inner pendulum that was never off equilibrium.
So, why do I think that he would have been just fine with this COVID-19 situation? He would have had a calming, reassuring influence on the ones around him. He would have worked on lists of things to stock up. He would have kept himself busy with his own interests. He would have invented new, fun routines even if he had to be confined to the house. He and his friend would have probably had each other on Whatsapp video while they walked in their respective houses instead of going for their daily walk together. Above all, he would have understood the value of proximity in the truest sense of the word. That joy from physical closeness with loved ones would be amplified by an emotional connection that had as its links, selfless love as well as respect for people’s spaces. He truly embodied Kahlil Gibran’s immortal quote, “Let there be spaces in our togetherness.” My grandpa, his wife, his friend have all left this earth for a better place. But in the way he spread comforting vibes among his loved ones, he showed me that genuine affection and assured positivity spread faster than any virus can.