Trips to Hyderabad, though extremely enjoyable, are always slightly difficult. They come laden with their baggage of nostalgia, of sunny summer vacations whiled away in bliss, the prospect of adulthood a mere blip on the horizon that scarcely bothered us as children. The adults were there to supply us with Frooti and ice-cream, and all we had to do was figure out which movies and amusement parks we wanted to be taken to.
We're all too grown up now for our own good- it has been eleven years since all of us converged together on the house our grandfather built, its walls abundantly shaded by fruit trees. It still stands proudly on a street where most other old houses have been demolished to make way for ugly, monotonous blocks of flats, swathed in blue plastic as they await completion.
What I like best about this old house is its atmosphere- how seeped in stories from the past it seems, retaining an identity that my cousins and I can only try to understand through anecdotes coaxed out of the adults on lazy afternoons or over a long, leisurely lunch in the kitchen. Poring over photographs from the seventies, you seek in the face of the young girl kneeling amidst unknown people the features of your mother; you realise, through careful attention, that the man with the thick moustaches and the sidelocks is actually your uncle whose only claim to hair now is a thin layer of dyed frizz on a smooth, sun-browned pate.
The best stories come from my grandmother. I'd always marvelled at the manner in which marriages were arranged all those decades ago, when girls were barely educated and had little say in choosing the men they were to spend their lives with, rear children with. Several circumstances came together in these choices, and the cases I found most repulsive were those where a girl married a cousin or, worse still, an uncle. Money was scarce, and if a girl wasn't a ravishing beauty, she was married off to the first reasonably "eligible" man who came along. My grandmother thankfully wasn't in one of these abominable marriages, but of course she didn't have the freedom that we, two generations on, can boast of. She loved and respected her much older husband, but also feared him. However, there was a tenderness between them that becomes evident in her fond reminiscences of him, and letting her talk of him when the mood takes her is my way of learning about a grandfather I've never seen.
During my most recent visit, she told me of the letters Grandfather wrote her. In 1948, as trouble brewed in Hyderabad, she was sent off to Thanjavur to her parents' place. Grandfather, living a solitary life, wrote her a four-page letter everyday, and with a flourish his wife couldn't reproduce in her less articulate replies. She saved the letters (now I know where my penchant for keeping all correspondence comes from- I cannot even bring myself to clear my inbox), and I wouldn't be surprised if she took them out occasionally for a peek at them, for a waft of the bitter-sweet breeze of nostalgia.
I asked to see the letters, and Grandmother agreed immediately to show them to me, but on the condition that I wouldn't read them. Of course I wouldn't, I told her, my Tamil-reading abilities being close to zero. So she took them out of the box she kept them carefully in, spreading open the sheets off-white with age and tearing at the folds. The pages were closely covered in faded black ink, and signed in English. At the top right-hand corner, the two letters I saw bore dates from September 1948. Grandfather's handwriting was majestic; not traditional, perhaps, but imposing and authoritative in its own way. I held the fragile sheets gently, trying to embody with character the face I'd only seen in photographs.
"Sixty-three years," said Grandmother, counting off the decades on her fingers bent with age. Quietly meditative for a moment, she then closed her eyes and slipped into prayer- or maybe a dream from the days when she wore vermilion in her parting and flowers in her hair.