Surprise!

I just spent two days in Assam, visiting my grandparents. I toured temples and whispered my wishes to the deities, drove around the colorful markets, bought things I did not need and came home stuffed with more food than I knew I could eat (with bags of extra food, in case I got hungry). I’ve been spoiled absolutely rotten. Dadi gave me her special garlic chutney to take to college, dada packed a box of homeopathy medicines for my skin, and is shipping green tea straight to my dorm in Chicago. My pockets are stuffed with so many chocolates, I could put a ten-year old to shame, and I didn’t lift a finger, because my granddad was adamant about doing all the chores while I watched TV. They insist I am not to lose any more weight, that I’m beautiful, and that two days is far too little for them (I agree).

They live in a downtrodden house in Guwahati, with shabby looking couches and clutter that spills over tables and drawers. My grandmother is ailing and sickly; she can hardly walk. She lies in bed most days, dressed only in her polka dotted nightgown, ringing the bell for the maid and watching TV. She wakes up at 5 am and turns her trusted (and ancient) portable Philips radio to the oldies station, and sings along till 6 in the evening. And when my cousin and I, her beloved granddaughters, surprised her with a visit, she couldn’t speak for a whole two minutes, stuttering to find the right words. Hugs and kisses exchanged, dadi told us that she was quite miffed at being caught off guard. She hadn’t even put on her nice rings and changed her sari!

Holding my hand to his wrinkled forehead, my grandfather insisted he was running a fever. Ever since I was a child, dada claims he turns feverish every time he skips work. I couldn’t feel anything out of the ordinary, but I agreed, because dada and work are inseparable. And so it was nothing short of a miracle that he took two whole days off to show us around his beloved Guwahati (although he claims it’s called ‘Ass’am because of all the idiotic people that live in it). Dada loves his abuses, and I learned the choicest Hindi words when I was an eavesdropping, overeager child. They fly from his mouth as naturally as most of us breath, and yet they’re never flung in malice. His temper is always dancing on his nose, but he somehow remains the most caring, level headed man I know.

My grandparents bicker with an intensity and frequency that I am yet to witness elsewhere— loudly, acidly and continuously. There are no stony silences or mellow moments of reconciliation or hesitant, earnest apologies. It’s a non-stop (and very colorful— remeber the abuses?) battle of the wits, and it only ever pauses when someone else intervenes. But dada called me the day before my flight, urgently, commanding that I keep my mouth shut about the visit. I was instructed to inform my entire family immediately: there could be no slip-of-the-tongue situations. He planned the whole thing, start to finish. My cousin and I were just going to saunter in and yell “Surprise!”, but dada had other ideas. He set up alibis, told dadi he was expecting the in-laws of a close family friend’s daughter (an elaborate ruse), cooked lunch himself, and made us practice an entire sequence in Marwari so that we could fool her when she heard our voices from her bedroom (I failed hideously at this part). And in case you missed that part the first time, she was surprised. Very surprised.

And so when dadi is telling us the story (she is an incredible storyteller) of the Kamakhaya temple we saw in the morning, and dada tells us it’s all nonsense, I look at my cousin knowingly. And when I ask him why he spends 12 hours at office everyday, he says it’s to get away from dadi, and dadi rolls her eyes at him, and I just laugh.

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