The Portrait of a Lady - Khushwant Singh
MY grandmother, like everybody’s grandmother, was an old woman. She had been old and wrinkled for the twenty years that I had known her. People said that she had once been young and pretty and had even had a husband, but that was hard to believe. My grandfather’s portrait hung above the mantelpiece in the drawing room. He wore a big turban and loose-fitting clothes. His long, white beard covered the best part of his chest and he looked at least a hundred years old.
He did not look the sort of person who would
have a wife or children. He looked as if he could only have lots and lots of
grandchildren. As for my grandmother being young and pretty, the thought was
almost revolting. She often told us of the games she used to play as a child.
That seemed quite absurd and undignified on her part and we treated it like the
fables of the Prophets she used to tell us.
She had always been short and fat and
slightly bent. Her face was a criss-cross of wrinkles running from everywhere
to everywhere. No, we were certain she had always been as we had known her.
Old, so terribly old that she could not have grown older, and had stayed at the
same age for twenty years. She could never have been pretty; but she was always
She hobbled about the house in
spotless white with one hand resting on her waist to balance her stoop and the
other telling the beads of her rosary. Her silver locks were scattered untidily
over her pale, puckered face, and her lips constantly moved in inaudible
prayer. Yes, she was beautiful. She was like the winter landscape in the
mountains, an expanse of pure white serenity breathing peace and contentment.
My grandmother and I were good
friends. My parents left me with her when they went to live in the city and we
were constantly together. She used to wake me up in the morning and get me
ready for school. She said her morning prayer in a monotonous sing-song while
she bathed and dressed me in the hope that I would listen and get to know it by
heart; I listened because I loved her voice but never bothered to learn it.
Then she would fetch my wooden slate which she had already washed and plastered
with yellow chalk, a tiny earthen ink-pot and a red pen tie them all in a
bundle and hand it to me. After a breakfast of a thick, stale chapatti with a
little butter and sugar spread on it, we went to school. She carried several
stale chapattis with her for the village dogs.
My grandmother always went to school
with me because the school was attached to the temple. The priest taught us the
alphabet and the Morning Prayer. While the children sat in rows on either side
of the verandah singing the alphabet or the prayer in a chorus, my grandmother
sat inside reading the scriptures. When we had both finished, we would walk
back together. This time the village dogs would meet us at the temple door.
They followed us to our home growling and fighting with each other for the
chapattis we threw to them. When my parents were comfortably settled in the
city, they sent for us. That was a turning-point in our friendship. Although we
shared the same room, my grandmother no longer came to school with me. I used
to go to an English school in a motor bus. There were no dogs in the streets
and she took to feeding sparrows in the courtyard of our city house. As the
years rolled by we saw less of each other. For some time she continued to wake
me up and get me ready for school.
When I came back she would ask me
what the teacher had taught me. I would tell her English words and little things
of western science and learning, the law of gravity, Archimedes’ Principle, the
world being round, etc. This made her unhappy.
She could not help me with my
lessons. She did not believe in the things they taught at the English school
and was distressed that there was no teaching about God and the scriptures. One
day I announced that we were being given music lessons. She was very disturbed.
To her music had lewd associations. It was the monopoly of harlots and beggars
and not meant for gentlefolk. She said nothing but her silence meant
disapproval. She rarely talked to me after that. When I went up to University,
I was given a room of my own. The common link of friendship was snapped. My
grandmother accepted her seclusion with resignation. She rarely left her
spinning-wheel to talk to anyone. From sunrise to sunset she sat by her wheel
spinning and reciting prayers. Only in the afternoon she relaxed for a while to
feed the sparrows. While she sat in the verandah breaking the bread into little
bits, hundreds of little birds collected round her creating a veritable bedlam
of chirrupings. Some came and perched on her legs, others on her shoulders.
Some even sat on her head. She smiled but never shooed them away. It used to be
the happiest half hour of the day for her.
When I decided to go abroad for
further studies, I was sure my grandmother would be upset. I would be away for
five years, and at her age one could never tell. But my grandmother could. She
was not even sentimental. She came to leave me at the railway station but did
not talk or show any emotion. Her lips moved in prayer, her mind was lost in
prayer. Her fingers were busy telling the beads of her rosary. Silently she
kissed my forehead, and when I left I cherished the moist imprint as perhaps the
last sign of physical contact between us. But that was not so. After five years
I came back home and was met by her at the station. She did not look a day
older. She still had no time for words, and while she clasped me in her arms I
could hear her reciting her prayers. Even on the first day of my arrival, her
happiest moments were with her sparrows that she fed longer and with frivolous
rebukes. In the evening a change came over her. She did not pray. She collected
the women of the neighbourhood, got an old drum and started to sing. For
several hours she thumped the sagging skins of the dilapidated drum and sang of
the home-coming of warriors. We had to persuade her to stop to avoid
overstraining. That was the first time since I had known her that she did not
The next morning she was taken ill. It was a
mild fever and the doctor told us that it would go. But my grandmother thought
differently. She told us that her end was near. She said that, since only a few
hours before the close of the last chapter of her life she had omitted to pray,
she was not going to waste any more time talking to us. We protested. But she
ignored our protests. She lay peacefully in bed praying and telling her beads.
Even before we could suspect, her lips stopped moving and the rosary fell from
her lifeless fingers. A peaceful pallor spread on her face and we knew that she
We lifted her off the bed and, as is
customary, laid her on the ground and covered her with a red shroud. After a
few hours of mourning we left her alone to make arrangements for her funeral.
In the evening we went to her room with a crude stretcher to take her to be
cremated. The sun was setting and had lit her room and verandah with a blaze of
golden light. We stopped half-way in the courtyard. All over the verandah and
in her room right up to where she lay dead and stiff wrapped in the red shroud,
thousands of sparrows sat scattered on the floor. There was no chirruping. We
felt sorry for the birds and my mother fetched some bread for them. She broke
it into little crumbs, the way my grandmother used to, and threw it to them.
The sparrows took no notice of the bread. When we carried my grandmother’s
corpse off, they flew away quietly. Next morning the sweeper swept the bread
crumbs into the dustbin.