UPDATE: Shirin Bhandari the author of the piece below reminds us “This was originally published in 2004, my grandmother died in 2007 at the age of a 101.”
“It is all like a dream now…” I stand in the thicket and look over the board to read an article written about my grandmother. The bulletin is full of clippings about the great Mrs. Bhandari. For some strange reason the journalists who had the opportunity to talk to her, ended the article in the same way. Poached eggs, tea, marigolds…a repetitive reference to the past.
Article by Shirin Bhandari
Mrs. Bhandari started the guesthouse in the 1950s, catering to the High Commissions of Delhi and what is now Pakistan. Rumour has it, people paid to sleep on her floor and use her American style bathrooms. People came for her and the Golden Temple. The place gained a good reputation for overland travelers as well, where they could park, plug in and camp. With four children, widowed twice, she managed the place alone considering how male oriented Punjabi society is. The famous people she met, makes one wonder how many interesting yarns one could have been written about her life and times. I was just too young to ask.
The gardens, the main house, its art deco interiors are all intact. Time has stood still and my words to describe it will never do the place justice.
Ratan my aunt was chosen to continue my grandmother’s legacy. She willingly decided to live in India. The rest of Mrs. Bhandari’s children made their own lives abroad. The younger generation have little affinity for the house or India. But occasionally the siblings took turns looking after their mother through the years. But for any sane person, one can’t live within those four walls forever. But my grandmother did.
I was asked a year ago by my father to fill in for him to keep my grandmother company and assist in managing the house. It seemed like a good idea, I was in a stage in my life where Manila bored me, and I couldn’t seem to find a job that would keep me for long. I had always traveled to India to visit her. It’s good to come back to your roots.
Mrs. Tahmi Bhandari was an over powering, strong willed woman. And a Parsi! Despite her diminutive frame, she held her own in a crowd. The staff cowered, and she managed to either shock or make people laugh with her dry and cutting humour.
Charlton Heston sent her a holiday card every single year until the day he died with an undisclosed amount of money, after staying with her twice. The great writer Mulk Raj Anand was another admirer. She affected people and her graciousness made guests keep coming back.
I had arrived into Amritsar with no expectations. Suppose that is the way to travel and it was liberating to come into India on my own. A challenge to deal with the filth, noise – and the chaos of Punjab. Your life is an open book your existence is everyone’s business. This time, I was an adult not to visit but to help. I did not speak a word of Hindi or Punjabi. The staff a little over 20 in all barely spoke a word of English either. I had dug a hole for myself, and questioned my sanity when I had agreed to this proposition – regret came as I boarded the plane. The staff took pride in my stupidity and it was infuriating not to know what went where. You don’t break routines in this house you follow them to the hilt. Each carpet, cushion-cover, fan blade, exists for a certain time of year. Labelled, covered, knotted and kept. It baffled me to see a system – after all the years of perceiving disorder. For the life of me, a garden was a pot with a plant in our flat back home but to face massive mounds of earth and plant it with the proper flowers of the season, just daunting. An entire routine, day by day laid out by her. How to upload it is the million dollar question.
At 98, my grandmother is still strong, and manages to go about with the help of a lady who has cared for her for the past 30 years. Conversations are non-existent. Her days and nights go from one to another, without an end, a never ending cycle. Like her house.
It is difficult to see her frail from age but she still recognizes me. My recollections of her were vivid. She ran the show. Now childlike, her eyes still have that spark and as she looked into mine – she understood the reason why I had come. The tables had turned. Journalists always wrote about her past, and fail to see her right now. A year over and it is an honour to learn of how she lives and lived. I walk through the empty halls of the main house, her entire life contained in it. I’m going home in a few weeks back to the Philippines and wonder what will be. And as I lay down to sleep and hear her call out at night through the thin walls of her room, I say to myself, no it is not a dream.