I first met Walt Whitman in his Leaves of Grass, though I had known him for quite a while. My grandfather quoted him a lot, translating him to our mother tongue, Pahari, a dialect of Punjabi usually spoken by the hill people in Northern India.
At 82, he used to read without any spectacles, walk faster than me, while his agemates leaned heavily on the cane. As children, we called him tough-papa, for he used to do everything with his bare hands. While my parents used a pestle, he would break a walnut by smashing his fist on it. He once pulled out iron nails from the old cupboard with his fingers. And in his clothing and styling, there was a unique blandness, he wore white kurta-pyjamas, properly creased, a turban dipped in starch to impart a crispness, and a black leather shoe—jutti.
His tone was harsh, yet to me, it was always mesmerizing, for he told me things which were incomprehensible yet funny. I credited that to him being uneducated.
‘Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes’ It was quite funny when he spoke it in Pahari.
Only when I grew up, when I gained enough education, I was able to find meaning in his dumb, funny lines.
He had this tattered 1892 copy of Leaves of Grass, sans cover, yellowed over the time, swollen with moisture, kept on his window pane. He was not a learned man, neither an educated one. He had merely done five years of formal education for the nearest middle school was three hours from his home.
He knew English, for he served food to some of the finest Englishmen in Gulmarg, Kashmir. When the white left, they left Whitman to him; that’s how he came into possession of this book. He picked up his English, his book, and other possessions when in 1947’s gory Partition, the hotel he worked in was razed in arson.
He was severely ill before his death, and he was giving away all his belongings to his three sons, the bigger apple orchard to the eldest, two paddy fields and four trees of walnut to the other, and to my father, who was the youngest he left the smaller apple orchard and a cherry garden which had three trees of walnut.
I was fifteen years old when he died. To me, he said, ‘For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you’ and then handed over the Whitman.
In two years preceding his death, he was a part delusional part philosopher. When he took to bed due to his illness, I kept him company after school. I moved to his bedroom, for someone needed to keep an eye on him.
I was reading the Indian Partition for my school essay when I asked him about his experience. He was a first-hand source—a survivor.
He would narrate to me stories from his childhood, his struggle to establish himself as a big farmer from a mere waiter at a hotel, his ambitious dream of educating his children, breaking them into non-linear-timelines, and then all of a sudden forgetting what he was telling. His memory had grown weak, his narration pale and his sorrows grey.
He had marked the book at several places; after every story, he would tell me to do something for him in return—read a passage from the book.
When he told me how he came to settle at this place, he told me to read a specific passage that echoed his story.
And whence and why come you?
We know not whence, (was the answer,)
We only know that we drift here with the rest,
That we linger’d and lagg’d—but were wafted at last, and now here,
To make the passing shower’s concluding drops.
At places, the text of the book had faded into oblivion. When I read it and didn’t know what came next, he would recite it from his memory. He who had forgotten the names of relatives, the faces of his cousins, he who was delusional for the world was a philosopher to me.
After his death, Whitman became my grandfather. He consoled me. He echoed my sorrows. He told me not to lose myself in grief and gave me hope.
Nothing is ever really lost, or can be lost,
No birth, identity, form—no object of the world, …….
… … Ample are time and space—ample the fields of nature.
To this day, Whitman sits on my windowpane, and I go to him every now and then—sometimes to validate an experience, sometimes to remember my grandfather and sometimes to find hope in the dark times.