The phone rings in the morning. My brothers and I wake up. It rings again. The person on the other end won’t give up. I rush into my parents bedroom to double check. Their unmade bed is empty. It’s no dream.
Mum and dad woke up their doctor friend in the middle of the night. They met at the local university teaching hospital UTH. He gave them a stash of morphine. They sped on the unlit, but familiar roads from Lusaka to Livingstone. My dads record time is 3 hours to do the 500km.
That was the first of my grandfather’s heart attacks. Let’s just say there were a few of those sudden trips – between the two grandfathers and grandmother living in the little tourist town bordering Zimbabwe.
By mid-morning my brothers and I are stuffed into a car, packed with snacks, clothes for the parents as well as for us, and we are on our way to Livingstone.
Every single time I have seen my grandfather after that, and I tell you he has had many fantastic days and many issues since -ranging from more heart attacks, to epilepsy, and to cancer, I thought it would be the last time.
Maher jokes that my grandfather has been dying for 25 years but is going to outlive everyone – his first wife died suddenly, after insisting that her daughters return to Tanzania regardless of school terms in India to see her, my other two more “healthy” paternal grandparents left before as well, and his second wife, who happened to be my dads oldest sister, died to cancer.
He moved back to India when my aunt (his wife) was diagnosed with an advanced stage of colon cancer. By being in India they could have affordable medical as well as domestic help. He left India on a boat leaving his family in Bombay as a 25-year-old with a wife and baby girl, only to return 50 years later as an outsider living in a strict Jain community in a dry state. Gandhi’s Gujarat of no alcohol.
Foreigners, people with a non-Indian passport can take alcohol into Gujarat. Of course it is the state where the most alcohol is consumed.
Maher is not a whiskey drinker like the generation of our parents and grandparents, but the only person he never says no to is my 88-year-old grandfather.
Nanaji, as we call him, hands Maher the key to his securely locked cupboard. He pours out tots of whiskey, holding the bottle close to the floor. None of the nosy neighbors or people in the street have caught him out yet.
We saw him last in December 2012. The four of us, my parents, one of my brothers and his fiance, were all there. When Maher, the kids and I left for Koh Samui on my birthday, I had the same thought I always have.
I didn’t even know he had the cancer until that last trip. He’s had it for 10 years already.
My mum has been in India for the last 4 months with him as it spreads. My dad has missed his wife, he is off this week to reunite with her, and to say goodbye to one of his best, most trusted friends, the man who taught him good whisky, who introduced him to my mum and who also married his closest sibling.
Now, I realise that my grandfather surrendered to the process a long time ago. He has always been gracious. He loved to take photos, listen to classical Indian music, eat good food, entertain friends, and drink only the best whisky. Anyone who has spoken to him has heard his humble, “Please correct me if I am wrong,” line qualifying every statement he makes. He listens, and gives space to people without imposing.
He is strong and tall, but flexible like the coconut trees I see around me, moving with the wind.
Ustad Bismillah Khan