My 103 year old Grandfather viewed COVID-19 as a social blessing — and he may be right.

Karthik Rajan

When I look down the road where my grandfather’s walking stick touched- it was a brown road — no tar, just solid mud and the sift of sand that touched his feet. And he walked with every guest to the main tar road from his old home. The home he was born in a village in South India. A home with gentle sloping terracotta roofs and with more natural lighting than many world class buildings. From this home, he showed his warmth to his guests in his white vesthi (tamil word for a plain white wrap around cloth in-place of pants) , pep in his walk, a calmness in his face. As long as his legs would listen to him and his eyesight was good — he walked with his walking stick for support, and waited till they boarded the bus. His thoughtful walk with every guest and graceful send off is something I remember him for.

In those long walk back home and the summer holidays I grew up watching him, I absorbed his life insights. I assimilated as much as my young mind could fathom then. Today, I feel his actions and words in the topsy-turvey COVID-19 world.

Essentials of existentialism

1. Namaste triumphs a hug. Sole exception is death.

My grandfather was born before last pandemic — the spanish flu. And he knows a thing or two about social distancing. For the social gatherings, my grandpa espoused the no physical contact, Namaste/Vanakkam — social greeting with both palms pressed together, fingers pointing up, elbows out and the hands close to the chest.

He reserved his open outstretched arms for emotionally difficult circumstances like death.

Growing up in South India, I could vividly recall that words were in short supply during those emotionally charged moments. Open outstretched arms, like a toddler awaiting the comfort of the hug, was the recurring snapshot. Gender and age were irrelevant. It is quite remarkable for a region where women and men have separate areas for seating in public bus transport. In the most difficult moments, words almost always fail you, the emotional connection of the hug speaks volumes and is almost always right. For every other social interaction, there is the namaste /vanakkam.

2. Fermentation triumphs a freezer. It is a respect to your gut.

When my granddad was young, electricity and refrigerators were unheard of. What was popular was fermented food. He espoused the beauty of simple foods. Pour water in cooked rice, leave it overnight and drink that water next morning! It is called Pazhayasadam( in Tamil)/Pazhankanji (in Malayalam)

I was stunned to hear that it was part of the diet that a 94 year old, oldest Covid survivor insisted on during his isolation days!

3. Nuanced spousal response in a house where travel was infrequent.

During those summers with an army of grand kids in the house, all of us sat around grandma in the morning. She would pour us heated milk that was freshly milked. My grandpa would enter the spacious kitchen quietly. He would sit at the other end and cut all the vegetables and leave. No drama, no big conversations.

I cannot recall ever bracketing him as perfect spouse for my grandma. I always felt my grandma’s talent were curtailed in the village setting. Today, I see him as a thoughtful husband. And that nuance is worth cherishing.

4. Bend your head at the entrance. Wash your legs and hands — cleanliness is godliness

My grandpa’s home was spacious, yet his doors about half the height of normal doors. I asked him once why the parsimony on the doors?

The insights were revealing.

  1. Bend signifies humility.
  2. Bend triggers the mental shift from home to outside world and vice versa.
  3. Bend reminds you to watch your feet - wash it and pace your life as you enter your home.

One standout feature of his home were the taps near the entrance.

5. Walks are making a comeback along with board games — touch the ground, smell the flowers

As I close my eyes, my memories wander back to those leisurely walks with grandpa. If by chance the bus has empty seats, the guests seat themselves. They look out of the window, wave back with a lovely smile and as the bus rolls by, with the picture perfect moving eye lock, they ever so slightly bend their head in acknowledgement. A fleeting smile envelops my grandpa’s face. Lot is said in the unsaid. In those moments — the triumph of humanity shines through. All I am left with are Henry James’s words,

Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind.

And my grandfather’s zest for life is matched by his grandest pearl of wisdom — make peace with leisurely pace of life. Covid-19 living experience marches his wisdom to my real life and to many others muddling through the essence of existentialism.

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