I did not know this man, his face is not that of the man I knew as my Grandfather, Agha Jan, yet they are one and the same. I didn’t know him when he looked like he does in this picture, at nineteen or twenty. What is he looking at with that expression? I keep wondering, and I imagine that whatever it is, it is not pleasing him. “Is that what I have to look forward to?”, I hear him thinking, “Surely there’s more to life than that?”, and the feeling is aloof, disgruntled, distant, contemplative. Whatever he saw that gives him this expression, he chose a path that changed his face into that of the man I knew; a man who was at once grounded yet a seeker, a cultivator, and a dreamer. A man who looked at the script and said, “No thanks, I’ll write my own part in my own story”.
I didn’t know him when he looked like this either. It’s 1946, he must be in his early twenties, and there is a shift in his expression. This is his changing face in a changing country. India is breaking up into India and Pakistan. What will he do? He is from Madras, in South India. The idea of a new country, a new ideology, adventure, and journeying; these all appeal to him. So he is still contemplative, but not disgruntled or distant as before, with a new confidence that comes from having chosen something that gave him purpose, with more choices to come.
He left India for Pakistan and escorted trains across the borders with no carnage. In a time when trains were crossing borders with living travelers and arriving with nothing but butchered bodies, it was considered quite a feat that the trains he escorted arrived with their passengers unharmed. I wonder about how he accomplished that. He never gave me answers, so sometimes I’d imagine him having conversations with people that resulted in solutions instead of death. Somewhere there’s an article in an old, old Time magazine about it. Perhaps he told them what he wouldn’t tell me, leaving me with questions, and answers to find for myself.
What he did tell me was that he met the most beautiful woman in the universe in Pakistan and married her. The picture above is him on his wedding day. What’s he looking at here? Whatever this is, it’s putting a spring in his stride and he feels like he’s full of anticipation for what this choice will bring.
This is the face that emerged, the one he kept, the one that looked out into the world ahead and loved what it was seeing. I didn’t know him then, but the face is the one I knew, the face of Agha Jan with my Granny, Mummy Jan. I imagine that he was gleefully contemplating some mischief with that snow.
This man is the man who taught me not to just dream, but to dream so big that it would seem impossible. Impossible, unrealistic, unattainable, just how high could I stretch it? Is that all? Buss? Okay then. But if that wasn’t all and there was even the glimmer of more, no matter how silly or improbable, even if it could not be seen yet dreamed, then what’s to stop you, he would ask? Sky high, no not good enough. Star high, okay a little better. Ah, yes, as vast and wide as the universe and beyond into places of infinity, yes!! That’s it, shaabaash, he would say! And then what Agha Jan, I would ask, and he’d twinkle his eyes at me and say, Now, now you wait and see one day you’ll fly.
Big, small, in between, I’d dream and dream and dream. Some dreams came true, some dreams changed, some were long forgotten, and then one day I looked around at my life and had the funny realization that it had become something I had dreamed and forgotten so long ago, that the waiting had blurred and life had shifted yet the dream had been dreamed long ago and seeded itself! What an awesome moment that was. I remember being filled with wonder and thinking about Agha Jan and his wait and see’s, and understanding in that moment that sometimes you forget about the dream and the waiting and suddenly just see what there is to see, and that is how come you must always dream until the dream returns, having found you.
This Grand-Father of mine had been awarded a Japanese Emperor for bravery and honor befitting a samurai! He had climbed Mount Everest and been to the moon, the stars, and beyond. He had battled three headed monsters, swum to the depths of the ocean, saved entire villages from ravaging hordes of bandits, and was friends with the gypsies with whom he danced. He was my hero. When he told me he had blue eyes and blond hair as a child, and I giggled while looking at his bald head and dark eyes, he’d ask, “What, do you think I am joking, mazzaak kar raha hoo?” And I’d imagine him with blond curls and blue eyes, and he’d see me imagining and was pleased that I was pondering the possibility.
He told me very few things outright, but one of them was that “You can do anything you put yourself to, anything. It just takes a lot of hard work and imagining.” From him I learned that the answers are not always important, but the questions are. That often the questions don’t even have to be asked of anyone but yourself, that the answers are already inside, somewhere waiting to be found.
Some people found him a bit brusque, curt, even rude at times for he was forthright in his speech and aspect yet he was a fun man to be with, mischievous, alert, and light-hearted, while being intentional and precise. He ate with zest, finger licking, lip smacking abandon, and gusto . . . all of it slow and savored. Meals at his table were a long drawn out and lively affair. I never saw him utter a prayer before or after a meal, but he approached his food with an attitude that made words unnecessary. He would tease me and make me giggle and be silly. And I would watch him tease grown ups and see them become silly and giggly too. He was playful and full of hugs, cuddles, and bristly mustachioed kisses. He could be loud and booming, but always loving and growing.
His garden was very much like himself. It started out as a scrub, sandy patch of nothing around the newly built house. As I grew, it grew too. Potted plants, coconuts, bananas, tamarind trees, limes, mint, hibiscus, bougainvilleas, and what nots here and there, with the ever-challenging grass that didn’t want to grow, no matter how hard he tried. But he imagined and worked hard and that garden of his grew and greened and changed and transformed until it was a lush, thriving, vibrant space with orchids and bamboo and yes, finally, green green grass for a green man with green thumbs. How he loved to sit and sip tea in the garden with Mummy Jan and their guests in the evenings, the scent of motias filling the air. It took over a decade but the dream happened, and the garden was him, and he was the garden, and from within his garden I grew, until one day I left his garden to go and explore the garden of dreams.
He showed me that you can invent and reinvent yourself until you are satisfied with who you are becoming, who you become. And if you’re not then you can ask yourself questions, make choices, make changes, ask more questions, and choose until satisfaction and becoming and reinvention all slip away, suspended until further notice. He taught me to seek my own counsel and to see a choice through till it’s end, until the time comes to make a new one or change it. Create, destroy, turn, move forward, march past, or dance, your choice, your terms, your will, your truth, your life:: art. He was a man who owned himself and thus, was self-possessed.
I was told that he saved his breath on the day he died to wait for his final daughter to complete the circle around him, and only when she was present and he had seen the faces of all his beloved family, did he part ways and let go; he died a warrior, with that sword of his by his hand, on his way to the halls of Valhalla. I spent the summer he died with my sister. I don’t remember the exact day or date or month that he died, if anything it’s somewhat surprising to me to think of him as dead, for he feels like one of the Immortals to me, a living myth who left his story behind . . . . this is just a tiny glimpse into one of many.