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Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Bank

There are few things more saddening than watching your loved ones grow old. Though I am truly lucky to still have all four of my grandparents around the thought and, worse still, the sight of them ageing is a cold, wrenching blade to my gut.


We all have our comfort zones: the places or processes in the world that we can navigate without thinking. They are places that we have spent time in and know intimately. When we bring others into them, they know we are in a sacred domain. For me, airports are such places. I have spent so much of my life in them that I can put my earphones in and get from the taxi to my flight without really switching my brain on. I understand how things work and how newcomers will behave. For my grandfather, his comfort zone is the bank.

The city is hot and dusty and loud and really no place for an old man. But he walks the 50 yards down the hill, across the road and to the nearby State Bank of India branch. And when he enters the air conditioned foyer, he is in his domain. Suddenly there is a spring in his step, suddenly the heat and the clattering cars of the dry street are behind him. Where there was trembling caution with each stride, there is now confidence and dare I say, an air of authority. It is so wonderful to see. Having lead the way and held his hand all the way down the road, I now walk behind him and I do not have a choice in the matter.

I've noticed it with all old Indian men and I suppose it should come as no surprise. As the world has changed around them, they seek refuge in one of the few institutions that they've actively been a part of. They have seen these banks grow from tiny, backward rooms that disguised unemployment, to vast networks of pristine white walls where everything is part of a 'brand'. And as their salaries turned to pensions, they stood and watched. As Bombay turned to Mumbai, they stood and watched. These brightly lit bank branches cannot hide from the old men of the city who were around before they were.

When I go into a bank, I am always a little lost. I have to read each placard to decipher which box I have to drop a cheque into or which teller I have to stand in line to see. I am like the first time fliers I treat with such disdain at airports. But my grandfather is the Gold Club member here - he has the frequent flier miles and knows the pilots and the air hostesses and will get bumped up to Business Class while I'll be floundering at check-in. Old men love to be respected - they feel it is the least the world owes them and we do. In their local bank, they milk this respect and stride, chest-out, towards their favourite teller who will drop whatever he/she is doing to help them. They bring their tattered old briefcase and put on their reading glasses. They take out their notebook and let everyone in the room slow to their pace.

Today my grandfather wishes to change my status on my provident fund from a minor to a major. It is the most trivial, the most disproportionately time-consuming activity relative to its importance. But my grandfather has planned his day around our trip to the bank and he has put on his nice trousers and his freshly pressed shirt and I will not deny him his comfort zone. The Bank is his castle for 45 minutes every week. I can sense his sadness when we have to leave and face the heat and the humidity of the afternoon. I hold his hand as we climb the hill to our house. It wasn't always this way.

He used to be the one who walked briskly up and down Pali Hill. Every summer he would take me to the park to find sticks. They had to be fibrous, malleable sticks for the bow and sleek, strong ones for the arrows. He would teach me to shoot. After archery got boring, we would make lanterns from fallen branches. We would peel the bark off and shape them so they were taut and clean. He would use coloured paper to give them character. After they fell apart we would recycle each side and turn them into kites that we would fly from our giant window. They would scare the crows only until lunch time, when he would - to the utter exasperation of my grandmother - leave morsels for them on the window sill.

But those days are gone. Now his hands shake with Parkinson's and his movements are slow. The sofa bed that I sleep on in the living room when we visit... he can no longer open on his own. It does not take any power at all but he leaves the task to me or my uncle. His speech is fine - he prays with the same rigour as he always used to, though now he sits quietly and listens to our conversations without joining in. Our journey to the bank was his day out.

Next week he will put on his ironed trousers, oil his hair and find another excuse to go.

1 comment:

Vijay Bhat said...

Superb ... penetrating insight and artfully written ... you should read it out to Ajoba & Nana!