My grandfather was an eccentric man. On Sundays, when he had the day off from work, he would get up quietly after finishing his morning newspaper, surreptitiously slipping a nail clipper into his pocket, and declare, “I’ll be back in a while.” My grandmother, long weary after years of marriage, would say nothing, only watch from the balcony as he strode out towards the lane that would lead him to the main road.
He had a fixed route; much like the newspaper boy or the milkman does, covering four to five houses. Each of those houses was owned by a particularly close friend of his, some considerably younger in age. Despite being direct to the point of bluntness, my grandfather had endeared himself to all sorts of people- shopkeepers, the local meat-seller, the affluent neighbourhood doctor and all the little children. It was for this last category of people that he took his long-winded route every Sunday. Upon reaching their houses, he would demand that the children line up in front of him, and one by one, he would carefully clip off their uneven, dirt-stained nails that had strayed to many a prohibited place in course of the week; the muddy school field and the fertilized pumpkin patch in the backyard, were, by far, the most civilized of those places. He would gently chide the ones who’d been exceptionally careless- his favourite epithet for them, and indeed, for careless people in general, was “Holder!” Three decades after his death, the closest explanation I have managed to find for this seemingly random phrase, is that sloppy people reminded him of the flickering tube-lights in our house, rendered vulnerable by their faulty holders.
After completing this ritual, Grandfather would on occasion, stop for a cup of tea and a long chat, most often at the home of his favourite friend, the Doctor. He would hold forth on diverse issues- the rising vegetable prices, the latest policy of the government, the war, the heat in Delhi, the children. Then, suddenly, he would rise from his chair, and in one sweeping motion, rip off the calendar page still displaying the previous month’s dates on the wall and mutter under his breath again, “Holder!” Whether he was referring to the caretaker’s inattention or man’s futile attempt to calibrate time in general, no one knew.
None of Grandfather’s friends and acquaintances minded this periodic imposition on their homes and families. Indeed, they had begun to look forward to the routine, and sometimes, when the sweetshop owner Kalika Babu’s wife forcibly chased her child down on a Friday to trim his nails, her husband would stop her and say, “Oho. Leave the child alone till Sunday. It’s the tradition after all.”
When he retired from his government job at the age of sixty, Grandfather made a few changes to his schedule, and his friends learnt to expect him on both Wednesdays and Sundays. He didn’t linger long on the weekday, but he always made sure to speak to every member of every family. He would listen with great attention even to the youngest child, all of two, who proudly showed off her latest attempt at learning a Bengali nursery rhyme. The lady of the house would say, with an exasperated sigh, “Dada, you must not spoil the children by bringing them something every week.” He would nod seriously, and then sneakily slip a few sweets into the children’s pockets once she’d turned her back. Children loved him as the adult who never ignored them in favour of seemingly important “adult business”.
On what was to be the last Wednesday of his life, Grandfather got up as usual at 5.30 a.m., ignoring the niggling feeling of a heavy stone tied to his chest. He put on his shoes slowly, taking a little more time to tie his laces. “I’m going”, he called out to my grandmother. He’d already stepped out by the time she noticed that he’d not said, “I’ll be back in a while.” He never came back. I think his last thought would have been a gentle regret as he touched the nail clippers in his pocket. For all the little fingers with dirty little nails as they rested on the gates- waiting.