The Portrait of a Lady
by Khuswant Singh
Explanation of the text ……….
1st part .. The author was lovingly reared by his frail, ageing grandmother. Her long-departed husband’s imposing photo hung on the wall. The author was not born when the grandfather was alive.
The story dates back to the author’s childhood days when he grew up under the loving care of his widowed ageing grandmother. The two had a symbiotic relationship with each other –the child leaning on his grandma for his upbringing and the old lady drawing succor from the boy’s company to fight off loneliness and boredom.
The author was not born when his grandfather was alive. His photograph in loose white dress and long beards that adored the wall showed a face wrinkled due to old age. Apparently, he had departed long ago leaving behind his widowed wife with her youth still intact.
2nd part …The grandma coped up with her old age rather well. She spent her day in continuous prayers, and escorted the author to the school operating from the village temple. The priest was the teacher. She stayed back in the temple till the end of the school hour, so that she could bring the author back. She offered chapattis to the street dogs.
Despite her desolation, her widowhood had failed to batter her sprightly mind. Notwithstanding the visible signs of her creeping old age, the demeanour remained unchanged – almost defying the effects of advancing age. A deeply spiritual person that she was, she said her prayers almost relentlessly all through the day. Weighed down with age, she walked bending a little forward with a hand on her waist to maintain her balance.
She helped the child prepare for going to school always murmuring her prayers into his ears. But, it did not register in his playful mind. The school was in the temple annexe. The priest doubled up as the teacher. She stayed behind in the temple till the school hours were over, and it was time to return home with her grandson. Feeding stale chapattis to the stray dogs en route which the old lady never forgot to do.
3rd part … The author moves to the city along with her grandma to live with his parents. The author goes to a English medium school to study modern subjects, and music. The grandma found music teaching an appalling idea, but she could nothing. Slowly, the author moved away from his grandma’s influence.
The parents settled down in the city and it was time for the grandmother –grandson duo to move there. The boy enrolled in an English medium school that taught modern day subjects like science and geography. Scriptures and holy studies ceded place to the branches of knowledge the European society cultivated in those times. To the grandma’s horror, the school offered lessons in music. She perceived this to be the part of a decadent culture. The dissonance in the mutual ties had begun to set in, but the bond of love remained intact.
4th part .. The author enrolled in an university. He got a separate room of his own in the house. The grandma, lonelier than before, spent her time in prayers. In the afternoon, she fed grains to sparrows.
Finally, the boy came of age and prepared to go to the university. He got a room of his own. With rare stoicism, the grandmother put up with the drifting relationship. She took to her spinning and praying from dawn to dusk. That was the only way she could wait out the daylight hours. In the afternoon, she fed a flock of sparrows that descended on the backyard at the appointed time every day. The sight of the sparrows jostling to eat the bread crumbs thrown at them by her, filled her heart with joy.
5th part .. The author prepared to go abroad for higher studies. The grandma concealed her grief at the railway station. The author bids his parents goodbye.
The time came for the college-going grandson to go abroad for studies for a 5-year stint. Again, the old lady refused to break apart. The pangs of separation must have hurt her a lot, but she showed little sign of it when she came to see him off at the station. The parting moments were poignant, but the old lady did not shed any tear. Instead, she kissed his forehead as she wished him Godspeed with her little prayers.
6th part … The author returns from abroad, and finds her grandma quite the same way she was earlier.
On return home from abroad after five years, he found his grandmother in remarkably good state. The time appeared to stand still.
7th part .. Death comes calling for the grandma. The day before her death, she jovially sings with her neighbourhood friends.
Finally, the time to depart arrived. On the penultimate day, the grandma appeared to be in high spirits. She summoned her friends from the neighbourhood and got engrossed in loud singing. Using an old drum, she sang songs that depicted the proud home-coming of warriors. She sang with rare verve and gusto.
8th part … The grandma has temperature. She continued her prayers in her bed, awaiting death. Finally, she dies. The funeral is arranged, but the sparrows came, but refused to accept grains from the daughter-in-law’s hands. They flocked near the dead body, as if plunged in grief.
On the next day, she ran a low temperature. She knew her final hour was drawing near. She lay on her bed with the slow murmur of prayer never leaving her lips. In a short while the lips fell to move, she breathed her last.
The family members prepared for the funeral rites. But, the biggest losers were not the family members who stood around her sobbing and wailing, but the flock of sparrows who came, grieved silently, and flew off for the final time refusing the bread crumbs offered to them by another member of the family.
Questions & answers
1. The three phrases of the author’s relationship ………….. to study abroad.
Answer … a. A turning point
b. An expanse of pure white serenity
c. A veritable bedlam of chirruppings
1. The three phases of the author’s relationship ………….. to study abroad.
Answer … First phase .. The author is a young child who needs his grandmother’s help at every stage in his daily life. From getting ready for school, eating breakfast to being escorted to school, the child needs the grandmother as his companion.
Second stage .. The author went to an English medium school in a city whose curriculum was a gulf apart from the village school. The subjects were alien to the old lady, and the most disgusting for her were the music lessons being given by the school. The two souls had begun to drift apart although the bond endured.
Third stage … The author grew up and got ready to enroll in the university. He got a separate room and spent much less time with her grandma. She coped up with the changing times by pouring on her spinning wheel and saying her silent prayers.
2. The city school taught in English, not in the local language. The lessons were on science and such other things not taught in schools following the traditional Indian system. They didn’t teach scriptures and about God. The most revolting aspect was their offering music as a subject. The old lady thought music corrupted young minds, and had a degrading influence.
3. After the author grew up, the inevitable separation between the two happened. The old lady spent most part of her time spinning in the spinning-wheel, and praying. In the afternoon, she delighted herself feeding the sparrows. They came in hoards to feed on the bread crumbs which were deliberately strewn around the yard by the kind old lady.
4. Using an old, worn-out drum, she broke into an intriguing singing frenzy. The songs, quite inexplicably, related to stories of home-coming of warriors. Her enthusiasm baffled the family members. She did not pray that day – a very unusual break from her daily routine.
On the morning she died, she ran a low temperature. While everyone ignored it as something not serious, she lay quietly on her bed deciding to say her prayers quietly while counting the beads. Quite uncannily, she had come to know that her final hours had arrived. She was determined to pray as she had skipped it the day before. Not heeding the family members, she continued to say her prayers quietly till her lips froze.
5. The sparrows had discerned that their long-time benefactor was gone forever. Sitting around her dead body, they behaved very solemnly and desisted from their usual cacophony. Grief-stricken and orphaned, they did not partake of the bread pieces offered to them by the author’s mother. With their hearts broken, they flew away leaving the bread pieces behind.