This is a memoir dedicated to my maternal grandfather Ganapathy Athmaram Mittagunta, whom I addressed as “Delhi Tata”, who passed away recently. He lived from Nov 2, 1928 to Nov 17, 2019 (91 Y).
1. Himalayan Monkeys are bold.
My grandfather’s father worked for the British Indian government, so their family would shuttle between Delhi (winter capital) and Shimla (summer capital) each year.
He would have to climb up the mountain to go to school and down to come back home near Phagli. They had a short cut, which was only for foot traffic.
Once a monkey with a white body and a black face followed him back from school. He was frightened and ran as fast as he could, passing the occasional mounted British officer.
Shimla is full of monkeys and has a temple dedicated to monkeys – the Jackhoo Temple.
My grandfather mentioned there was a king and queen monkey.
It seemed like every aspect of life in the Himalayas, and perhaps India in general, was much more influenced by natural surroundings such as monkeys.
Later when we visited Squaw Valley together he said it reminded him of Shimla.
2. He knew many Extinct English Units and Old Sayings
He would describe distances in furlongs, which I only looked up after his death. It is an eighth of a mile.
My grandfather always used to call me “good man di laaltein” which I only googled properly after he passed. Quora’s Raj says it comes from:
“A blind man carried a lantern (‘lalten’ in Hindi) as he walked through the forest.
People looked at him bemused as he’d walk by every night, realising he couldn’t benefit from the light he was carrying.
When approached and asked why, the blind man responded
‘The lantern is for others to see in darkness. It is for those who otherwise, would be lost.”
He would also say “carry on” and “chap” a lot.
When I was reading “Oliver Twist” in 8th grade, I did not need a dictionary. He knew all the vocabulary from the book. I would ask him what words like acquiesce mean. Curriculum from the US and India were strangely united by the Empire.
3. New Tastes, Introduced at Old Age, Tend Toward Extremes
He only started eating non-Indian food after 60, and he had an extremely interesting set of preferences for non-Indian foods. Some Indian grandparents may almost never eat non-Indian food. My grandfather was different. He had strong likes and dislikes toward almost every non-Indian food:
- He really liked Buitoni pesto but hated tomato marinara.
- He liked Stir Fry Tofu a lot but hated burritos.
- He said he didn’t like Turkish Delight but kept eating them and changing his mind about them.
- He liked avocado a lot and Togo’s sandwiches but he did not like vinegar at all.
I think these are more extreme likes and dislikes than what most people who grow up eating a global diet have.
4. Work and Retirement were Shifted Much Earlier
He would talk about the retirement age being 58, and him retiring at 56 was considered slightly early. He was an administrator – monitoring UPSC Civil Service exam facilities. He rose up to the Deputy Secretary level where he oversaw overall UPSC exam procedures – starting from exams, to interviews to hiring for civil services posts like IAS, IFS etc. He started work at 16 and ended at 56 so he worked for 40 years and was retired for 35 years till his death at 91.
Compare that with people today who do grad school: they start work at 30 and retire at 70. 2 factors:
- retirement in India is earlier than the US because life expectancy there is lower
- retirement in the past was earlier than retirement now
- more people are spending more time on schooling
5. Life Was Harder but You Were Never Lonely
This photo was taken in the 1930’s. My grandfather is on the bottom row — he is the second to left most chap with the large hat before him. It was his precious hat. It’s hard to wrap your head around the fact that someone who you know was so old was small boy once.
Life was harder in that some close people died young, there were fewer resources to be shared with many people, and there were no modern amenities (no TV, AC, heat, natural gas, dishwasher, fridge, etc). However, they did have a radio, electric lighting, and coal for heat and cooking.
He is in the left-most position in this picture:
However there was probably less loneliness because extended families lived together. With many brothers and cousins, you probably did not need to extend much effort into making friends. You automatically had friends. He still remembered times he had with his brothers and cousins 80 years later, visiting temples in North and South India, and the mischievous boys and pretty girls they saw there.
He said he had a very fat aunt whom 4 men would need to lift up the mountain in Shimla. There were bullock drawn carts but he said she would actually use this palanquin to get around.
I imagine it might have been something like that ^ but his aunt was much fatter.
6. Schools like Harcourt Butler would toggle between Shimla and Delhi
I was pleasantly surprised to find this article featuring Harcourt Butler Secondary School I found it interesting that the British had the entire government shift between Shimla (summer capital) and Delhi (winter capital) every 6 months. They clearly did not like the Delhi summers. Along with the government shifting, the families, children, schools, etc. all moved as well.
I imagine the building may have looked a little different when my grandfather attended.
He would mention that as they descended the mountain journey, after ample vomiting in the back seat, they would sigh “ah plains” once they hit Kalka (near Chandigarh). He described the vehicle they descended the Himalayas in as some kind of contraption that was neither car nor rail.
7. He used Different Words for Things, Had Mixed Feelings about Sports
He used to consistently say volleyball when he meant basketball, purse when he meant wallet, advocate for lawyer.
As a side note, he would occasionally watch cricket but he had a strong aversion to playing the sport or anyone playing the sport near him.
- The first time he played cricket when he was a young boy, another chap bowled the cricket ball straight into his core. He said that was the first and last time he would ever play cricket.
- He also did not like people playing near him, because when he bought a flat at the ripe age of 70, flying balls hit and broke his glass windows.
8. India → USA Grandparent Transplants Take Care Grandchildren
Migration of engineers and doctors from India to the United States and longer life times has created an interesting phenomena. Grandparents are immigrating to the USA to live with their children. This phenomena has always existed in the US. 100 years ago Little Italy in New York and parts of Wisconsin had plenty of Italian and German speaking grandmothers and late-in-life immigrants that didn’t know English. My grandfather knew English very well and very much enjoyed American News and Sitcoms. He also enjoyed chatting with me.
Once, we went on a helicopter over the Grand Canyon and then in a boat on the Colorado River once the helicopter landed. The tour guides asked our group of 7 (my parents, sister, aunt and uncle, and grandfather) whether any of us had been in a helicopter. To my surprise my grandfather was the only one in the group who had.
At the ripe age of 86 he had his first taste of alcohol – a couple wines and a sangria though only a tiny sip of each. I finished the rest for him. The above is a photo from Beringer.
We had some great times together and spent a lot more time together than is normal for families than entirely American families (4th generation or more) and entirely Indianfamilies (because grandparents own their own home so they don’t live with you).
9. He Kept “Chits”
He would keep small sheets of paper he called “chits” with notes like TV channel numbers (CNN, Fox, MSNBC, TV Land, Travel) and addresses and phone numbers of his relatives in the UK, India, and the US.
10. He Related to Old Time Shows in the US
My grandfather had an interesting taste in American television. He liked The Jeffersons, Andy Griffith, Hogans Heroes, Threes’ Company, All in the Family, Everybody Loves Raymond, Matlock, Good Times, and more.
He watched Hindi films but rarely praised them. He perhaps praised Lagaan. He did mention often though that his first film was Kamli, a Punjabi movie which was very long. Back in the day films were 5 to 10 hours long because people wanted to get a lot what they’re paying for.
11. He sometimes had surprising Tidbits
He said his grandmother did tobacco snuff which was interesting because no one else in the family did anything of the sort — no alcohol, no smoking, no meat, nothing.
12. He had a Love Hate Relationship with the British Empire, More Love than Hate
My grandfather always used to praise the British. He was repetitive in general but in almost every conversation about pre-Independence India he would mention how the British kept things neat and in order, in a way we’re not able to do today. He would remember the British railroads and the Victoria Station in Bombay.
But he also on occasion would mention that “we were slaves to the British” and that independence was good. But he did mention that Gandhi was too soft and that’s the reason partition happened. He was a much bigger fan of Vallabhbhai_Patel
Overall though, he described the British as neat, and enjoyed Victorian cultural relics like pride and prejudice. He still did like Gandhi very much and even had seen him and Nehru speak several times.
He opened fruit differently
He would remove the entire peel of the banana and then break off bits and eat it.
His father was always strict
Every day at 6am, his father would come in the room where all the kids were sleeping and tell them sarcastically to keep sleeping.
At 9pm, after coming home from playing cards, he would do the same thing, suggesting that they should keep “reading” (studying).
Stocks were how he made a good amount of money to buy a house. My grandfather even at a very old age saw his own father as strict but a role model.
My grandfather got into St. Stephens but he was made to work instead.
My grandfather’s father was quite strict. Even a fake “raising of the walking stick” was enough to scare and discipline kids in those days.
One last detail he mentioned that he had an uncle in Nagpur who had a huge bungaloow with a huge lawn and room full of oranges.
13. He liked Astrology, but Had Different Interpretations
He always said Cancerians (I am July 4 born) are extremely careful with money.
14. As they get older they become more childish and funny.
As he got older he became more funny. He talked about all kinds of interesting things like the food he ate 60 years ago.
15. You become accustomed to your body’s idiosyncrasies.
He had a pinky toe that would always sit up on the toe to its left. As a child I would try very hard to push it back down and make it normal but it would just keep going back up. He used to say – it was always like that and will always be like that. Only after his death did I look this up and discover that an overlapping pinky toe is a common thing.
16. The sun sets very early in India’s Northeastern State of Manipur
He mentioned that the sunset in Manipur is very early relative to the rest of India (because it follows IST but is so far East). In fact it is interesting that Dhaka which is much West of Imphal has a later timezone!
By the way, films in Manipur were a full day long, close to 12 hours, according to him.
17. How I Got Him to Drink Alcohol for the First Time at Age 86
He was adamant about not drinking alcohol throughout his life. His father forbade him from it. At a restaurant or hotel, he would always order coke, not beer or wine. But somehow I described to him how good it was so many times … and we joked about it so much … that he actually took a few sips at Napa.
Interestingly, even though he never had beer, he had the firm belief that beer is ok – it’s just “barley water”.
18. He Loved Sunlight and Hated Clouds
Even though he was a silent and solitary person, he was happy to be amongst family in his last days.
He liked fried banana also.
His favorite dish was Aratikaaya Koora.
19. Whenever he saw someone on my facebook newsfeed, he’d ask who that was.
Even if it was some friend of a friend I didn’t know, or a public figure.
20. A Cow Licked Him While He Slept Outside
He had to move to a new place for his first post (his first job). He was asked to stay with some extended family He had to sleep outside on cot for a few weeks and he said he didn’t like it because a cow would come to the cot and lick him while he was sleeping. Eventually he decided to rent somewhere rather than stay with family.
21. He believed in Astrology
22. Doing Arm Circles Too Fast Will Make Your Arm Fall Off
His doctor or chiropractor asked him to do arm circles for some time. Not small ones, but large vertical ones. Slowly.
I would watch him do it as a child and copy it. But I would do it so fast that my mother thought that my arm would fly out of its socket.
23. He wanted to know what happens after death.
He would ask what happens after death. I would tell him that nothing happens. I told him that religions just tell you something happens after death because they want money.
24. Early to Bed, Early to Rise, Makes a Man Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise
He would wake up between 4 am and 5 am and sleep at 8pm. He would start getting sleepy at 7pm.
25. He used a Paper Cone Instead of Q-Tips / Earbuds / Cotton Swab
26. Expert at Bargaining
When he was in his 70s, he was extremely persistent when bargaining with cycle rickshaw drivers. He would ask the rate and then if it was not what he liked, he would say “leave it I’ll walk”. He would keep walking till one of the rickshaw drivers offered him the right rate. Otherwise, he’d just walk home.
27. He was the last family member who did not use social media.
He is the only close family member left who is not on social media. He was perplexed by Facebook and never understood its purpose. Good old man. The same kind of man that used a shoe horn still:
28. He hid in a Gurudwara during WW2 Bomb Threats in Himachal
29. We slept on a bunk bed once in Squaw Valley, Lake Tahoe – Reminded him of Shimla
30. He used to keep a piece of paper over his night water glass.
31. He liked Togos Sandwiches.
32. He would never give up on looking for something.
Whenever I lost something, he would search all over the house for it for days. He was very persistent. On the last day of his life my mother couldn’t find the keys to his suitcase and she had said to him – don’t worry about it, we’ll manage without them. He didn’t have the energy to search for them. She found them after he died.
33. He wore Vans shoes.
My sister got him Vans shoes with velcro since tying your shoes when you’re old is difficult. He would wear them.
34. His last movie was “Around the World in 80 Days”
He described Hindi “pictures” as bogus, being too long with too many songs. He would still watch them. But he liked British “pictures” like “Pride and Prejudice”. His last film was “Around the World in 80 Days”.
35. He loved Travel Channel’s Exotic Islands and Countries – Suriname
He liked the special on Suriname. And many other exotic places.
Except he couldn’t handle the dances of Carnival in Brazil so he “closed it”.
36. He was very careful about checking the stove and electric wires.
His mother had an electric shock so he was very careful about quadruple checking electric wires and the stove gas.
37. He was fascinated by stocks and shares because of his father.
His father made a good amount of money from stocks and shares, but he was fascinated that nowadays people don’t need to go to a broker. They can just buy them “online”.
38. His favorite actor and director was Aamir Khan and actress was Preity Zinta.
39. Immediate Instincts. He tapped immediately on play of any song. He prayed to God immediately on sight of an idol.
His immediate instincts also included checking the mail immediately when the mailman would come. He would always tell me about paper mails addressed to “Learning Dollars Inc.” even when they were just spam. He considered them important. He would ask who guided you to name the company “Learning Dollars” to which I would say that I came up with it myself to which he would extol my creativity. He would forget and ask again later.
40. He would compare his age to the Queen and Prince Charles.
41. He would tell the story of Vallabhbhai Patel’s seize of Hyderabad well.
42. He had a knack at mapping faces to nationalities.
He always used to know what is a typical Iranian face, Greek face, Nepali face, Bengali face, etc.
43. He believed in uncanny coincidences.
It is an uncanny coincidence that I published a major piece I had been preparing for years, the very day he died: How to end World Poverty and Racial Power Imbalance in 1 Generation.
44. He used to say your tongue will be white if and only if you’re ill.
45. Efferdent was a symbol of his presence.
He always had Efferdent around to cleanse his dentures. His belongings also had the smell of naphthalene balls which would protect his clothes from insects. For a long time I thought that was his smell. Only later I realized it’s the smell of naphthalene.
46. He was a master at handkerchiefs and hand towels.
He was from a time before tissues and brands such as Kleenex were global. His go-to product was the washable handkerchief.
47. He sometimes not recognize himself in pictures, in a charming way.
He would ask who is that and I would tell him “that is you”.
48. He used to comb his hair even if it was really short.
He would also notably shave with a special old-style blade, not with a razor.
49. He would read every day – newspapers (WSJ), magazines (Time, The Economist, India Today) with a magnifying glass.
He would ask what is AI, but then would say something along the lines of “oh [never mind] it’s a technical subject”, but would not use the word “never mind”.
I would sit next to him and sometimes he’d get curious and read some of my school and university books. He was impressed by some of the Stanford lectures I’d watch online.
He was very cautious about most things so sometimes I would tell him “C’mon Tata, be bold” or “you didn’t even know that?!”.
He kept a notebook where he’d make a note of everything he wanted to remember like news articles, magazine article topics, TV channels, etc. He enjoyed watching Obama and McCain speak.
50. People die but families and customs shouldn’t. So much of us is spread to others genetically and behaviorally.
It is interesting that he used to call me a “22nd century man” and himself an “18th century man”, when neither of us is from either century. While it is sad that he died, so much of him is passed both genetically and behaviorally to his 11 descendants that he lives on.