“He arrived by sea… and now he’s returned to sea…”
Those were the haunting words of my aunt, on the subject of my grandfather, her father… He had arrived to old Malaya by sea many decades ago, from India, and we had just scattered his ashes into the waters of one Malaysian sea.
Very often we do not see or appreciate the presence and constitution of another until it’s too late. I have always loved my grandfather, even though my thoughts of him as a child growing up were more along the lines of “boring” and strangely in contrast, “goofy”.
What made him boring to a girl in her teens? Hah, probably everything! Perhaps it was the fact that he walked everywhere, and didn’t care to travel into town in my grandmother’s car- that might have been what made him boring. Perhaps it was the way he always seemed so engrossed in the newspapers- really, how interesting can that be? Boring. Or perhaps it was the fact that he and my grandmother both lived very simple, unpretentious lives, with him going about his own business and getting in the way of no one else’s- honestly, what could be juicier than keeping up with the daily gossips of so-and-so’s daughter’s boyfriend’s aunty’s scandal?!
In the same way I perceived him to be boring, he was also quite… funny. Not funny in the Adam Sandler slapstick kind of way which was quite frankly the only type of humour I understood- the “in your face” kind of humour. My grandfather had a tongue sharper than a knife, but he had a gift for getting away with it. Every cutting yet acute comment could be easily forgiven by the recipient due solely to the fact that his face was always, always, cracked in a cheeky, no, mischievous grin, as he did so. It is safe to say that I inherited no such gift.
It is unfortunate that I began understanding the enormity of his quiet intelligence only when he was near his time, when I was thousands of miles away, in a different country.
Most of the reasons for which I perceived him to be “boring” turned out to be the very reasons people in the community around us respected him; not very often did they find access to a real-life example of humility. Those razor-sharp comments he’d throw into a 5-people conversation after having silently listened for the first 15 minutes… they were only so sharp because he was a keen listener and observer; while the others invested their time into discussing a matter at face value, he would take a back seat and make silent judgements about characters based on the opinions that surfaced… then he would speak them out.
And that mischievous grin… well that mischievous grin was just that which allowed him to get away with making such comments!.
It is also unfortunate that I never took the very many opportunities I had had with him in the very many years we had spent together before his passing to ask for his story. What was his childhood like? Why did he sail to Malaya? How old was he when he did? What was his favourite song? Movie? Fruit? What did he find so funny whenever he chortled at my sister and I breaking into serious argument over who should be getting the first serve of milk at tea-time?
All sorts of questions that would have given me a clearer insight into what the man was made of, what made him who he was.
And now I’m left with renditions of his life’s stories as told by others, watered down, perhaps, humour eradicated. But I suppose having some pieces of the puzzle is better than having none at all… if only for the sake of curiosity. For the sake of satiating my own hunger to know him better, although it can never truly be satisfied as I know these stories are not his, but mere narrations of others.
Funnily though, isn’t that how legends are passed on to future generations, through narrations? Story-telling? In that case… perhaps I will be telling my future children about the man their mother used to think was a strange mixture of boring and goofy, but never truly got to understand why, and perhaps then they will learn a lesson and ask their grandfather all the questions they can think of asking him, so as not to make the same mistakes and eventually, the same reflections, that their mother is making today.