The Portrait of a Lady -By Khushwant Singh
The story is written in first person and is in biographical mode. It is a perception of Khushwant Singh of his grandmother through his own eyes. Khushwant Singh recalls his grandmother as an eternally old person. She was an extremely religious person. It was difficult for him to believe that once she too was young and pretty like other women. The stories about her childhood games were like fairy tales to him. She was short, fat and slightly stooped in stature. Her silvery white hair used to scatter on her wrinkled face. Khushwant Singh remembers her hobbling around the house in spotless white clothes with one hand resting on her waist to balance her stoop and the other busy in telling the beads of her rosary. Her lips constantly moved in inaudible prayers. Possibly she was not beautiful in worldly sense but she looked extremely beautiful with the peacefulness, serenity and the contentment her countenance displayed.
Khushwant’s relationship with his grandmother went through several changes when he was a small boy. In the first stage Khushwant lived in a village with her as his parents were looking for the opportunity to settle down in the city. In village grandmother took care of all the needs of the child. She was quite active and agile. She woke him up in the morning, got him ready for the school, plastered his wooden slate, prepared his breakfast, and escorted him to the school. They fed street dogs with stale chapattis on their way to school which was a great fun for them. She helped him in his lessons also .It was her domain and she was the queen of her kingdom. In this period she was the sole unchallenged guardian, mentor, and creator of the child Khushwant. The turning point came in their relationship when they came to city to stay with Khushwant’s parents. In city Khushwant joined an English School and started to go to school in a motor bus. Here the role of his grandmother in his bringing up was curtailed a little bit. Now she could not accompany him to the school. Despite taking lot of interest in his studies she could not help him in his lessons because he was learning English, law of gravity, Archimedes’ principle and many more such things which she could not understand and this made her unhappy. She found herself at loss. One more thing which disturbed her a lot was that the kids were not learning about God and scriptures in the school instead they were given music lessons which was not an honourable thing in her opinion. To her music was not meant for gentlefolk. It was meant for beggars and prostitutes only. She highly disapproved this and as she could not change it she was dismayed and withdrew herself to some extent. Perhaps she had realized that in the makeover of the child her role was finished and this very thought saddened her most.
Prayers and by sitting beside her spinning wheel. She rarely talked to anyone. The only recreation for her was in the afternoon when she relaxed for a while to feed the sparrows. A kind hearted person, in village she used to feed street dogs, here in city she focused on birds and they too became very friendly with her. This was the phase when she found herself totally isolated and aloof but she braved this isolation with grace and dignity.
Khushwant’s grandmother was a strong person. Whatever she went through in her heart she always restrained herself from demonstrating her emotions.He recalls that when he went abroad for further studies his grandmother was there to see him off on railway station quite calm busy telling the beads of her rosary and reciting prayers as always. When he came back after five years he found her more and more religious and more and more self-contained. She spent still more time in prayers and spinning the wheel. Feeding the birds was her only happy pastime. But just the day before her death for the first time she broke this routine and gave up her prayers. That day she sang the songs of the home coming of the warriors on a withered drum along with the ladies of neighbourhood in order to celebrate her grandson’s return from abroad. Next morning she got ill. Although the doctor said it was a mild fever and would go away she could foresee that her end was near. She was upset that she omitted her prayers just before the final departure from the world. She did not want to waste any more time talking to anybody. She lay peacefully in bed praying and telling the beads till her lips stopped moving and rosary fell from her lifeless fingers. To mourn her death thousands of sparrows flew in and sat scattered around her body in utter silence. They even ignored the breadcrumbs thrown for them by Khushwant’s mother. They only flew away after the corpse was carried away for last rites.