This was my real life piece for my portfolio last semester. Written in December 2009.
When I was seven years old, my grandfather gave me my first ever diary. It was a hard-bound book, brilliantly coloured, aimed at young children with fascinating facts and games inside as a bonus. “Write in this”, he said. “Write about what happens in your day. You’re a smart girl pora, you will write well.” I started writing in it because he wanted me to. I continued because I loved it. Initially, all my diary entries were focused on the different foods I’d eaten that day. And during term-time, they revolved around how much I hated Maths. And the girl who sat behind me. But every single year, my grandfather would buy me a diary and encourage me to write.
Next year, he won’t be able to.
I was shopping with my mother in a market one hot morning in Dubai. We were not looking forward to the summer ahead; it was my brother’s last day of school and this was the final morning we would have free for ourselves. My brother is autistic, so during his school holidays it proves very hard for my mother and me to find some free time for ourselves. As we were browsing through a section of ugly Crocs shoes, my mother’s mobile phone started ringing, its Bollywood tune drowned out by the hum of the other shoppers.
After the call ended, my mother said: “It was Gummy. She said Gappa had fainted.” I call my grandmother ‘Gummy’ and my grandfather ‘Gappa’ – a remnant of my young, toothless days when I could not say ‘Grandmummy’ and ‘Grandpapa’ in full.
We were not too worried; even though my grandfather had been recently ill with breathing problems, he had been discharged from the hospital on that account and was recovering.
Yet five minutes later, the phone rang again. My mother listened intently, her brow creased into an anxious frown. “I don’t know what’s happening. He’s not waking up and they’re calling an ambulance”, she explained frantically after she finished talking. We hurried back to the car and I drove like a maniac towards my grandparents’ house. My heart sank when I saw a police car stationed outside – in the U.A.E., a police car stationed outside a home when an ambulance has been called is not a good sign. I dropped my mother off and drove to another part of the city. Just moments after I entered the big and pretentious shopping mall where my brother was waiting to be picked up, my mother called.
“They’ve taken the body away,” she said.
I was expecting the words, but it didn’t prepare me for the stomach-clenching effect it had.
With one stroke, my grandfather had become a body. He was gone.
I was left with a fake smile plastered on my face as I took my brother from the care of his teacher, only breaking down when I went back to my car. My whole life I had been loved by Gappa. Now he was no more and I had never felt so empty.
Gappa had been a freelance journalist for The Indian Express newspaper for a few years, so perhaps he knew a passion for writing was lying dormant in my genes just waiting to be nurtured. What his reasons may have been, he released something in me very precious…my love of writing and expressing myself.
As I grew older, the nature of my diary entries changed; they were more about my life than the food in it. When I was 14 I asked him to stop buying me the diaries. “These are too childish for me Gappa. Also, I want to write more than the space these books give me”, I said. He nodded his head, as if agreeing with me, but said nothing at the time. But before I could buy one myself, he bought me a hard-bound book, with just pages and pages of lines waiting to be filled. No trivia and no crosswords. I had grown up. “Here,” he said gruffly but kindly, “No need to buy a diary yourself. What am I there for?”
When I was 19, two things happened. I was in the hospital for a week after an appendicitis operation that had all the potential to go wrong. It was Gappa who sat with me every day, coming straight from a long day at the office. He would sit in a corner, read the newspaper and tell me what topics were being talked about that day. After I recovered over a month later, I started working as an intern at a newspaper. He bought the newspaper every time I was published with a by-line and told the local grocer his granddaughter was a journalist. Then he told the vegetable market trader, then the sweet shop owner. His pride in me was evident and I felt embarrassed but quietly pleased. Now, quite a few people who work in various kinds of shops know I write, thanks to him.
Years slipped by. I was accepted to all the universities I applied to for my Masters degree (“No surprise”, he said when I told him. “You’re my smart girl”) and had zeroed in on Sheffield. He was excited for me, at the same time worried about how his first grandchild would handle herself alone for the first time. He told me to concentrate on my studies and said: “Don’t forget me. Send me photographs.”
Even months before I was due to leave, he would say: “You need to write more. Write to the newspapers and magazines…write beautifully and you will get published.” As if telling me was not enough, he would call me frequently and say that he had something exciting to show me. The next time I’d meet him, he’d hand me writing competitions along with a bunch of cuttings, either involving articles or comment pieces he thought would inspire me. It sometimes seemed as though he was more desperate than I was to get me published. But I never minded. It was just his way of showing me he thought I was good enough. No one else showed as much faith and love for my writing career as he did.
Less than a month after that fateful phone call, I got an internship with Time Out Dubai. It was the pinnacle of my writing career so far and I should have been ecstatic. Instead all I could manage was disappointment and regret. This was what Gappa wanted. He was the first person I wanted to tell. Now I couldn’t. All because his heart had given out with no explanation.
After he passed away, my diary entries came to a full stop. I wrote about the funeral and that was it. It was as if my will… my need to write in my diary had died along with him. It had never been a chore to write in my diary every single day before that. Sometimes I’d go on for pages and pages and still feel like I had more to express.
Eventually, my not putting my thoughts to paper had an adverse effect.
The first time I had a panic attack, was a few days after he died. One night, I was in my room, trying to sleep. The thoughts of Gappa were in my head and after my sobs receded, my chest started hurting. My head started hurting too and my breathing turned to shallow gasps. I slipped out of my room and bullied my mother into sleeping in my bed. I held her tightly and eventually slept.
I found out I was having panic attacks. That was only the beginning. They became frequent and debilitating. A flash of understanding hit me after the first time I shared my thoughts with a friend; he mentioned that it looked like I needed to talk to somebody. I was about to answer that I tell my diary everything, however corny that might have sounded.
But I didn’t tell my diary anything anymore. It struck me that the lack of being able to express myself led to the onset of the severe panic attacks. I’d used my diary as an outlet for any troubles or dilemmas I’d had. But my diary had been empty after June 2009…pages waiting to be filled, waiting to hear my voice. The attacks, while in existence before, had never been physically painful. However, the chest pains began only after his death and when I stopped writing.
I think my Gappa was a smart man. Maybe he didn’t just want me to write better. Maybe he just wanted me to be able to talk about my problems and not let them interfere with the daily routine of my life.
Now seems to be a good night as any to start talking. Even though I wasn’t writing in my diary, I carried it around everywhere. I looked at the back of the drawer in my room and pulled out the brown, wooden journal. As I opened the pages, I was scared as I wondered if I was ready to write again. I had empty pages where my life in the last six months should have been. But apart from being scared, I was relieved that I would finally have an outlet for my highs, lows, frustrations and joy again. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath and poised my pen over the blank sheet of paper. ‘What should I write?’ I thought. I persevered and as the clock ticked on, the pen began flowing over the paper. Two hours and 10 pages later, I stopped. I felt free again.
It’s been 6 months since Gappa died and while I will always miss him I no longer think I have lost him. Every time I pick up my diary I can picture his face telling me to: “Write more pora, write more.”