'Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted.'
Monday 22 October 2018
My grandfather’s English princess
Meghan Markle’s wedding this year seemed to be an inexhaustible source of articles — celebratory and controversial alike — in the media. But my own thoughts keep floating back to another member of the family whose birthday passed, relatively quietly, in the month of July.
At a book fair, hugging five coffee table books close to my chest, I teared up in gratitude and nostalgia, breathing in their sepia scent. The reason I could buy all of those hardbound editions, offered to me at a great discount, was because not many readers cared for these books on Princess Diana’s life and death — not as my grandfather, my Nana, did.
I had seen my father get such books from England. My grandfather would pore over them intently like a geographer traces the fine lines of a map, charting the route of his next expedition. As I hovered around the exclusive smell of the gloss finish, he would trace for me Diana’s lineage. I was less interested in the family tree and more interested in the affable charm of the princess, as radiant and widespread as the faraway foreign greens framed in our living room, simultaneously creating assurance and aspiration. Admiring Diana’s signature style, for once my short hair didn’t seem like such a bad thing. I became a blazer-skirt loyalist, influenced by her wardrobe, and royally ignored anyone who laughed at me for having worn the two-piece amidst lehengas and salwars on my uncle’s wedding.
Thus, Nana infected me with his penchant for all things British, to the extent that when I joined a publishing house that spelled ‘realise’ with an ‘-ize’, I had a hard time converting.
I wasn’t always a Anglophile, though. Back from college for a vacation at home, I was a hot beaker bubbling with my newfound knowledge. I smirked at Nana's colonial hangover and at what I called his obsession with the British royalty. He wasn’t bothered and I continued to send him similar books from Delhi. My little cousins groaned when I talked to them over the phone, grumbling that Nana would get hold of them and ask them to memorise the entire line of kings and queens.
I did not tell Nana that despite my critique of what my friend Elsie Bryant calls the “British Empire State of Mind”, I still held a secret fascination for the English teacup and other Old Blighty curios, Dorothy Parker’s little things that no one needs. It was just something I learnt to keep to myself, so it did not interfere with my engagement with proletarian politics.
When I was going to Brussels and told Nana that I also intended to visit Paris and Amsterdam, he asked me to forget all that and just go to London and buy myself a nice coat. I told him I couldn’t afford the visa fee for his favoured country, let alone the place. What I did try was introducing a Brit friend to Nana so that he could glean more information about the country and its famed family through my friend’s experiential learning. The conversation came to an awkward halt and Nana went back to his newspaper when he found it too much work to discern the friend’s accent.
The questions I used to pose to Nana as a child gradually made way for the interventions I had to make when he treated Nani, my grandmother, with his patriarchal high-handedness. He would talk of Manusmriti and its approval of gender hierarchies, partially to provoke me, and I would condemn it, so upset at times that I would leave the room before the argument could escalate.
In the middle of all this, Diana remained undisturbed between us, an inviolable presence that would make us rein in our egos. I did not want to read up on her too much — her fanpages apart — lest I should find something disturbing. I would tell myself that it was her and not monarchy I was rooting for, and that I need not do a critical examination because I wasn’t required to vote for her.
When Nana visited me this time and got engrossed in the books, I lingered for the pleasure of seeing him engage with something other than his usual worldly worries. After some time, he looked up, to say: “You know she was hurt by those close to her; she wasn’t happy.” I nodded quietly, choosing to refrain from talking about the complexity of relationships, and Nana did not express his well-known disapproval of divorce. For the sake of the princess, in that moment, we agreed to a truce.