"Oh really? Dare to test that?" said the child beside him.
"Sure. I am balling my hand in a fist, let's see if you can open it."
And so it started, the child's struggle to open the fist. It seemed completely impenetrable at first, and the man kept casting doubts over the diet the child was growing up on if he was so weak. But after some time, the fist seemed to loosen up a little, and then suddenly, a little too suddenly perhaps, the child won. "Well, I am growing old," the man said, "and you are growing up. Can't win all the time!" The child was too happy to realize that even if he was growing up, he was not really strong enough to have opened that fist by himself if the old man had not faked his defeat.
The child grew up into a man and the old man grew older. Now nobody could have cast a doubt as to who was the stronger of the two. And yet, whenever they met, this tradition of opening the fist continued.
"You seem to have grown big. Are you strong enough?"
"Yeah. Want to test it?"
"Yes, let's see if you can open my fist."
Now the pretension was on the other side, but the outcome was the same. The young man seemed to struggle with the hand initially, and then opened it flat with ease. And then both of them laughed out loud at this silly game.
I don't know when this game started as I was too young at that time, but I know it ended yesterday when the old man passed away. I know I will not be opening his tight fist again and rejoicing over my victory.
He was my father's uncle - my grandmother's sister's husband, if that makes it clearer. My American friends will be surprised that such a relation even exists. It is pointless trying to explain what such a relationship could mean. There is no use trying to explain that you can really have more than one grandfather. No wonder we Indians are considered weird - we keep track of such people and consider them relatives. And yet, weird as it may sound, I called him "natun-dadu" which means "new-grandpa."
He was always an equal-aged playmate for me and my cousin, and with him, we knew we could get away with jokes and pranks that our "own" grandpas were too serious for. For instance, once when he was sitting at our house during a puja, I and my cousin competed with each other trying to see who could take out the most things by picking his pocket. We put them all back, of course - we did not have any use for his house keys, his pouch of tobacco and his strips of cigarette paper.
We, the children (I still prefer to put myself in that group), always thought natun-dadu was one of "us" but the truth is, he was equally mischievous with the adults - with my grandparents and my parents. He was notorious for his April fool pranks on unsuspecting relatives every year, and sometimes friends and even mere acquaintances became the victims. Like the time when he sent my grandma and the whole crowd of regular morning-walking ladies of Hooghly to a particular ghat on the Ganga to see the yachts with colourful sails that had assembled there. Who remembers the date when they go on a morning walk?
All that is past now. We don't have to stay alert on April 1 from now on, because most grown-ups are usually too busy to indulge in silly stuff like pranks.
Only, it makes me feel insecure. In the last few months, two of the close relatives whom I met during my last visit to India passed away (the other being my grandma's brother's wife). It makes me realize that when I go home after finishing my Ph.D., home will be a very different place, and many of the people who made growing up such a joyful experience for me will not be there any more.
I may have grown strong enough to open an old man's fist, but I am still not strong enough to not miss him when he is gone.