Finally she lay dying
In her eight sixth year
A woman wearied by compromise
Her legs quilted with arthritis
And with only a hard cough
I looked deep into her eyes
Her poor bleary eyes
And prayed that she would not grieve
So much about the house
When the great-grandmother was in her eighty sixth year, she was on the death bead. He body had become frail due to age-related illnesses. He eyes had turned bleary, probably as a result of watching her old house crumbling in front of her. The poet prayed that the great-grandmother would not worry about the old house.
I had learnt by then
Most lessons of defeat
Had found out that to grow rich
Was a difficult feat
The house was crouching
On its elbows then
It looked that night in the pallid moon
So grotesque and alive
When they burnt my great-grandmother
Over logs of the mango tree
The poet was getting older and wiser after going through various ups and downs in her life. She understood the difficulties in getting rich. The house was crouching on its elbow by that time. This sentence means that the house had become so dilapidated that it was impossible to be repaired. When the great-grandmother’s body was consigned to flames during the last rites, the house was looking grotesque under the pale moonlight, as if the house was mimicking death.
I looked once at the house
And then again and again
For I thought I saw the windows close
Like closing of the eyes
I thought I heard the pillars groan
And the dark rooms heave a sigh
The poet looked at the house again and again. The windows of the house closed as if someone was closing eyes. She could hear the groaning of the pillars as if they had had enough of bearing the weight of the house. She could also hear the dark rooms heaving a sigh, as if they felt relieved of all the burdens.
I set forth again
For other towns
Left the house with the shrine
And the sands
And the flowering shrubs
And the wide rabid mouth of the Arabian Sea.
After the last rites of her great-grandmother, the poet leaves the village in pursuit of fulfilling her dreams of a better future. She left the house, along with the shrine, the sands, the shrubs, and the wide rabid mouth of the Arabian Sea. Rabid mouth of the Arabian Sea signifies the corrosive effect of saline water which can destroy many man-made things.
I know the rats are running now
Across the darkened halls
They do not fear the dead
I know the white ants have reached my home
And have raised on walls
Strange totems of burial
At night, in stillness
Although the poet is living in a town, she does not forget her ancestral house. She is aware that the house has become a playground for rats. The walls have been captured by swarms of white ants. The white ants have made anthills on the wall, as if they have made strange totems of burial in the house.
From every town I live in
I hear the rattle of its death
The noise of rafters creaking
And the windows’ whine
No matter where she lives, she can hear the rattle of the death of the house. She could hear the creaking rafters and whining windows of the house. These lines show the power of long time association which anybody can have with the ancestral house, especially is someone gets a chance to grow up in that house.
I have let you down
Old house, I seek forgiveness
O mother’s mother’s mother
I have plucked your soul
Like a pip from a fruit
And have flung it into your pyre
The poet feels guilty of not giving due attention to the house, so she seeks forgiveness from her great-grandmother. The poet feels that by not taking good care of the house, she has hurt the soul of her great-grandmother. She compares this act to plucking a fruit and throwing it into the pyre.
Call me callous
Call me selfish
But do not blame my blood
So thin, so clear, so fine
The oldest blood in the world
That remembers as it flows
All the gems and all the gold
And all the perfumes and the oils
And the stately
The poet is ready to take all the blame, but she does not want her lineage to be blamed. She does not want to hurt the smug feeling which her great-grandmother possessed about the past prosperity of the family.
Responding to the Poem
Question 1: What makes the depiction of a crumbling village house so authentic in the poem? Is this a common feature inmost village houses in the context of rapid urbanization? Is the poet speaking from actual experience?
Answer: The poet has described crumbling of the house in finest details. She talks about whining of windows, falling tiles, creaking doors, etc. These descriptions make the depiction quite authentic. In the context of rapid urbanization, this is a common feature in most villages. The poet has spent her childhood in the village, so it is clear that she is speaking from actual experience.
More and more people are now migrating to cities in search of livelihood. A time comes when every inhabitant of the house leaves the village. They may visit their ancestral house occasionally but most of them seldom get enough time and resources to keep the house properly maintained. Apathy also has a role to play in it.
Question 2: What aspects of Indian society and history get highlighted in the poem?
Answer: Class divide is one major aspect which has been highlighted in this poem. The great-grandmother talks about purity of blood in her family. While doing so, she also looks down at the so-called impure blood. Many people from a particular class always think that they carry the best genes, and others carry defective genes. The apparently best gene in their body makes them superior to other humans. This is wrong to think in this way because all humans are born equal.
Question 3: Does the poem bring out the contrast between tradition and modernity? Illustrate your answer with examples from the poem.
Answer: There are many instances in this poem which show contrast between tradition and modernity. The poet talks about monotony in the life of her great-grandmother because of her over-devotion to the God. The great-grandmother talks about her past when her family was prosperous. The poet highlights how difficult it can be to become rich once someone is on his own to make a mark in this world. The great-grandmother did not have to make efforts to become rich rather she was born with a silver spoon in her mouth. But the poet has to make her own mark, has to start afresh.
Question 4: While the poet respected her grandmother’s sentiments of royal grandeur, we can also see that she revolts against it. Identify the lines which bring this out.
Answer: The lines in the last stanza highlight this issue. While seeking forgiveness, the poet once again talks about the elephant ride, thin blood, gold, oils, perfumes and sandal.
Question 5: Which lines reveal the poet’s criticism of class distinctions?
Answer: These lines are in the last stanza.
Question 6: Is it ‘selfishness’ and ‘callousness’ that makes the poet break her childhood promise to her grandmother of renovating the house? Why does she do nothing about rebuilding the house?
Answer: Here, selfishness has been referred to poet’s obsession with making her own niche in the world. She wants to grow in career and does not want to live like a docile housewife the way her great-grandmother lived. Callousness has been referred to her preoccupation with the urban life, which made her leave her ancestral house at the mercy of the elements.
Question 7: What do you understand of the conflict in the poet’s conscience?
Answer: The poet is appreciative of the life her great-grandmother lived. But she does not want to live the life which her great-grandmother lived. Instead, the poet wants to pursue her dream of making her mark in the world. She still feels sad about the condition of her ancestral house but she is least interested in its renovation. These issues show the conflict in the poet’s conscience.