This or That?
What a silly game with my grandfather taught me about life
By Sayantani Dasgupta
Last year, when I was packing for my big move from Idaho to North Carolina, one of the first things I bubble-wrapped were three photographs of me with my grandfather. In all of them, I am between 3 and 4 years old. In one, he and I are sitting on identical cane chairs on the porch of his official bungalow. In another, I am on his lap and we are inside a black Ambassador car, the then-vehicle of choice of all bureaucrats in India. In the third, we are sharing a swing and his left arm is wrapped protectively around me.
Now, by all accounts, my grandfather was a busy man. He was a poet, a bureaucrat, a guest lecturer at one of Calcutta’s premier colleges, and the kind of person who gave of his time freely to various boards and committees. And yet, when I look at these photographs, and mull over my memories of my grandfather — right from my childhood in the India of the 1980s to his death in 2013 — what I remember the most is the way he gave everyone in his presence his full and absolute attention, whether that person be the prime minister of India or his eldest granddaughter.
Of course, one could argue that those were “simpler times.” There were no smartphones or Netflix or online shopping. And yet, when I think back to my childhood, I can easily fit the adults of my life into two distinct categories: those like my parents and my grandfather, who really listened; and those who were merely physically present.
Lately, I have been thinking a lot about my grandfather’s strategies in particular. How did he always make it seem that what I had to say was important? Why did he make me believe that nothing mattered more in the moment than my opinion, whether it be on Cinderella (boring) or ghosts (amazing)?
I am pondering over these questions for two reasons:
One, because I know I can be more attentive to the conversations in my own life. When my husband tells me about a TV show he is excited about, sure, I nod and make the right noises, but my mind also wonders if we have enough spinach for a salad. When my neighbor stops me on the staircase and shares the latest antics of her French bulldog, I laugh but also count in my head the number of essays I have left to grade before my next class.
Second, because I am a few weeks shy of my 40th birthday, and it’s making me realize how swiftly these four decades have passed. Since arriving in Wilmington last year and surviving Hurricane Florence, I have been trying to live more intentionally. I have set myself rules such as I can only buy a new tube of lipstick when I have completely exhausted an existing one; I must meal prep (or die trying); I must avoid single-use plastics, etc. In the same vein, I want to be 100 percent present for the conversations in my life. I don’t want to sleepwalk through them anymore.
With regard to engaging with me, my grandfather devised a specific, multiple- choice game. He never gave it a name but let me call it “This or That.” When I was small, the questions of “This or That” ranged from do you like mangoes more than papayas to is the Pacific Ocean better than the Atlantic?
As I grew older, the questions, too, underwent a change. Should students be taught sewing or carpentry in high school? Is it better to learn Spanish or French? These, in addition to all the thousands of topics he and I regularly covered — favorite books, my future careers, ideal boyfriend, so on and so forth. But “This or That” always gave me pause. The questions made me think. It wasn’t enough to say, “Just ‘coz,” I had to come up with answers and justifications. I had to explain why the Atlantic was better (cooler name + location of the Bermuda Triangle + the legend of the Atlantis).
And isn’t asking questions the very first step to becoming a better listener? Doesn’t it show the speaker that we are paying attention; that we care about what she has to say? I was taught that lesson when I was 4. Why did I allow myself to forget it along the way?
Last year, after I arrived in Wilmington, I gifted myself a beautiful, refinished writing desk. It’s from the 1950s, when my grandfather was a sharp young man in his 20s, with his brilliant life and career ahead of him. The three photographs of us sit in a corner of this desk. They remind me of my wonderful childhood, of “This or That,” and the curiosity I was encouraged to develop like a muscle. They remind me that sometimes the best gift to give to someone is to listen.
Sayantani Dasgupta is an assistant professor of creative writing at UNCW. She is the author of Fire Girl: Essays on India, America, & the In-Between. She lives in Wilmington with her husband.