Who is that? I asked my father as we flipped through
an old photo album.
It’s Dadi-he, proclaimed, my grandmother
What time can do to one!
Drooping sacks of age under her eyes today,
Her skin has turned from soft and shiny
To wrinkled, spotted and flaccid.
She did not deserve this change,
She was always a strong woman
Following her heart, causing revolutions within the family
Where did that strong hearted woman disappear?
Into the depths of time, replaced by a weak and humble one
Obsessed with religion.
Summary and Analysis
The poem is a short 13 line poem. There is no attempt to break the poem into stanzas. It appears as a single piece but if we read it carefully it can be split into three parts based on the ideas being expressed therein.
The first four lines identify the subject of the poem who is the speaker’s grandmother.
The next four lines describe how much the speaker’s grandmother has changed over time in physical appearance.
The last five lines compare the change in her personality – how from being a strong revolutionary woman she has become weak and humble.
The first person speaker asks her father a question – “Who is that” as they flip through a photo album. On being told that it is her grandmother, the first thought that comes to her mind is how much change has come over her with passing time. In a poem we have to read between the lines to understand the implications of what is being said. It is obvious that the poet must have pointed at a photograph of her grandmother taken when she was young. Since she is familiar only with her old grandmother she is shocked to see how much her appearance has changed over time. Comparing the two in her mind her sad observation is that Time can be really cruel and bring about such unpleasant changes in people: “What time can do to one!”
Since the poem is titled ‘An Exchange’ we have to try and infer the different ways in which this word ‘exchange’ is being interpreted in the poem. An exchange takes place when we get one thing in return for another. The first ‘exchange’ has already happened and is at the level of physical appearance. The difference between the young and the old grandmother is so stark that it is almost as though one person has been exchanged for another. The young woman in the photograph is gone for ever and only the old one remains. It is Time that has brought about this exchange.
In the next four lines we are told what that physical change has been. The grandmother’s eyes are now puffy with age. Her skin is no longer soft and shiny but has turned spotted and wrinkled and hangs loose on her. The use of these adjectives helps us to almost visualize two different images albeit of the same person.
The changes that have come about in her grandmother are very obvious changes that age can bring about in people and the description would fit any old woman. But then why does the narrator say that her grandmother did not deserve this change? Is it just because she is her grandmother or was there something in the grandmother’s personality that could have defied the ravages of time? The narrator’s sad observation prepares the ground for the lines that individualize the poet’s grandmother for us.
The above lines focus on the change that has come about in the thinking of the speaker’s grandmother. We are told that she used to be a strong woman and always followed her heart. Once again the poem works through implication and suggestion. A person who follows the heart does not bow down to conventions and traditions. That she was a revolutionary again implies that her actions must have caused turbulence within the family.
Another exchange however, has happened over time. Earlier it was the image in the photograph that was so different from the present reality that it seemed almost as though one person had been exchanged for another. In the concluding lines of the poem the exchange is between the bold, daring and strong willed revolutionary who has been replaced by a timid and humble one.
The concluding line of the poem says that the old grandmother is now ‘obsessed with religion.’ The implications of the observation are many. A person who is obsessed with religion would in all probability become dogmatic, irrational and superstitious and would bow down to convention. It does come as a sad shock that from someone who charted her own path in young age the speaker’s grandmother has now been reduced to depend so heavily on religion to be almost obsessed with it. Her bold independent thinking that caused revolutions within the family is gone and she now bows down humbly to convention. She is almost pitiable in her old age and we understand why the speaker had observed earlier that her grandmother did not deserve this change.
The ‘exchange’ in both cases is between the past and the present.