The Portrait of a Lady is an autobiography by Khushwant Singh. It is a perception of Khushwant Singh’s grandmother. Khushwant Singh recalls his grandmother as an eternally old lady. She was an extremely religious person. It was difficult for him to believe that once she too was young and pretty like other women. The stories about her childhood games were like fairy tales to him.
The Portrait of a Lady deals with an account of the author’s old grandmother. She was very old and wrinkled. She was fat, short and bent.She moved about the house with her rosary in her hand. She was always dressed in white. Her hair was white. Her lips always moved in prayer. She would wake up the author and prepare him for school. She went with him to school. The school was attached to the temple. While children learnt alphabet, she sat inside and read religious books. After school they came back together. She gave bread to village dogs. After sometime they went to the city. The author was now in an English school. The grandmother could not help him with his lessons. She was not contented with what he learnt there. The writer told her that he was taught music. The grandmother did not like it. For her, music was meant for prostitutes. She was unhappy becaus ethere was no religious teaching at that school. There were no stray dogs. She took to feeding sparrows.
The author then left for England for further studies. She did not feel upset. She went to the station to see him off. At the time of parting, she kissed the author. When he returned after five years, she came to the railway station to receive him. She did not look even a day older. Even now she was saying her prayer. In the evening she did not pray. She brought a drum. She called women from her neighbourhood. She sang songs to celebrate the return of her grandson. The next morning she fell ill. She lay peacefully in her bed praying. She died peacefully. Her death affected even the sparrows. They did not chirp. They ignored the crumbs thrown to them.
She was short, fat and slightly stooped in stature. Her silvery white hair used to scatter on her wrinkled face. Khushwant Singh remembers her hobbling around the house in spotless white clothes with one hand resting on her waist to balance her stoop and the other busy in telling the beads of her rosary.
Her lips constantly moved in inaudible prayers. Possibly she was not beautiful in worldly sense but she looked extremely beautiful with the peacefulness, serenity and the contentment her countenance displayed.
Khushwant’s relationship with his grandmother went through several changes when he was a small boy. In the first stage Khushwant lived in a village with her as his parents were looking for the opportunity to settle down in the city. In village grandmother took care of all the needs of the child. She was quite active and agile. She woke him up in the morning, got him ready for the school, plastered his wooden slate, prepared his breakfast, and escorted him to the school. They fed street dogs with stale chapattis on their way to school which was a great fun for them. She helped him in his lessons also. It was her domain and she was the queen of her Kingdom. In this period she was the sole unchallenged guardian, mentor, and creator of the child Khushwant.
The turning point came in their relationship when they came to city to stay with Khushwant’s parents. In city Khushwant joined an English School and started to go to school in a motor bus. Here the role of his grandmother in his bringing up was curtailed a little bit. Now, she could not accompany him to the school. Despite taking lot of interest in his studies she could not help him in his lessons because he was learning English, law of gravity, Archimedes’ principle and many more such things which she could not understand and this made her unhappy. She found herself at loss. One more thing which disturbed her a lot was that the kids were not learning about God and scriptures in the school. Instead they were given music lessons which was not an honourable thing in her opinion. To her music was not meant for gentle folk. It was meant for beggars and prostitutes only. She highly disapproved this and as she could not change it, she was dismayed and withdrew herself to some extent. Perhaps she had realized that in the makeover of the child her role was finished and this very thought saddened her most.
After finishing the school, Khushwant went to a university. He was given a separate room. The common link of their friendship was snapped. His grandmother confined herself to a self-imposed seclusion. She spent most of her time in reciting prayers and by sitting beside her spinning wheel. She rarely talked to anyone. The only recreation for her was in the afternoon when she relaxed for a while to feed the sparrows. As a kind-hearted person, in village she used to feed street dogs, here in city, she focused on birds and they too became very friendly with her. This was the phase when she found herself totally isolated and aloof but she braved this isolation with grace and dignity.
Khushwant’s grandmother was a strong character. She had always restrained herself from demonstrating her emotions. He recalls that when he went abroad for further studies his grandmother was there to see him off on railway station quite calm busy telling the beads of her rosary and reciting prayers as always. When he came back after five years he found her more and more religious and more and more self-contained. She spent still more time in prayers and spinning the wheel.
Feeding the birds, spinning the wheel and saying her prayers in city was her only happy pastime. But, just the day before her death for the first time she broke this routine and gave up her prayers. That day, she sang the songs of the home coming of the warriors on a withered drum, along with the ladies of neighbourhood, in order to celebrate her grandson’s return from abroad. Next morning she got ill. Although the doctor said it was a mild fever and would go away, she could foresee that her end was near. She was upset that she omitted her prayers just before the final departure from the world. She did not want to waste any more time talking to anybody. She lay peacefully in her bed praying and telling the beads, till her lips stopped moving and rosary fell from her lifeless fingers.
To mourn her death, hundreds of sparrows flew in and sat scattered around her body in utter silence. They even ignored the bread crumbs thrown for them by Khushwant’s mother. They only flew away after the corpse was carried away for last rites.