‘Portrait of a Lady’ by Khushwant Singh: Short Story Analysis
‘Portrait of a Lady’ is the story about the life of Khushwant Singh’s aged grandmother. Khushwant Singh was one of India’s most famous writers, a renowned columnist, and a journalist. He wrote many books and passed away in the year 2014. This story paints a beautiful yet earthly picture of Singh’s grandmother, and how the bonds between Singh and his grandmother changed over the years. Singh always saw his grandmother either chanting her prayers, praying the rosary, or feeding animals and the sparrows. It was the life of most upper-caste Sikh or Hindu women in India. They spent their last days concentrating solely on their heavenly home and looking after their grandchildren whenever necessary. Don’t mix this short story with a similar story titled ‘The Portrait of a Lady’ by Henry James. The Henry James version is that of a high spirited young American woman called Isabel Archer and her adventures. Singh’s story is of a different make altogether.
Singh mentions in the story about the friendship between him and his grandmother. He talks of her as always being old and wrinkled; he couldn’t think of her in any other way. Sadly, grandchildren in India, especially during Khushwant Singh’s time, could never see their older women as anything else but as their aged grandmothers with wrinkles, bent backs, and a limp stout body. It’s like women who have aged seem not to warrant anyone paying attention to their looks. Singh paints this portrait of a similar grandmother who went according to convention till the last day of her life. Convention in pre-independence and now even in post-independence India means:
- Grandmothers should give up worldly matters and concentrate on their afterlife.
- They should always be in prayer or visiting temples to read the scriptures.
- They should not feel sexual or have any sexual drive.
- They should never explore the dictates of their senses and curb their innate desires.
- They should be obliged even though they are old to look after and care for their grandchildren. I call such grandmothers, free and economically secure, babysitters.
- They should not disgrace the family by doing something which is not in keeping with their docile image.
Singh’s grandmother was all this and more. She probably married when she was a child for her husband was a very elderly looking gentleman who had already passed away when Khushwant Singh was very young. Singh remembers his grandfather only by his photograph. He thinks of him as a person who was so elderly looking, that he was born only to have grandchildren and not a wife and children! He can’t believe his grandmother could ever have been pretty, but he did find her beautiful. Note the slight difference between ‘pretty’ and ‘beautiful’. ‘Pretty’ was for frivolous women and young girls with makeup. ‘Beauty’ was for a woman who had dedicated her life for her family and who was always loved because of this.
Women in Khushwant Singh’s grandmother’s time were never educated and especially not in English. They were only taught to read the sacred alphabet, religious Hindu or Sikh scriptures, and be adept at household chores. Khushwant Singh’s grandmother could read the scriptures and understand them. However, she was unable to comprehend western thought, western subjects, and anything taught to Singh when he moved into an English school. She, in fact, almost stopped interacting with him when he started to learn music; western music. She felt music to be:
- Having a loose association.
- That music was the monopoly of harlots and beggars.
- Not meant for gentlefolk.
However, it is strange that on the last day of her life, this same grandmother picked up her drum to beat and sing a song to celebrate the arrival of warriors. Singh had just returned from university education abroad after being away for five years. Probably his grandmother to please him took it upon herself to play the drum. However, I feel she was looking for a reason to at least allow music into her otherwise colorless life for at least a few hours. The contrary notion she had about music was based on the dictates of society and specific communities that, in pre-independence India, looked down upon music. If I go into the history of this topic, I will require another blog post; it’s an intricate factor in Indian history and the present time.
Then comes the grandmother’s relationship with her grandson Khushwant Singh. They had a good friendship of sorts, which started to grow weaker once they shifted to the city, and Khushwant Singh started attending an English school and then college. The grandmother was never one to be emotional. She was a calm and composed figure, the very image of a serene upper-caste Sikh or Hindu grandmother. She would give an occasional hug, clasping of hands, and waking up for school, but she was never indeed a dramatic person. It makes us wonder about that drumming episode, how much was she living a life she wanted to lead, and how much of her life was just a ‘put on an act’ to adhere to the norms of a very patriarchal hegemonic society. She was close to her grandson when he used to go to the temple to study because then she would be able to read the scriptures in another room. That was not possible in an English school, which in India’s case would be a British school. Elderly uneducated women were always afraid of the British in our country and tried to keep as much distance from them as possible. The British were not exactly looked down upon, unlike the used and abused lower castes, but their way of life was not in high regard among such women. So, instead of trying to get more involved in her grandson’s life, she grew distant. She preferred keeping away from anything which challenged her belief in her ancient superstitious ways. Even after the drumming incident, she was so remorseful about her action that she spent her dying breath in an endless round of rosary praying and chanting. It almost felt that she had committed a terrible sin by giving in to her passion.
Lastly, we come to the animals whom she fed, namely the dogs and the sparrows. She fed the dogs in the village, stale chapatti when Singh and she would go walking to and from the temple. When they migrated to the city, she started feeding the sparrows in the courtyard near her room. These are the sparrows that would create a delicate and heartfelt touch to this short story, ‘Portrait of a Lady’. On the day the grandmother died, the sparrows crowded around her courtyard, near her corpse but never made a sound nor ate the bread crumbs offered to them by Khushwant Singh’s mother. They paid their final respects mystically to a real lady who fed them, cared for them, and lived a holy life even after her husband’s death.
Khushwant Singh is one of my favorite writers; I love everything he writes. I discovered him strangely late in life when I was in junior college. That was way back in 2007 when I was eighteen years old and always spent most of my time in the St. Andrews College library. I have all of Khushwant Singh’s books in my possession and hope to reread them so that I can review or analyze them for you here on my blog. The day he passed away in the year 2014, I cried silent tears. That was when all his works were on display at Kitab Khana, and I bought them all. To know more about my bookishly delicious life, you can read my memoir Scenes of a Reclusive Writer & Reader of Mumbai. I hope to review more short stories by Khushwant Singh soon.
If you are interested in book reviews, book analysis, short story analysis, poems, essays, essay analysis, and other bookish content, you can check my blog at insaneowl.com. If you want to buy my books, then you can check out my website fizapathanpublishing.us or fizapathan.com. Happy reading to you, always!
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