The Friend In The Shadows



My grandmother, like everybody’s grandmother, was an old woman. She had been old and wrinkled for the twenty years that I had known her. People said that she had once been young and pretty and had even had a husband, but that was hard to believe. She could never have been pretty; but she was always beautiful. Yes, she was beautiful. Hobbling around the house in a spotless white sari, she was like the winter landscape in the mountains, an expanse of pure white serenity.

- The Portrait of  a Lady, Khushwant Singh

“We will be in the gate in about twenty minutes; we’d like the flight attendants to prepare the cabin for arrival. We want to thank you for flying with us today…”

It made me a little uneasy, the story.

But like the man said, grandmothers - they probably all look the same.

Except for her glasses, and how her old, wrinkly eyes lit up every time she caught me elbow-deep into the pickle jar. She always used to cover for me when my parents were around. She understood that an occasional stomach-ache was worth it. My parents didn’t.

The little girl from the closet. My parents didn’t understand her either. My grandmother did. She never felt the need to inform me that my friend was non-existent. She knew that I was going to grow out of it and she waited patiently. She would always set out an extra plate for my friend. In the afternoons whenever grandma told a story, she told it to the both of us, and at night she would always keep an extra blanket folded at the bottom of the bed, in case my little friend felt cold.

What my parents did understand though was the need for a higher education, the need to have global exposure, and the eventual bigger goal of having a successful career. As soon as I was old enough, I was sent off to the famed University of Colombia.

Circumstances had changed now. Four years later, on my way home from the airport my father told me how my grandmother had become too sick to be looked after at home and how they had to move her to an assisted living facility. I couldn’t say anything, it’s not like I had been there.

“She refuses to take her medicines ma’am and she just keeps muttering to herself most of the time”.

She looks up at me without a hint of recognition. The twinkle in her eyes all gone, the hair all disheveled and the once spotless white sari now bearing stains of negligence.

“In a land far far away…” she looks at the empty chair and mutters.

That was how she always began her stories, the ones she used to tell us in the afternoons.

She was not muttering to herself, she was talking to me. She had gone back into the past where the little girl used to come running up to her, eager for a new story every afternoon. This was her way of being with her granddaughter once again. She found solace in the past and that is where her imagination had taken her. That did not make her insane - she was only holding on to the little bit of memory that she thought would help her get through the remaining days of her life.


She just needed someone to believe that her little girl was sitting right there on that empty chair waiting for a story, just like she had believed in my friend when I was a kid. I believed in her. It was the least I could do.

I sit there and listen to her until it’s time for her to go to sleep. After she goes off to sleep I get an extra blanket and put it there at the foot of her bed.