Breathing and My Grandfather

I was on a run when my dad called to tell me my grandfather had died.

A couple days before this phone call I was also running, but this time thinking about an article I had read regarding the favourite words of authors.

Generally, I run with music in my ears as a way to distract myself from the fact that I am actually exercising. Unfortunately my music kept skipping so I finally just turned it off, but then all I could hear was my uneven breath in my own head. Asthma has turned my whole life into a constant game of distraction while exercising, and without my music I end up focusing on just how poor my lung capacity is. However, for most people (including me) a good workout ends with being breathless.

As I struggled to run, this is the word that I decided was my favourite. For one, it’s a portmanteau (which is an awesome word in itself). But in addition to that I like the “th” and “ss” sounds. I find them kind of soothing, especially because I enjoy consonant combinations. They sound finite and comforting. What I liked most about this word though was its resonance of accomplishment. It had connotations of activity and busyness and movement and an idea of a job well done.

My grandfather was the epitome of activity and busyness, but he liked to tell other people to relax and breathe. He was never scarce on syllables and instead spoke eloquently in many words and in many languages. He lectured long hours, using his own breath in order for others to calm themselves and focus on their own breathing.

Listening to his lectures was the first time I became aware of my own breath. I was young and did not take his meditations seriously, but attending so many clearly made something stick in my brain. He helped me learn how to breathe from my diaphragm, which was later very useful when he would tell me silly puns and jokes and make me laugh until I was quite out of breath. This skill was also helpful when inhaling the smell of any of the delicious treats he brought back from all over the world. I can now detect the scent of stroopwafel from a mile away, thanks to him.

These are my main early memories of him: lectures and dessert. This is fitting since I call him Swami Nana, which also consists of two parts. The swami part would give me lectures and the nana (meaning grandfather in Hindi) part would give me too many treats. As I got older, both parts would tell me about partition and give me mini history lessons over chai. As I got even older, I began to understand that both parts were in fact really only one intertwined. He was a swami, but he was also my nana in a very swami-like capacity. He was my nana, but he was also a swami in a very nana-like capacity. I was just me, but he had a lot of shoes to fill.

I wish I could have seen him more and spent more time with him, especially because only seeing him once or twice a year just served to highlight our variations. Him, generally unchanging, and me, unruly and restless. Even just in this post the differences are clear: My thoughts brought me to the lack of breath and the ensuing struggle, while Swami Nana spent his whole life trying to relax and ease people. But I did spend an entire paragraph touting my love for a single word, and if he were here now I’m sure I would have received a long discourse on the origins of the words “breath” and “breathlessness”, which would eventually somehow lead back to Sanskrit roots and superiority of the language. Maybe it’s my turn to take up the job of word know-it-all.

After my dad called me I remember thinking to myself that the loss of a loved one leads to the ultimate breathlessness. I was standing in the middle of a sidewalk gulping in air trying to steady myself and feeling like the wind had been knocked out of me, both physically and mentally. You suddenly imagine breathing for two, and your strangled breath makes you acutely aware of just how alive you are. At the same time you struggle to breathe under the weight of this new knowledge. Breathless.

It is then that we have to relearn how to breathe, and thankfully I can do this because Swami Nana’s lessons are still with me.

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1 Comment

  1. Swami Ritavan Bharati

     /  August 8, 2015

    Thank you Dharani, A fond memory, A lesson for life; to feel the life-force in each breath; remembering the inner-sanctum of peace; this is the music of the soul that calls us to listen, preparing us for that breathless-eternity. Swami Nana continues to guide us.
    OM – Swami Ritavan

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