The Portrait of a Lady by Khushwant Singh | Book Review

The Portrait of a Lady by Khushwant Singh Banner

The Portrait of a Lady is a heartwarming story about a lady who happens to be author Khushwant Singh’s grandmother. This story, coming from the master of character sketching, became a mandatory read for me. To my delight, it rekindled all my emotions for my grandmother during my childhood. People sometimes become cold on the path to maturity. These beautiful stories remind us to take time out of our busy schedules and care for our aging elders.

The story describes the bond that Khushwant Singh shared with his grandmother and the changes that came about in their relationship over the years. He begins by giving a detailed account of his grandmother’s physical appearance. The author had always seen her as an old and wrinkled woman. She appeared to be so old that the author could not imagine her being young and pretty once.

She was like the winter landscape in the mountains, an expanse of pure white serenity breathing peace and contentment.

He paints a beautiful picture of her through his articulated words. He remembered her hobbling around the house, dressed in white garments, constantly singing inaudible prayers. He recalls his childhood days when his grandmother used to be active and agile. They shared an incredible bond back then. She took care of the author as his parents left him with her when they shifted to the city. She would always accompany him to the school as it was attached to the temple, where she paid visits regularly. Then came the turning point when both of them moved to the city with the author’s parents. The grandmother could not adjust to the changed city life and started feeling disconnected from everything. She could not accompany the author to school as he started going to an English school by motor bus. She was unhappy with the school as there was no teaching about God and the holy scriptures, and she was now of no help to her grandson. She was disturbed when the author started to learn music. She felt music was not meant for nice people. She even stopped talking with him due to this. When the author went to the university and got a separate room to himself, the last link in their relationship, the room they shared, was also broken. She became quiet and engaged herself more in prayers and her spinning wheel. Her happiest part of the day was feeding the sparrows.

Only in the afternoon she relaxed for a while to feed the sparrows. While she sat in the verandah breaking the bread into little bits, hundreds of little birds collected round her creating a veritable bedlam of chirrupings. Some came and perched on her legs, others on her shoulders. Some even sat on her head. She smiled but never shooed them away. It used to be the happiest half-hour of the day for her.

Then the author went abroad for higher studies and returned after five years. The grandmother was as indifferent while receiving him as she was seeing him off.

Even on the first day of my arrival, her happiest moments were with her sparrows whom she fed longer and with frivolous rebukes.

That evening she did a strange thing. Instead of saying her prayers, she collected women of the neighborhood and picked up a drum to beat, and started singing the Homecoming of the Warriors. She sang continuously for hours and didn’t stop even when her family tried a million times. The next day she fell ill, and soon she passed away. All the sparrows she used to feed had gathered in the courtyard to mourn her death. They paid their final respects and flew away without eating the bread crumbs offered to them by the author’s mother. The story ends on a tragic note but leaves us pondering about our relationship with our grandparents and parents as they grow old.

The old lady was happy when she was in the village. She had a fixed routine. She would feed the stray dogs, take care of her grandson, accompany him to school, and help him in his studies. But after shifting to the city, she started disassociating with everything. The beautiful bond she shared with her grandson also changed. She had many prejudiced notions, a common trait in those times. Her looking down upon music was one of those. Maybe she was stuck in the role and norms that society had set for a woman like her. The drumming episode towards the end makes us wonder if she was living a life of her own choice or if it was just a role play to fit the standards of the orthodox patriarchal society. Maybe she also liked music but lived a life dictated by societal expectations though she was remorseful about her action later. One more possibility can be that this action could be the outburst for holding back her emotions towards her grandson for so long. That is why she sang the Homecoming of the Warriors.

The story stirs many questions in the minds of the readers. It depicts the downsides of displacing the elders from their original ways of living. In the story, grandmother’s only friends were the sparrows, who would value her compassion for them. The time she spent with them was the happiest time of her day. She wanted to be of value to her family, too, but the fast-paced city life didn’t require her services. This made her feel dejected. This feeling can be viewed in two ways; first, why was it so crucial for her to be of value at that age? Maybe she was brought up that way. Society always takes women for granted, especially those who care for their families and don’t go out for jobs. Work is not considered productive, but they are still expected to continue providing services throughout their lives. Girls grow up with this mindset; hence they feel guilty and dejected when they cannot contribute in any way to the family. The second way of looking at it could be that the other family members should have made conscious efforts to make her comfortable and to help her adapt to the changed habits of life, which was absent in this case.

The story vividly describes the changing relationship dynamics between a grandson and his grandmother. It can be seen as a loving tribute from the author to his grandmother. A beautiful read that portrays human relationships in a different light altogether.

Scroll to Top