The Portrait of a Lady
By Khushwant Singh
About the Author
Khushwant Singh, one of the best -known Indian writers of all times, was born in 1915 in Hadali (now in Pakistan). He was educated at the Government College, Lahore and at King’s College, Cambridge University, and the Inner Temple in London. He practiced law at the Lahore High Court for several years before joining the Indian Ministry of External Affairs in 1947. He began a distinguished career as a journalist with the All India Radio in 1951. Since then he has been founder-editor of Yojana (1951-1953), editor of the Illustrated weekly of India (1979-1980), chief editor of New Delhi (1979-1980), and editor of the Hindustan times (1980-1983). His Saturday column “With Malice towards One and All” in the Hindustan times is by far one of the most popular columns of the day.
Khushwant Singh was a member of the Rajya Sabha (upper house of the Indian Parliament) from 1980 to 1986. Among other honors, he was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1974 by the President of India (he returned the decoration in 1984 in protest against the Union Government’s siege of the Golden Temple in Amritsar).
Singh died of natural causes on 20 March 2014 at his Delhi-based residence, at the age of 99. During his lifetime, Khushwant Singh was keen on burial because he believed that with a burial you give back to the earth what you have taken.
The Portrait of a Lady gives us a picture of human relationship in a joint family. It is a realistic account of how the grandparents give all their time, attention and love to the grandchildren. The author’s description about his grandmother is deeply moving with a touch of humour and poetry in it.
The author’s grandmother was an old woman. Her face was a criss-cross of wrinkles. She was fat, short and slightly bent. Her silvery white hair used to spread out on her wrinkled face. She hobbled about the house in spotless white clothes with one hand resting on her waist to balance her stoop and the other telling the beads of her rosary. Her lips constantly moved in silent prayer. For twenty years the author had seen no change in her looks and behavour. She was an extremely religious person. He finds it difficult to conceptualise that once she too was young and pretty like other women. The stories about her childhood games were like fairy tales to him.
The narrator and his grandmother were good friends. His parents had left him with her in the village. They were always together there. She used to wake him up in the morning, get him ready for the school, plaster his wooden slate with yellow chalk, prepare his breakfast and accompany him to the school. They fed street dogs with stale chapaties on their way to school which was a great fun for them. She helped him in his lessons also.
The turning point came in their relationship when the narrator came to city to stay with his parents. In city he joined an English School. Now she could not go with him to the school. In spite of her immense interest in his studies, she could not help him in his lessons as he was learning English, laws of gravity, Archimedes’ principle and many more such things which she could not understand and this made her distressed. Another thing which disquieted her much was that the kids were not learning about God and scriptures in the school instead they were given music lessons. To her music was not meant for gentlefolk. It was meant for beggars and prostitutes only. She was dismayed and withdrew herself to some level.
After finishing school the narrator went to university. He was given a separate room. The common link of their friendship was snapped. His grandmother confined herself to a self-imposed reclusiveness. She spent most of her time in reciting prayers and by sitting beside her spinning wheel. She rarely talked to anyone. The only diversion for her was in the afternoon when she relaxed for a while to feed the sparrows. In village she used to feed street dogs, here in city she fed the sparrows and they too became very friendly with her. Feeding the sparrows was the happiest half hour of the day for her.
After completing his university education, he decided to go abroad for higher studies. His grandmother came to see him off at the railway station. She was quite calm, busy in telling the beads of her rosary and reciting prayers as ever. When he came back after five years he found her more and more religious and more and more self-possessed. She spent even more time in prayers and spinning the wheel. Feeding the birds was her only happy pursuit. But just the day before her death for the first time she broke this routine and abandoned her prayers. That day she sang the songs of the home coming warriors with the women of neighborhood to celebrate her grandson’s return from abroad.
Next morning she was taken ill. The doctor said it was a mild fever and would go but she took it differently. She declared her end was near. She did not want to waste any more time talking to anybody. She lay peacefully in bed praying and telling the beads till her lips stopped moving and rosary fell from her lifeless fingers.
In the evening thousands of sparrows flew in to mourn her death and sat scattered around her body in complete silence. They even disregarded the breadcrumbs thrown to them by the narrator’s mother. When they carried her dead body outside, the sparrows flew away quietly.
Short Answer Type Questions
Q1. Describe the grandmother in your own words.
Ans. The grandmother was a deeply religious woman. She was also kind hearted. She was not pretty to look at, yet she was beautiful. She was graceful and dignified in her bearing. She had perfect control over her emotions. She used to feed the dogs and birds.
Q2. How were the narrator and the grandmother good friends in the village?
Ans. Grandmother woke him up every morning and got him ready for school. She would bathe and dress him up. She gave him breakfast, got him his slate, ink-pot and accompanied him to school. While he learnt at school, grandmother used to read the scriptures in the temple. When the school was over, they would walk back home together and feed the village dogs on the way.
Q3. What was the turning point in their friendship?
Ans. Their arrival in the city was the turning point in the friendship of the author and the grandmother. She no longer accompanied him to school as he used to go by bus. She could not help him in his studies. They saw less of each other. The common link of friendship was snapped and the distance grew.
Q4. Why was the author’s grandmother unhappy with the city education?
Ans. The grandmother did not like the teaching at English school in the city. She was sad that they did not teach anything about God and the religious scriptures. Nor was she interested in science. She hated music lessons given in the school.
Q5. Why did the grandmother hate music?
Ans. Grandmother considered that music was indecent and was meant only for harlots and beggars. It was not meant for gentle folk or school children from respectable families.
Q6. Draw a comparison between village school education and city school education.
Ans. In the city school English and Science were taught. Music was also one of the subjects. There was no teaching about God and scriptures. The village school was attached to a temple. The priest himself acted as the teacher and taught the children the alphabet and the prayer.
Q7. What used to be the happiest moments of the day for the grandmother?
Ans. The happiest moment of the day for grandmother was the time when she would feed the sparrows. In the afternoon, she sat in the verandah breaking the bread into little bits. Hundreds of sparrows collected around her. Some came and perched on her legs, others on her shoulders. Some even sat on her head. She smiled but never shooed them away. This used to be happiest moment of the day for her.
Q8. What was “the last sign” of physical contact between the author and the grandmother?
Ans. When the author was going abroad for further studies, his grandmother came to see him off at the railway station. She kissed his forehead silently. That was the last sign of physical contact between the author and the grandmother as he thought that at her age one could never tell whether he would find her alive after five years.
Q9. How did the grandmother celebrate the homecoming of her grandson?
Ans. Grandmother was overjoyed at the homecoming of her grandson. She collected the women of neighbourhood, beat the drum and sang for hours about the homecoming of warriors. She even forgot to pray.
Q10. Why did the grandmother stop talking before her death?
Ans. The old lady was taken ill. She had a mild fever. The doctor told her that she would be alright soon. But the grandmother declared that her end was near. She forgot to pray the last evening. She was not going to waste any more time talking to them.
Q11. What could have been the cause of grandmother’s falling ill?
Ans. When the author came back from abroad after five years, grandmother collected the women from the neighbourhood. She kept singing and thumping a drum for several hours. This overstrained her body and she fell ill.
Q12. How did the sparrows mourn the death of grandmother?
Ans. Hundreds of sparrows gathered around grandmother’s dead body. They did not chirrup and touch the breadcrumbs thrown to them. They seemed to mourn her death in silence and flew away when her body was taken away for cremation.
Q13. How can you say that the grandmother was a kind- hearted woman?
Ans. Grandmother was a kind-hearted woman. When she lived in the village, she used to feed dogs. When she came to the city, there were no dogs in the streets. So she took to feeding sparrows in the courtyard.
Q14. The grandmother has been portrayed as a very religious lady. What details in the story create that impression?
Ans. Her lips were always moving in silent prayer. Her one hand was always telling the beads of her rosary. She also read scriptures at the village temple. When she knew her end was near, she lay peacefully in bed praying and telling her beads till death.
Long Answer Type Questions
Q1. Describe the narrator’s grandmother as a very religious and kind-hearted woman.
Ans. The writer’s grandmother was a very religious and kind-hearted woman. She is a God-fearing woman and feels delight in reading scriptures. In the temple she has the habit of reading the scripture till her grandson remains in the school. In the house she was always busy in telling the beads of her rosary. Her lips always moved in silent prayer. When she used to bathe her grandson, she would say her prayers in a singsong manner so that the author would learn them by heart. She kept on praying and telling the beads of her rosary till her last breath.
She always treated her grandson with love and affection. She used to feed the village dogs with stale chapattis. When she moved to the city, she took delight in feeding the sparrows. They would perch on her legs, shoulders and head but she never shooed them away. Her joy knew no bounds, when her grandson returned from abroad. She was a woman of noble nature, kind and tender heart.
Q2. Write a character sketch of the author’s grandmother
Ans. The author’s grandmother was an affectionate and caring lady. She had boundless love for her grandson. When they lived in the village, she would wake him up in the morning and get him ready for school. She accompanied him to school. While the author sang alphabet with other children, she sat inside the temple reading scriptures. They would walk back home after the school.
The grandmother was kind and benevolent. In the village she used to feed dogs. When she came to the city, there were no dogs in the streets. So she took to feeding the sparrows. In the afternoon, she would sit in the verandah, breaking the bread into small bits. Hundreds of sparrows would collect round her. Some even sat on her head. She smiled but never shoo’d them away.
The grandmother was a religious lady. Her lips were always moving in silent prayer. Her one hand was always telling the beads of her rosary. When she was in the village, she went to the temple to read scriptures. When her end was near, she lay in bed praying and telling her beads till death stole upon her.
The grandmother was a strong woman. When the friendship between her and the author was snapped and they saw less of each other, she bore all this ungrudgingly. Even when the author decided to go abroad for further studies, she did not show any feeling.
Q3. How did the grandmother receive the author when he returned from abroad?
Ans. When the author went abroad for higher studies, the grandmother went to the railway station to see him off. The author thought that it would be his last meeting with her. But he was wrong in his supposition. When he returned after five years, she came to the railway station to receive him. She celebrated his home-coming in a grand way.
In the evening she collected the women of the neighbourhood, got an old drum and started singing. She went on doing this for several hours and overstrained her. The next morning she was taken ill and she knew that her end was near. But she went on praying and telling her beads. Then her lips stopped moving and the rosary fell from her lifeless fingers. A peaceful pallor spread on her face and she was dead.
Q4. The grandmother herself was not formally educated but was serious about the author’s education. How does the text support this?
Ans. Although the grandmother had no proper schooling and was not formally educated but she was serious about the author’s education. The author’s parents had shifted to the city. He lived in the village with his grandmother. She would wake him up in the morning and get him ready for school. She would accompany him to the school and back. When the author’s parents were well- settled in the city they called them also. The author was sent to an English school.
Now his grandmother could not come to school with him. She continued to wake him up and get him ready for school. When he came back she would ask him what the teacher had taught him. She could not help him with his lesson. She was distressed that there was no teaching about God and the scriptures. She was disturbed when she was told that they were being given music lessons at school, but she said nothing. Later, she did not get sentimental when the author decided to go abroad for further studies. Actually, she did not want to stand in the way of the author’s education.
Q5. Gradually the author and the grandmother saw less of each other and their friendship was broken. Was the distancing in the relationship deliberate or due to the demand of the situation?
Ans. Gradually, the author and his grandmother saw less of each other and their friendship was broken. This distancing was due to the demand of situation, not deliberate. When they came to the city, the author was sent to an English school. His grandmother no longer came to school with him as he used to go in a motor bus. Nor could she help him with his lessons because she did not know the things they taught at the English school. In fact, she was not happy with the things taught at school. For instance, she was shocked to learn that they were given music lessons at school.
According to her music was the monopoly of harlots and beggars and not meant for gentle folk. Consequently, there was a communication gap between them. They rarely spoke to each other, though they shared the same room. Then the author went to a university. He was given a separate room of his own. When the author went for higher studies for a period of five years, the distance increased all the more. Thus, the common link of relationship between them was snapped.