ICSE English Short Stories Summary Portrait of a Lady Khushwant Singh

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Portrait of a Lady

Khushwant Singh

The story is a insight of Khushwant Singh of his grandmother through his own eyes. Khushwant Singh remembers his grandmother as an everlastingly old person. 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 fairytales to him. She was short, fat and somewhat hunched in stature. Her silvery white hair used to spread out on her wrinkled face.

Khushwant Singh remembers her limping around the house in spotless white clothes with one hand resting on her waist to balance her stoop and the other busy in telling the beads of her rosary. Her lips constantly moved inaudibly in prayers. Perhaps she was not beautiful in a temporal sense but she looked extremely beautiful with the peacefulness, serenity and the contentment her face exhibited.
Khushwant’s relationship with his grandmother experienced several switches when he was a small boy. In the first stage Khushwant lived in a village with her as his parents were looking for the chance to settle down in the city. In village grandmother took care of all the needs of the child. She was quite dynamic and active. She woke him up in the morning, got him ready for the school, coated his wooden slate, prepared his breakfast and accompanied 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 .It was her realm and she was the queen of her realm. In this period she was the exclusive undisputed custodian, mentor and architect of the child Khushwant.
The critical point came in their relationship when they came to city to stay with Khushwant’s parents. In city Khushwant joined an English School and started to go to school in a bus. Here the role of his grandmother in his bringing up was cut back a little bit. 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. She found herself at loss. 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 which was not an respectable t in her belief. To her music was not meant for gentlemen. It was intended for beggars and prostitutes only. She highly disdained the music lessons. She was dismayed and withdrew herself to some level. Perhaps she realised that in the reforming of the child her role was finished and this very thought affected her most.
After finishing school Khushwant went to university. He was given a separate room. The common nexus of their friendship was ruptured. 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. A kind hearted person, in village she used to feed street dogs, here in city she concentrated on birds and they too became very friendly with her. This was the stage when she found herself altogether sequestered and aloof but she weathered this closing off with grace and self-respect.
Khushwant’s grandmother was a firm person. Whatever she experienced in her heart she always held back herself from showing her emotions. He recollects that when he went abroad for further studies his grandmother was there to see him off on railway station quite calm busy 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 of the warriors on a withered drum along with the ladies of neighborhood in order to celebrate her grandson’s return from abroad.
Next morning she became ill. The doctor said it was a mild fever and would disappear she could anticipate that her end was approaching. She was disconcerted that she neglected her prayers just before the final exit from the world. 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.
Thousands of sparrows flew in to mourn her death and sat dispersed around her body in complete silence. They even disregarded the breadcrumbs thrown for them by Khushwant’s mother. They only flew away after the corpse was carried away for final rituals.


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