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The Portrait of a Lady
The Portrait of a Lady is the story of the author. He describes his relationship with his grandmother over the years. He pens down her daily activities and how she evolved as a character as time passed by. He explains her appearance which helps create an image in the reader’s mind.
Story in a Nutshell
In this story, Khushwant Singh draws a pen picture of his grandmother. He describes how he had spent his childhood with her in the village. He also describes the change that came in the relationship in the city. Ultimately, he describes the moving scene of her death
The Portrait of a Lady’ is written in first person and is in the biographical mode. In this story, the writer gives a detailed account of his Grandmother with whom he had a long association. Khushwant Singh recalls his Grandmother as short, fat and slightly bent. Her silver hair was scattered untidily on her wrinkled face. She hobbled around the house in white clothes with one hand resting on her waist and the other telling the beads of her rosary. Khushwant Singh remembers her as not very pretty but always beautiful. He compares her serene face to that of a winter landscape, during their long stay in the village, Grandmother woke him up in the morning, plastered his wooden slate, prepared his breakfast, and escorted him to school. While he studied alphabets, she read the scriptures in the temple attached to the school. On their way back home, she fed stale chapattis to stray dogs. The turning point in their relationship came when they went to live in the city. Now, the author went to a city school in a motor bus and studied English, law of gravity, Archimedes’ principle and many more things which she could not understand at all.
Grandmother could no longer accompany him to school nor help him in his studies. She was upset that there was no teaching of God and scriptures at city school. Instead he was given music lesson which, according to her, was not meant for gentlefolk. But she said nothing.
When Khushwant Singh went to a university, he was given a separate room. The common link of their friendship was snapped. Grandmother rarely talked to anyone now. She spent most of her time sitting beside her spinning wheel, reciting prayers, and feeding the sparrows in the afternoon. When the author left for abroad, Grandmother did not get disturbed. Rather, she saw him off at the railway station. Seeing her old age, the narrator thought that it was his last meeting with her. But, contrary to his thinking, when he returned after a span of five years, Grandmother was there to receive him. She celebrated the occasion by singing songs of the home coming of warriors on an old dilapidated drum, along with the ladies of the neighbourhood.
Next morning, she got ill. Although the doctor said it was a mild fever and would go away soon, she could foresee that her end was near. She did not want to waste time talking to anyone. She lay peacefully in bed praying and telling the beads till her lips stopped moving and the rosary fell from her lifeless fingers. To mourn her death thousands of sparrows flew in and sat scattered around her body. There was no chirruping and when Khushwant Singh’s mother threw breadcrumbs to the sparrows, they took no notice of the bread. They flew away quietly when the dead body of Grandmother was carried away for last rites.
In the Portrait of a Lady by Khushwant Singh we have the theme of innocence, friendship, love, connection, kindness, selflessness, respect, and acceptance. Narrated in the first person by an unnamed narrator the story is a memory piece and after reading the story the reader realises that Singh may be exploring the theme of innocence. The narrator finds it hard to imagine that his grandmother may have once been young and pretty. Instead the narrator views his grandmother as always being old. This may be important as it suggests that the narrator looked upon his grandmother with the eyes of an innocent child. Which he was. He does not see it possible that his grandmother could have been a different person as all he has known is for his grandmother to be old. It is also noticeable that the narrator loves his grandmother very much and if anything, both have a close and loving friendship. The grandmother at all times when needed is there for the narrator. This too may be important as it not only suggests a strong bond between the narrator and his grandmother but also the fact that they have a strong connection with one another. The grandmother is also patient as one would expect someone who is older to be. She waits for the narrator in the temple while the narrator is in school.
In many ways not only is the grandmother there for the narrator but she has dedicated her life to him when she has needed to. It is also noticeable that the grandmother is dedicated to God. Something that is clearer to the reader by way of the fact that the grandmother is constantly praying. Just as she feels connected to the narrator likewise the grandmother has a connection with God. It might also be significant that the grandmother has a connection with both the village dogs and the sparrows she feeds. In many ways this may place a spotlight on the grandmother’s personality. Suggesting that perhaps the grandmother is somebody who cares for all living creatures. If anything, the grandmother may be selfless. She thinks of others (including animals) before she thinks about herself. Where many may wish to be idle or do nothing in their old age this is not the case when it comes to the grandmother. She appears to put others ahead of herself. Particularly when it comes to the narrator.
The fact that the narrator considers his grandmother to be beautiful is also interesting as it is clear that the he is looking further than just an individual’s physical beauty. He is giving depth and affection to his grandmother rather than just viewing her as an old relation who lives with him. In reality the grandmother is an important part of the narrator’s life and not someone who he takes for granted. It might also be symbolically significant that the grandmother is permanently dressed in white as white in literature is often used to signify purity. If anything, the narrator may feel as though his grandmother is not only beautiful but that she is also pure. It is also clear to the reader that the narrator respects his grandmother. Throughout the story the narrator never once criticizes his grandmother. He may find it hard to believe that she was once young, but he still nonetheless never takes advantage of her kindness nor does he cause any problems for her when his parents are in the city.
The end of the story is also interesting as Singh appears to be exploring the theme of acceptance. There is a sense that the narrator is quick to accept that his grandmother is dead. Something that may have been made easier by the grandmother herself being fully conscious and accepting of the fact that she was about to die. It may also be a case that the narrator does not feel sadness because his grandmother has died. He knows that she has lived a good life even if it is a life that he cannot fully imagine. If anything, it is possible that the narrator is left not with sadness but with memories of happiness of the times he spent with his grandmother. The narrator has lived his life going from being dependent on his grandmother to eventually being independent of her. However, it is clear to the reader that the narrator will never forget his grandmother. He is grateful to her for everything she has done for him and knows that she has made him into the man that he is today. In reality the narrator’s greatest influence in his life has not been his parents or the things he may have learned in school but rather it is his grandmother’s influence in his life which has shaped the narrator. From a young boy to a grown man she has always been there for him.
Understanding the Text
Question 1. Mention the three phases of the author’s relationship with his grandmother before he left the country to study abroad.
Answer: The first phase of the author’s relationship with his grandmother was when the author’s parents went to live in the city and left him with his grandmother. She took utmost care of him right from waking him up in the morning to getting him ready for school. They were always together and enjoyed an easy companionship.
The second phase was when the author’s parents asked them to come to the city. This was the time when Khushwant Singh’s relationship with his grandmother changed. The author went to an English school. She could no longer accompany him nor could she help him in his studies. She continued getting him ready for school and asking him about his studies, as they shared the same room. However, she rarely talked to him after learning that he was learning music at school. Slowly the friendship between them weakened.
The third phase came when the common link of friendship, the room they shared, snapped when the author moved to the University and was given a room of his own. His grandmother accepted her seclusion with resignation.
Question 2.Mention three reasons why the author’s grandmother was disturbed when he started going to the city school.
Answer: The author’s grandmother -was disturbed -when he started going to the city school because
(i) She could not go with him to leave him to school, as he went in the school bus. This broke her connection with the author and disturbed her.
(ii) In the English school, she could not help him with his lessons in English and Science because she neither knew English nor Science. Thus, she had no faith in what was being taught there, and thus she was disturbed.
(iii) She was unhappy that there was no teaching about God and the scriptures in the school. Instead, music was being taught which, to her, had indecent associations. This disturbed her the most.
Question 3. Mention three ways in which the author’s grandmother spent her days after he grew up.
Answer: The three ways in which the author’s grandmother spent her days after he grew up were
She now spent most of her time at her spinning wheel, spinning thread.
While spinning, she continued reciting her prayers, rarely leaving her spinning to talk to anyone.
During the afternoons 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. It used to be the happiest half-hour of the day for her.
Question 4. Mention the odd way in which the author’s grandmother behaved just before she died.
Answer: Just before the day the grandmother died, a change came over her. She did not pray. She collected the women of the neighbourhood, took an old drum, and started singing. Next, morning, she was taken ill due to overstraining. The doctor said it was a mild fever and will go away, but the grandmother thought differently.
She told everyone that her end was near and she would spend the last few living moments in prayer and would not waste her time in talking to anyone. She lay peacefully in bed praying and before anyone could suspect, her lips stopped moving. She passed away peacefully.
Question 5.Mention the way in which the sparrows expressed their sorrow when the author’s grandmother died.
Answer: In the evening, when the author and his family members went to grandmother’s room to take her for the last rites, they saw thousands of sparrows sitting scattered on the floor near her. They were silent. There was no chirping. The author’s mother offered them some bread, but the sparrows took no notice. After the grandmother’s body was taken away, the sparrows flew away quietly. Thus, the sparrows mourned her death and paid their silent tribute to the grandmother in a unique manner.
Talking About the Text
Question 1. The author’s grandmother was a religious person. What are the different ways in which we come to know this?
Answer: The author’s grandmother was a truly religious lady. She hobbled about the house in her spotless white clothes, always counting the beads of her rosary and reciting prayers. When the author was in the village with her, he would always find her saying morning prayers while she bathed him and dressed him in the hope that her grandson would learn them by heart. The grandmother would always go to the village school with her grandson because the school was attached to the temple.
While the children were taught, the grandmother would sit inside the temple and read scriptures.
When they moved to the city and the author got busy in his education, she started devoting her time to prayers. He always found her lips moving in silent prayer and her hands counting the beads of her rosary. She was doing the same when she went to receive him at the station when he came back from studying abroad. The last moments of her life were spent in praying rather than talking to her family members. All these instances show that the grandmother was a religious person.
Question 2. Describe the changing relationship between the author and his grandmother. Did their feelings for each other change?
Answer: Changing circumstances affected the relationship between the author and his grandmother. In the village, the author and his grandmother spent most of their time together. She used to get him ready for school, accompany him to the school and help him in his studies. But moving to the city proved to be a turning point in their friendship. They still shared the same room, but the grandmother could no longer accompany him to school or help him in his studies. The grandmother did not like the kind of education being given to the author at the English school. She became disturbed and rarely talked. She reconciled herself with spinning and feeding the sparrows.
The gap in their friendship was further widened when the author went to the University and was given a room of his own. She accepted her loneliness and gave more time to praying.
However, their feelings for each other never changed. The author still respected her, and she kept on loving her grandson. She went to the station to see him off when he was going abroad for higher studies. Further, when he returned from abroad after five years, she celebrated his homecoming by singing songs and beating the drum.
Question 3. Would you agree that the author’s grandmother was a person strong in character? If yes, give instances to show this.
Answer: Yes, it is true that the author’s grandmother was a very strong personality. She was a highly religious. and conservative lady who hated modern views and ways. She had very strong personal likes and dislikes. Being a religious lady and a widow, she could be seen hobbling about the house in a spotless white dress, counting and reciting the beads of her rosary.
She had certain rigid ideas about life. She liked the village school as it was attached to the temple and children were taught prayers and about God. She hated the English school in the city for various reasons. When she came to know about the music lessons there, she rarely talked to the author. Moreover, when the author was leaving for abroad, she showed no emotion and was not even sentimental.
She was a strong and determined character, as she led her own kind of life and never compromised with her principles. She loved the narrator deeply but never showed her sentiments or emotions.
Even when she knew that she was dying, her strength of character did not allow her to show any sorrow or regret. All this shows that she was strong in character.
Question 4. Have you known someone like the author’s grandmother? Do you feel the same sense of loss with regard to someone whom you have loved and lost?
Answer: Yes, I have known someone like the author’s grandmother. She was none other than my own grandmother. She was old, but not as old as the author’s grandmother. Neither- did she wear white. She was also fat and hobbled around the house. But she had a very strong voice. She was very religious and fasted a lot.
I was very close to her and we shared a very strong bond. Since the time I can remember, I had seen her taking care of my small needs. She loved me unconditionally.
She was one of my closest friends and we also had secrets. If someone scolded me, I would run straight to her and she would hug me. The sweetest gesture of her was hiding foodstuffs from others so that I could eat them.
After she died, her death left a void in my life which I have been unable to fill. Even while writing about her, I have tears in my eyes. I miss her presence a lot. I will always cherish the moments that I shared with her.
Thinking About Language
Question 1. Which language do you think the author and his grandmother used while talking to each other?
Answer: The author and his grandmother used to live in a village and belonged to a Punjabi Sikh family. Therefore, they must have used their mother tongue, Punjabi, to converse with each other.
Question 2. Which language do you use to talk to elderly relatives in your family?
Answer: My elderly relatives are well versed in English and Hindi. I feel at home greeting them in English but like to converse with them freely in Hindi.
Question 3. How would you say, ‘a dilapidated drum’ in your language?
Answer: The expression used in our language for a ‘dilapidated drum’ is ‘phata-purana dhol.’
Question 4. Can you think of a song or a poem in your language that talks of homecoming?
Answer: There are many folk songs and poems singing of the exploits of brave warriors. All these talk of their homecoming after winning a battle.
Working with Words
I. Notice the following uses of the word ‘tell’ in the text
Her fingers were busy telling the beads of her rosary.
I would tell her English words and little things of Western Science and learning.
At her age one could never tell.
She told us that her end was near.
Given below are four different senses of the word ‘tell’. Match the meanings to the uses listed above.
make something known to someone in spoken or written words
count while reciting
give information to somebody
II. Notice the different senses of the word ‘take’.
1. to take to something: to begin to do something as a habit
2. to take ill: to suddenly become ill
Locate these phrases in the text and notice the way they are used.
III. The word ‘hobble’ means to walk with difficulty because the legs and feet are in bad condition.
Tick the words in the box below that also refer to a manner of walking.
I. 1. Her fingers were busy telling the beads of her rosary — count while reciting
2. I would tell her English words and little things of Western Science and learning — give information to somebody
3. At her age one could never tell — be sure
4. She told us that her end was near — make something known to someone in spoken or written words
II. The instances where these phrases have been used in the story are given below
1. “She took to feeding sparrows in the courtyard of our city house” — The grandmother began to feed the sparrows as a habit when they shifted to the city.
2. “The next morning, she was taken ill” — It refers to the author’s grandmother’s sudden illness.
III. The words that also refer to a manner of walking are shuffle stride. waddle swagger trudge slog
haggle shuffle stride
ride waddle wriggle
paddle swagger trudge slog
Thing to Do
Talk with your family members about elderly people who you have been intimately connected with and who are not there with you now. Write a short description of someone you liked a lot.
I lost my grandmother when I was twelve, but I still recollect her. She loved me affectionately and I liked her a great deal. She was quite old then, but she could move about with ease. I was her constant companion during her visits to temple, market, garden or to the houses of friends and relatives. Other members of the family would taunt me as granny’s watch dog. She was my shield. I ran to her arms when my father or mother would get angry or thrash me. I miss the bedtime stories she used to tell me. Those highly fanciful stories were full of deeds of bravery or adventure and end on a note a success. They inspired me to do noble deeds in fife. She was equally careful about my health and studies. She would make me drink milk and eat fruit to maintain a sound physique. She was good at drawing and helped me in writing alphabets. She also gave ready-made solutions to all my problems. She would bless me whenever I got success in any field—studies, sports, song, poetic recitation, poster making or fancy-dress competition. Sometimes I miss her a lot.
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.
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