The Portrait of a Lady – Kushwant Singh

Opening – In the Village

Kushwant Singh remembers his aged grandmother. When his parents went to city in search of job, he was left to the care of his grandmother. She was not a showy grandmother but was a good caretaker. She took him to school and brought him back home, all the way the stray dogs following her for the stale roties she carried for them. She was extremely old yet was vigorous. You could see her reciting her prayers in whispers. She wanted her grandson grow up in true devotion to God and scriptures.

Questions & Answers

  1. Why is Kushwant Singh, as a child, not able to believe that his grandmother was once pretty, was married and had children?
    As a child, Kushwant Singh held a different understanding about his grandmother. Since he first saw her, his grandmother was an old lady with white hair and countless lines running across her face. Because his first impression about his grandmother was one of ageing, he could not imagine her having had a childhood, marriage and children.
  2. Why does the narrator compare his grandmother with a winter landscape on the mountains, an expanse of pure white serenity, breathing peace and contentment?
    Kushwant Singh’s comparing his grandmother with a winter landscape is perfect and complete because his grandmother was through her last stage of life, the winter. Just as the mountains are snow-laden and white in winter, the old lady was altogether white with her white clothes, white hair and pale skin. Because she was a woman of prayer and spiritual bliss all the time, she enjoyed endless peace of mind in her serene mind.
  3. Draw a character sketch of the author’s grandmother.
    The author’s grandmother had a character at one point quite ordinary and at another very much extraordinary. She was a conservative woman in the most appropriate sense. She was connected to the world around her and the world beyond at the same time. Her prayer was showy but her attachment with a divine power was constant and unconditional. It was like she had strong commanding powers over the gods that she prayed to because she had consciously stayed alive to see her grandson’s return. The grandmother loved education but she was averse to the study of science and music. Her heart went to dogs and sparrows that strayed for food and she seemed to have known their language. She was not a woman whose sound was always heard in the household. She was an ideal mother-in-law for the author’s mother. The grandmother didn’t have so many human friends in the neighbourhood as she had sparrows and dogs. It was not likely that she was friendly. Above all, the grandmother had an impenetrable character of her own – not ready to accept anything that she didn’t like and staying away from things that she didn’t agree with.
  4. How does Kushwant Singh describe his grandfather?
    Kushwant Singh describes his grandfather much the same way he describes his grandmother. The grandfather had already been dead and his framed photograph hung on the wall. He had long grey beard that flowed on his chest.
  5. “As for my grandmother being young and pretty, the thought was almost revolting.” Why was it revolting?
    Since his childhood, Kushwant Singh saw his grandmother as an old woman. She appeared so old to him that he could not evoke his common sense to understand that all old people have a birth and childhood. There was nothing in his memory that related the grandmother’s aged appearance to her youth and childhood.

Next – In the City

When the Singh’s parents were well settled, grandmother and he went to the city where he went to a new school. English medium school. From this point, the grandmother developed a little distance from him – from his new school, from his new subjects, from English and from Music. She had her prayers to recite all the time and hundreds of sparrows to feed. Every evening you could see her feeding the sparrows and talking to them, sometimes scolding them frivolously.

When the narrator grew up, he was given a separate room and the two were further apart from each other. After a few years, young Kushwant went abroad for his further studies. When he separated the grandmother from the railway station, Kushwant took this separation for their last. He never thought that they would meet again.

Questions & Answers

  1. My grandmother accepted her seclusion with resignation. What does the author mean by this?
    There is always a point in everyone’s old age when he or she has to accept old age. Old age comes with a bundle of severely distressing realizations – lonely, abandoned and ignored. The author’s grandmother too had to go through a similar situation when her grandson got preoccupied with his studies and her children busy with their business in the city. In many cases, aged people are reluctant to accept this phase of life but the grandmother was different. She didn’t complain, she didn’t remain upset, she didn’t run around the house making everyone feel pity for her. On the contrary, the grandmother accepted her fate without complaint. She reverted her love to Gods and to the sparrows of the city.
  2. Why did the author think that his grandmother would be upset when he was going abroad? Was she really upset? Why do you think so?
    When the author was going abroad, he was much worried about his grandmother. She was an extremely old woman and he was going to a distant place for a long time. During those days, it was beyond one’s limits to return to India in case of an emergency. However, his fears were out of place because the grandmother had strong belief that she would survive further to see his return.
  3. Why was the narrator unusually worried about his grandmother at the railway station? (2 marks)
    The narrator had a great bond with the grandmother as she was his childhood’s companion and guardian. At the railway station, parting from his aged grandmother, the narrator feared if he would meet her again. Her age and the distance he was going to, no one could tell. (Incomplete)

Finally – The Author Returns

After five long years, when Kushwant returned, the grandmother was at the station to receive him. She looked not a degree older. That evening the grandmother gathered all their neighbors to celebrate Kushwant’s return. She beat an old drum and sang without pause. Those who saw her straining, tried to stop her but she went on singing until she fell weak. Following a severe fever, the grandmother died the next morning.

What about her sparrows? When her body was laid for the last rites, hundreds of sparrows swarmed the yard and sat around her body in silence. When her body was cremated, they remained motionless. Kushwant’s mother thought it right to feed the sparrows as the grandmother used to do. When she threw crumbs of bread, the sparrows ignored her and flew away.

  1. Why did everyone stop the grandmother from singing and beating the drum?
    The grandmother was singing with great exertion and excitement over her grandson’s return. She was too old and aged to bear the strain of singing and beating the drum for such a very long time. Seeing her delirious singing and considering her age, everyone tried to stop the grandmother from singing.
  2. Write a note on the grandmother’s spiritual life.
    The grandmother was a pious lady. She carried her rosary all the time and her lips whispered silent prayers. She took the boy to school, remained in the temple beside the school and when school was over, the two of them walked home.
  3. The grandmother could not admit the modern science and city lifestyle. Was she being conservative or was she wiser than us?
    Conservative – Not ready to accept new ideas

    When Singh’s parents were well settled in the city, they brought the grandmother and the boy to the city. In the city Kushwant attended an English school so the grandmother could no longer help him with his lessons. The school was an advanced English Medium School. The school taught English, advanced science and Music. Grandmother could not accept this sudden change. She could not teach him any more. The grandmother spent her time with hundreds of sparrows whom she fed and passed her time. Even in the city, grandmother continued her prayers and remained spiritual. (Incomplete)

Sample Test Paper

Maximum marks 50 | Duration 90 Minutes

  1. Answer any 4 of the following questions in 4/5 lines. 2 marks each.  
    1. How does Kushwant Singh describe his grandfather?
    2. The sparrows ignored the author’s mother’s generous attempt to feed them. What were the possible reasons?
    3. What is the significance of the grandmother’s singing the homecoming of warriors?
    4. How differently did the grandmother behave at the close of her life?
  2. Answer any three of the following questions in 6/8 lines. 3 marks each.
    1. How was the grandmother’s city life different from her life in the village?
    2. Why was the grandmother averse to the kind of education the narrator received in the city?
    3. Both, the grandmother and the narrator departed at the railway station with different intensity of separation. Explain.
    4. Discuss the grandmother’s bond with Nature. How is it a deviation from today’s fast-paced lifestyle?
    5. How do you explain the grandmother’s sudden death followed by the narrator’s return?
  3. Answer any 1 of the following questions in 12/15 lines. 6 mark.
    1. How does the relation between the grandmother and Kushwant Singh change over time?
    2. The grandmother’s love for the narrator was inscrutable (hard to notice). Substantiate.
  4. There is an error on each line. Replace each incorrect word with a correct substitute. 4 Marks.
    1. The next time you go to the polling booth for vote,
    2. ask your brain who you should elect. We do not need
    3. a minister who promises to build the building taller than
    4. Burj Khalifa. We do not need ministers who promises the
      construction of a ten-lane super highway. We do not need
    5. a minister who promises to reservation our castes and
    6. religions. We need ministers who come for power to serve,
    7. not to rule. We need ministers who has visions,
    8. not useless missions. We need minister who would bring
      us happiness, clean air, abundant rains and cool climates.
  5. Rearrange the following sets of words into meaningful sentences. The first is solved for you. 4 marks.
    1. If / Prime Minister, / you want / here is / India’s / what I / me become / will do.
      If you want me become India’s Prime Minister, here is what I will do.

Written by Biju John

Biju John is an educational writer, educator and the author of OM - The Otherwise Men. He gives live classes on Skype and Facebook. You can attend his 3 Day Classes (English & Business Studies) in Delhi, Bangalore, Qatar and Dubai. His Contact number is 91 9810740061.

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