This poem is about an old man who suffered through a famine The old man is the speaker’s grandfather. The speaker starts out reading the grandfather’s diary, for he says:
The yellowed diary’s notes whisper in vernacular
This means that he is reading the grandfather’s diary, written in his native language (vernacular). By reading the diary, the speaker can experience what his grandfather went through during the famine because it is described in the diary, which is so old it has “yellowed” pages. If you read through the rest of the poem, you will see some of the things the grandfather suffered – starvation, weakness, despair. The grandfather had to leave his family behind, probably burying many of them. The speaker states that no doubt, faith was unimportant to a man that was starving.
What did faith matter? What Hindu world so ancient and true for you to hold?
The speaker asks the grandfather many rhetorical questions: Did you see your own death? How old were you?
The poem ends with the speaker bemoaning the fact that he didn’t know his grandfather enough. He is looking at his grandfather’s picture – “you are an invisible piece on a board”.
The poem Grandfather can be analysed with a little historical referrence. A long time back- during the colonial period- a devastating famine struck Orissa. The result: lack of food, starvation, hunger and death. The poet's grandfather happened to be a part of that phase of turmoil.
The grandfather, a hindu brahmin, was forced to convert to christianity for the want of food. The poem goes on to say that probably, when it comes down to the dignity of having to follow one's religion and death, the former loses significance. The drought and the lack of rain just meant that the lack of food and the starvation it caused wan't going to end any soon.
The poet asks his grandfather if he saw death in front of his eyes. He wonders how bad he must have felt to let go of his faith and religion for the sake of survival. The poet understands that if his grandfather hadn't taken the decision he had, then, he wouldn't have lived to write this poem.
He wonders if dying with dignity would have been more appropriate than having to compromise one's faith and belief. The diary speaks volumes.
"Grandfather" (1983) deals with the disasters of the Orissa famine of 1866, viewed from a biographical perspective. The poet relates the harrowing incident of his grandfather, Chintamani Mahapatra, who was compelled to embrace Christianity in order to save his life during a famine. This decision was a hard compromise as he was left with an unfair choice death & conversion.
"What Hindu world so ancient and so true for you to hold?
Uneasily you dreamed toward the centre of your web"
>> The poet reconstructs this imaginary debate in the mind of the grandfather. Ultimately, faith succumbs to the demands of the body.
"We wish we had not to wake up with our smiles
in the middle of some social order"
>> This may be a reference to some state-imposed social order (remember - India was under colonial rule at the time of the famine) which feeds people but at the cost of their dignity.
REFERENCE: Modern Indian Literature (Oxford University Press)