Get here the summary, questions, answers, textbook solutions, extras, and pdf of the story “The Portrait of a Lady” by Khushwant Singh of the Assam Board (AHSEC / SEBA) Class 11 (first year) English (Hornbill) textbook. However, the given notes/solutions should only be used for references and should be modified/changed according to needs.
Summary: In this autobiographical essay, “The Portrait of a Lady” by Khushwant Singh, the author discusses his youth spent with his grandmother in her home when his parents relocated to the city. He and his grandmother were always together. The author depicts her as a typical grandmother, whom we all encounter at some point in our lives. The author finds it difficult to believe she was once youthful and lovely since he has always pictured her as an old, wrinkled woman who is short, chubby, and somewhat bent. She moved about the house in a shaky manner, one hand on her waist and the other on the beads of her rosary.
The author and his grandma were great friends. She showered him, dressed him, and drove him to school. The school was attached to a temple, and the priest taught the youngsters the alphabet and the morning prayer. On the way back, he and his grandmother would feed the stale chapattis they had brought from home to the village dogs. Thus, the author spent his infancy years under the careful care of his grandmother until they were sent for by his parents, who were by then well established in the city.
This transition from hamlet to city marked a watershed moment in his relationship with his grandmother. He was sent to an English medium school in the metropolis, to which he commuted by bus. There were no more dogs to feed, and no more walking him to school. Grandmother began feeding birds in the courtyard.
The distance between them widened over time. She could no longer assist him with his studies, nor did she approve of the western science and education he got in school. She was disappointed that there was no instruction on God or the scriptures. Her son’s music classes bothered her since she thought musical instruments and singing were a lower culture. She rarely spoke to her grandson anymore.
When he was given his own room in the house, it was the final straw in their friendship. She resigned herself to being by herself and began spinning and praying. Her sole true joy was feeding the sparrows for half an hour every day. When the author left for further studies abroad, he expected his grandmother to be unhappy and nostalgic. But she didn’t show any emotion when she saw him go to the station. She kissed his brow while still counting the beads on her rosary. The author left his elderly grandmother behind, fearful that he would not see her again.
But his suspicions were unfounded. When he arrived at the station after five years, his grandmother greeted him. As she embraced him, she continued to pray. Her best moments, though, were with the sparrows, which she fed for an extended period of time. She didn’t pray that evening, which was unusual for her. Instead, she assembled the women of the neighbourhood and sang to the drum. The following day, she became unwell. She laid in bed, praying, knowing the end was close. Despite the fact that the doctor stated it was a slight fever that would pass quickly, she did not stop her prayers. Her lips stopped moving, and the garland of prayer beads slipped from her hands before anyone could guess. She died peacefully.
In the evening, plans were made to cremate her. It was sunset when they prepared to take her out to the courtyard. An incredible sight stunned everyone. Thousands of sparrows were dispersed throughout the verandah and her room, right up to where she lay. The birds were unusually calm, and when the author’s mother threw small bits of bread, they paid no attention. When the body was taken away, the birds fluttered away silently. The bread crumbs remained until the next morning, when they were wiped away.
Understanding the Text
1. Mention the three phases of the author’s relationship with his grandmother before he left the country to study abroad.
Answer: (a) When the author’s parents relocated to the city, he was placed in his grandmother’s loving care.
(b) Phase two began when he was sent by bus to an English-medium school in the city to join his parents.
(c) By the third stage, they were no longer roommates. This severed their bond of friendship. There was a noticeable decline in the amount of time the grandmother spent chatting with her grandson.
2. Mention three reasons why the author’s grandmother was disturbed when he started going to the city school.
Answer: (a) She was no longer able to assist him as he learned English vocabulary and western scientific concepts.
(b) She was disappointed because no one was discussing God or the scriptures in class.
(c) When she found out he was taking music lessons, she became upset. Her view was that the common folk didn’t care for music because it was part of a lower-class culture.
3. Mention three ways in which the author’s grandmother spent her days after he grew up.
Answer: (a) The spinning wheel was where she devoted a lot of her time.
(b) She said some prayers and prayed with the rosary.
(c) Her happiest times were spent on the verandah, where she fed hundreds of sparrows.
4. Mention three odd ways in which the author’s grandmother behaved just before she died.
Answer: (a) To welcome back her grandson, she gathered the local women, gathered an old drum, and sang songs of the homecoming of warriors.
(b) For the first time, she neglected to say her prayers.
(c) She calmly prayed and counted her beads as she lay in bed after announcing her impending death.
5. Mention three ways in which the sparrows expressed their sorrow when the author’s grandmother died.
Answer: (a) There were thousands of sparrows on the veranda and in her room, right up to the spot where she had been lying dead.
(b) There was a lack of chirping from where they sat dispersed.
(c) They paid no attention to the author’s mother’s bread crumbs.
Talking about the text
1. The author’s grandmother was a religious person. What are the different ways in which we come to know this?
Answer: The author recalled seeing her in her prayer garland since he was a child. She used to pray aloud to him every morning as she got him ready for school so that he could learn them by rote. Because the school was attached to the temple, she went there with him to read the scriptures while he attended classes. The absence of religious instruction when the author was subsequently sent to an English-speaking school was a source of great distress. After a day of celebrating her grandson’s return, she fell ill and blamed herself for not having prayed the night before. She quietly said her final prayers as she lay in bed, despite her family’s protests. What emerges from all of these details is a picture of a deeply religious and moral woman.
2. Describe the changing relationship between the author and his grandmother. Did their feelings for each other change?
Answer: In the story “The Portrait of a Lady”, when he first met her and moved in with her after his parents relocated to the city, their relationship was one of friendship and closeness. The first major shift occurred when they, too, were compelled to relocate to the city. When Grandma couldn’t visit her grandson at school, she felt like she’d lost a companion. They spent less and less time together every day as he got older. To the point where she barely even acknowledged his existence anymore. Giving him his own room effectively severed the last remaining ties of friendship between them.
But their deep, abiding affection for one another remained unchanged. When he left for college, she went to the train station to bid him farewell. The author kept the wet kiss impression on his forehead as a treasured memento. Her subtle expressions of joy upon his return were evident in everything she did.
3. Would you agree that the author’s grandmother was a person of strong character? If yes, give instances that show this.
Answer: The author’s grandmother definitely possessed a formidable strength of character. The author’s parents left him in the care of the author’s grandmother when they went to the city, which speaks to the strength of the grandmother’s character. She was concerned about his health and education equally. When they eventually moved to the city, she was very unhappy with the author’s choice of English school. However, she was able to find other ways to occupy her time when she was by herself. There was never a time when she showed weakness or cried in front of others. Grandma didn’t say much beyond a few prayers as she kissed her grandson on the forehead and waved at the train station. Her trust in God and her supplications to Him was unwavering. Maybe that’s why she was so strong and unyielding. After becoming ill, she calmly began praying. Her expressions and actions always remained neutral.
Additional/extra questions and answers/solutions to “The Portrait of a Lady”
1. Describe the author’s grandmother, emphasising her many admirable traits.
Answer: In every way, the author’s grandmother exemplified love, affection, and tenderness. She was very fond of her grandson in the way that most grandmothers are. She was deeply religious and conservative in her approach to spirituality and morality. She projected an image of calm and composure by only ever wearing white. She cared for her grandson and his schoolwork with love and concern while he was in her care. She did not see it as a chore, but rather as a chance to spend more time with her boyfriend. She was devastated when she realised she couldn’t participate in his education or accompany him to school in the city.
She felt deeply fulfilled when she fed the animals and birds she cared about. She was emotionally repressed and had a steely disposition. There hasn’t been a single mention of her crying throughout the whole story. She never voiced her disagreement with anything, even when she strongly disapproved. She had a unique way of showing her love for her grandson, which the author chronicles through her development from a young boy to a youth.
12. What was grandmother’s happiest moment of the day?
Answer: Spending time caring for the sparrows brought her the most joy. Every afternoon, she would throw bread crumbs to the birds, and hundreds of them would flock to her. She always greeted them with a grin and never tried to get them to leave.
13. In what ways did the sparrows express their sorrow over the death of grandmother as mentioned in the story “The Portrait of a Lady”?
Answer: As mentioned in the story “The Portrait of a Lady”, thousands of sparrows sat on her body, but not a single one of them chirped. And they didn’t even care about the scraps of bread that were tossed their way. When the body was taken away, they flew away quickly and quietly.
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