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Khushwant Singh, one of the best -known Indian writers of all times, was born in 1915 in Hadali (now in Pakistan). He was educated at the Government College, Lahore and at King’s College, Cambridge University, and the Inner Temple in London. He practiced law at the Lahore High Court for several years before joining the Indian Ministry of External Affairs in 1947. He began a distinguished career as a journalist with the All India Radio in 1951. Since then he has been founder-editor of Yojana (1951-1953), editor of the Illustrated weekly of India (1979-1980), chief editor of New Delhi (1979-1980), and editor of the Hindustan times (1980-1983). His Saturday column “With Malice towards One and All” in the Hindustan times is by far one of the most popular columns of the day. Khushwant Singh was a member of the Rajya Sabha (upper house of the Indian Parliament) from 1980 to 1986. Among other honors, he was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1974 by the President of India (he returned the decoration in 1984 in protest against the Union Government’s siege of the Golden Temple in Amritsar). Singh died of natural causes on 20 March 2014 at his Delhi-based residence, at the age of 99. During his lifetime, Khushwant Singh was keen on burial because he believed that with a burial you give back to the earth what you have taken.


The Portrait of a Lady gives us a picture of human relationship in a joint family. It is a realistic account of how the grandparents give all their time, attention and love to the grandchildren. The author’s description about his grandmother is deeply moving with a touch of humour and poetry in it.


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. The author recalls his grandmother as a very old lady with a wrinkled face. She appeared so old that it was hard for him to believe that she had once been “young and pretty”. She was short, fat and a little stooped in appearance. The author remembers her moving about the house in “spotless white”, counting the beads of her rosary while her lips moved constantly in silent prayers. She was not “pretty” in the traditional sense, yet her serenity made her “beautiful”. In the initial years of his life, the author lived with his grandmother in the village, sharing a good friendship. His grandmother used to wake him up in the morning and get him ready for the school. She would hand over to him the things he required in the school. After having thick, stale chappatis with butter and sugar for breakfast, they used to leave for school. The author's grandmother always accompanied him to school as it was attached to the temple. It was her habit to carry several stale chappatis for the village dogs, which they used to feed while returning from the school. The grandmother used to sit inside the temple reading holy books while the narrator learnt alphabets and prayers in the school. The ‘turning-point’ of their friendship came when they moved to the city to stay with the author’s parents. Though they shared the same room, his grandmother no longer accompanied him to the school since the author started going in a bus. As years rolled by, they “saw less of each other”. Meanwhile, as there were no dogs in the streets, she took to feeding the sparrows. Unlike the village school, the author was not taught about God and the scriptures which troubled  his grandmother. She did not believe in what was being taught at his school and was unhappy as she could not help him with his lessons. Moreover, she was disturbed at the idea of music lessons being given at school as she considered music to be unsuitable for gentlefolk. Her disapproval was conspicuous in her silence. When the author started going to the university he was given a room of his own. It resulted in a further gap between them. She accepted her loneliness and rarely spoke to anyone. All day long, she sat spinning the wheel and reciting her prayers. She relaxed for a short time, only in the afternoon, to feed the sparrows who came in large numbers. The bond and level of comfort they shared with her is evident in the fact that they perched even on her legs and head. She used to be at her happiest-self while feeding the sparrows. The author decided to go abroad for further studies. He was sure that his grandmother would be upset at his departure. On the contrary, she came to the railway station to see him off but did not show any emotion. She was absorbed in her prayers, telling the beads of her rosary. She silently kissed the author's forehead, which the author considered to be (supposedly) the last sign of their physical contact. On his return after five years, the author did not find any change in his grandmother. She was as old as ever and remained absorbed in her prayers. Even that day, the happiest moment for her was feeding the sparrows. In the evening, for the first time ever, she did not pray. She collected several ladies of the neighbourhood and sang songs related to the home-coming of the warriors. She had to be persuaded to stop singing in order to avoid overstraining. However, the next day she was taken ill. Though diagnosed with a mild fever by the doctor, grandmother knew that her end was near. She decided to spend the last few hours of her life reciting prayers and telling her beads. Soon, her lips stopped moving and she died. The family went to make arrangements for the grandmother’s funeral. As they came with a stretcher, they stopped mid-way to find thousands of sparrows scattered around her dead body. The sparrows mourned the death of the grandmother in utter silence. They ignored the bread crumbs thrown at them by the author’s mother and flew away silently after the body was carried away for cremation. The bread-crumbs were swept away by the sweeper next morning.


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.


  1. Why did Khushwant Singh say that the thought of his grandmother being young and pretty was almost revolting?
  2. Mention the instances from ‘The Portrait of A Lady’ for Khushwant Singh’s grandmother being called considerate for animals.
  3. State any one incident from the lesson which shows that the grandmother accepted changes but did not impose them in her own life.
  4. What poetic words are used by the writer to bring out the physical and spiritual beauty of the grandmother?
  5. Mention some incidents from the lesson that show that the grandmother loved her grandson intimately.
  6. How did the grandmother celebrate the homecoming of her grandson?
  7. What is the difference between village school education and urban school education brought by the lesson?
  8. What does the sparrow’s behaviour highlight?
  9. Mention some instances to show that the grandmother was highly composed and patient.
  10. Bring out the spiritual elements in the character of the grandmother.
  11. What light does the lesson throw on Indian family values?
  12. Evaluate the writer’s attitude towards his grandmother when he was a child.


  1. Ans: Khuswant Singh said that imagining his grandmother as a young lady was abhorrent. This is because as a child, he had always seen her as an old, dignified and wise soul, and they learnt to love her that way only. So the image of her younger and more immature self didn't seem appealing to them.
  2. Ans: When Khuswant Singh was a child, he used to live with his grandmother and attend the village school. When she accompanied him to the school, she used to take a few stale Chapattis with a little butter and sugar to feed the village dogs. In the city, she couldn't find dogs so she started feeding sparrows and developed a very endearing relationship with them. This shows that she was an animal lover.
  3. Ans: Khuswant Singh's parents had left him in the care of his grandmother in the village before they went to the city. There, the author developed a very close relationship with his grandmother. However, when his parents had comfortably settled in the city, they moved in with them, and changes started to emerge. She could no longer accompany him to school, which also led her to start feeding sparrows in the absence of dogs. She also didn't like that music was being taught to her grandson as she believed music to be the domain of beggars and harlots. She also was very disappointed at the school not imparting religious education. However, through all this, she kept her disagreement, with great dignity, to herself and didn't try to impose her will on them.
  4. Ans: The author metaphorically compares his grandmother to the winter landscape in the mountains, an expanse of pure white serenity breathing peace and contentment. He masterfully brings out the plaid simplicity as well as the immense power of her dignity, restrain and quietude.
  5. Ans: When the author lived with his grandmother in the village, she used to care for him with devotion. She used to get him ready for school and accompany him on his journey. They developed a very close relationship. In the city, their relationship got strained because of her disapproval of his English education and other factors. Yet, she loved him intimately. When he came back after five years in London, she was overjoyed, but she didn't show it through emotions. Instead, she gathered womenfolk of her neighbourhood and sang about the homecoming of a warrior to the beat of the drum. She believed her grandson was a warrior and was proud of him. The activity had a toll on her physical health, but she still did it because she loved his grandson.
  6. Ans: Grandmother was overjoyed at the homecoming of her grandson. She collected the women of neighbourhood and was in the mood of celebration. She beat the 'dilapidated' drum and sang for hours about the homecoming of warriors. She was so involved in her joy that dat even she forgot to pray for the first time..
  7. Ans: The village school was attached to the temple. The priest taught the children the alphabet and the morning prayer while they were seated in rows on either side of the verandah. In the urban school, they imparted Western education, involving science and didn't teach them about religion.
  8. Ansa: After the unfortunate demise of the author's grandmother, the sparrows that she used to feed gathered near her body, covered in a red shroud, and lined up on either sides of her. They didn't make any noise, nor did they accept any food. They silently expressed their remorse and departed. Their behaviour is indicative of deep love and respect that elicits the most humane response even from birds.
  9. Ans: The author's grandmother was a very patient woman. She never protested against any measure her children took to bring the author up. She expressed her disapproval through silence and restrain. This could also be observed in the way she behaved with the sparrows, who used to sit on her head and her shoulders, but she never shooed them away. Even in get deathbed, she was as calm and composed as she had been all her life.
  10. Ans: The author's grandmother was a very peaceful woman. She had immense restrain on her actions. She developed strong bonds with creatures very easily. Her patience and get perseverance was seen throughout her stay with her family in the city. She disagreed with several actions of theirs but she never talked about it. She very calmly accepted change and retreated into her abode. Her ascetic nature elicited respect and love. She was very oddly not afraid of death, but very certain about it. She welcomed the end calmly and prayed to God till her heart stopped. Her life and get behaviour inspired her grandson deeply.
  11. Ans: In Indian families, the elders usually are entitled to the greatest respect. Khuswant Singh's grandmother was the eldest in the family, and she elicited respect like none else. Her ascetic nature, dignity and composure automatically made others respect her and love her. The elders are expected to be God loving, and she was extremely spiritual, and told her rosary beads routinely. She never acted in a way that would undermine her dignity. She was very wise and accepting of change without protesting. Her kind and loving side can be seen in her interactions with animals and in her deep affection for her grandson.
  12. Ans: As a child, the author used to appreciate his grandmother's beauty. She was old, wrinkled, hunched and had white hair. The author described It was her love and affection that mattered to him. He described her as a winter landscape in the mountains, an expanse of pure white serenity breathing peace and contentment. The thought of her being young and immature always disgusted him.
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