The Portrait of a Lady

Khushwant Singh is a very well known literary critic and a novelist who has penned down this story. This is actually not a story but a real-life account of his relationship with his grandmother. The narrator gives a brief detail about his grandmother who was an immensely old lady with wrinkles running all over her face. For him, it’s hard to believe that once she had been pretty and young and had even had a husband. She was fat and bent. She used to talk about games of her childhood which seem quite undignified and absurd on her part, he treated them like fables of Prophet.

The narrator was certain that she had always been as old as he had known her, and stayed the same for twenty years. She always had a hand busy telling the beads of a rosary. For sure she was beautiful. She was like the winter landscape in the mountains, an expanse of pure white serenity (refers the calm, peaceful, and serene character and conduct of his grandmother) breathing peace and contentment.

His grandmother use to accompany him to school, she herself use to read the scriptures in the nearby temple till the school runs.

When his parents were well settled in the city, they sent for him and his grandmother to the city. In the home-like earlier he shared his room with his grandmother but now she was not there to give him company way to school. She was not happy with the syllabus he was being taught at a new school, they do not teach about god and spirituality there. She was not happy about the music classes because she found it not good for gentlemen.

After school when narrator went to University, he got his own room to study. She started feeling alone but accepted her loneliness as her fate. She spent these days by feeding sparrows in the verandah and on her spinning wheel. Feeding sparrows was the best part of the whole day.  The narrator went abroad for study grandmother was unhappy but without showing any emotion she came to see off him at station. The narrator was not whether he was going to see her again after five years or not because of her age.

But after five years when narrator came back he was welcomed by heron station. In the evening she called nearby ladies and started singing the home coming of warrior and thumped the old drum for several hours. The next morning she fall ill and told everybody that her end is near and after few moment she died. She was covered in a red shroud to take her to be cremated. Thousands of sparrows scattered all around her, for silently they were missing her too. 

Notice these expressions in the text. Infer their meaning from the context.

  • the thought was almost revolting
  • an expanse of pure white serenity
  • a turning-point
  • accepted her seclusion with resignation
  • a veritable bedlam of chirrupings
  • frivolous rebukes
  • the sagging skins of the dilapidated drum


  • the thought was almost revolting – This expression means it was very hard for the author to believe that once his grandmother was young, pretty, and beautiful. She had been the same for the last twenty years the author had seen her. So he assumed she had been the same all her life.
  • an expanse of pure white serenity – It refers to the calm, peaceful and serene character and conduct of the author’s grandmother. She is compared to the peaceful winter landscape in the mountains.
  • a turning-point – It refers to the point where the author’s relationship with his grandmother changes drastically after they move to the city-house.
  • accepted her seclusion with resignation – This shows the author’s grandmother’s passive submission to her secluded life after she gradually loses touch with her grandson.
  • a veritable bedlam of chirruping – It refers to the noise, confusion and chaos caused by the chirruping of the sparrows that scattered and perched around the author’s grandmother.
  • frivolous rebukes – It refers to the casual and light-hearted rebukes of the grandmother to the sparrows.
  • the sagging skins of the dilapidated drum – It points to the shabby and deteriorated condition of the drum.

Understanding the text   


  • The three phases of the author’s relationship with his grandmother before he left the country to study abroad.

ANS- The three phases in the relationship of narrator before he left the country to study abroad were

(a)Childhood –When narrator and his mother shared the same room and she wake him up in the morning and get ready for school, she also went school with and read the scriptures in the nearby temple till the school runs.

(b)Boyhood-When narrator’s parent’s get well settled in the city the sent for him and his grandmother .He started going to English school ,in a motor bus and she no more accompanies him for school. In fact she was sad, they don’t teach about god at the English school. She was angry at the music lessons given at the school as she considers it monopoly of harlots and beggars, and not meant for gentlefolk.

(c) Early Adulthood- When the narrator went up to University he was given his own for study. The only common link of friendship was snapped .She could no longer help him in studies.

  • Three reasons why author’s grandmother was disturbed when he started going to the city school

ANS- The three reasons why the author’s grandmother was disturbed when he started going to the city school are:

(a) She hated the modern science and English taught at the city school.

(b) She was distressed because there was no teaching about God and scriptures.

(c)She was reluctant towards the music lessons given at school for she considers it bad for decent people and gentlefolk. She said it is the monopoly of harlots and beggars.

  • Three ways in which the author’s grandmother spent her days after he grew up.

  ANS- Three ways in which the author’s grandmother spent her days after he grew up are:

(a)She used to sit in the room alone as she has accepted her loneliness as her fate.

(b)She sat whole day with her spinning wheel, reciting her prayers.

(c)In the afternoon she used to spend half an hour with her sparrow friends, some sits on her legs some even on her head but she never shooed them away.

  • The odd ways in which the author’s grandmother behaved just before she died.

ANS- Before death narrator’s grandmother behaved in several odd ways:

The day narrator came back, in the evening she started singing homecoming and thumping the old drum with ladies, then next morning she fell ill and stopped talking to anybody saying that let me do prayers because my end is near. She went on her bed telling beads and perhaps her last prayer.

  • The way in which the sparrows expressed their sorrow when the author’s grandmother died

ANS- As she was kept in the verandah wrapped in the red    shroud thousands of sparrows sat scattered on the floor   there were no chirruping, though they were offered bread crumbs none of them took notice of the bread.

Talking about the text

Talk to your partners about the following

  1. The author’s grandmother was a religious person. What are the different ways in which we come to know this?                   

ANS- The narrator’s grandmother was a deeply religious lady throughout the story we can see that she kept on praying in an inaudible sound. There are several mentions like she use to mumble the prayer in a sing song manner while getting the narrator ready for school ,hoping that he would learn it by heart. On way to school she accompanies him so that she can read the scriptures sitting in the nearby temple till the school runs. She only once forgot her prayers when she was excited for the homecoming of her grandson, other than that we see kept telling bead and repeated her prayers till her last breath.

  • Describe the changing relationship between the author and his grandmother. Did their feelings for each other change?

ANS-During his childhood the narrator was completely dependent on his grandmother .There came a turning point in their relationship when they shifted to city life. The narrator started to learn at English school, but his grandmother is not happy as she cannot help him in studies anymore. She is sad because they don’t teach about god and scriptures in the school and she is distressed learning about the music lessons given at school. For she considers it bad for decent people. After this she rarely talked to him. When he left for university there he was given a room of his own, the common link of their friendship was snapped. However their feeling for each other doesn’t change. She came to see him off at the station and without showing any emotion kissed his forehead silently. Narrator took as perhaps the last sign of their physical contact. But fortunately when he came back after five years she came receive him and clasped him in her arms .She even celebrated his return by singing homecoming of warrior and beating an old drum.

3. Would you agree that the author’s grandmother was a person strong in character? If yes give instances that show this.

ANS-Yes, I agree that the author’s grandmother was a person strong in character. Although she was not educated, she was serious about the author’s education. She was reluctant to western way of life, Science and English education. She hated music and disapproved of its teaching in school.
She was a immensely religious lady. Her lips were always busy in a silent prayer. She was always telling the beads of her rosary. She went to temple daily and read the scriptures. She was distressed to know that there was no teaching about God and holy books at Khushwant’s new English school.
She was a kind lady She used to feed dogs in the village. In the city she took to feeding sparrows. Although she was old but she had mental strength. Just before her death, she refused to talk to the members of the family as she did not want to waste her time. She wanted to make up for the time last evening when she had not prayed to God. She lay peacefully in bed saying prayers and telling the beads of her rosary till she breathed her last.

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?

ANS- Yes, I have known my great grandmother, who loved me deeply and looked after me. She had served as a teacher before she retired 15 years ago. When I was a school going kid, she was still active and smart. She was fond of doing household works like buying vegetables from market, buy us books with inspiring stories. She inspired us to get up early in the morning, so that we can develop healthy habits. She used to help us getting ready for school. In the afternoon, she would enquire what we had been taught at the school. She would help us in our home task. She passed away when we shifted to another state for my father’s new job. I miss her a lot. She will always be my inspiration to tackle life struggles.

                Thinking About language

Talk to your partner about the following:
      1. Which language do you think the author and his     grandmother used while talking to each other?

ANS- As evident from the text I can say that as author’s grandmother was not much educated she use to talk him in their mother tongue –Punjabi.

          2. Which language do you use to talk to elderly relatives in your family?

ANS- As we live in a place distant from our birthplace I feel free to talk in Hindi with my elderly relatives.

        3.What is the expression used in your language for a ‘dilapidated drum’?

          ANS- We call it Phata Dhol in our language.

     4. Can you think of a song or poem in your language that     talks of homecoming?

ANS- As per my knowledge my language is rich in songs and poem of homecoming of warriors.

Working with Words

I. Notice the following uses of the word ‘tell’ in the essay:

  1. Her fingers were busy telling the beads of her rosary.
  2. I would tell her English words and little things of Western Science and learning.
  3. At her age one could never tell.
  4. She told us that her end was near.

Given below are four different senses of the word ‘tell’. Match the meaning to the uses listed above.

(a) make something known to someone in spoken or written words
(b) count while reciting
(c) be sure
(d) give information to somebody.

ANS-  Phrases             –     meaning

1.Telling the beads       – Count while reciting

2.Tell her –   give information to somebody

3.One could ever tell      – cannot be sure

4.Told us – make something known to someone in spoken or written words.

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: suddenly become ill

Locate these phrases in the text and notice the way they are used.

ANS- In the text, these phrases are used as under:

  1. to take to: She took to feeding sparrows in the courtyard of our city house.
  2. take ill: The next morning she was taken ill.

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.

Haggle       shuffle      stride         ride          waddle Wriggle      paddle     swagger      trudge     slog

ANS- The referring to manner of walking are as follows:

    1. Shuffle- To walk by pulling your feet slowly along the ground rather than lifting them.

    2. Stride- walk with long, decisive steps in a specified     direction.

3. Waddle- to walk with short steps and a clumsy swaying motion.

4. Swagger- walk in a very a confident or arrogant way.

5. Trudge- walk slowly with a heavy steps, typically because of exhaustion.

6. Slog- To walk with difficulty or effort.

  • Noticing Form  

Notice the form of the verbs highlighted in these sentences:

  1. My grandmother was an old woman. She had been old and wrinkled for the twenty years that I had known her. People said that she had once been young and pretty and had even had a husband, but that was hard to believe.
  2. When we both had finished we would walk back together.
  3. When I came back she would ask me what the teacher had taught me.
  4. It was the first time since I had known her that she did not pray.
  5. Thus sun was setting and had lit her room and verandah with a golden light.

These are examples of the past perfect forms of verbs. When we recount things in the distant past we use this form.

ANS-1.I hadbeenworking on my essays the night before and I was very tired. 

2. We understood the concept only when the teacher had explained it twice.

  1. When the rain came, theyhad already reached their hotel.
  2. We had worked together on the designs for three months before she left the country.
  3. It was the first time since I had lived there that it began to snow.
  4. The full moon was in the sky and hadscattered its soft fight all around.
  • WORKING WITH WORDS          

Common use of words like ‘tell’ and ‘take’

You should never tell a lie.

I know you are good at telling stories, give it a try.

She was too tired to take a shower. 

Betty took a photograph of us.

I’ve never taken a holiday since starting this job.


Make students notice the use of the past perfect form of the verb that frequently appears in the text to recount the remote past. You can practice the form with other examples.

ANS-The PAST PERFECT TENSE indicates that an action was completed (finished or “perfected”) at some point in the past before something else happened.

I had walked two miles by two O’clock.

I had run three other marathons before entering the Triathlon.

The Portrait of A Lady Chapter Highlights

  • When the author, Khushwant Singh, was a little child, his parents left him in the village with his grandmother and went to live in the city.
  • The author’s grandmother was an old lady. She was very religious. The author shared a very close bond with his grandmother. They became very good friends.
  • The grandmother woke him up, dressed him and accompanied him to school. The school was attached to the temple.
  • While the author was at school, the grandmother used to read the scriptures in the temple.
  • When the author’s parents were well-settled, he and his grandmother also went to the city. It proved a turning point in their friendship.
  • In the city, Khushwant Singh attended an English school and travelled in a motor bus. He learnt English words and topics of Western Science.
  • The grandmother could no longer accompany him to his school nor help him in his studies. However, they shared the same room.
  • When the author went to the University, he was given a separate room, Thus, the last link of their friendship was broken.
  • The grandmother kept herself busy in her prayers and spinning the wheel. Her favourite part of the day was feeding the sparrows.
  • When the author went abroad for higher studies, the grandmother came to see him off at the station but she showed no emotions and was not even sentimental.
  • The author came back after five years and was received by his grandmother at the station. She was unchanged and did not look a day older.
  • In the evening, the grandmother did not pray and instead collected the women of the neighbourhood and celebrated her grandson’s homecoming,
  • The grandmother fell ill the next day and she knew that her end was near.
  • She stopped talking and closed her eyes. She was lost in her prayers and counting the beads of her rosary. Suddenly, the rosary fell down and her lips stopped moving. She was dead.
  • Thousands.of sparrows assembled in the room and sat quietly to mourn her death. They did not even eat the crumbs given by the author’s mother.
  • After the grandmother’s body was taken for cremation, the sparrows flew away silently.

The Portrait of A Lady Word Meanings

Word – Meaning
portrait – true picture
mantelpiece – shelf above a fireplace
absurd – ridiculous
fables of the prophets – stories of the Sikh Gurus
hobbled – walked with difficulty
stoop – bent body due to old age
telling the beads – counting the beads while chanting prayers
rosary – a string of beads used for counting prayers as they are chanted
puckered – wrinkled
inaudible – which cannot be heard
serenity – calm and peaceful
monotonous – unchanging
stale – not fresh
in a chorus – together
courtyard – an open space just outside the house
lewd – indecent
harlots – prostitutes
bedlam – confusion
thumped – beat hard
dilapidated – falling to pieces
pallor – pale colouring of the face
shroud – a piece of cloth used to cover a dead body before cremation
crude – made in a simple manner
scattered – lying here and there
took no notice of – did not care

Categories: General


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