English CBSE Class 11 NCERT Hornbill Chapter 1 The Portrait of a Lady Line by Line Explanation and Meaning of Difficult Words



Author – Khushwant Singh

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

Expression Meaning
The thought was almost revolting Difficult to believe
an expanse of pure white serenity White and calm looks of a person
a turning-point Significant change, A major change
accepted her seclusion with resignation Accepted loneliness without objection
a veritable bedlam of chirrupings A real uproar of sound of birds
frivolous rebukes Superficial scolding
the sagging skins of the dilapidated drum Loose skin of an old drum


MY grandmother, like everybody’s grandmother, was an old woman. She had been old and wrinkled for the twenty years that I had known her.

Word Meaning
Wrinkled Lines, Creases, Folds

The author is talking about his grandmother. In fact the whole lesson has been narrated by the author himself.

His grandmother was an old woman. Grandmother of every person is an old woman. He was born 20 years ago. Author had always seen her grandmother as an old woman. She had lot of lines, creases and folds on her skin.

People said that she had once been young and pretty and had even had a husband, but that was hard to believe. My grandfather’s portrait hung above the mantelpiece in the drawing room.

Word Meaning
Pretty Attractive
Even Also
Portrait Photo – normally of the face only
Mantelpiece Shelf

People used to tell the author that once upon a time his grandmother was young and beautiful. She had a husband also. But it was difficult to believe this. Photo of my grandfather was hanging in the drawing room above the shelf.



He wore a big turban and loose-fitting clothes. His long, white beard covered the best part of his chest and he looked at least a hundred years old. He did not look the sort of person who would have a wife or children.

My grandfather used to wear a big turban. He wore loose fitting cloths. His beard was white and long. It came upto his chest. In the portrait he looked as if he was 100 years old. Because he looked old, the author thought that his grandfather never had a wife or children.


He looked as if he could only have lots and lots of grandchildren. As for my grandmother being young and pretty, the thought was almost revolting. She often told us of the games she used to play as a child.

Word Meaning
Lot and lots So many, In large numbers
The thought was almost revolting Difficult to believe

The author thought that his grandfather could have only grandchildren. It was difficult for the author to believe that his grandmother had been young and beautiful. Grandmother used to talk about the games she played when she was a child.



That seemed quite absurd and undignified on her part and we treated it like the fables of the Prophets she used to tell us.

Word Meaning
Absurd Unreasonable, Silly
Undignified Unbelieving, Disrespectful, Ungraceful
Fables Short moral story
Prophet Saint, Representative of God.

Author thought that it was silly and unreasonable that his grandmother played games. He thought that these were the stories similar to other moral stories of saints told by grandmother. Actually he is not able to imagine that during those days she was a little kid.


She had always been short and fat and slightly bent. Her face was a criss-cross of wrinkles running from everywhere to everywhere. No, we were certain she had always been as we had known her.

Word Meaning
Criss-cross Full of, So many

The authors had always seen her as a short and fat lady. Her back was bent due to old age. Her face was full of wrinkles everywhere. We all were sure that the grandmother had always been like that only.


Old, so terribly old that she could not have grown older, and had stayed at the same age for twenty years. She could never have been pretty; but she was always beautiful.

She was so old that it was not possible to become older. Author wants to say that she was very old. She had been looking same during last 20 years. She could not have been attractive. But she was always beautiful.


She hobbled about the house in spotless white with one hand resting on her waist to balance her stoop and the other telling the beads of her rosary.

Word Meaning
Hobbled Walked awkwardly, Staggered
Stoop Bend, Kneel
Beads Small pieces
Rosary A string of beads, Maalaa in Hindi

She used to walk awkwardly in the house. She used to wear clean white clothes that did not have any spot. Her waist was bent forward. She used to keep one hand on her waist to balance herself. In other hand she had rosary (maalaa) to say her prayers.



Her silver locks were scattered untidily over her pale, puckered face, and her lips constantly moved in inaudible prayer.

Word Meaning
Silver locks White hair
Scattered Spread
Untidily Not organized, Not combed and tied
Pale Yellow
Puckered Wrinkled, With Folds
Inaudible That cannot be heard

Her white hair were usually not combed and tied. These used to spread on her yellow and wrinkled face. Her lips used to always move while saying prayers. She used to say her prayers in such a low voice that it was difficult to hear it.


Yes, she was beautiful. She was like the winter landscape in the mountains, an expanse of pure white serenity breathing peace and contentment.

Word Meaning
Landscape Terrain, Scenery
An expanse of pure white serenity White and calm looks of a person
Serenity Calmness
Contentment Satisfaction

She looked beautiful.  She looked  as white as a mountain looks in winter season. She looked like a white body moving with lot of calmness. She looked very peaceful and satisfied person.


My grandmother and I were good friends. My parents left me with her when they went to live in the city and we were constantly together. She used to wake me up in the morning and get me ready for school.

Word Meaning
Constantly Regularly, Always

I and my grandmother were good friends. When my parent went to the city to live there, I stayed with my grandmother. We were always together. She would wake me up in the morning and get me ready for the school.



She said her morning prayer in a monotonous sing-song while she bathed and dressed me in the hope that I would listen and get to know it by heart; I listened because I loved her voice but never bothered to learn it.

Word Meaning
Monotonous Not varying, Uniform
Sing-song Like a song
Get to know Understand
Learn Memorise

She said her morning prayers in a uniform tone. It was like a song without any variation in tone. She used to say her prayers while she bathed me and dressed me. She hoped that I would listen to it and understand the prayer. I liked her voice so I listened to prayer. But I did not make any effort to memorise it.


Then she would fetch my wooden slate which she had already washed and plastered with yellow chalk, a tiny earthen ink-pot and a red pen, tie them all in a bundle and hand it to me.

Word Meaning
Fetch To bring
Wooden Made of wood
Tiny Very small
Earthen Made of clay
Hand it to Give it to

After that she used to bring my wooden slate. Yellow chalk had already been applied to this slate. She would also bring my earthen ink-pot and my red pen. She would tie them together and give the bundle to me.


After a breakfast of a thick, stale chapatti with a little butter and sugar spread on it, we went to school. She carried several stale chapattis with her for the village dogs.

Word Meaning
Stale Old, Made earlier, Dry
Several Many

I had breakfast of a chapatti that was made earlier – probably on the previous day. Some quantity of butter and sugar was applied on the chapatti. Then together we went to school. She used to carry many old chapattis to be given to street dogs.


My grandmother always went to school with me because the school was attached to the temple. The priest taught us the alphabet and the morning prayer.

My grandmother always used to come with me to the school. The school was next to the temple. The priest used to teach us alphabet and the morning prayer.



While the children sat in rows on either side of the verandah singing the alphabet or the prayer in a chorus, my grandmother sat inside reading the scriptures.

Word Meaning
Chorus Together
Scriptures Books of religion, Religious books

All children used to sit in verandah of the temple. We used to sit in rows. Together, we would sing alphabets and prayers. My grandmother sat inside the temple to read books of religion.


When we had both finished, we would walk back together. This time the village dogs would meet us at the temple door. They followed us to our home growling and fighting with each other for the chapattis we threw to them.

Word Meaning
Finished Completed
Growling Making low sound of ‘grrrrr..’

After we both had completed our tasks, we used to walk back to our house. The street dogs used to wait for us at the door of the temple. They used to walk with us. They used to growl and fight with each other for the chapattis that we threw at them.


When my parents were comfortably settled in the city, they sent for us. That was a turning-point in our friendship. Although we shared the same room, my grandmother no longer came to school with me.

Word Meaning
Settled Lived decently, Established a residence
Sent for Called
Turning-point Significant change, A major change
No longer Not any more, Stopped doing something

After sometime my parents had established a comfortable residence in city. So they called both of us to the city. This was a major change in friendship between me and my grandmother. We used to stay in one room. But my grandmother now did not come to school with me.



I used to go to an English school in a motor bus. There were no dogs in the streets and she took to feeding sparrows in the courtyard of our city house.

Word Meaning
Sparrow Type of bird
Took to Started
Courtyard Open space in a house

I used to go to my school in a bus. My school was English medium school. There were no dogs in the streets. She started giving food to sparrows. They used to come in the open space of our house.


As the years rolled by we saw less of each other. For some time she continued to wake me up and get me ready for school. When I came back she would ask me what the teacher had taught me.

Word Meaning
Rolled by Passed, Went ahead

Years passed one after the other. Our discussion became lesser and lesser. During initial period she used to wake me up and get me ready for the school. When I came back from school she used to ask me about my studies. She wanted to know what my teachers had taught me.


I would tell her English words and little things of western science and learning, the law of gravity, Archimedes’ Principle, the world being round, etc. This made her unhappy.

I used to tell her English words that I learnt. I also told her about several principles of science. She was not able to understand anything. So she became unhappy.



She could not help me with my lessons. She did not believe in the things they taught at the English school and was distressed that there was no teaching about God and the scriptures.

Word Meaning
Distressed Unhappy

She could not help me in my home-work. She had no faith in what was being taught in the English medium school. She was unhappy that school did not teach anything about God and books of religion.


One day I announced that we were being given music lessons. She was very disturbed. To her music had lewd associations. It was the monopoly of harlots and beggars and not meant for gentlefolk.

Word Meaning
Lewd Indecent, Vulgar,
Monopoly Exclusively, Only for
Harlots Rouges, Not good people, Vagabonds
Gentlefolks Good people

One day I informed that we would be taught music in our school. She was very unhappy to know this. She thought that music is not a good art. According to her, music was followed by rouges and beggars. Good people should not learn music.


She said nothing but her silence meant disapproval. She rarely talked to me after that.

She did not say anything. But her silence conveyed that she did not approve of learning music. After that she talked to me on very less occasions.


When I went up to University, I was given a room of my own. The common link of friendship was snapped. My grandmother accepted her seclusion with resignation.

Word Meaning
Went up Moved ahead, Went to
Snapped Broken
Seclusion Loneliness
Resignation Defeat, Without objection

When I starting studying in University, I was given a separate room for me. The common link between me and my grandmother was broken. Now she was alone in her room. She accepted her loneliness without saying anything and without objection.


She rarely left her spinning-wheel to talk to anyone. From sunrise to sunset she sat by her wheel spinning and reciting prayers. Only in the afternoon she relaxed for a while to feed the sparrows.

Word Meaning
Sat by Sat near
For a while For a short time

Now, most of the time she was sitting in front of her spinning wheel. She did not talk to anyone. From morning to evening she sat near her spinning wheel. She said her prayers. In the afternoon, for a short time she used to feed sparrows. That was her only method of relaxing.


While she sat in the verandah breaking the bread into little bits, hundreds of little birds collected round her creating a veritable bedlam of chirrupings.

Word Meaning
Bits Pieces
Veritable Real ,Virtual,
Bedlam Uproar, Confusion, Lot of noise
Chirrupings Sound of little birds

She sat in the verandah to feed sparrows. She used to break bread into small pieces before feeding sparrows. Hundreds of birds used to sit around her. This created a real uproar of sounds of little birds.


Some came and perched on her legs, others on her shoulders. Some even sat on her head. She smiled but never shooed them away. It used to be the happiest half hour of the day for her.

Word Meaning
Perched Sat
Shooed Made somebody go away by saying ‘shoo”

Some birds sat on her legs while others sat on her shoulders. Some birds sat on her head. She did push any of them away. It was her happiest half an hour of the day.


When I decided to go abroad for further studies, I was sure my grandmother would be upset. I would be away for five years, and at her age one could never tell. But my grandmother could.

Word Meaning
Abroad Foreign country
Further studies Higher studies

I decided to go to foreign country for my higher studies. I was certain that my grandmother would be unhappy to know about it. I was going for five years. And nobody was sure if she would be alive till my return. But she knew that she would be alive.


She was not even sentimental. She came to leave me at the railway station but did not talk or show any emotion. Her lips moved in prayer, her mind was lost in prayer.

Word Meaning
Sentimental Emotional
Mind was lost Fully occupied

She did not show any emotion to know that I was going abroad. She came to railway station to see me off. But she did not talk. She was not emotional at the station. She was saying her prayers. Her lips were moving. She was fully occupied in her prayers.


Her fingers were busy telling the beads of her rosary. Silently she kissed my forehead, and when I left I cherished the moist imprint as perhaps the last sign of physical contact between us.

Word Meaning
Telling beads of rosary Say prayers with rosary (maalaa)
Cherished Liked, Respected
Imprint Impression, Mark

She was moving her fingers on her rosary and saying her prayers. Without speaking anything she kissed my forehead. I respected the moist mark of kiss as the last meeting with my grandmother.


But that was not so. After five years I came back home and was met by her at the station. She did not look a day older.

But that was not the last meeting. After five years when I came back, my grandmother received me at the railway station. She looked as old as she was five years ago.


She still had no time for words, and while she clasped me in her arms I could hear her reciting her prayers. Even on the first day of my arrival, her happiest moments were with her sparrows whom she fed longer and with frivolous rebukes.

Word Meaning
Clasped Hugged
Frivolous Superficial, Light minded
Rebukes Scold, Reprimand

She did not speak anything while she hugged me. I could hear that she was saying her prayers. Even on the day of my arrival, her happiest moments were with sparrows. She fed them a litter longer and superficially scolded them.


In the evening a change came over her. She did not pray. She collected the women of the neighbourhood, got an old drum and started to sing.

In the evening she was a changed person. She did not pray. She called women from our neighbour. She brought an old drum. She started singing and playing that drum.


For several hours she thumped the sagging skins of the dilapidated drum and sang of the home-coming of warriors.

Word Meaning
Thumped Beat, Struck repeatedly
Sagging Loose
Skin Material at the end of a drum
Dilapidated Worn out, Shabby

For many hours she was beating the skin of the old worn out drum. She sang songs of a warrior coming back to his home.


We had to persuade her to stop to avoid overstraining. That was the first time since I had known her that she did not pray.

Word Meaning
Persuade Convince, To make agree by appealing
Overstraining Getting more tired

We had to repeatedly request and convince her to stop playing the drum. We did not want to get her more tired. That was the first evening that my grandmother did not pray.


The next morning she was taken ill. It was a mild fever and the doctor told us that it would go. But my grandmother thought differently. She told us that her end was near.

Word Meaning
Taken ill Became ill
Mild Low
Her end was near She would die soon

Next morning she had become sick. She had low fever. Doctor told us that fever would soon go away and she will be alright. But she felt something different. She told us that her end was near and she would die soon.


She said that, since only a few hours before the close of the last chapter of her life she had omitted to pray, she was not going to waste any more time talking to us. We protested. But she ignored our protests.

She told us that only some hours were left for her death. She had not prayed last evening. She wanted to pray. She did not want to waste her time in talking to anybody. We objected. But she neglected our objection.


She lay peacefully in bed praying and telling her beads. Even before we could suspect, her lips stopped moving and the rosary fell from her lifeless fingers. A peaceful pallor spread on her face and we knew that she was dead.

Word Meaning
Pallor Yellow colour

She was peacefully lying in her bed. She continued to do prayer with her rosary beads. Before we could have any doubt about her condition, her lips stopped moving. The rosary fell down from her fingers. Her face became yellow. We knew that she was dead.


We lifted her off the bed and, as is customary, laid her on the ground and covered her with a red shroud. After a few hours of mourning we left her alone to make arrangements for her funeral.

Word Meaning
Customary As per customs
Shroud Cloth, Cover, Sheet

We lifted her from the bed and laid her on the ground. This was the custom and we followed it. We covered her with a red cloth. We expressed sorrow to each other for few hours. Then we came out of the room to make arrangements for her funeral.


In the evening we went to her room with a crude stretcher to take her to be cremated. The sun was setting and had lit her room and verandah with a blaze of golden light. We stopped half-way in the courtyard.

In the evening we went to her room. We put her on a rough stretcher to take her for her last rites. The Sun was going down. In her room and verandah there was shine of golden light. We stopped in the courtyard.


All over the verandah and in her room right up to where she lay dead and stiff wrapped in the red shroud, thousands of sparrows sat scattered on the floor. There was no chirruping.

Word Meaning
Wrapped Covered
Scattered Spread widely

My grandmother was lying dead in her room. Her body was covered by a red sheet. Everywhere in the verandah and upto her, thousands of sparrows were sitting. They were silent. They were not making any sound.


We felt sorry for the birds and my mother fetched some bread for them. She broke it into little crumbs, the way my grandmother used to, and threw it to them. The sparrows took no notice of the bread.

Word Meaning
Crumbs Small pieces
Took no notice Did not pay any attention

We felt very bad for the birds. We thought they had come to eat bread. So my mother brought some bread. She broke it into small pieces similar to as my grandmother used to do. She threw those pieces to sparrows. The sparrows did not pay any attention to the bread.


When we carried my grandmother’s corpse off, they flew away quietly. Next morning the sweeper swept the bread crumbs into the dustbin.

Word Meaning
Corpse Dead body
Swept Cleaned

When we started carrying the dead body of grandmother, the sparrows flew away. They did not make any noise while flying away. Next morning one of the helpers of the house cleaned the floor. He put all the crumbs into the dustbin.





Poet – Shirley Toulson

The cardboard shows me how it was

When the two girl cousins went paddling,

Each one holding one of my mother’s hands,

And she the big girl — some twelve years or so.

Word Meaning
Paddling To walk in shallow water
Some twelve years or so Of about 12 years’ age

Poetic Devices

When the two girl cousins went paddling, Alliteration
Each one holding one of my mother’s hands, Repetition

The poet is looking at a photograph that is printed on a cardboard or paper. In the photograph the poets sees her mother and two cousins of her mother. They had gone to sea shore and walked in shallow water. In the photograph they were standing in the shallow water. Each cousin was holding one  hand of her mother. At that time age of her mother was about 12 years.  Her mother was the eldest of the three girls.


All three stood still to smile through their hair

At the uncle with the camera. A sweet face,

My mother’s, that was before I was born.

And the sea, which appears to have changed less,

Washed their terribly transient feet.

Word Meaning
Still Not moving, Motionless
Smile through hair Used when hair falls on a smiling face
A sweet face A beautiful face, A lovely face
Terribly To a great extent
Transient Changing

Poetic Devices

All three stood still to smile through their hair Alliteration
All three stood still to smile through their hair Alliteration
At the uncle with the camera. Repetition
My mother’s, that was before I was born. Alliteration
Washed their terribly transient feet. Alliteration
Terribly transient feet Synecdoche

While my mother’s uncle had taken the photograph, all the three girls had stood motionless. They were smiling. Their smiling faces were partially hidden because of hair. Their hair had come on their faces because of breeze flowing at the sea-shore. My mother looked very beautiful. This photograph was taken before the poet was born. The sea has not changed much since the photograph was taken. My mother has changed a lot.


Some twenty — thirty — years later

She’d laugh at the snapshot. “See Betty

And Dolly,” she’d say, “and look how they

Dressed us for the beach.” The sea holiday

Was her past, mine is her laughter.

Both wry With the laboured ease of loss.

Word Meaning
Snapshot Photograph
Wry Amusing
Laboured With lot of effort

Poetic Devices

Some twenty — thirty — years later Alliteration
Was her past, mine is her laughter. Repetition
laboured ease of loss Oxymoron

Betty and Dolly are names of cousins of poet’s mother. After about 20-30 years my mother used to laugh at the photograph. She was surprised to see the dresses worn by herself, Betty and Dolly at the sea beach. Poet wants to say that dresses worn at the sea beach have changed a lot since then. Sea beach holiday was my mother’s favourite pastime. And I enjoyed laughter of mother most – meaning that company of mother was most valuable to me. We both liked our favourite activity. After death of my mother we are not able to enjoy our favourite activity.  I make lot of efforts to bear the loss of my mother and try to remain at ease.


Now she’s been dead nearly as many years

As that girl lived. And of this circumstance

There is nothing to say at all.

Its silence silences.

Word Meaning
As many years Same number of years

Poetic Devices

As that girl lived. And of this circumstance Alliteration
Its silence silences. Alliteration

Now the mother is dead since last twelve years. (As many years means the same number of years. In the beginning of poem it is mentioned that age of mother at the time of taking photograph  was 12 years) And her daughter, the poet, still alive. In this situation I do not have anything to say. I have nobody to speak to. There is total silence around me.



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