Part 2: Snapshots
I am ~2 years old. My grandmother carries me to the playground and puts me atop a rocking horse. Patti swings near and far as I rock on. It gets dark, we have to go home. I don’t want to stop . Paati lifts me onto her chest as I heave and sob. I rest my head on her shoulder. The cloth on her shoulder is soft and smells of Ponds powder. I feel better.
I am ~2 years old. My grandmother is in an animated conversation with my mother, and has me on her lap facing her. I attempt to catch that speck of light that is reflected off her solitaire nose stud, on her alabaster-skinned cheek. When I touch the speck of light, it disappears. I take my hands off her chubby cheeks, there is the speck again. I squeal and my grandmother laughs along.
I am ~4 years old. I am seated in the first row of concentric semicircles of children of all ages, facing a man with paan-stained lips and pattai on his forehead and the drone of a sruthi box in the background. I turn to see paati sitting outside the semicircle, in her trademark 9-yard saree and white blouse, smiling at me – the teacher had just said to her that I have inherited her singing voice – she is so proud. I sing the second sarali varisai with the mob. Next thing I remember, paati is waking me up after the class to take me back home. “Its ok if she sleeps”, I hear her voice through the sleep-addled brain, “she’ll still be exposed to music”.
I am ~7 years old. My mother is chiding me for not getting full marks in Math. My grandmother scolds her “let her be. Its only marks, not life.” and drags me away to give me Bournvita. I can’t decide which is worse – my mothers scolding or having to drink Bournvita.
I am ~9 years old. I return from school. Mom is away at the old-age home in which she volunteers. Paati brings a plate of hot rice upma and coconut thogayal. I throw a tantrum about how much I hate rice upma and why can’t I have something better to eat when I come back from school. Her face falls.
I am ~10 years old. We are at my uncle’s wedding. My grandmother makes me sing “Bhavayami Raghuraman” to some random relative, sitting on a stair that leads to the groom’s room, away from the crowd. I am embarrassed about her bragging, but I sing the long-long song to the relative, who, for some reason, is paying attention. “She has purity of notes and perfect rhythm ..she is your grandchild after all” the relative says. The same proud look on grandma’s face that I caught in my first music class.
I am ~12. I panic at the red in my underwear and bring it straight into the kitchen to show it to my grandmother. My mother is taking a shower. My grandmother is ecstatic and hugs me, then realises what she has done, asks my mom to get the hell out of the bathroom to shower herself. I feel irritated that she needed to bathe for having touched me. And my stomach hurts.
I am ~13 years old. My mother is throwing up in the sink. My grandmother is straining to hold her head. I can see the worry on her face. “You’ll be ok you’ll be ok” she repeats to my mother.
I am ~14 years old. My mother is in surgery for eight hours. Not a sip of water passes my grandmother’s mouth as she sits on a hard bench outside the surgery and chants “Sai Ram, Sai Ram” continuously.
I am ~14. It is 3 AM in the morning. My mother is gasping for breath. My grandmother runs to the backyard, picks Tulsi leaves (Basil) to put into my mother’s mouth and chants “Narayana Narayana” into her ears as her soul departs.
I am ~14. “How can you leave your mother and go, Malathy?” my grandmother wails as my mother’s body is borne away. The only time I have seen her raise her voice and cry. I shed my first tear at that moment.
I am ~15. Grandfather is on life-support. Grandmother has to make the decision to take him off. “Tell me what I should do, LG”, she looks up at me, “I will accept whatever you say”. I ask her to send off my grandfather with dignity. She complies without another word, and does not mention this ever again.
I am ~20. My father is out of town on business. I get a call from IIT, accepting me to the Masters’ program that is difficult to get in. I drop the phone, hold on to patti’s shoulder and dance a jig. “I am going to fall down” she yells.
I am ~22. I can’t wait to get out of home. Out of the country. To new life, new lands. Grandmother waves me goodbye at the airport with the same trademark smile. I wave, turn and walk away to my new life.
I am ~26. I return to India after roughing out terrible economic depression in America. She is at the airport to receive me. She is hunch-backed and wrinkled. But her seven diamond ear studs and solitaire nose stud wink at me, as she smiles her welcome smile. I bend deep to lay my head on her shoulder. The cloth on her shoulder is soft ad smells of Ponds powder. I feel better.
I am ~30. I have had my first date with my now husband, in Washington DC. That night, I call home to tell my grandmother “he is just like you, paati. Slow, steady and calm”. “You need someone like that to ground you”, she says. She is right.
I am 31. I wake up from anaesthesia, as new year breaks, to a howling child. I turn to the direction of the noise. A really old woman is seated in a plastic chair with a wrinkled, screaming little banshee held on her lap. She croons endearments to the baby as the baby calms down. For the next many months, the baby stops crying instantly when paati carries her. It bugs me at times, but I am largely happy to get a crying baby off my chest.
I am 35. My four year old sings “varaveena” completely out of tune. The great grandmother is in throngs of ultimate joy – “how beautifully she sings”.
I am 38. “Why don’t you talk to me more often?” She asks. “I talk to you thrice a day, paati…what more do you want?” I scold her. “You are always scolding me”, she tears up. “Stop it paati.” I scold more. This repeats often for the next few years.
I am 41. “Buy me a nightie that I can wear easily. I am unable to wear saree any more”. I can feel my heart break.
I am 43. “Your brother-in-law had come” she says of my uncle. “Paati, he is not my brother-in-law, he was your daughter’s brother-in-law – he is my periyappa”, I am exasperated. She does not get it. Her dead daughter and live granddaughter have merged in her consciousness.
I am 44. She is semi conscious in the hospital. I ask the nurse to remove her breathing mask just long enough to smear some chakkarai pongal that I made for Pongal festival. Her lips are dry and chapped but she licks the morsel of chakkarai pongal from her lips. She was never one to refuse sweets. She is my grandmother after all.
I am 44. I am asked to drop a handful of rice over the face of the dead woman. I remember the times she has fed me, the dishes she has made, the upma for which she has been chided innumerable number of times, the kashayams she has forcefed me when I was sick.The dam breaks, I double up right there and cry for the woman, who would never make me Bournvita or rice upma ever again.