This day, exactly a year ago, my grandmother was admitted in hospital for breathing difficulties. I would never be able to forget the date because she was admitted on Bhogi (the first day of the 4-day festival of Pongal) and died on Kaanum pongal (the fourth day). The last thing she tasted in life was the chakkarai pongal I had made in a hurry last Pongal day, before heading to the hospital.
I will write for the next four days about my paati.
Part 1: A Biography
My paati was the last of four surviving children to her parents and was born in Thiruvanaikkaval near the holy town of Srirangam in 1929. She was the last to survive as well. Her oldest sister was gone long before I was born, her next brother’s funeral, I remember attending as an eight year old. The third brother, who died a few years ago, was estranged because his children married into the film industry (his two daughters were married to Y.G. Mahendran and “superstar” Rajini Kanth (a Tamilnadu equivalent of Arnold Schwarzenegger, if you will,)- which makes the two stars my uncles, even if estranged), which was considered a taboo in the traditional tambram community. My grandmother was heartbroken because this third brother was her favourite sibling.
Every time I read the phrase “peaches and cream”, I remember paati, because that is how she was. A glowing, rosy complexion that she had inherited from her father, it seems, and naturally red lips. Little wonder, she was addressed as “pattu” – silk, by her family; her real name being Padma.
My grandmother married my grandfather when she was 14 years old. My grandfather was 21 and was working in Southern Railways under the British rule and was posted in Tiruchirappalli at the time of marriage. But soon, his job took him all over the country, and the young paati, packed her bag and travelled with him wherever he went. It would be five years before she had a daughter – my mother. The travel continued after my mother was born, and they spent a few years in Calcutta, Simla and Bangalore before my grandfather got a permanent posting in Madras (now Chennai).
By now, my mom was ready for school, and my grandparents built the house (which is now mine), in the heart of T.Nagar and life was to continue with not much incident for the next fifteen years. Somewhere along the way, my grandfather’s mother was incapacitated and came to live with my grandparents, and it is said that my grandmother served her with utmost devotion as long as she lived, playing nurse to the bedridden old lady.
When my grandfather was about 45, tragedy struck. He lost his eye sight permanently, and could not work anymore. But since he had served for a sufficient length of time, he could retire with a handsome pension, and enough savings to get my mother married to my father, who was the son of his colleague in the Railways, and settle down to a quiet life in the home they had built. My grandmother, always a pillar of strength, never took this as a misfortune, and never bemoaned the blindness that struck her husband untimely, and carried on to the best of her abilities.
In due course, I transformed from intention to flesh, and became the apple of my grandmother’s eye. The earliest memory I have in life is my grandmother taking me to a park called “Somasundaram Park” and making me play on the rocking horse. I may have been two or three at that time.
But life, as they say, is a mixed bag, and tragedy struck again. My grandfather had a stroke and became bed ridden. I was around 4 at that time, and my parents decided to move in with my grandparents in order to help my grandmother run the house and take care of grandfather. Fortunately enough, I was admitted in a school close to my grandparents’ house and the move was made. For the next decade, my parents and grandparents lived together in a large house, helping each other through thick and thin. I grew, as they say, like a weed in the process.
The bag served a rotten fruit to my paati again. Her only daughter was diagnosed with cancer whens she was forty, and succumbed to it within months, before my grandmother could even realise what was happening.
In the Ramayana, it is said that the worst punishment to any human being is to see the loss of his/her child. I realised the truth of that the moment I had a child myself. I don’t know how my grandmother could bear the loss of her only child, but she did with fortitude and strength and took it upon herself to bring me up for the next many years. From the time my mother died, when I was 13, until last year, she was a surrogate mother to me, laughing at my joys, crying at my sorrows and being the pillar of strength that I cannot even imagine anyone being.
A couple of years after my mother died, my grandfather died as well. Again, the woman, not to be perturbed, went about her duties with no expectations of returns, and not a single whimper about how unfairly life has treated her. In fact, there has not been a single time when she has bemoaned the various losses she has faced in life. She sent me abroad with a smile on her face, when I flew the nest for higher studies. She took care of my widower father, like a mother and not a mother-in-law. My father continued to stay in the same house to take care of the now ageing grandmother. Their mutual respect is matter for another post and I will leave it for then.
When I got married, she accepted my better-half as a new grandson with so much grace. And I am glad that I saw that joy in her face when my baby first peed on her. She said “I’ve now seen everything, I am ready to go”.
She lived to see her great grandchild grow to a charming 12 year old. Despite her growing dementia, she would brag to anyone who would care to listen, about how wonderful her great grandchild is. Her sole purpose of the week became to wait for the weekend for her great grandchild’s visit.
She weakened in due course. Her lungs were not as strong as they had been. Her heart broke down and she survived 4 years on a 14% functioning heart.
The floods of December 2015 turned out to be her undoing. She picked up a lung infection after the floods, which worsened, and on January this date, last year, she had to be admitted into a hospital due to difficulties in breathing. Being always a fighter, she fought for her life for four days, but the call from her husband and daughter were perhaps too loud.
She slipped into eternal sleep four days later.
It is said that good souls would depart on the “uttarayanam” part of the year that starts with Pongal. She died on the second day of uttarayanam – little wonder.
I don’t know and don’t even want to speculate about what happens after death. All I know is that she lives on in my memory.