Thursday, July 28, 2011

An Ode to My Achamma

       It is never too late to write about her, I think. About my grandmother. Achamma. Father's Mother. Paternal Grandmother. But it is. And the Truth stares me in the face. That it has already been 2 years since she passed away. Since she died. And that she will no longer be there, hovering around me, touching my hair, now, then my face, mumbling about evil-eyes being cast, grumbling why I do not grow my hair long, praising my eyes here, my nose, the little admonishments that only a beloved grandchild can receive.
       She was old as far back as I can remember, even then, 25 years ago. Gnarled and wrinkled and slender with a flat stomach and a willowy figure, the last two which, thankfully, I have inherited, or so people tell me. Ancient, with the fragrance of the herbs and aromatic oils wrapped about her. 
       My first memories are of her in the old kitchen, bent over the 'adup', blowing into the flames with a coil. The smoke never seemed to bother her, and I was always amazed at the dishes she would conjure out of those holes in the ground like my mum called them, much later, much much later. 
       Acchamma had studied till the 2nd grade and since then, had looked after her siblings (1 sister and 2 brothers, all younger to her). She had come to Gujarat as a bride, married to my grandfather, but then returned to the large ancestral house when my father was born. My grandfather was a always in a new and foreign place. He fought in the British army during World War II, like my great-grandfather(his Father-In-Law) did during World war-I, went to Rangoon, Singapore, Ceylon and many other places. So Achamma was left alone for the most part. Not alone in the strictest sense, having been with her siblings and their families, while my father studied in Gujarat for some time and then returned to do his engineering in Kerala. But mostly she was away from her husband and it was not a big deal those days. People got married because they had to, because the elders thought they were ready to produce children. She brought up dad amidst a medley of children, women, and old people. The men were all in Ahmedabad, where my grandfather had got them jobs. So she stayed with the women.
       I do not know why I'm writing this. I guess it is because talking about the riots helped to take off a load from my mind. And I hope this will too. Because of what we did to her in her old age. Because of what we did not give her, even though, day and night, she pined for us and we refused to give her company. The guilt sits on me, my family like a suffocating cloud of some deadly, poisonous gas. A heavy cloud that chokes me whenever I remember her. She grew old and bent and her feet turned inwards and at night she had her knees giving her trouble. So much that in the last 3-4 years, she could barely walk. Grandfather and she lived all alone in that huge ancestral house, and we were away in Ahmedabad. First because of our studies, we couldnt go to Kerala every year. Then I moved to Bangalore and my brother to North India, my parents still working in Ahmedabad - things were so hectic. So we went to visit them in turns. And each time she would lament when she would see all four of us together I wished I was selfless enough to spend more time with her than the 20 days in a year, that too divided between my mother's house and father's house. The last time she had seen us all together was almost 8 years ago. 
       Hoping that she would have something to do in her spare time, we brought her a T.V which she never learnt how to operate, and so would wait for grandfather to switch it on after dinner. I tried to teach her, but she was so self-conscious and she believed that she could never learn it, because of which she never did learn it. Grandfather sold his house, the one where he had brought her as a bride to, because she inherited her father's house. So grandfather held that grudge, that he had to leave his own house and stay in his wife's house. It was all a pretence. He actually hated her brother, who would keep asking her for money and which she would pass on stealthily. This was a habit, people loved her for and often took advantage of.  
       In those days, as even now, albeit less, Nairs being the second most important caste after the Namboothris, had their own set of rules and customs. My grandmother was born into one of the most important Nair families in the village, and therefore she was brought up in that way. When she would step outside, the servants ran ahead, shouting out to warn the others that 'Thambraati' was on her way to this place or that place, and so the low-caste people would hide away, to let her pass, keeping a distance as even their shadow was not supposed to fall on her retinue of servants and maids. She would hold the wooden parasol to cover her face from the men. She told me all this in detail, on many a star-spangled night when it was too hot to lie inside the small wooden recess that was her bedroom. She told me how, the women then, were locked inside a room while they were menstruating, and how her first blood was sprinkled on the fields to bring prosperity. All this she told me. How women were supposed to always be one step behind their husbands and listen and behave as the 'maryada' of the house was in their hands. How until about the 90s, the low-caste women and men in the village still maintained a distance from her, and never looked at her while addressing her, always with hands bowed and gaze lowered. And yet, never once, did she force my mum or me to give up our western clothes. In fact she had never asked us to change anything, savouring the fact, instead, that we were both, my mum and I, independent women. Like the time, when, a relative asked her, 'My daughter had 2 kids at the age of 25, why is Shilpa still unmarried?' and she had answered, haughtily, in her Nair way, 'Because at the age of 25, Shilpa was busy buying her own car bought with her own money, doing a job, instead of producing children and sitting at home!'...She was uneducated, yet fiercely independent, ignorant, yet modern. 
       And yet, we had no time to call her up everyday. 5 minutes every Sunday was what we allotted her. That was it. Through all this, we withheld what was rightfully hers. The right to spend time with us. The right to comb her fingers through my hair, the right to teach me how to manage a household, or why it was important to pray to God. She was deeply religious, yet she accepted my being an agnostic, without any questions. If she could not make me go to the temple, she would send money with the passersby, to have them take 'Pushpanjali' in our names. Once I wore a 'pattu-pavadai' for her and put jasmine in my hair and a bindi, and she was so delighted, she clapped her hands and said I looked like a goddess. 
       I wish, I had been selfless enough to stop thinking my job was my life, and instead spend more time with her. But God had thought otherwise. 2 years ago, while I woke up all excited that it was my birthday, she died. Quite suddenly. She had had a heart-attack, we suspected, and she had simply fallen on her way to the bathroom at 5 in the morning. Grandfather had rushed to her side, but she was lifeless by then. No suffering, no agony, no pain. I hope for the last two atleast. And just like that, on the day of my birth, she passed away. What use were my tears then? I heard the news on my way to office, and I still went to work for strangers. I could have taken the flight to Kerala, but no like the true Dharamraj, I went to office, and then took the evening train, by the time I reached there the next morning, I could only see the urn containing her ashes. I was too late. This time too. 
       And now Grandfather stays alone, guarding that 100 year old, ancient, huge mansion for a house, looking forward to our weekly calls, or the occasional visitor. Atleast, I hope, he will enjoy his rights with his family. Us.


Sneha said...

may her soul rest in peace..I am sure she is watching you and always with you

Kunnu said...

We realize somethings are more important only when the moment is gone. I do feel lighter now...

Swetha said...

You've written a wonderful tribute... a totally moving post...

Shilpa Nair said...

Thank You, Sneha, Swetha, and Kunnu - for your kind words. And yes, kunnu, What fools we are to run after material things, when the most important thing of all, the love we are entitled to, are bypassed without so much as a second glance.