I sit here trying to read SuperFreakanomics and how the U.S. addressed polio, only half concentrating when she asks if I’d like to listen to the radio. The electricity has been turned off by the City, I am fighting mosquitoes and tell her politely that I’ve got music on my cell phone. She pretends not to hear me. Or, maybe she actually didn’t hear me. She has gotten hard of hearing since I last saw her two years ago.
She sits down. I insist she sit on the couch, rather the futon, since it has a backrest. At 81, she is no longer as strong, physically, as I remember her being, growing up. She sits quietly, fiddling with her old radio. “V maam (uncle) got it for me,” she says with pride. “He gets me whatever I need. He’s always inquiring about my needs. He still remembers how lovingly I raised him. He hasn’t forgotten that,” she says. I smile. I’ve heard this before.
On the air waves, amidst static, the radio gains some coherency. The songs are in Kannada. I don’t quite understand the language anymore. “I listen to the radio on the rare occasions that I come here since my TV doesn’t work,” she tells me. Satisfied with her tuning, she leaves it on for my pleasure and goes inside the kitchen to complete some chores.
Suddenly she pops back out. “I hope the music isn’t annoying you,” she wonders. “Not at all, Mamama.” I assure her just as I hear Kunal Ganjawala singing Bheege hont tere in Kannada. WOW! That guy can really pretend to sing quite well in Kannada!
Slowly, the dull but potent smell of kachua chaap macchar agarbatti fills my nostrils. I almost stop breathing. I say nothing. With electricity turned off and mosquitoes all around the otherwise beautiful garden surrounding my Mamama’s house, a garden she has nurtured as lovingly as she raised me for years, the inconvenience of a mosquito repellent is something you just have to accept in stride.
Mamama returns after her chores and starts to narrate stories of random people I neither know nor care for much. I listen. Patiently. The content of the stories does not matter. I observe my Mamama. Her gracefully wrinkled face, her bushy eyebrows, the creases that bracket her mouth, her contagious smile that reveals her broken front tooth… My Mamama is gorgeous. She is the most beautiful grandma in the world.
Suddenly she remembers that she’s stitched more dresses for her great grand-daughter, my niece, and asks me if I’d like to see them. Of course, I would. I feign enthusiasm. I’d rather just savor this conversational moment.
Then quite suddenly she asks, “What do you DO over there?” She doesn’t need to explain what she means. I know she is inquiring about what I eat and not what I do for a living. She is proud of the fact that I am a professor. Growing up in Mangalore, lovingly locking her hand in my hand, she had once walked me to school everyday.
Unable to teach me English, she had dragged me to a family friend’s house at age 3 for tuitions to ensure I was taught English the right way. Once on our way back from school, I remember her excitement at seeing a ripe mango on a tree. She kept jumping and throwing stones at the fruit until the stone hit the branch the ripe fruit was on and fell off the tree. We brought it home, she rinsed it, and I snacked on a fresh-off-the-tree mango. I was 3 or thereabouts but I actually do remember sitting down to eat that mango by our old and rusting metal desk and devouring it. How many can lay claim to that kind of a mango-eating experience?! ? I know her question means she is concerned about my diet.
I live by myself in Chicago. Personal life being in relative shambles, my food intake has been kinda all over the place. I try explaining the concept of frozen meals. She wonders if those are healthy, after all, they have been prepackaged for the long haul with extended expiration dates. I am impressed she has that kind of an insight for someone who had never heard of frozen meals before our conversation. I try convincing her, only half assured myself, of the wonders of eating frozen meals – limited portion sizes, variety, and so on. She doesn’t buy it. Her concern over my eating habits is quite apparent in the deepening creases on her forehead.
“Are you still on the 20th floor?”
“The lift must take at least 30 minutes.”
“No, Mamama, barely five.”
She looks surprised and suspicious.
“You live alone” she says, rhetorically, a statement and a question.
She sighs, her four fingers on her right cheek, her thumb under her chin, concern writ large on her face.
“Whenever I think of you living all by yourself, I feel weak in the stomach,” she tells me, almost not wanting to reveal her worries.
“It’s okay, Mamama. It’s a safe place. Nobody can enter into my apartment without the doorman first confirming their visit with me. I’ve reconnected with an old school friend and both he and his wife have embraced me into their friends’ fold. It’s all good, Mamama. I may live alone, but I am not lonely,” I declare, perhaps more for my own benefit than for soothing her fears.
“How much is your rent?”
I calculate in rupees and tell her.
“That must be almost half your paycheck,” she guesses correctly.
I try to sell her the features of the building; doorman, swimming pool, dry cleaning, gym….that doesn’t seem to impress her very much.
By now the lights are back on. We open her steel cupboard. Out comes a cloth box with carefully folded little apparel that she has hand stitched for my niece. Simple stitches with gorgeous designs that would put a professional to shame; intricate handiwork that would embarrass the biggest of fashion designers. I pick up each dress, each pair of shorts, pants, and skirt, and admire every one of her pieces. I am genuinely impressed and amazed at her enthusiasm and commitment to making these beautiful pieces of clothing for Dee. They are beautiful.
I am skeptical though. My niece is almost five. She probably has her own tastes in clothes by now. Growing up in America, will she appreciate these dresses -simple yet pretty hand-stitched clothes, with more than a healthy dose of love, care, and tenderness? I hope she does. She is, after all, her mother’s daughter, her grandmother’s grand-daughter, and her great grandmother’s great grand-daughter. Truly grand!
Just then, I spy a lizard on the wall. I am momentarily distracted. Creatures like these!!! I don’t remember the last time I saw a lizard. I complain their lot.
Mamama explains that lizards are good. They serve a purpose. “They eat spiders and other bugs”, she tells me.
I fold each piece of clothing back carefully. She refolds them. I smile, quietly. I have my own way of folding clothes and get annoyed when people don’t fold them the way I like. Clearly Mamama has her own style of folding clothes. Perhaps, I get this odd quirk from her.
(TO BE CONTINUED)
Read Part II here.
This is Part 1 of two-part series of posts about my Mamama that I handwrote 7 years ago and later typed. These were written in the format of brainwriting by suspending active thinking and simply writing. I produce the text as is, only corrected for clarity and grammar.