Read Part 1 of my tribute to my grandmother here.
I start to write this narrative after we put away the clothes. From the corner of my eye, I see her walk around the kitchen and the bedroom attending to minor chores. Soon, I see her with a broom walking into the living room where I am seated and writing. I jump to my feet. She has already turned off the fan so she can start sweeping the floors – an evening time ritual completed before lighting a diya (lamp) at the Tulsi plant in the garden and the photos and statuettes of the many gods and goddesses on her little temple stand on the shelf.
I scold her and start to pull the broom off her hands. For a moment, I am transported to the times when as a young girl, along with my sisters, we spent our summers with Mamama and helped her with minor, age appropriate chores, sweeping floors being one of them, even though she never liked us helping.
“You have to do this all your life once you grow up. You don’t have to start now”, she would say.
She reluctantly throws the broom on the floor. She is of the generation that believes brooms should not be handed into someone’s hands. I pick the broom up and start sweeping. I don’t remember the last time I held an Indian broom in my hand. It isn’t really difficult to get used to the “luxuries” one takes for granted in the U.S. – even something as ho-hum as carpeted floors that I can vacuum at my will or brooms with long handles that you can use to sweep, standing up.
One of the bulbs blows out. I replace the bulb with a Phillips 11w florescent light. Mamama has already followed me into the room with a torch (flashlight in American English). I wonder, as I have a few times in the past, how life would have been different for her, for me, for all of us, had I continued living here, with her in Mangalore, beyond the age of five. At what point would we have gone from her being my guardian to me being hers? Would life have been better or different for either of us, and by even my just writing it out, am I disrespecting and undermining the years of love, attention, healthcare, and shouldering of responsibilities my uncle has provided for her?
I live my cozy life in the U.S. unfettered by the realities that both (my Mamama and her sister, my uncle’s mother) my Mamamas face every day. Perhaps I even avoid calling them because I don’t want to hear stories of their ill health (even though they always protect me from bad news). Somehow I pretend those ills do not exist if I don’t hear about them. Makes me feel less guilty about being so helplessly far away. What a cold-hearted, insensitive, and shirky approach to life!
Time passes slowly around here. I sit and write. She walks around her house, happy to be moving about, her arthritis forgotten for the period she has her daughter, son-in-law and grand-daughter visiting. The smile on her face when she realized we were going to stay the night at her house instead of my uncle’s was worth a few thousand words at least.
“My grand-daughter, who has never had to lift a finger in her life has become so independent since she went to the U.S.,” she says with pride.
What she really means is that having grown up in relative privilege and under the adoring and overprotective attention of grandmothers on both sides and doting parents, and maids who usually did the sweeping, cleaning of dirty dishes, and laundry, we’ve never really had to work, work.
We only did some chores when we visited Mangalore because Mamama didn’t always have a maid. And so life continued. I never really minded working but I never voluntarily sought it out either. In the last 24 hours, I’ve swept the floors, thrown out dog poop (some random dog apparently found my Mamama’s doorstep an ideal location to drop poop), made the beds old-fashioned style – puffing the stuffed cotton evenly, heated food on the gas stove, served food, washed dishes by hand, put clothes out to dry on a clothes line, and changed a light bulb, among other little things. Life here is simple. It is uncomplicated by electronics.
For the longest time Mamama did not have a fridge. We borrowed ice from a neighbor when we visited over summer because we were accustomed to a fridge back home in Pune. She didn’t have a TV or a washing machine. She has all those conveniences now (except a TV that doesn’t work) but she barely uses them. Dishwashers continue to remain unknowns in India. Ill health has forced her to live with my uncle (seen in the picture above, her sister’s son) and his family. This once fiercely independent woman, glimpses of which are frequently obvious even now, is forced to be dependent on someone else and she doesn’t like it. She is a victim of her circumstances and she has quietly, albeit with some fight, accepted it.
“My entire life has been lived wondering and worrying about others’ feelings,” she tells me. Something, she has told me before. I’ve heard similar words from my mum as well.
“All my life, before saying anything, doing anything, I’ve always first wondered how the other person feels, what he or she thinks, what he or she will say, how they will respond and react…never had the freedom to express my true feelings.” I nod. I understand where she’s coming from.
She and my mum had a hard life, living with others, being dependent on some mean-spirited and unkind relatives for a roof over their heads. A single mother (Mamama became a widow at age 20 when she was pregnant with my mother), my Mamama worked her bones from dawn to dusk at her relatives’ houses just so they, mother and daughter, wouldn’t get kicked out. Not many relatives wanted to shoulder the “burden” of homing a young widow and her little girl. To understand the sociocultural nuances of the time and put them in context for those who can, I am talking about India in the 1950s. Hers was never to question why or complain about all the work she was made to do – draw water from the well, cook, clean, wash after the relatives and their army of children, for example. These realities are a narrative for another day…
Today, my Mamama is a little bent with age. She is a little hard of hearing. She repeats things she’s already mentioned a few minutes earlier. I am not the most patient person but I try to be, with her. I carried all her bags to the car this morning on our way to my uncle’s place.
“Where does one get grand-daughters like you, these days,” she compliments me while lamenting a newer generation, a generation that feels entitled to love without ever wanting to give anything back.
“You didn’t do any less for me when I was growing up, Mamama,” I say, with love and gratitude.
She doesn’t say anything. She doesn’t have to.
This is how I concluded my writing about her 7 years ago.
A few years later, I had the pleasure of introducing her to my husband-to-be, Aaron, and three years after that, I had the privilege of introducing my son to the woman who gave me a second life.
Mamama passed away on January 18, 2016, leaving us in death, just as she did in her life, a lesson of quiet dignity, overwhelming grace, and forgiveness. I miss you every day, Mamama. I love you.