Images of Paati

A string of adjectives, no matter how long or how flattering would never do justice in describing paati, my paternal grandmother. Jaya paati, Madras paati, Mandaveli paati and eventually Thirunvanmiyur paati was multifaceted beyond my ability with words. Instead, I will try to list of assorted, random images and memories that will hopefully combine to portray the quintessential paati.

Descriptive Images
1. When she thought something was really good, Paati’s superlative of choice was to say that it was “Firsht class.” A lot of us grandchildren, well-intentioned and a tad bit insensitive, would correct her and get her to pronounce it right. “Firsht illa paati, First.”
2. Paati attempting to converse with my wife Rupal in English. “How are you?” she’d always ask with her trademark a smile. One of paati’s regrets in life was that she never learned English.

Paati’s Past
3. Paati once told me how mortally fearful she was of her father-in-law in the initial years of her marriage. (Apparently, he got angry very easily.) For lunch and dinner, he would be seated on the floor and she had to serve him, and she was petrified at the thought of dropping something, or doing something to displease him and incurring his wrath.
4. One of her daughters was going to get married. Somebody had made a remark to the effect that paati had connived to get the alliance arranged and the remark had eventually reached paati. I still remember how agitated she was, with the remembered hurt. “Perumal sathyiama solaren, Prasad. Naan appadi yellam nenaikka kooda illa.” It was a lesson for me, that some harsh words can hold their sting even decades later.
5. “Andha naalu maari varadu illa, Prasad?” (Paati seeking my reaffirmation, recalling with nostalgia my school and college days)
6. “Andha naalu maari varadu, Prasad.” (Paati in a more assertive mood, making a declarative statement about the same time period.)

Remembrances and Nostaligia – Paati in my past
7. Back when we were living in Orissa, in Bhubaneswar (pre-1979), going to Madras once or twice a year (LTC to native place) was the highlight of our lives. With each passing day, as the trip neared, our anticipation reached a fever pitch. To me, Madras meant so many things and so many people, but it all centered around one person – paati. To me, she personified Madras.
8. It must have been right around 1980. Raghu Chithappa was getting ready to leave for Germany from Thiruvanmiyur. He was the very first person in our family to venture abroad. I remember paati and Raghu chithappa discussing what he should take. We’ve all come a long, long way in 25 years, and going abroad is nothing more than hopping on a flight these days. But I cherish the excitement of those innocent days.
9. Whenever I see an empty wallet, I am reminded of paati. Once, I had received a new wallet. (Might even have been from her.) “You should not have a wallet with no money in it,” she said, went inside and got a 10 Rupees note and made me keep it in the wallet.
10. Once, in Thiruvanmiyur, I fell violently sick. I don’t remember what caused it, or why I was there, but all I know is that I was running high fever and was coughing unstoppably and was staying the night there. Seeing that lying flat brought on bouts of coughing, Paati made a stack of 6 pillows and advised me to lean rather than lie down. When my coughing got brutal she would bring me glasses of hot water to sip. All night long, paati took care of me.
11. And that’s another thing I remember about Thiruvanmiyur – the sheer number of pillows that would be stored in the second bedroom. At certain occasions, when the festivities had to start very early in the morning, several athais and other relatives would descend to stay there, and Paati wouldn’t bat an eyelid. Have dinner, and when it’s time to get some sleep, grab a pillow.
12. When I was in IIT, our classes got over right around 4 pm, at which time we would head to the hostel for evening “Tea” – in my case coffee and whatever snack was on offer for 1 Rupee. On numerous occasions, on a whim, right after having my coffee I’d leave my hostelmates to play soccer and cycle off to Thiruvanmiyur. I could count on paati being there (thatha too, but he never said much) and I’d just hang around the flat for the evening. On those rare days when Hema Athai came back from work early, I might see her. But typically, on weekdays, I cycled back to the hostel in time for dinner.
13. A related memory: In late evenings, Paati and myself sitting side-by-side in green rattan easy chairs in the balcony in Thiruvanmiyur, craning forward over the wall, waiting for Hema athai to show up after work. (Paati would sometimes indicate that she was worried about athai’s future, and I’d ineffectively try to tell her that she was worrying too much.)
14. God, I must have bicycled the route from my campus’ Tharamani back gate to Lattice bridge and Thiruvanmiyur flat at least a couple of hundred times. No offence to thaatha, but I know that I visited them so often mainly because of paati.
15. When I was studying in Buffalo, NY, (early 1990’s) before email became the norm, I’d get letters from Thatha and Paati once every few months. Thatha’s letters would be undecipherable, and paati would write to me in Tamil. It usually had the latest news from Madras and wishes for me. I always found it interesting that she signed it Jayalakshmi, not paati.
16. Towards the end, to my knowledge all she wrote repeatedly in her dairies was “Sri Rama Jayam.”

Things I wish I hadn’t done
17. I wish I hadn’t harangued her about her silk sarees. I would ask her questions like how many she owned, why she needed so many, how many of those she wore more than a few times. I know my questions couldn’t have made her happy, and she’d often make a statement to the effect that she was going to stop accepting sarees. (People would buy her sarees for every important festive occasion, and when one has as many relatives as paati did, the number of sarees do add up.)
18. My brother was preparing for the Civil Services exam. I had come to Chennai, and there was a lot of commotion in the house. “Let Jagan study in peace. When we are talking, we are disturbing him,” I had said. What I had said was true, no doubt about that. But paati was a little offended by my implication that she was disturbing him.

Things I am glad I did
19. A few years ago, I began to realize that paati may not be with us for too long. (More importantly, that I would only get to spend very little time with her, since I lived far away.) I treasured my interactions with her, making it a point to ask her questions that I knew I may not get to ask too often and to take notes. (She was a willing interviewee.)
20. In one of my trips back in the late 90’s I videotaped her talking to the camera in Thiruvanmiyur. (Appa was also present for the recording.) I know I have the tape somewhere.

What I didn’t see
21. Paati’s difficulty at having lost her mother when she was merely 9. It hurts to lose her (my grandmother), and so I wonder it must have been like for her to lose a parent when she was merely 9.
22. Paati ever mentioning that in her early years money was difficult to come by. (Though I know this to be true)
23. The tough paati (based on Appa’s kamarkattu story involving himself and Chooda Athai). I only got to see the affectionate side of her.
24. Her ever getting really angry. The farthest she went was to chide me gently if there were things she disagreed with.
25. I was never ever made to unwelcome, though there must have been times when my presence must have been an intrusion, given the number of times I showed up in Thiruvanmiyur unannounced. I am a little ashamed of it now, but in my IIT years, I didn’t think that way that. To me paati’s place was practically ‘my’ home, especially since my parents were staying in Bombay at the time.

26. I tried thinking back to my very first memory of paati. It involves eating, as do so many other memories of paati. In the first memory that I can recall, they were living in 14, Mari Chetty street in Mylapore. I was in 2nd class, so I must’ve been 6. We’d see the ice-cream vendor walk into the street with his ice-cream trolley and run to paati. She’d come outside and buy us vanilla ice-cream – one stick each.
27. Another of my earliest memories about Mandeveli involves Kerala Bakery, not very far from paati-thatha’s place. All these years later, I cannot recollect the specifics though I know that we went there to buy sweet buns on some mornings. Thinking about it now, it seems that we were kids who were annoyingly hungry.
28. Some stories get told and re-told and thereby get polished a little with each telling. I don’t know if this particular one is apocryphal or really true, nor do I recall if paati told me this or Raghu Chitappa. When chithappa was quite little, one evening almost nearing bedtime, paati suddenly remembered that it was his birthday. There hadn’t been a celebration of any sort. What she did next is vintage paati to me: She handed him a banana for his birthday. “Indha Raghu, indha vazhapazham saapidu.”
29. A classic image: In Thiruvanmiyur, having up to half-a-dozen grandchildren (and at times her children) sit around her, while she dropped these huge balls of sambar rice with a pinch of vegetable curry into our outstretched hands. (Sometimes we would have to skip our turn because we hadn’t yet finished gulping down the previous round. The quantities she brought from the kitchen in the ever-silver basin would always seem obscenely large, but I don’t recall a single occasion when we didn’t polish it all off.)
30. Ramesh and I walk into paati’s place. What’s there to eat, we ask her. I think there’s some appalam & vadaam in the thookku she says. Ramesh knows to look in the top shelf of the bureau by the fridge. Enna Paati, this is several weeks old, he tells her. We are hungry so we decide to try some anyway. In fifteen minutes the old, oily vadaams and applams are all gone.
31. Paati asking me if I wanted dosai no matter when I showed up. It seemed that she always had dosai dough in the fridge. Paati made these white and very soft dosais, very different from the crisp ones we get in restaurants. Over the years, paati’s dosais are the ones that come to mind whenever I hear the phrase “set dosai”
32. Back when my parents were living in Bazullah road, amma had had a stroke and I had gone there to help out for a few days. I remember that I was serving paati dinner, and after taking a very small quantity she waved her hand saying she had had enough. I don’t usually insist on serving more, so I started to put the food away. Hema Athai, much more attuned to paati than me, saw what was happening and asked paati, “Innum konjam pottukariya ma?” To my surprise, paati willingly agreed and said “Seri, konjam pooram podu Prasad.” I guess she’d been expecting me to ask her and insist that she eat more.
33. Over a lifetime of cooking I guess we all develop signature dishes. To me, Kirni pazham salad is one of paati’s. She’d take a cantaloupe, peel and dice it, add loads of sugar and chill it. I’ve never heard of it before or had it since.

Assorted Vignettes of Paati
34. Paati going on all-India tour. If I am remembering it correctly, Thatha did a shorter version and returned to Madras. Paati, being paati, went for the full package. I think she went with one or two relative friends of hers. Varanasi, Badri/Kedar & even Nepal were all part of the itinerary.
35. Image: Paati saying “nooru” (100) with that guilty-sheepish smile on her bespectacled face, in the card game “Mail” when the scorekeeper would ask for her points. Nooru because she’d failed to garner even a single set.
36. Of obvious pride to both paati and thatha were the many achievements of Santhanam chitappa. But paati would also often worry about the stress of Chitappa’s job and the constant demands that were placed on him. (Avanukku thaan evalavu kashtam illa?)
37. One day, when I was in Thiruvanmiyur, a peon from Santhana chithappa’s place came over. He’d gone to a nearby library and had come to deliver two bound Tamil books for paati to read. I was amazed that in addition to all the magazines that she was reading, she also wanted books. After the peon left, she looked at the books and said, “Ayyo, edha poi kondu vandhu irukkane. I’ve already read these books.”
38. The visit to Australia was her first and only trip out of India, Nepal notwithstanding. I’d seen the video-tape of their trip at Raghu chithappa’s place. For a while after her return, she’d talk about the trip glowingly.
39. One memory from what she narrated: On her way to Sydney via Singapore, paati’s seatmate on the plane had suggested that she take the bread roll that had been served with the meal and keep it in case she needed it later. If anyone had suggested that to me, I would have acted on it. But paati had rejected the suggestion outright. (Aye-yi-yah, andha varandu-pona bread-a poi yaaru surutippa?) Listening to her, I was reminded that my grandmother still had a touch of the imperial impulse in her.
40. She must’ve told me many many things about the trip to Sydney, but this one detail I remember. She was talking about a fruit-and-vegetable market that Chandra chitti had taken all of them to. I could vividly picture it my mind as paati described all the peppers, apples and bananas colored bright green, red and yellow. (Yeppadi irukkum azhagu azaghaa)
41. Interestingly enough, for someone as easygoing as paati, she had a lot of quibbles with thatha. I guess no marriage is whole without it.
42. One image from Thaatha’s shatabhishekam in 1997: Both of them shivering after being doused outdoors in cold water, with everyone photographing that and me thinking that this dousing was rather brutal.
43. Paati and I never discussed money, at least not as far as I can recall. All her children had long ago crossed the point where money was ever a real concern. It was actually a matter of mild amusement to me that she got a pension of a couple of thousand rupees every month. One day, while talking to me, she said “In whichever household I stay, I make sure that I give them a thousand rupees a month.” For some reason, she’d wanted to share that with me.

Little Mercies
44. Paati brought up eight children, got to see them all succeed conventionally, with not one of them having to really worry about money. She also witnessed a whole gaggle of grandchildren grow up, and she even lived to see four of her great-grandchildren. All in all a long life and a full life – which is something to be very grateful for.
45. Towards the end, I wasn’t there nearby. (To my eternal regret, she passed away three weeks before I had planned to arrive in Chennai.) However, even I know what a great gift it is to die without protracted suffering. She wasn’t in the best of health, but she was in the hospital for only 3-4 days and then the end came fairly swiftly. For that mercy of fate, I feel very grateful.

46. She’d sometimes express to me her anguish at the premature loss of two of her grandchildren. She’d make a tch sound and say “Andha pasangala vittutu, nambala yeduthukka koodadha indha bhagawan?”
47. I had this impression of paati being the strong matriarch who’d brought up eight successful children. So, it was a revelation to me to see that in the last 2-3 years, after thatha’s passing, she wasn’t that same person anymore. Moving between her children’s homes was taking its toll, to a greater extent than I would have guessed.
48. It was disheartening, seeing her will to live seep away, gradually at first, and at a more accelerated pace especially in 2006. In my phone calls to her, she’d say “Ivalavu vayasu aayiduthu. Innum edhukku irukkanum? Poitta thevala, illa?” I’d try to make a joke of it, laugh a little louder than needed and tell her not to talk like that. (Yen appadi ellam pesare paati?)
49. We are not a very demonstrative, hugging family. I don’t think I ever verbalized to her how much she meant to me. However, I also know that she must have known this. In addition to everything else, paati was quite sharp.
50. For the last few years, whenever I took leave of her to return to Chicago, paati would reach out and hold my forearm, choked up with emotions. I think she knew, like I did, that any one of these goodbyes might be our last.

To me, my paati was truly a firsht class individual. The number of people who love us unconditionally to a fault, completely overlooking all of our own faults, can be counted on the fingers of one hand. This December, with paati’s passing, I lost one of them.

December 2006