Remembering Jaya Paati

Memory is a strange and funny thing. As you get older, memories become less sharp, less vivid. A lot of details get fuzzy, hazy, jumbled. Sometimes you may not remember what was said, but you do remember how you felt when you heard it. You may not exactly remember how a certain thing played out, but you remember someone’s expression at a moment.

Memory is also subjective - how you remember an incident is not how someone else might. And often, what stays is significant to you and sometimes, only you.

When I remember Paati now, not as many stories come to mind. It’s actually quite lovely to hear stories from others and refresh my own memory. A particular dialogue, a hilariously accurate description of a circumstance, a signature set of reactions - perfectly captured through a story, and many in the family have that amazing quality of storytelling. They have the ability to enthrall you, crack you up, make you feel wistful through their retelling of family stories. (I do not have this ability - which is odd, given my choice of communication and storytelling as a profession).

But when I think back and rely on my own memory, I realise that I don’t remember as many complete stories about Paati anymore. The memories have taken the form of some small details, which have stuck in my mind. Over the years, I’ve tried to make sense of a few of them, and understand why these fragments are significant to me.
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Her smile.
Whenever I saw Paati, she was always smiling. Granted, I saw her only in the two months of summer vacation + one month of Diwali vacation that allowed us to travel from Bombay to Madras. Luckily, all the cousins had holidays at more or less the same time, so all of us would descend on the Thiruvanmyur flat, together. Her face seemed to have set into a smile when the house was full of her kids and grandkids. Paati’s wrinkles were formed around a smile.

A few years ago, when I caught my own expression reflected in a mirror, I was surprised to see that my eyebrows were set in a frown. Existential angst aside, how had this happened? Sometimes when I catch myself frowning, I remember Paati and her smile, and I make it a point to relax my face a bit.

The way she sat on the balcony.
When we would visit the Thiruvanmyur flat, we could see Paati as we pulled up - she would always be sitting on a chair up in the balcony, reading a magazine, spectacles perched on her nose. She would then stand up and wave at us as we unloaded, and make her way to the front door as we made our way up the stairs. She made it a point to wait in the balcony for us, on the dot, each time. It was such a lovely welcome, each time.

When we stayed in the flat, I would see Paati spend her spare time in the balcony. She would be reading, yes, but she’d also watch the surroundings, be mindful of the sounds, watch the birds, see who was coming into and leaving the building.

I see my mother sitting now in the balcony of our house - and it’s so similar. Reading the magazine, yes, but also one eye on the entrance walkway towards our house. Observant, mindful of everything around her while reading her articles and doing the crossword puzzle. I realise that Paati has left a lot of her in Amma, and it makes me smile.

Her particular scent.
Jaya Paati carried this strange, familiar, comforting mix of sandalwood, turmeric, talcum powder and tiger balm on her (I may be missing some other additions, but this is what I can remember that aroma as). You could smell it on her skin, in her clothes, even in the cupboards of the Thiruvanmyur flat. After she had been in the kitchen, the pungent smell of masalas would briefly be added to this mix.

A few weeks ago, I had slightly pulled something in my back. As I was treating it after a hot shower, I suddenly realised I had concocted a known smell. Sure, the pure turmeric paste was replaced by Vicco Turmeric (nahin cosmetic), Santoor talcum powder was replaced by Shower-to-Shower, and Tiger Balm was replaced by Moov Relispray - but that mix of aromas was decidedly familiar. I suddenly remembered the Thiruvanmyur flat. I remember the sadness I felt when I heard that it would no longer exist. I don’t even exactly remember the last time I was there or why. But this strange generational cocktail of smells took me back there for a second.

The Indian way of expressing love is to ask ‘Have you eaten?’ And Paati was no different - we were all fed, and how. There was always food, and eating was such a ritual. When it wasn’t meal time, there were snacks, and there were always bananas. Bananas are Nature’s packaged healthy snack, and they were always in plenty at the Thiruvanmyur flat.

So it became quite common for Paati to ask everyone if they wanted a banana in the evening. Every evening. I don’t remember/can’t count how many times I have heard Paati ask ‘Vazhaipazham venuma/sapadriya?’. I would mostly say no, only to relent when she would tell me that it was tasty, or it is healthy.

This ‘Vazhaipazham venuma/sapadriya’ seems to now be a family greeting, and it continues to this day. I have heard/continue to hear it in almost every house in the family. And each time someone says it, I remember Paati.

Her penchant to hoard things.
This, of course, has been made light of in many ways - through many stories and jokes, told and retold. I had earlier dismissed this as just an odd behavioral tic - some people were hoarders and that was that. However, a few years later, I came across a very interesting article about this phenomenon and it led me to these lines, that really struck me -

“It’s possible that this need for stuff comes from a place of never having had enough before. There's a sense of loss when migrating, and holding onto things can be comforting. Throwing things away can seem wasteful. It still represents some 'value', simply because of the fact that the thing exists.”

Paati had a hard life, she’d seen many things, and had experienced a lot of change. I had never really considered this before - that the objects represented something. Maybe it really was a reaction to a difficult time? Maybe it was a sense of comfort? I tried to make more sense of it, read more - then I came across these other lines on the subject from another article -

“What we choose to keep is often tangled with memories from a moment in time. What we have is where we’ve been, what we’ve felt, and what and who we may have loved and perhaps still love, and so the sentimental in us might be keen on hoarding – keeping something to hold on to, something to remind us that we were once there.”

And this suddenly made more sense to me. Paati remembered every detail associated with every single thing in the house, where it was from, who gave it, why it was given. It could have been a significant event, or a very small, mundane thing, but she remembered it. She kept all of it. All of her life was worth remembering.

May 2021