When my dad was posted in Bhubaneshwar, he would book our tickets on Coromandel Express and take us to Madras, the part of the world that he considered home. He did this almost every year. In Madras, we would stay at my grandparents place, in Mandaveli, for the entire summer. It was during these extended stays that I got to know my grandma really well.
She had more than a dozen grandchildren and she treated all of us the same: with lots of love and affection. It always amazed me to see her mingle with us as though she was of our own age. She had given birth to and raised eight children herself, but the daily chore of attending to young (and perhaps unruly) children had not made her tired. This western concept of 'parenting fatigue' and 'burnout' was very alien to her. In fact, it was our presence in her home that gave her a lot of pleasure and joy. She would play chess, carom and cards with us whenever we invited her to join us. Her favorite card game was the mail, and she would be very upset if she trailed others in the final score, even if she was playing with an eight year old!
I got to see my grandma more frequently when my dad was later transferred to Madras. I must have been eight or nine years old then. We stayed at the P&T quarters in Ashok Nagar and my grandparents had moved to the M.I.G Flats (the apartments constructed specifically for the people in the middle income group!) in Tiruvanmiyur. During some of the weekends or holidays, I would take the PTC bus from near Udayam theatre and get down at the Taramani entrance of the IIT campus and walk to my grandparents' place. Back then I did not have the courtesy to inform my grandma that I was coming. I just dropped in when I felt like it! But she was always happy to see me. She invariably welcomed me with an affectionate, 'Vaa, Mukundh' There was an inviting smile on her face when she first saw me through the black and white grilled front door even as she opened it for me to come in.
Even before I sat down to talk to her, I would open her fridge to see if she had some cool drinks or goodies to eat. Often, I took more liberty with her than I could with my own parents.
'Here, why don't you have some plum cake that Mr. Paul, from upstairs, gave us. You know, it has eggs in it and your thatha or I cannot have it.'
'Is this the cake that Mr. Paul gave you for this New Year's or the last one?' I would ask, with a mischievous smile even as I was wolfing it down.
'Why? Does it not taste good?'
'Well paatti, I know you always have old stuff in your fridge, just wanted to know how old it is, that's all.'
'Enna ma, ippadi sollariye!'
I would hug her and both of us will laugh it off. She was delightful that way, because we could always make fun of her and she never seemed to mind it.
Once, while digging through her fridge, I pulled out a packet of really old palm dates. Then I turned to my older brother and commented that the dates were so old that they should, in fact, be called 'Carbon Dates' (a stupid pun on the scientific technique used to determine the age of really old fossils and relics).
My grandparents were a strange pair. My grandfather was very reserved and quiet while my grandmother was quite gregarious and jovial. My grandfather was also a man of simple routines. He would have his morning cup of coffee, read the newspaper, have his bath, pray to God, have his lunch, and then he would spread a mat on the ground, place a pillow on the mat, apply some Amrutanjan on his face, tie a towel around his head and tune out the whole world and go into a three hour nap! This amazed my grandma. 'Paru ma, it's been two hours since you came and your thatha has been sleeping without any awareness of what is going on around him!' she would say in a tone that betrayed some jealously. So when he woke up from his nap she would serve him a cup of coffee and send him off on some needless errand.
One day, when all of us, my brothers and cousins, were at Tiruvanmiyur, she served us a black, bitter drink after lunch that we absolutely hated.
'Enna paatti idhu? It tastes like kashayam!' one of us complained.
'Idhu Rasna, ma,' she told us.
'Yaru kitta paatti kadhu kuththara? Rasna is very sweet, this is not Rasna.'
'If you don't believe me, come with me, I will show you the bottle,' she said and took us to the fridge. She pulled out a Rasna bottle and showed us the label that had Kala Khatta written on it. In Hindi it literally meant black and bitter! We had always pictured Rasna as an orange or yellow colored, sweet-tasting drink and couldn't believe that the brand also made a drink in that peculiar flavor.
'Since all of you were coming home, I asked thatha to get a bottle of Rasna and look at what he brought back from the shop! The moment the shopkeeper saw thatha, he spotted a gullible man and sold him this flavor that no one else would buy. You know, there are such tasty flavors in Rasna, and all your thatha could bring back was this one!'
We emptied the drink in the wash basin and started laughing. paatti laughed with us, too. And my grandpa was taking a nap inside, oblivious to the happenings in the dining room!
No matter how many guests she had at one time, she made sure that she had enough to feed everyone. At times, when both my grandparents were taking a nap inside, we would surreptitiously raid her kitchen and walk out with murukku, thattai, tape, appalam or whatever else we could find. Once, when grandma was fast asleep, my cousins and I tiptoed into the kitchen and looked for things to snack on. But this time all the stainless steel containers were empty. She had been feeding us boys for more than a week and we had completely emptied all the munchies that she had kept for us. In sheer frustration we opened up the bottle of Horlicks and scooped out big spoonfuls for each of us to eat. When all of us had had a spoon each, the bottle was nearly empty! As we were screwing the lid back on to put the bottle back on the shelf, we dropped it creating a loud shattering noise. This woke up my grandma and she came rushing into the kitchen; we were caught red handed! When she arrived at the kitchen door, the scene was so absurd that some of us could not control ourselves and burst out laughing. There were puffs of Horlicks dust spewing out of our mouths as we tried to control our laughter and run out of the kitchen.
She had kept the Horlicks for my grandpa and Aunt Hema, who was staying with them at the Flat, but paatti was not upset! She never scolded or chastised us for that. In fact, she never even complained about it to our parents. She was quite remarkable that way.
My grandma was a pragmatic lady, too. She had a few simple guiding principles in life, one of which was:
குற்றம் பார்க்கின் சுற்றம் இல்லை Kuttram parkkin suttram illai
Loosely translated, it means that if a person were to find fault or criticize others, he will not have very many friends and family members around him to help. She liked this Tamil proverb a lot and quoted it often. And accordingly, she tried not to criticize others. She always gave others the benefit of doubt and had a friendly disposition towards one and all. She even treated her servant maid with affection and respect. Often she would serve the postman, Arumugam, some cold buttermilk on a hot summer day! Her neighbours eagerly sought out her company. There was an Iyengar boy on the floor above her flat in Tiruvanmiyur, who, after a stint in South Africa, had returned home with a black wife! This had shocked his parents and, in turn, the poor bride was shocked by the cultural differences between her upbringing and the orthodox ways of a south Indian Iyengar family. The girl would often come downstairs and spend a lot of time with my grandma! She hardly spoke a word of Tamil and my grandma understood very little English. But they would spend hours 'talking' to each other! Later, when the young couple wanted to celebrate the first birthday of their baby in style, but were worried about thin attendance, my grandma made sure that they had enough children for a grand party. Nearly ten of us cousins were more than happy to go upstairs, sing the Happy Birthday song, and have chocolates, cake and cool drinks!
As she got older, my grandma's health started to fail her in many ways. She had problems walking around freely and could not climb stairs. Her hearing was bad and she could not hear us over the phone. And she had to conform to a very restricted diet. Despite all of these, she had a cheerful outlook towards life. When she was with my parents in T.Nagar, she would make sure that she walked up to the computer for the chat sessions that I have with my parents every week. She liked these chat sessions because she could both see and hear my son, Keshav. She would always enquire about Prema and Keshav and request for more pictures to be posted on the web for her to see. She was delighted to see Keshav in person when we flew him all the way to Madras to celebrate his Ayush Homam. Unfortunately, the function hall was on the second floor, which made it very difficult for her to attend, as it was almost impossible for her to climb stairs. But, by sheer will power, and with the help of her sons, she managed to climb the stairs to the hall. Her face was beaming with joy when she held the little one in her arms.
I was told that she had a picture of Keshav in her prayer book till the very last day. I was nearly moved to tears when I heard about this. Her love and affection was so pervasive and all encompassing! My only regret is that Keshav is perhaps too young to remember his great-grandma who loved him so much. But when he grows up, I am sure he will be happy to see this picture of his great-grandma (see above) who lived eight thousand miles away, in India, but derived joy by taking a look at him everyday when she prayed to God!