Madras Paati, the quintessential grandmother

Radika with her Madras paatti and others including Chinmayi, singer

Over the past year, I have thought about Madras Paati often. During the lockdowns, I have learnt how housework can be a Sisyphean task. Dirty dishes pile up faster than they get cleaned and cooking is enjoyable only when it is not an everyday chore. During these hectic moments, I have sometimes paused to imagine Paati in a small house in Pollachi cooking every day for eight children and bundling them off to school. In later years too, she got no respite: dozens of us grandchildren would not think twice before piling into the Thiruvanmiyur house every other Sunday. But Paati never complained; this was never drudgery for her but a labour of love. Paati was the quintessential grandmother – a disciplinarian for her children but lenient with her grandchildren, indulgent, smiling and affectionate.

But she was also much more than that, I realised much after her passing. She was a strong woman, often stubborn, fiercely independent, and remarkably capable. Whenever she took a break from being a mother, wife and grandmother, she would actively pursue her many interests. Paati was always curious about the world and so it was natural that she was a voracious reader. She would read piles of Tamil books, often borrowed from the airy library in Shastri Nagar down our road, as well as several newspapers.

She was deeply religious. If we ever looked worried, she would comfort us with, பகவான் நம்மள பார்த்துப்பார் Bhagwan nammala paathupaar (God will take care of us). Alternately, if she was unhappy, she would say, பகவான் ஏன் நம்மள இப்படி சோதிக்கிறாரோ? - Bhagwan yen nammala ipdi sodhikiraro?(Why is God trying us so?) She would pray both in the morning and evening and write a hundred Sri Rama Jayams diligently in her notebook every day. She loved mythology and enjoyed watching the Mahabharatham that played for years on television every Sunday afternoon.

Paati was also very competitive and loved playing games. She was my chess teacher, a cards lover and a skilled carom player. After endless games of chess during hot summers in the Thiruvanmiyur living room, one day I beat her. I vividly remember that day – both my joy and Paati’s unhappiness. Her face drooped, as it would sometimes would, like a sulking child. As my performance got better and better with every game, Paati slowly stopped playing with me. Over the years, I forgot all the rules of chess and I never played with anyone else.

I remember the Thiruvanmiyur house as a weekend getaway. I would sit in the balcony there next to potted plants and watch the buses go by. Paati would come and sit with me, hand me a glass of Horlicks, and always be sympathetic when I complained about upcoming tests and exams. Thaatha would next to the window in the living room staring into the street and fanning himself.

I remember the kitchen, stuffy and hot, overflowing with people, with Paati at the centre of proceedings. A bowl of ripe bananas would always be placed on the dining table. I remember the fridge that was always full of food, some dubious-looking snacks, and my favourite drink, Rasna. I remember the two bedrooms – one where I preferred taking afternoon naps with the balcony door open and the other where all of us cousins would play carom or cards while crunching on vadaams. I remember the elaborate meals of hot saambar and rasam, vegetables, and applam and vadaam that Paati would prepare painstakingly with help from my athais. Just two hours after these heavy lunches, Paati would fill our plates with dosais and molaga podi. In the evening she’d give us a drink – Rasna or Horlicks or Bournvita or Ragi malt. Thiruvanmiyur was where we had large family gatherings; it was where I grew to know my cousins. It was where Paati would press little balls of food into our palms in the evenings; it was where she would regale us with stories.

After Thaatha passed away, Paati moved in with us for some months. I learnt more about her eagerness to stay independent as well as her stubbornness, especially when we bought her a walker and a hearing aid. Paati refused to accept these aids; she thought they were indignities. She thought the walker, which she would disdainfully call சுழி- chuzhi (zero/useless), was a crutch, even a hindrance. She would conveniently forget to use it. If reminded of it, she would use it grudgingly, only to abandon it halfway during her walk. I remember one day when I was sleeping in the same room as Paati. She went to the bathroom and either slipped and fell or lost her balance and sat down on the floor. She called out to me once, she told me later, but I was fast asleep. I realised a little later that Paati was missing and panicked. I opened the bathroom door and saw her mournfully sitting there, just waiting for someone to lift her up. She was a little more inclined to use the walker after this incident, but hated it nevertheless.

She shared the same relationship with her hearing aid. When Thaathaa was at home earlier, he also slowly grew hard of hearing. It amused me greatly to watch the two of them have elaborate “conversations” at the table. Neither could hear the other but they would still talk to each other and even laugh. Thaatha had a cute, gentle laugh and a frighteningly loud sneeze, while Paati would laugh in an unrestrained manner, her stories always incomplete because laughter would get in the way, a trait I see in Chooda athai and Appa.

Despite her traditional upbringing, Paati could be quite modern. Once, as a teenager, I hesitantly wore a short wrap-around skirt that looked like a kilt. I knew Appa wouldn’t approve of it but someone had gifted it to me and it looked smart and felt soft. I walked out of the room in it and a black tee shirt, afraid of Appa’s reaction. As I expected, he frowned, but before he could say anything, Paati asked, இந்த ட்ரெஸ்ஸோட பேர் என்ன? ரொம்ப fashionable-ஆ இருக்கு! - Indha dress oda peyar enna? Romba fashionable aa irrukke!(What is this dress called. It is quite fashionable).

At home, Paati would spend her mornings talking to all her daughters. She would ask them what they cooked, whether the house help came. Even as she grew old, Paati wanted to be kept abreast of everything that was happening, whether with her children and her grandchildren or around the world. In the evenings, she would sometimes ask me to sing. She loved Carnatic music and her favourite song was குறை ஒன்றுமில்லை - Kurai ondrum illai. At night, she would eat dinner, sometimes sneakily putting some pickle on her plate, which she wasn’t allowed. And she would fall asleep while praying, though she would never admit it. சும்மா கண்ணை மூடினேன் -Chumma kanna moodinden. (Just closed my eyes) she would say if I caught her nodding off on her prayer book.

Of all my grandparents, I spent the most time with Paati. She was the only grandparent I really knew and I cherished the times I spent with her. I remember Vidya would often say, “Paati is so cute!” Beneath all the toughness, Madras Paati was indeed cute, but she was also much more to me. I am glad I spent time with her, knew her closely, and that she lived a full life.

Radhika Santhanam
May 2021