My grandmother (in-law) has turned 91. This is by no means any kind of eulogy because while she might know where the exits are, she’s far from making her way over to them. Every time she thinks it’s all getting too much and it’s her time to go, something extraordinary happens to her that reaffirms her zest for life. While she may be plagued by her own demons, as we all are at times, her latter years seem to be peppered with these bizarre events that almost make her “youthen”. Something like that happpened on her birthday couple of days ago.
She is affectionately called Duchi by us but known as “ammuli pacchi”, (“pacchi” meaning grandmother in Konkani) by everyone else and she has many many people who wish her well. She lived in a large family, looked after by uncles, aunts and cousins as her own mother died when she was very little. She lived in Burma for the early part of her life as her father, a doctor was posted in British Burma. The story goes that her mother wanted to rescue a cow or the calf of a cow that was due to be slaughtered for its meat by the British. She kept that cow as her own and the day she died, the cow ran away and was never to be seen again.
Duchi is pious and simple and loves children and animals, especially cats. She was a maths teacher for many years. She’s a rather unique person – kind and gentle, almost idealistic. She’s lived in an ashram living a life of quiet devotion and guiding younger people. She’s “adopted” many young people who still at their ripe old age of 75 remember her. She’s briefly met Gandhiji on a crowded railway platform. She was very active in the Independence movement. Despite her humble spirituality, she has this rather bewildering, slightly disturbing fascination for Shah Rukh Khan. Like a teenager, along with pictures of her children, grandchildren and gods/godesses/gurus, she has pictures of Shah Rukh Khan in his various avatars. The lady continues to baffle me.
She is a fantastic cook and has divulged many a Konkani recipe to me so that her grandson (the DH) can still enjoy her cooking through me. Plus she knows I love to cook too so we share a genuine love for food. Sadly age and being a bit unstable on her feet keeps her away from the kitchen these days. Her cooking style reflects her personality – simple, wholesome and homely with bags of flavour yet not at all showy. While she may not have the sight required for the intricacies of sewing, she still can read and avidly she does. Although 91 she walks only with the assistance of a walker with a little wicker basket of flowers, needle and thread and odds and ends hung on to it. She gets the occassional heart flutter and severe angst about her purpose and what’s it all about but she’s mentally all there.
I really admire that as devout and spiritual as she is, she never imposes her beliefs on us. She’s gentle and accepting of the fact that things have changed around her but somehow she isn’t angry about it. For instance, she knows that we all eat beef and meat in general, it’s even on the table along with her dishes but she has this ability to accept that not everyone is like her or shares her beliefs. She could have been belligerent and angry about her views as a lot of old people tend to become but that’s not her style. She’s even still so up to date and wanting to learn from the world around her. In one of her letters to me she says,:
“The Higgs Boson discovery has revived my interest in the atomic nucleus. It is truly very interesting. Everything has come late in life to me and it takes double the effort to retain what I have read.”
Not all people at 91 would be concerned about scientific discoveries that could turn the meaning of life upside down. The other day she said that the DH and I were made for each other, “…and made for each other in this house with me there”. She refers to our whirlwind courtship while the DH was back from Russia and I from London. We had no chaperones apart from the old grandma in the corner room who kept a quiet, watchful and surprisingly approving eye as our romance bloomed. Later she told me that the reason she did not interfere or object to us spending all that time alone together was because she knew there was something special happening around her. I don’t think that even our parents were as unconflicted as she was.
She loves her grandchildren, the DH and his sister dearly. She told me that the happiest time in her life was looking after her grandchildren when they were little and the unfettered love they showed her. In fact, the name Duchi comes from when the DH was little and he used to call her “doosri amma” which means second mother. This got shortened to Duchi. The DH says that the one thing that can take him back in time to the happiest moments of his childhood is the smell of steaming hot white rice, watery yellow dal, ghee and konkani vegetables that used to permeate Duchi’s house and only her house.
Old people are a treasure chest of stories and it’s almost odd to think of what they were like as children. “What was “it” (the world) like back then?”, “What were you like?” we love to ask her. Duchi tells a story of how when she was a little girl, in the days of British Burma, there used to be a ‘Christmas Train.’ This train would pull in to stations of different towns with the carriages filled with presents. Children would get on and be able to choose any one present, for a standard amount , like 2 or 4 annas. They would make their choice by touching the present with a wand. The presents were wrapped so you didn’t know what you were getting. Duchi’s brother’s chose their presents without much thought but she laboured and agonised over her decision. Finally she chose the biggest wrapped up box that she could see, high up in a corner that even the wand could barely reach. She proudly took it home and consumed with excitement, almost paralysed with anticipation began unwrapping the box. Inside was another box, then another, then another. And each box became smaller and smaller. Finally she was left with the smallest, tiniest little item – a doll. She cried. According to her, she learned from a young age never to want for more. She also learned about kindness because her elder brother felt so bad for her, he let her play with the toy train that he got.
Later on in her life, during the horrors of post-independent India, circa 1948 massacres and rioting prevailed in Calcutta where she lived; Muslims looting, raping and killing Hindus (although the reverse was also happening around the country) there came a time when despite all of this communal violence the Muslim dhobi who worked in their Brahmin neighboorhood said that her Brahmin baby girl (the DH’s mother) was no longer safe and that he would look after her as his own until the rioters who were coming door to door had passed through that area. I don’t know for long the baby was given for safe-keeping but it’s such a perfect illustration of the bonds between ordinary people when religion is not the defining identity.
When my grandfather who lived with us would go to the cooler Nilgiris to stay with his daughter for a few months, he used to write me letters while he was away. While I don’t remember what we wrote to each other about I have very fond memories of the experience. He had thin white onion skin letter writing paper and a blue ink fountain pen. He had all manner of stamps and inlands tucked away in there. He’d write to his retired buddies from the Gurkha regiment and sometimes the letters would come back – that meant the chap was no longer in the world of the reading. In his red leather address book, that man’s name would have a little a red “X” next to it.
When I was speaking to Duchi on the phone we came to the topic of letter writing and she was bemoaning the fact that no one wrote letters anymore, how the postman was someone one looked forward to. Just like in the R.K Narayan story ‘The Missing Mail’ in Malgudi Days, the post man knew everything about his little community – whose son was abroad, who had graduated, who was in debt, who had received a marriage proposal, all through the correspondence and keen observation of the sender’s address and acted as silent caretaker of the residents. So I decided it was time to resurrect the practice of letter writing and since then we’ve been exchanging letters. I started by sending her an Inland Letter. Remember those? Well, the postman didn’t! There were only 5 left in the post office. And the one I sent her didn’t even reach. I’m sure she won’t mind if I quote from one of her letters. She has a fantastic turn of phrase. She says,:
“How wonderful of you stocking up on Inlands and writing to me just because I mentioned about the poor status of letter writing which at one time was looked forward to eagerly in every house and the post man was welcomed with a smile and a “thank you”. Now letters have been completely wiped off, taken over by emails. I think expressions of love and emotion have been pushed in to the background as perhaps old fashioned stuff.”
“Gayu , I am coming almost to the end of this page and I must keep a tight grip on my mind or else it will keep running riot; the Inland would have been better, it knows when to stop.”
For Duchi’s 90th birthday there was a BIG family celebration, one that unfortunatly we could not attend but there were so many people that showed up from all over the country that we would have been lost in the crowd. So for her 91st birthday we sent her a card and a book by the one man in Indian politics that she admires, Abdul Kalam, the 11th President of India. A dynamic man, who was one this country’s premier physicists and pioneered India’s missile and nuclear programme. The son of a Muslim fisherman who rented out boats, he came from very humble beginnings but his quest for scientific knowledge and his humanitarian bent launched him to the highest post in the land. His simple nature was not changed by the privilege of his post. For instance, he was the first President to come on board a submarine, INS Sindhurakshak. He actually climbed down the hatch, sat in a chair and asked that none of his security vet the people who wanted to speak to him. He spent more than an hour and asked that any of the crew come and speak to him freely. Sailors and officers each had a private audience with him. He hurried no one and they spoke of life and family and his views on the world. His books are incredibly popular and he is one of the most respected living Indians.
So we bought her a book called Children Ask Kalam which is a compilation of 300 random questions that children have asked him. She was so ecstatic when she received our gift. I guess it was so unexpected and apt that she appeared overcome with happiness and praise for our thoughtfulness. It wasn’t the gift so much as we had thought of her was all she needed. Two days after the euphoric conversation we had with her, she called again saying, ‘Who do you think I met the other day?” I hadn’t a clue. Turns out that she actually met Abdul Kalam the day before her birthday. It so happened that the stars were perfectly aligned and Abdul Kalam was visiting the CMC Hospital Vellore (the alma mater of both our families) where the DH’s sister and husband continue to work, to give an oration in honour of the founder of the hospital and college.
The DH’s sister managed to sneak Duchi in to the small room for this very private gathering and requested the College principal that she get her book (the one we sent her) signed and maybe even shake his hand. Kalam’s security refused as this nonagenarian had not been vetted. But Kalam over ruled them and said it was fine. Duchi was hurriedly bundled in to a wheelchair and was about to be wheeled over to Abdul Kalam when he said that he would go over to her instead. The former President of the country, a decade younger than Duchi, went over to her, shook her hand, signed her book and they shared a few words and even posed for pictures. As you can see, Duchi is absolutely beaming. This is such a unique opportunity and to happen for her birthday is quite unbelievable. On the flip side, the DH and I had been totally upstaged – all we got her was the man’s book, the DH’s sister got her the man himself! A few days ago she was actually packing up her room, preparing for the inevitable she said. Our very astute and sharp witted domestic help, Julie said, “amma, isn’t it a good thing you didn’t finish your packing and go off or else you woulnd’t have met Kalam.”
The day of her birthday, the day after she met Kalam, she was planted in front of the telephone because the phone was ringing non-stop. All the calls were for her. She said to me, “When you are young, you get tons of birthday cards, you expect them to come, you take it for granted. But when you are old even one phone call, one word of love and kindness you cherish and keep close to your heart.”
Romanticising old people or growing old would be a mistake. From the outside looking in, it’s easier to appreciate an old person. Living with and looking after an old person day in, day out, is another type of bedpan We have this incredible tradition or acceptance of duty/ ‘dharma’ in India of children looking after their elderly parents in their own home. No one said it was easy though. Despite this tradition of ours, old people are not always treated with respect, especially in villages but not exclusively so and suffer abuse and neglect at the physical and emotional level. I admire those who do look after their aging parents. The day to day management of old people is a very tricky science and it’s left up to relatives to figure it out for themselves. My mother who is somewhat of an expert in geriatrics (the branch of medicine that deals with the care of elderly) is trying to extend her knowledge on the subject via her blog which I hope she revives. In fact, the physical needs of the elderly are easier to take care of but what old people really cherish is someone to talk to, company that does not belittle them and to be remembered. Do we always have time for that? This is not something that family members can often give. There’s an NGO in Vietnam called Thien Binh which brings together orphaned children and the elderly, who have both been abandoned by their families. Residents range from a few months to 87 years old. The elderly feel needed and the children’s youth gives them new life. The children learn from the old person’s wealth of knowledge.
Sadly the value of older people is lost on most young kids – the type of people who can learn so much from what an old person has experienced. The zeitgeist of the elderly can be out of step with young people. I remember when I was a kid, around 4 or 5 yrs old getting so bored by my grandfather’s repetition of the countless stories about when he fought/was a medic in WW2 in Java, Burma and Quetta. But when I got older and started learning about world history I started to see the value of his experiences. It was a bit too late and now I wish I had asked more questions. One day my little niece and nephew will probably see the value of their great grandmother and regret all those questions they wished they had asked her and all those stories they should have listened to. That’s just how things are and always have been.
Perhaps I warm to her so much because I don’t have the responsibility of her day to day care. Perhaps I am nostalgic for the time I knew my grandfather and regretful of the time I may have squandered with him. Also, I never really had grandmothers in my life. One died 6 years before I was born and the other lived at the other end of the country and spoke a language I didn’t. I can count the number of times we met. This was before the days of air travel, STD calls and emails. Perhaps it’s our love of food that draws me to her. Perhaps it’s because I know just how dear a place she holds in the DH’s heart. Perhaps it is because I am now older that I can appreciate just how special she is.
From Shakespeare’s As you Like It, I now must quote:
The sixth age shifts Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon, With spectacles on nose and pouch on side, His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice, Turning again toward childish treble, pipes And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all, That ends this strange eventful history, Is second childishness and mere oblivion, Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything
Duchi is still far from “sans everything”. Right now she has everything – a loving family, grandchildren, great grandchildren and she’s realised her dream of meeting Abdul Kalam. One would think that at 91 there’s not many chances left to roll the dice, not many more opportunities to fulfill your dreams. How wrong you’d be. “So grow old with me, the best is yet to be”