“Get a cup of tea for Unni,” she said. I checked the flask. It was empty. I had only brought two cups from the canteen anyway. “There’s no tea.” Two minutes later, Ammoma repeated her request, only more earnestly. “Jayasree, get some tea for Unni.”
Jaya aunty walked to the counter, poured a glass of hot water from the flask into a steel tumbler, and quietly handed it to her husband.
“Here’s your tea.” He quietly joined in the charade. Ammoma smiled with satisfaction. Jaya aunty broke into giggles.
“That’s my mother… tubes stuck down her throat, and still she wants everybody to be happily fed.”
That was my grandmother, and she was bedridden in hospital at that time. She passed away a few weeks later, taking something deep and quiet from me. She was always like that… if someone came home at one in the afternoon, it was imperative that they be served a full course meal. Even when she was bedridden and could only take liquids, she had to serve her son-in-law tea. It amazed me how many people she looked after and fed horlicks and bananas in our neighbourhood. It was not just that everybody loved her. She loved everybody. Everyone got the same concern and affection, the milk-man, the survey inspector, her foreign-returned grandchildren.
It still feels not true. Maybe she is at Sudha aunty’s place for a few months and will be back when I go home for the holidays. It’s impossible to remember Mathrangot House without a crackling voice calling, “Dibya! Chareeka! Come for dinner, children!”
But how can I forget? Her last homecoming, in the dark hours of night, my mother, aunt and me sharing the tiny space in the ambulance? The touch of her cold skin when the time had come to bathe her before the last rites; and her fingers were locked tight? This was my grandmother, who had bathed me and fed me as a child, and now her fingers wouldn’t loosen! How do I forget the sight of her lying peacefully in the kolaai, bathed and dressed in a fresh set-mundu, serene as the morning dew?
I wish I could. I wish I could wipe those memories away. But I was there, when my brothers carried her on their shoulders out of her beloved home. My grandma had no sons to light her pyre. I turned back to look, one last time, as they crossed the gate; and then I could no longer keep up the pretense. I broke down and wept.
Few people shape you; fewer define you. And when they leave you realize that all the condolences people offer can do nothing to help. Ammoma was a part of my identity. For miles around her home people knew me as Narayaniammande perakutty. She wouldn’t understand my struggle to fit in. She spoke one language and though she claimed to have studied till class two, she never learnt to read it. Many a time I would venture to teach her, but the answer was always the same, “What will I do learning to read at this age?” Her age, by her reckoning, was a hundred and twenty years. It was always a hundred and twenty. If you countered that by simple mathematics, she could not be past eighty five; she would simply turn a deaf ear.
“Can I see her now?” I asked the nurse at the ICU. She touched my arm gently and nodded. How ironic, when the patient is breathing they have so many restrictions; and now they just wave you through! Ammoma’s bed was at the far end of the room. A white bandage had been tied around her head. Her fingers were clasped, like in prayer. Tears rolled down my eyes. What could I do? What could I say that she would hear? In the last few days, her left arm used to pain constantly and she would ask us to rub it. That moment, though it made no sense to anyone, least of all me, I rubbed her arm for her.
I remember the day I had returned from my convocation and I saw her lying in the hospital bed. She was so delighted to hear that I had landed my first job. I saw her sunken eyes, her gauntly face, and I wanted to give her a kiss on the cheek. But I didn’t. I was never one for grand shows of affection. She knew that. She would understand. But now her cheek is cold forever, how can I kiss it today?