A Letter to my Ammamma

Dear Ammamma,

For someone who was named Omana (meaning ‘beloved’), you had a rough life. Growing up as a neglected child with a distraught single mother, I imagine you craved the structure and security of a ‘normal family’. Was that what drew you and Baba together – the mutual need for a family?

Whatever the reason, I’m glad you both got married. I’m thankful you were my grandparents. I don’t suppose I ever mentioned it but as a child, I considered your relationship my ideal of a good marriage. Growing up with you meant that I didn’t feel my working parents’ absence as keenly or resent their jobs as much.

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I know that you thought Baba was the center of our collective affection but I don’t think you really noticed how much you meant to us. You were always there, tirelessly working to give your children, and their children, a sense of security. The first thing all of us remember when you’re mentioned is your legendary skill in the kitchen. You probably thought it was commonplace for women in your generation but that was far from true. Every meal you made was laced with love and still remains very hard to replicate.

You loved little rituals around festivals and we were scooped up into that enthusiasm. For Diwali, I remember carrying large trays filled with home-made sweets and savouries to deliver to neighbouring maamis. They were always made from scratch with not a shortcut in sight. Once delivered, the trays were promptly emptied into other vessels and refilled with more sweets and savouries from the maami in question. It went on in that manner as we delivered your goodies from one house to another.

Most Holi celebrations were spent with you meticulously scrubbing brightly-coloured, grubby grandchildren clean one at a time in the bathroom. I’m pretty sure each one of us required large amounts of oil and multiple rounds of shampooing to look like regular kids again. I can’t imagine what that did to your back.

The rituals weren’t just limited to special occasions. Lunch every day was a mini ritual of sorts. Four grandchildren sat cross-legged on the floor around a large plate where you served rice, curry, vegetables, curd and pappadam. You would mix the rice with curry and shape them into small balls, top them off with some form of vegetable thoran and place them in our outstretched little cupped hands from whence they were promptly stuffed into greedy mouths. We would sometimes talk about our day whilst doing this. You would listen to our silly childish experiences as if they were the only events that mattered. I distinctly remember one day I’d come home from school fighting tears because I had missed the chance to be the Head Girl for junior school (5th grade). I was passed over because my parents were relocating to Madras and I would be transferring to another school. Everything felt unfair that day and as I narrated my little-girl woes, hiccuping through tears, you both felt my disappointment as deeply as I did. I suspect only grandparents can do that.

You also made sure we got a healthy dose of discipline when required. I remember being admonished for taking a brush to my curly, unruly hair (the ritual was meant to be oil and comb) or for not concentrating on my daily Bharatanatyam practice. You expected more from me, both of you – academically and in terms of extra-curricular activities. Sometimes I wonder what either of you’d think if you saw my life as a 31-year-old now.

One of the worst parts of growing up is the mistaken assumption that life will wait while one sends that last e-mail or finishes that last item on the never-ending to-do list. I wish I had more time with you as an adult. I’m extremely grateful, though, that you were a part of my wedding. A couple of days before the wedding, I had been a basket of nerves over last-minute details. I feared the worst and there was nothing to do but go into foetal mode and bury my head in your lap. You patted my head gently in a reassuring rhythm and quietly told me not to despair. In retrospect, I think that’s all I’ve needed whenever I’ve felt anxious.

There’s one picture of us hugging on my wedding day which pretty much explains everything – all arms and fly-away strands of hair. No facial features visible, just a tight emotional embrace.

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Even when I saw you the last time a week before you passed away, the enthusiastic love hadn’t waned. I’ll always try to hold on to that memory of your eyes lighting up when you saw me. You almost lunged out of your hospital bed with your arms outstretched while I gingerly hugged you, afraid of dislodging the countless tubes. I suppose a grandmother like you wouldn’t give a hoot about being exposed to infection whilst kissing your grandchildren. We played a video message to you from Prakash. You tried very hard to speak back to the video, blissfully unaware of Mom and I trying to explain that it wasn’t a video call.

Your level of devotion to the family was rare. I’ve met very few people who kept that commitment unwavering despite some hard times. It requires a terribly resilient and forgiving heart, one that loves to laugh. And yet, on 9 January, that battered heart just couldn’t go on anymore.

From being a 15-year-old bride with breath-taking naiveté and beauty, you’ve made a long (and at times arduous) journey. I vividly remember stumbling across an old passport-sized photograph of a 16 year-old village belle version of you and being charmed.

There are many more memories lying buried in my mind. I’m sure they’ll resurface at some unexpected moment and tears will cloud my vision again.

I wish you could have stayed longer. I wish you could have met your great grandchildren. But you were overdue for a fresh start. I’ll look for you, instead, in a twinkling pair of eyes, an enchanting storytelling, a devout pair of hands folded in prayer, a pristine white sphere of melt-in-the-mouth rava laddoo, soft warm bear hugs, luxurious long hair, soft cotton sarees, unabashed noisy kisses and displays of unconditional love.

I hope we were able to show you at some point that you were the quiet, unflinching rock in our lives, the constant source of unconditional love.

Goodbye, beloved.

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