‘Grandmother is dying,’ my mother told me as soon as soon I entered the house.
I was visiting after eight years and had travelled a long way from home to get here. And yet, here was my mother, not asking me about my journey or about her grandchildren. Instead she chose to tell me about an impending death. That too about a woman who had been threatening to die for the last eight years.
Grandmother, or Ammama as I called her, the mother of the mother, was eighty four, eight years ago. I had just turned thirty. Our uncle with whom grandmother lived at that time had called me in Dubai, ‘Ammama is dying,’ he said sobbing. I was eight months pregnant with Diya then. My mother was with me to see me through my last month of pregnancy. She wanted to go to Kottayam, to be with her mother when she died, but uncle told her that I needed her more than grandmother did at that time. And mother stayed back.
She spent days after that weeping. I was livid. I was enormous by then and hating the life waiting to burst out of me. My legs were constantly swollen. Arjun, the one who had made me this fat could suddenly not even look at my swollen stomach and breasts. Wisely, he stayed away and chose to masturbate in the privacy of what once used to be our room, which was now just his. I didn’t need mother’s drama too.
‘Why don’t you go away to Kottayam,’ I once said angrily, ‘I will do just fine.’
Mother would promptly mutter something about my hormones and make tut-tut noises. When my hormones were less erratic and I was feeling almost tender, I would tell her, ‘but she is eighty-four, Amma.’
Mother would get indignant and announce in her movie-mother voice, ‘but a mother is always a mother.’
Daily phone calls between uncle and mother became a norm after this. Dubai was an hour and a half behind India, but sometimes uncle would forget this and would wake us up a little too early. Mother would panic as Arjun would yawn into the phone. The first ten seconds were the moment of truth. When at the end of it Arjun would matter-of-factly hand the receiver to mother she would breathe again. Arjun would give me the she-is-not-dead-yet look and I would scowl and then go to pee.
The phone calls told us that grandmother’s health was on the decline. At first they discovered a knot in her breast. They removed one. And just to be safe, they removed the other.
Grandmother was enormous. In fact, she was embarrassingly enormous. I remember when we went to Kottayam for our summer vacations; I used to be scared of how gigantic her breasts were. She had an enormously loud voice and when she spoke or walked or worked, her breasts would move up and down like jelly. I used to sometimes catch the eight-year-old boy who used to be our household help staring at grandmother’s breasts. When the children would get cranky during the summers, she would take them into her ample bosom. I used to be so terrified of this that I stopped crying after a while.
I couldn’t even imagine grandmother without her breasts. Mother sighed as she put back the phone and when she saw my bulging stomach she told me, ‘I think my mother is coming back to me,’ and patted it. I cringed. I hated how neat my mother’s world view was. It was annoying how easily she found solutions for everything, death included. And it made me mad about how she found it in her to suddenly begin believing in reincarnation and afterlife. It was annoying. I felt the need to hurt her then and so I said wryly, ‘but she needs to die first, right?’
My baby was due in three weeks. I wanted an epidural. I wanted to just be put to sleep and have a doctor cut me open. Mother made me speak with grandmother. Her voice was not as feeble as I imagined it would be. She spoke clearly and with an air of finality. ‘I am going for chemotherapy. That is real pain. You can’t be a weak-assed woman,’ she told me.
It was the longest three weeks and in that time – grandmother had three rounds of chemotherapy, lost all her hair, lost twenty kilograms and was closer to death. And then my water broke.
Diya was a cranky baby. She cried during the day and she cried during the night. Thankfully for her, Ammama was still alive; else we would have had to name her Thangam, after her dead great grandmother, a name for which she would never have forgiven us.
Mother decided that grandmother needed to see her great grandchild. I wasn’t keen to go back to Kottayam. There would be mosquitoes, no air-conditioning and toilets that would require us to squat. I was not taking my child and going there. But once mother made up her mind, it was impossible to change it. Plus, Arjun was tired of the constant crying of Baby Diya and the smell of poop that hung in the air. He helpfully bought us business class tickets and we were packed away.
Uncle came to pick us up and informed that grandmother was waiting to see her great grandchild. She would probably die after that, mother and uncle decided. However, meeting Baby Diya seemed to do just the opposite. Suddenly grandmother’s condition improved and she got stronger. She even became fatter. It is a miracle, everyone said as they squeezed Baby Diya. The more mosquitoes that sucked the blood out of Diya, the more is it that grandmother’s health got better.
One day, during that summer, grandmother came into my room. It was after lunch, everyone else seemed to be sleeping. Diya continued crying and my breasts were dried by then. I tried feeding her the store purchased baby food, but she shook her head from side to side and kept aiming for my breasts. Bitch, I shouted. Grandmother took Diya in her arms and as if by magic, she became calmer. I fed her the baby food again and this time she ate it and went to sleep halfway through it. We stared at Baby Diya for a while, looking so peaceful and quiet.
‘She has my nose,’ grandmother said after a while. I rolled my eyes. No, she does not, I was thinking.
‘Yes, you are right,’ I said.
‘I have something for you,’ she said and took out a pouch that was tucked in her waist. I wasn’t surprised. Grandmother was a giver of gifts. ‘Something small, something thoughtful, something to remember me by,’ she would always say. But as someone who grew up with her gifts, I knew that it was not generosity that made her gift things to people. She used gifts the same way that five-year-old boys play. My glass marbles for your kite. My cup of ice cream for your cricket bat. Gifts were always some kind of barter; the giving just preceded some taking.
What could she possibly want, I wondered as I opened the pouch. The pouch had my grandmother’s diamond bangles. They caught the sun and it shone brightly. I hastily put it back into the pouch lest Baby Diya woke up. This was the most coveted piece of jewellery that the family owned. My mother, her sisters, her brothers and all my cousins had wondered who would get it when grandmother died. It came as a surprise that I got it. I was the grandchild she was most indifferent to.
At first I protested. Grandmother smiled. Then I awkwardly and not so willingly pushed it back at her. Grandmother smiled. Why me, I finally asked. Grandmother smiled.
‘A gift needs to be a surprise,’ she said, ‘it needs to be something that the other person needs, but can never get themselves.’
I considered that. There was an insult in that somewhere, I thought. Except that the insult could be traded for a few lakhs of rupees. ‘You can’t give it to me,’ I said in a firm voice and pushed back the pouch towards her. Grandmother got up from the bed and left the pouch on my lap and said, ‘it is yours. Final.’
Finally, it was time to go back to Dubai. I couldn’t wait. I don’t know why people who left India felt any kind of nostalgia, I didn’t. I missed the comforts of the First World. Mother came in to my room as I was packing. She had come with little steel boxes and I groaned. ‘I can’t take anything else,’ I said.
‘But you must,’ she insisted, ‘I made jackfruit halwa for Arjun and some banana jam’ as she stuffed boxes into my bursting bag. I hated how mother like many others thought that nostalgia needed to be packed into smelly steel boxes.
The day before I left, grandmother took a turn for the worse.
‘Perhaps you can stay for a few days longer,’ Amma asked hopefully. No.
‘What a selfish girl,’ Amma muttered. ‘And to think she gave you her diamonds.’
When I walked into grandmother’s room to say my goodbye I didn’t take Baby Diya. I felt a sense of dread. ‘Take care, Ammama,’ I said. Grandmother looked at my bosom and seeing it empty asked me, ‘where is Baby Diya?’
‘She is with mother,’ I said, ‘and sleeping.’
Just then I heard Baby Diya wail and mother walked into the room with her. I scowled as grandmother took Baby Diya in her arms and crushed her against her now knots free chest.
‘I wish you could stay here with us,’ she said and hopefully looked at me and mother. I snatched Baby Diya from her and said I would call back on reaching Dubai.
Uncle drove us to Cochin and I sat with Baby Diya in my arms, not talking and staring blankly outside the window. Baby Diya seemed to be on her best behaviour as soon as we left grandmother’s house. Perhaps she felt as free as I did. She slept through the journey. As we reached Kochi, I asked uncle to stop the car so that I could feed her once. Uncle stopped and I picked up the still Baby Diya, but she was deep in sleep. One from which she never woke up.
The house was dying too. Just like grandmother. At hundred, the house was eight years older than grandmother. Since her diagnosis, grandmother had gone through chemotherapy, radiation and five surgeries. Meanwhile, uncle had died, aunt had died and three cousins who were less than a third of her age had also died. Also, my child had died. I looked at the diamond bangles absently, the one that I had traded the life of my child for. When I went back to Dubai, Arjun was almost relieved that we were just a couple again. Suddenly he started coming home earlier and I opened myself to him each night for some passive lovemaking. When my period got delayed, I didn’t think much till one evening I threw up into the curry that I was making. I asked my mother to not come this time and got my epidural. After the baby, I got busy and Arjun started working late again. When Jai was three, we left him with a babysitter to attend a dinner with Arjun’s cousin. I was drinking after a while and got tipsy after consuming the most astonishingly small quantity of alcohol. When we drove back home we called the babysitter to check if we could pick up Jai early next morning. When the babysitter agreed, we went home and fumbled our way back to the bedroom and like two horny teenagers proceeded to make awkward, violent and strangely exciting love. I must be immensely fertile, because that night our second son Naveen was conceived.
I had left Naveen and Jai at their paternal grandparents house in Bombay when I came down to Kottayam. I did not want to tempt fate, the gods of Kottayam or my grandmother. Plus, I had grown fond of my sons. They were good boys.
‘How is grandmother,’ I asked mother after I settled down.
She sighed. I watched mother closely and realised that she looked much older than when I last saw her, which was on Naveen’s first birthday. I felt a little guilty. Or something close.
‘Grandmother is okay,’ Amma said in measured tones, ‘doctors say that it is either today or tomorrow. But they have been saying this for the last eight years.’
We sat silently for a while when mother said, ‘why don’t you go and see her. She will be awake now. She may or may not recognise you.’
I wanted to put off the meeting with her for as long as I could, but there was nothing else to do in this dying house. I went to her room. She was sleeping on a water bed, the full-time nurse cum ayah sitting by her feet and dozing off. Grandmother had shrunk; she looked like a crumpled brinjal – sans any colour and full of wrinkles. Because she had breathing difficulty, she was on Oxygen support. The cylinder stood by her bed and there were bottles of medicine. I cleared my throat and the nurse woke up. I sent her down to drink tea. I sat on the stool and kept watching grandmother’s breathing pattern. It seemed normal. Nothing alarming. Not at all like a person who could possibly die anytime soon. It seemed like hours before she finally opened her eyes. Her eyes surprisingly alive for a body so wasted. She stared at me, as if trying to will her dissolving mind to recognise me.
‘How are you, Ammama,’ I asked her. She didn’t reply and looked away.
I put my palm on her forehead and made shushing noises. I don’t know why I did that. She looked up at my palms and then my hand. She then saw the bangles and there was a brief recognition as she searched my face. ‘Jiji,’ she said, using a name she had given me as a child. I smiled at her and nodded.
‘How are you feeling Ammama,’ I asked her.
‘I wish I could die,’ she said.
We watched each other in silence. After a while the silence was beginning to get awkward and I stood up. ‘I will go and check where the nurse is,’ I said.
And then grandmother spoke, ‘Baby Diya would have been eight years old next week.’ I stopped, turned, walked back to her and picked up a cushion.
It was not until the next day afternoon that I found my phone and sent a text to Arjun, Grandmother died last evening.
Radhika Venkatarayan is an ethnographer by training and currently works with an NGO in Madras. She edits and writes for a magazine that is focussed on the advocacy of the rights of the disabled.