Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The many limbs of memory

It's two in the night and my stomach is cramping - huge pelvic knots that send my body pores into wide, open flashes of panic - and I realise for the nth time, food poisoning is as mean as it sounds. I'm tempted to groan and moan - I'm a firm believer in expression of feelings, especially the painful ones - and awaken the gently sleeping husband to my misery. Instead, I sit up, do a couple of deep breaths, remember Her, and sip some water. This has been the second day and I've taken my tablets on time, skipped those foods that are likely to make my situation worse. And I've not complained. It's predictable behaviour for an adult, you may think, but it's not predictable behaviour for me. I've to be prodded to have my medication, spied upon to make sure I stick to a particular diet, and patiently listened to as I moan about the pain that racks my body.

But I'm thinking of Her today, as she quietly went about her routine, medicines on time, meals never skipped, the quiet sigh as she sat down the only indication of a painful ankle. They say she hated to depend upon any one - I think she just understood that few people have the patience to play nurse. 'Why to trouble anybody ma', she used to say. It wasn't the bother she was talking about, it was the worry. It's what she said as she lay in the ambulance, vulnerable, watching me button her undone blouse. 'Did not mean to trouble anybody ma,' she said. 'I know,' I said, but she was already hooked on to the ventilator, unable to reply. As I chanted the vighneshwaraya vardaya sloka that comes to my mind when I'm faced with pure and absolute terror of loss, she exerted a mild pressure on our clutched hands. Even in that state, as she lay racked with the pain of a heart that was giving up, she looked out for me.

There were no loose ends with Her, ever. At the hospital, as the doctor asked us about the medications she took, we mutely opened a tiny tin box that was her medical file. Every tablet she took was there. There was no medical file per-se: she hadn't been ill in years - she was indestructible, almost. As I spelt her name out for the countless forms we filed it seemed ironic that her long and beautiful name was rarely spoken. For all whom she met, she was merely Manni, Perimanni, Amma, Periamma, Akka - generic names that will never be the same again for those who spoke them with Her in mind.

I wondered how she felt, lying there, jabbed in half a dozen places, unfamiliar hands and faces all around her. Did she think of all the people she loved and lost? Of all whom she loved and would not be able to see? Did she feel cold, angry, hurt, betrayed? Did she accept it as she did everything and everyone in her life? Did she mean to fight it as she fought her debilitating stroke a decade back? Was there something she thought she had left unsaid, undone? I remember asking her if she wanted something. 'Shall I sleep,' she said. 'I'm very sleepy.'

I remember her telling me through most of my adult decision-making life to do what made me happy. It applied to career choices, clothes, love, marriage and even rituals. The only rule was that the decision had to make me happy: sometimes I wonder if it was because she was confident in the upbringing we had received that prevented us from being happy at someone else's cost. She merely smiled when her grand-children told her they eat meat. An orthodox Brahmin who merely switched the question 'What did you eat' to 'Did you eat well' every time we returned home from a restaurant/party. Nothing was taboo. Not love, not food, not the body. She clutched my hand and lead me into the Somnath temple, just after I'd rebelled against the Hindu ritual of shunning women during their menstrual period. 'It's what you believe in,' she said to me then. 'If it's not sin to you, it's not sin.' How did she manage to balance the ideas she was brought up with, with the times she saw changing?

As I cringe every time I bend my beliefs/ideas for the family I'm married into, for the people I work with, I marvel as how tensile adaptability can make you. She bent with changing times, at-level with the people she interacted with, never snapping with the effort. And yet, never changing the true steel of her character.

They say you must begin your day with the thoughts of the Almighty. I do, but she comes first. Because it is she who taught me to say the morning chant of Kausalya Supraja Rama that I use to wake Nino up. And everytime I say it, big lump in my throat, I remember Her before He comes to my mind. Lately it's strange to see my atheist husband try and join in, stumbling at the Sanskrit pronunciations, his way of helping me keep as much of Her around me as I can.

As I lay screaming in labour, not allowing my body to take its due course and open up to Nino, I forgot how she'd walked a pot-holed muddy road with a kerosene lantern on a rainy night to deliver her youngest son. Her husband was travelling and she had to worry about the other kids so she made sure everyone was asleep before leaving, but not before she had arranged for their food. It seemed so heroic to me then, but it was so simple to her, it was so her.

I believe being able to nurture is a trait very few people are blessed with. It does not come automatically through mother-hood, neither it is something that can be perfected through conscious practice. She was that rare breed: she nurtured - family, relationships, people, plants, the food she cooked, the stories she shared, the prayers she said. It did not matter if you were not related to her - she had reason enough to wish the best for everyone who met her.

Old photographs surface from the corners of her neatly kept cupboard. Black-and-White pictures of a dainty young woman in an immaculate Kanjeevaram and an impressive nose-pin. Her grace and determination is evident even though the woman I knew looked so different. Did she mourn the passing of her youth, the changing shape of her body after motherhood, like I did? It is not as if the outwardly never mattered to her: 'My blouse doesn't match my saree, hope it'll do,' she would mutter as guests came in. Her eyes would light up everytime the grand-daughters would wear sarees, but they never frowned on fashionable expressions.

They say she loved her husband to bits. And that though he bullied her, they shared a love that transcends understanding and definition. They say they're together now. And I know exactly which particular piece from Shakespeare Bapuji is serenading her with: Sonnet 18.

They say the departed spirit spends 13 days on earth with its loved ones, before it goes on ahead to its future destination. It’s almost 13 days now, and I know Amma’s filled these by zipping across continents and time-zones making sure her children, grand-children and great grand-children are doing okay, making sure we can see her benign smile though the swirling clouds.

Lalithangi: the one whose limbs resemble/are akin to the divine mother, Devi. Lalitha also means the 'adorable and brilliantly sweet One who plays.' She was named aptly.


Tharini said...

It'd be hollow to leave words here for a comment. All I feel capable of saying is not without reason that you won the Resonance Award!

Thank you for sharing this link. I am deeply privileged to read it.

Cantaloupes.Amma (CA) said...

Lovely !!
You are truly blessed to have such great person as your grandma !

I blog hopped here from Tharini's .. this post makes me want to write about my grandma

Nino's Mum said...

Tharini - thank you and it's time I gave this award to you - every word is true for the way you write.

CA - Thanks, blessed is exactly how I would describe it too. Welcome here, and I would love to read up on your grandmum. I'll be visiting.