Friday, March 20, 2009


She's lying down on the bed in the room down the corridor, and I can smell her even as I walk towards her room.

It's a smell I've come to associate with old age: a putrid mix of medicines and urine, of foul breath and incense sticks. It invades my nostrils and I'm startled for a bit, resisting it's strength and the need-to-escape that it brings, all in the same moment.

The floor tiles are cool beneath my bare feet, and my black toe-nails seem ominous. Her room's less than 10ft away, but I'm already reliving words I've heard dozens of times before. If I could run away now, I would, but there are several pairs of eyes following me, and they anchor me down.

She coughs as she sees me enter, a frown creasing her proud and wide forehead, then a momentary lapse of a smile, as she sees the grandson-in-law behind me. She shifts a bit in the bed, adjusts the bedcover over her, clasps her hands on her abdomen: 'how are you', she asks him, pointedly ignoring the girl who has sat down next to her, in four measly inches of urine-stained bedsheets.

'How are you', I ask her, gingerly reaching out to her now-lined but beautifully fair hands. 'Just surviving', she says, 'you finally found time to ask how I was doing?' It's the patent first jibe as always, and I can feel the husband's uneasy eyes on my face, I know he's asking me to keep my armours up. This looks like its going to be a long afternoon, followed by an evening of tears as I will try and salve my wounds. I wait, a sigh of resignation escaping me, for more word-lashing.

None follows. In that word-less few minutes, I'm pained by how grayish her eyes appear: a decaying spirit that shows itself in the spots around her pupils - and how strong this smell of despair is around her. I caress her partly grey hair, without thinking my act through, and she turns to me, startled I think by this act of affection: there is no one who has the courage to come this close, or perhaps there is no one who feels this affection for her, a mothering feeling of wanting to protect. She has always been the indefatigable one: the towering loud-voiced woman who braved straying sons and 'exotic' daughters-in-law, who raised her fours son and two daughters on nothing more than pittance and raw nerve. She was the protector, the hunter, the procurer, the final word, the chieftain. She knows she no longer is, and she will never forgive time for that.

Her chin shakes with the tears her ego won't let her shed, there are a few stray grey hair there and I'm suddenly in need to hug her, with the abandon that is characteristic to my love: reason has no place in it, neither does memory no matter how painful. 'What's wrong', I ask her. 'Why won't you get up from the bed?'

There's the back that hurts, a right leg that won't listen, a swollen ankle. 'Remember last year', I prod her. 'It was the same thing, you just need to start walking, you need to get up and get about', I say. She pushes my hands away and turns on her side: 'No one tells me what to do', she says. 'You don't know what I'm going through'.

I joke a bit, telling her about Nino's crazy antics, some real, some made to seem more funny. I know she's listening, I can see her smile. 'Is he eating properly', she asks me. 'Yes, Ba', I say. 'He's eating just fine'.

My aunt comes in and we discuss what the doctors have had to say, and she tells me, in a voice that I know is meant to carry its message to more ears than mine, how difficult Ba's been, how she screams viciously everytime they try and take her to the loo. 'She throws all her weight on me and I can barely walk with her nails digging into my shoulders', my aunt says, 'I'm too scared to be with her alone'.

Fear. I can smell it in Ba's breath. In my perspiration. In my aunt's constantly flitting eyes. It's a feeling that's at home with my grandmother. Her tales of oppression are legendary: there is not a single person in my family who has not been afraid of her, who has not been subjected to her rage, at some point in their lives. Rebellions were squashed with a force so brute that a few damaged specimens in the family are still trying to piece their lives together.

There is talk of how her sons have no time for her, the daughters-in-law are good and serve her well, but hell, they're someone else's blood at the end of the day. The stench of bitterness is so strong, remorse has no place here, nor does nostalgia. Does she ever wonder if they will cry after she has departed? It's a thought that has no place in this time and circumstance, and yet, I can't help but marvel at her. There are reasons for this version of her: I know the hows and whys that my father patiently explained to me once, his words perhaps echoing those that a little boy and then a young man must have said, over and over again to himself, as he searched for a little love and a mother's soothing touch.

I can't help the words of advice that occur to me: I'm driven to frustration by a situation that I know a few answers to. 'Wriggle your toes', I tell her. 'Try and sit up and move the right leg a bit.' 'She only needs to keep herself occupied', I tell my aunt. She gives me the knowing 'empty mind is devil's workshop' look coupled with helplessness.

I know Ba hates to read: I think she went to school only for a bit, and the written word has always irked her. Perhaps it was among the few things she was unable to conquer with the brute force of her tongue or the bitterness of her heart. I see the marble devghar right next to her bed, lined with fresh dust, no fresh water or fruit in front of the Gods, as is her customary offering.

The answer to the need for religion is something only old age offers. At that time, as you grapple with a body that is giving up and a mind that is no longer in control of its place of residence, religion becomes less of a ritual and a name, and more of a spirit-building and will-strengthening exercise. The old turn to chanting and praying sometimes out of fear of the outcome of death, but there are also some who truly discover a meaning and sub-text to life through it.

'Why don't you chant His name', I tell her, 'count the rosary beads a hundred times over'. Just another routine to take her mind off her pain, both real and spiritual, I think to myself.

She turns around with a vengeance that scares me. 'I will never take His name,' she says, in a half-scream. 'I walked 400 miles barefoot for him. Fasted half my life. Bought Him new clothes and beautiful jewellery even when I din't have enough to spend on me,' she seethes. 'And look at me now. He doesn't even look at me, doesn't even ease my suffering. I walked 400 miles and I can't walk a step now.'

'All my life I prayed to Him, I sang His songs, made Him the food He likes. For what? For this pain? For this humiliation?'

Ba makes a brushing-away movement with her arms, looking at the devghar. 'Take Him away,' she tells me, as her tears finally begin to flow. 'I can never forgive Him. I don't want Him now.'


nitya said...

Dear NM - You took me back in time... but that's a story for another day. Lotsa hugs...

In love with my life said...

Very profound....and that sounded like someone in my life, decades ago.Hope the bitterness in her life ebbs away..hugs to you.

Solilo said...

If I might say so, I have been there visiting my great grandmother. Same story, same angst.

You put the feelings into the words so well.

Gauri Gharpure said...

that sad smell of age.. touched, as usual..

preetischronicle said...

your writing is breathtaking. You put life into words....a very vivid description...I almost felt I was in the room too with you guys!

Swati said...

As your story starts, I am not sure if it is real or imagined, someone borrowed from life, someone stolen into fiction. And then, Nino, and your generous gestures: surely real. Still, somehow, despite everything, why does it still feel so like a story? A very well written one, but still, a paper truth? Is it because I have no parallels? I wonder...

Sujatha said...

*Huggg* NM. Wishing your grandmother peace. It's tough having to be tough and in control your whole life, when everyone needed you, and then being so needful, so dependent on every one else for every thing. It can't be easy for her.

ra said...

This brought back memories which I'd rather not delve into here.Hope she finds peace. And you -don't get too upset.

Nino's Mum said...

Nitya, InLoveWithMyLife, Solilo - you guys too, huh? Ba has been the anti-thesis of the picture of the genial grandmother: I thought I bore this alone.

Gauri - Just like the fresh talc and milk smell we recreate in our brain everytime we think of babies.

Preeti - thanks.

Swati - aha. I felt that way too. Too many undercurrents in this post, too many memories, I wrote it days after I met her, once I knew I could be clinical about it. And because it has no greys, my dear friend, it is in a bit like a paper lion.

Suj - *hug right back* I really needed to hear this, you know? I know it's not easy on her, and yet it's so easy to forget that when... you know.

Ra - I really hope so too. amen. hugs.

Sands said...

Beautiful post NM. I hope she finds her piece. Reading this made me relate to someone who would have the same struggle in a similar situation.

choxbox said...

a grandmother passed away recently on the husband's side so this is raw and real.

jaai, jara ane mrityu - birth, old age and death - three curses of humanity apparently. the first and last are relatively short, but the second..

Anonymous said...

Oh my - this could have been a person in my life as well (not a grandmother) - no cure for bitterness, is there?


dipali said...

First time here, such an amazingly
honest and moving piece.

Tharini said...

In many ways, Ba reminds me of my own paternal grandmother. The bitterness, the anger directed to those around her, the inability to focus on the spiritual as an anchor during this all hits close to home.

What pained me most was at the end...when she says she doesn't need Him anymore. It is painful that the Being that can fill one with so much of love, is unable to penetrate her heart.

Nino's Mum said...

Sands, Dipali - Thank you and welcome here.

choxbox - hugs. And I dread it, equally.

M - Bitterness can be quite carnivorous, don't you think? It eats away at everything, even the person herself.

T - This threatened to turn into a story between how Amma accepted her old age and how Ba has refused too: and then I just felt too guilty doing the 'comparison'. They were equally into God most of their lives: Ba however, has been the more the ritualistic one, while Amma made it a part of her, everyday, every thought, every phone call.

Anonymous said...

Hi Nino's mum, you have described your grandmom's story really powerfully.

I have always been scared of suffering, seen it really close.

Your grandmom's sense of betrayal with God in particular is really moving, there was a time when I used to hate Him. This sprung from pain and the inability to cope with it.

God bless her, and may her pain gets eased.

Please take care of yourself.

Best wishes,

Nino's Mum said...

Anjali - we've all been there, havent we? I used to get irritated when my mum would say stuff like 'Your worst days are never so bad that you're beyond the reach of god's grace and your best days are never so good that you are beyond the need of God's grace', but I realised this when I went through 12 hours of futile labour for Nino: either you have a supreme belief in yourself and your decisions that propells you through pain, or you need a spiritual crutch that lets you limp through.

Shyam said...

You're a journalist, allright... you have that flair for the right phrase, the perfect description - real or imaginary or both, this is a very moving piece.