My grandmother turned 101 today. I did not call to wish her because she would most probably not know who I am. No one else would have wished her either for the same reason. Even my uncle and aunt, with who she lives in Coimbatore, would have let the day pass without much fanfare. They already performed a small puja for her last week at the neighbourhood temple on her `star birthday’, the day in the Hindu calender that coincides with her birthstar.
My daughter Tejaswini however has been very excited and looking forward to the day, telling all her friends that it is her great grandmother’s birthday today. How she is exactly 93 and a half years older than her ! “Even if she doesn’t remember, we must wish her mommy,” I heard her tell Uma, because isn’t that what happens on any birthday.
The special connect that developed between Teju and my grandmother, happened almost by chance. Four years ago, on a visit to Coimbatore with Uma and Teju, we asked Paatima if she would come to Hyderabad with us, if only for a few days. I probably did not even expect her to agree. But ever an enthusiastic soul, she readily agreed. Everyone else was quite aghast, and went hyper over how she may not be able to take the strain of a flight, since she had never been airborne before. Instructions came by the dozen and the advice list was endless.
Paatima was cool. Her excitement was totally positive. If she was tense, she did not show it. A fresh passport size photograph was taken at a photo studio, with Paatima wearing one of her new podavais (nine-yard saree). Seeing her sign on a form, I got her to sign `Lakshmi Ammal’ on a piece of paper in Malayalam, that I retain in my wallet. She enjoyed the process of checking in and when the flight took off , she was almost like a child, sitting next to Teju, looking at Coimbatore from above the clouds. “Why was everyone fussing so much,” she asked. “This is good. No tension at all.”
Paatima was as excited about surprising my parents in Hyderabad who we had deliberately not told about the sudden travel plan. And what she seemed to enjoy the most during her stay with us, as did Teju, was the time they spent together, conversing, playing. There was something beautiful about the bonding between two people, separated by more than 93 years.
Uma would jokingly tell me that Paatima is probably the best part of my family. The most beautiful and sharp woman she has seen, even past the mid-90s. Active, involved with life, ever so positive and ready with a friendly smile, without ever being domineering. Very independent, doing not just her stuff on her own but even pitching in to help out in the kitchen and elsewhere. Never complaining about anything. Not the heat, not the cold, not the cough that bothered her at night, nothing. She is capable of talking of and thinking about others, their problems and health issues, with concern and affection, without drawing any attention to her own. That’s probably why she is so popular in the colony in Coimbatore where my uncle lives. As Uma says, so many people drop in to have a word with her all the time.
That was a year before a stroke took away some of her cognitive faculties. When my mother went to visit her mother shortly after that, there was no glint of recognition in her face. She gently nudged and enquired from my aunt to know who is this who has come visiting. I know that for my mother, it was a heartbreaking moment. After a while though, she seemed to have made some association in her mind and was gesticulating to ask my mother where the little one was. Teju. Her great grand-daughter. That memory had apparently lingered, even if she forgot her own daughter. Though the next moment after that, she would again be looking as though at a stranger.
But even at 101, though her memory has failed her, Paatima still insists on being independent physically. She washes her own saree, her utensils, even her own bathroom. Habits of cleanliness and discipline don’t go away. My aunt tells my mother she goes out half a dozen times to check if the podavai has dried up on the clothesline. Sometimes, quite often, she will pack her stuff and be ready to go away to Thiruvilwamala in Kerala, her home for more than 80 years. She would wonder aloud why someone has not come to take her home and then after some time, perhaps realising this is now her home, she would unpack and put her things back in the cupboard and quietly lie down on the bed.
I remember that sprawling home in the village, with the wells behind the house and vegetable garden, coconut trees, tamarind, and jackfruit. So many of my childhood memories of each of my summer holidays is associated with it. Almost everything that was cooked in the home came from what my grandmother grew in her garden, except perhaps the rice. So many afternoons and evenings I and my sister Asha spent listening to stories from her. She used to be a voracious reader then and could tell any number of mythological and other stories. There was no television but it was as though the stories drew out vivid images in our minds. The power would often be off in the evenings and it would be time for me and Asha to show off our singing prowess to an appreciative and loving audience. Paatima.
Asha would get a pavadai as a gift at the end of the holiday while it would be a pa-mundu for me. Amma would buy her a podavai. One summer, when we went to Thiruvilwamala, we found Paatima had company. She had bought a calf, who she had named Nandini. Paatima would talk to Nandini, as if she was another grandchild. What fun we had playing with her through those six weeks.
Paatima’s best friend also was called Lakshmi but we knew her better as `Post Office Maami’ because her late husband used to be incharge of the Post office. When it was time to go, the two would stand together to bid an emotional goodbye and talk of how when when everyone goes back home, they had only each other for company. When Post Office Maami passed away, almost a decade ago, Paatima kept asking why is she being kept waiting.
It was the same when her younger brother, Krishna Mama, who she had carried around on her hip as a toddler, passed away. It was like a part of her died with him. Extremely fond of him, Krishna Mama and his children were in many ways, more dear to her than her own children.
Paatima lost my grandfather five decades ago. They had spent their growing up years together as she was married when she was hardly 14 years old. Interestingly, both were neighbours. Till a few years ago, she used to joke how she has earned more money in pension than he did as salary.
She was heartbroken when the ancestral home, along with its huge green expanse and two wells, where the water never dried up even in peak summer, was sold. Her mantra always has been fresh air, fresh water, fresh vegetables that she used to grow. In today’s world, I realise the import of all that she said. That’s perhaps the reason why she still is physically fit and still active.
My Paatima is one of the most graceful, charming and energetic persons I have known. She has a family of children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and even a great-great grandchild. One only wishes she was still the Paatima of old. She has been a true celebration of life, of positive living. I want to eternalise that memory of her.
Happy Birthday, Paatima.