There is something universal about all Indian grandmothers. It is almost as if they all went to some sort of an IIT of grandmothering and took the same courses. For one, they are always in the background. They are all extraordinary ladies who lead ordinary lives. And when they lose their teeth, they don't always rush to the nearest dentist and slap on dentures. Pursy lips are okay for them. Whatever may be their appearance, they are pictures of dignity. They never once upstage the grandfathers, even though sometimes they bear the brunt of their husbands' irrational outbursts. On the flip side, it isn't too difficult to coax them into a deliriously happy mood that they rush in and make sweets, especially for you. They expect very little out of their grandkids, even though their entire lives revolve solely around their families.
After living till a ripe old age of ninety something, my grandmother finally called it quits and died a few days ago in India.
My earliest recollection of her was when we were negligibly small. She and grandpa would come unannounced one day and would stay on for several months at a stretch. In a matter of minutes, she would take over the kitchen from my mom and rule supreme.
She enjoyed cooking in some sort of a masochistic way. My mother would take out the most massive cooking utensils, since grandmother was most comfortable with caveman-like primitive cooking tools. I remember the war footing they were on when they launched into making pickles. At least a million mangoes were chopped and kilos of chili powder and masalas were mercilessly ground and plowed into a sea of oil. Her repertoire was so enormous she made at least twenty kinds of sambhar. Some of her 'surprise' recipes were not always the tastiest, but she would insist that they were good for our health and were certainly the right stuff to improve one's brains to do the schoolwork.
New rules would be imposed by my mother just so that she would score brownie points with grandmother. "Today is New Moon day" my mother would announce "And so no onions." Obscure festivals and lesser known avatars of Vishnu would be discovered and celebrated with grandma directing the show.
And I was always the official escort for grandmother when she dropped in on her numerous relatives. With her around, it felt like half of South India was related to our family one way or another.
"They live just on the next street. Why do you want me to come along ?" I would protest feebly.
"They have a dog and I don't dare go in."
"But grandma, I am even more scared of the dog than you are."
She probably figured that with me around, the probability of the dog attacking her is reduced by half.
Hanging around grandparents wasn't one of the coolest things to do when I was in high school. I remember running into my teacher, Lakshmi Miss of all people when I was chaperoning grandma to a temple. I was speechless and embarrassed that my school life and personal life somehow intersected. Grandmother even struck up a conversation with Lakshmi Miss.
And when she walked back from the temple, it was never as the crow flies. She would stop at every house on the way and pick up the neighborhood gossip. She had an incredible memory, a keen analytic mind that separated the real gossip from the chaff and an intuition to compile a large database of reliable sources to maximize her gossip intake. Her interrogation techniques would have probably landed her a job with the FBI - sometimes she would pretend to be dumb, some other times she would unnerve the other person and yet other times, she would simply have to exchange one of her juicy gossips in order to get a newer one.
Usual events in life, like births and deaths and marriages hit her like bolts of lightening. Toward the end of her life, her only mission in life was to make sure everybody around her got married.
It didn't matter to her if the visitor in the living room happened to be the wife of my father's boss. She always took the liberty of asking "You said your Anita is in college. Are you seriously looking for a boy ? I know several boys from very good families. I am talking about IAS officers' sons and doctors' sons."
In fact, she has engineered several marriages and would give us a blow by blow account of what happened, long after the bride and the groom themselves forgot that my grandmother was responsible for their wedding. Before she was widowed, she was an indispensible member of many wedding entourages and would be present in every frame of numerous wedding videos. People really believed that her presence was auspicious. Also, she was very knowledgeable about the wedding ceremony itself and its many customs and protocols. They would send cars to our place to take her to the jewelry and saree stores to help them select. Even as a saree revolution was going on around her, ushering in the Chiffon era, she was the unquestioned authority on silk, wedding sarees. "Your Sunita is slightly wheatish complexioned. So this off-blue color will be better for her. I can already picture the bride."
And birth of babies was a source of immense joy for her.
"Does the baby look like our people or does he resemble your husband's folks ?" she would ask an obscure aunt over the phone. In a few days, she would visit the newborn and raster the baby from top to bottom with her eyes and would assert, like a biblical prophet, that "the eyes look like your husband, but the nose and the lips are ditto like the grandfather."
She had a way with all babies and handle them effortlessly like Michael Jordan handles basketballs. She would grab them with one hand and spread them on her spacious lap and launch into a babble of baby talk, which in itself used to be fun to watch.
I remember the time when the mess workers went on strike at IIT Kanpur and they closed the college promptly and sent us scurrying home early for the summer holidays. I didn't have time to even call home. I reached home and pressed the doorbell, hoping to surprise everyone. I could see grandma in the front room, reading some magazine.
"Who is it ?" she asked from inside.
"This is the 'raddhiwala', looking to buy old newspapers. Do you have any old stuff for me today, Madam ?" I said, disguising my voice.
"It is Ramesh !!" she yelled and the door was sprung open in no time at all, followed by an excited conversation. You know how it is - the first fifteen minutes of reaching home after a long absence.
"Oh, hello, come, come. When did you arrive ? How come you didn't write or phone about your coming ? Your parents just stepped out to go to your uncles'. Grandpa is napping. How did your exams go ?"
"They closed our college grandma. There was a strike."
"I thought you were all good students and never went on strike."
"No, grandma, the mess workers are on strike." That was enough to satisfy grandmother.
"Look at you ! You have grown so much." My grandmother was visibly happy "I remember you still as a little kid, in your khakhi shorts. Always breaking your leg or a hand. You used to be so short tempered. I can't believe you have matured so much. Now your younger brother is doing everything you used to do - playing cricket and hanging out with friends till late night." I wanted to tell her that I was a lousy cricket player.
She came up to me and touseled my hair. "Pretty soon you will follow your cousin Raju and go to America also. Then you will not even remember your own grandma and grandpa. Study well and become a big officer. That's all what we want."
"Sure grandma, its all your blessing."
"In my excitement to chat with you, let me not forget coffee ! Let me set the coffee filter. Poor boy ! You have come all the way and I haven't even given you a cup of coffee yet."
She quickly came back from the kitchen and handed me something.
"Here, have it."
"What is it ?"
"It is your favorite, cashew barfis. Your mom happened to buy a kilo of cashews yesterday. Your father was mad at us for spending so much money. And we sat down all morning and made it. Maybe we had the gut feeling that you were coming today for your summer holidays."
"Those used to be my favorites some five years ago, grandma, when I was in high school. You are incredible ! By the way, how is your health these days ?"
"My health ? It is going. Even my blood 'pleasure' is normal. Whatever god has willed, it will happen. Nothing is in our hands. It is already five past four. I need to wake up grandpa and give him his four O' clock medication. What a pleasant surprise it will be for him to see you."
The last time I went to India, I made a videotape of my grandmother. By this time, she had already become stooped, shrivelled up and completely wrinkled. Me and my cousin tried to 'interview' her, to add spice to the video.
"Grandma, question number one, how old are you ?"
"Me, I am eighty." She lied, unwilling to tell us her real age.
"How was life those days, when you were a small girl ?"
"Oh, well. I got married when I was eight and when I was just a teenager, I went to live with your grandfather. My in laws were cruel people. They would force me to go to the river and fetch water everyday for the entire household and do all the chores around the house. Then your grandfather left for the big city to study and then came the world war, independence... Rice used to sell for ten rupees a sack. I used to go in bullock carts. And now I ride in planes and cars. Those days even going to a movie was considered evil. And now, we have movies in our own living room on TV. All these modern gadgets are definitely good - as long as they don't corrupt the morals of the people."
"What would you like to say to all your relatives and wellwishers ?"
"That they all live well and in happiness and good health."
"Grandma, now you sound exactly like a grandmother from a hindi movie or a tamil movie."
"Me, like a movie grandmother ?" She was absolutely amused and started to laugh, with her wrinkles quivering. "Hehehehe. Don't make me laugh. Oh, stop recording. People might think I am a silly old woman. Go take somebody else's video. A movie grandmother. Hehehehehe. You are always a great kidder."
She still kept laughing as she walked slowly to her room. I was somewhat puzzled that she found my little remark so uproariously funny. But that was perhaps one of the last images of her that I have in my mind.