My beloved grandmother passed away peacefully on the 10th of May 2020. This is the unedited version of my tribute to her, serendipitously published in Reader’s Digest on her eleventh day ceremony. Grateful for a beautiful childhood around her.
Link to the Reader’s Digest tribute here.
It was nearly 9.00 pm on a stuffy summer’s night. I was in the kitchen rustling up a late night dessert with my two boys. Thanks to the nationwide COVID-19 lock-down, our routines had shifted a bit to accommodate delayed bedtimes.
That is when the call came. My cousin was on the other end urgently conveying that Ammaji, our 92-year old grandmother was on the brink. Just that morning, he had called to give the news of her taking ill, but there was nothing to worry, he had said.
I was to leave early the next morning to be by her side and had my inter-district travel pass ready for the next day to make the journey to Mandya, my grandmother’s town, a 100 kilometres away. It could no longer wait. I applied for a fresh travel pass for the night, which surprisingly came through in a jiffy.
Picking up my cousin enroute, I hit the Bengaluru-Mysuru highway by 10.30 pm. It was a rarity to see the stretch deserted.
The car sliced through the darkness as we drove on in silence. My eyes and limbs effortlessly put themselves through the driving motion, but my mind travelled back in time to my childhood.
I was barely 10 months old when I was sent to live with my grandparents. My grandmother entered wedded bliss with my grandfather at 14 years of age. He was 14 years her senior.
I say ‘wedded bliss’ because theirs was an ideal union on all counts, even if the match was a study in contrasts. My grandfather hailed from a wealthy, landed family in Mogenahalli. He studied law from Fergusson College, Pune and went onto make his fortune with multiple business interests. He was erudite, maintained a well-stocked library, kept journals all his life and his friendship was sought by the who-is-who in the echelons of society in the 60s and 70s.
In contrast, my grandmother hailed from Mysuru and barely made it to fourth grade. She lost her parents early and was raised by an aunt. Unpretentious and uncomplicated, she ran a large, efficient household, was a loving wife and mother, and an excellent cook and hostess. My grandmother had a passion for plants and bagged prizes each year for her sprawling garden at annual competitions organized by the local horticultural society. She loved to listen to music, watch dance programmes and was strikingly beautiful in her simplicity and mellow nature.
She ran a tight household and squirreled away savings from a cleverly managed household budget to surprise my grandfather with emergency funds when needed.
Returning from outstation business trips, my grandfather always brought back a delicate string of fragrant jasmine to adorn his dear wife’s raven locks tied in a neat bun. On February 23, 1966, my grandfather saw his life’s dream come to fruition when the movie theatre he built opened to its very first show in Mandya. He called it ‘Girija’, his very own monument to the love of his life.
After his demise, my grandmother stopped adorning her hair with flowers. I so missed the bright red kumkuma that beautified her lovely face, when she chose a smaller sticker in its place.
Together, they raised seven children and had nineteen grandchildren. Without the affections and care of a mother, my grandmother had to depend on the kindness of elderly female relatives as she gave birth to her children in succession. But she ensured that her own four daughters received the best care, and pampered and nurtured them every time they came to their parental home to give birth.
Thanks to my grandmother’s assiduous care regime, the daughters and their babies returned to their lives strong in mind and body after each delivery, and continued to lean on the unconditional love and warm welcome in their parental home to raise their own children through the years. A cow was ferried all the way from Mandya to Shimoga over 200-odd kilometres to ensure unadulterated milk for the baby, when my mother took leave from her parental home, after a luxurious post-natal care ritual.
As in all spheres of her long and full life, my grandmother handled her relationships with her daughters-in-law with much maturity, giving them the space they needed, and gracefully handing over the reins of her large domestic establishment without fuss, and nary a word on their preferred styles of running the household.
While many of the grandchildren visited during vacations and festivals, a few of us grew up in the mansion that my grandparents called home.
Growing up away from my parents, my grandmother’s affections and her innately gentle, non-judgemental ways steadied many a childhood anxiety and stress. I sometimes shared her bed as a child and she would sing ‘AadisidaLu Yeshodhe Jagadhodhaarana’, her all-time favourite devaranaama by Sri Purandara Dasaru, gently patting me and lulling me to the land of dreams. I was her little Krishna and she, mother Yashodha.
Waking up in the morning, she would inevitably remind me to sit up from my right side to ensure a good day ahead. Many a times, she would tenderly cajole me to sleep-in a bit longer, a gesture that always filled me with a sense of calm before taking on the age-appropriate hecticness of a first grader’s school day.
The best memories of my childhood years with my grandparents were the festivals. All festivals were celebrated with pomp and grandeur. My grandmother would supervise the meticulous cleaning of every nook and corner of the large house on the eve of the festival. The maid and man Friday would be sent off with a long grocery list to stock up on supplies for the festival.
Days ahead of the festival, together with the cook, daughters and visiting relatives, she would get down to dish out a delectable line-up of traditional sweets and savouries. HoLige, chakkuli, kajjaaya, thambittu, kodubale, kobbari mitthaayi, rave unde, karjikaayi, khaara seve and many more lip-smacking sweets and savouries would fill-up the large aluminium containers in the kitchen pantry. The children were woken up before dawn for oil baths on festival days. The family priest would arrive early and begin the rituals in the pooja room. A sumptuous breakfast would follow, and a divine lunch spread at mid-day.
We celebrated the bountiful harvest during Makara Shankranthi, ushered-in the new year and spring with Ugadi, delighted in the company of Gowri-Ganesha till we saw them off in the waters of Cauvery at Srirangapatna, and offered prayers at all of my grandfather’s various enterprises during Ayudha Pooje and Vijayadashami with the family cars all festooned. Deepavali evenings were eagerly anticipated, even as my grandmother oversaw the lighting of oil lamps all around the house.
Ammaji had her own cute quirks. She hated fans, they gave her a headache and anyone sharing her room had to stick to that dictate! She turned sensitive with age and wore only the softest and lightest cotton clothing. If she had to grace family functions, it had to be in a fine Mysore silk saree. Anything else weighed heavily on her small frame.
It was nearing midnight when we reached Mandya. It broke me to see my grandmother. Once resplendent with gold and ruby encrusted bangles and twin diamond nose pins, tubes now entwined her fragile hands and made their way into her nose.
She was no longer conscious, and her breathing was laboured. Unable to sleep a wink, I spent the rest of the night leafing through my grandfather’s many personal diaries from times long before I came to be. Early next morning on the 11th of May 2020, my grandmother breathed her last. The end was peaceful, akin to her calm, serene persona.
As my Ammaji was being readied for the handful of visitors allowed to pay their last respects, I frantically searched her wardrobe for a sticker bottu for her forehead. I found a nondescript little diary as I scanned the various shelves. The diary was empty but for the last few pages with some of her children’s phone numbers and one of my young cousin’s birth date.
A folded letter slipped out from amidst the pages. Tears that had refused to flow since her passing early that morning, welled-up as I read the contents of the yellowed little sheet. In my hands was testimony to a facet of my grandmother’s persona that I had only sparingly heard of, the immense support she had lovingly extended to her less-fortunate siblings all her life.
It was an undated letter from my grandmother’s late older brother, a moving note of gratitude for her unstinting support that saw him through life’s vagaries, and the last worldly remnant of an endearing bond between siblings, unsullied by their starkly differing circumstances in life.
Alas, she never spoke of it and it stayed within her, just like the little non-descript note in a diary somewhere in the deep recesses of her wardrobe.
And as with everything else in her life, my grandfather’s beloved Girija, the family’s cherished matriarch and my treasured Ammaji left us without a fuss, self-reliant and on her feet till two days before her end, and gone in a jiffy, leaving behind a lingering fragrance of her graceful life.