On growing up, a rite of passage and a moment that brought me to adulthood.
The identical solitaires on either side of her nose sparkle. The cluster of diamonds in her ears compete to outshine them. Her shimmer would light up drab days, and the value of her jewels could’ve fetched a mansion in Manhattan. She was my grandmother. She was stellar.
Bejeweled, coiffured and draped in rich, colorful handwoven Kancheevaram silk, which the women of south India carefully persevere for special occasions, she was a portrayal of south Indian elegance and sophistication.
My grandparents had many children, but only five made it to adulthood. Being the first-born daughter of their only daughter, I held a particular sway in my grand mum since birth. Our bond bloomed over the decades.
Married off in her teens, my grand mum was a mother before she was literate and a woman before she was an adult. She centered her life around three main things: nurturing her brood, making her home the confluence of a large family and playing hostess to the lavish and often impromptu luncheons and dinners my granddad threw.
The colonial mansion my maternal grandparents lived in was the epicenter of my childhood. Fringed by fruit-bearing tropical trees, perennial blossoms, a water fountain and even dorm-like rooms that housed domestic helpers – it was lush as well as plush. The house brimmed with visitors from near and far, around the year. Being the unstated address for family congregations that happen around celebrations and festivals – of which there are innumerable in the Hindu lunar calendar – their home was a natural port of call for family and friends visiting the city.
The generosity my grandparents showed towards people who came to them overshadowed the enormity of this mansion. Whether it was a distant country cousin looking to stay overnight in the big city or an aunt visiting from afar with her flock of fledglings, every guest was housed, fed and sometimes even chauffeured around town.
A typical morning in the grandparental household was a sensory cocktail: steam hissing from the shiny, barrel-shaped copper water heater signaling morning ablutions. Birds swooping to feed on the fresh rice flour designs meticulously hand-drawn in front of the revered holy basil plant in the inner courtyard. The smell of incense and fresh flowers from the prayer room mixing with the aroma of south Indian filter coffee. The intermittent whistles of the pressure cooker subduing the sacred chants of Veṅkaṭeśasuprabhātam played from a tape recorder. Muted kitchen conversations, between the cook and his assistants, rising and falling inversely with the tempo of the day, set by the number of guests in the house.
I looked forward to every opportunity to visit and stay over at this home. It was my wonderland. It was vast, welcoming and unbound, unlike school, which was rigid and oppressive. I’d navigate the length and breadth of this mansion unencumbered, in swift, mischievous and surprising moves that can be entertaining only to a juvenile mind. I’d climb trees. I would unleash the watchdogs when they had to be secured and make a messy pulp of colorful chalk and water to gratify my creativity. I’d hide the car keys when the drivers catnapped under the cool shade of the mango trees in the backyard and later take delight at the sight of their frenzied key search. Other members of the household, both permanent and interim, would sometimes bring my impish conduct to my grand mum’s notice. But she never scolded me.
“You’ve been out in the sun for so long. Come in and get something to drink”, she would coax me gently in Tamil while I made mud pies in her backyard on sultry afternoons – my pastel summer dress covered in garden soil.
“Look what I’ve got for you,” she’d affectionately invite me into her home when I arrived on the weekends and serve me Thenkuzhal, a delicious Chettinad snack made of rice flour.
From my toddler days to the days my daughters were toddlers my grand mum doted on me. She would fuss over my wellbeing at a deep and personal level. She’d make sure my favorite food was a part of the cook’s menu, she’d bother over the dry skin on my elbows and knees, worry for the bruises I brought home from frenzied bicycle rides and chanted mantras for my personal safety. She was steadfast in her grandma love. She would call punctually before and after every big exam in the school calendar with a brief, heartfelt message. When I’d come down from Singapore as a young mum with a toddler in tow, regardless of the time of the flight’s arrival, the phone would ring yet again to welcome me home. Those calls from her, no matter where I lived, swelled my heart with a feeling of homecoming.
Most parents play this role in their child’s life, and mine did too; however, the presence of a genuinely caring soul in addition to parents fortified me. Raising children in a land far from where I was raised and from my children’s grandparents, I cherish the wealth I received – the wealth of attention and love. Peerless love.
I don’t remember giving my grandparents any tangible gifts. There was never an implicit or explicit expression of anything they desired. But all through their lives they shared, bequeathed, bestowed and donated heritage gifts, heirloom gifts et al. to everyone in their lives. The more they gave, the grander they seemed. I was a happy, righteous and unmindful recipient.
I imbibed reciprocation by observing intergenerational interactions. As my grandparents grew feeble and dependent, being there for them was the unstated way of thanksgiving. I’d offer to help my grand mum, and she would avail it for small chores like rearranging cupboards, sorting tablets into a weekly schedule, scheduling doctors’ appointments, filing letters and papers. She would thank me for the help and send me home with cookies and chocolates that she would carefully stock as a spot reward for good adolescent behavior.
With the passing of my granddad, my grand mum relinquished all her embellishments of fashion, style, and grandeur. I was in high school then. She replaced her silk sarees with sober fabrics and put away her daily diamonds in the dark caverns of a bank locker. I could hardly recognize her in the austere simplicity she assumed after that. The family rallied around her to keep her spirits buoyant as she grieved. She lost a son and then her husband in a matter of three months. She floundered to embrace the misfortune life dealt her. But even in that state of sorrow, she was resolute in her largesse. She added that she had everything and she only wished to give. The years passed.
I completed an eight-week internship as a part of my graduate program, and I was thrilled like any young adult would be, for my first remuneration. With my mum’s help, I picked out a saree for my grand mum to share the moment with her. I placed a handwritten note in Tamil between the folds of the saree and handed it to her – wrapped and ribboned. She looked puzzled. She squinted at the note and passed it back to me gesturing I read it to her. I did.
In our grand relationship, she was the giver and me the taker. She was unaccustomed to the role reversal. She ran her frail and wrinkled hands over the saree, slowly connecting the dots – taking her time to take in the gift. She hesitated in the weight of the moment but accepted the saree with a lot of pride and fulfillment. With tear-filled eyes, which she made no attempt to conceal, she said, “you are so grown up now.”
Her remark elevated me to adulthood. It was momentous for her as well as me. She wore that saree a few hundred times, never missing a chance to credit me for it.
She left me a legacy. I inherited the wisdom to find wealth in the giving.