Friday, November 12, 2010

A Love So Grand – Part II

Being the oldest child of my clan and an only child for several years, I have been pampered and indulged by a bevy of uncles and aunts. But more so by my amma (paternal grandmother). And she therefore has a very, very special place in my heart.

Since we lived in a joint family, my mother felt very comfortable leaving me in the care of my grandparents whenever she travelled. And if I go by the accounts that she gives me often, I never missed her even at the tender age of one. In fact, while she was the disciplinarian to a stubborn I, my amma was my refuge – a shelter from my mother’s temper and dad’s strict standards.

But let’s make no mistake. Amma’s a true matriarch, despite her leniency towards me. I remember my mom and aunt asking amma about the menu for lunch and dinner. What vegetables were allowed to be cooked and when. This was especially important when it came to onions because in our household like in scores of other homes in UP and Rajasthan, onion was considered an impure vegetable. In fact, I remember once asking amma about why it was so. After all onion is also a vegetable and therefore can be a part of vegetarian diet. She told me how when Lord Vishnu (he is one of three most powerful gods in Hindu mythology) once sat down for his meal, a bulb of onion fell off his plate. And from that day onwards, the onion was cursed and no true devotee of Vishnu was allowed to have the vegetable! Incredible, isn’t it? But to a six year old, it was gospel truth.

That is one of the charms of my grandma. She is so full of stories. And they are not always about gods and fictional characters. You should hear her speak about her childhood. You can almost see the house that she grew up in, her friends and her aunt who raised her, since her own mother had passed away at an early age. Amma, as was the norm more than fifty years back, got married at the tender age of fifteen. But she recollects all the details of those first fifteen years so clearly, more than what has actually happened in last fifteen years!

Did I mention that she is a great cook? Her aloo paranthas are nonpareil. Even the most mundane dishes are amazing. And I only have to whisper in her ear about the dish I want to eat and it would be done – from bharwan baingan to chole bhature.

Going vegetable shopping with her used to be fun because she would buy me all the roadside savouries that I liked, without my mom getting to know about it. I dodged naps in hot summer afternoons so that I could eat that extra mango that amma had saved especially for me, with my siblings safely tucked away. At night, if I felt scared, I could slowly inch over to her bed (I slept in my grandparents’ room) and cuddle her. And at three in the morning when she woke up to go to the temple, she often found me curled asleep on her bed.

I could go on endlessly about her. There are so many things that I have not mentioned. There are so many stories that I have not shared. The words I have written do no justice to a woman who has a flair for languages (she can speak Hindi, Bengali and Marwari – the last two she learnt post marriage), can manage the operational aspect of my dad’s business, pamper her brood of grandchildren and still manage time for her religious rituals and her husband. But over the last few years, as her health has slowly degenerated, my heart has been breaking bit by bit. The plump cuddliness of her body has withered away to frail bones. In the last one month or so, she has been hospitalized twice and is still being treated for severe kidney damage. Every time I see her now, her weak countenance, drained of all vitality, is like a jolt to my senses.

So, while she would never be able to read this blog or even understand what a blog is, I still needed to write this – to tell her how much she means to me and that I just want her to come home, recovered and healthy.

That’s all, amma. Come back home to me, safe and sound.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

A Love So Grand: Part I

There is a saying in Hindi: Asal se sood jyaada pyaara hota hai. Roughly translated it means that interest is dearer to a moneylender as compared to the actual amount. This is usually quoted in the context of the relationship between grandparents and grandchildren, the inference being that people love their grandkids more than their own offspring. The inverse, I like to think, is also true.

I was one of those fortunate people who had both sets of grandparents alive and healthy for all my childhood.

My Mom hails from a small but hugely famous town in Uttar Pradesh. All through my school life, we had a largely fixed summer ritual. The day after the school closed for summer, we would travel to my nani’s (maternal grandmother) place after a day long journey by train. It was the one month I looked most forward to. The huge assortment of cousins who would gather was the biggest attraction. In fact, I used to think that that was the only reason I used to love spending my vacation there. But now in hindsight, after so many years, I realize that it was not just the kids. It was the sheer joy that my grandparents felt at having all their grandchildren around them that made the months special.

My nanaji (maternal grandfather) was a lawyer – highly successful and respected. I remember people coming from far and wide to discuss legal issues with him. The courts also used to close for summers and his vacation largely coincided with ours. He liked to cook, especially for us. He would prepare huge mounds of sandwiches and gallons of thandai every morning for the horde of ravenous children (there were eighteen of us, ranging from teenagers to mere toddlers). Always had some input for the lunches and dinners. Special requests for mithi guzhia was always granted.

But what I loved most about time with him were the quizzes and puzzles that he set out for us to solve. These brain teasers were fun and interesting. He would ask about and tell us trivia in the hot afternoons while we demolished plates of mangoes, watermelons, berries and melons. He would peel and cut the fruits, distributing it fairly amongst us, coaxing me to eat the melons, which I did not like and trying to protect the mangoes from being pillaged. And then there were stories too. Of Akbar and Birbal, Tenalirama and Mulla Naseeruddin.

He liked gardening and if any of us were around while he watered the plants, he would tell us about the flowers and the fruits that he had in his garden.

He loved reading too. Children’s magazines like Nandan, Chandamama and Champak were subscribed for him, along with intellectual reads like Wisdom and Reader’s Digest. I think I inherited the love of reading from him. Yeah, I am quite sure.

He had answers and infinite patience for all our questions. Celebrations and parties for our academic achievements were sponsored by him. Ice creams and chocolates. Taught us new card games and new tricks too.

Not that we never got dressed down by him. Oh, countless number of times. We were extremely naughty, especially the oldest six, which included yours truly. We considered sleep a waste of time since this one month was all we got in an entire year to spend together. And as we grew older, there was a sense of urgency to pack as many conversations and games in as little time as possible. The chats and games lasted late into night. This was all very well if we were sleeping in a room separate from all the adults. Obviously, when the adults were sleeping close by, we had to be more cautious – whispers only. Once, three of us were busy making wild plans, which included opening a detective agency and its potential branding, with nanaji sleeping in the adjacent room with the connecting door open. At one point in the discussion, we got extremely excited (we could not decide whose name should come first in the partnership) when a bark to shut up from Nanaji made the decision for us.

It’s been so long since I had the benefit for his stories and his admonishing. Nobody makes mithi guzhias like he used to.  Sometimes, I wonder if he saw me today, the person I have become, the successes I have had and the failures that I have chalked up, what would he say. Would he be proud? Would he be disappointed? He would have retired, perhaps but forever busy. He would have spoilt his great-grandchildren. He would have been one more vociferous voice cajoling me to settle down. I can almost hear him say this in the same voice as when he asked me to eat melon or drink thandai.

Ah, nanaji. I miss you.