Both my grandmothers were poles apart. Nani and Dadi. My last memory of seeing them must have been when I was around thirteen. Then we lived in Pondicherry, a lovely coastal town which used to be a French colony. Two thousand kilometres from Bihar, where my grandparents lived.
Nani, my maternal grandmother was garrulous and loved a nice gossip session. She had stories to tell about everyone. Most folks on my mother’s side are excellent story tellers. They will take a small episode, stretch it and weave vivid stories about it. Such that you will have an imprint of the story in your brain for life. An inane topic such as ‘ways of eating fish curry without choking on its bones’ could end so hilariously that people would guffaw about it years later. And invariably when the clan meets (even if it is at someone’s funeral), long sessions of gupp meander late into the night.
My most distinct memory of my Nani was when we visited her in Hazaribagh where she lived. It was rather late when we reached and the air was taut with an unsaid nervousness, driving through the winding hill roads in the dark. As we got home, the smell of her mutton curry wafted through the kitchen. I can still smell it. Some memories linger on. Cooked on a wood fire, it is the best mutton curry I have ever tasted in my life. And no one has ever been able to replicate it for me.
I didn’t talk too much with her that day. I was a ten year old in pigtails dressed in a frock. And I was just frazzled with the number of times I was asked to touch some stranger’s feet. My moment came when she came to stay with us in 1984. I gathered courage to ask her about her life. “I have borne a dozen children,” she told me. A line which has stayed with me since. “Of them, I lost one male child and a female child. And see, I have five sons and five daughters,” Yes, it was a huge family, but there was enough to feed everyone. She would tell me about the time when the great earthquake shook Bihar. “I was in a dark store room with a flickering lamp, trying to find something, when everything around me began to quiver and ring.” And then there would be giggles all around as she mimicked the scare she got, thinking there was a ghost in that room!
Dadi, my paternal grandmother, in contrast, was very quiet. She wouldn’t speak until spoken to. And if something upset her, she would grow even more silent. People on my Dad’s side were very moody. The commonest excuse for not doing something would be “I’m not in the mood”! My mother used to say that she learnt this new word ‘mood’ after her marriage. Coming from a house where no one stopped talking, it must have been quite a radical change for her adapting to this family. As a mother-in-law, my Dadi was not very warm, is what I always heard. She was very strict about her fasting and her pujas.
We never lived in Bihar, and for all practical purposes I saw my paternal grandparents, once in three or four years, when my Dad, a government employee, got his LTC (leave travel concession). Then we could afford to travel to Muzaffarpur during our summer vacation. But in the 1980s, my grandparents travelled to Pondicherry. I remember the upheaval at home when Dadi arrived. Mostly in the kitchen.
She was a pure vegetarian. And she walked into the house with her own aluminium plate, katori and glass. To distinguish them from the stainless steel utensils that were used in our kitchen. She would not drink a glass of water served in our steel vessels. By afternoon, the gardener had built a small chulha (mud fireplace) in the courtyard under her directions. Her food would be cooked separately. In anticipation of these new rules, my mother had already bought a new pressure cooker and kadhai which would be ‘pure’ enough to cook food for her. When I think of it now, I wonder how she managed to live like this in a household where almost every individual was a fish and meat lover. I often wonder if this transformation happened later, because I can’t imagine my grandfather living on just vegetables. He was a fantastic host and the whole town used to be visiting him.
But something strange happened to this stark and serious woman in the two months that she lived with us in Pondicherry. She was ambushed with the love of her children and grandchildren. We took her to all the temples she wanted to go to. She would pray to each minor god right from the entrance of the temple to the deity in the main shrine. And in temples of South India, which have hundreds of statues, it meant that each temple visit would take hours to complete!
In ten days we kids had gathered courage to tease her about her food fads. Eating seafood was a regular affair in coastal Pondicherry. I remember my Dad stealthily sending me with a huge crab to dangle in front of her nose. I scared the living daylights out of her! But she was no longer the stern and snobbish grandmother any more. She began to talk to everybody. She began to share her recipes with my mother, and together they would cook long-forgotten delicacies on the chulha. She even learnt to interact with our neighbours, although most spoke nothing more than Tamil.
We three kids used to snuggle up to her and she would tell us the most fascinating unbelievable fairy stories I’ve ever heard. I only half-understood what she said, as I couldn’t decipher the Bajjika dialect completely. But I never let her know that, and always remained transfixed to her story-telling. Her never-ending stories started with peeli pari (yellow fairy) and would go on to laal pari (red fairy) and then to hari pari (green fairy). She had such an imagination!
Those were days when there were no mobile phones. No Whatsapp or video calls. Around three months after she returned to Muzaffarpur, we received a telegram saying she had died in her sleep. Not just us, but even our neighbours were distraught. After my parents returned from the funeral, they brought back something which they had found in her box. A thin school notebook which once belonged to me.
My Dadi had hardly learnt to read and write. Perhaps a few years in school. She knew the letters of the Hindi alphabet, but I doubt if she ever wrote anything substantial. As we flipped through the notebook, our eyes turned moist. Shaky scrawls in Hindi with difficulty in spelling big words. On each page, she had tried her best to write separate letters to each one of us. Letters she never posted. There were questions about everyone, and blessings for everyone. It showed how much she had missed us. Wonder how lonely she might have felt after that short tumultuous phase of being with us.
Life rushes past us. And in the midst of it, we forget to reach out and hold hands to tell people they matter. Until it is too late.