I remember swallowing the food I’d cooked that evening myself in a hurry, because I knew the phone call from the hospital meant a day of fasting, till the last rites were over. Amma hadn’t eaten, and we’d left the house abruptly at night. Later, Anand and I lifted the stretched from the ambulance that arrived at 3.30 in the morning at Mama’s place in the outskirts and brought her lifeless body onto the floor, placing it in the right direction, filling the ears and nostrils with cotton wool, tying the toes together and the jaws up with the forehead. We lit a lamp at her head, and decided to sleep around her, till the others came in the morning. It felt like she was still alive.
She was always my ‘Ma’. Anand and I were the only grandchildren who had the privilege to call her ‘Ma’, since we both were brought up by her in our childhood years with the joint family, away from our own biological parents. Paatti brought me to the world of ‘Mini’-Mami and her family for six, Siva and his family in the hutment opposite our house, and the owner’s family above with some noisy twins who had weird names.
She’d get me from school everyday, although one of my uncles would drop me on their bicycle in the morning. She’d wash me clean if I’d had loose motions in my pants, or I’d rolled in the mud with the kids from across the street. She’d make me gulp the only non-vegetarian meal in the household – fresh eggs beaten in warm milk as an assumed cure against Primary Complex (T.B.). Resting our heads on her lap, we could smell her Chinnalampattu sarees and feel the fresh turmeric rubbed onto the hands, that gently put us to sleep or eased our tantrums in minutes.
Paatti loved going at the grinding stone for her ‘thuvaiyal’s and chutneys – smelling of all the country’s spices and fresh herbs, a dash of tamarind and coconut, sometimes a piece of ginger or two and fresh, roasted hing that kept our taste buds and intestines active. The other grinding stone would then get into action for all sorts of batter – be it the urad-rice-fenugreek mix for ‘idli’s, or Bengal gram-rice-urad-chilly-curry leaf ‘adai’, or a bright and fiery looking ‘gun powder’ for the ‘dosa’s. The ‘Pepper-Rasam’ she made was legendary, and only Amma and I managed to replicate her signature version in the entire family – which would be devoured by the uncles and aunts by the liter, and any other kind of Rasam made by any other family member would be termed simply ‘Venneer’ or hot-water.
Her life pretty much revolved around her husband whom she married at the age of 13, the seven children she brought up and many more grandchildren that were to come till the end of her life. She could have raised an eyebrow at the nomadic life that they’d led, traveling every couple of years from one location to another, from French Pondicherry to the hills of Kumuli and Tiruvannamalai and finally back to Madras, but she was busy bearing and raising her children, that she didn’t notice the early curls of her beautiful, glistening hair turn grey and silvery. She’d hence insist that all the daughters of the family groom their wavy hair with coconut oil, a good comb and a number of plaits. Ribbons and plastic slides would then complete the picture, rendering a near-perfect image of the feminine aura in their minds – of a ‘nalla ponnu’, a good girl according to her. Paatti, the youngest of three sisters, left to care by their grandmother and father post the mother’s expiry, was the only one talented in the arts. As a result, my Amma got to learn to dance, to weave baskets and carpets and even sing. And what did she learn herself? A simple 8th Standard schooling from the thirties.
If ‘Thatha’ had religiously settled into the Rig Veda and Upanishads, Paatti would engage herself in gossip and culinary delights. Janmashtami and Pongal would bring about not only the mélange of savouries, sweets and spicy meals, but also the colors and smells of a Puja in the background, observed according to the ways her father had taught her. She toiled in the garden alone, at the well drawing water, digging into the earth and planting seeds and saplings, trees and creepers, and the earth rewarded her green thumb with rich harvests – flowers, fruits, herbs and vegetable of all colors and shapes, in the abundant sub-tropical heat and rain of the city. All this and some fresh Garlic (which she considered demoniac) seemed therapeutic in helping her cope with Breast Cancer and the Chemotherapy thereafter. She’d always believed in the healing properties of nature, whose plants and remedies she’d used for my Amma during bouts of Jaundice or our childhood events of Mumps or Chicken Pox.
She’d seen a lot in her lifetime, from Charkhas & Rajaji to the Emergency and the Dravida Movement against the Brahmins, to finally the age of mobile phones, the Internet and imported cars.
Twelve sturdy years she lived post that fine afternoon, when she showed me the little brown boil that moved a bit here and there, threatening to eat up her heart as she would say. It never did; her worries however did.