The grandmother I never knew

Stumbled upon a post that said it was grandparents day and it reminded me of two photographs. The first one was a picture of my grandmother, mother, me and the firstborn in a frame, 4 generations of women connected by blood and the second was this one, of my maternal grandmother on a swing. It was taken during one Onam season. She must be in her late 90s here.


She lived to be a 105 and I met her all of 5 times in my life. There was no bond or connection since I never grew up around her. She was just this wizened old woman who spoke in a language that was soaked in a hillside accent. My cousins, who grew up around her, had a different relationship though. She told them stories, they embellished it in their retellings. I never quite completely understood all that she would say. She would talk to herself too and lived to a tune she alone heard. Maybe we aren’t so different in that respect. After all, we are bits and bobs of countless foremothers.


We called her veliammachi. It’s funny how grandparents are simply aaji, ammachi, granny etc. Their names don’t quite come into play for grandkids. I have fragments of images in my mind’s eye rather than memories. Her sweeping the courtyard, roasting cashews over a fire and shelling it for us kids, her pendulous breasts that seemed way too large to be real, the old people smell in her room, her crinkly eyes that seemed sleepy. I remember her vetiver mattress and the way she’d fall asleep at evening prayer. She didn’t have teeth but would eat everything quite heartily. Her room was dimly lit and she had her favourites among the 4 dozen odd grandkids who helped her with some tasks. She had 9 kids that survived into adulthood.


My paternal grandmother died before I was born. As for grandfathers, the paternal one was gone when my father was very young and the maternal one was blind. He passed away at 92 and I met him twice. We kids grew out of the country and by the time, India happened, the rift was too wide. We rarely did the ‘native place’ summer vacations and the ones we went on could be trying. The urban-rural divide was a tough one to bridge.


My firstborn was practically raised by her grandmother, Amma to her and me too. For the first time, I saw what a lovely bond that could be. From food and feeding to medicine and stories, Amma scooped her into a cocoon. A quarter of a century later, that bond is still strong. They fight too but the affection is unmistakable. I can close my eyes and see the firstborn hoisted on a saree clad waist, being fed rasam-rice. Both of them smelled of tamarind and curd and ghee. Both of them would stare into a loud Tamil serial which would be endearing and annoying (those shows could be very loud). Amma would take Big K to the temple and have a blast dolling my girl. I think she always wanted a girl. In fact she lost two daughters at a very young age and so having a little girl to lavish all her love was precious. I see it now, in retrospect. Back then, I was mildly resentful.


I don’t know if I will ever be a grandmother and if I do end up becoming one, how would that role play out? Our world is in a strange transition and I wonder what shape social ties will take in a few decades.

A letter to my daughter

Darling firstborn

We’ve crossed the halfway mark of the lockdown. It seems an uncertain world that we will emerge into whenever this forced isolation is over. What is certain though is that art created in these times, splashing a canvas with fears and desires across all kinds of media, will remain. Decades from now, a future generation will read about these times like we do about the ages gone by of older wars and plagues.

These days hand written letters have morphed into images sent electronically

A couple of nights ago, I had fallen off to sleep and then gotten up with a start. So, I thought I’d work on some writing when your sister came by. She craves company and says that she is like a bug to my light. It’s a cute analogy. For me though, at writing times, I want silence and complete isolation. I don’t like having anyone nearby. Long story short, I didn’t end up writing but indulged her drawing whims.

We spoke for a long while and she sketched me, I really like the picture. Sending it to you so you can see what I mean. She is gifted and doesn’t quite know it. That’s probably the best place to be as an artist. Perhaps someday, I might ask her to make illustrations for books I will write. Through my writing, I have started to discover myself and explore beyond the edges of what I thought I knew. It’s been exhilarating, this deluge of discovery. But that’s for another day when I get to see you in person, my love.

It’s late and I’m tired. My mind’s ranged universes today and I have no wise words or thoughts for us to ponder, just this little slice of my today. And a very big I love you.

Mom