When I was twelve years old, I came home from school one day and got the shock of my life. While getting out of the car, I saw, sitting on the veranda next to my mother, a white-clad lady who was grinning at me. That grin stopped me in my tracks. It was the sort of grin that might haunt you in a nightmare, a wolfish leer, a flash of over-sized, protruding teeth, sinister and chilling. A shiver ran down my spine.And then, as I stepped closer and saw who it was, I relaxed, and both of us started laughing. We laughed till tears ran down our cheeks, as we clutched at our sides and gasped for air. She cocked an eyebrow in inquiry, and I shook my head emphatically, no.
This is a recurring memory I have of my grandmother. As I reflect upon that memory, I think of how perfectly it encapsulates her, her outlook and attitude to life, her sense of humor and courage. She had lost all her teeth because of a horribly botched treatment of her rheumatoid arthritis, a painful, debilitating disease that left her with swollen, disfigured joints and, in a couple of years, completely immobile. So she had to visit the dentist for a set of dentures, and it took the dentist several tries before he finally came up with a set of teeth that fitted well and looked right on her. It must have been an uncomfortable and exasperating experience, and most people - rightly and justifiably - would have complained bitterly about it. But she turned it into a game with me, her only granddaughter, a grin-of-the-day lark. I don't know about her, but it certainly helped me to come to terms with the suffering and pain that she, a beloved grandmother, had to endure. Perhaps it was because, considering everything else she had encountered in life, the loss of her teeth was trivial, a petty inconvenience compared to the tragedies and hard knocks she had faced at a young age. Perhaps adversity piled upon adversity is, for some people, like strength gaining strength, building block upon building block of resources to cope. Perhaps she was just wired that way, to be positive and cheerful, to have a sense of fun and humor that no amount of battering from life could destroy, let alone dent.
I know just the basic facts of her childhood. That she was the middle child, sandwiched between two brothers who were in equal parts brilliant and batty. That hers was a solid middle-class Brahmin family in Kerala, one that valued frugality and education, and that frowned upon waste and ostentation. Expectations were sky-high for educational achievement, and those expectations were more than met. Musical brilliance blazed here and there in the extended family and a spark of it burned brightly in my grandmother who gave a solo singing performance at a very early age. But none of this was considered particularly special or out of the ordinary. Their town was full of Brahmin families like theirs, smart, modest, simple,old-fashioned in outlook and values. The girls in these families were married off early, and it was no different with my grandmother. Her marriage was arranged with her first cousin, her father's sister's son, an excellent prospect with a promising legal career ahead of him. The family was well-to-do and well respected. She must have been in her teens when she got married.
But these facts are merely the bare bones, the skeletal framework, of her early years. I have nothing to flesh out the person, to breathe life into her. Was she happy? Was she popular? What did she enjoy reading? Who were her friends? Was she a leader? Did she argue with her mother? Was she a daddy's girl? Did she fight with her brothers? What were her favorite subjects in school?
I will never know the answers. Perhaps it is not a big deal, because how much of any of this do we really know about our near and dear ones? Often, we are so absorbed in our own lives and selves, we rarely look at or think about a person beyond what and how they present themselves to us. That external self becomes the whole person. Or we use our imagination, our inner pop-psychologist, to fill in the blanks, to ascribe motives, to understand behavior and traits.
So I will confine myself largely to what I do know of her life. Once she got married, she became part of the stream of women of her era and caste, who, I like to imagine, did not have to grapple with the issues that concern women of later generations. Their options, which were not really options because there was no choice involved, were laid out in black and white. Get married young. Be a good, obedient housewife, a diligent student of the art of running a household. Have children. Be a full-time mother to them, and an always-present wife to the husband. Submit yourself to your husband's family regardless of how they treated you. Suppress all ambitions - if you had them - of furthering your education, of exploring the world, of being independent. These were iron-clad expectations. And, in reward for conforming to them, you were cocooned by the comfort of predictability, of blending in, of looking around and seeing an orderly, stable, balanced landscape. For sure, every family had its share of little upheavals, the moody wife, the mother-in-law and daughter-in-law feuds, the quarreling brothers, the child who did poorly at school. These were minor and expected bumps, and life and society flowed over and around them, smoothly, unchangingly.
Soon, my grandmother was pregnant with her first child. Then, tragedy, the first of several, struck. The baby, a boy, was stillborn, afflicted with hydrocephalus, an excess of cerebrospinal fluid in the ventricles of the brain, known in layman's terms as water in the brain. It was a shock, but my grandparents were young and healthy, and doctors assured them that the chances of this problem recurring were slim to none, and that they would have no problem with having babies in the future. Life resumed its rhythms, and soon, my grandmother was pregnant again. Family life was smooth, my grandfather's career was progressing well, there was much to look forward to.
But beneath this calm and rosy veneer, events were gathering force. It started with a simple stomach ache. My grandfather had been complaining of this on and off, and a friend, a doctor, dismissed it as indigestion and prescribed purgatives to deal with it. But the pain did not go away. It recurred with distressing frequency and increasing intensity, and one day, writhing in agonizing pain, he was taken to the local hospital, where his situation was deemed serious enough that he was rushed to Madras. My pregnant grandmother was visiting her parents in Ernakulam at the time, and she and her father hurried to Madras to be with my grandfather.
It was too late. The diagnosis was a ruptured appendix, and there was nothing that the medical science of that time could do to save him. Every dose of those purgatives that he had taken was like a death knell, until their cumulative effect was more than what his system could take. My grandfather, a young man at the cusp of so much in life, was dead.
Left behind in the turmoil was my grandmother, a young widow, just twenty one years old. Pregnant, with a bleak, grim, joyless future stretching ahead of her.
Let us reflect for a moment on the lot of a widow in India in the 1930s. There were few worse fates that could befall a woman at that time. It was a form of living hell, a mockery of a life lived in the shadows, one of shame, guilt, sorrow and humiliation, utterly stripped of dignity and joy. The widow was shorn of all adornment and color, and had to dress in old rags, without even a blouse to protect her modesty. Her hair, that symbol of beauty and luxuriance, was shaven off, roughly and crudely. She had to depend - for food, shelter, just the basics - on the usually undependable and non-existent kindness of family members. She was looked down upon as the harbinger of bad luck, a dark cloud, ominous and inauspicious, choked by the miasmic vapors of calamity and doom. She was considered lucky just to be alive.
But my grandmother transcended all that. The easiest thing - ironically - would have been to submit to her fate. Shave off her hair, don rags, retreat to a dark corner of her in-law's home, yank out her soul and stomp on it, again and again, until it stopped writhing and stilled, dead, like her life. Perhaps that is what would have happened to her, had she remained in her in-law's home. But my grandmother's father, surveying the wreckage that was his daughter's life and her prospects, determined then and there, that his sole concern was her welfare and future - and happiness. He would stand up to whatever the relatives, and society, had to say. He brought her, still pregnant, back to his home and thought long and hard about what he needed to do to ensure the best life for his bright, talented daughter, the apple of his eyes.
Through all the grief and sorrow, the upheaval and turmoil, my grandmother gave birth to a baby girl - my mother. And a few years later, she re-entered college, after a break of a decade. As a widow. Dressed in white, one of her few concessions to widowhood, but holding her head up high, buttressed by the love and support of her exceptionally far-sighted and broadminded parents.
And oh, did the relatives and society have something to say about this! They raged, they recoiled in horror, they taunted, they cursed. The most vile, bitter comments came from people on my grandmother's inlaws' side. The Brahmin community rose in revolt. What sort of an example would this set? Other Brahmin widows had submitted meekly to their fate, why couldn't my grandmother do the same? What was she trying to prove? What would people think?
I cannot even begin to imagine what she must have gone through. Grieving, widowed, with a baby girl, and treated like a pariah. Buffeted on all sides by cruel words, people refusing to look at or talk to her, casting nasty glances, propitiating the evil eye at the sight of her. Just think about it. I don't know where she got her strength from, her determination to excel. Because excel she did. She passed her Intermediate examinations securing the top rank, then her bachelor's degree in physics, winning the university gold medal, and then, her master's degree in physics with a first class. All this in the 1930s and early 1940s, at a time when most girls were educated only up to the 4th or 5th standard. She got her first job as a lecturer in Maharajah's College in Ernakulam, and went on to become the principal of a women's college in Trichur. She brought up my mother, often single-handedly, when she was posted in a place away from her parents, and for several years, brought up her niece as well, when her brother and sister-in-law had to be away from home for long stretches of time because of their involvement in the freedom struggle. She was a strict, loving, involved mother, and I do not think that she once allowed her problems and emotions to come in the way of bringing up my mother.
She learned to drive a car, and even played tennis. She conducted herself with dignity and pride, with optimism and good cheer. For all that life had dealt her, she was never cynical or bitter. And soon, the very people who had thrown stones at her, who had shunned her and spoken ill of her and her actions, turned to her for counsel and comfort. She became a role model to many young men and women,and older people too, who admired her for her erudition, her commitment to education, her always buoyant demeanor, her complete lack of defeatism and acrimony. She was an avid lover of Carnatic music. The great Musiri Subramania Iyer had sung at her wedding, and she often spoke of the electric atmosphere at the performances of G.N. Balasubramaniam (GNB), the rock star of his era who drove the women in his audience to ecstacy with his rendering of the song "Eppo Varuvaro". She was a wonderful story teller, tirelessly repeating her stories over and over again when I begged her to, tales of conniving foxes and wolves who celebrated their marriages in the woods.
After she retired, she moved to Madras with her parents who were old now, so that she could be near her only child, my mother. Until then I saw her mostly during holidays, when we went to Kerala, where I had the kind of gloriously carefree vacations that the over-programmed children of today can only dream about. After she moved to Madras, I saw her much more frequently. I remember our howls of laughter at P.G. Wodehouse's stories - yes, she enjoyed Wodehouse every bit as much as her grandchildren did - and at the comic, perfect ridiculousness of a name like Psmith. But now, a new tragedy struck, in the form of a painful, crippling disease, relentless in its progress, rheumatoid arthritis. It blazed its debilitating, excruciating trail through her body and fizzled out only after it had destroyed all her joints and her ability to move.
After her parents passed away, she moved into my parents' home. It was a remarkable living arrangement. Both my parents were only children - my mother, because her father passed away even before she was born, as you now know, and my father, because neither of his two siblings survived beyond toddler-hood. My paternal grandfather had passed away some years earlier, and my paternal grandmother was living with us.And so, I had the rare - and delightful - situation of having both grandmothers living in our home. It was a circumstance that was ripe for all manner of drama, the pitting of mother against mother, grandmother against grandmother, son against daughter. I could write an entire book on how wildly different my grandmothers were, but the wonderful thing was that they got along beautifully. Both shared a room, and each was unfailingly considerate and caring of the other. Just amazing.
Her arthritis grew worse, and eventually, she became completely immobile. She was constantly in pain. None of the treatments that were tried on her worked; several made matters worse. All her teeth fell out. But never once did I hear her complain or say, why has life been so cruel to me? Not once. She took a great interest in my brother's and my activities, smiling with genuine pleasure when we had good news to report to her. She even made displays of affection to my beloved dog, Pug, even though she did not particularly care for dogs, because she knew how much he meant to me.
I will never forget the day I left home for the United States, for a new life with my husband and newborn baby. My grandmothers had come to the gate to bid farewell to me. As I got into the car, Paati, my paternal grandmother, started crying, saying, "When will I ever see you again? What if I die when you are there?" My other grandmother scolded her. "Shhh, you should not show her a sad face when she is leaving. She should remember us with happy faces. Send her off with a smile, not tears".
I never saw either grandmother again.