When I started learning English, I asked my dad — “Why do I call my Grandmom, Amma and not Grandmom, Granny, or just Dadi?” and “Why do you call her Amma and not ma?”. He replied that she is Amma to everyone. And I grew up seeing how she was Amma for everyone. For her kids, for their kids, and for the world.
For as long as I can remember, I have seen her old. I mean she got older with time, but she was always old to me. I never felt she was aging until I, 16 years old, moved out of my house after having a troubled relationship with my dad and stayed with her for a year. It was then that I saw her getting old every day. She was a small woman who got smaller with time. Her hands were like paper, crumply and frail. And they were always cold. . Not the cold that will send shivers down your body but the one that soothes you during a hot, summer day. Her hair was thinning but she loved her hair. She would sit outside in the sun after a shower and spend a good 20 mins brushing those silver strands and making sure every one of them felt attended to. And that was the time when I would sit with her and talk. She would ask about my health, and my work and share some family gossip, some lessons with years of wisdom but mostly talk about her. I wish I could go back and never miss any of those 20 mins every day.
During summer vacations, all of my cousins and I would go to her place. Every evening the whole family would come together in her room for a round of tea and Parle-G, the famous Indian cookies. Tea would be made and two packets of cookies would be opened and everyone would get 2 pieces of cookies. Not more, not less. Just two. The distribution was Amma’s favorite task. She would go to everyone and gave them their two cookies. We would try to get more but she would be fair, not giving in to our puppy eyes. There would be a round of trading that would happen between cousins where my cousin would offer me his comic and I would part my way with one of the cookies. Amma would see this as she would see everything. She would then slowly call me pretending to speak into my ear and while handing me over a cookie, silently directing me not to tell anyone. No cookie ever tasted that good in life ever again. Because none of them had the secret ingredient of Amma’s love.
Back then, I would make weird jokes as I still do. Jokes that would make people cringe make those family gatherings go awkwardly silent, Or get those eyes rolling. Once I had run out of material or been kicked out of the room, she would come to me. And she would tell me how she found that funny. I still remember the one time when there was a sister of hers who had come visiting and was bragging about some deal she got on the new sarees and how everything Amma bought the weekend before was too expensive. And she kept going on and on about how he bought a TV on a deal, or the new carpet on a deal, or even an ugly new sweater. I could see the frustration in Amma’s eyes but Amma being Amma, would not be rude to her or to anyone in life. Fed up, I stopped her and asked her about the new glasses she was wearing. She told me that she got those on a deal (no surprise there) as well and they are of really good quality. I asked her if I could see them and then I muttered, “ yeah, someone made a fool out of you. These are cheap polypropylene plastic (No clue, what’s that. Maybe some carbon compound I read in chemistry) and I got mine last week at half the price which are so much better”. I remember the look on her face and how she stopped talking about deals after that. Amma came to me later that day and thanked me for doing it but also warned me not to do it again to the guests in the house. That was Amma. Always cautious of social norms but also enjoyed breaking them.
During that year, I learned about her trunk. It was just a large steel box, worn out from years of usage, painted multiple times over the years, donned in deep green, and hidden beneath her bed. I think the trunk and its contents were the only materialistic thing she was attached to. Sometimes I would get a peek at her most prized possessions. A few sarees, a box made of tin with some money, some sundry pieces of jewelry, and a few old black and white pics. A lifetime stored in that box. I never understood how life can be so much and so little at the same time. I guess as I am getting older, I am realizing that life can be just a small box size.
She had her flaws. Early in her life, she favored the sons in the family over the daughters. I know my sister found it difficult to connect with her until very late in her life. She always wanted fair-colored daughters-in-law and I remember growing up seeing my mom, who was dusky, crying over the biased treatment she received in the family. But in that year and later in life, I saw her evolving. I saw her being open to the changing world around her, open to letting the new experiences teach her, and open to being a different person at the age of 70. Last month my mom told me how she and Amma got very attached in the last few years of her life. My mom felt that Amma regretted her biases and she would try to make up for it in her own way. Like she would call my mom and tell her about the new sarees she bought. Or she would call and plan the next family gathering with her. Or how Amma would go out of her way to praise my mom. And we both cried together remembering Amma.
She lost her son to congenital heart disease at the age of 35. She lost both of her sons-in-law to accident and cancer respectively. She saw her daughters getting widowed while they were very young. She would tell me about her son and sons-in-law and gave me a brief snippet into their life. She would sometimes talk to me about how life would have been had any of these things not happened. I felt sadness in her. Sadness for having a broken life. A sadness that never truly left her until her last breath. By the time I was living with her, she stopped questioning why it happened to her and her family. She never understood it completely, but she simply accepted it. That was Amma. Accepting without understanding. Later in my life, I saw my dad coming around. He understood that I am different and the qualities he wanted in his son, the expectations he had from me, may not ever be fulfilled. He never understood my choices before but since then he started accepting them. Accepting without understanding. Just like Amma.
And now she is gone. Gone for over 5 years. But there is so much of her inside each one of us in the family. I guess she still lives within us, through us. I still remember her, but every day, memories are fading a little, her face is slipping from my mind and our conversations are becoming hazy in my head. I don’t know if a person ever leaves you completely. I hope not. Because if it does, it would be the saddest day of my life. And even if it does, I hope I can still follow the things that I learned from her.
Life can only be the size of a chest and it’s still beautiful even if it’s broken. Accept it even if you don’t understand it.