Yesterday was the condolence function that culminates the grieving period. The custom is to sing devotional
“Mrs.Saroja Sundaram. 1930-2012 . 82 years.
Expired from Parkinson’s disease and old age.”
Says the doctor’s writing on the death certificate. I thought that would be the last document written about her, but apparently not. I get the privilege of speaking about her life and telling her story.
Our most complex relationships are the ones we have with death and with family. One forces us to examine the other and our connections with them.
I have to wonder what connected us other than a branch on the family tree, separated as we were, both by space and time. How well do you really know someone you see once a year, even less in recent times?
She was one half of black-and-white photographs shot in a street corner photo studio, exuding the stiffness and sternness of that era. She was the appropriately dressed, suitably demure/proud smile beside the uniformed man next to her, receiving a medal from the prime-minister. She was a generic Tamilian lady in her diamond nose-stud, her saree with a cardigan and gold bangles. But that’s just peripheral; I’m looking for what made her, her.
She was the oldest of fourteen children. Her father was the first to give his daughters an education so she would have been the first woman high school graduate in her village. I wonder what that must have felt like. Growing up with ten boys may have helped her cope with that. My daily battles against gender discrimination are probably nothing in comparison.
She married late (for the times) at eighteen. It never occurred to me to ask her what that experience was like. And to top it off, she moved from the cocoon of a large family in the South into the complete unknown of Delhi. What must it have been like for a young girl, just barely out of her teens, with 3 small children to set up home in an unfamiliar city, having to cope with different weather, food, people and a new language?
She was close to her mother-in-law; said once that she had been blessed to have another loving mother. It was also her sad privilege to be the one to watch her die. Holding her hand, in her last few minutes, her mother-in-law asked her to read the prayers. And tears flowing from her eyes, my grandmother began reading as the old lady struggled for her last few breaths. Having to face death is one thing. But to look it in the eye and keep going, never stopping, that is not a task for the faint of heart.
I don’t look like her, having taken after my other side of the family in appearance. But she was there when I was born. Even before that, when my parents asked for name ideas, her suggestion won great favor. In the end, I didn’t get that name but 12 years later, her choice was brought out, unused & still cherished, for another granddaughter – Aishwarya.
When I was in school, my interest in art veered in the direction of needlework. That was the school vacation when she taught me to knit and crochet. I sent in my school assignment and promptly forgot about it. Till, years later picking it up again, I found the yarn flowing through my fingers as deftly without lessons. Her voice is in my head when those needles are in my hands.
Speaking of vacations, there was one where she didn’t come to receive us at with the others. Standing at New Delhi station, I saw my mother cry when she was told that my grandmother had had a paralytic attack that left her confined to a wheelchair. I was too young to understand it at the time. She stayed in the wheelchair that whole time we were there. But when we left, she promised my mother that the next time we saw her, she’d be back on her feet. The doctors said it was an act of sheer willpower and courage, that she walked in three months. And on my next vacation, as promised, she was standing at the station.
In 1997, my mother fell ill, each day worsening her condition. It was a particularly bad monsoon in Mumbai, phone lines were down, shops out of stock and our maid had quit. My father and I struggled to keep house and to take care of my mother. Then my grandmother flew in to Mumbai, arriving late in the night. Later she told me that my mother looked like she might not leave the hospital alive. But at the time, she just spoke to my mother of her first air trip alone and the awkwardness of sitting in the front seat of the car, next to her son-in-law. Then she efficiently took charge of the house, the kitchen and my mother’s health. She stayed till my mother came home from the hospital and for three months after that, till mum was up and on her feet again.
The years brought many more challenges for her to weather. Through 2000, we all experienced the soul-searing sting of cancer as it ate into my grandfather, her husband. But five years later, her son, my uncle succumbed to the same disease. We each lost an uncle, a brother, a father. But for it, it must have been the severest blow of all – having to bury a child. That is the only time I’ve seen her wear that look of defeat. When she held me, crying, my words felt hollow to me as I told her she would have to be strong yet one more time.
Seven years have passed since then, a long time to live with pain, with loss. I will imagine that she made her peace with it. She was always strong-willed. There was never going to be an easy way to go, especially for someone as solid and unshakeable as her. I’d like to believe that eventually, she departed not like a tree, falling over, but in the way of a mountain, weathering time till it wore away and became one with earth. She wanted so much, got some of it, didn’t get the rest. But she never gave into despair and she never stopped wanting.
I guess that is my answer. She was a rock, a mountain. A pillar of support to her family, immovable to those who opposed as I sometimes did. Mountains are majestic. And this one, she was my grandmother.