One summer, a couple of years ago, I suddenly found myself without everything I had. No money, no job, no address and all the other coordinates of daily life that keep one moored. I had made a long journey into a country that I hadn’t stayed in for any length of time over a decade and a half, completely destitute except for my suitcase, my beloved coffee cup and my laptop. At this time, amongst all the things that I knew I lacked, there was one thing I needed quite urgently.
After trying out several options for sleeping, none of which quite worked, one night they suggested that I sleep on a bed whose perpetual steady occupant, always clad in white, always present at home, always sitting on the bed with legs folded just so was no longer present nor ever would be again. Just enough time had passed so the picture on the wall made sense. Yet, not enough time had passed so when you looked down, you would still not not expect to see a figure there at all times, simply reading or thinking or just sighing away the long hours, having reached a point when you could not read anymore or watch TV because your eyesight failed, or you lost interest slowly in the humdrum nature of daily life.
It was my grandmother’s bed.
The bed was the narrowest bed in the house with the thinnest mattress with a pillow that had hardened to the point that it could have been hewn out of stone. The same pillow had been removed with the last rites but I could still see its darkened surface where her head rested for years every time I looked there (as though waiting for her to come back from the verandah with an opinion about the inanity of some particular detail about modern ways or an incident that day mentioned in the daily news).
My paternal grandmother was a mixed bag. She always had an opinion about everything usually most of them correct. Would it rain today? If she said yes, it probably would. (For some reason, my grandmother tracked nimnochaap or low pressure areas in the weather maps diligently at all hours.) Why did her grandson not get admission into one of the premium schools in the city? The girls were taking over all the seats everywhere creating trouble for everybody. Would she eat some instant Maggi noodles? No, they looked like earthworms and she was too late to change her ways at her age.
Even when she did not speak her mind, you knew that it was a conscious decision and you were sure to hear her silence. Sometimes her knowledge and ways surprised people who only saw a widow in white sitting on the edge of the bed until she suddenly came up with the latest cricket score or a current item in the news or a point about The Brief History of Time, excerpts from which were lately available in Bengali translation on the Sunday section of the paper. If ever there was a dispute regarding a fact, no matter for how long or how emphatically my mom or I would explain it, she would not be satisfied until she verified said fact from my father or uncle or even my teenage brother to make sure that fact was correct.
When she played chess or cards or tiger-sheep with dried tamarind seeds and stones with the grandchildren, you would be sadly deluded if you thought there was old granny entertaining the kids while the parents slept in the long summer afternoons. My grandmother always played to win and as a child you would have to fight for every point and watch out for every move and if you cut corners you paid for it whether it was in games or cooking or making pickles.
When my grandmother was in sixth grade, she had a high fever one day. She was one of the last of eleven or twelve siblings so by the time she was in sixth grade her older brothers were in charge of the household. The brothers quickly concluded that their sister had attracted nojor (the evil eye) as she clutched her books to her chest while walking to school and so they decided that the best way to cure her fever would be to take her out of school forever and make her stay home.
That had been the end of my grandmother’s formal education.
I usually heard this story many times in the context of how lucky we girls were and indeed I felt lucky when I heard the story of the girlhood of her niece, daughter of one of these elder brothers, who had grown up with my grandmother (being of the same age). The girl had been married really young, contracted some very painful disease in the husband’s home (here the story was censored for me as a kid about what area of the body was affected) when the husband had refused to have her examined by a male doctor (the only kind of doctor available) and since my grandmother’s paternal family had had no say, the girl had to die a very painful death in the husband’s house.
For the longest I could remember, my grandmother always liked to sit in the same place in the same way with the same set of things laid out next to that pillow or under the bed: a tube of green boroline ointment that was supposed to cure her corn under her feet or her mosquito bites or her swollen toes, her betel nut cracker, her betel leaves, her white choon (slacked lime that she smeared on the betel leaves), her copper mortar and pestle, her little embroidered purse (that was a gift from her favorite girl grandchild, my cousin) and her gamcha (loom woven towel) all carefully stowed away into a box under the bed. Anything left unwittingly on the bed by a careless domestic servant such as a set of folded shirts taken off the clothes lines on the balcony would be promptly removed and remarked on.
That bed was my grandmother’s fortress and now I was going to duck under the low lying mosquito net and climb into it.
For as long as I can remember, except for the very last years, I see my grandmother reading. She could be reading the paper or Desh, the Bengali literary magazine, or reading the almanac, reading the thick Indians epics or anything else available in Bengali or in translation in Bengali. She loved Bengali detective books such as the Pheluda series published in my time but continually talked about Bengali detective novels of her time that I had never read such as Jakher Dhon and Aaabar Jokher Dhon. When she would go to visit my uncle in other parts of India my uncle would immediately make her members of boutique libraries so she could borrow books.
My grandmother had a remarkable memory for stories. She had not only recounted the major plots of the Ramayan and Mahabharat many times to all her grandchildren but she never forgot to tell the many elaborate digressions such as the stories within the stories in the epics without fail every time she told them. Sometimes she added Erich Von Daniken’s observations about material in the epics that she had read and heard of or other South Asian variations of the Ram-Sita stories she was aware of. My grandmother had a multi-volume hard bound version of the Mahabharat in a trunk in our “native place” which I saw once and about which she talked again and again. The volumes, most probably, had been thrown away at some point, along with many of her belongings, when the family had stopped living there. (I wonder what she would say if she knew how everything I had including my books would be things I would never see again.) In an apartment on a very high floor overlooking the city skyline, I remember waiting with my grandmother on dark evenings for a radio program on Chinese folklores. When we lived in a different apartment with a very long and broad verandah, she would be a perpetual fixture on a wooden stool at one end, with the paper spread out in front of her. Always reading (and silently disapproving of us teenagers’ long conversations with friends moored to the corded phone at the other end of the verandah).
One of my grandmother’s perpetual opinions, when she was not too old to express opinions emphatically (before she decided to withdraw from involvement in life), was that women should not be angry. Her steady maxim was “meyeder beshi raag bhalo noi” (women should not have/ harbor/ express too much anger). For most of my girlhood and young adulthood, it was my fate to live with this maxim seeing as I shared the same room with her through ups and downs of family life. We didn’t really get along, perhaps because we both had perpetually tried, in different age appropriate ways, me a girl and she an old woman, to master this maxim with different levels of lack of success.
Everyone in the household, depending on who they were, feared, revered, avoided or admired my grandmother’s wrath. Her anger could be expressed in simple comments usually muttered under her breath but audible enough, just as you quickly passed the room to get to the verandah, about the mosquitoes and how terribly clever they were to be able to bite you exactly at the joints where you could not scratch or on the leeward side of the body against the draft of the ceiling fan. Or it could be about her disapproval of a TV show plotline or the plotline of a real family incident involving a member of the household or domestic servant (when I mostly knew to avoid the room to avoid the muttered comment).
Then there was the story of a messenger from my dad’s office who had come to the door of our bungalow in the small town my dad was posted in due to work before I was born. Misled by my grandmother’s sparse, minimalist attire the messenger had asked for the memsahib (the lady of the house) as my grandmother had opened the door. One burning glance from my grandmother had sent the messenger trembling back where he came from and he was never seen in the precincts again. When my father and uncle were young boys and my naughty uncle kept jumping from bed to bed, one single glance from my grandmother had had the boy frozen in mid-air. My grandmother was always very proud that she had never had to raise her voice while raising three sons and one daughter, ever. The boy had grown up to join the military but my grandmother’s glance had not faded much even with her jumping grandchildren and later, her great-grandchild.
That summer, although Amma was no more, I was almost at the same age she was when she had suddenly found herself without everything she had. No husband, no money, no home, no well-wishers or other coordinates of life that keep one alive. My grandfather had suddenly passed away, in a far-off place, leaving her with four children, completely destitute, without a home to speak of or family support.
Death can come in many ways as can destitution. When they come suddenly, really or symbolically, with finality my grandmother and I developed anxiety symptoms, did not know what to do, tried to retreat to our bed and find our fortress. I never cried except once, after many days, and that too because of a detail in the new way of life which I had lost adaptability to (when there was no efficient way to discard sanitary napkins because one was supposed to pretend they didn’t exist). Inkeeping with Hindu, Brahmin customs, my grandmother wore white, gave up non-vegetarian food (I heard fish was her favourite) and food considered non-vegetarian for widows such as masoor dal (red lentils) and onions and garlic. She ate rice only once a day, observed the ritual of Amboobachi every year meant for widows and brahmins (which would sometimes last for a week and a half when she could not eat cooked food because the earth was supposed to be menstruating and the earth could not be traditionally disturbed with cooking fire). I remember my grandmother’s migraines because weak, sunlight brewed tea was never enough during this auspicious time but I also remember the meticulous, tenacious, detail oriented, determined way she threw herself into making the tea under the sunlight in the verandah for there was one thing my my grandmother did not know how to do was to let go or cut corners once she started something. It wasn’t an easy task ,following the sunlight between the shadows of the metal grills of the verandah with a cup and saucer, as the sun moved along the verandah floor through the hours of the day but she kept at it.
When I climbed into her bed that night, she looked down on me from her picture through the mosquito net. All through my childhood, I had this feeling that she had never really liked me. She was too angry and so was I. She had many opinions and so did I. She was as sharp and brilliant as a diamond and could care for the injured or bleeding with the proficiency of a nurse while others could be fainting at the sight of blood. But would she speak a few comforting words to me through the barrier of the mosquito net today? What did she do that day when she was destitute and did not have a clear path to follow on how to survive? I remembered snippets of her story about how they had given her the worst portions of the ancestral house to live in while others advised her not to be over ambitious about her children’s education.
I had never asked her how many of those rituals she actually believed in that she observed but I definitely remember her using them to structure her life and gain power to survive. As I climbed into the bed that night in my washed out pajama suit, almost white in the low light (one of the few clothing items I had brought in my suitcase) with a bun on my head just like her, with many changes in food habits and living arrangements awaiting me, I knew I had to find a pattern in the life of the woman whose bed I occupied now and whose fate I shared symbolically even after two generations.
She would disapprove of me as I would be skeptical of her if she were here and not merely smiling from a photograph on the wall. Perhaps we had gained the right to judge each other having been roommates for so long and maybe we knew exactly where we were phonies and where we were kindred souls, exactly like each other, different from others and aliens in a world meant for a different kind of woman, trapped in the fortress of this bed peering at regular households through a net and muttering under our breaths in disapproval at the plotlines of those stories meant for us.
In the end, my grandmother was a success, investing all her drive, energy, anger and anxiety on her sons and even her daughter to turn them into success stories. I did not have sons to invest in nor would I invest in the same way she did if I did have sons and daughters, but there was one thing I knew about my grandmother.
My grandmother was a survivor.
Had we met across the time divide that day, I knew there was one thing she would say to me that I would like to hear: “Chin up. Chin up, survivor.”