Saturday, November 8, 2014

For a grandmother

Wherever you are...
Three weeks ago, my mother lost a purse. Her purse. The loss wasn't too unbearable. All that was there in it was a credit and debit card, plus her identity card. Nothing else. But she couldn't bear it. I admit that she's the kind of woman who gets nostalgic and sentimental (insufferably, may I add) over every little thing. Like the fact that her ID had her former address on it. Or the fact that it had a photo of her taken during her A-Level years at Anula. I dismissed this, naturally, and told her that everything's impermanent and to top it all these things can be "reclaimed" as time goes by, though not in a way she would find easy.

There was something else in that purse, though. Grandmother. A picture of her, very rare and the only one of its kind. Taken at a time when photo-shoots were considered once-in-a-lifetime experiences and hence one had to dress properly and smile properly at a studio. Fortunately for mother, and for me perhaps, the photo wasn't lost. A couple of months or so ago, she had told me to scan and keep it in my computer. Perhaps she was wiser than me in this, because I had told her that attaching sentimental value to pictures won't get us our loved ones back. I scanned it nonetheless, and privately thank my mother for having had the wisdom to foresee that it wasn't just a sentimental nostalgia, but a precautionary measure.

That was grandmother. Beautiful. Caring. Lovely. At one point the world seemed her and she seemed to be the world. At another point she seemed to me a better mother than her own daughter. That's the way with grandparents, after all. When you've had a fight with your parents, you naturally turn to their parents. Same thing with her. There's a saying that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and another saying that beauty comes from within. My grandmother fitted in both. She was beautiful, inside-out, and beautiful to nearly everyone who came into contact with her.

I didn't spend much time with her. 11 years isn't a long time, after all. I found her name funny and at times hard to pronounce: Dona Rosalind. I wondered why she had such a ridiculous-sounding foreign name. There were other questions as well, questions I never asked her out of fear or just out of a lack of time. Perhaps I should have talked with her more. I don't know.

She wasn't perfect. She tended to think about others before herself. I remember her bank account, quite low and meagre by any standard. She spent the entire bulk of it on me. Mostly on books. I don't know how much, but whenever I look at my library today, I wonder whether most of those books were bought thanks to her. That's how she taught me. Books. Their value. Reading. Reciting. Narrating. A teacher to the core.

She was also a good storyteller. I still remember the stories she spun for me, in particular one fantastic tale of a blind and crippled boy who could magically "build" anything by drawing it on paper. I don't remember how that story went exactly, but I remember the ending: he gets imprisoned in a tower, and with his trusty paper and ink, he builds himself a way out. I remember wondering why the boy had to be blind and crippled, why he couldn't be an ordinary boy like me, in his boyhood and quite mischievous. Then I looked at her and realised why.

My grandmother was blind. She had been ever since diabetes invaded her and she refused to be treated for it. She could get stubborn, even with grandfather berating her at her side. Yes, grandfather. He was the "other" side to our home, a mild Anglophile who spurned Sinhala films, couldn't properly write in Sinhala, and loved Amaradeva, whisky, and James Bond. A more unlikely couple I'm yet to meet. There were times when I wondered why the two had married in the first place. But that's another story, for another time.

What was surprising about her stubbornness, by the way, was that she could be very gentle to those who refused to see her way. Like me, for instance. I never made her cry, perhaps because I understood how pliable she could get with me around. I made my mother cry, as I still do. Grandmother was different. She exerted an invisible charm that was at once unbearable and lovable. Perhaps this was because of her job. Perhaps this was because of how pliable and gentle she had to be at it.

She had been a nurse, a long time back and certainly before my mother had me. This was at Kalubowila mainly, but the fact is that she moved from one corner of the country to the other; from Panadura to Colombo to Galle (which was where, incidentally, she met her future husband). Everywhere she went, everyone remembered her. They still do. They remember her infinite patience, back in the day when patience was an absolute necessity to become a nurse.

There were other things she could do too. Like diagnosing. When midnight passed and I was sick for some strange reason, she could pick up the where and how of my illness. Not that this was a talent exclusively reserved for her, because I've met other nurses, all of whom had worked with her, who could diagnose just as quickly. Perhaps that's the kind of training that goes into them, but the point is that grandmother was able to do this even when she was blind. She did this with other children, other patients. They are all grateful.

Not that she was an encyclopedia. There were times when I despaired of ever teaching her anything outside medicine. She knew her stuff, obviously, and when it came to history (especially Sri Lankan history) she was the first person to whom I went with a question. If I turned to mother, "ask grandmother" was the automatic response. Her explanations were lucid, to the point, and satisfying. That was when I felt that knowing stuff was relative and very probably she knew 10 new things for every nugget of information I got to know each day.

As the years went by, I realised that she would always take my side. Always. Whenever I battled it out with my mother, whenever I spiced my arguments with harsh words (yes I was a rebellious boy, and still am), she would sympathise with me. The same thing happened with grandfather, to the point where mother would just put her hands up and say "well then, you take care of him!" I wondered each time this happened why she took my side. It took me five years to understand why.

The truth is, grandmothers were mothers too. They had their own battles with their sons and daughters, watched them growing up, and realised just how limited their understanding of them was. I'm sure grandmother understood this better than anyone else in our house, perhaps as an inevitability arising out of the "අට ලෝ දහම" (eight vicissitudes of life) which go into parenting as well. Perhaps that's why she took my side, knowing how much mother understood about me and how she had tried to understand her own mother. I'm not sure.

I was very young when she died. Too young, I think. I know people older than me, in their '30s and '40s, who still have their grandparents. She died, naturally enough, of diabetes. It got worse. True to form, she refused treatment. It wasn't just this, however. The truth was that we couldn't afford any treatment, despite the help given by those who couldn't really afford giving help. The truth was that those who could help us didn't. The truth was that those who loved her tried to get us out. The truth was that they really couldn't. The irony was that those who helped her weren't in a position to help her, and those who were in a position didn't. That's life, after all.

I still remember the night she died. I was asleep. We had expected her to live for another day or two. She was asleep in the other room. My mother and her father were with her, keeping a vigil. Then the calm broke, someone screamed (mother), and I woke up. I had by then understood death as an inevitability, but not enough to understand the loss properly.

Some say I didn't "sob" enough at her funeral. I don't agree. If it's all about "sobbing", I've been at funerals of old people where those who hadn't given a tinker's damn about them when alive have cried their eyes out. If it's about sobbing, then spare me. I knew my grandmother, my mother knew her, pretty much everyone in the house and those who genuinely came to our aid knew her. That's reason enough to celebrate her life, I suppose, and commemorate her death. I knew her as a flawed woman, flawed because she didn't look after herself properly, and flawed because she let her own self go to waste, needlessly. I'm not saying she was altruistic to the point of madness. I am saying that she could have taken better care of herself.

Perhaps I was a little too thoughtless about her in her last few weeks. Somehow or the other I had got the message across that I needed more books. She had got to know this, I don't know how, and had quickly asked mother to get the rest of the money from her account. I didn't sob at her funeral, but when I got to know this later, I shed a few tears. Couldn't help it. That was probably the last thing she told me, before she stopped speaking and became bedridden during her last few days.

She didn't like photographs being taken of her. There's one picture of her that I keep in my room. I don't remember when I took it. I do remember a smiling face. She didn't know that photo was being taken. She wouldn't have been smiling then, this I'm sure of. Beauty after all is in the eye of the beholder. What beauty she had, she couldn't see. That's why she hated photos, whether of her or of anyone else. That's why we never mentioned about them to her. That's why I kept that photo a secret from her. I never told her. She needn't know, I told to myself. She didn't.

There are days when I look and that photo randomly and think to myself, if she could have stayed with us a little longer, just a little longer, things might have been different. I could have had the best teacher in the world, she could have had the youngest friend in the world, and the house would have been all the more happy for this. Perhaps it's this that mother remembers and reflects on whenever she sees the photo she lost in her purse. She's her daughter, after all, and hence has a larger claim on her than I do.

She died 10 years ago. To date. Two days after I turned 11. There was no birthday celebration then. Now, 10 years later, I celebrate my 21st. And with it, I celebrate her life. If ever I could draw picture of her and make her jump to life, like that blind and crippled boy whose story she told me once upon a time, I would. I know now that she was trapped in her own little tower, that she was trying to build a way out. She couldn't.

Yes, that was my grandmother. She was more than that, of course. Much more.