A Death in the Family

February 27, 2022

by — Posted in Personal Essays

We sprinkled some water on our banana leaves and washed them clean. Then the serving began, first some raw mango pickle on the upper left corner followed by carrot kosambri, potato sukke, ghashi, saasam and other Konkani dishes finding their place on the green background. Known in Kannada as BaLe ele Oota ( Banana leaf meal), it is reserved for special occasions. I associate it with marriages but this time, it was a part of a ceremony we had held for my grandmother who passed away the previous week. Many of her favourites were a part of the meal. Nani – as we called her even though she was our stepfather’s mother – loved food and had spent the latter part of her life dedicated to the pleasure. It felt like a good way to remember her.

Nani was born in the coastal town of Kumta on the 8th of August 1924.  On the odd occasion when she was in the mood, she would talk about her childhood while we ate at the dining table. She enjoyed school and spending time with her friends, playing games that she said we would find quaint today. Her father was a Gandhian freedom fighter who demanded that his household follow a spartan lifestyle. By the time she was a teen, she had started wearing sarees but that was also a time when Gandhi’s khadi movement was in full swing. Her father insisted she only wear khadi sarees and burn the others. The homespun khadi made for a rough, uncomfortable garment and made her miss her old sarees all the more. Her mother tried to hide a couple of her favourites saying she would need them once she got married but her father would have none of it. There could be no weakness while resisting imperialism.
 She got an opportunity to see the hero who was the source of her misery when Gandhi travelled to that part of Karnataka. At some point Nehru came too although she didn’t remember when. She did remember that she was married soon after those visits and left for Bangalore.

As she stepped off the train station in Bangalore for the first time one early morning, steam from the engine enveloped the platform. Yet she felt cold to her bones. Bangalore was a thousand feet above the sea level she had come from and she was still dressed for Kumta. It used to rain everyday in Bangalore in those days and she grew weary of the gloom. Apart from the weather, she had to face the much more intimidating prospect of becoming a wife and joining a large family. Shy and reserved by nature, she never got over her fear of the elders for as long as they were around.

Sixty years later when her son married my mother, she was a warm and compassionate elder welcoming us into her home. By this time she had a shuffling gait because of replaced knees trying to hold up her large frame. She slept without a blanket even in Bangalore’s winters with the fan on. The TV was her friend and she frequently burst out laughing while sitting in front of it. She wore cotton sarees now but only in earthy colours, a possible hangover of the khadi saree days.

While we settled into a comfortable relationship, it didn’t have the familiarity that a grandmother-grandson relationship usually possesses. Maybe at that late stage of trying to establish the relationship on both sides, it couldn’t. I couldn’t speak Konkani, the language through which her familiarity was expressed. She was fluent in English which became the language we spoke in and our conversations were bound by the formal tones that English invoked for her. Between high school and college, I barely got time to speak to her anyway. The only time we got to talk was during lunch and dinner which we still ate at the dining table back then. Over the years, she gradually shared snippets of her life with us over meals always cooked in consultation with her.

A few years later , she injured her leg and was bed-ridden for the weeks that it took to heal. But even after it did, her muscles had weakened to such an extent that even the shuffling was too painful, so she clung to the bed. Over the years that she remained bed-ridden, I watched her gradually cease to engage with her surroundings as she retreated into herself. Her short term memory started failing and she would laugh and cry remembering incidents that belonged to a past that none of us could relate to. Even though she was lucid, she stopped asking after her daughters. During this time, one of her daughters passed away because of a liver disease complicated by Covid. Her other children decided not to tell her and I was left wondering whether it was worse that she had lost a daughter or that she didn’t know she had. The other daughters would visit her from time to time but she never asked to see the daughter who passed away. She mentioned her a few times but didn’t ask to see her or wonder why she hadn’t come to visit.   

I found myself hesitating to enter her room. If free flowing conversation had been difficult in the past and reserved for the dinner table, I struggled to think of how to talk to her now.  Yet every time I passed her room, peeped through the door, and saw her either sleeping or looking at the ceiling, I would berate myself for the excuses I was coming up with. I could at least say good morning? Or ask her how she was doing? I didn’t understand why I was hesitating. The only time I would venture in was when others were in the room talking to her and I could get a few words in without worrying about carrying the conversation or the silences in between them.

She had a new caretaker every six months and she called all of them Lakshmi. Each of them had left homes and children in different parts of Karnataka to add to the family income at a difficult time. Nani was often brusque or downright rude with them in ways that surprised us. One of them even complained of Nani cursing her as though she possessed occult powers. She certainly laughed and cried in a way that unsettled the Lakshmis. They were dealing with someone who was physically weaker and dependant on them but socially more powerful. They could only be stoic, not fight back. Through it all, they would change her clothes and diapers, give her sponge baths, turn her this way and that, comb her hair, cut her nails and feed her.

Food was the last joy left to her. A reason to go on. My mother would ensure the cook made her favourites during the day. In the evenings she would make soups, coffee and snacks for Nani that she enjoyed. Any delay in mealtime would lead to haughty demands of the Lakshmis. Often she would forget that she had had her meal for the day and would feel cheated and lied to by the Lakshmis when reminded. We would wonder how she was able to digest what she ate. Nani would allow no let up in her intake even if she had loose motions. Nourishing her body no longer counted as one of the objectives of eating. Food is a faithful pleasure; it remains your constant companion the longest.

Yet this most beloved of pleasures also abandoned Nani in the final weeks of her life. It was around the time when she called us individually into her room and thanked us for looking after her. She said she was going and that we were to look after each other. We didn’t take her seriously as she had done this before. I reassured her and reminded her that it was time for her soup.
But over the days that followed, she stopped eating like she used and stopped talking too. We thought it was a phase. But looking back, it feels like she was winding down.

She passed away one early morning in January. Masked relatives and friends came over to pay their respects. We discussed death related logistics in muffled voices with the drone of the pandit’s chants in the background. Her hair was combed for the last time and she was dressed in one of her favourite earthy sarees. After a few quick ceremonies, we carried her into the hearse to take her to the crematorium. Her body was placed on a large tray that would be used to wheel her into what looked like a kiln. We could feel the heat emanate from it on our faces. Just as they began wheeling her in, her youngest daughter shouted asking them to stop in between sobs. It hit her than that this was going to be her last glimpse of her mother. She touched her earthy saree. As I watched her disappear into the furnace, I folded my hands.

A few day later, we took her ashes to the Cauvery in Srirangapatna where Bangalore’s ashes go. I wondered if they could even be called her ashes anymore as there was nothing distinctive about her in them. They were just ashes. When someone is buried the process is slower and the body disintegrating in the grave still contains peculiarities that only belonged to that individual. Cremation felt brutal in comparison. The way I saw it, the ashes already belonged to no one. We were going to Srirangapatna to merge the ashes of no one with everything. Which is why it had to be flowing water and not a spot that can be revisited.

The minivan we hired stopped at a ghat on the Cauvery that was lush. The river water was clean and flowed around large rocks that looked like they had been carelessly thrown around. I saw White Ibises, Painted Storks, Cormorants and a Pied Kingfisher hovering above the water to find its catch. Three of us got into a coracle that took us to the middle of the river. The relative who had completed the rituals on the day of her death held the ashes in his hand. I was watching a Brahminy Kite swoop down and grab a fish in its talons when a sudden movement caught my eye. The relative, without preamble, threw the clay pot above his head almost as though he was playing a game of ‘now you see it now you don’t’. I managed to turn just in time to see the pot sink below the water’s surface.

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