by Bharatram Gaba
I have no early recollection
of either of my grandmothers. My dad’s mother expired when he
was a child. My parents married in spite of resistance from both
their families; and as a result, they (and me as an extension)
were outcastes for quite some time.
I was never a “good” kid in the strictest sense of the word—
always getting into trouble. My other grandma (mom’s mother)
never really took to me. My sister was the family’s favourite
for obvious reasons — she was good in whatever she did, be it
study, play or discipline. Likewise, most of my cousins. I was
openly and continuously berated and put down when comparisons
were drawn, and they were drawn pretty often. Somewhere along
the way, when these comparisons began to hurt, I withdrew into a
shell and made it a point to stay out of their lives. It was
difficult to do that.
In fact, if there
was one idol I had in all my life, it was my Mama (mom’s
brother). He was (still is) an Officer in the Indian Army, and
there was nothing I wanted more in the world than for him to
have a good word about me. I religiously went to each and every
place he was posted just to be close to him and his way of life.
When I saw him in all his Regimental finery, I swore to myself
that I would wear that Uniform one day. That it was never to be
is another story. Most of the time, I went overboard making an
utter fool out of myself trying to impress him, but that elusive
look, that elusive word never came. My response was the same. I
Time has this funny way of healing wounds. They don’t really
heal. You just forget.
As life would have it, I was diverted into managing my father’s
business. And the years went by. One by one, my sister and my
apple-of-the-eye cousins moved to the Land of Opportunity. When
my parents decided to visit them, I was left alone in India and
none the worse for it. What was to transpire was Supreme Irony.
was a pretty regular night when the
call came. It was my Mama calling from Jallandhar.
Through a sea of static, I was told that my grandma had expired.
Could I make it by the following evening?
We were out of the house by 5am the next morning, my mom’s
sister and me — the only ones left in India. After pleading our
way through a slew of transport modes, we made it to Jallandhar
by 5pm. Summer was just a few days away and it was quite warm.
The white shroud was the first thing we saw when we entered the
courtyard. Beside my grandma’s body was a huge swing. Somehow,
all of Mama’s houses had had a swing in the patio. It had
been really long and my first instinct was to run to the swing.
I fought the urge and looked around for my Mama.
He’d aged terribly
since we’d last met. Knowing his impatience with melodrama, I
didn’t say a word when I clasped his hand. There was something
in his eyes that day that seemed to thank me. After the rituals,
my grandma was lifted on to the back of a covered Army truck and
placed on a slab of ice. I was the only one who was allowed to
board the truck with her. A long cavalcade of Army vehicles was
to follow. We started from the house at 6.30pm, the truck with
my grandma and me, and the long line of cars behind it.
What struck me at first was that this was probably the first
time that I’d been alone with my grandma. Her face seemed
serene. I hadn’t eaten that day and the only thing I could think
of at the time was food. The taste of my grandma’s Anna-saaru
(rice-rasam) came flooding back to me. The sheer detail
surprised me. It had been at least 20 years since I’d eaten
anything cooked by her, but it all seemed like yesterday. The
stinging pain when I’d put my fingers into the piping hot
mixture of rice and saaru, the tangy now-spicy now-sour
taste, the warm saaru dribbling down my forearms as I
tried to get a morsel into my mouth, along with the sinful mango
pickle that only she could make, the little pangs of jealousy
when she helped my cousins to eat . . .
It had gotten pretty dark. As is usual outside Bombay, there was
a power cut. A cool breeze had struck up. Suddenly, there
started a terrible clattering like someone was throwing rocks on
the truck. I looked out the back and in the fading light, saw
chunks of white falling all around us. It was ice! The next day
was Baisakhi, the beginning of the harvest season, and we
were in the middle of a hailstorm!
By the time we got to the crematorium, it was pitch dark and the
temperature had fallen to single digit. In the eerie light of
kerosene lanterns, we carried my grandma to the ghaat. An
old withered man stood by the stack of wood, shivering audibly
in the cold. All he had to protect him were a tattered pair of
shorts and a polythene sheet. My grandma was placed on the wood
and a few more logs were added. The time had come to light the
Being the son’s
duty, the pundit turned to my Mama and handed him a
burning log. Without looking at me, my Mama gestured in
my direction and instructed the pundit : “Give him another one.”
In.spite of all the
ghee that had been poured onto the pyre, the damp wood took some
time to ignite. While the two of us were trying to light the
pyre, my mind went back yet again. All at once, my past quibbles
seemed so tiny, so unnecessary. Here was a man who had honoured
me by asking me to help him perform the task he would be
performing for the last time in his life. What greater trust
could one ever aspire to?
Together we lit the
pyre and in a few moments, it was blazing. All of us moved back
to escape the licking flames as they rose higher and spread
wider. The old withered man moved closer, till, in the
reflection of the fire on the plastic sheet wrapped around him,
he looked as much a part of the pyre as my grandma was. My
Mama’s security guards moved forward to shoo the old man
away, but my Mama stopped them. I turned back towards the
flames and saw that the old man had stopped shivering.