Anna Tambour presents 


The virtuous medlar circle
thoroughly bletted



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 stopped going.

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.

It 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 pyre.

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.



Bharatram Gaba lives in Mumbai, where he writes with an honesty and sensitivity that touch me deeply. I hope to publish more essays by him.

Also by Bharatram Gaba,
in the Virtuous Medlar Circle,
Excreta, etc.
Bharatram Gaba:
bratgaba (at)

The virtuous medlar circle

is part of
Anna Tambour and Others

"Mama" copyright © March 2006 by Bharatram Gaba
"Mama" appears here with thanks to Bharatram Gaba, whose payment was less than a brass razoo.
This is part of a series of invited pieces by people I find deliciously inspiring, always a hoot, and who write like a bletted medlar tastes. A.T.
The Virtuous Medlar Circle © 2004 - 2006