Sujatha Bagal

Stories and essays on food, travel, culture.

Ajji (Grandmother)

By the time I was 30, I’d lost all four of my grandparents.

I know my paternal grandparents as Avva and Thatha, but only by way of referring to them in conversations with my father. I never called them by those names because I never knew them. My grandfather died when my dad was eight years old, so all I know about him is that he was tall (6ft 2), dark, a math teacher, soft-spoken and that he died penniless. My grandmother died when my dad was 30, before he got married. She was all of four feet tall, fair, a fiercely independent woman who brought up ten kids, half of them boys, much of the bringing up done on her own.

My maternal grandparents were very much part of our lives. For most of our childhood they lived in Mysore, in a decent-sized house with a huge front garden. The house had a porch, a veranda with wire mesh windows the size of half a wall, two rooms along the street, a hall with built-in showcases, a tiny, dark kitchen, a large bathroom and a room my grandparents mostly used to store the coconuts from their two coconut trees.

The house was an unending source of fascination for me and my brother. It boasted many features that we did not have in any of the houses we had lived in. Through the wire mesh in the veranda, you could look way up the street, watch buses whizzing down the road, keep an eye on the bakery and smell its delicious buns and puffs right around tea time. The coffee powder shop and the mill were the two other sources of olfactory stimuli. Then there were those built-in showcases with all those books and dolls on their shelves. A huge garden full of rose plants, daria flower plants, jasmine bushes and creepers, a sampige tree, a papaya tree, a large curry leaves tree and two coconut trees graced the front of the house.

Best of all, in that house lived our grandmother. She was a large woman, slightly bigger than my grandfather, but all of that real estate was put to excellent use – she was soft and cuddly, and was the owner of a cozy lap. From her capable hands flowed one delectable delight after another – obbattus, sakkaré achchu, chaklis, kodu balés. During festivals, her long fingers, gnarled and wrinkled from constant use would conjure up the most delicate flower patterns out of foil and cotton to decorate the idols, some of which she would have dressed carefully with saris and dhotis made of colorful paper. And all year round, her strong arms tilled her front yard, dug up flower beds, planted seeds and saplings and cajoled even the most recalcitrant ones into a bountiful life. She strung together jasmine buds and roses and made her famous moggina jadés (flowers would be arranged decoratively and stitched onto a long cardboard strip so that the strip was entirely covered with the flowers and then tied to braided hair) for young girls headed to the studio to have their picture taken (forcefully by the mothers) or headed to a dance recital.

My abiding sense of her is that she was a purposeful woman who worked very, very hard. Other than sitting down exhausted at the end of the day, I don’t have a memory of her complaining about any of the things she had to do. Things needed to get done and so she did them. And then she did some more on top of that. She and my grandfather raised five children on a shoestring budget, educated them and got them all settle and married. Then she threw herself into her community. She made things for people, she got people to go to the Rama Mandira for hari kathé sessions or for special pujas. She taught them how to make all the beautiful things she created with her hands and her imagination. She conducted veena classes. She had a large circle of friends who she mined for information about prospective grooms and brides. Armed with horoscopes a few inches thick, she was a fearless matchmaker, her mind assessing the various possibilities when presented with a query, even on the street, her mental Rolodex flipping furiously.

Sometimes, standing in my own kitchen early in the morning before the sun has risen, with a boiling pot of hot water for my tea and the ticking of the kitchen clock for company, I remember dark, pre-dawn mornings from a long time ago. The milkman would be making his rounds on his cycle, calling out “haalu” once in a while, jataka gaadis would already be clip-clopping up and down the street, there would be the stray moped. From the kitchen, I would hear my mother and grandmother, their voices thick in the way voices are when you first wake up in the morning. They would be gossipping, catching up on all the news that had remained undelivered in the age before there were telephones in every home.

I can picture my grandmother sitting just inside the kitchen, probably making coffee in her small stove on the floor while my mother waited just outside, in the hall, giving her company without crowding the kitchen. My grandmother would talk in Telugu and my mother would respond in Kannada. Of her five kids, my mother was the only one she spoke to in Telugu, perhaps because that’s what we (my parents and us two kids) spoke at home. Which is why I always called her Ajji but referred to her as Avva when I spoke about her with my parents or brother.

(If you diagrammed the languages spoken in my house and who spoke what to whom, it would produce an illustration akin to a bowl of spaghetti. More on that in another post).

When I think of her getting ready to go somewhere, the image in my mind is one of her with her butti, a basket woven out of plastic strings with four metal rivets at the bottom so they would not topple when set down on the floor. She would hang the two handles on her arm, pull the pallu of her sari around her shoulders, put her head down and be off.

I don’t know if she was deeply religious or not, but festivals were a big deal in her house, especially the Gauri and Ganesha festivals and Dussera. And I do know that she believed very strongly in some things – such as her mangalasutra. I remember once a hook needed to be repaired and we went to the goldsmith. She took it off from around her neck very reluctantly but refused to let go. She held on to it tightly with her hands while the goldsmith did his job. And to watch my strong and strong-willed grandmother be so afraid was a revelation. As if for a fleeting second, I had been allowed a peek into her soul. Perhaps it was this memory that spurred me to take mine off a few days after I got married, afraid that as time wore on, I would invest it with powers that I knew it could not have.

Ten years have gone by since she passed away, after a protracted battle with bone cancer that left her exhausted and racked with pain.

I am happy that she was there when I got married. But I wish I had spent more time with her, getting to know her as a person. And I wish my children had known her. She was one of those real-life heroes. Unsung, because she did the things that ordinary men and women do every day. The ones that bring up their children, take care of their families, are good neighbors and don’t let anything else get in the way. The ones you can actually touch.

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Updating to add a link to Sharanya’s moving tribute to her grandmother and to Bird’s Eye View’s post about her ajji.

And to add a request: I would be thrilled if you would share stories about your own grandmothers in the comments. If you decide to write posts on your own blogs, please do leave a link here. Thanks.

Update (Dec 12, 08): Adding a link to Choxbox’s endearing post about her grandmother:

At night we’d huddle around her and she’d tell us stories. There are so many delicious memories involving all kinds of yummy things associated with the huge house overflowing with uncles, aunts and cousins. I had my first baby at mom’s place and she came over and stayed for a month or so; she is the prime reason I got through it with barely a scratch. She always has a very calming effect – her simple wisdom makes everything seem much less complicated.

Update (February 20, 2009): Adding a link to Tharini’s lovely tribute to her Raji Patti:

I wanted to remember Patti the way I had always known her to be. Sweet, smiling, with a red kumkum in the middle of her forehead, walking in little steps with her hunchback, the strength of her character always shining through. And I wanted no part of reality to slice up this remnant of my childhood and make me face its glaring truth. That times change, that people change, strengths fade away, that the body weakens and succumbs to old age, and that the one I looked to as my source of strength would be needing that same kind of strength from me. When we climbed up those 3 floors to my Uncle’s flat, my heart was sinking with each step. But I knew, I must see her, and accept her the way she is now.

Update (March 1, 2009): Linking to Frankie Anon’sParty Grandma‘story – a trip down a windy, bumpy memory lane that evokes the many complex relationships that are the stuff of every family’s lore:

The Party Grandma had been a flapper in her youth, sporting bobbed hair and cigarettes, and to her dying day at 81 she liked make-up, music, and martinis. She loved a good joke, and when I picture her, she is laughing. But somehow, in spite of the laughter, something about her the Party Grandma made me sad. Her eyes rarely smiled, and even when I was very young, I sensed that her exterior was a lie.

Update (March 9, 2009): Ardra shares cherished memories of her Ammamma:

Ammamma has been a very strong influence in our lives. She is well read and keeps abreast of current affairs and has a strong opinion on everything and does not hesitate to express it. She takes good care of her health and follows a disciplined routine. People who know her come to her seeking advice and Blessings. She gets invited to grace and speak at functions in our village. She commands a lot of respect from everybody around her. She does have a somewhat strict countenance which makes some people a little wary about approaching her. However once the ice is broken they realize that it is just a veneer.

Update (May 27, 2009): Sriram writes a loving tribute to his Patti:

My Paati (Paati is the Tamil word for Grandmother) is an influential figure in my life. She is everything to me. After my mum, she is the first person to see me. From paaladai to ooti-vittufy, she has fed me. She has told me stories. She introduced God to me. She taught me how to pray. She taught me the value of having values, the importance of doing one’s duty, to love unconditionally. From her, I learnt how to be soft and yet strong, how to be innocuous and still be assertive…Most importantly, I learnt who I am and who I can be.

[…]

People dream. They aspire to do lots of things. Many aspire, but only few steadfastly work towards it and realise the dream. My Paati is one of the few. I believe she has achieved her dreams. Her life is punctuated with many challenges which she has overcome with grit, hardwork, determination and sense of faith. To me, my Paati is a real achiever and a true all rounder.

Update (October 10, 2009): Minal shares loving memories of her Aaji:

Mom called me at 9.30 on Thursday night and her voice was shaking when she uttered Mothi Aai’s name. At that very moment I knew what had happened. Mothi Aai was no more. My Aaji, my only granny was no more. When I was finally getting to be close to her and letting her know that how important she was to me, god decided it was enough.

People tell me she lived a good life, I know she did. She did not trouble anyone till her death, she was independent, loving, talkative and fun-loving. She travelled places and loved visiting people. She was fit and fine and on her 2 feet despite 3-4 operations. She refused to accept any diet restrictions cause she believed in enjoying her life to the fullest.

She had 5 lovely children, 2 wonderful son-in-laws, 3 doting daughters-in-law and 8 loving grandchildren. She was not perfect, I know she was flawed, she had her biases , did not make the best mother-in-law but she learnt, tried and improved her self with times. She adjusted to her rebellious grand children and came down to being their friend instead of an over-bearing grandma.

Update (October 12, 2009): Shoba remembers her Ajji with fondness:

There was a hall and two small bedrooms, where all of us, including cousins visiting from their respective places, used to sleep together. With children running around, Granny used to feel frustrated with her “Madi” avatar. Special mention has to be given to her “Madi”. Very few were allowed in the kitchen to help her out. Even when she ate food,rice was molded as a ball and thrown in to the mouth, with the correct trajectory.Never missed the target.Yes, both my grandfather & grandmother were proficient at that art. Personally hand washed sarees hung out to dry on ropes tied up above, very close to the ceiling using long rods. Wonder where she had the strength to use those rods.

She was always busy in that dark kitchen, looking for something, grinding some powder,cooking for everyone or in the bathroom getting the hot water ready. One had to pour water in to these huge copper vessels called “Handi”, and heat water using charcoal. In Bangalore, hot water was a must and there were not geysers around.

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This entry was posted on December 11, 2008 by in Blog, Personal Essays and tagged , .
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