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Friday, April 8, 2016

Storyteller


The scariest thing about growing up is realising that your family are just normal human beings. They are flawed. They seem more and more imperfect, the older you get. And yet they love you unconditionally and in that moment you remember what family means.

My Dadima was a storyteller. She wanted nothing more than an audience and I humoured her. I suppose it’s true for many of the elderly but boy did she have stories. Of all my four grandparents, she was the most talkative. She would spend all afternoon reading her books and her newspaper and all evening explaining the ways of the world to me. I lived with her for a few months when I first moved to Bombay in 2012. She was in fine form. The saddest thing about the cancer than eventually took her way was that it silenced her. There are few tragedies more heart-breaking than a storyteller silenced. She lost the ability to speak and my world lost a familiar voice. Let us not deify her – I don’t think she would have wanted that. She was not perfect. If I may be so bold, I want to tell a few stories of my own.

She grew up in a different time. She was 11 when India gained independence from the British Empire. She really really didn’t like the British. She didn’t much care for white people in general, from what I could gather – they were all out to get her. She was a deeply proud Indian and I think she carried the pain of colonial oppression with her. She was proud of being Indian. But she was prouder still of her Hindu identity and I think that that identity freed her from the tendrils of modern history. She could lose herself in the greatness of the ancient scriptures, cosy in the knowledge that it pre-dated these blood-thirsty Europeans by thousands of years. She danced between Hindu philosophy and myth in a way that mesmerized us as children, laying on the sofa-bed in our Bandra house and watching the purple night sky saunter heavily on outside. The night sky from that Bandra house – her home for the better part of 50 years – was lit so beautifully by our imaginations. It was a worthy canvas and I can’t begin to say how thankful I am for that giant window in the living room that let the night sky roll in every evening. She would never miss a chance to explain to us how this God built this and that Goddess said that and every story would end with some mere mortal understanding his inescapable finiteness and “falling at the feet of Lord ______”. If the guy didn’t fall at the God’s feet, it wasn’t the end of the story. I couldn’t separate the myth from the metaphor and I dismissed them all as fairy tales. I’m not going to say I’ve had a change of heart now. I’m simply saying that as a storyteller, she enchanted us with the majesty of Indian mythology – as only a grandmother can. We didn’t ask questions or fall asleep. We just gave her an audience.

Dadima always reminded us spoilt, foreign-educated kids who we were and where we came from. She would make it a point to sit us down and tell us about the village she came from and how she raised my dad after moving to the city. She came from romantic poverty – at least that’s how she made it seem. Life in the village was crossing rivers to get to school and drying tamarind in the summer. The childhood she told me about, was about seeking and striving for an education. She and her two siblings would study by kerosene lantern. Listening to her talk about the value of an education was more humbling than inspiring. To get out of the village, you had to study and learn to read and write and learn to love languages and learn to love learning. She told me how much she loved learning English (without loving the English) and how empowered she felt with it by her side. She told me how when she went for a job interview (at the bank where she would eventually spend her career at in Mumba), she carried an Oscar Wilde book. She didn’t even understand all of it, but the bank manager was impressed by her ambition. She told me about the bank manager, a Parsi gentleman, who was an eminent womanizer and whose charm crashed hopelessly against the folds of her sari. She would remember these kinds of things. Who wouldn’t be impressed by a candidate carrying an Oscar Wilde book to an interview, even today? Maybe some things never change. She showed me what it is to love the English language. She showed me its power and its beauty. She loved languages and spoke so many, so effortlessly. It is one of my deepest insecurities that I cannot speak an Indian language anywhere near as well as she spoke about 6 of them. “Once you learn one of the four South-Indian languages, you can learn them all.” She found comfort in Kannada poetry. She eulogized about a Kannada poet and teacher she had in high school. She loved the nuns who taught at her convent school, despite being Christians. She’d give out rationed bursts of begrudging love from time to time.

She was clear about the way things were and they were as she understood them. She would say things like, “I was never beautiful, but I worked hard.” What a thing to say! I was never beautiful? She was always apologising for herself like that. Here was a mother who woke up at 5am to cook food for the family's breakfasts and lunches before taking the train to work, working a full day, managing the children in the evening and making dinner by the time my granddad got home. These days she apologises for other things.

“Sorry, I didn’t make any non-vegetarian food.”

At the cancer ward (after her successful surgery) when she was weak and unable to move, she saw me looking at her with sadness and said, “Sorry you have to see me like this.” She found the time to apologise to bystanders for having cancer.

She loved singing and music and chanting her bhajjans and putting coconut oil in our hair on Sunday mornings. She would make us her trademark yellow dosas and chai using utensils given to her as wedding presents 50 years ago. She was someone who didn’t throw away the plastic cutlery that comes with home-delivered Chinese food. She would wash and reuse them. “Why should we throw them? We can use them.” And they will sit, unused, for another 50 years.

I’m glad she remained sharp of mind until the end. When I was leaving Bombay in January, she asked me to sit next to her on the bed and kissed me and said “I love you”. She would sing to us in Konkani about love all through our childhoods but she had never said those three words. I knew then that she was ready. She had checked out of the hotel. When her voice began failing, maybe she thought her story was told. I wish I had recorded her stories when she was alive. I told her to write them down but I don’t think she told stories to document them. I think she told them because she loved doing it. She loved holding an audience as I hope I’ve held you. So here’s to her, the storyteller never silenced.