March 23rd is a special day for me. It’s the day a wonderful woman, my Grandmother, was born. Even though it’s now 14 years since she is gone, her presence lingers in me through her words, her teachings, and the very way she shaped my being.
Grandmother was born and brought up in a small town in Kerala. Her father was a well-known and respected man. He was the headmaster of the local school and he would invite children of all castes to his house for study sessions in English, Maths, History, and Science. In those times, this was a revolutionary move. Children of farmers and labourers didn’t typically mix with the rest of ‘upper-class’ society. But great-grandfather and his wife were welcoming, broadminded and loving people and their house was always open to anyone who wanted a meal, some advice or assistance, and of course, education. He sent his daughters to school and encouraged them to work.
Grandmother got married and came to Bombay in the late 1940s. She began working as a teacher in the neighbourhood school and many years later she became the principal. The students adored her but also respected her enough to know that they would get into trouble for not doing their homework.
By the time I was born, Grandmother was nearing retirement and Grandfather was already retired. With my mother and father both leaving for work in the morning, it was my grandparents who looked after me during the day. Grandfather would drop me to school in the morning and pick me up in the afternoon. Grandmother would be home by then and one of my favourite things to do was riffling through her handbag. There would always be some treasure to be found – a chocolate, a piece of chalk, colourful paper.
Then would come the mammoth task of feeding me. I was a poor eater and getting me to eat a few spoons of rice and vegetables was a big challenge. Grandmother would recount tales of imaginary incidents in the school, about how two boys started fighting with each other, how a girl fell down while playing, how the parent-teacher meeting went for some student. It would always be elaborate with lots of dramatic twists and turns and through it all I would sit, entranced, with my mouth open, and the food uneaten.
Soon, my father’s job took us to Bangalore where I was plunged into the third standard (third form) in the middle of the year. While every student was already reading simple stories in Kannada, the language that I compulsorily had to take, I was a complete beginner with no knowledge of even the alphabet. Grandmother went to meet the Kannada teacher and the Principal and they agreed to give me a special beginner exam for that year. But she had to promise that I would come up to speed by the next year.
Thus began my Kannada lessons. Grandmother bought a book that promised to teach you Kannada through Malayalam, our native language, in 30 days. Every Kannada alphabet was translated by sound into Malayalam and was visually aided by arrows to teach you how to write. Grandmother would learn the alphabet first before she taught me how to read and write. We had Kannada study sessions every day and finally came the time when I had to take my first unit test. I thought I wrote well but I didn’t. I failed albeit by a small margin. But Grandmother was happy that I had come this far, at least. I passed the next test. And the next. And the next. Till today, my ability to read and write Kannada stands strong because of this solid foundation. I am sure if she had taught me to speak, I would be speaking flawlessly now sans the many grammatically incorrect sentences.
This is one of the most enduring memories I have of Grandmother. She was a teacher in the true sense of the word. She taught me a language that was completely foreign to her as well, an admirable feat. She told me stories, imaginary and real, from her school, her town, her family, teaching me to love stories, reading and books. She taught me small ditties and proverbs in Malayalam, making me love the language and be more proficient. Her deadpan humour would always crack me up and even now we all remember and laugh over some of her one-liners. She made the most amazing steamed “kinnanappams” and sweet “kozhukattas” and would make them frequently because I loved them.
And then, one day life couldn’t accommodate her any longer and she went away. It took me more than a year or two to accept her absence. She was my best friend and guide. While everybody remembers and performs rites for a loved one’s death anniversary I prefer to remember the day my Grandmother came into this world. That’s why every year, I celebrate her birthday. I have a pistachio flavoured ice-cream or a sponge cake, desserts she liked, in her memory.
Grandmother was a spirited woman who had a fiery temper but was equally loving and kind. She was practical but was also strong in her beliefs, which made her quite a force to be around if you disagreed with her. She had her flaws, for sure. But that’s what made her perfect.
As I have my dessert, tiny things surface and makes me miss her achingly. How, when we watch cricket matches, she would excitedly shout at the batsman to hit a six. The way she would stroke my hair on a lazy afternoon as I lay reading on the sofa. The way she would compare my room to a railway platform for being so messy. There are moments even today when I feel she is still with me and telling me things. And that’s why even after 14 years it feels like she has only just stepped out for a walk and she will be back soon. With a story to tell.