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The tale of a grandmother

My grandmother, who we call velliamma, has been a peculiar character. From the time I remember she was fond of keeping a jar of candy or toffee next to her bed. But it’s one of the many habits she shed with age. I remember her asking me to buy packets of branded toffees in different flavours, if she was in a mood for it. She made it a point to call us all to her room after each meal to give us one toffee each. Except my dad, her beloved eldest son: he got two because he is older than the rest of us.

She is like that, openly partial. I, as her first grandchild, am subject to a huge portion of her affection. Once she called my brothers and me to her room and gave us a hundred rupees to split among the three of us, unaware that times have moved and 100 bucks will fetch us hardly anything. “Shereef and Bilal take 33 rupees. Nazreen can take 33 and the extra one rupee, since she is the eldest,” she said. She is the eldest among her siblings, and clearly being born first gets one into a soft corner in her heart. This of course meant my brothers resented me as she subjected me to measurable affection in the form of extra candy and pocket money.

Velliamma was probably the one who invented the concept that everything has its own place and only in that place the thing shall go. It gets her worked up if things aren’t in their designated spots. When she stopped entering the kitchen, about 20 years back, she started folding the entire household’s laundry from her bed. Many an embarrassing moment have I had when she would wave an undergarment high in the air, very intimate flags these, asking the owner to step forward and identify herself so she can add it to their pile. This while the whole clan was seated around her. As a very awkward teenager, this was my idea of hell at that time.

Once my grandpa, a diehard cricket fan, was watching a critical match between India and another country. It was the last ball and India needed six runs to win. He was tense and leaning forward, focussing hard on the screen. My grandma, who by then was walking slower than before, shuffled across the room, stopped in front of the TV blocking his view, and unfurled a pair of torn underwear. “Is this yours?” she demanded, keen to sort the laundry pile as soon as possible. My granddad was stumped, then screamed at her to move. Too late. The last ball was over, the crowd had erupted in cheers, and he didn’t know which team won. My grandma still wanted to know whose it was as my granddad tried not to explode.

Her TV soap viewing time was 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. She did not allow us to even touch the TV remote during this time. The soaps had her literally on the edge of her seat. She used to bite her nails in anxiety at the prospect of the heroine falling into the trap of the vamp (whom she used to curse without reservations). Once we found her sitting by herself and crying. When asked she said she was feeling sad for the mother-in-law in one of the shows... paavam. She has to suffer so much because of that evil daughter in law of hers" she said through tears.

Velliamma doesn’t remember much these days but is still very concerned about her ‘meal safe’ and its contents (which range from the 1960s to the 1990s, an assortment of old plastic ice cream cups, dinner sets she got as wedding presents, metallic contortions of things that were supposed to be spoons, corpses of cutlery, all covered in a generous coating of dust).

I have watched her shrink in front of my eyes. I have seen age strip her of her memory, take away many aspects of her personality, make her insecure. I see her hallucinate sometimes. Sometimes she tells me she is talking to her parents. She becomes a child and wants her mother — who passed away 25 years ago — to come and take care of her. Now we need two people to help her go to the bathroom. She screams a lot. She forgets a lot. She talks a lot. And she wants us around all the time, scared that we will abandon her otherwise.

Over the decades, the roles have been reversed. As we move from being under her care to becoming her caregivers, she has returned to childhood. She cries, we console. She becomes stubborn and fussy, so we chastise and try to reason with her.

Through her I see that old age can be a terribly isolating, lonely place. I don’t think we can fully understand how much it weakens one’s spirit till you are bang in the middle of it. I can only hope we all reach there without losing our grace.

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Printable version | Apr 20, 2021 3:33:12 AM |

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