Madras became Chennai, but 101-year-old Ponnu stayed the same


For her 100th birthday party my great-aunt’s only rule was that all the food be home-cooked

My great-aunt Alamelu was married at 14. In the standard studio photo of the newlyweds that hung high on her living-room wall, she looks gravely at the camera, lips set in a firm line, displaying a poise beyond her years.

She quickly learned the ways of the household in her new home in Madurai. Cooking flawless meals for her husband’s family came first. “Ponnu, I’m home,” her mother-in-law would call, flopping down on the front verandah after her daily visit to the Meenakshi temple. Ponnu would appear, with delectable tiffin and hot filter coffee.

I don’t know how she came by the name Ponnu (‘young girl’ in Tamil) but that’s how she was known all her life. Maybe because she was small, less than five feet tall, and the youngest daughter-in-law in my great-grandparents’ household. My grandmother was the oldest. “Your mother was pregnant with you when I was married,” she would often tell my father. The last time I heard her say it was this January. She was 101 then, my father 86.

Ponnu and her husband Balu did not have children of their own. Instead, they were popular aunt and uncle to many nieces and nephews, hosting them, scolding them, feeding them. Ponnu Chithi (Aunt Ponnu) knew everybody’s favourite foods. It could be sevai, silken rice noodles, lemon or coconut-scented, or bajjis of sliced eggplant dipped in chickpea flour, browned to a crisp, or curd rice in a matchless blend of rice, milk and yogurt, seasoned with mustard, split urad and sharp green chillies.

Her legendary dishes, produced at astonishing speed, were worth risking the cane her husband used to wield on an errant young nephew. “We should tie pillows to our backs when we visit Uncle Balu,” my father’s cousins would grumble.

Ponnu immersed herself in her husband’s family. I remember them being regulars at all events — the light-skinned, tiny aunt and swarthy, lanky uncle, she with outsize bindi on her forehead and a traditional nine-yard saree, he in spotless white veshti. In some wedding photographs, she is flanked by two grinning nephews towering over her. Sometimes she seems to have gained a few inches, surreptitiously standing on some stacked bricks.

Swing and snacks

Growing up, we visited them often in their home on Saradhambal Street in a bucolic corner of Chennai’s T. Nagar. They would greet us from the big wooden swing on the veranda. Conversation and snacks (always home-made) would follow, with talk about who was married and who was not, who had moved, bought or sold a house, been ill or died. Ponnu Chithi kept up avidly with everything and was a reliable purveyor of family bulletins. “By the way,” she would say conspiratorially, before embarking on a gossipy tidbit. We grew familiar with her trademark ‘aamaa’ and waited to hear what came next. Though the dutiful wife, she was not above subversive asides about her husband’s family. “Oh, don’t bother about them,” she would advise my mother, in daughter-in-law solidarity. “They can be a bunch of surly grouches.”

Making the rounds

As the years passed, our families scattered. Ponnu Chithi was widowed in 1984. She sold the house and moved into the ground floor flat of Alamelu Apartments that took its place. Instead of the swing on an airy veranda, she had a cramped sitting room. When we visited, we would find her watching a movie, a soap or the news on a pre-historic TV set. Everything had changed, but she was the same — practical, cheerful and chatty. She still made the rounds of weddings, births and funerals, propelled as much by curiosity as by concern. She was Paati (grandma) to her neighbours, who sent food or stopped by to chat. And everyone still visited her — one grand-niece brought along her English mother-in-law, another her American spouse.

Ponnu Chithi was unsentimental about old age and living alone. When she turned 100 last year, her surviving nephews and nieces suggested a party. She accepted gamely, only decreeing that all the food be home-cooked.

Madras became Chennai, and tree-filled compounds gave way to boxy apartment blocks. Where cows once wandered its drowsy lanes, cars clogged the streets of Gokulam Colony. On a Sunday in early January we went to see her. She mourned the death of a dear nephew at 78. “I just can’t accept he is gone,” she said, recalling his wedding, his children, their marriages. Then, “By the way, do you know what I heard?” she asked, launching into a story, spicing it with wicked jokes and laughing uproariously. She shuffled into the kitchen to make tea, and saw us off with her usual macabre injunction to my father, “Remember, you have to cremate me, so make sure you stick around until I go.” We didn’t know then the end was so near.

A few weeks later we saw her in hospital. The chart on the door said, ‘Name: Alamelu. Sex: Female, Age: 101.’ She lay, small and bewildered, swathed in bandages, under the glare of fluorescent light, with one young nurse by her side. The flame from her pooja lamp had engulfed her saree, leaving purple burns on her back, legs and feet. “I hope I can go home soon,” she said, adding (accurately), “It must cost at least ₹1 lakh to be here.” We took turns holding her hands, which were already turning cold. She died 10 days later, leaving ₹1 lakh in her savings account.

When I posted pictures I had taken of her from our last visit, everyone exclaimed, ‘What a face, look at that smile, what an amazing life, what spirit!’ Ponnu Chithi would have cackled. “What’s the fuss about,” she would have said, “it’s just life, to be lived.”

The writer divides her time between Chennai and Istanbul, where she misses the mango season, spry ladies in nine-yard saris, and hot tiffin.

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Printable version | Jan 30, 2020 2:37:28 AM |

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