A story of grief, healing and hope. The essay traces a woman’s trip to her hometown after the death of her husband. The traditions that aid the process of grieving and a daughter’s realization about her mother’s resilience and watching her claim herself back.
“She has a pacemaker; you cannot take her through the airport security machines.” I said to the airline assistant who was wheeling Mummy towards security for our flight to Hyderabad.
I discretely touched Mummy’s right ear as we approached the gate, a reassuring, it’s all-under-control touch. “Ma, let’s go for the physical pat-down.” She looked at me, and her twitching ears slowed down a tad, almost stopping for a split second before starting to tic again. A tic she’d developed over the last few years. Usually, we teased her, a visual proof that her brain was cranking away, processing multiple options, making decisions. Holding it all together.
She had been holding it together, for us, for herself. And especially for Papa, since he had been bedridden with a massive stroke. Leaving him immobile and without speech for over two years, her days had started and ended around his needs. We’d been there to help. But mostly watched both our parents wither before us. And just as suddenly as the stroke, in July 2016, it was all over, Papa was silent forever.
The days immediately following Papa’s passing were spent preparing for the final rites and discussing Mummy’s future.
So quickly life has to focus on the living. On practical decisions, forcing our thoughts to move along. The sharpness of grief slowly replaced by the hazy mundane.
“Mummy needs a break; she has to get away.” Meena said.
Meena, our oldest sister, 16 years my senior, had stepped into the role of our guide. She had taken in Papa and Mummy 4 years ago, as they started to need more supervision. My go-to when Mummy punished me as a child, and later for anything too distressing for our parents.
“It should be a short trip, to test her strength and stamina.” Shaila, my third sibling from Boston, added.
This debate continued well after the official 13 days of mourning. Mostly done in Mummy’s absence, over morning tea, when she was in her room or in prayer.
“I want to go to Secundrabad. Where I was born, it is what my brother would have wanted, if he were still alive.” Mummy made the decision for us one morning during breakfast.
Our family’s rock, she had always been quietly religious and deeply spiritual. My earliest memories are of curling up on the floor next to her, cold tiles against my legs, resting my head on her warm lap as I inhaled the smells of ritual every morning. The sandalwood, fresh jasmine, incense, and the starch from her ironed saree; all smells of home once, became my balm in grief. As a Hindu tradition, Mummy informed us, widowed women go home to visit their parents or siblings as an essential passage of grieving, and hence, her choice of Secundrabad.
My modern upbringing was not fully in agreement with the logic or the destination. But I did not argue; we just needed to keep moving. Grief was starting to feel like a dull instrument wedged into my being, yielding agony when I moved, and leaving puddles around my feet when I stopped.
After security check, Shaila headed over to the small shop in the terminal for some biscuits as we waited for our flight.
“Keyes High School for Girls.” was the name of my high school.
Ears still now. That glimmer of recollection indicated that Mummy was looking forward to renewing her memories.
“I was born in the old house you visited in 1993. There’s a new 4-storey apartment building now. But the neighborhood is still the same.” She said to no one in particular as if by recalling her beginnings they balanced out the recent endings.
Born in 1937, Mummy was the youngest of six siblings, the only surviving member of her generation now. Arranged into marriage, sight-unseen, to an engineering student while still in 8th grade, she lived with her parents to finish high school before leaving her home for good.
My sisters were born in quick succession after Mummy joined Papa in 1955. The 1500 kilometers distance from her home must have felt just as far removed as my 12,000 kilometers feels like today. Married into a large joint family, where the men were away for months contracting for the Indian Railways, she was a lonely bride, left alone with several sister-in-laws, children and the matriarch, her mother-in-law.
Marriage is an adjustment in any decade, whether arranged or otherwise. But adjusting to a large joint family must have been so much harder than anything I will ever experience. As India has changed, so has its family structure, not too many families now live with uncles, aunts, cousins, grandparents, and more, under one roof. But back then it was the norm, strangers, with whom she had to forge relationships, navigate hidden agendas and endure petty politics. Her saving grace had always been her gentle nature, deep faith in people’s goodness and Papa’s love when she saw him. She raised us in this protective cocoon.
Nimu, short for Nirmala, had spent her childhood around the streets of Secundrabad. A sister city of Hyderabad, the two townships share a fluid boundary marked by a large man-made lake, the Hussain Sagar. A tranquil landmark, now surrounded by 20th-century progress of chaotic streets, unabashed construction shadowing the bypasses as we whizzed by in our cousin Jiten’s SUV from the airport to his home. The commuters in the evening hour squeezed through snarling traffic one honk at a time. Everyone was hurtling towards temporary destinations, like the stages of our life.
The din of the city blurred once we were indoors. Jiten’s home was at the top of the 4-storey building he had built after inheriting the ancestral land from our uncle. I’d last seen Jiten in Secundrabad in 1993 at a cousin’s wedding, when both our parents had been alive.
Subdued from the long travel, Mummy headed straight to the alcove where Jiten and his wife maintained the family altar.
Fresh tears freely ran down her face, starring beyond her reflection on the picture frames. The same deities her parent’s had in their altar for over a 100 years, reflected her blurry face from every facetted edge.
“Ma, it’s okay.” Shaila hugged her gently.
Several pairs of eyes watched. Quietly. Kindly. Brimming. Letting her moment be private.
She lit the oil lamp.
Enfolded in a luminous embrace, Nimu had come home.
“Aunty, where would you like to visit over the next few days?” Jiten and his wife suggested options to plan out our visit over dinner.
“Tomorrow we’ll drive around the neighborhood, and you can see your primary school, the temple, and your friend’s old home near the primary school.”
Nimu’s eyes lit up, nodding at her nephew.
“I’d like to see my high school if you can find time to take us there one day.”
For my sisters and I, our story of origin starts when we are born, or when Papa and Mummy get married in 1953. Everything before that is a smudged outline, with vaguely familiar names of family long gone or seen too infrequently to hold any prominence.
Dinner that first night was subdued compared to our last day. In the passage of four days, we traveled the distances that had spanned across the family we just met. Living a life of relative isolation in Boston, Shaila and I had long dispensed of the overfamiliar closeness of Indian families. Insulating our otherness in layers befitting any transplant to New England. But in what seemed like the most natural impulse, we shed our layers and warmed up to the gaggle of faces and voices plying us with stories. And questions.
Questions mainly aimed at Mummy, their last living link to their family history. And my family history.
“When did our family business as railway contractors start to fall on hard times, Aunty?” Was it after grandfather had the stroke?”
I woke the next morning to soft voices in the dining room. Jiten and Mummy were talking over their cups of warm water with lemon juice and honey. Shaila was in the shower, and I realized I was missing out on some important family history about Mummy’s father, my Nana, who had also been in the same business as Papa and his family. Our larger community, for three generations, had been masons, contractors, and railroad construction business owners. Mostly self-taught, without higher degrees until Papa’s generation, they had been pioneers, who helped build a piece of the Indian Republic.
“Yes, after the stroke, Nana let his partners take a more active role, and we saw a lot of losses.”
Jiten and I listened in rapt attention about a time before either of us had been born, before even Shaila had been born, 13 years my senior.
“Ma, had you been able to see Nana after his stroke before he passed away?”
“No, I could not travel to see him.”
Pain is universal just like joy or hope. My broken heart suddenly recognized how Mummy’s heart must have ached when Nana had passed. Today that pain spread like an inkblot, edging into connections lost or never made. Travel in the 50s to Secundrabad for Mummy would have meant a 30-hour train ride, and being 8-months pregnant with Shaila, she’d been unable to travel, to see her father one last time. Mummy had had no goodbyes. Acutely aware of the irony, I was grateful that Papa’s prolonged illness had afforded me several trips to say goodbye.
Before the trip to Secundrabad, I had given little merit to reminiscing as a process through grief. Surrounded by family, I felt different but did not fully recognize the impact yet.
Shaila had joined us at the table, and soon our morning tea extended into breakfast.
“Please have some more, Aunty can I get you some spicy garlic mango pickle?
“Shaila ben your plate is empty, did you try the khakra?”
Jiten’s wife came out of the kitchen for the umpteenth time, plying us with a hot breakfast, homemade snacks, pickles, tea and more, if we’d asked. Shaila and I tried to help, but she’d insisted we eat and step out for our tour down memory lane before lunch. I felt her sentiment, knowing as a host she needed some quiet time, to think and plan the next meal, perhaps find a moment to relax. Eagerly she waved us off, as we packed into the elevator.
“Did you hear Ma this morning? I’ve not heard that much strength in her voice in many months; she has so much to say suddenly.” Shaila noted.
Shaila and I fell behind, watching Mummy walk towards the car with her niece and nephew’s support. “She’s really enjoying reminiscing and is reveling in all the attention.”
“Aunty, we’ll go to the high school today since tomorrow it’s Saturday and will be closed.” Jiten asked as he helped her up into the SUV.
“Ok, whatever you say.”
I’d forgotten how in India, families pile into cars like slivers of mango in a pickle jar. Old and young, limbs and ample bottoms, shifted and adjusted into available spaces. Windows rolled up; the AC blasted right into my face. Thankfully it was not a long ride, well relatively.
“Oh! That’s where my best friend Kusum, lived. That was the building your Nana built, Suman, and rented out.” I looked out at the faded pink plaster of Paris building she was pointing at, now housing several auto spare-parts storefronts, extending down the street around the corner. “We had 56 tenants. Jiten, your father went to that college. He had a scooter, and used to drop me to my high school sometimes.” Mummy’s memories gushed forth.
The dusty drive that cut through the city to the high school only seemed to heighten Mummy’s gusto.
“There, there! Under the overpass on the right, that’s my high school. It was an English medium school. I was one of the few girls of our community to learn in English. Jiten, the overpass seems new?” Mummy was the only one talking in the car.
Stuck in the back of the car, I crouched low to catch a glimpse of the large white gates as Jiten approached the security guards. I took a picture of Mummy, almost as excited as Jiten’s 10-year old son riding in the front, wedged on the gearbox.
As we spilled out of the SUV, Mummy took off.
“Shaila, go with her!”
I scrambled out of the third-row seat with my camera bag.
My 79-year-old mother had developed the gait of a toddler, teetering and tottering, her cane missing its target almost every time. I expected her to suddenly trip and fall on the field like a child during recess.
“That’s the principal’s office, the name of the principal when I was in high-school was Mrs. K…”
Her voice sure, eagerly moved forward as if for detention after 62 years.
“Suman, it’s okay, let her go, we’re right here if anything happens.” Jiten reminded me calmly.
He’d advised me earlier to let Mummy do things independently. She needed to feel confident again. For that moment I caught myself and just followed along.
What a sight we must have made to the students dotting the field during their lunch break. Some stood still watching us approach the main building. Others sat around sharing their lunch and secrets under the shady tamarind trees.
A runaway geriatric, three women scrambling behind, the only man in the group calmly waiting for his 10-year-old trailing behind kicking up dust.
Unable to control my urge, “Ma, careful!” I lunged up the verandah steps next to her.
We were standing outside the Principal’s Office, a sign probably as old as the school, marked the door diminutively.
“It’s just the same! Look, the trophies we won for sports day. Oh! That’s the name of the principal when I was here.” Nimu was flooded with so many memories.
Ears jerking vigorously, she was pointing to the wooden plaques mounted high up on the wall with names painted on in white. She’d been right; the Principal’s name in 1955 had been Mrs. Kalayani Kutti Amma.
Lit from inside, her joy filtered through like the light that splashed from the tall stained glass panes into the old wood-paneled room. Her eye’s as bright as the teenagers on the schoolyard today despite her cataracts.
The commotion we caused in the outer office brought out some women from the inner office on their lunch break.
“This is Nirmala, she was a student here, Class of 1955.”
Nimu turned to face the current principal, Jiten introduced the two women after speaking to her first in the regional language, Telegu.
“Amma, I am the current Principal, I too am an ex-student of this school, Class of 1978.”
The Principal softly addressed Mummy, using the respectful Amma to address an older woman. Commanding yet feminine, in a beige saree, pleated neatly, not a hair flyaway from of her tight low bun. She bowed namaste to Nirmala.
“It is an honor to meet you Amma, so nice you could visit the school again.”
I caught myself wiping tears as I looked away, taking a moment from behind my camera lens. Life was happening in front of me; nothing could capture the look on Mummy’s face.
Nirmala was claiming back her self.
As we made our trek back to the car at the edge of the vast field, we stopped to take a few pictures with a group of curious and friendly 8th graders.
Class of 2020 met a single student from the Class of 1955.
Nirmala walked back with us much more erect and barely using her walking stick.
And the 8th graders walked off hand-in-hand sharing some secrets only the young share.
Secrets from our youth are also universal, like love, joy, and pain. Secrets that only need the light to catch it at the right place and time. Revealed they dance in the motes. Reminding us youthful joy is never lost. Just pushed back on a shelf, waiting for us to find and dust off again.
“Back home Aunty? Or would you like to go shopping before we head home?”
“We can go shopping.”
Settled back into the SUV, I watched Mummy for signs of fatigue. Isn’t that what we do? Watch for imperceptible changes, indicators that set off inbuilt radars that trigger care. The caretakers reversed.
But at that moment all I saw was her vigor, spilling about, dancing. Claiming happiness.
A crack in time had caught Nimu swirling in the light.
The ache of loss and sheer joy merging, blurring the social boundaries age had built.
It was going to be okay.
Photo: @Suman Rathore Shah All Rights Reserved