I see her sitting by the window staring out into eternity. She is holding a string of beads in her hands, her mind focused on the mantra she is chanting. The rays of the morning sun fall on her face making her skin glow. The gold ornaments, which, she still wears with a relish, sparkle as the sun rays play hide and seek with them. Her once unruly mane of dark, curly hair is now tied into a little snow white bun. Her skin is wrinkled and soft like muslin and her hands are a little shaky. Her legs have turned to form a big 'O' and she has to walk taking horizontal steps. But her eyes belie her visage of a tired, old woman. They still sparkle with the sharpness of wit and perceptiveness of her mind and, most of all, a sense of humor.
My beautiful grandmother, Malati, has turned 80 this December and looks happy. She is a little tired for the journey has been long and at a times difficult. But all the struggle has been worth it. Her strife is now behind her and she can now lay back and watch the lives of her children flourish.
Yes, she is old now and my younger cousins probably know her only as the wrinkled, snowy haired grandma. But when my older brother Abhijit and I were little, she was still in her prime and at her dynamic best. Her curly hair was jet black and tangled as ever and her skin was still smooth. She looked so young that Abhijit refused to call her Ajji, which is grandma in my language, Marathi, and started calling her Ammi instead.
Last month, my mother, aunt and uncles got together and held a party for Ammi's 80th birthday. At that time they published her book that included all the stories and memoirs she had written over the years. I could not go there to witness her day but I hear that the belle of the ball was as enthusiastic as ever and having a whale of a time.
I cannot imagine her as being anything but enthusiastic, energetic and with a temper of a tempest. Ammi has never been and will never be that dour, depressed, lost person fumbling through life. She has always been sure, always been resourceful and never, ever given up. Through every challenge, every ordeal, she has held herself upright and fought back. And during her struggle she has carefully preserved the sensitivity of a writer, a love for beauty of a woman, optimism of a child and a unique ability to laugh at herself. I have never seen another woman with so much passion for life.
Ammi was born in a small village in Konkan on the coastal Maharashtra, India. When she was 3 years old, she lost her mother. Her father remarried a few years later. Her new mother was young enough to be her older sister and although they shared a special relation throughout their lives, Ammi never accepted her as her mother. She always called her new mother Kaku, meaning aunt. However, Ammi remained deprived of the tender touch, support and guidance of a mother all her life.
When she was 16, her father died too. Perhaps, that is when a bond between the two women, Ammi and her Kaku, was formed. Here were two young women bound by a common thread of grief, although it affected them in such different ways. Being orphaned at such early age, tragic as it was, may have actually contributed to the development of Ammi's inner strength and emotional self reliance that sustained her throughout her life.
After the death of her father, Ammi came to live with her Uncle and Aunt. She spent a few years with them but, soon, she got frustrated with her listless life. They neither allowed her to study further nor really thought about her future or her marriage. Ammi did not take this lying down. She actually confronted her uncle and demanded to know his plans for her future. Her uncle was furious with his firebrand niece and put her down. This was the 1930s and it was quite shocking for a girl to be assertive and to actually stand up for herself. Enraged with her uncle's apathy, Ammi left his house and came to live in Pune with her maternal relatives. She took up a job in Pune and savored her independence.
That is when a proposal for marriage with Anna came to her. My Grandfather, Damodar, was the eldest son of an affluent Doctor in Chiplun. I have always wondered how she was chosen as a bride for Anna. Anna was quite good looking and came from a rich, reputed family and was a good ten years older than her. Though Ammi was beautiful herself, she did not really have a family to call her own and those were the times when a girl was actually detested for her intelligence. But whether it was because Anna's enterprising father saw and appreciated the spark in her or whether it was the God's wish for the two of them to come together, the alliance was made. They were destined to spend more than fifty, long, bittersweet years together before God chose to tear them apart.
The early years after their marriage must have been blissful because Ammi looks back at that time fondly. Anna was working as a store keeper in the British military and they were posted to Calcutta for a while. Although those were the tempestuous times of partition of India and Indian independence and Calcutta was a testy place to be in, Ammi actually has fond memories of the place.
After a couple of years in Calcutta, they came back to Chiplun so that Anna could help his father in running his businesses and managing all the estate they owned. Ammi lost her first child that time due to a premature delivery, but was soon pregnant with my mother.
During her early childhood, my mother has had a chance to witness her family's affluence. But the idyll did not last long and soon after disaster struck. That is when Ammi's trial began.
Anna was duped by his partner in business and he had to liquidate all their family assets including their ancestral home to pay back the enormous loan his partner had incurred. In a matter of days, their family went from a state of affluence to a state of privation. Anna could not take this blow. He not only lost his money, but also his self worth.
Anna could never really get over that disaster but Ammi refused to be let down. She accepted what had happened to them and tried to look beyond that. After all, she had a family to feed. First she tried to goad Anna into finding work again, but he was not prepared. She tried to make him train himself for some occupation but he refused. Frustrated, she decided to get out of the house herself.
She soon realized that she had only completed high school education and did not have a proper vocational training for a decent occupation. Ammi took admission in a kindergarten teacher's training course for which she was required to go to another city but by that time she was already a mother of four children. She had to tear her family apart and take her two younger sons with her and leaving her older daughters with their father in Karad. That one year must have been a trial for her patience and perseverance. It was also a difficult time for her children, especially my mother who was given the responsibility of the household as she was the oldest daughter.
After she was done with the course, Ammi opened a kindergarten in Karad and the family was reunited. But she did not stop there. She continued to pursue further education and completed her Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Education degrees and became a high school teacher.
There are several sides to Ammi's character. She has been a well loved teacher, an efficient mother and also a resourceful entrepreneur. To generate an extra income for her large family and growing needs of her children, Ammi started and ran several tiny businesses. In summer she would go to Konkan and bring back a load of mangoes and ran a small shop selling mangoes and mango products. She ran the mango business for forty years until my oldest uncle took it over from her. She started little workshops manufacturing Ganesha idols for the Ganesha festival and, with the same material, chalks for the blackboards which she sold to the schools in Karad. She invested little money she could put aside in a plot and bit by bit built a little building over there. She rented out rooms in that complex to students.
She started out with nothing, but Ammi could gather enough money to give her children a good life and a decent education. She managed to have decent weddings for both her daughters. Both her sons turned out to be successful financially and professionally. Neither my mother nor her siblings ever felt they were deprived of anything in their childhood.
She could stand by her children's financial difficulties even during their adult life. Ammi has always been there to help when anyone needed money to buy a house or needed a little helping hand in their business.
Her relation with Anna was a curious one. For more than fifty years they were practically inseparable. Though Anna was so much older than her and had fathered her children, he was always more like her fifth child. I sometimes wonder if it must have been at a times difficult for him to fathom this headstrong woman. He took a back seat in life, but was never bitter about it and never came in the way of what she was doing. He may not have said that in so many words, but I know he greatly admired her. From her side, she always made sure he was respected in the house and was well taken care of.
A few years ago when Anna died, Ammi became lonely. Although she held herself up as she always did in any crisis, and filled her time with her books, her prayers and her grandchildren, I know, somewhere deep down she misses him.
Ammi has a fascination for people and simply loves to talk. She has always has a huge friend circle and has been very well loved amongst her friends and family. In dealing with people she has always been straightforward - never hesitated to call a spade, 'a spade'. But she loves being with people and wherever she went, she gathered people around her and bound them together. Even now, she has organized a little group of women in the nearby temple. They meet every week and sing devotional songs, Ammi tells them mythological stories and reads them stories and anecdotes from different books. They all absolutely love her.
She dearly loves gold jewelry. So much so that her ear hole had to be stitched up and re-pierced three times. Every time the piercing sagged down because of the heavy earrings she wore. She refuses to listen to anyone and still wears all kinds of heavy gold tops. Gold has not only been ornamental for her but always helped her in difficult times when she would pawn it or sell it to raise money. She would always make it a point get back her lost jewelry by raising money for it somehow.
Ammi has always been very strong emotionally. When my father died at the age of 43, she was a pillar of strength for my mother, my brother and myself. I have seen her stand by my mother's side during her difficulties and give her help and support. During my growing up years, she was my ally and also my guide. She has always been someone we all could count on.
There is so much I could write about this woman and so much I am yet to understand. Her allure has lasted for 80 years and I am sure it will last for a long time to come. I am so proud to hold a drop of her blood, a little of her genes in my body.
Ammi, I could never quite encase your charm in words, but here is a little attempt from my side for the world to know what you have been all about!