When I learned that my grandaunt passed away today, the first question I posed was whether she died peacefully, painlessly. She did. I was glad. Padma Mami breathed her last, aged 95, in her home in Chennai. I have, of course, known her all my life. You know how certain memories, when revisited through the mind’s eye, appear fresh and different from what we may have actually experienced when the events happened. One of my early memories of Mami that left a lasting impression was a phase in 1992. I was 11. She had lost her husband to cancer. I remember visiting her place with my grandma. As the two were commiserating with one another, I don’t think I did much other than silently observe the two of them taking turns consoling one another. One had lost her husband, the other her brother. What I remember of that phase was how she gradually rebuilt herself, after a loss that was irreversible. Her steely spirit wrapped the bandage of determination that gradually obscured the wounds of her broken heart. The impish smile and the twinkle in the eye returned, slowly but surely.
I had always addressed her, “Mami” (aunt). That was just because I had observed my parents, my Aunt and their cousins address her that way. I just followed suit. She never bothered to correct me or tell me that I must call her, “Paati” (grandma). I suppose I should have only been surprised had she objected! She was far too casual for that. She possessed an innate knack of breaking down the barriers- some real, others imagined – that can separate people of different generations. I think I know why. It is because she listened as attentively as she spoke engagingly. She was interested in things that meant something to me, be it marketing, cricket or the movies! She kept abreast of changing tastes and trends without feeling compelled to shake up the elements of her core. She was too sagacious to make that kind of a false choice. And I admired her for that.
In the past few years, when my grandma and two of her sisters all went through the unspeakable tragedy of losing a child each, Padma Mami stood by them like a rock. She knew that being by their side was more important than saying anything profound, to nurse them through their grieving. Looking back at the interactions that they had with one another, I see that their wisdom routinely manifested itself in action, not words. And that is something that people in my generation can truly learn from. In our eagerness to advertise our lives on the plethora of available social media, we sometimes forget to pause. To think more deeply of the actions and gestures that could matter more than images or words that we dish out like candy. Whenever I feel tempted to say, “they don’t make them like them anymore” I stop myself. That is because I feel it behooves me to internalize and pass on what I have learned and observed of these wise young souls.
Every time I have gone to India in the past two decades (since I moved to the US), I have made it a point to visit and spend quality time with Padma Mami. Not every meeting might have been filled with nuggets of wisdom or advice. But through observation of her freeness of spirit, warmth of emotion and quiet self-assurance despite the inevitability of infirmity, I have invariably walked away from those meetups with a smile, a sense that all is well with the world. Now that Mami has left us to reunite her husband after 28 years, it is time for me to celebrate her life and the values I remember her by. As my idol Randy Pausch once said, “We don’t beat the Grim Reaper by living longer; we beat the reaper by living well and living fully.” Padma Mami – you did a damn fine job of giving the Grim Reaper a one-two punch. May your soul rest in peace and bless all of us.