Saturday, April 8, 2023

Cent per cent Genuine: A tribute to my paternal grandmother

70/100.  That was how much I scored in my quarterly Math exam when I was in 7th grade.  When I was a school student, I would hesitate more to share a low Math score with her than I would with my parents.  After my ordinary performance in that exam, instead of telling her that I would work harder the next time, I made the mistake of telling her that my low score was due to a “few silly mistakes.”  She wasted no time in asking me how exactly could one score just 70% due to a few innocuous mistakes.  With her razor-sharp memory, she recounted the umpteen distractions – cricket, tennis, movies, to name a few – that had arguably done some damage to my preparations!  But here’s the thing – even as a hot-headed 11-year old, I knew not to argue with her. 

Trust me, I was much happier that day than my somber expression suggests!

When one has had a lifelong association with a loved one, it is a tough task to encapsulate the shared memories, the moments of truth, and capture the core spirit of the person with mere words.  My paternal grandmother Indira Raghavan passed away yesterday, leaving behind a score of memories.  But amidst all her virtues and values, it is her forthrightness, honesty and above all, genuineness that I will remember her most for.

Years later, when I had moved to the US in the late 90s, I had picked up this habit of calling one friend in India every weekend.  I had struck a 'deal' with my parents that I would speak for no more than 15 minutes.  Paati knew this.  You must remember that these were pre-Whatsapp days, where long distance calls were quite expensive.  One on occasion, I was quite enjoying my conversation with a friend.  Even though Paati was not in the same room, after I had come out, she asked me the duration of my call.  I said to her that it was probably a half-hour or so.  Pat came the reply that I had spoken for close to 45 minutes!  And that it was my Dad’s hard-earned money that I was squandering through my carelessness.  Again, I don’t remember having much of an argument with her.  I suppose I didn't want to make two wrong calls the same day!    

I am not sure that I realized at the time of these two incidents.  But I think that I must have sensed the quality in a person that makes us swallow the bitter pill – sans any coating of sugar – of forthright advice.  And that quality is genuineness.  Indira Paati did not have an iota of fakery in her.  Everything about her from affection to advice was genuine.  That she walked the talk, made her words and gestures of tough love, resonate and register.  She was a master of attacking the behavior, not the person.  I don’t remember ever being called any names or adjectives.  All I remember of those conversations are her precise directions on what to do and what not to do.

During my upanayanam...

Her genuine displays of love and affection too, were seen in more of actions and gestures than words.  For instance, she knew that I loved ilai vadaam. She would tirelessly make them for me in the stove, as I waited eagerly to peel them off the banana leaves that she would hand me in the kitchen.  When I had visited my Aunt in Charlottesville in 1991, Paati and Thatha were with her.  Thatha and my Aunt had picked up me and my Mom up from the train station.  I was a bit disappointed that Paati had not come to the station.  Upon reaching my Aunt’s home I realized that Paati was in the kitchen preparing ilai vadaams for me.  Since she couldn’t procure banana leaves there, she made them on Ziploc bags.  I don’t remember if I appreciated her thoughtfulness and ingeniousness as much as I should have. (Knowing me, I probably started gobbling the vadaams even before washing my hands!)

Paati was deeply pious.  That was hard to ignore.  But when one looked beyond her love for temples and her dazzling mastery of prayers and scriptures, it was easy to see that her type of piety reflected her personality.  In a simple, organized manner, she prayed and read religious books with a single-minded belief in the superpower, without tying her prayers to outcomes, wishes or desires.  It was piety of the purest kind.

Over the past 6 years, her health had been deteriorating.  It was difficult to see her in a state that was a stark contrast to her former self.  Of course, age-related ailments and infirmity are painful to see from close quarters.  But what we had was the gift of time with her.  I am filled with gratitude for having been born in her family, to have witnessed her virtues and values firsthand.  In letting her go to a happier, pain-free place up above, I tell myself that my best tribute to her would not be this article.  It would be in the way I lead the rest of my life, seeking to emulate the way she lived hers.

Paati, I may have scored only 70/100 on that day.  But your score for genuineness was certainly 100/100.  Rest in peace.  I will miss you.