Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Happy Birthday Amma

I call my maternal grandparents Amma and Dada. Why my naana (Hindi for maternal grandfather) was called Dada (Hindi for paternal grandfather; here just a name I called him) is something that remains a mystery to me even after three decades of existence. My grandmother turned 90 this January so the four grandsons each decided to write a short writeup as our tribute. This here is mine.

Growing up is hard. That is why we seek teachers and role models to emulate, to learn from. We observe, we follow, we imbibe and, in times of indecision, we hope we make the same choices they would have made in that situation. We mature with their experiences, we draw from their strengths and we heed their warnings. Amma has meant all of those things to me. And then so much more.

How do I even begin to thank Amma for everything? What do I even thank her for? Perhaps I must start by thanking her for being a constant in my life – I've probably been visiting Amma-Dada on weekends since forever. Perhaps I must thank her for the genes – I may not be the brightest bulb in the box but the her genetic filament is responsible for my flickering every once in a while. Perhaps I must thank her for the strength she imparts – for every early morning phone call the day after school exam results wherein she would virtually hand-hold me through the disappointment and inspire me to fight another day. The truth is there is no clear beginning to this gratitude just as certain as there is no end to it.

All through childhood, Amma for me was always part of the Amma-Dada getaways my brother and I would get to enjoy on every other Sunday or through the summer and Diwali vacations with the cousins. Us boys would generally be up to no good until Amma would sternly settle us down to read books or play something less harmful to the photo frames and holy idols. Meanwhile, she would strive endlessly in the kitchen conjuring up something delicious to eat for the ever-ravenous, ever-demanding grandsons. To great success, might I add, and that too with tireless consistency. 'Tireless' and 'consistency' are words that I employ here for a specific purpose. Because these two words define my image of Amma. Ever at work, never relaxing. To me, Amma always exemplified youth – I would boast to my friends at school and college about my grandmother who never aged even as the calendars rolled over. I am half sure even I had my first grey hair before Amma had hers.

Only once in all these years have I seen Amma uncharacteristically vulnerable. Dada's passing was hard on every one in the family but I cannot even attempt to quantify Amma's sense of loss. When I rushed in from Pune that night, I arrived at my grandparents' home to find an understandably distraught Amma beside herself with grief. I found myself at a loss of words foremost out of grief for losing Dada, but also greatly from an inability to deal with finding Amma in an unnatural state of fragility. When I mustered enough courage to sit with Amma just before dawn, she grievingly asked me why this had happened to us. That was when my already-strained defense crumbled and all I could present as response to her question were silent tears. It is a memory I do not retain fondly but it is one that endures as an anomaly to the unrelenting resilience of this lady.

What is astonishing (or not, actually) is that Amma's strength is not only inward. Her physical health and well-being are something that we all must draw inspiration from. Especially I, as one who has no positive achievements to speak of in this domain. On her trip to the US in 2012, Amma trooped through long-distance trips within the country like a seasoned traveler, often leaving us relatively younger co-travelers huffing and puffing in her wake. She steadfastly refused to take the wheelchair as we scampered at the airports, which led to us sheepishly smiling at numerous airport officials who judged us not too kindly as they saw her walking with us all over the place.

Amma's US trip in 2012 was her first ever but it was personally very satisfying for me. Her curiosity around peculiar western customs, her unabashed joy at meeting her sisters and their children and grandchildren – these were moments of warmth I hope to preserve in memory forever. I can only imagine how much it must have meant to her to meet her sisters, who had migrated to the US more than four decades ago, in their own homes. I daresay I was initially nervous about the trip being my wife's first opportunity to spend extended time with Amma. But Amma took to her so warmly that I was driven to a tinge of jealousy for how much attention the missus (I will admit, deservedly) got from her. Amma and her granddaughter-in-law would get into long-drawn chats, often revealing stories that even I had no prior knowledge of. Although I have shared three decades on this planet with Amma, I easily forget that she also has twice as many as these years more of her life to speak of. And so, setting aside stories of Amma - The Grandmother, we indulged in stories about Amma – The-Freedom-Fighter-Who-Spent-Prison-Time and Amma – The-Young-College-Graduate-Turned-Professional.

My second-most favorite moment of that trip was when Amma and her 87-year-old sister had an interesting debate about Barack Obama's virtues and lack thereof. The debate was intense throughout, at times reflecting childish playfulness in both sisters, and yet often involving political news bits that I was ashamed to not be in touch with. The whole episode was humorous, casual, enthralling, balanced and nuanced all at once! My favorite moment of the trip, however, was a fleeting moment at a lakeside park we visited one evening. I captured that moment in a photograph of Amma standing at a railing looking over at the lake. The photograph was unrehearsed, not posed for and almost accidental but as I went back to it later, it appeared to capture a serenity in Amma's face that gave me immense satisfaction. I sincerely hope those few days in an alien country with her near and dear ones gave Amma the same satisfaction that I now claim to have captured in a digital image.

A very significant quality I observe in Amma is one that I have deliberately refrained from bringing up until now. Love. Amma's love, kindness, humility and selflessness, I am sure, knows no bounds. All I can do is perhaps thank my luck for letting me in on this love. Through the last 90 years, Amma has achieved success in such a large variety of roles – student, teacher, wife, mother, grandmother, chef, freedom fighter – that she would not be wrong in letting her guard down for a moment to feel proud of herself. As a doting grandson, I can only hope to reflect at least an iota of that pride back to her in my acts, thoughts and summarily, in my existence.

Happy Birthday Amma. Much love. And thank you!


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