Thursday, July 10, 2014

In the End

I write this with the intention that I would return to read it, time and again, to stay in close quarters with reality.
My grandmother, aaji, is nearly 95. We don’t know her exact age; she doesn’t belong to the generation that kept birthday diaries. This is our estimate, and the traditional way of keeping age has not been far from truth.
Aaji is the oldest surviving woman of her village. She occupied a pride of place in her home turf. A dozen people called on her through-out the day, and farm accounts and village grapevine kept her busy. After 1993, when her husband and my grandfather passed away, she assumed the role of the head of family. She managed ghar, and duaar, located on either side of the village street, with elan. Called as a master manager by my father, who has seen her toil through her youth to ensure education for her children and status for her family, aaji was not a woman you could fool around with. Diplomatic to the core, she rationed power in thrift installments. Perched unquestioningly on top of the pyramid, she maintained hierarchy in almost a government-like fashion. She kept information under cover, disbursed strictly on a need-to-know basis. A devout believer in god, she dedicated half of her day to holy rituals, and claimed to hear celestial voices in her dream. Interestingly, these voices often directed her daughters-in-law to do divine service to their saas. For someone who learned to read and write after her marriage, courtesy her husband, her cunning at saam, daam, dand, bhed was phenomenal. Chanakya could pay her royalty to keep his neeti alive! We saw mothers and aunts hushed up in her presence, none able to muster the courage to defy her stand. The gift of gab, one of her utter talents, of which we are part inheritors, was her chief artillery. If fired, it left the victim wounded for days, maybe years, unable to point out the scars or even decipher the extent. People stuck in her barbs, gaabhi in Bhojpuri, are known to have been nagged all their lives.
In the fond memories of our childhood, aaji takes a lion’s share at the art of story-telling. I’m yet to meet someone as convincing as her. She spun some of the most illogical tales, with characters having no semblance with reality, and we lapped it up with the credence that children alone possess. Not to mention that her weird descriptions, many of which included stuff today’s parents will die to hear mentioned before their children, led us to have scary notions about the human anatomy. I still marvel how a grown up woman can tell the same story to the same set of children ad-nauseam, and they laugh to tears every time she did so!
When she came visiting her children, she came with an aide by her side. Not the one to be dominated by change, she ruled the roost here too. Her hours of pooja were followed by equally long and religious hours of TV. Matriarchs of soap operas were, predictably, her favourite characters, and frequently her medium to convey indirect messages. Though she never confessed to liking modern songs and near-nude dance, we observed the spark in her eyes every time ETC was tuned in. For free-entertainment, we children switched to Fashion TV in her presence, and enjoyed a virulent stream of unabashed expletives! She even acted in papa’s plays, remembering each dialogue of every character by heart, and basked in the fame of her performance. Conventional in the village and modern in the city, aaji was a queen of paradoxes who re-defined practicality. And like the weather, she paid no heed to criticism.
A pic from 2012 - papa and aaji
Aaji was the one who taught me the first tongue I learned. Bhojpuri. Shocked by my unending appetite for milk amidst the mercurial expenses of a city-life, aaji decided to take me to village when I was merely 1. She kept me there for a year before I was to return to Bokaro. I’ve had my father re-collect those days a countless times. My reaction on seeing the ceiling fan, for instance (ee kaa ha ho papa…rel-gaadi? I’d said). Of course, I was too young to remember any of that. But I do remember the earthy smell of doodh-roti that aaji would feed us on our annual visits to the village. In the sweltering heat of Bihar, the taste of thick, sweet milk, and rotis cooked on ghar ka chulha, mashed by aaji with bare fingers, was an experience I will remain grateful to life for.
I use the past tense in aaji’s description, because it hurts to see that she IS not what she WAS then. Six years ago, we brought her to Delhi to live with us after she broke her hip owing to a slippage. It took persuasion and cajoling for a proud woman like her to agree to this plan. Since then, year after year, we have seen the light fading from her eyes. And it’s not easy to bear this sight.
A person who lived like an institution, who weathered ages, who was feared and respected to a considerable extent, ends up like a helpless little child in bed. The anti-climax of life is devastating. One would rather have had her thumping her way to the exit, than have her cowering in bed, in an unfathomable state of alertness and slumber. For the last two years, the time that daily deterioration has been visible, we’ve had the feeling that she’s at her fag end. Every day, there’s something of her we lose. Her story-telling went a long time back. When her morning bhajans stopped, papa tried to revive it by asking her to sing along. She obliged, only to give up that faculty months later. Now she hears when papa sings to her, hopefully, for we can’t sense an acknowledgement. For a long time, she pulled on anyhow with the walker. When that stopped, we dragged her on the chair. A month ago, that phase too, passed. Our latest attempt is now to prevent her from getting bed-sores, which threaten in a big, bad way.
Her glorious face of youth, famous for her fair complexion and high cheek-bones, has creased and shrunk. The voice that would raise us from sleep by singing bhajans from four in the morning, today only purrs in pain. Worse, we don’t hear her voice for days. But if and when she realizes that we are cleaning her, or feeding her, all she says weakly is this: phulaail raha (stay blossomed). Those once bright eyes remain closed till roused from sleep. If her leg falls off the bed, she doesn’t even realize it. Parts of her muscles have fallen detached from the bone, to which she doesn’t react. A frail bangle, the only piece of ornament on her body, had to be taken off for it bled her paper-thin flesh. A woman who once had an elephantine memory, remembering songs, quotations and idioms like the back of her hand, can’t recollect the number of children she has borne. Till some time back, we all had nicknames. I was sona-jhari (who sheds gold), my bhabhi was kanaiva-rani (the new bride) and my  mother, bahu-rani. Now, she addresses one and all as bahu-rani, for deep within, she probably only remembers her chief care-taker.
Sometimes with humor, sometimes with irritation, but mostly with a passive face of duty, I see my mother doing back-breaking service to a woman she could settle past scores with. The rest of us join her and support her in the toil, but when we children are in office, or vacationing with friends, maa  stays back. To tend to a relationship where giving has been mostly a one-way traffic, and continues to be so.
There are days when maa just stands and stares at the whimpering figure on bed. She stares till she cries and begs the almighty to have mercy on the old woman’s plight. How much more, good lord, she laments. Tears of aaji’s pain have softened the core of each being in our house. Without seeing each other in the eye, we all cry and pray for her release. Outwardly, we turn old age into a humorous subject, for that is the strongest tool in any survival kit. How else can you remain happy and driven, when the end of life, the decay and devastation of slow death, reels before your eyes, day and night?
Life has come a full circle. Now, I mash doodh-roti in the bowl and feed aaji. I presume she likes the taste because she half-utters blessings as she gulps it down. I fight tears. I fight impatience. I fight the urge to plea for euthanasia. I implore destiny. I see my family alternating between the same choices. And I hope and pray, that when she is gone, we remember her by the only two words she uttered towards her end.
Phulaail raha.
PS – I finished writing this piece at 3 am on July 6. The next day, on late evening of July 7, Aaji bade us a final goodbye. Her last coherent words were addressed to my father. Repeatedly, she said: Babua ho, liaa chala (Oh my son, take me away).