“Don’t you wish you could take a single childhood memory and blow it up into a bubble and live inside it forever?”
How I wish!
Some of my best memories are from my childhood. Of the annual summer vacations that I got to spend with my grandparents at our tharavadu (ancestral home) in Ottapalam, Kerala.
I used to address my maternal grandfather as Muthachan and my maternal grandmother as Ammamma. Achan, my father, was working in the middle-east since I was five. Hence I was more attached to Muthachan who helped fill the void to a certain extent. He would hang around with me, tell me stories, take me out for a walk through the lush green farmlands or take me to his tharavadu in Kunissery, Palakkad…in short, he was my best buddy.
I wasn’t very close with Ammamma or Kunjhukutty (as Muthachan addressed her). I only remember her as a severely hunch-backed old woman. Mostly bed-ridden and confined to the walls of the tharavadu. When she was not lying on the bed, you could find her sitting on the dining table reading Bhagavatham, Ramayanam or Narayaneeyam. Her elder brother would tease her saying God will punish her because she was reading all of it without understanding a single word. The Sanskrit scholar found joy in ridiculing her.
When I began my writing journey back in 2012, I had shared numerous anecdotes on my relationship with Muthachan. I rarely wrote anything about Ammamma.
Ammamma breathed her last on a Vishu night in 2000 after a terrible few months. Amma was with her during her last days and I used to call up multiple times a day to check about her condition. There was a point when Amma told me, “Please pray to Almighty that she is relieved of all her pains soon.” I hated Amma for saying that. I was not witnessing what Amma did. I am glad that I didn’t see Ammamma in those last days and I still hold her in memory as someone who remembered me, someone who adored me, someone who loved me no matter what. She hardly recognized people during her last days.
This post is a short tribute to this simple old woman whose inner strength is something I would love to inherit.
Ammamma and I didn’t get along well during the initial days. I was scared of bed-ridden people for reasons still unknown to me. If I saw you upright, you had more chances of being my friend. If I saw you in the horizontal position most of the time, chances are that you wouldn’t find me around much. Wait, wait! I remember now. One of Amma’s cousin brothers had met with an accident and broke his leg. He was on bed for a long time during one of my vacations. His beard grew longer and the room he lay in was in a deep dark corner of the tharavadu. I was mighty scared of him. To add to it, he was always in a rough mood and kept screaming at everyone. Thus I started fearing people who had restricted movement or stayed in dark rooms.
Another reason for not getting along well with her was that Ammamma had severe arthritis and couldn’t handle cold weather. Even in the month of May-June you would see her tucked in a blanket without a fan. By the way, during my childhood our ancestral village didn’t have electricity. Ammamma would invite me to sleep next to her and I would run away. Brat, I was!
Ammamma lived in the Stone Age Era when milk, especially cow milk, was considered Amrutham (immortal nectar). She was crazy about drinking milk twice a day. She would force me too. I disliked milk from the very beginning resulting in many a glasses down the drain. I used to tease her that out of the entire two nazhi of cow milk that we ordered, she was the one who drank up almost one and a half nazhi. Nazhi is a measurement followed in Kerala.
As I grew older I disliked Ammamma for the fact that Amma used to be completely at her service for the two months of summer vacations and I felt abandoned. I remember having told her once that she looked beautiful when she was fast asleep because she didn’t keep calling my mother all the time. I regretted it so much when she fell ill a few days later and was unconscious for two whole days. I almost choked on my guilt.
It was only after Muthachan’s demise that I became closer to Ammamma. I was thirteen then. I had actually adopted her as my wife. I was quick to realize how lonely she had become. I would tease her and play silly pranks on her the way Muthachan did. I started taking her around the courtyard forcefully when I realized that she had remained confined to the four walls of the house because of her hunchback. She felt embarrassed to face people. I kept telling her how beautiful she looked and that’s why she was Muthachan’s Kumjhukutty. She would smile and blush. I loved watching her cheeks turn red and her wrinkled face light up with joy.
Once we were back in Delhi, I kept writing letters to her every week. Beyond a point, you have to help old people survive without feeling unloved and uncared for. And children somehow have that in them to understand their pain better.
Once Amma and Sachumama (my maternal uncle) had gone with Girija mema (my maternal aunt) to her in-laws in Angamaly. They had left early in the morning and were supposed to return late at night. Towards afternoon, Ammamma complained of indigestion. I helped her to the washroom multiple times. After a few times, she looked pale and was unable to walk at all. I lovingly made her a glass full of milk mixed with two big scoops of Horlicks. Just when I was about to take it to her my love for her overcame my senses and I added another scoop full of Horlicks so that she regains energy.
Lactose intolerance was unheard of back then. Poor Ammamma too drank the entire milk because she also was taught that two glasses of milk a day was supposed to keep Lord Yama away. She complained of stomach ache as soon as she finished the milk. With great difficulty I dragged her to the washroom and back a few more times before she fell unconscious. Amma and others had still not reached. There was no phone connection too. I was mighty scared and wondered if Ammamma had died.
It took her four days in the hospital to recover. That probably was the end of my belief in milk and its therapeutic properties. I curse myself even today for having offered her that glass of Horlicks milk. Had something happened to her on that day or around then, I am sure I would have never forgiven myself.
Thankfully, Ammamma lived enough to see me graduate and get a job. I was lucky enough to send her a small token of love every month from my salary. For all the twenty-five rupees she borrowed from me to buy milk and for all the repetitive reminders I sent her way to get my hard earned money (earned during Vishu) back. Never did I imagine that one day she will leave all that borrowed money and our letters underneath her pillow and that too on a Vishu day. Vishu has never been the same after her.
Ammamma was always in awe of me. She was the only person who thought that I was tall, slim and beautiful. I still remember her look when I would wear a saree just to visit Guruvayur temple. She would sit up and say, “ente kuttikku nalla sundaran payyanne thane kittannam” (my child must get a handsome young man). I wish she lived up to meet the sundaran payyan. Sigh!