I know this starts out rather like an essay one would write back in school! Well, I wish I were back in school with less to bother me about the adult life of mistaken importance! But I really want to write about my grandmother (paati as she is called by her grandchildren). There were two recent incidents which reminded me of her and I have no clue why.
My cousin (who is 11) insisted on watching Fiddler On The Roof (which she has seen several times before). I had already seen it but that confession bore no weight on the ears of the little girl who considered doing things together as a way of bonding. I was touched by her simple outlook which I was also raised in and hence we decided to watch the movie together (with a lot more people in the van). I honestly, find a repeat telecast boring unless the movie is one like the Godfather or Terminator. Nevertheless, there was one bit that caught my attention and made me think of my grandmother. There is this one song where Tevye asks his wife Golde whether she loves him. This is how it goes:
Do you love me?
Do I what? !
Do you love me?
Do I love you?
With our daughters getting married
And this trouble in the town
You’re upset, you’re worn out
Go inside, go lie down
Maybe it’s indigestion.
Ah, no, Golde, I’m asking you a question.
Do you love me?
You’re a fool.
But do you love me?
Do I love you?
For 25 years, I’ve washed your clothes
Cooked your meals, cleaned your house
Given you children, milked your cow
After 25 years, why talk about love right now?
The first time I met you
Was on our wedding day
– I was scared – I was shy
– I was nervous – So was I
But my father and my mother
Said we’d learn to love each other
And now I’m asking, Golde
Do you love me?
I’m your wife
But do you love me?
Do I love him?
For 25 years, I’ve lived with him
Fought with him
Starved with him
25 years, my bed is his
If that’s not love, what is?
Then you love me?
I suppose I do.
And I suppose I love you, too
It doesn’t change a thing
But even so
After 25 years
It’s nice to know
I couldn’t help but smile at this song-conversation and it reminded me of my grandmother. I am told she was married when she was 13 or so. I wonder what were her thoughts that ran through her mind when she was told that she will have a man as her companion for the years to come, a man much older than her. Did she think of her dolls, her mother, her running around the well to the rear of the house, her future, her present, her past? Did she blush? Did she know why she was blushing? Did she know what it was to get married? Did she know that she would grow old to have grandchildren write about her with a mottled photograph of hers!? Did she know what she was getting into? Did her husband ask her the same thing that Tevye asked Golde? What would she have said? I am sure she would have smacked her forehead and continued swirling the ladle over the pan painting a white disc of rice batter. I am sure she must have smiled in between and shook her head at the sweetness with which her husband of 25 years asks her something that really has not much meaning anymore and is just a passing note. But still he asked. She must have smiled again before realising that she forgot to turn the dosa. She would eat this slightly charred one.
Currently, I am re-reading the Lost Horizon. There is something about the promise of peace and tranquility that draws me to this book. It is perhaps the essence of the strife that many people go through and find no escape from. It is perhaps a dream-come-true for many people to find themselves suddenly in a Shangri-La. I had read this when I was a boy and for unnamed reasons, I found myself smiling at this book and Conway’s thoughts. Today, I find myself nodding. It is amazing how a book – the same text, the same words, the same characters and expressions – carries a more telling if not entirely obvious and recognisable import over time. Time sure is a funny element in the grand scheme of things. It can take the same element and transform it into something (perceived) disgusting, wonderful, beautiful, all over a period of time. And Shangri-La plays exactly with this very same concept of the tell of time.
In this book there is a conversation between Conway and Chang (about another character called Lo-Tsen):
Conway: She was deeply attached, I suppose, to the man she was to have married?
Chang: Hardly that, my dear sir, since she had never seen him. It was the old custom, you know. The excitement of her affections was entirely impersonal.
Again, I couldn’t help but think of my grandmother. She too must have had an excitement which was customary or demanded of the situation for a reason and an individual she had hardly seen. Her excitement, if any, would have also been entirely impersonal. What could she have imagined? She had no way of knowing what he would have liked. She had no way of knowing whether his hands would be rough or soft. She had no way of knowing whether he would sleep off when she recounted tales of how she loved playing pallaanguzhi and how many games she had won with her sisters. And if he did sleep, would he snore?
It is indeed amazing how in spite of being handed over so much unknown details, the woman still managed to run the family well. She mothered six children and loved each one of them differently, always having to answer another child’s question as to why she didn’t love him/her as much as that other child! In all this, she also had to manage her husband and his ways. The amount of faith people placed on time’s remedy has vanished over generations. People believed in tradition and were aware of a husband and wife’s duty and conduct. Each one conducted themselves in the manner expected thereby letting family and life go on smoothly. Today we hear of how women were dominated and suppressed in those ages. I asked my grandmother whether that happened to her. She said that she had taken the responsibilities of a family and knew what was best for all and herself.
I, of course, knew her only when women become a sort of a termagant with their now aged husbands. Something in most couples I have seen is that the wife may be sweet and docile in the initial few years or so, but once the kids are grown and man has mellowed due to age, she takes on his facade and runs the house and her husband with a bossiness that one normally associates with men. If the woman was already the bossy person from the start, then god save the poor man!! I heard how tough my grandfather was with everyone and would sympathise (although late) with my uncles and aunts. So, my grandfather was already that docile man which time makes of an average husband and my grandmother was already the boss of the house, when I recall my first conversation with them. But I was privy to her many thoughts. I enjoyed spending time with her and listening to her stories of years I had never seen. She would tell me how her world was and how her house was set in a particular village. She told me about her mother who was widowed early but still ran the household and managed the family land very well. She told me about her sisters and how they got married. She boasted about the compliments she used to receive for her looks. She never bossed over me and when she wanted to assure herself that she had the right to boss over me, I let her. Isn’t all relationship an illusion of what one knows and what one wishes to grant? I used to tell her things that happened in school and then at work. She never rebuked my grandfather or ill-treated him, but she was his wife so she badgered him around like most wives of that age do. I think he liked it too – the attention that she gave him.
Paati was terribly efficient and good at managing the house. She had several pins in the air while she managed the chores of the house and other details. I think that is why my grandfather respected her and loved her, because it always feels good to have someone share your responsibilities and do so without having to beg them to do it. My father was also very impressed with my paati and would always say that had her parents let her study more then she would be running some organisation right now. Paati would simply blush (she wouldn’t smack her forehead at her son-in-law) and rush back to the kitchen under some pretext.
Even today, paati provides me with surplus advise about the way of life and how to lead it smoothly. She doesn’t realise that the world has changed and people are mostly only interested in themselves, and traditional ways of the family or society or propriety are no longer recognised, let alone respected. She still thinks that everyone is as simple and sweet as the girls she knew in her days. Girls who must have rushed up to her and giggled with her for no reason upon knowing that their friend was getting married. They must have all giggled and poked her in the ribs and she would have blushed, albeit an impersonal blush.
She doesn’t blush much now. She walks very slowly unable to hear her own footsteps well and afraid that the lack of noise portends instability and that she might fall. She stares vacantly into space often and wants to know what everyone is talking of now. She has no husband to boss over and all her grandchildren have grown too old to have their ears boxed in affection. It has been a long time since she could reach my ears anyway! She still pinches me once in a while when I tease her. She has lost all strength to her family and life, and regains it every time when one of her children or her grandchildren comes and sits next to her because they wished to talk to her and keep her company. She smiles and shakes her head in disbelief that a young man would still be interested in talking to an old (nearly) toothless lady. Then she looks just like she would have when her husband asked her what Tevye asked Golde. But for what is already lived and realised, do questions matter?