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January 8, 2000


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My Nalla-ma

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Shoba Narayan

Ranjini, Shobha's daughter Family lore has it that when my grandmother was born, the village astrologer said that she was an abishtu -- a 'wrong-soul.'

"Too many contradictions in her face," the astrologer said. "A round face indicating a pleasant, conforming nature combined with a square, stubborn jaw. Flaring nostrils that belong to a proud emperor above the curving, suppliant lips of a slave. Soft, doe eyes under sharp, straight eyebrows, an unlucky black mole and a lucky dimple on the same face. God has placed the wrong soul in her body."

Over the years, my grandmother maintained that the astrologer was right and that she should have been born a man, or at least born in another age when she wasn't so shackled by the caste system and convention that ruled Brahmin society in the early 1900s.

I think of the astrologer's words often as I sit in my New York apartment, watching the smog-filtered rays of the evening sun burnish the sleeping face of my two-year old daughter, Ranjini, as she smiles and puckers at the angels and monsters that populate her dreams. Most people say Ranjini looks like my husband Ram.

"It is lucky for a girl to look like her father," my Indian friends insist as they study the questioning curve of her ear and the dark sweep of her eyebrows above wide, deep eyes. While my daughter may have inherited her features from her father, her mannerisms belong to my grandmother, her great-grandmother, known to everyone as Nalla-ma (Good mother).

Ranjini's screaming impatience as she waits in her stroller for the traffic light to change reminds me of Nalla-ma's impatience with anyone who could not keep up with her bullet-train speed. Ranjini's red-faced rage when she is kept waiting for her food reminds me of Nalla-ma's vitriolic temper as she heaped curses on our hapless servants. Maybe the old village astrologer was right. Maybe Nalla-ma's soul has come to roost in Ranjini's little body.

Or maybe I am just missing my grandmother.

As an Indian, I have a healthy respect for astrology and the after-life. But a decade of western education has taught me to question Indian notions about reincarnation. Still, the idea that my grandmother has reincarnated as my daughter is irresistible, especially since Ranjini was conceived right after my grandmother died.

Nalla-ma died almost two years ago, just 2 weeks shy of her 80th birthday. We received the transAtlantic call at midnight. I heard the regret seep into my husband's voice as he spoke. He hung up and looked at me, his eyes worried. I nodded and hugged my knees. I knew what the message was.

Shobha with her nalla-ma A few days earlier, my mother had called to say that Nalla-ma had been admitted into the ICU. Her heart was giving trouble again, only this time the medicines she took constantly didn't seem to be having any effect.

The only other option, according to the cardiologist, was bypass surgery. And even with that, there were no guarantees given her age.

"I am coming home," I said when I heard the news. "Don't be silly," my mother replied. "You've just started your first job. You can't take a holiday now."

"I'm coming home," I repeated. "My boss will understand."

As it happened, my boss didn't understand. I quit the job I had tried so hard to get, called several airlines, and shopped for gifts that Nalla-ma would like -- gallons of Fantastik, the all-purpose cleaner to keep her house in pristine condition, WD-40 to oil the squeaking doors that drove her crazy, several bottles of Brasso, dozens of photo albums and McDonalds ketchup packets that I stole by the hundreds because she loved them so much, all the more because they were free.

It seemed cardinal that I should see my grandmother soon. I wanted to spend at least a month with her. I would take her up on a balloon -- something she had always wanted to do -- as an 80th birthday present, I would cook saffron rice, coconut dal, milk sweets and all her favorite dishes, I would sue the nasty neighbor who had destroyed her mango saplings by building a concrete wall near them and denying them sunshine. I would take care of all her desires and vendettas. Maybe I would even get pregnant before I go.

That would be a great birthday present. Ever since I got married, my grandmother had been clamoring for a little great-grandchild whom she could spoil.

Two days before I was to depart for India, I sat surrounded by bulging suitcases oozing with gifts and listened to the news that my grandmother had died.

Death is never convenient. But for me, living a continent way from home, ensnared by airline schedules, project deadlines, canceling subscriptions and all the minutiae that accompany a long journey home, death overtook my voyage, leaving me with regrets and memories.

There is a word in Tamil -- paasam, which refers to bonds of blood that are nurtured by time into an irrational, all-consuming love.

That is what I felt for my grandmother, an attachment that began when I was a baby and was strengthened during the long summer vacations that my cousins and I spent with her.

Now that I am a mother, it seems terribly important that my daughter feel the same attachment, the same paasam to someone in my family, someone who will be her special love. I bonded with my grandparents over many summers.

Do I send Ranjini across the Atlantic so that she may spend time with her grandparents? Or do we move back to India permanently? Unlike Nalla-ma who had answers for every question, I don't.

Don't get me wrong. Nalla-ma wasn't a saint. Rather, she was all too human, full of contradictions and frailties. She would take me to the bazaar in the evening, telling me stories about the virtues of honesty and slip an extra carrot into her grocery bag when the cashier wasn't looking.

When the monsoon rains didn't come on time one summer, the city decided to ration out water, supplying it to our neighborhood between 4 and 8 am.

Nalla-ma woke up the household at 3.30 am, made sure that we all had our showers by 7, so that she could fill the gigantic brass vats to the brim.

She delighted in performing hilarious imitations of her neighbors, most of whom she cordially disliked. She was sure that one of her neighbors was bribing the servants to extract household gossip; another was funneling the water that was due to them by waking up at 2.30 am and turning on the pipes.

Nalla-ma had feuds with everyone in the neighborhood. The funny thing was that they all showed up at her funeral. Once, Nalla-ma became suspicious that a neighbor was stealing her coconuts from the trees. She decided to set up a booby-trap to catch him in his criminal act. That evening, she took all six of us kids to the roof and made us count the coconuts on the trees. The trouble was that none of us could agree on the number.

After vociferous arguing, we agreed that there were 62 coconuts spread among 6 trees. Then, Nalla-ma stirred up a black, tar-like concoction, which she smeared on each of the 62-odd coconuts with a broom tied to a long stick. In it was a poison ivy like plant, guaranteed to cause itching and rashes. "Let him try to steal my coconuts now," Nalla-ma said darkly.

Our summer vacations with her were like an army boot camp with strict routines. Up at 7 am, shower by 8, breakfast at 8.30, errands and chores in the morning, lunch, siesta, play with friends till 7, shower, pray, dinner and bed.

In the morning, Nalla-ma put us all to work. My job was to follow the maid from room to room to make sure that she was cleaning the corners. The maid, an old woman of indeterminate age called Mary, would sing mournful religious hymns as she slowly swept and swabbed the floors. I would perch in a corner by the windowsill and watch her unwinkingly. To this day, I remember the Christian hymns that Mary sang.

Occasionally, Nalla-ma would blow into the room, scold Mary roundly for her slowness and sweep out to supervise another task.

My four aunts, her daughters-in-law, were in the house during summers and they took charge of the kitchen and the daily running of the household. Still, nothing came close to satisfaction for Nalla-ma and she swirled around the house like a typhoon in the morning, critiquing, scolding, questioning.

It was only after lunch that Nalla-ma would relax and chew her betel All the women in the household would sit cross-legged on a bamboo mat under the lazily swirling ceiling fan. The curtains would be drawn to keep the hot sun off the cool mosaic floor. Someone would bring the betel tray and set it in the middle. In it were stacks of green betel leaves, surrounded by tiny pots containing a fragrant assortment of spices: betel nuts, fennel, nutmeg, cardamom, tobacco and, sometimes, even opium wrapped in silver foil.

The women would take the tender green betel leaves, brush them lightly with tobacco, place the betel nuts, fennel and other spices in the center, wrap the leaves into a triangle "the shape of a woman's vagina" as one of my more raunchy aunts said, and pop the triangle into their mouths. As they chewed, their lips and tongue would get stained red.

As the women popped more of the opium-coated betel leaves into their mouths, their jokes would get more risqué, the gossip more personal, and their bodies more horizontal. Soon the room would be full of shrieking, laughing, swaying, red-toothed women, women I hardly recognized as the harassed housewives who shooed us children out of their kitchen constantly. I would rest my head on Nalla-ma's squishy abdomen as she lay supine on the floor, and feel her soft flesh rumble as she belly-laughed her way to tears.

Although I didn't know it at that time, it was the closest I would come to feeling totally at peace with the world.

"Your mother was pushed into the buttermilk when she stole betel," Nalla-ma would say, jumping into the middle of a story as usual. "It was at a wedding. Right in the middle of the ceremony, your mother quietly crept up to the betel tray, grabbed a couple of betel leaves and went out to the back where the cooks were cooking lunch. The wedding was at our ancestral home in Kerala, and the backyard was like a battle-field with large brass vats filled with rice, gravy, buttermilk, porridge and cumin-water.

"Oh, you should have seen those vats! They were made of polished brass that was beaten with a thin hammer. The surface looked like tiny ripples on a golden sea. Three grown men could hide inside one of them. In fact, when the British came to search our house during the freedom struggle, your uncle Hari hid inside one of those vats. The British never guessed.

"So there you have it! Twelve vats standing like soldiers on the green grass at the back of the house. Your mother hid between the vats and began to chew her stolen betel. It was there that your Uncle Ravi found her. He grabbed her long braids and began taunting her. He would tell everyone about the stolen betel, he said. You know Ravi. He can be a nuisance at the wink of an eye-lash. Well, what does your mother do? She pulls off Ravi's spectacles from his face and stomps on it. No half-way measures for that girl. Ravi is standing there, almost crying with anger, he can hardly see.

"He rushes at your mother and chases her around the vats. Your mother rushes up a ladder, silly girl. Ravi rocks the ladder, and your mother falls, plop, right into a vat of buttermilk. Thank God it was buttermilk. Can you imagine if it had been some boiling water, or even curried sambar?

"Now, these vats are huge, like I said. Tall, about twice your mother's height. And the girl can't swim. So she sinks into the buttermilk, rises up, gurgles like a toad and goes down again. Ravi is petrified by now. He climbs up the ladder and tries to reach for her.

"Your mother, of course, grabs Ravi and pulls him down with her. It was your great-aunt Gita who found them, two slithering masses, soaked with the white buttermilk. She grabbed your mother by her long braids, and pulled Ravi out by his ears.

"That's why your Uncle Ravi's ears are pointed. Because great-aunt Gita grabbed them when he was a kid and yanked him out of a vat of buttermilk."

What my grandmother did best was tell stories. She had a phenomenal memory that stored colors, textures, sounds and smells. With a few words, she painted a vivid portrait of her father, their life under the British rule, about her years as a child-bride, and about my antics as a baby, about her parents, grandparents, my ancestors. She was my umbilical cord to my past.

In her stories as in her interaction with us, she presented herself with ruthless honesty, almost in spite of herself. In this age of political correctness when most people are afraid to voice their opinions, my grandmother stands out as someone who revealed herself completely, warts and all. What greater gift could she have given to the all-absorbing minds of her young grandchildren?

I wish my daughter could have known her.

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