Her humour was many-layered. The essence would lay hidden between the layers, above them, beneath them and everywhere else. Her repertoire of anecdotes, folk songs, free verses, ditties and wisecracks was so rich that each time we prodded her a little, she would burst forth with many more juicy tales and no one would ever give it a miss.
My grandmother had stories about people and animals and people and animals connected to those people and animals and so on and so forth. She knew so many people, their personal histories, their faces and characteristic tics; the way they dressed, walked, ate, sat down and stood up—details, details, details and details.
No one complained. They just listened. And laughed.
Wrinkled and wizened, her mind would take a stroll down the past so effortlessly that she would come back with many more vignettes and memoirs and nuggets of wisdom. For her, the art of storytelling would come as easy as plucking flowers.
Sounds like a nice person? You may be wrong. She was spiteful and so casteist that she would not let anyone beyond her caste touch her. She would scream whenever a child darted out from nowhere, touched her accidentally and ran off (frightened). I remember how she used to clutch at her walking stick and point at my friends viciously meaning: “I will hit you so hard that you won’t look at the direction I sit”.
I could not invite my friends home. I hated that.
Years later, my marriage brought the worst out of her, as expected. “So, you proved it. You didn’t get any man within our caste? You just went away from everyone… just like that?”
“Will you care to ask about him, his family…?” I asked.
“Why would I? You are from the upper caste.”
The next time I saw her, my grandmother was lying still on the hospital bed and making faces whenever the nurse flitted in and out of the room. She looked so shrunk and sad with her hip bone broken beyond repair.
“Tell her not to come close. I don’t know which caste she is from. And you too.”
“This hospital does not care which caste you belong to. If you want to get out of here soon, be patient.”
“What do you know? I did pooja for so long, fasted on each Monday since 10. All for this?”
“Hmmm…. But you can always take a long bath when you go back home.”
“(I) chanted so many mantras, did so many rituals. Didn’t cringe even when ants bit me. All for this?
“(I) visited so many temples, so many holy places; walked miles bare-footed. All for this?”
“All for what? You just slipped in the bathroom, Avva. It can happen to anybody. Not just you?”
“What do you know?”
The nurse walked to her cot gingerly to check her blood pressure and disappeared from the room. In just two days, she was well aware of how to treat and be treated by the old woman.
“Is she doing fine?” I followed her to the door.
“Hmmm. She was so weak. Luckily we had her blood group in stock.”
“Now you know,” my teary grandmother looked at me fleetingly and turned her face as if it was my doing. Taking uncommon liberties, I sat down on the edge of her cot.
“I don’t know whose blood it was. God! What did you do to me?”
“…. It may be of someone of your caste, Avva. Why don’t you think so?”
“You think so?”
“Hmmm. Now sleep.”
My Avva became immobile and passed away a couple of years later. Her grave is silent now bedecked with flowers and poojas performed occasionally. As she sleeps under the wide and starry sky in her grave as fierce as her, I feel that one lifetime wasn’t enough to change this woman. To make her accept everyone as one. To make her think that the entire human race eventually tiptoes towards one such grave that knows no discrimination and that its boundaries merge endlessly with others’ so that the circle of life continues without a pause.