My grandparents used to visit us at our house in Mumbai often. With every visit comes a cardboard box wrapped with thick nylon ropes and filled with all sorts of stuff from Kerala. Generally half a jackfruit, some coconuts, cashew nuts, small madras onions, cashew nuts, one packet of parottas and another packet of chili powder. Sometimes there were cakes too- cakes that we adored as kids. My brother and I would offer to untie the box and open it. Not to see what was inside, that wasn’t really exciting. How many kids jump around the house excited to see chili powder and onions? What really fascinated us was the challenge of removing the ropes through all the loops by rotating the box as required. And then being victorious, we would carry all the plastic bags and coconuts into the kitchen, munching on snacks.
It must have been when I was in the 8th standard, probably when I was 13. Around that time, everyone would tell me not to waste my time and go study. I would grab a book and a pencil and sit on the edge of my bed. After lunch, my grandparents would go to sleep for some time. My grandfather would start by sitting on the sofa with a bunch of newspapers (which I believe he already read in the morning, though that won’t make much sense) or a magazine (makes more sense) and eventually doze off to sleep. My grandmother, on the other hand, would just enter our room and lie down next to me. By this time, I would be flat with only my neck propped up on a pillow, a book on my bent knees and my pencil somewhere by my side. Then she would look at me, tell me to continue reading and watch me doing it.
As weird as it feels having someone watch you read, it works. First I would look at my book smiling, pondering of what she would be thinking right now. I would act like I’m actually reading just to convince her and then I continue reading without even trying, without knowing what’s going on around. I only stop a few pages later and I see her sleeping. Her face is still turned towards me but her eyes are closed. She wears a certain scowl and I lean in closer to get a better look. It seems as if she was angry. I would wonder if it could be a nightmare. But nightmares are supposed to scare you, not piss you off. While I am lost in deep thought, she would wake up with a jolt effectively making me jump back searching for a book. And then she looks at me, still scowling, “Study!” I frown and pick up my book laughing in my mind. ‘I was wide awake the whole time. I didn’t sleep. You don’t have to wake up just to yell at me.’
My grandmother used to keep complaining about her glasses and when she finally went to get a checkup, they told her that it wasn’t an eye problem, it was a neurology problem. They said she had pituitary adenoma (a sort of swelling on her pituitary gland) and that she would have to go for a surgery. After the surgery, she seemed alright. She met my aunt and her kids and would talk to the nurses in a very friendly and polite manner. She complained of breathing difficulty and said it was due to sitting in an AC room, so they put her in another room. Then one day while she was talking to a nurse, she sort of collapsed into unconsciousness and she hadn’t revived by the expected time. So the whole family came rushing to see her. We kept going to the hospital though most of us would have to wait out. Sitting at home was a better option from my perspective. The hospital atmosphere was very nerve-racking and everyone would just sit silently waiting. Waiting for what? I’m not sure. Maybe we were waiting for some news, hoping for an improvement in her condition. I kept my eyes wide open when the strong winds blew. If I shut them for a moment, I might start crying and I will have lots of people to accompany me.
‘Don’t lose hope. Even a one percent chance is a very good chance. Why I know of so many cases where a one percent chance was good enough.’ Everyone was upset and most sentences went unfinished, abandoned words hanging in the air. Almost everyone had glossy red eyes, ready to tear up at any word. Eventually I couldn’t look at anyone’s face directly without bursting into tears myself. Innocent memories now were a burden that seemed absolutely impossible to carry alone. We stood together sharing the burden with meaningful hugs.
As a special case, I was allowed inside the hospital room to see my grandmother before we left. I thought I should observe as much as I can so that I can tell my cousins. Before entering, I had to spread some sanitizer on my hands and put on a mask to cover my nose and mouth. I entered the room and instantly found her. She looked different but I was sure it was her. She had a small cut on her nose and was covered by a blanket and a hospital gown. I only looked at her face closely. She slept with a scowl on her face. The same one she used to sleep with, for her afternoon nap. The same one that made me wonder if it was a nightmare that was bothering her.
I almost expected her to wake up suddenly just to tell me to go and study. I wanted it to be true. Please wake up, tell me to go study. I’ll go, I’ll go. Just tell me. Just tell me one more time. I walked closer to her and slowly tapped her shoulder, managing to make my voice louder. “Wake up Ummuma, I have come to see you. I am standing here.” Not even a response but I continued, “Ummuma, I’m here. See, wake up. Ummuma, wake up.”
I remember another incident when I was playing with her phone and I realized that you could set a recording as the alarm tone. So I recorded myself saying, “Ummuma, wake up…” repeatedly to check it out. My grandmother actually used it as an alarm, every morning at around 4 O’Clock. So I kept repeating that until the nurse told me to go and call my father. With one last glance, I walked out and removed my mask sending my dad inside. Then he came out in some time and we went downstairs to get some medicines.
I wish I had done something more, in case it might have helped. The second day after we reached Mumbai, I got the news that she was no more. I remembered that face again. But this time, I wasn’t laughing. I just didn’t have the heart.