Portrait of a Lady

We all knew her by various names. To my mother she was Mummy; to me she was Nani. To others she was Dadi, Mausi, Bahuji and so on. So much so, that when the Pandit doing the last rites asked for her name to be called out, for a moment it sounded like somebody else was being mentioned. In my mind she was always just “Nani”…

She was the younger daughter of a landlord turned lawyer turned freedom fighter, and grew up in a pretty liberal household. She had a post-graduate degree in Economics from Allahabad University — a rarity in those days where women were concerned. After her wedding to a government official based in Delhi, she took on the role of housewife, daughter-in-law, sister-in-law and eventually mother of five. Her life revolved around home and children, and when the family went through difficult times, she was the strong one.

My earliest memories of her are a jumble of childhood scenes. No matter where we were living at the time, school vacations usually involved a train ride to Delhi and/or Kanpur to stay with the grandparents. Delhi meant Nani’s house. It meant languid afternoons lying down next to her, listening to stories of her younger years; it meant being pampered with our favourite dishes; it meant catching up on family news; it meant so much that cannot be described now.

After I finished school I ended up living with my grandparents for a few months. We had this routine where she would wait for my return in the afternoon so that we could have lunch and watch an afternoon soap together. After a nap we’d have tea and talk about the world — politics, modern life, religion, relationships. She taught me how to make an awesome cup of ginger and cinnamon tea; how to layer my bed-clothes with a shawl for extra warmth during cold Delhi winters; how to make certain UP-style dishes…

As she grew older, conversations started getting more repetitive. She would forget what she’d been saying a few minutes ago; she’d sometimes mix up our names. Her arthritis grew worse and she started using a cane. My grandfather fell sick and passed away in 2011; she was as stoic about it as she had been about everything else in life. She rearranged the patterns of her life and carried on.

I was always amazed by how much pleasure my simple gifts would give her — warm shawls from my trips to various hill stations; a cotton sari; an oil to help with arthritis pain — everything was treasured. Earlier this year on a visit to Dharamshala, some four months after her passing, I realised with a pang that I no longer had a Nani to buy shawls for.

Towards the end she was very ill. She suffered, and those who loved her went through a hard time having to watch her suffering. The end when it came was a release for her, but left in its wake a void that her family members are still trying to deal with. I find myself missing her at the most unexpected of moments, and wondering how my mother is dealing with her mother’s absence. Her home had been the family’s adda for gatherings over the last so many years; with her gone, the house will soon be gone too. Luckily there are a ton of good memories to hold on to.

Her last sentence in any phone conversation used to be “Khush raho” (Always be happy, loosely translated). I sometimes imagine that I can hear that blessing still. I believe that this blessing will forever be with me and with all her children and grandchildren.

Her name was Sarla.