Poem by Lang Leav from The Universe of Us. Edited by me.

Subtle Superhero

A personal narrative on how I embrace my grandmother’s life to face the world.

The year is 2011.

I stared blankly, aimlessly at the wall at my study desk as I put down the phone. Tears refused to leave my eyes as they gathered up quickly, blurring my vision. I shut my eyes and helped the tears flow down my cheeks.

My mother entered my room with a slight tinge of discomfort. She sensed that something was wrong. She tapped my right shoulder a few times before I acknowledged her presence in my room. I was in a daze.

How could this be real?

Words choked up in my throat as soon as they formed and I voluntarily gulped them down. I knew that the news was not going to break my mother’s heart; it was going to suffocate it. Breaking is just too fast and too simple. Suffocation is slow; it is painful. I knew that was exactly how she was going to feel.

Naturally, impatience overtook her composure and she picked up the phone I had laid down.

“Hello?” she muttered, her face filled with wrinkles of confusion.

There was no response from the other party. The phone line went dead and its ear-piercing noise compelled my mother to cut the call. I wiped my wet face, tightened from the tears by now, with the back of my hand. I turned to her and clutched her seemingly warm palm.

With the weakest courage that I had left, I stammered under my breath in a muffled voice, “Mallika Paati has left us for good. She…she is gone.”

The words that bade farewell from my tongue fell like heavy rocks in my mother’s ears. Her eyes widened, as she stood like a statue, with a fixed emotion sculpted onto her face: despair.

Maybe all things exceptional do have expiry dates, I thought to myself as I lapsed into a downcast silence once again. The image of my pale, weak paati, her body ravaged by cancer, hairless and frail, surfaced from the deep crevices of my mind.

I remembered holding her tightly as I learned how to walk. Her palm was always warm and dry. Her sari always carried the faint scent of sandalwood and fresh talcum powder. The ghosts of those scents still haunt me in my dreams.

What diabolical fascination does the higher power get by taking away from us the ones we love the most? I silenced my disappointment. I closed my eyes for a moment and held my lips in a tight, static line.

As far as my memory brings me back in time, I knew my grandmother as someone who didn’t have a single unkind cell in her body. As far as my memory brings me back in time…

The year is 2003.

It was my birthday. A small family gathering was planned. I was beyond excited to meet my cousins and friends. One by one, the people came. They grinned and squealed in disbelief that I was already turning ? years old. They showered me with pretty presents. But I was waiting for her.

It was 8 pm. One by one, the people left. She still wasn’t here. My emotions were a mix of sadness and petty anger. But, time passed fast. It was 10 pm and I had to go to bed.

Just then the doorbell rang. I heard some footsteps getting louder as I snuggled under my blanket, pretending to be asleep. I could hear them. It was my grandparents. They switched on the lights, but I lay still. My mother insisted on waking me up, but my grandmother shushed her. She mentioned that she couldn’t be early that evening because she was searching for that specific toy I had once told her about. I had described it to her in too much detail — the fur color, the eyes, etc. It was a remote-controlled puppy. I couldn’t get a real one because we couldn’t afford it, so I thought this puppy was my best bet. I chuckled to myself in glee, but I immediately felt guilty for being upset with her. They left, quietly.

I lay there silently and several thoughts flooded my mind as I blinked in rhythm with the ceiling fan’s clicking noise. They were beyond what I could wrap my head around, so I decided that one thing was for sure — she was my superhero. She didn’t have muscles, but she gave the best cuddles. She didn’t have a superior walk, but she had the warmest smile. She didn’t have a chiseled face, but she had the softest heart. From that day, she became my Superwoman.

The year is 2009.

It was around 7 am. The cold and crisp December air clung onto my cheeks. A soft breeze ruffled my unkempt hair as I stood beside my grandmother and watched her speak with the local spinach seller. He waved at her approvingly as she smiled and welcomed him. He laid his bamboo basket, full of spinach, down on the veranda. At the time, I knew she bought spinach from him regularly and assumed that’s probably why they were friends.

I observed the conversation, smiling occasionally so that it wouldn’t be awkward. My grandmother was asking him about his daughter. She is a smart girl, he said. Unfortunately, she was at the town hospital getting treated for typhoid. He had to sell all his spinach to pay for her bed fees.

My grandmother asked me to run into the house and grab her maroon purse. When I came back, the seller was all smiles. Consequently, she took the money for the spinach and gave it to him. As she placed the money in his palm, his eyes welled up. He didn’t cry, but I could see that he was on the brim of weeping. He stood up and left, leaving his bamboo basket behind.

She had bought all the spinach. Later, she explained to me that if she hadn’t done that he would have to walk all the streets for hours in hopes that people were up early to buy from him. It would be dusk by the time he sold all of it, given that people flocked to the recently opened supermarket nearby. Then, he wouldn’t have made it to the hospital in time. At that moment, I secretly admired her like a goddess. From that day, she became my Queen.

The year is 2017.

My memory doesn’t extend further without blurring the details. So, stories fulfill this space, as my mother described it to me after my grandmother’s passing.

My grandmother’s call to adventure came into view quite early. Hardships cloaked her entire childhood, but she was motivated by the future she imagined where she will finally feel whole and have the freedom to live.

For starters, my grandmother lost her mother when she was just 8 years old. Left with her 3-year-old brother and a careless father who remarried shortly, she had to fend for herself in the new “family”. Each day, she was forced by her stepmother to wake up at 4 am to sweep the house and make coffee. No one was up that early, so everyone thought that the new mother was keeping the house spick and span. After the tired morning routine, she walked to the village school with messy hair and uniform. In that British-Indian culture, looking sharp had much merit in school. Hence, she was held in detention in the scorching sun, unable to enjoy that little escape from home. Soon enough, she became adept at quick cleaning and managed to make friends with the school warden. He understood her plight and let her into class.

Then, that time of her life came — the time to marry someone. She had barely turned 16 when her stepmother decided that she was being a rebel in the house. She pronounced that only marriage could make her a woman. Within months, a groom was arranged and the wedding ceremony was held. Thankfully (or accidentally), he was a good guy. My grandfather saved her from the abyss of her “family”. But we couldn’t save my grandparents from the unstoppable marching of time.

Today, when her memories come to my mind, I get a strong sense of pride and happiness. Writing about her for this essay has given me some quiet time to recount her subtle heroism and some personal time with my mother to cherish her memories. Going by Dr. Seuss’s words, I can safely say that sometimes you never know the value of a moment until it becomes a memory. For example, on my birthday, I wish I had leaped out of my bed and embraced her in a bear hug. I wish I had not pretended to sleep. On that day with the spinach seller, I wish I told her that she was everything I think of to be a superwoman. I wish I could reach out to her childhood self and comfort her; tell her the frayed ends of her life are going to be mended with gold threads of a happier family. I wish I had been there to rescue her (from without) when Cancer shredded her into bits. Did my meeting with the Goddess have to end so soon?

Today, I face my strangest fear of not having her around, but that’s not an excuse to not live the life she gifted me with. Today, I start to see my grandmother’s vision renewed in my mother. Today, I am determined to accept the calling of my life and see where it takes me. In all that she did, she was a true hero. In all that I do, I hope to be a true reflection of her being. Making my presence felt in this world would be my ultimate boon, just like she did, with a big heart and a strong will to pull through every dark hour. But I wouldn’t want to get rid of the dark. Without the dark, we’d never see the stars and I love the stars too dearly to be fearful of the dark. So, as I get through each day, I am thankful for knowing the amazing woman who was my grandmother and the reincarnated superwoman that I see in my mother.

Perhaps, I’m up next. I’ll rise above the obstacles of this life and answer the adventures that come my way. I’m (kind of) ready.