Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Generations, Gaps, and Fillers

Customary as it is today to talk about generations gaps, the olden days, the newer attitudes, how things are difficult to understand , and so on, I listen to it all, and often think about the generations that were born at the beginning on the 20th century, how fast things changed for them, particularly in the latter half century, and how they handled it, personally, socially, and mentally.

And I think often about G. Aji.

When I was a child of 8, there were several old ladies that I used to call Aji (=grandma). There was only one real grandma, the paternal one, but she had at least 4 sisters that I personally knew (and many more that I didn't, because they lived far away in other states and were totally busy with their lives there). All of them were called Aji by us, and it amazes me now to think about how they knew who we were talking to, when all of them were present together, like in a family wedding.

While my own paternal one, and some of her sisters, closer to her in age, were a bit more likely to act their age , if you know what I mean, there was the youngest sister, that is the youngest grandma, G., who we really loved to interact with. She was married very young, in her teens, and had had 3 daughters and 2 sons , before she lost her husband. She had lived, in one of the cities in the Central provinces, which had a rich royal culture, and she never tired of telling us descriptions of events she attended there. Her eyes would shine , and after a lot of cajoling and pretending to hesitate , she would bring out and display the studded sword which was part of her husband's regalia in his younger days. The only material thing she now had to show, having lost her husband early and then struggled to bring her children up all alone, in Mumbai, far removed from those graceful days.

While all the other grandmas lived a fairly sedate life , this particular grandma, was very spirited. As children, one of our beloved activities , was to trouble her. During family events like thread ceremonies and weddings, when everyone would make it a point to attend, an entire gaggle of kids would get yelled at by her, and then retaliate by hiding some of her things. She was fond of writing occasion based poetry, and wedding lunches were never complete, unless she sang one of her poems, extolling the entire family history of either the bride or groom , depending on whose side she was from. Brides entering into the family, were often cajoled by her into saying an Ukhana , and would get a little intimidated. Like you didn't say ordinary Ukhanas in front of a poetic mother-in-law type.

Out of all her nieces-in-law, I think she secretly admired my mother for beating new paths, sending children to English schools, travelling to the US to study in 1948, and then being a bit different, driving a Hillman car herself, across the small and complicated lanes of Pune city, something considered a novelty in those days. My mother knew all her relatives in Pune, and this grandma would feel really special driving up with my mother in this green Hillman car to their places. She was a voracious reader of prose as well as verse. Not educated as such, but self taught and practiced. In her time 13 was considered a late age to get married.

I was one of her grandnieces , who didn't follow the usual path. Playing intercollegiate sports (in shorts), music, cycling around, later driving "fearlessly" in Mumbai, going to the US to study, and coming back, I'd be visiting her wearing jeans, and she would often despair indulgently over how I was ever going to be approved by future in-laws :-) .

Once when her granddaughter's marriage was fixed and she was showing us the grand sarees purchased, she suddenly looked up and questioned me about what I was planning to wear. Kind of chastising me and hoping I'd do the sensible thing and wear a traditional saree. I did. But the opportunity was too good to miss, and I told her with a serious look that I had just cut up a grand silk to get some bell bottomed pants made and would be wearing zari(gold embroidred) pants . (Bell bottoms were in fashion then). Her immediate shocked look was replaced with a big thump on my back, as her entire family cracked up watching the fun.

She was the only grandma who came in a big bus to the airport (amidst at least 30 relatives), to see me off when I went to the US for grad school in 1969 , and quietly thrust a newspaper wrapped packet of metkut (spiced mixture made of pulses) into my purse , bidding me to pass it on to my brother. The US customs in Honolulu were not amused by my efforts at telling them what it was.

Amidst lots of disapproving glances from her older sisters, this grandma did a very revolutionary thing. She switched from 9 yard sarees to 6 yard sarees. This was actually a burning topic of conversation at that time. She simply loved to meet people, and when it so happened that my in laws lived in the same suburb as her in Mumbai, she made a special visit with my mother to get introduced to them. He own children , married and with kids, were spread out across Mumbai and Pune, and everyone would vie to come and have her stay with them. She treated my mother the same, and always spent a few days with us when in Pune.

A great admirer of good literature, a fledgling poet (of the old school, rhyming), she loved attending literary events, plays and stuff, and was known to walk up to eminent folks who she admired, , and introduce herself.

She had strong opinions about things and didn't hesitate to ask when something bothered her. Like when, about 33 years ago, my mother-in-law had a cataract operation. In those days it was a 10 day thing with stitches being removed, sneezing not allowed in case the stitches broke, and so you had to be very careful with what lunch you brought for the patient. This grandma thought it was her duty to go see my ma-in-law as a responsible elder from my maternal side. At that time I was functioning as a fairly efficient driver taking all kinds of relatives to and from from the house to the hospital, transporting messages and lunch, and changes of clothes and stuff. This grandma kind of pursed her lips seeing me in jeans, and could stay silent no longer. After the initial niceties, she pulls the chair closer to the patient, nudges her slightly, and asks , "Tell me, is it OK with you that your daughter-in-law wears all this even now ?"

My mother-in-law, slightly moved her head, (eyes in bandages), put out her hand, and said " You know what, our times were different. We never ventured out. Today, the girls do everything. My daughter-in-law even talks to the doctor for me, travels through crowded trains, tangles and stops traffic when we cross the road at our slow speed, and right now she has been driving my sisters etc back and forth. Obviously , its more convenient to wear trousers with so much running around .....but when she attends haldikumkum with me, she always wears a sari !

Although this answer was kind of unexpected for Aji, she nodded at me with an encouraging look that said , "Lucky you !" :-).

Aji enjoyed listening to news about someone she liked, coming up in the world. She was always curious about my nieces and nephews in the US, applauded their proficiency in Marathi, and always asked after them when their parents visited her.

Many many years later, well into her late eighties, and she had been having eye problems. For a lady who emanated so much joie de vivre, her affliction had to do with non stop watering of the eyes. In her final days, she was bedridden, with eyes closed, but her mind supremely open.

My brother from the US had come down, and we rushed to her place to see her. Someone told her who had come, and her face broke into a beaming smile. It's just that hearing was difficult, and you had to shout to make her hear. She asked after each and every person, including our parents in Pune, gestured to someone about organizing some tea. Her hand had a wonderful grip as she held mine, as she would occasionally try to cover it with her other hand. She was unable to get up, and unable to open her eyes, which had stopped watering as such, due to some medicine.

I have never seen a person that old, emanate so much people-energy as it were, although physically weak. She nodded smilingly when told that my nephew was now attending a very good college in the US. Then my brother told her that he (the nephew) had also begun driving ! For some reason, she thought this was a great qualification. Lying there, her eyebrows moved a bit, as she turned to where she thought we sat, and she beamd at us, saying "Wah ! Wah !", and sort of nodded her head; her eyes appeared to close a bit tighter, and slowly, a single tear laboriously trikcled down the corner on to the pillowcase.

A week later she was no more.

Strangely, whenever I think of her, her age is never a factor. It never was. I think of her as a liberated lady of her time, a perfect fit in every age that she lived in. Her own elder sisters thought she was too liberated (9 yard sarees ---> 6 yard sarees). But it was OK.

She thrived amidst relatives who were like friends, and friends who were treated like family.

Even our age was never a factor. She was independently friends with our parents and us.

I wish she was still around.

Would have asked her to dictate a guest blog on , what else, the Generation Gap .



  1. I wish she was still here to, because it would be an honor to read her beautiful words. You have carried to us a remarkable, respected and loved woman.

  2. What an absolutely wonderful person, I thoroughly enjoyed reading about her. Wonderful blog.

  3. Wow! I am always in awe of such revolutionary people, women especially. :)

    Can we see a pic of your golden zari bordered bell bottom pants?

    And btw, til gul kha, goad bola! :)

  4. She seemed to have been a wonderful person...I wish I had been lucky enough to have known her...

  5. a wonderful post...she reminds me of someone i know too...

    *i would have loved to talk to you when i was in wa sa fleeting visit and i had forgotten to take down contact numbers...

  6. Great post- your Grandmother was a very special person1

  7. A woman of substance. Nice to read of such strong , self assured ladies. Am sure you find great inspiration in her.

  8. You have obviously come from a line of strong women who weren't afraid to dare. I know how proud you must be of Aji, and rightly so. This was a lovely tribute to her.

    And by association, a lovely tribute to you, Suranga. You are a modern woman with a fine mind and lots of spunk.

  9. Wow! She seems to be such an inspiring person! I mean, it must not have been easy for her, and yet, she learnt to push her boundaries rather than retreat into a shell.

    It was wonderful to read about her.

  10. Aleta Thank you. I wish she was around too.

    Shail, ramblingsbybones Thank you. So glad you think she was wonderful !

    G You know, people then were revolutionary without being aware of it....and thank you for the tilgul

    Suma I guess there are such folks in all families. So sorry we couldnt meet when you were in Mumbai. Maybe you can plan ahead next time, and we can organize a blogger lunch...

    Manju Thank you. And yes, she was special...

    LAKSHYAThank you.

    Darlene Thank you for all the kind words.

    wordsndreamz Thank you. And you know what, she actually created her own opportunities to grow....

  11. Your grandmom was amazing!! Love the 6 yards sari bit but even more - her asking your mom in law about what she thought about your wearing jeans!!
    I admire people who can mix without worrying too much about age - I have some aunts who are more like friends with us 'kids' and also with our mom.