It’s not her death anniversary or any milestone for that matter, but my grandma, my mother’s mom, Ammama, has been intruding on my thoughts so often lately. I was not particularly close to her, nor was she having any special characteristics. Ammama was illiterate despite belonging to the most literate state. It was fate, she would say. She was enrolled in school that she attended a whole of 3 days and then she dropped out. Ammama must have decided to not go and that was it, as I know that my great grandfather was a shining advocate for education ensuring all his children are literate despite the poverty and inaccessibility of the region. But, Ammama never studied as it was a long walk to the school of over an hour over meandering paths amidst coconut and tamarind trees, lush green fields, and steep inclines. She gave up after three days. There was a bit of vanity too. You see she was fair. She once said in jest she was worried of getting dark and looking plain. So, she never went to school and also, never learnt to cook.
She was a working woman who contributed to the measly family income. Being the eldest, my mother was engaged in house work and looking after the younger ones since she was 6. The elder siblings looked after the younger ones as Ammama went to work. Ammama was part of the largely unskilled, unorganised coir industry. For half a day, she would beat the outer green coconut shell till it turned to husk (it is called cocopeat today), then use the husk to make ropes the rest of the day. Since, she suffered from severe asthma, her duty was to turn the wheel which was used to twine the husk into rope. She would make a make-shift swing for the youngest child. The others were at home under the care of my mother. In all this, school was not to be missed, at any cost was the strict instruction of my grandfather whom we called Achacha. The free education policy in Kerala also helped to ensure that everyone got decent education.
Even then Ammama used to keep out of the kitchen, something that I have inherited in my genes. She was the market goer and the vegetable cutter. During our yearly vacations, I used to accompany her on market trips. She was now too old to carry the vatti or basket which she would carry on her head. So, I used to trail around with a shiny city plastic bag. I was introduced to all and sundry as the grand daughter from Bombay. After the shopping, my reward was a 10 paise mango or njarakka or nellikka which was dipped in salt water. The taste was heavenly taking the fatigue out and getting me ready for the one hour long return journey.
There were no autos then. Ladies riding bicycles were non-existent. Walking was the only way to go anywhere unless we could hire a taxi which was for emergencies only. All that activity helped her to maintain her good looks till she got affected with dementia. Her hair was black while mine has become white already. Even in her seventies, she would be a powerhouse of activity ensuring the house is in order, the clothes are clean and area surrounding the house is maintained, pots filled with water and a big urli in the muttam or courtyard to wash our hands and feet.
She never let her illness as an excuse to shirk work. She took it all in her stride. She did not understand the meaning of terms we use like ‘Positive thoughts’ or ‘Monday Blues’ or ‘Rest day’. She just lived her life on her own terms till she could no longer remember what her normal life was like.
She was just an illiterate, ordinary woman who had 8 children and a loving husband. We have been given all advantages of our age – literacy, secure job, fewer children, food on our tables. Maybe, we should see life through her eyes, through vintage spectacles. I am sure it will be more rosy.