Saturday early morning I was waiting in a queue to check in my baggage at Mumbai airport, with tears brimming in my eyes. An elderly couple was waiting behind me.
Knowing how some people can be intrusive, I composed myself and fought back those damn tears. I just hoped nobody would notice. Nobody did.
As I took my ticket, I thought of the call I received a few hours back from my brother. Was mid-sleep when he broke the news.
“Are you joking” I had asked. Easily one of the dumbest questions I have asked in my life. Who jokes about death at one am. Called mom after that. Her voice was cracking with grief as she said “your grandmother (her mother) is no more”.
I quickly booked my ticket, dazed and shocked. Didn’t quite hit me until my roomate asked me if I was close to my grandmom.
While I packed, I spoke a little about her. How when I was a child, she was more of a mother figure to me than my mom. How I called her “Amma”.
My parents stayed in a village which didn’t have a school, so I spent a large part of my childhood with my maternal grandparents in the busy, bustling Calcutta.
It’s so easy to forget your growing up years. As I waited for my flight, I thought about her.
I had forgotten about how she would always call me and ask me to sleep on her chest when I was a child. How she would never say no, if I asked her for some loose change to buy something I wanted. How we used to love watching horror movies together on cable TV. And how excited we were, when Zee horror show was telecast first in 1994, I guess.
I listened to her voice messages on WhatsApp while waiting for my flight. There were quite a few that I hadn’t even responded to. Pangs of guilt were easy to come by. I would eventually call her a day or two later. Apologise for being busy.
My family has been living with my grandparents since 2003. And she had been bed ridden for the past five years. Because of a deep wound in her leg that refused to heal and needed a daily visit from the doctor at home. Her diabetes and obesity only made things worse. All she did was watch TV all day long, listen to old songs on her portable radio. And talk to all her relatives. She had two phones and one tab.
“You are the most tech savvy person in this house” I would say and pull her leg all the time.
Sometimes, I would get scared when I saw her. Wondering how she could live like that. The mere thought of being confined to a bed for more than a month depresses the daylight out of me.
And sometimes I would think about how she probably brought it upon herself, by not taking enough care, letting her weight and health get out of control. How she caged herself to that bed and my grandfather in the process too.
He would always be at her beck and call. Serving her tea, coffee, breakfast, lunch, dinner. Administering her injections. Ensuring she took all her meds. Waking up in the middle of the night to help her with relieving herself. He has done what very few Indian husbands would ever do for their wives.
I have always seen them laughing, or well, fighting over silly things and resolving it with a silly joke. She did get cranky a lot, but he would always be patient. I don’t know how.
I think about how I have been immensely lucky to have seen her just a week before she was gone. A day before I left, she told me how the doctor had done some fuck up while administering her injections. “I cried a lot, the pain was unbearable” she said.
Earlier that day, I remember her listening to the radio and the two of us singing a song together. She then switched it off and started humming some old Hindi classic. I joined in. Grandfather got excited because for a change he knew the song too, so he started singing it.
“What’s the next paragraph, sing it, I can’t remember” he told her.
“You want me to sing it? I can’t remember it either”, she said.
It’s scary, how our memories slowly fade away. For the first time in years, as I write this, a flashback from ages ago comes back to me. I was perhaps only five when it happened. My granny was hospitalised and I thought she was going to die. But it didn’t make sense.
I went and asked my parents “how can she die while her mother is still alive?”. That question had been eating me away, how could she die when my great grandmom was still alive? Folks found it very amusing and assured me that she wasn’t dying anytime soon.
This last week of October, I don’t know why, but I asked mom a peculiar question.
“I know it’s an inappropriate question, but what if Amma passes away tomorrow?”
Mom looked at me blankly for a second and then she smiled and said “Nahi rey, she is not going to die anytime soon, she is going to live for many years, she might outlive your grandfather”.
A day before that, my grandmother asked me “when will you marry, I will die soon”.
I said “dono ke liye bahut time hai” (there’s a lot of time for both events).
Both mom and I were wrong.
“She took her last breath in my arms” mom told me through her tears when I reached home Saturday noon.
I saw her in an ice box, lying as if she was merely sleeping. Some of her sisters were already there. I sat with them and was bombarded with mundane questions. How did I come, what did I do now, someone even asked me how much did my flight cost. I answered all their questions.
After a while, I went into the room my grandfather was sitting in, with his phone in hand. And then I saw them. Her phones and the tab. That’s when I was overcome with tears again. She was best at what I have always been the worst at – keeping in touch with people she cared about.
“She is gone, who will you call Amma now?” Granddad asked me.
He started recalling how she suffered so much. And then I thought of how, despite all that had happened, I had overlooked the other side of things. Of how it seemed fine on the surface, but how it must have taken superhuman will and mental strength to live like that for those five years. To know that life is probably not going to be beyond that one room. To not succumb to depression, or at least manage to not show it, if she did. To know that she is living and fighting on what is likely to be her death bed some day.
And it was.
There was a time when I used to think that maybe I wouldn’t cry if someone died in my family. I don’t know about the person who is dying, but their entire life comes back in flashes to those who are still alive. And those flashes remind you of what that they really meant to you.
I told her my last goodbye on the night of 29th October. I felt terrible about leaving home the last time. Although, honestly, it had nothing much to do with my grandmom. I just felt terrible about taking such a short holiday home. About having to go back. About having no idea when I would come back again.
I really wanted to visit again, just had no idea it would be so soon, at the cost of such personal tragedy.
Our home will never be the same without her.