I have very faint memories of my didima. (My maternal grandmother.)
Everything I know about her comes from my mother. She tells me that my grandma was a gentle and delicate creature. She was soft-spoken and frail. She had long, lustrous hair that reached past her waist. She tells me that her husband was devoted to her and all her children loved her with their whole hearts. I personally think that a woman who bore her husband eight children, could not have been frail. A woman who ran her large household with efficiency and precision could not have been so delicate. She must have been strong and capable. She must have possessed a magnetic personality to arouse such love and devotion from her husband and children... but what do I know? I have very faint memories of my grandmother.
My memories of my childhood start from age 4. My father was posted in Muscat. We would come to India for our annual holidays. I would visit my mother's home with her and watch in amazement at her transformation. She would seem vivacious and joyful. She would laugh loudly and talk nonstop with her sisters and brothers. I would sulk, standing in one corner, seeing my grandma going about her tasks silently. She did not seem to notice the presence of a little girl in that room. How could she? She had to run this big house and look after the comforts of the people. I was not her only grandchild. She could not afford to pay me any extra attention.
Things changed over the years. My mother's family, which was a close knit joint family slowly started to break after my grandfather's death. The love and laughter that I saw and internally resented, slowly changed into sorrow. And in the middle of all this, was my grandma, who started crumbling, without anyone noticing.
It started with depression and apathy. Many dismissed it as an after effect of her beloved husband's death. After almost 50 years of togetherness, they were an unit no more. The world, as she knew it, was not the same.No sympathy was offered, no doctor consulted. The sons started discussing who should keep her for how many days. For the first time in her life, she left behind the security of the big house in Kolkata, to move in with her second son in Bombay. A cramped 2 bedroom apartment. The sons felt it would be better if she could spend time with all her three sons for a few months.
This move was perhaps what started it.Without anyone knowing exactly when, her vocabulary started shrinking. She spoke little anyway, so nobody noticed anything initially. Then began the nightly wanderings. When her children realised this was no ordinary depression, medicos were consulted. More than 35 years ago, people were not really so aware. All they knew was this was Alzheimer's, and there was no known cure.
When did the warmth that my grandma always experienced, go? When did the love of all her children desert her?The society norms dictated the sons look after the mother. They came under tremendous physical and psychological pressure. The daughters were mute. It was unthinkable those days to keep one's mother in the house which they shared with their husbands' families. Parents-in-law, brothers-in-law, their families... where was the room for their sick mother? There were altercations and bitterness. Accusations and tears. Brothers vs sisters. Issues over money and care.And in the middle of all this, there she was, my grandma, forgetting bit by bit, a part of her world everyday.
The last few years were painful, not only to her but also to her children. They witnessed the breakage of a personality they had loved so deeply. A lady, who single handedly ran her home with an iron hand, was no longer capable of performing most of her daily activities. A mother who gave birth and raised eight children, now needed assistance for most basic bodily functions. The mother who loved them and healed their pain, now looked at them blankly and failed to recognise them.
Perhaps it would have been better to preserve a room entirely for her. A reminiscence room, where she could go and touch the familiar things. A place she could have felt comforted and soothed. A room with all the memories of her husband and children, Perhaps that would have given her back a part of her lost world. But all she knew was an endless number of caregivers and maids, impatient with her for her urinary incontinence, her disturbing behaviour and for not responding to their calls.
The last memory I have of my grandmother is me standing holding my mother's hand and looking at her with fear. My mother holding the door pane, her body shuddering with silent sobs. My grandmother smiling and asking her,"Who are you, and who is this little girl with you?"
It is sad that this is one of my very few memories of my grandmother....but perhaps what it is sadder is that she did not have any memories of me.