How They Killed My Grandmother

by

Pankaj Kumar

- November 30, 2016


1

When my Didima became a widow, I learned that there are many ways to kill a person while pretending to let them live. First, they took away her colours.

Didima, my grandmother, burst the eardrum in her right ear when she had to push her youngest daughter out into the world.

I imagine her in that primeval pain that tears into you like a beast without mercy, an axe to the stomach, a wolf pulling out the entrails.

I imagine her eardrum like a balloon. Pop. A burst and then forever deaf in one ear.

In my growing years, that is how I remember Didima. Deaf.

She was widowed almost 25 years before she died herself.

She was widowed almost 25 years before she died herself. I remember the first days of her widowhood. I remember how they took away her colours.

First they, the upholders of the Hindu laws, the priests, with their religious thread hanging down the side of their bodies like a noose, their balding heads, their hairy and sweaty chests, wiped the vermilion – red like blood – from the parting in her hair.

They gave her a white sari – its whiteness like a shroud she would wear for the rest of her life.

Then they took her bangles and bracelets, the colours that adorned her wrist, that tinkled like bells with her every movement.

I remember how they took away her colours.

Finally, they took her tongue – took away the garlic and onions and meat and fish. Before, she could never eat a meal without fish, my grandmother.

Ma always said that no matter how little money they had, my Dadu always brought home a piece of fish for his wife.

When my Didima became a widow, I learned that there are many ways to kill a person while pretending to let them live.

After my Dadu’s death, my uncles dressed in white and cooked their meals in earthen pots, feeding the offerings to the early-morning crows. My aunts wept silently for their father and made endless cups of teas for grieving and curious guests.

Arrangements were made for the grand ceremony, the shraaddha, when these holy men would chant and pray and then be fed. In exchange, they would set my grandfather’s spirit free.

All through this my Didima sat crying by herself, the sounds of the world already muted by one disabled ear, her life systematically culled like an animal being prepared for sacrifice.

No one stopped this process.

Still, she was lucky, they said. Her head was not shaved. She was not leaving the household to live by the Ganges in the holy cities of Haridwar or Varanasi.

I remember the sounds of her weeping like a constant moan, her voice loud, like the deaf are wont to be.

I also remember being shooed away by family members from these holy priests who came to the house to conduct their rituals. We were not to touch them lest they be defiled by us.

3

My Didima died last year.

After more than two decades of being a widow, she had a stroke and her mind forgot all her human connections, all the relations she ever had. She looked at her children and yet she asked for them.

Her living was a way for them to show her how she would eventually die.

Once, I went for a wedding and watched my mother dance in front of Didima. By then, Didima was in a wheelchair. I watched as my grandmother looked at her daughter dancing, her graceful hands in the air. Once, she almost smiled. It was, really, more of a grimace, perhaps an expression meant for a memory that had escaped her.

After Didima lost her memory, I never heard her ask for her husband; she’d only occasionally ask for her children.

Through all those wirings and circuits and loops inside her head, the whiteness of her widowhood now ran like river water through the landscape of her memories. The inside became the outside.

Her living was a way for them to show her how she would eventually die.

Sometimes her children sat next to her and held her hands. She looked at them kindly and sadly.

I imagined that somewhere she understood that these children in front of her had lost their mother and she wished she could help them find her.

4

Then, one day, she broke her hip.

After that she had to stay in bed. Her children changed her diapers, and so she wore loose kaftans that my mother stitched out of old saris, the kind that could be lifted easily.

Sometimes the kaftans slipped over her shoulders and revealed a hanging and shrivelled breast, like old fruit.

Still she lifted her hands in prayer and bowed, sometimes muttering forgotten mantras, and still it was all the same.

Still she lifted her hands in prayer.

The day she died, blood gurgling out of her mouth, her children standing around her and watching helplessly, she turned her head towards them and called out softly, “Boodi,” the pet name of her youngest daughter.

That daughter who had come into the world with the pop of an eardrum stepped forward, hopeful that perhaps finally her mother had recognized one of her children.

Then my Didima turned her head away from them and stopped breathing. Finally.

 

 


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