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Daring and Different…My Dadima

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This post is long overdue. I meant to write this is 2009 and get it published in a newspaper or magazine in Chennai, India. Since that didn’t happen I guess I’ll have to be happy with this. M asked me the other day – who is your idol? I mentioned the name of my deceased guru. But as I thought about it I realized I have several people on that list. And my grandmother is somewhere on the top of that list.

I called her Dadima even though we don’t speak Hindi at home. She was not your usual run-of-the-mill granny who told you stories, cooked for you and tucked you in bed. In fact, she has never cooked a single meal for me. Nor did she read the Ramayana or wear tulsi beads. You see Dadima had a career. And she worked right up until her dying day. She lost the love of her life, my grandfather at the age of 35 ( I shudder to think that I’m almost 35!) All the odds were against her. She had only passed 10th grade, had no college education, no work experience, no trust fund, no nest eggs…nothing! My grandma had to fend for herself and support my Dad, who was in college. She could have slumped down in a corner and cried for the rest of her life. Or lived off her relatives. No. Not my Dadima.

She went on to become the first lady distributor for LPG (Liquefied Petroleum Gas). The kind that comes in ‘cylinders’ and is used for cooking in India. As a business woman she was tough and put everyone in their place. Everyone who thought she was an old widow and can be pushed around learnt their lesson quickly. She was feisty and fearless. She did what she wanted and offered no explanations or justifications. People thought twice before messing with her. She could be an angel or she could be your worst nightmare.

To me she was an angel, dressed in white and always hovering around me and whispering words of endearment to me. She called me her ‘gem’. She was one person who really truly believed that I was precious. I practically grew up in Dadima’s house. My parents feared for my brother’s life. They were quite certain that I would get into a jealous rage and attack him with sharpened pencils! So I was packed off to Dadima’s house.

I used to sleep next to Dadima every night, sharing the bed with two overfed dogs, Diana and Priya. Dadima loved them as much as she loved me. They ate off her plate, drank from her glasses, dirtied her pristine white sheets and she would look the other way. I’ve heard people say, “Oh how I wish I could be Mrs. Damodaran’s dog!” Spoilt rotten they were. Used to ride the car to school everyday with me, with their tongues lolling out of the window.

All the dogs she had were female by the way. Did I mention Dadima had the words ‘GIRL POWER” etched in hot pink invisible ink all over her house? Oh yeah! There were pictures of goddesses wielding fierce weapons and trampling weak male villians. I remember playing dress up with her numerous white handbags and high heeled shoes and sandals, draping her sheer duppatas around my head, the way she used to when she was in the sun with matching white sunglasses. She was always well dressed. Hated the heat and used to complain about it and how she loved the cold when she was in Great Britian. She had so many funny anecdotes she used to share with me. Stories that gave me a glimpse of the carefree life she lived in the past when my granddad was around. All she used to do was dress up for parties and manage the scores of servants they had.

One of the reasons my grandad treated Dadima like the Queen of England was her poor health. She had several close calls. She almost died of a brain tumor and was so ill on a ship headed to India from England, that the captain of the ship said she’d have to be buried at sea if she didn’t make it. She made it and went on to have a granddaughter – me. But as far back as I can remember, she had been in and out of hospitals most of her life. Some visits were short and routine. Others were long and scary and I’ve been called many a time to her bedside where she lay with one foot in the grave. She had appendicitis, blood pressure, an enlarged heart, a hysterectomy and then diabetes in the latter years of her life. But everytime she’d make it out of the hospital stronger and more full of life. Never would she take a day off work or lie in bed all day complaining about her health.

She was very proud of her brain. She always said my heart gives me a lot of trouble but my brain was overhauled in England (during the brain tumor years I think). It was true. She never forgot a single birthday or anniversary. She personally selected and wrote birthday cards for everyone. She made sure we all got a card and a birthday cake every birthday. New clothes for New Year and Diwali. Black Forest Cake and Fruit Cake over the holidays with puffs. She loved entertaining and loved having people over for dinner. Even if someone turned up uninvited and it was lunch or dinner time she would ask them to stay and eat with her. She never wrote lists for groceries or anything. I’ve seen the servants tell her before she went to work that they needed soap or shampoo or rice and she would somehow remember everything and bring it home in the evening.

She had an opinion about everything. Her political and religious views were radical. Around the house she had pictures of Mother Mary and Jesus. Statues of Buddha. She had a copy of the Bhagavad Gita and the Bible. She loved the villian Ravana for being fearless even when fighting a God and hated Rama (who was the hero of Ramayana) for doubting Sita’s chastity and subjecting her to the test of fire (Agni Pariksha). Tinge of feminism there. She loved Saddam Hussain for having the ‘guts’ to stand up to a super power like the United States.

At her funeral several people read verses from the Bible while her family chanted Hare Rama and her Muslim neighbors of 40 years looked on. She truly embraced one and all. Put aside her troubles to help others. I was foolish to think she had touched but one life – mine. When people came to me with stories of her kindness and love, I cried copious tears. It felt like their pain was my pain. We had all lost someone special. Someone who thought we were special and treated us like royalty.

She was everything every woman would want to be. And in these years that I have had to live without her, this is my constant prayer – if ever I have to live on this earth again please let her be my grandmother for many lifetimes to come.

 

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