They say you can choose your friends but not your family. It is also normal to have two grandmas. In my case both are exceptions. I have a third grandma who isn’t related by blood but chose us as her family. Her name is Thankam or as my sister fondly christened her Ganga (alluding to the pure and spiritual nature of the holy river Ganges). Ganga has had a tough life. Her father a wealthy and successful trader died when she was young. He was cheated by his business partner when he was away on a pilgrimage. The shock and betrayal induced a heart attack and he died. She was one of the three daughters left with the mother who naturally struggled to care for all of them. Ganga’s mother approached my great-grandmother and asked her to take her in. So as a young teenager she joined the Parakkal household as a companion to my grandmother. They formed a strong and life-long bond. My grandparents got married and my father was born a year later. They had to leave for the UK for my grandfather to pursue his higher studies in oil and gas engineering. They had to leave my one-year old father behind. Ganga and my great grandparents took care of my father and raised him till he was 5. She was my dad’s nanny or even mother by proxy. They developed a strong bond too. She was around when my sister and I were born and she was around when my sister’s first child (my niece) was born too. She could stop my niece from crying in a few seconds just by holding her.
My grandfather’s job meant he was stationed at all the major oil refineries in India. Wherever my grandmother went she followed. She chose to remain a spinster so she could stay with my grandmother. She was an excellent cook and had the knack to reverse engineer any dish by simply tasting it. She also had a great memory and could remember the special dietary needs and favorite dishes of just about any guest who graced the Damodaran residence. So much so that even decades later an old friend or colleague dropping in to see my grandmother would be asked to stay for a meal and their favorite dish from yesteryear would be served. Her memory and hospitality was remarkable. As kids we used to visit my grandma’s on Saturdays. And she would always cook one of her signature chicken, fish or mutton dishes. I always looked forward to the Saturday lunch and just thinking about some of her dishes still makes my mouth water.
She has made untold sacrifices for us. When my dad was struggling to make money to buy our apartment she sold her jewelry and broke out her life savings to help. All unconditionally, just to see us all happy. She continued to live with my grandmother until age caught up with both of them and she decided it was best that she go her own way. My grandmother died a few years later. And Ganga continued to live by herself in a town not far from where she was born. But as she grew older her declining health made it difficult for her to take care of herself. My father brought her back to Chennai to live with him in the house she spent most of her life with my grandma. It wasn’t the same for Ganga without my grandma around. And since we never let her do any work around the house she got bored quite soon. She asked my dad to take her back to her hometown but my dad told her she wasn’t in any position to live by herself. So it was decided she would stay in an old folks home. The picture you see is from my visit to the home.
They say happiness is good health and bad memory. It is something I believe in when we have a memory filter to weed out the bad and retain the good memories. But it’s heartbreaking when your memories of your time with a person is intact but the other person’s isn’t. Ganga has developed dementia and seems to have forgotten much of the hardships and struggles she faced for most of her life: a good thing most people would say, but in doing so she has also forgotten all the good times that came with it namely the family she adopted as her own. I spent close to two hours with her. She seemed to recognize me then proceeded to talk about my father but failed to recognize I was his son. She couldn’t remember my sister getting married and cradling her first born in her arms, my grandmother’s passing and more sadly even her own mother’s who she complained never visited her even once at the old folks home. But there are still traces of the old Ganga in there. Her natural instinct was to make me some tea and dosas (rice pancakes) in her room even though there is no kitchen or stove there. These are the memories of my third grandma that I will forever cherish and hold as long as my brain permits. Forever grateful for you dear Ganga for touching our lives and for your unconditional love and support.