I have two biological grandmothers and one adopted grandmother. My book, “Thank you, Dadima,” which is a memoir of my dad’s mom has an entire chapter dedicated to Ganga, my adopted grandmother. But many of you don’t know much about my mom’s mom or Mutasshi, as I used to call her. Her name was Sumathi Nair and she was the oldest of six children born to Shankaran Pilla and Paapi Kutty Amma. The capital city of Trivandrum was where she and her two brothers and three sisters grew up. Shankaran Pilla taught at a local school and surprisingly a lot of his progeny, especially his grandchildren (including my mother), became educators.
I don’t know much about Mutasshi’s childhood except that everyone loved her. She had an endearing personality and a smile that was not too far from her face. Back in Vaikkom, where she spent the last few decades of her life, people still remember her as the “smiling lady.”
She wasn’t a great student and was married off to my grandfather, P.P. Nair, when she was quite young. She bore five children in quick succession—a son and four daughters. Usha, my mother was their third born. Since my grandfather had to travel around a lot for work, he stationed his wife and kids in her maternal home in Trivandrum. Mutasshi’s sisters were still unmarried and each one took on the responsibility of one of her children. My eldest aunt was my great grandmother’s pet. My mom became Ammini Chitta’s responsibility. Kochammini Chitta took care of Uma, my aunt. Sridevi, my youngest aunt and the baby of the family, stayed close to Mutasshi.
The children attended a local Malayalam-medium school for 5 years. After that my well-travelled grandfather plucked them out of Trivandrum and put them in a boarding school in North India. The girls who didn’t know a word of Hindi were mocked by the mean girls and used to cry themselves to sleep. They were terribly homesick after living a pampered life in the midst of their doting grandparents and youthful aunts. Not before long, the youngest, Sridevi was pulled out of the hostel because a nun had the gall to give her a caning. She never saw the inside of a hostel again until she went to college in Madras.
Poor Mutasshi missed all her children so much and waited for their visits. They would come back with their heads full of lice and hungry bellies. Before hugging them to her heart’s content, Mutasshi would apply anti-lice treatment and wrap their heads in towels. Her days were spent cooking delicious curries, cakes, and puddings for her starved babies. My grandpa, who was also a great cook, would often criticize her food. Perhaps that’s what made her perfect her culinary skills.
Mutasshi used to stitch lovely dresses for her girls. I wish I had kept some of the dresses she stitched for me. I would ask for little pockets and cross-shoulder bags, peddle pushers (or whatever was the latest trend), or little matching coaties and she would always humor me.
My grandparents from both sides knew each other when my parents were kids. Both my grandpas worked for Indian Oil. P.P. Nair was the chief chemist and M. Damodaran was the Deputy General Manager of Indian Oil and they both happened to be good friends. Abba trusted my Mutasshan’s judgement and his vast knowledge of the refinery and its intricate workings. Ever summer vacation, my mom and her sisters made a customary visit to the Damodaran’s, dressed in their best frocks with their hair in braids. Abba adored girls since Providence had only given him a son. Sridevi was his favorite and he would bend down to her eye level to dance with her.
In turn, my dad would pay a visit to the Nairs, something he dreaded with all his heart. He’d show up with his starched cotton shirt buttoned up to the neck and a fancy dinner jacket. The girls in their shabby nighties and messy hair would peep from their rooms and giggle at their perfectly dressed guest. Mutasshi loved my dad and secretly wished that he would marry one of her girls. When Abba passed away, Dadima and my dad had to pack up all their stuff and leave Guwahati. At the airport, Mutasshi quietly slipped a ring on my father’s finger, sealing the deal. A few years later he did end up marrying my mother. Funnily enough he received three horoscopes from three women all named Usha. Plus they were all born under the same star based on Vedic astrology! My dad used to joke that he couldn’t have wiggled out of marrying an Usha—his fate had been sealed!
Mutasshi was blessed with the best sons-in-law and all of them loved her because she loved them more than she loved her daughters. If one of her girls came complaining about her husband, she would chide her and remind her of how lucky she was. When dad used to visit, she would dish up a plate of hot plaintain chips (his favorite) even before he got past the gate. One time she cooked lunch for a van full of Ayyappan devotees (including my dad) who were heading to the Sabarimala temple.
When I was born, she spent nearly a year helping Amma and taking care of me, her very first grandchild. Mutasshan sent a threatening letter asking her to pack her bags and return to Vaikkom, or else! Two years later my brother was born and she was back but only for a month since my aunt Sridevi was expecting her first born. So Mutasshi hauled herself from Madras to Bombay and six months later to Bihar where my aunt Uma gave birth to her first child, a premie. It was Mutasshi who somehow convinced her to send her son to live with my eldest aunt, Raji, who didn’t have any kids of her own.
By then Mutasshan had retired and they had moved to his ancestral house in Vaikkom. Mutasshi didn’t want to go live in an obscure, little town in Kerala that was stuck in the 40s. After living in Aden and hob nobbing with elites, she felt like a fish out of water there. Mutasshan was also broke after marrying off his four daughters. Every summer Amma would pack our suitcases and we’d board the Ernakulam express train to Vaikkom and spend a month with Mutasshi and Mutasshan in their sprawling property replete with ponds and luscious fruit-bearing trees, carefully tended to by my grandpa, who was an ace gardener.
We used to drag Mutasshi to the pond every morning and evening and hang on to her arms and legs and beat our legs furiously in the water pretending to swim. When we were exhausted and Mutasshi drenched to the bone, we’d haul ourselves out and put on some fresh clothes. All that exertion would make us ravenously hungry and we would run to the kitchen to eat hot red rice with fish or prawn curry (made in a mud pot on the woodstove outside the main kitchen) or mango and yogurt curry from mangoes in our garden or sambar chockful of vegetables and spices. Dessert was always pineapples (Mutasshan planted them around the perimeter of the ponds) or mangoes freshly picked and cut into perfect bite-sized pieces by Mutasshan who was so crafty with the kitchen knife.
In the evening we would stroll down to the eponymous temple that Vaikkom was famous for, with flashlights lighting the way. Frogs would scamper across the road and fireflies would randomly flash in front of us. I was always looking for touch-me-nots along the road to jump on and watch as the leaves closed up angrily. Mutasshi used to wake up at 5 and have a dip in the pond and walk in the dark to see the nirmalyam or very first pooja of the day. So this would be her second trip to the temple. As a child I have watched her “kiss” Nandi’s (the bull that is Shiva’s mode of transport) ear.
I asked Amma about it later and she laughed and said, “Mutasshi wasn’t kissing Nandi’s ear! She was whispering her wishes to him so he would relay them to Shiva.”
I wonder what she wished for and sure hope Shiva granted her wishes. Mutasshi always rooted for the underdog. I’ve heard that she used to pawn off pieces of her gold chain to help her maid who had a medical emergency or to pay her kid’s school fees. She was always strapped for cash but would never turn anyone away.
I have never heard Mutasshi yell at anyone but my mom says they used to get scolded when they drove her mad with their constant bickering and endless chatter. One time I was all by myself on the side porch that wraps around part of the house in an L-shape. Mutasshan had forgotten to put away his knife and it was sitting right next to a cashew fruit. I picked up the fruit and knife and was just about to cut it when I heard Mutasshi yell, “Usha!” out of no where. I looked up and saw her standing outside in the backyard, just a few feet away from me. She was staring at me but the moment I looked up her face broke into a smile. Her reaction had the desired effect on me and I put the knife down and walked away.
I honestly wish I had spent more time with her. Summer holidays at Ayyarapalil house were frittered away in play and other childish activities. Maybe if I were older, I could have had meaningful conversations with her or heard stories from her that I could have carried in my heart.
When she fell sick and had to be hospitalized, it bothered her that her kids had to take care of her. To her a mother always takes care of her kids and never the other way around. That could be the reason she left us when she was in her early 60s. She was the glue that kept Mutasshan and their home together. After she left, everything changed. No more summers in Vaikkom. Mutasshan who used to call out to her all day fell sick and had to come stay with us. Even several years after she had passed, he would still utter her name and then correct himself when speaking to my mother or me. The house and adjoining property fell into disrepair as there was no one to maintain it. Years later I went back to the house but it was just a shadow from my past.
I hope I remember to smile like Mutasshi even when things don’t work out for me and to give so fully and from an open heart so that it blesses all who receive it.