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A remarkable grandmother

When Paati died, earlier this year, at the age of 96, she had been suffering from dementia for nearly a decade. A kindly South Indian grandmother, she wore a pair of nose-rings favoured by women of her generation. She looked elegant even in her everyday sungudi saris.

A wonderful cook, she made classic paal payasam and a delicious instant mango pickle, the thought of which makes me salivate. When those two-minute noodles first appeared on the market, she was an early adopter. Maggi is just plumper semiya, she said, and proceeded to make tasty upma of it.

Patti came up with her own “tastemaker”, a signature blend of spice powders. With clever permutations of cardamom, saffron, nutmeg, and that tricky green camphor, she made sweets for our birthdays. While it was easy to remember Paati’s birthday – it fell on Children’s Day — we knew precious little about her childhood.

In 1942, when Singapore, then a British bastion, fell to Japanese forces in the Second World War, Paati’s family in Nemmeli received visitors. It was her paternal aunt and her brood from Madras. An official order had encouraged residents, who were not essential to the functioning of the city, to leave.

Even the eldest of the visiting cousins, a 16-year-old, was about as non-essential as they come and so they left for the hinterland. By the time the authorities declared Madras safe again, my grandmother was married to this teenager. In the city, her cousins went back to studying. The aunt, now her mother-in-law, trained Paati in all the skills needed to run a huge household.

In Independent India, the family moved up in the world. The large house they lived in would earn a reputation for hospitality. It was Paati, with her pleasant smile, who served daily visitors excellent coffee. House guests stayed there for varying lengths of time, including relatives who enrolled in colleges. Many relied on Paati both for a hot meal, and a kind word.

Back then, Paati did not have much leisure, but she tried her hand at crafts. She did delicate needlework, crocheted purses, and drew lovely floral or geometrical kolams. Sometimes, she would doze off in the middle of browsing through some Tamil weekly. She did not seem to have a lot of time and energy for reading.

So, after Paati had passed on, when I was handed a collection of articles I had written for The Hindu over the years, I was taken by surprise. She had cared enough to save this! I burst into tears. Memories came flooding back.

The mother of six had learned the English alphabet through a Tamil-English correspondence course. When her children left home, she wrote to them, printing the address in English in her neat hand. My mother looked forward to the blue inland letters, packed with news from home.

Paati had, in turn, meticulously organised letters and invitations, photographs, and newspaper clippings into this archive, which was pure gold! There was my mother, her eldest, in her graduation robes. Her youngest daughter’s boutique featured in a full-page article. An invitation to her granddaughter’s Bharatnatyam debut was also a part of the collection.

Paati’s curation told a story. Women of her generation had little opportunity to study or participate in life outside their homes. She was particularly delighted that her daughters were educated and that their work was acknowledged by the world.

She treated all her grandchildren the same, but clearly saw us as individuals. We took Paati’s best qualities — kindness and patience — for granted, and as for the smaller things about her and her long life, mostly, we never thought to ask.

In a Peanuts cartoon strip from 1976, the usually crabby character, Lucy tells her class about her American grandmother who used to work for the defence plant during the war. Talk to your own grandmother today, ask her questions, and “you’ll find out she knows more than peanut butter cookies,” she says.

Of course, through Lucy, the cartoonist Charles Schulz was addressing all of us, self-absorbed grandchildren of the world. If your Paati is still around, do ask her questions. With luck, you might just be rewarded with a rare glimpse of your Paati as a little girl.

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