I lived with my maternal grandparents for a couple of years as a kid. At the time, my parents hustled for a living in the most rugged terrains of the country. It is unfair to my mother, but I must confess I feel like my grandmother (I call her Dimma) raised me. The kaleidoscope of life exaggerates time disproportionately, on some turns. I remember those years with the vividness of a morning dream. I remember how Dimma packed my bags, how she helped me with my schoolwork. She could punish me and pamper me with equal flourish. At night, I would snuggle up to her. She would smell like glycerine and rose water. She would tell me tales of mythology and science, till my eyes drooped heavy. Then, she would whisper, “You are a brave girl, a soft girl, a kind girl. One day, the world will discover how special you are”. She whispered it to no one in particular. She whispered it to the universe. I stole that thread of affirmation from the universe’s fabric and spun it into my being.
The Enigmatic Other
There is another grandmother in this story. The one that died long before I was born. The one that transcended death to become the most enigmatic influence of my life. Her untimely death had cemented the awe for her in an eternal shrine.
My childhood is replete with reverential stories about her.
She was a woman way ahead of her times. In pre-independence Bengal, she was known for wearing her dark skin with the snobbery of a fair maiden. She was high-society, high-maintenance and high-headed, all qualities still slightly discordant in an Indian mother. She even drove herself to the hospital during her last labor.
Her anachronous modernity became an aspiration for the grandchildren who hadn’t even met her.
In some ways, her genes are apparent in me. I inherited her dark skin, her nonchalance, her hot-head. Yet, I am in a love-hate relationship with her memories. As a child, I cooked up an imaginary race to catch up to her personality. I got disappointed every time I didn’t measure up to her legacy. To the day, I don’t revel in things she did well. I cook hesitantly, I drive rarely. I constantly talk her down in my confused little head. How far can you compete with a dead grandmother? Dismantling her shrine is my coping mechanism in this dysfunctional race that I have conjured.
When Dimma Disappeared
This problematic relationship made what I had with Dimma so much more precious. Even when I went back to my parents, Dimma continued to play a major role in my development. Every time the hard, abrasive edges of my personality showed up, she would sandpaper it with her affirmations. It rounded me out. She became the Yang to my Yin. Then came the big plot twist in the narrative.
A couple of decades ago, a few years after we had lost our grandfather, Dimma was diagnosed with mental health concerns. There were a few whirlwind years involving episodes, treatment, and intensive care. The bastard came for her personality first. When she fought it away, it came for her memories. I watched, shell-shocked, as the condition chiseled away her memories of her time with me, as my surrogate parent. In the years that followed, what I meant to her, changed. I was now just the baby of her child. When my mother often reminds me to call her now, I hesitate. How do I ever tell anyone that the stranger on the other end of that line reminds me too much of someone I have lost, and can’t even mourn?
It’s been a few years that I have thought about this loss of mine. This week, on another continent, a friend is getting on a plane to go meet her grandfather. He is in the thralls of the last stages of Alzheimer’s. She hopes that this journey would give her closure, an opportunity to be with him one last time.
As I was speaking to my friend, I wondered if there was any hope for a closure for me! I called Dimma. After the empty pleasantries that I always share with her nowadays, there was a small pause on the line. I whispered, “Do you think we could meet one last time?” I don’t think she heard me. I whispered to no one in particular, I whispered to the universe. Now, I just have to believe the universe will deliver the message.