What was it that toughened her so?

She was quite perfect in every way. The house shone, even if it was bare. The jobs were always done with quiet efficiency. The clothes always washed. And ironed. So what if there were only two sets of office clothes, you only wore one at a time – she would say. Her perfectionism was legend. Loved, respected, a bit feared and even hated a teensy bit by all. But no one could ever say she was not right. She was always right.

And she let us all know. Was this genuine self belief in its purest form? She did believe that she was a role model for everybody. That is what she strived to be – a model of perfection.

Nobody, but nobody could work harder than she could. And she had done it all. She came from a town small enough to just escape being called a village. The stories she did not tell were deeper than the ones she did. No, she did not tell stories. She was not the kind of grandmother who told stories. Because stories came from the world of fiction, and such lies were abhorrent to her. Unless she believed them, then they became truth. This is how she reconciled with religion, I always believed.

It was a poor household. With a feel of plenty. The right things were always there in abundance – fruits, ghee, food, sugar, milk, almonds. These were the right things to eat. Never, in her house have I eaten anything that was sinful, or indulgent without it being healthy. And I never felt the lack. Of course there was always halwa. Cooked as no one else ever could. She made it all herself.

This was a lady who made it all herself. Her persona, her identity, her family. All her work. And boy, did she work hard and well. Nobody could test grain as well as her – a few grains chewed, she knew why they tasted so. Only the best were bought. She washed and dried them with her own hands. For many years milled them with her own hands. As her two cows watched her. She milked them and fed them. Made her own butter and ghee – solo. Made the pinnis that never ran out – and never tasted the same anywhere else. Where did she find the energy?

She was tough. The toughest person there ever can be. How else could they have walked across Pakistan during the partition, flung themselves into trains, crossed over to India and then proudly decided to not take a penny of relief. They stayed in a relief camp for one night, because all offices had shut. My grandfather, a government servant, showed up at the local office the very next morning, and signed up for work. Not a grain taken at the camp, she said. Never eat what has not been earned.

Those were tough days. They had left behind everything. She remembers carrying two bags. One was full of gold, the other had food. Waiting for hours at the platform in Pakistan. They had walked and walked. Every step fraught with danger. You don’t know what real and present danger is till you have walked through a riot. Or a battle. Or war. This was it. She tells tales of bullets shooting overhead as the walking caravan lay flat on the ground. She held my father, then four, under her, pressing him into the earth to keep him safe. Then, the bullets passed and they got up and walked again. She does not tell me of what they saw on the way. They finally reached a railway station where they were told a train to India would arrive. I don’t think they knew or cared where it was headed, as long as it was to somewhere in India. They sat there amongst bundles of gold and grain, rumours swirling around them. Rumours that could only be believed, because they spoke of what they had seen.

Nobody knew when the train arrived. Nobody knows, even now, when recollecting, how long they waited at that station platform. They were alert, in a daze. So much must have happened there in every moment, but they were numb to it. Extraordinary events are reduced to the mundane when there are too many of them. The long wait, then it was. Suddenly, without notice, a train. The mad rush, the scramble. To get in first was to survive. To get ahead the only way, regardless of what you had been taught. All courtesies had been washed away by the blood spilled around them. There was no us, but the smallest unit – the family. The family had to stay together, and had to get onto that train. Or die. Or worse.

They ran, grabbing what they could. At that moment, my grandmother knew she had two bags to carry. Her hands reached out for them. As my grandfather reached out for her. The child was in someone’s arms – who remembers.. One bag made it on to the train with them, one got left behind on the platform. We do not know when they found out that it was the bag of gold that got left behind and the bag of food and flour that came with them. They were the same size. All that they owned, had inherited, traded was in that bag of gold on the platform. Left behind. They did not know it yet, but that day their gold was worthless. There were plenty of thick gold bracelets being exchanged for a bag of flour. They had what they needed that day to maintain their self respect – never beg, never take what has not been earned. They could feed themselves.

Were they offered gold for their flour? Yes, and they refused. She cooked and fed her family on a fire made of twigs, like gypsies do. This is what they had become. Homeless nomads. Their roots cut brutally as they were flung to the winds. And with them, all those who came after them. I too, ride the winds today. Because no roots are mine – they were been torn asunder then.

They had nothing but a small house received in exchange. Nothing like the big house and yard they left behind. But they took the first one on offer. Or was it a government ‘quarter’? Whatever, because ownership was meaningless at that time when everything could be taken away by someone drawing a line through a map. Nothing could be more abhorrent than living in a charitable camp. This was theirs. And they would build their lives again. All they needed they had – the will to work.

There were others who were smarter than them, of course. Others who claimed to have left behind much. Others who found hidden treasures in the houses they were allotted. Or waited to get a bigger house. Those who valued gold over grain, playing a longer game, paying the price in dignity. There were those others too. But they too had lost what was theirs. They too had that moment that they all shared. When the train came and getting ahead was the only game. That was a moment they would never forget. That is what they became. This is the foundation that they used to build their future.

My grandmother held it all together. We never knew when my grandfather’s shirt was washed and ironed. We only knew he had a freshly laid out shirt each morning. We never knew how she fed all the guests who came home in a continuous stream, but that there was a freshly cooked meal ready by the time they settled down (even if they came after the meal was done and finished). We never knew when she milled the grain, or stitched the family’s clothes. When did those sweaters get knitted? It was not her lot to sit gossiping in the sun with the others, knitting their stories into ever innovative patterns. When did the sevaiyaan become that delicious breakfast from the flour that she milled and the ghee that she made? We never knew how every corner was spotless and every sheet was fresh and crisp. Every parantha a perfect balance between soft and crisp and every dish always washed, dried and in place. There were only four anyway. When she passed on, my aunt and I fought for the two spoons that came with her from Pakistan. This was our heritage more than inheritance. She never lost a spoon, not a speck escaped her.

She built the family in ways we never understood then. Making mistakes, surely, but her atonement was solitary. Unforgiving. She stood guard over us, pushing us in every which way she knew to do more. Learning English when we did, as children we playfully bypassed her, callous to her potential and her dreams. Only knowing that she was the sharpest one around – you could never fool her. Never. She saw through everything, piecing clues together masterfully. (If only the writers of CID had faced her tonguelashing once…)

A rock. Who made us stone. Her constant refrain, a lesson taught everyday – “Man pakka karo”.. Toughen your heart (and mind). That is what held her together through tough times. That is what helped them make tough decisions. My grandfather was a Persian scholar and a homeopathic doctor. When did he have the time to learn this? Who bore the brunt of this scholarship? He never charged anybody, and all patients got a cup of tea when they visited. She was tough in her kindness too. A stray cow, in agony, lacerations and ulcers prolonging the birth of her cow. It was she who birthed the calf, solo. We could not even bear to look till the cow’s eyes had turned to soft gratitude. The tenant’s son, who could not speak till he was five – left by busy parents to her care, because she was there. He spoke, as she taught him. He was the last surgeon to operate on her a few months before she died.

There are stories about her that I have not told you. Stories of how she was fair and chubby, the prettiest of all her sisters. And the story of how love brought her to marriage. Of how she was the patron of all those who fell in love in the family, shielding them from all that was merely traditional. Of how she wore trousers at home because they were more comfortable for work. Of her temper and her tolerance.

There are stories she has never told us. Stories that made her what she was. She never showed her palm to anyone, brushing aside all possibilities of suggestions ruling her decisions. She never told us about the strange blurring of the tattoo on her arm, where her name was etched. Where she rubbed absentmindedly, always making me wonder what she was rubbing away. What was it that toughened her so, that even her memory is strength.

Meeta W Sengupta

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