“I was fourteen,” she said exuberantly, but the mist in her eyes indicated otherwise. As her timeworn rounded shoulder and fragile body slumped over her reclusive cot, it seemed as though she was carrying a burden much heavier than she could shoulder. I still don’t know how old my grandmother is. She claims a new number every time- Seventy-five, Eighty, Eighteen.
Looking at the wrinkles on her face, I often wonder how she must have looked before her youth was snatched away. Would she have had my mother’s warm brown skin and her piercing eyes? All I remember was seeing her occasionally during my vacations; a mean old lady who wouldn’t miss a chance to scold me.
“Your grandfather was 30! You know that? And yet, he was the biggest baby I had ever seen. He would never even talk to me”, she recollected, while counting her tablets. I had heard the story multiple times by now, but it was all still unsettling. “He had begged for my hand in marriage. His previous wife had left him. She could not conceive a child, I heard.”
“Stop dreaming, get me some water”, she said midway, offhandedly.
“Since he was family, my brother gave in. My brother had been the only force in the family who stood up for me and when he left my side, I knew it was a lost cause.”
She stopped and returned the glass. I went to wash it, as I knew the drill by then- quarantine had given me a routine. She had already had her breakfast and taken her morning tablets.
“I did not ask for any of this and now I had to live with him. The entire street would talk about me. The poor girl, the brave girl - I was the talk of the town. I had been dropped into a life I was not ready for. How would I cook for an entire family, when I had not even learned to boil water? We had servants and I would have to learn from them. Don’t feel bad for me, I still managed to enjoy. I would climb palm trees, fetch tender coconuts, kill snakes…”
“Kill snakes?!” my cousin, who suddenly seemed interested, exclaimed.
“Yes, yes! I was never afraid of anything. All these grown women would be afraid of cockroaches and lizards. Not me! One slit with my aruval (machete) and the vilest of creatures would tremble!”, she spoke with a momentary glow in her eyes. For a second, I saw that woman who once had an iron fist over the family. Now, she lived almost at their mercy.
“Your grandfather would never call me by my name. He would always say ‘amma’. He would come home from work every day by noon, and I would have to serve him food. That would be the only time I would speak to him. He would live his own life and I would live mine”, she said and burst into a fit of coughs. I had to stop her and help her rest her back against the wall. Listening to her talk had now become a routine. She would start with the sun and end with the moon. She had a lot to say and for some reason, it felt like she had, for the first time, found somebody who would listen to her. As she sat back comfortably and continued, “He would earn for himself and spend for himself. Never bought me a thing; not that I wanted anything. But that wouldn’t work for a family now, would it? Your uncle would always say that I was a cuckoo stuck in a crow’s nest. I was sixteen when your uncle was born.”
No matter how many times I had heard the same string of words, it was always hard for me to digest them. I checked the time; it was half-past three, which meant it was time for her second dose of tablets. I brought them to her and left for her to take her afternoon nap.
“How old are you? Nineteen?”, she asked sitting on the edge of the cot, next to the night lamp I had brought into the room. “By the time I was your age, I was taking care of an entire family. I had started buying and selling clothes. I was the best businesswoman in town”, she spoke proudly.
“That’s why you should study and work, you know. Didn’t your mother tell you? I was the one who paid her fees. All six of my children, I raised them. If only I had been educated, I could’ve done much more. Had I been dependent on your grandfather, you think I could have done this much?” she asked. I nodded as usual.
As she continued reminiscing, I was now contemplating - Would she have had any dreams? Any goals? Would she have liked traveling? Would she have had any crushes? Did she find love in my grandfather? I wanted to ask many questions, but I felt that both of us wouldn’t like the answers. Maybe at times, it is best to leave a few questions unanswered.
As she spoke, she was now starting to yawn. Her clear speech had now become jumbled prattle. “Did I take my tablets?” she confirmed and was now closing her eyes. I gently placed her pillows for her to rest her head. Within a few minutes, she was fast asleep. As I saw her face, there was both a child and an old woman resting there. Her hands were clasped as usual and her body curled. I left the room and tried my best to close the door without it creaking.
Again tomorrow, the same would repeat. The day would begin with her story and end with the same. No questions, no answers. For now, I am about to take my leave. I think I would need the respite, to listen to the life of a teenager, once again.