This February, when mother and I met after almost a year, she recollected the grand funeral organised by our family of bureaucrats for the woman who had reared six children to be officers of the republic. Suddenly, those magical sketch pens, the chocolate-raisin cake, lemon pickles, Amla Oil — everything about this remarkable personality — come back to my mind. So, too, did the ache in the fingers. Grandmother would constantly hit us with pencils if we ever made mistakes while solving maths problems.
Last December, in a winter that froze tears, she passed away, gasping heavily in her mulmul quilt. My grandfather, sitting by her side, silently watched her as she left him after 67 years of companionship. He had brought her in her bridal finery hundreds of kilometres away from where she was born — the restless hamlet of Sidhouli in the United Provinces of pre-independence days. She was the first woman intermediate that Gangania village, in Bhagalpur, Bihar — her new home — had ever seen.
Grandfather was a scholar-lawyer, she became a teenage freedom fighter. He drafted petitions, she roused crowds to take on the British. He mesmerised the juries, she thundered from chaupals. They were two diverse souls, united by a common ferocity of passion. Grandmother, my father says, was a lone warrior, the unusual woman who did not value jewellery or rations, but freedom. And, as he recalls now, she used to complain after every argument with grandfather, who clearly did not measure up to the chivalrous prince of her dreams who would write poetry and build a Taj Mahal for her.
Sure, grandfather didn’t ever write a poem, or build a Taj Mahal, but while she suffered for two years from a paralytic stroke before she died, he was every bit the dutiful, caring companion. On her deathbed, she was accorded the glamour of a bride — deep red sindoor, benarasi sari and gold jewellery, as is customary for a woman who dies before her husband. As she was placed on a sandal-wood pyre, grandfather pulled her wrinkled cheeks, stroked her hair and exclaimed: “Oh! she looks as if she has just arrived from Sidhouli.”
This evidence of a romantic disposition in an otherwise stoic man made us all cry.
First published on April 25, 2007 in The Indian Express. Photo by Pallavi Singh.