She blinked back tears as my tiny fingers curled around her thumb… I call her ‘Amma’*. “But she is your grandmother”, they’d always say. "Yes, but, I have two Ammas. This is my Janaki Amma". She would bathe me every day with a mixture of gram flour and turmeric and dust my crotch with talcum powder. She would apply a black dot of Kohl on my left cheek before every trip to the bazaar. “It’ll keep the evil eye away” she would explain to my mother of modern mind. She would sing hymns to me in her quavering baritone voice. When I would return home crying, she would immediately hitch her sari up and hobble angrily on arthritic feet after the kids who had teased me. I knew her as compassion and warmth.
Her swarthy forehead would glisten with sweat as she made me lunch with hot phulkas** every afternoon. She forbade me from eating at any of my friend’s houses. “Why? Are we beggars that there’s no food in our house?” she would exclaim indignantly. Every time I swore, saying "shit" or "aiyyo"***, my back would sting with a hot palm-shaped reddish patch after her hand had made hard contact with it. She told me not to talk to boys or wear my skirts too high. She taught me to carry myself with dignity and showed me the importance of independence. I knew her as self respect.
Eventually, thin green and violet cracks ran up her ankles. The doctors called it varicose. Red broken spider webs shone in the whites of her eyes. They ignored it. Her pallor sallowed and the darkened skin under her eyes hung like empty gunny bags. They called it iron deficiency. Then one night, she howled my name in pain while relieving herself. They feigned shock and nervously inserted needles into her frail wrists. While gadgets moaned with unearthly beeps in the tiled septic room, they informed us that her kidneys had failed. That day the whole family gathered around her bed. She beamed through the pain.
And now, I also know her as tenacity.
There on the white sheet lay her hand like crumpled brown paper, which I cupped and spoke my last words to her. I squealed “Amma!” as the final breath of life snuffed out of her deflated lungs.
*Mother, in Tamil **puffy flat wheat bread made in Indian households ***swear word similar to “Oh darn” in TamilMy Story: Holding Hands