There is always such an unreality surrounding death.
I recently lost the lady who was like a grand-mom to me though I never addressed her like that. She was always ‘Aunty’ – from the neighbouring house built with pillars – ‘Pillar Aunty’ from the time I was almost two.
I realised very early that my own granny was a washout. (Like all my other relatives; except for a few stray redeeming cousins, of course.) When I was five and my gran had come down from Mangalore for a visit, I asked her to braid my hair. I used to have really short hair – what used to be called ‘boy cut’ in those days. And all my gran did was say, “Oh my child! I don’t know how to comb hair.” And in my head I remember thinking, granma fail, granma fail. What granny worth her salt doesn’t know how to comb a grandchild’s hair! After that we never clicked.
Growing up was mostly in Aunty’s house. I even had lunch/dinner (cooked and packed by mom) in Aunty’s house. Her oldest son, Chinu, who was then studying to be a Chartered Accountant was my first friend in the locality. We always fought like cats and dogs. (We still do.) He’d try to bully me and I’d answer back and then we’d have a full-fledged fight (usually about who’ll drink tea/water from the smallest tumbler in the house- a tumbler that Aunty always kept aside for me) and then I’d complain to Aunty and she always, always yelled at him – never me. Her daughter (who was in college then) unlike Chinu was my best friend. And her other son who is a master in gentle irony and I got along really well as well. Her nephew and I played brother and sister as kids – roles we continue to play. Uncle (her husband) regaled all of us with tales of temples when there was a power shut-down. Aunty and my mom were the best of friends. Now I know it was a special mother-daughter relationship. My mom met Aunty or spoke to her every time she needed support or advise, long after we’d moved from the locality.
We were less neighbours and more of a family.
When my mom tried to discipline me (and she used to do that – a lot) I’d cry for Aunty through the kitchen window and complain about my mom. She’d ask us to come over and then she’d place me on her lap, take a comb, and comb my hair. I’d complain about how mean my mom was. And my mom would complain about how I talked so much and before long, they’d move on to other adult chit-chat. And all the while, lasting well over two hours, Aunty would be massaging my scalp. And I’d eventually doze off – comforted, happy, loved.
Not much changed over the years except the frequency. We moved house, but every time we visited or she did, it was a ritual Aunty and I kept – combing my hair. And complaining about my mom. She’d ask my mom – “Why did you do that?” and tell me, “But aiy, why don’t you do…”
A few days back, when we went to Chennai to see her in the hospital, she looked frail and weak and had an awful headache. And her only concern after seeing us was, “Did the child (meaning me) eat? Did my daughter-in-law make you any tea?” I asked her if I could massage her head for her. When she let me, I ran my fingers through her hair and bravely chattered about everything that was happening in my life. The last thing she told me, “Get married. I want to see you married and happy.”
Yesterday as Chinu and I were cleaning the house preparing it for the last-rites pooja, we continued to snap at each other and exchange snarky comments. My mom and the rest of the family watched, smirked, and sometimes laughed outright. It helped. Because families are made in the strangest of ways. Only sorely tested, when I almost shouted “Aunty”, I realised that she was no longer there to take my side and yell at Chinu anymore.
There is always such an unreality surrounding death – especially when it’s the death of someone you love.